Under Society’s Skin
By Gail Omvedt
24 April, 2007
Supreme Court’s recent decision and reiteration to stay the order
regarding OBC admissions until accurate data is available has brought
forth the expected reactions. Defenders of ‘equality’ won
by ignoring caste are hailing it; proponents of reservations are trying
to put on a brave face. But in one way, the decision is helpful: the
Supreme Court has given cogent arguments for the need for information
to underlay policy. However, what many of the opponents of reservations
may not appreciate is that this brings up squarely, once again, the
argument for a caste-based census.
The demand for this is now
rising, and the Congress has issued a statement rejecting such an option.
Why it has done so is hard to understand. If getting information about
caste is ‘divisive’, then so is trying to remedy the situation.
How do we remedy it without really good information? There is no adequate
answer to this question.
Many Indians opposed to a
caste-based census have for years argued the issue in terms of divisiveness.
Some have even made wild projections of chaos, violence and fragmentation.
Yet, for decades, the United States has had not only fairly far-reaching
programmes of affirmative action, but also a race-based census: people
are asked their race, and do not consider this an insult. The policy
has not led to chaos and violence, but rather has provided the foundation
for efforts to remedy the situation.
In the 1960s, the US did
have a certain amount of violence, with ghetto rebellions, fights with
the police and uprisings of angry young Black men and women. The situation
was too extreme to ignore; instead, policy decisions were made. Now
Blacks have penetrated more fields than ever before, and race riots
are a thing of the past, even if racism itself has not been entirely
overcome. Recognising the existence of race, like caste, is not the
road to ruin, but is a necessary prerequisite for dealing with, and
resolving, the issue.
Those who argue for ‘merit’
ignore the fact that merit is not linked to caste. Here, biological
inheritance and social conditioning have to be carefully differentiated.
The reason that people of ‘higher’ caste origin perform
better lies in their environmental advantages, which range from the
fields of education, socialisation to economic well-being.
The same, of course, has
been true for race. Only, in the US, the arguments for and against,
‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’, have been made endlessly.
One of the seemingly solidly documented books arguing for the reality
of racial differences, Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray’s
The Bell Curve, spent hundreds of pages arguing that IQ tests, in fact,
reflected the existence of real intelligence — and since Blacks
performed on the average significantly lower than the White average,
they claimed that this reflected their actual capacities. Yet, the book
let slip one important fact about IQ tests — that average scores
have risen over the last few decades, by about the same amount as the
‘difference’ between average White and Black scores.
In other words, IQ tests
reflect a degree of environmental advantage and socialisation, even
‘learning’ about taking IQ tests. Even at an early age,
this environmental difference is there. In many European countries,
the average scores had risen because the scores of the lowest deciles
rose faster: in other words, the spread of mass education had made a
In India, there has been
no such extensive academic and general intellectual debate about test
scores, heredity and environment; only a good deal of frantic and self-justifying
outpourings. But the examinations here, as well as interviews, are much
less objective, much more culture-bound than IQ tests. Education is
much more unequally distributed. Denial of caste inequalities has been
less reasonable, more ingrained, more emotional.
In comparison with race,
though, it is superficially easy to avoid dealing with caste: it is
not so easily visible as race is, though both are equally social and
not biological factors. There is a good deal of social interaction directed
at understanding the other’s caste, but these are less obvious
and visible. As a result, a superficial ‘passing’ is much
easier, particularly for employment, if not for more personal issues
such as marriage. Yet the scars of caste remain, of this there is no
doubt. What is needed is more informed discussion and debate, not a
closing of eyes, ears and mouths to mimic the monkey reaction to reality.
There is possibly little
change since the 1931 census, which gave extensive information about
caste. However, there is need for investigation: have some OBCs really
become ‘affluent’? Aside from a few of their members, this
is doubtful. The very fact that these are mostly rural-based groups,
and the rural economy is in recognised crisis, should indicate that
the average has improved. There is no point, however, in endlessly arguing.
We need the data.
How does one handle a caste-based
census? There has been, again, a lot of talk about the complications
of the matter. The solution is simple: let everyone self-identify his
or her caste. Those who want can say ‘no caste’ (in fact,
this itself would be an important data from the census). Those who are
out of mixed marriages or confused about their caste in anyway can also
say this. A panel of experts at the State level can then make broad
classifications out of the responses. There is, in other words, no great
dilemma about how to do it. It only takes social will.
is a social scientist and author of Dalit Visions: The Anticaste Movement
and Indian Cultural Identity and Growing Up Untouchable: A Dalit Autobiography
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