Towards caste majoritarianism?

September 2010
By: S Anand

With the Census of India set to count caste for the first time since
the colonial era, the focus shifts to the ramifications of doing so.

I was recently forced to overhear a conversation between strangers,
two Indian women, who met on the Bhopal-Delhi Shatabdi Express. They
quickly zeroed in on each other’s caste. One was a Kayastha (a
privileged non-Brahmin) and the other, the younger woman, a Brahmin.
Both were happy to discover that they had a Kayastha connection – the
Brahmin woman revealed that she had married a Kayastha man. Then they
dwelt briefly on the many subcastes and hierarchies within the
Kayasthas – Mathur, Sinha, Saxena, Nigam and Shrivastav. The Brahmin
woman, employed in the information-technology department of an
insurance company, stated with distinct pride that, when all is said
and done, Brahmins had ‘sharper minds’ and were born more
‘intelligent’. To substantiate, she talked of how her Brahmin brother
always outwitted her non-Brahmin husband in decision-making.

The Brahmin brother, it seems, could always convince his Kayastha
brother-in-law of his point of view, whether on a financial matter or
where to go on holiday. The quieter Kayastha woman did not protest any
of this. Even when the diminutive Brahmin woman later concluded – with
her own theory of caste eugenics – that her children had developed a
‘better physique’ owing to the Kayastha father, she underscored that
she did not compromise on a vegetarian diet. Now, what would be the
caste of the children of this Brahmin-Kayastha marriage, with its own
power dynamics? Surely, given an option, it is unlikely they would
register as ‘no caste’ in the forthcoming Census of India – the first
to include a section on caste in nearly seven decades. Even in such
mixed-caste offspring, the importance of caste in their minds would
not be discounted.

That caste inflects almost every aspect of life in India, and large
parts of Southasia, is a fact, as highlighted in Himal’s April 2010
issue on its pervasiveness. In a society where caste is an
overwhelming reality, it would seem that counting castes would have
begun long ago. Surely it is not as though India will now become a
caste society when caste is, finally, counted; but when every caste
does get counted, there would be official recognition of what
post-Independence India has been trying to ignore for decades, seeking
to present a homogenised identity to the rest of the world. So far,
since only the Scheduled Castes and Schedules Tribes have been getting
counted, debates around caste have tended to focus on issues of
reservation and atrocities against Dalits. For long, questions of
ameliorating the disabilities forced upon people owing to the practice
of caste or its utopian annihilation (which someone like B R Ambedkar
dreamed of) have been jettisoned. Among the Brahminical castes, the
question of caste has been reduced to a skewed debate around quotas –
wherein the incursion of the Dalits and Backward Classes into
hitherto-reserved public spaces is equated with the loss of ‘merit’
and therefore lamented. While maintaining the ideological bulwark, a
majority of urban Brahmins also deny the very existence of caste, and
behave as if they have ‘exited’ caste.

While conceding the need to count castes, what might be the political
fallout of such an exercise – especially in terms  of how it might
affect the polarisation between Dalits and the ‘Backward’ and ‘Other
Backward’ Classes (BCs and OBCs, as a bulk of the Shudra castes are
designated by the Indian Constitution)? For the moment, let us set
aside what could be characterised as the Brahminical objections to
counting castes – represented by a medley of both liberal and neo-con
voices that includes Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Barkha Dutt, Dipankar Gupta,
Nandini Sundar and Gopalkrishna Gandhi, among others. That ‘empirical’
need for this ostensibly comes from the fact that in 2007 the Supreme
Court of India stayed the order against the admission of OBCs to
educational institutions citing lack of ‘reliable data’. The demand
for this, however, predates the reservations-related recommendations
of the Mandal Commission, of 1980, or more recent debates around the

Calculus of backwardness
It is often believed that Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian
Constitution, was opposed to reservation for the Backward Classes, and
he limited himself to being concerned with Dalits and Adivasis (the
Scheduled Castes and Tribes, in official parlance). However, while
resigning from Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet in October 1951 (primarily
over the failure of the Hindu Code Bill), he referred to ‘another
matter’ that had left him ‘dissatisfied’ with the government of the
day. ‘It relates to the treatment accorded to the Backward Classes and
the Scheduled Castes,’ Ambedkar said. ‘I was very sorry that the
Constitution did not embody any safeguards for the Backward Classes.’

Subsequently, the first Backward Classes Commission, under the
chairmanship of Kaka Kalelkar, was constituted in January 1953. It
submitted its report two years later, preparing a list of nearly 2400
backward castes or communities for the entire country, of which 837
had been classified as ‘most backward’. Its major recommendations
included undertaking a caste-wise enumeration of the population in the
census of 1961; deeming women as a class as ‘backward’; and reserving
70 percent of seats in all technical and professional institutions for
qualified students from the backward classes. The report was partly
rejected by the government of the time, on the grounds that it had not
applied any objective test for identifying the backward classes.

