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Why Prakash Ambedkar’s big 'casteless’ idea falls flat

Had it come from a non-Dalit, there would have been an immediate outrage. Since the proponent is himself a Dalit, the suggestion that colleges should do away with seeking caste identity during admissions, and that caste-based quota in legislatures and Parliament should be given up, the response is less that muted.

On Thursday, Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of the late BR Ambedkar and three-time MP was quoted in the Loksatta, a Marathi newspaper, which was followed up by a long interview on a Marathi television news channel, recommending, inter alia, the following:

People pay homage to BR Ambedkar. Reuters.

* In the admission forms for colleges, where the affirmative reservations commence, the column requiring mention of the students’ caste should be done away with, and only asked to state their religion and nationality.

* Failing which, but to begin with, they should at least be allowed the option of not stating their castes if the forms are not changed. It should be their right to decide if they want to be identified by a caste.

* Most certainly, children of mixed marriages should be encouraged not to stage their caste at all regardless of the forms’ design since mixed marriages within a religion are now on the increase.

The reaction to it has been feeble. Prodded to react, rival Dalit leader Ramdas Athavale dismissed it as being an anti-Dalit notion. Others have not shown an inclination to comment yet perhaps because even the non-Dalit political leaders would not prop up Prakash Ambedkar’s argument as they survive in politics by exploiting castes.

Prakash Ambedkar’s one reason for doing away with caste-based reservations, which by implication means doing away with caste-based – Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe – constituencies across the country, is that those elected do not necessarily represent the interests of the people they are elected by. These worthies join a different power-influence sharing elite.

However, Ambedkar would want the quotas to continue for local bodies because at that level, with smaller constituencies, say for a panchayats body up to a zilla parishad or a city civic body, the socially, educationally and economically backward can find some easier play. These constituencies are breeding grounds for leadership.

This is where his case for developing ultimately a casteless society develops a hiccup. If a student were not to state the caste, how would his or her future role as a politician using a reservation come by? Would the caste certificate issued by the Revenue Department on behalf of (at least in Maharashtra) be acceptable for Ambedkar?

In the absence of such categorisation the right to seek election on a caste-based identity to the intermediate elected political office would be impossible. Once certified and in possession of that certificate, what is achieved by avoiding a caste-identity when at the doors of the colleges?

The second opportunity to exercise the constitutionally sanctioned quotas in employment and even promotions are also caste-based – so much for SCs and so much for STs – and Ambedkar has not spoken a word about that. These quotas are considered a major step for empowering the disadvantaged.

Interestingly, during the election campaign by Janata Dal’s VP Singh, Prakash Ambedkar’s open Dalit support got him both the nomination to Rajya Sabha and Singh’s prime ministerial ear. That led to securing reservations to neo-Buddhists on a par with the SCs.

Neo-Buddhists are those former untouchable Hindus, mostly Mahars and Chamars, who escaped indignity heaped on them by the upper castes by mass conversions to Buddhism - they are now said to be seven-eight million strong. By not being consequently categorised as SCs, they had lost the privileges earlier conferred on them.

Prakash’s grandfather, himself a Mahar, took to Buddhism and led the mass conversions. Within the larger Dalit community, there are now competing claims for benefits and the neo-Dalits remain a class apart and rally around the Republican Party of India. That the RPI has split several times, weakening the Dalit movement, is another story.

Prakash Ambedkar has, in his competitive politics with other Dalit political leaders, has built a different platform where attempts are – at least as stated – to work with a larger social segment, the other backward classes (OBCs) which in Marathi is Bahujan Samaj. His RPI faction is known as RPI-Bahujan Samaj Party.

But in the end, he has delivered a curate’s egg: good in parts, some parts not even dealt with.