Caste Consciousness Remains a Curse for the Emerging Indian Society


Dr Rao VBJ Chelikani 

The other day, a regional political party member in a southern state solemnly announced, the Chief Minister sitting by his side, their candidates contesting for each constituency by name and his or her caste. In its neighbouring state, the ruling party announced acres of land for constructing buildings in the name of various castes, and to some others funds to promote their traditional professional activities. We also know that when the ministerial cabinet is formed by a ruling party, newspapers carefully analyse the caste-wise distribution of posts. Since Gandhiji's return to India, i.e., for the past 90 years, we have been fighting to liberate India from the clutches of the caste system and caste consciousness. Gandhian Constructive Programmes were aimed at social transformations in rural India even before obtaining political freedom from the British. This crusade was largely led at that time by upper-caste Hindus and the elite in other religions. In China, Mao Tse Dong brought about the Cultural Revolution, which was more successful than his political revolution in transforming traditional Chinese society. However, though in India we have not been as successful, still caste concerns have almost disappeared in the promiscuous life in urban areas. But, after Independence, a new class of politicians emerged and they found it convenient to revive and maintain caste consciousness to lure voters in their favour. But for them, caste differences would have disappeared totally from the minds of all Indians. In India, where democracy is considered a game of numbers and is absolute rule by the majority, politicians openly divide society and promote caste identities to gain votes. Politics means capturing power, and politicians shamelessly exploit caste consciousness to achieve this.

The founders of the Constitution aimed to bring about socio-economic equality as a starting point for democracy in social, economic, and cultural relations. Their proposed ten years of affirmative action through reservations was meant to eliminate existing discriminations, but has now lasted for nearly a hundred years in the minds of politicians, who find it an easy way to capture and retain power, regardless of any ideology.

If there is any consolation, similar situations exist in many developing countries. In Black Africa, it's tribes; in North Africa, races and sects; and in Latin America, racial classification based on European, Indigenous, or African descent. However, in India, castes are part of a social system where all these discriminations are absorbed into a hierarchical society. Despite historical uncertainties about its real and ideal form, political parties in India naively cultivate caste affiliations. And the media sings in chorus with them. Even those who are converted to other religions in India remain caste-conscious and their marriages are often predominantly arranged based on caste origin. 

II. What is New Today?

Caste is a political reality, no doubt, but it is not a social reality, as nobody, today believes in its virtues as a practical social system. With the diversity of castes and sub-castes formed and the social and economic transformations that they underwent since independence, it is almost impossible to enumerate and classify all castes without any manipulation of statistics. Yet, some political parties want to conduct a caste census in India. The last caste-wise census was conducted by the British in 1931, and it was condemned by the founding members of our Constitution for its catastrophic consequences. It is true that many more measures and policies are needed to eliminate old and traditional social hierarchies that still exist, as well as those new discriminations that are arising. However, the recent proposal by some political parties to conduct a nationwide caste census is 
doomed to fail. Not only such an exercise would be badly managed and manipulated, but also would further divide society and hinder progress towards an inclusive and non-discriminatory inter-cultural society. Why undertake such an impossible task now for electoral gains? Why not conduct a religious census as well? Adopting measures of revenge for past historical events is self-destructive and futile. Instead, truths might be searched sincerely for genuine reconciliation as it happened in the South African Republic and a policy of "forgive and forget" might be adopted in most cases for a cherished common destiny, instead of judging the past events and persons. 

Of course, there should be room for some rectification and restoration, wherever possible amicably in order to evolve and to build a better society rather than to revive the past. Such attempts will not contribute to building a nation; though it is already too late to build Indian nationalism, as many civilised states have renounced it and are embracing globalisation and internationalism. However, that kind of evolution is a challenge for professional politicians, if they are focused upon short-term political gains. Such aberrations do still occur in India; this tradition continues, starting from Sardar Kairon Singh in Punjab to Karpoori Thakur in Bihar, without mentioning other names in other states. What about the growing number of those who are born or living in inter-caste or inter-national marriages? What about those humanists who believe in a secular, casteless society? Now, there are more modern, democratic and more efficient techniques available to lift people from social and economic "backwardness" and to give them "equal opportunities" than those that were adopted in a traditional society under feudal regimes. Despite the slow pace of social transformation in India compared to European and Chinese societies, the present class of politicians will not be successful in preventing the inevitable social transformations that are taking place in India.

Social justice is a constantly evolving notion closely related to the constantly evolving society and its varied practices backed by scientific knowledge, not religious beliefs. Individual character and conduct are being gradually inspired and moulded by human freedom, Human Rights, social harmony and development. Therefore, we can say with great conviction that the present class of politicians will not be successful for long in preventing the inevitable social transformations, since these social transformations do not, any more, depend entirely upon political decisions.

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