Today, the demand for inclusion of caste in the census, for the first
time since the colonial 1931 census, has been led by the dominant
castes within the Backward Class and OBC groups – the Yadavs of the
Hindi heartland and the Vanniyars in Tamil Nadu. Reiterating the need
for a caste count, S Ramadoss, the founder-leader of the Pattali
Makkal Katchi (representing Vanniyar interests), has even pointed to
how the minority community of Isai-Vellalars, to which Tamil Nadu
Chief Minister M Karunanidhi belongs, has managed to corner important
jobs and resources despite having around just 10,000 members in the
state. The Vanniyars, on the other hand, are not getting a
proportionate share. In Tamil Nadu, the Vanniyars’ grouse is that they
are clubbed with 108 other communities in the state’s Most Backward
Classes (MBC) list, and hence lose out. Currently, Ramadoss’s party is
leading an agitation demanding a clear and separate quota for
Vanniyars, seeking to be delinked from the MBC club.

Meanwhile, in the north, the Jats are also in a mood to agitate,
seeking inclusion in the national OBC list. They demonstrated their
power earlier in June by blocking water supplies to Delhi, and have
threatened disruption of the Commonwealth Games in October. A caste
census would offer demonstrable proof to Ramadoss, and the ‘oppressed’
Jat and Yadav politicians, to bolster their cases for proportionate
share for their castes in all resources.

Within the Congress, Law Minister Veerappa Moily says that the party
in many states had lost OBC support because it was seen as opposed to
the implementation of the Mandal report, and that the mistake should
not be repeated. The caste count is thus being seen as some kind of a
corrective action being taken by the Congress party to address this
lost support. This is happening even while education is being
increasingly privatised, public-sector undertakings are being sold and
there is a freeze on government recruitment. When combined with the
brazen non-implementation and subversion of the policy of reservation,
the neoliberal state can be seen to be shrinking the space for social
justice, while simultaneously offering the illusion of proportional
quotas by counting every caste.

Let us briefly look at how Tamil Nadu has fared in its policy of
reservation for Backward Classes. This is a state with the legacy of a
non-Brahmin movement (since the 1920s), where the Backward Classes
have seen social, educational and political empowerment owing to 69
percent reservation. In a state with a population of 19 percent
Scheduled Castes and one percent Scheduled Tribes, as of 1999 the
share of Dalits and Adivasis employed in Group A and B posts (the
higher-grade white-collar jobs in government service) stood at 7.2 and
12.8 percent, averaging 10 percent. The Backward Classes, on the other
hand, accounted for 57.5 percent of the posts – nearly double their
actual share in population, an estimated 30 percent. A recent
persistent effort under the Right to Information Act by a Dalit in
Tamil Nadu revealed a backlog of 19,530 vacancies for Dalit-reserved
posts across 98 government departments. The Dalits of the state seem
to be at the receiving end of Backward Class dominance, a pattern
likely to extend itself to other parts of the country.

Caste over religion
The implication of counting castes, however, is not just in extending
the scope and rationale for the benefits of reservation, but also to
stake a claim to political power on the basis of numbers. Crucially,
counting castes will be a serious blow to the idea of being ‘Hindu’.
As Ambedkar once said, ‘Hindu Society is a myth. The name Hindu is
itself a foreign name … Hindu society as such does not exist. It is
only a collection of castes. Each caste’s … survival is the be-all and
end-all of its existence.’ When the census factors in caste as an
identity, the so-called Hindu will be forced to acknowledge his or her
primary identity as a caste identity, not a religious one. In many
ways, the imminent inclusion of caste in the census brings to a head
the battle between the forces of Mandal and mandir (Hindutva’s
penchant for a temple in Ayodhya) that began in the mid-1980s. In this
battle, OBC power was on the rise even within the rightwing Hindutva
brigade, but finally it is the Mandal brigade that seems to have won.

Should the apparent success of the Mandal (OBC) brigade then be read
simply as a ‘secular’ victory, where the forces of religious
majoritarianism – of Hindutva – have been defeated? Is not just the
governing logic of Hindu majoritarianism – that the Hindus, as a
numerical majority, must be the ruling class and that other minorities
must acknowledge this and make way – being redeployed by Backward
Classes and OBCs to argue for representation and stake in resources
according to their share in population? What will be the implications
of the logic of such ‘caste majoritarianism’ for social minorities?
Will not a caste census unwittingly pave the way for displacing Hindu
majoritarianism with caste majoritarianism – or will it be argued
that, since castes and subcastes are so numerous and region-specific,
caste majoritarianism is not possible?

