When Manohar Parrikar and Suresh Prabhu were appointed cabinet ministers in November 2014, senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai tweeted, “Two GSBs, both talented politicians become full cabinet ministers. Saraswat pride!” The abbreviation “GSB” refers to “Goud Saraswat Brahmin”, a Hindu brahmin community.
Humans have always liked to classify themselves into communities which inevitably give them an identity. Sardesai’s tweet shows that caste is present, irrespective of your status in society, as a tool to identify oneself. Caste in this form can instill pride similar to the pride of being a “Hindu”, “Indian” or “Maharashtrian”.
The problem, though, is that caste, primarily, was not a tool for identity, but one for hierarchy and hence discrimination. An egalitarian system would make it as plausible to hear of a “proud Bhangi” and a “proud Chamar”, as it is to hear of a “proud Brahmin” and a “proud Hindu”.
Unfortunately, this traditional perspective on caste-based hierarchy is legitimized by the state too. On the launch of Swachha Bharat Abhiyaan, government officials across hierarchy picked up brooms to sweep the floor. However, for every other day when tokenism is not the trend, the burdens of sanitation and sweeping roads – jobs paid for by the state – fall on largely a specific set of people, identified by their caste.
According to the Socio-Economic Caste Census, 2011, 180,657 families are engaged in manual scavenging, a caste-based occupation. Sanitation in the state-run Indian railways depends on manual scavenging, which is forbidden by law.
This goes on to show at different levels – individual, societal and governmental – that caste, both as identity and hierarchy, is deep-rooted in the Indian society.
An Indian Express survey showed that 27 per cent Indians still practise untouchability, which is outlawed. But untouchability is only one extreme aspect of caste. Historically, caste manifests itself in forms such as social ridicule, emotional subjugation, physical, mental and sexual abuse, and lack of opportunities and resources. Over the 66 years of the Indian republic, caste has shown that it can exist in new forms.
Evaluating the future of caste requires us to ignore the extremes which proper law enforcement can take care of. It is everyday mannerisms that are more difficult to uproot. Names of Dalit castes are often used as derogatory slang. Newspaper matrimonials, which classify matches on the basis of caste, reflect that caste dictates who we marry. Family names are still associated with caste: a Sharma can never be a Dalit. It is tough to imagine that caste-denoting family names will go away in few generations’ time.
Elections in the country continue to show that the ones in power need caste to stay, to remain in power, even if the powerless were to reject it. The popular punch, “In India you don’t cast your vote, you vote your caste” and its regular evidence shows that caste can change forms, but may never disappear. The continuing relevance of caste-based affirmative action reflects the lack of political will to uproot the obvious co-relation between caste and socio-economic status as soon as possible.
Caste has adjusted itself to continue to exist in some form, even in a new, developing, post-1991 India, instead of globalization aiding its removal. This is a characteristic of a perpetual system which can stand the test of time and trends. In its current form – tool for identity, hierarchy and political strategy – it is evident that caste is alive and healthy.