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The caste factor: Show me the numbers

Maybe I had one of those rare childhoods, but I grew up not quite realising the importance of ‘caste’. At some point, I figured I was a bania or vaishya, but it did not seem very relevant because my father was a scientist. I never made the connection between caste and profession.

When I set up JAM (a magazine aimed at the youth), a few people commented that, being a bania, I had business in my blood. I found that hard to believe. Yes, my grandfather ran a small shop and many of my uncles and cousins were traders. But, for all practical purposes, I was a first generation entrepreneur. The only thing I was ‘natural ‘ at was doing well in exams, which is hardly relevant!

What I’m saying is, in a single generation, you can flip from flop or flop from flip. My father studied under kerosene lamps on a meagre scholarship. Effort, combined with luck and ability, led to social mobility. And a government job that took him to the four corners of the world. And a universe of x-rays and gamma rays that led him beyond that.

My brother and I were incessantly drilled on the ‘value of education’. It was held up as our only passport for the future. So we grew up striving for it, yearning for it. And that, I think, is the crucial X factor due to which certain kinds of young people make it through competitive exams and others don’t.

If it was merely a question of access to resources, surely we’d be seeing more rich kids than middle class ones in what are considered the ‘best’ colleges. Of course, poverty is a major constraining factor for the rest — it’s hard to sustain a fire on an empty belly. A few exceptional individuals manage to do it, though.

But I believe class is not necessarily linked to caste. Now, you may disagree with my view of the world and say no, caste is still a major impediment in social progress for a large number of Indians. Therefore, we need reservations. I am ready to accept that argument — but on the basis of facts and statistics!

Show me the numbers
As we all know, reservations were initially recommended for a period of 10 years, but have been in force for close to 50. Has any social scientist tracked the results of this policy? I am talking purely of a sociologist or economist doing his/ her job, uncoloured by any ideological agenda.

To begin with, can we have statistics from all educational institutions currently following 22.5% reservation on the profile of candidates being admitted? How many under the SC/ ST quota are first generation college goers or from households where income is below Rs 1 lakh a year? How many come from rural and how many from urban areas?

Such data surely exists, but it is nowhere to be found in the current debate.

Secondly, the entire reservation argument is built on 52% of the population being ‘OBC’. An article titled ‘ABC of OBC’ in the Indian Express observed:

‘Using 11 criteria, the commission identified 3,743 caste groups as OBCs. Since population figures along caste lines were not available beyond 1931, the commission used the 1931 census data to calculate the number of OBCs. The population of Hindu and non-Hindu OBCs worked out to about 52 per cent of the total population.’

I simply cannot understand this! How can 60-year-old data be used to arrive at such an important figure? And why wasn’t a census along caste lines conducted in 2001 if this policy was to be properly implemented?

The 2001 census provides data by variables like age, sex, religion, marital status, educational status and disability. But, as far as caste goes, it only tracks SCs and STs. This really blows my mind…

However we have something called a National Commission for Backward Classes. Note the use of the word CLASSES not CASTES. Class need not necessarily mean caste.

NCBC could have taken the initiative to define backward classes in a new way (eg, people living in kachcha houses, not owning land, no access to drinking water = 1 disadvantaged class, across caste lines). But no, it insists on naming specific castes as backward CLASS.

Take a list at the castes included for the state of Gujarat. Folks with surnames like Thakore, Nayak, Puri and Goswami are ‘backward’ in that state (if I have understood correctly…). Did NCBC duplicate an exercise as gigantic as the census to arrive at this list? How much science goes into making such lists, and how much politics?

What’s more, a person can be classified as OBC in one state and non-OBC in the neighbouring one. In which case, how do we agree on who is an OBC when competing for admission for a national level institution? Or does one shift residence to avail of OBC status?

The complexity of mobility
Here is an interesting paper by JNU professor Pradipta Chaudhury that highlights the enormous complexity of the issue. The observation is for Uttar Pradesh, based on data available at the turn of the century (not this one — the last one!)

‘With respect to literacy rate, three OBCs, namely, Sonar, Halwai and Kalwar, were ahead of four high castes, namely, Rajput, Taga, Bhat and Kandu. Similarly, with respect to economic status, five OBCs, namely, Sonar, Jat, Gujar, Kisan and Mali, were better off than Brahman and Rajput, the two most numerous high castes, which accounted for one-fifth of the Hindu population. Two SCs, namely, Khatik and Dusadh, had higher literacy rates than many OBCs.’

The writer concludes:
‘Even in a backward region like UP at the beginning of the 20th century, there were large variations in the literacy rates and economic conditions of castes that were later pooled together and treated as homogeneous categories… High ritual rank could not secure some of the upper castes against low economic status. Similarly, low ritual status did not prevent large sections of Jat, Gujar, Sonar, Kisan and Mali from attaining prosperity.

‘Caste did not preclude the upward economic mobility of a section of the untouchables. Even with ‘5000 years old tradition of learning’, the Brahman population of UP could not reach an average of 12% literacy by 1911; they were not the most literate of castes.’

I really wish academicians like these, who can offer solid facts and not just emotional arguments, were invited for discussions on national television. Perhaps facts don’t make for good television, in which case I wish Professor Chaudhury makes his case in the edit pages. His paper further points out…

‘Advocates of caste politics argue that the problem will be solved if the OBCs or SCs are arranged according to the degree of backwardness and split into subgroups such as ‘more-backward’ and ‘most-backward’ and sub-quotas created within the total quota. However, the economic status of households varies a great deal within each caste. In a caste, several economic classes exist.

‘Marginal and small peasants and landless labourers constitute the bulk of the population in each caste. At the same time, every caste contains a section, varying in size, of well-to-do families.

‘Did all the lower castes suffer from an equal degree of ritual handicap? Actually, there was an elaborate gradation and hierarchy among the intermediate or shudra and even the untouchable castes, which governed interaction between them and kept inter-caste socialisation to a minimum. The rich households belonging to a low caste tried to imitate the customs and rituals of the upper castes such as child marriage, prevention of widow remarriage and payment of dowry for marriage.’

Sadly, no one wants to look at the issue from this scientific viewpoint. Politicians choose to believe what is convenient, and expedient. And then stick to their stand stubbornly.

Our vision for ourselves
As JNU professor Dipankar Gupta rightly pointed out in a recent television debate, at the end of the day it boils down to how we wish to shape the idea of India. Is it going to be an India dominated by caste, or do we look at ‘capacity building’ of weaker sections of society?

Fifty years ago, the ‘idea of India’ as unity in diversity was shaky. The south protested against imposition of Hindi as a national language. Today, thanks to Bollywood and bhangra-pop, Hindi is not seen as ‘alien’ by young people anywhere in India. It may be dominant but is not necessarily ‘dominating’.

Today, dosas are available in South Extension, New Delhi, and chana bhatura in Chennai. Food has become a great unifying factor in the idea of ‘India’.

Similarly, I feel, caste had become irrelevant to a significant number of young people. But now it may once again become top of the mind… And that, I think will ultimately damage the idea of India. Things are far from perfect today but we should be working towards making caste a non-issue. Not ‘the’ issue.

One can only hope that the economist in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh prevails over the politician! And reservation is not perpetuated, even as opportunities are created for all.

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