Caste is perhaps one of the most potent socio-cultural, and hence politico-economic, forces in India. Centuries old, it has governed humans and human activity in homes as well as outside of them, and continues to do so. Coming from a middle class savarna family, I was ignorant of the presence and power of caste in the current day and age. However, it does not take much research to burst this bubble of, often wilfully self-imposed, ignorance. This article is an attempt to outline the insights that I have gathered from my conversations with people from the Dalit and OBC communities. I got into touch with the interviewees through the help of the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies (IIDS).
All of the interviewees wished to remain anonymous, hence their identities have been kept secret from the reader.
- The Current Political Atmosphere
All the interviewees expressed more or less similar concerns regarding the present political condition of the country. One of the interviewees described today’s politics as “highly volatile” and said that people are becoming increasingly intolerant. Another one went on to say that, “the role of the government has changed from giving a direction for economic development and welfare state to a judgemental one, making it hard for the citizens to put forth their stance on various issues.” He went to say that “it (the current socio-political situation) is not satisfactory in the sense that there is no trust between people, communities, religion, and fear is observed.”
One interviewee expressed concerns regarding the quality of representation and the representatives available to the people of India. She said that politics is supposed to be a means for representing the voice of the people but the reality seems distant from this basic expectation. She expressed concerns regarding multiple politicians having criminal records.
- How do you think such an atmosphere is affecting the underprivileged castes?
When asked about the position of the underprivileged castes within the present socio-political picture, all interviewees expressed concerns regarding the representation, safety and power available to them.
“Dalits are still fighting for better position in country, see the current data of our literacy rate… present condition is still not improved in our country in terms of their education and economic interests. Lack of awareness of Dalit rights and illiteracy makes them more vulnerable… they count as weaker sections of the people…as we know India is considered to be the most stratified of all known societies in human history which is based on the Varna system therefore caste is the biggest separating unit in the present and this needs to be changed,” (grammatical corrections added to original quote), said one interviewee.
Another interview expressed concerns regarding the “type of unconstitutional attitude (by the government)” which has affected the pace of economic growth.” While he admitted that not only Dalit and Adivasis but intermediary castes have also been affected because of this state of economic growth, he admitted that the underprivileged castes “have (been) affected more.” “The fear of exclusion during last few years has increased among these groups,” said the interviewee.
- Views on Reservation
One of the most important provisions for people from underprivileged castes has been the system of Reservation. A topic of contention ubiquitous in discussions regarding caste (in)justice, Reservation often finds vociferous supporters, opponents and everyone in between who argues for either for reform or gradual repeal.
All the interviewees expressed support for the system of Reserved seats while suggesting changes to the same in order to make it more holistic. One interviewee said that Reservation is “necessary but not sufficient. It needs to be modified by bringing private sector under its ambit.” Others expressed concerns regarding the ground level inclusivity of the system. An interviewee talked about the system of reservation being largely inaccessible to underprivileged castes in rural areas. She went on to say how low enrolment rates at primary levels combine with caste hierarchies in order to affect the cause of caste justice in a doubly adverse manner. She said that “a bottom approach” is necessary in order to make the system more inclusive.
A common recognition of affirmative action as an arrangement to counter deeply entrenched caste inequalities was seen in all the interviewees. The opinion that Reservation has helped in empowering a considerable section of people from underprivileged castes, if not all of them, is also common to all interviewees.
- Views on Dalit Capitalism
One of the most common cultural side effects of Reservation has been the development of caste resentment felt by the upper/middle castes towards the underprivileged castes. The basis of this resentment seems to be the idea that reservation provides unfair advantage to people from the underprivileged castes, disregarding merit as a criterion for advancement of education and/or career, and hence puts in jeopardy not only the idea of equality of opportunity but also the efficiency of public institutions. As an alternative to Reservation, Dalit Capitalism has come to be rather popular among observers.
Dalit Capitalism basically revolves around the idea that people at the bottom of the socio-cultural caste ladder can rise to prominence through entrepreneurship. Relying on market forces, which govern transactions without any caste-based discrimination, Dalits can amass economic power and hence alleviate their suffering. Dalit Capitalism has its defenders and opponents. Yet the popularity of the idea that economic power can alleviate social suffering is not new. Socialists from the Congress Party during Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s times were also known to envision a socialist revolution as the means to an equal society in India. That Ambedkar disagreed with socialists of India is worth noting.
One interviewee expressed considerable confidence in Dalit Capitalism as an alternative means to uplift people from underprivileged castes. She said how capitalism can allow Dalits to improve their socio-economic status through capitalism, albeit a level playing field will be necessary in order for the market competition to be fair. She also went on to say that if the market helps Dalits, it would be a small number of them and how these entrepreneurs could and should set an example for the next generations to follow. “So in my view Dalit capitalism can give improvement at larger level,” she said.
Other interviewees held the belief that both Reservation and Dalit Capitalism need to work in synergy in order to bring about long term improvement in the condition of underprivileged castes. “Why there should be a monopoly of one or a few community?” said an interviewee. An interviewee believed that government incentives and safety nets for Dalit entrepreneurs would be necessary in order to combat the already existing bias in the markets due to caste stigma. Such motivation is also considered necessary to motivate such entrepreneurs to take risks despite their economically insecure position.
- Other views
Interviewees were asked if they had any other opinions that they would like to share.
“It is my personal belief that the entire world needs a reset button,” said an interviewee. When asked to elaborate, he went on to say that the current socio-political order of the world seems to be largely sterile if one considers the possibility of large scale justice. Regarding caste, he went on to point out his opinions regarding the attitudes that he had witnessed in upper-middle class/caste families regarding people from the underprivileged castes. He pointed out people from the General category would go on to deny the existence and power of caste in post-independence India, although simultaneously retaining stereotypes such as lower caste people are often “dirty/misbehaved.” This paradoxical yet convenient denial as well as simultaneous employment of caste by the upper/middle castes families is what the interviewee found particularly eye-catching.
“We really think that our country is still based on Varna system (and functions) not according to what our constitution says,” said one of the interviewees. As a research scholar, she said, she researches social issues and finds herself disturbed by issues like the Rohith Vemula incident. She talked about how the “future is in danger” as the next Dalit issue may knock on our doors any minute.
- Final Remarks
As absent caste seems to most of us who have never faced caste-based cruelties, as visible and intrusive it seems to those who have faced such oppression. As limited as the sample size is, I feel little doubt in claiming that every interviewee seemed aware of the existence of caste divides in present day an age. A diversity of safeguards, policy decisions and long-term goals seem to be the need of the, rather long and excruciating, hour if we are to hope for caste justice to appear closer to us in reality rather than an unattainable beacon of idealistic hope.