Has the Manmohan Singh Government ordered India’s first Hindu census? The exercise scheduled for 2011 to count the caste populations of the country excludes, by definition, those who do not believe in caste.
If someone asked me what my caste was, I would have no answer. I have a nationality: Indian. I have a faith: Islam. I have a birthplace: Bengal. I have a cultural identity even if this tends to get diffuse, since my father was a Bihari settled in Bengal, my mother a Kashmiri who was brought up in Amritsar, and I now live in Haryana. The answer may be complicated but it is still an answer. But caste? I have none.
Should I acquire a caste, if someone is willing to offer me one, in order to become politically correct in the era of Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi? I take these names quite deliberately, since, to the best of my knowledge, they too do not have a caste, at least if they are true to the philosophy of their faith. Will the Prime Minister claim that he is either a Jat or a Pappa Sikh or whatever when the men in white shirts with blank forms turn up at his door? Will Mrs Gandhi tell the censuswallahs that she has become a Brahmin-Christian because she married a man whose mother was a Kashmiri Pandit and father a Parsi?
What is the precise purpose of an additional, expensive and wearisome enumeration of our innumerable social differences? The normal census already delineates fractional, not to say fractious, identities which is why we know what is the percentage of Dalits and Brahmins and Yadavs and Muslims et al in every constituency, enabling politicians to select candidates on the basis of caste-communal mathematics. Government knows these percentages and publishes them for citizens to read and make demands for job reservation on a quota slide-rule. Are we now heading for the specific numbers of sub-castes and gotras, so that squabbles for the job-pie get even more intense, bitter and divisive?
Decisions with long-term consequences are being made with vision no greater than an eye-range of the next regional election. Cabinet ministers who objected to this caste census were warned that the Congress would lose crucial votes in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh if it did not succumb to pressure from the margins. No party is so angelic as to reject adjustments which serve partisan ends. But the moment a party sacrifices its core values for perceived surface benefits, it is in danger of losing its political equilibrium.
The celebration of caste as a democratic virtue was perhaps inevitable in a complex dynamic where the reality of economic injustice was enhanced by layers of identity inferiority. Such problems had to be purged out of the system, and that could not happen by pretending that they did not exist, as if we had achieved some form of Gandhian Ram Rajya by virtue of becoming free of British rule in 1947. If the Dalit struggle for equity preceded freedom, thanks to the brilliance and courage of Babasaheb Ambedkar, who demanded and got a commitment from Mahatma Gandhi on political and economic reservations, then agitation by the impoverished among those a notch or two above was only a matter of time. There will always be a gap between economic growth and social aspiration, particularly since it is almost impossible to spread the benefits of growth in ideal proportions: Marxism could not make it happen, and it is silly for quasi-capitalism to even try. The democratic process is the only one devised for a peaceful transfer of wealth along a sustainable axis. This is not a favour that the rich do to the poor; higher reward for labour and expansion of remunerative employment is an entitlement in a democracy. The peculiar catch in our country is economic and political mobilization around the unique reality of caste. The Mandal report, therefore, was an inevitable chapter in the economic history of India.
The question, two decades after Mandal reservations were adopted, is whether this chapter should become the full book. The interplay between votes and gratification is a function of any democracy, but it is dangerous to make that the sole parameter for decisions.
In an effort to ameliorate an obvious injustice, in the case of minorities who do not accept caste, the system has taken retroactive measures, like assigning a pre-Islamic identity to Muslims and categorising them by their caste before conversion. Since jobs and reserved educational seats are on offer, many Muslims have accepted this variant. Compromise however is never an adequate solution; moreover, it can become a bottomless abyss. The caste census institutionalises an anomaly. Caste has become a vehicle without a reverse gear, and there is no U-turn visible on the road ahead.
Perhaps the answer will lie in the prospect that Government jobs will become an illusion, as the private sector absorbs the functions of state authority. Politicians have already caught on, and begun demanding reservations there as well. If we are sensible, we will draw the line long before we encroach upon the private sector.