Ambedkar Jayanti: When talking about caste in 2017, it's wise to take a look inwards

Every Ambedkar Jayanti, it becomes an almost banal tendency to question what elements of our lives are still dictated by caste. The author is forced to "look" for caste in aspects of life to remind us of its persistence, and of Dr BR Ambedkar’s yet unfulfilled dream of its annihilation. Yet despite the irony of self-reflection and the fact that this piece is meant as a tribute to Ambedkar on his birth anniversary, the discourse on caste has come a long way, making 2017 a year in which that we find ourselves at an important crossroads.

The history of post-Independence India came with a burden — the burden of addressing the questions of social justice. The freedom movement was viewed with scepticism by leaders like Ambedkar and Periyar for the simple reason that majority of the Congress’ leadership came from the upper-castes, giving them no reason to believe that freedom would be anything but a transfer of power from the British to the elites of Indian society. Once Independence was achieved, the treatment of caste was simple — an abolition of untouchability, reservations in certain institutions of the state and a total erasure of caste from narratives of history, as it was considered a hampering of the ‘nation-building’ process.

Caste unfortunately is an age-old and dynamic institution that has withstood many more powerful challenges than that of the fledgling Indian State. The project of ‘erasing’ or ‘unseeing’ the narrative thread of caste that binds together the history of South Asia was a mistake that has led to many faulty analyses. Unfortunately, Ambedkar Jayanti becomes one such occasion where the caste ‘lens’ is brought back into public consciousness — only to be forgotten a few days later by the mainstream media in favour of traditional rich-poor or Hindu-Muslim binaries. To do that is a disservice to understanding the complexity of caste — and would thus be a disservice to the intellectual legacy of Ambedkar.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

Caste in the 21st Century

The Indian State’s treatment of caste has led to two popular myths about the nature of tackling the problem itself in the age of modernity. The first myth is that caste exists less in the urban and more in the rural — ie caste is a feudal institution of the village and does not exist (or is less prevalent) in India’s modern cities. This argument is flimsy on a plethora of grounds. The segregation of people along the axis of caste is an institutionalised phenomenon with a distinct history — which plays out with well-formed spatial dynamics. Caste has everything to do with it: The entire city is built on a monumental foundation of caste.

It remains a fact that elite metropolitan schools have done everything in their power to avoid the Right to Education Act mandating that children of lower income groups be admitted into schools. After denying weaker sections this ability to partake in the social capital of elite schooling, many of the graduates of these institutions go on to complain that students from reserved categories do not meet up to their standards in college. This is caste.

Almost all the major metropolitan cities show high residential segregation, with scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) concentrated in a few areas of the city. Bringing the focus to these wards with an unusually high proportion of SC/STs relative to the city (what are referred to as ‘outlier Census wards’), and analysing the level of access to in-house water and in-house toilets — both basic goods — these wards have at least twice the proportion of SC/STs compared to the city average and in all cities barring Delhi, these “extreme” wards do worse in terms of household access to in-house water and in-house toilets. This is caste.

What counts for culture in India? How is it that India is viewed as a vegetarian country when a majority of citizens (overwhelming majority if one looks at the South or the North East) are non-vegetarian? Why, despite non-vegetarians being a majority in a city like Bengaluru — do they find it so difficult to rent out homes in all well-provisioned parts of the city? What counts for “classical” music in most of India? What is considered “high” art or culture? Who are considered to be “intellectual” filmmakers? All these questions and their answers, quite simply, are caste.

The second myth is that caste is somehow mitigated by a rise in class or economic wealth. While it is indisputable that economic power brings with it a semblance of mobility, it is worth noting that caste is a much more deeply entrenched system than class – and thus requires differential remedies. In a study of rental housing markets in the Delhi-NCR region, renowned researcher Sukhadeo Thorat found consistently that “the home-seekers with Dalit and Muslim names were, on an average, significantly less likely to obtain a positive outcome to their quest for a rented house than equivalent home-seekers with an upper-caste Hindu name”.

Thorat and his team have also employed similar research methodologies of telephonic and face-to-face audits to track discrimination in the Urban Labour market — with similar findings that Dalit and Muslims were much less likely to be hired than upper-caste Hindus for the same job given the same qualifications. Caste reservation addresses not just economic backwardness — but social exclusion, lack of access, lack of networks, lack of social capital, total under-representation of certain world views, communities, sets of knowledge and people from various backgrounds. Class is purely an economic category. It's like advocating socialist measures to combat racism — it's well intentioned, but is bound to fail because racism works on a different axis of power than poverty.

The point is that caste is an insidious institution — it is not simply the common-sense notion of untouchability. As a popular post on Quora set out, caste exists in everything from the uneasy glance at working class people in elevators to having separate utensils for maids for reasons of "hygiene". It is a system that controls, polices and dictates not just the power of the state and its institutions but also fundamentally shapes questions of land ownership, knowledge production, access to resources, access to opportunities and even deeper questions of love, kinship and fraternity through a system of birth-based degradation. One could very well learn much more about the nature and power of caste as an institution in the 21st Century from than from long academic narratives.

The year 2017 marks a crossroads for us as a post-Independence nation as it reaffirms for the first time that caste is alive and well and is at the soul of our political and social life. The gloves are off, and there is no more hiding — not in a country that lynches people for food habits and condemns farmers to die en masse. Caste has begun to be re-understood; and the identification of old traditions and resistance to them is beginning to take shape once again. Caste is once again the battleground for fundamental questions about the very nature of human dignity — making Ambedkar’s utopian vision of ‘annihilation’ all the more relevant. Ambedkar Jayanti is hopefully just a single day in a long journey that reminds us of the discourse we have to build towards. This is Ambedkar’s prophetic importance as a scholar, his prescience to state that, “turn in any direction you like, Caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform, you cannot have economic reform, unless you kill this monster...

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Updated Date: Apr 14, 2017 12:12:35 IST

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