In the aftermath of Bihar Government’s revelation of the caste census findings and the All India Congress Committee (AICC) endorsing the call for a caste census, it seems that “caste” has once again taken center stage in the electoral narrative.
The Opposition (INDIA alliance) sees the “caste census” as their potent “Brahmastra,” capable of breaching the Hindutva stronghold of the BJP. Meanwhile, our Left-leaning intellectual circles perceive it as the unfulfilled mandate of Mandal 1.0.
The core rationale behind the caste census lies in its potential to furnish empirical data, ensuring the representation of marginalised groups that may have been overlooked in the so-called “Mandal revolution.” Nevertheless, the present necessity dictates a dispassionate examination of the matter, steering clear of the polarising rhetoric and lofty ideals often linked with this undertaking.
At the inception of our republic, the framers of the Constitution envisioned utilising it as a catalyst for “social transformation” in a society grappling with pervasive challenges like patriarchy, casteism, communalism, and other pressing issues.
Simultaneously, the architects of the Constitution displayed discernment in guaranteeing that the mechanisms employed to actualise the vision of an egalitarian society were not confined to narrow perspectives. Hence, they demonstrated wisdom in adopting the term “backward class” rather than “backward caste” when directing the State to ensure equal opportunities in employment under Article 16.
Furthermore, the adoption of the “first-past-the-post system” over “proportional representation” was a deliberate choice, rooted in the concern that the latter might foster communal consciousness in a nation still reeling from the aftermath of partition.
In the years that followed, the vital distinction between caste and class has been overshadowed, and our political leadership has often resorted to caste-based reservations as a seemingly straightforward remedy for the intricate challenge of transforming a feudal society towards modernity.
The Supreme Court, in its ruling on the Ram Singh vs Union of India case, articulated that backwardness arises from a complex interplay of various factors, encompassing social, cultural, economic, educational, and political dimensions. Throughout history, especially within Hindu society, the acknowledgment of backwardness has been closely tied to the concept of caste.
While caste can serve as a prominent and distinguishing factor for conveniently assessing the backwardness of a social group, the Court consistently dissuades the categorisation of a group as backward solely relying on caste as the determining criterion.
The Supreme Court has emphasised the importance of directing the State’s attention towards emerging backward groups, such as the “third gender.” This observation gains significance considering that, while acknowledging the role of caste in the Indian social fabric, equating backwardness exclusively with caste and attempting to employ a “caste census” as a substitute for achieving “proportional representation” undermines the wisdom of the framers of the Constitution.
While the notion of “proportional representation” was dismissed during the drafting of the Constitution as an indirect maneuver to introduce a “separate electorate,” today, the same concept is invoked to fuel another form of parochialism – namely, “casteism.”
After three decades of implementing the Mandal Commission report, it is abundantly clear that relying solely on caste as a one-dimensional tool not only falls short of creating an equitable environment for the genuinely marginalised but also accentuates existing social divisions. This approach concentrates reservation benefits within the category of “privileged backwards.” Therefore, any substantial dialogue concerning social justice is futile without acknowledging the interconnected dynamics of caste, class, and gender.
In the verdict on the Economic Weaker Section (EWS) case, the Supreme Court emphasised that the vision of the constitution makers extended beyond mere “formal” equality to encompass the essence of “substantive” equality. The Court further asserted that considerations of “economic deprivation” must be integral to discussions on “equality.” The substantial majority in Parliament supporting the passage of EWS reservation from 1990 to 2019 reflects a political consensus aimed at expanding the scope of reservation.
Focusing the discourse of backwardness solely on caste regresses the wheels of social revolution. With seven decades of Independence and three decades of economic reforms behind us, it is imperative to broaden the conversation on substantive equality. This entails considering factors such as digital poverty, discrimination against the LGBT community, the extent and quality of urbanisation, and more.
Addressing the multidimensional roots of backwardness demands a comprehensive approach. Relying solely on caste, as evident in the proposed “caste census” and subsequent “proportional representation,” risks being a superficial solution. It could be perceived as a cosmetic exercise, providing a convenient escape route for the political class under the guise of social justice rhetoric.
The Backward Class Commissions were established in 1952 and 1978 during the pre-liberalisation era. In the 90s, India embraced economic reforms, marking a significant shift that has fundamentally transformed the fabric of our society. A political consensus, spanning various political alliances at both the central and state levels, has consistently supported and sustained the economic reforms.
There exists a fundamental contradiction between the Congress Party’s call for a “caste census” and the evolving reality of Indian society—a reality shaped by the policies of the Congress itself. Today, what is needed is an imaginative political paradigm to navigate the new socio-political landscape, rather than reverting to the old remedy of caste-based social justice.
(The writer can be reached at email@example.com)