Ultimately, any kind of majoritarian logic can be detrimental to
democracy, especially to social minorities. In this case, OBC
majoritarianism could directly impact Dalits, since the two groups are
pitted against each other in a battle for resources, especially in
rural India; and ever so often, we have seen the Dalits bearing the
brunt of BC/OBC power. In most areas, the dominant Shudra castes do
not fight amongst themselves or try to maim, rape or kill one another.
We have not in a long time heard of Yadav-Kurmi antagonism in Bihar, a
Gounder-Naicker clash in Tamil Nadu or a Maratha-Brahmin fight in

The implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations in 1990
was preceded by the introduction of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled
Tribes Prevention of Atrocities (PoA) Act in 1989. Spurred by the
awakening created by the centenary of Ambedkar’s birth, in 1991, when
Dalit assertion led to attempts to file cases under this Act, the
backlash from the Backward Classes was strong. While the urban Dalits
supported Mandal in principle and opposed the overall ‘meritocratic’
critique of affirmative action, at the rural level the blows suffered
by Dalits at the hands of the Backward Classes saw a sharp increase.
Those Brahminical and liberal voices that are opposed to any kind of
reservation and are reluctant to forfeit any traditional privilege
have gleefully pointed to these contradictions. But that does not mean
we turn away from this picture.

It would be useful to remember here Ambedkar’s suspicions on the
limitations of democracy in a caste context. In India, he had warned,
the majority is not a political majority. ‘In India the majority is
born; it is not made,’ he said. ‘That is the difference between a
communal majority and a political majority.’ Ambedkar also argued that
majorities are of two kinds, communal and political:

A political majority is changeable in its class composition. A
political majority grows. A communal majority is born. The admission
to a political majority is open. The door to a communal majority is
closed. The politics of a political majority are free to all to make
and unmake. The politics of a communal majority are made by its own
members born in it.
Despite India’s system of parliamentary democracy, Ambedkar noted, the
overriding role of caste and community ensures that ‘a majority
community carries the seat by sheer communal majority’. So, he
wondered how a communal majority could run away with the title deeds
given to a political majority to rule.

Political subjectivity
The data that might be thrown up by the counting of castes could
possibly lead to trans-caste unity across BC/OBC groups to the
detriment of Dalits. The already beleaguered PoA Act is likely to be
further weakened, and might even be scrapped. Ironically, while many
Dalits, as individuals and groups, were at the forefront of supporting
the Mandal recommendations (and today they largely seem to support the
need for factoring caste into the census), the other non-Brahmin
groups have rarely supported Dalits. For instance, various castes that
belong to the powerful, politically dominant Maratha cluster in
Maharashtra went on a rampage against Dalits in 1978, when the
government sought to rename Marathwada University after Ambedkar.
Today, the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party’s antipathy to the
Dalit-led Bahujan Samaj Party and Dalits is well known. In 1997, after
the I K Gujral United Front government assumed power, it was the turn
of a Dalit, Mata Prasad, a senior Indian Administrative Service (IAS)
officer, to be the nation’s top bureaucrat. Prasad would have made
history as the first Dalit cabinet secretary, but Mulayam Yadav
threatened to bring down the government if that happened.

It is worth comparing the Indian government’s attitude to caste in the
census with its attitude on the issue vis-à-vis the United Nations.
Whenever Dalits, as the worst victims of the caste system, have sought
to get caste discrimination recognised on par with racial
discrimination, the state has resolutely argued against such a move.
(Notably, most OBCs and Backward Classes have not supported Dalits in
their efforts to internationalise the issue of caste discrimination.)
Irrespective of the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) being
in power, India has claimed that caste is an ‘internal’ matter; it is
a non-issue, officials in New Delhi suggest, and there are enough laws
within India to deal with it. This is an old script that even Ambedkar
had to battle with when he spoke of caste discrimination at the Round
Table Conferences in London, in 1930-32, and the Congress and Mohandas
K Gandhi opposed him on ‘nationalist’ grounds. Yet when it comes to
counting castes – and thus internally acknowledging an inescapable
social reality – there seems to be today an all-round political
consensus. In other words, when the Dalit-led discourse posits caste
as discrimination and violence, the state opposes it; but when
non-Dalit non-Brahmins highlight caste as a source of gaining
(eventual) political advantage, the state seems to embrace the idea,
albeit with some reluctance.

A headcount of all castes in 2011 is not going to be a benign
exercise. It would be naive to simply harp on how such data will be
useful for sociologists, anthropologists, policymakers and editorial
writers (the caste census issue having elicited perhaps the largest
number of editorials and commentaries in India in recent times). The
data will unleash social energies whose power we, as yet, have no idea
about. Ambedkar had always argued that caste and democracy cannot
coexist; that the democratic spirit is antithetical to caste. But we
have seen how successfully – if not very peaceably – caste and
democracy have coexisted in an India that boasts of six decades of
parliamentary democracy. While holding a fascinating mirror to the
complex diversities that caste produces, this census could also lead
to several castes falling in love with their self-image.

Powerful, resource-rich castes that are educationally and socially
backward will lay compelling and competing claims to victimhood, much
to the detriment of Dalits. Unless the state shows a willingness to
fight caste head-on – something about which there has not been an iota
of proof over six decades – the caste census might uncork the
discourse of caste majoritarianism, the implications of which could be
far more dangerous than religious majoritarianism.

The author would like to thank Ravikumar for his inputs.


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