May 22, 2023 ☼ The Intersection ☼ hyperdiversity
Caste poses a dilemma for public policy. One the one hand, caste-aware policy perpetuates caste. On the other, caste-agnostic policy permits bias and discrimination to go on unchecked.
This is an unedited draft of The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.
“I am of the opinion” Ambedkar told the Constituent Assembly, “that in believing that we are a nation we are cherishing a great delusion. How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation? The sooner we realize that we are not as yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the word, the better for us. For then only we shall realize the necessity of becoming a nation and seriously think of way and means of realizing the goal. The castes are anti-national in the first place because they bring about separation in social life. They are anti-national also because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste.”
We are now in the Amrit Kaal of independent India, few can argue that caste has receded from the public sphere. To its credit, the Indian republic has achieved something historically unprecedented by declaring all Indians equal and adopting social justice as one of its goals. Yet in politics, public policy and daily life, caste remains a major factor even if overt discrimination and violence have relatively declined. We unashamedly and unself-consciously talk about parties assembling caste-coalitions, selecting ministers based on their caste identities. Reservations in educational institutions and government jobs are seen as spoils of political power wrapped in the language of social justice. Matrimonial classifieds and online matchmaking services are flourishing. It is not uncommon to see caste identity declared on bumper stickers on our roads.
It seems as if we have abandoned the vision of a casteless nation of the kind Ambedkar mentions above. It is unrealistic to expect a social order that has stood for 2000 years to dissolve in a matter of decades, but it seems as if we have given up even the ambition to annihilate caste. This is a matter of ideals and principles: I want a society “where the world has not been broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls.” But it is also a practical matter: a society divided by caste cannot achieve social cooperation at the scale required to compete with others. Our firms are smaller. Our capital is inefficiently allocated. Our cities sprawl. Our natural resources are over-exploited. Our bureaucracy is stifling. At the root of many of India’s chronic failings is weak social capital arising from caste divisions. Caste is not only anti-national, but is holding Indians back from our full potential.
Caste poses a dilemma for public policy. One the one hand, caste-aware policy perpetuates caste. Reservations, for instance, were supposed to be time limited, but have been extended indefinitely as the primary instrument of social justice. The demand for caste-based reservations has only grown over time and is a constant feature of our politics. On the other hand, caste-agnostic policy permits bias and discrimination to go on unchecked. Several studies have shown the prevalence of discrimination in hiring at private firms. One is justified in suspecting that discrimination and the basis on which it is conducted — caste — will only increase if public policy becomes completely caste-blind.
While the institution of caste is perpetuated by three pillars — marriage, inter-dining and occupation — public policy has mostly focused on the last these, and mostly through reservations. Marriage and inter-dining are private and personal matters, and the state has rightly not taken upon itself the task of regulating who one marries and dines with. But here the state is guilty of omission. The police and lower judiciary often side with parental and social prejudices and fail to protect adult Indians who choose their own spouses. The Indian Human Development Survey found that inter-caste marriage rate was only 5-6% of the total and hadn’t changed much between 2004 and 2011. More encouraging are results from Lok Foundation’s 2017 survey, which not only showed an inter-caste marriage rate of around 10% but also that about 15% of families would accept it for their next generation. It also showed the more educated the woman, the more accepting she is of intercaste marriage for her children.
Unfortunately, politicians, police officials and marriage registrars are more likely to side with parent, families and the community than with two consenting adults who wish to get married. This might well be the single most critical state intervention needed to move towards a casteless society. Perhaps it is for that reason that communities are exercised marriages. Even our vocabulary hints at an implicit value judgement when we say “honour killing” instead of “mob lynching”, which is more accurate.
A new book edited by Amit Ahuja and Devesh Kapur presents empirical evidence as to how violence of all kinds, including caste-based killings, have declined over the past five decades, mostly due to state intervention, but also due to social disapproval and media exposure. That should give us hope and also a sense of what’s possible: the enforcement of the basic laws of the Indian republic can take us toward a direction of greater fraternity.
At this time though, public policy is like a rudderless boat being thrown about by the raging currents of caste dynamics. Political appointments, administration decisions and public expenditure often seem more to be outcomes of caste equations than the public interest. We need a fresh public debate on caste, and how the Indian republic should deal with it. Because, as Ambedkar put it so well, castes are anti-national.
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