PUCL Bulletin, March 1995

Effort to Uplift the Backward & Depressed is not Casteism
By V.M. Tarkunde

Should a conscious effort to uplift the socially, educationally and economically backward castes be disapproved as amounting to casteism? I am of the view that an attempt to bring about an uplift of the backward castes and the depressed should be regarded as a positive anti-caste activity rather than a resort to casteism.

I recently had a conversation with an intelligent and leading member of the BJP who is also a former RSS trooper. I asked him whether it was not wrong on the part of the BJP to arouse Hindu sentiments on the Babri Masjid - Ram Mandir issue and create a situation which led to the destruction of the Masjid. He replied that may have been wrong but added that what the Mulayam Singh government in U.P. was doing by fomenting casteism was definitely much worse. I politely disagreed with him.

During the ani-Mandal agitation I had expressed the view that the only elements of casteism which was found in the Mandal Commission Report was that it refused to place the well-to-do families in backward classes in the general category and insisted that the reservations should be available to all the families in backward classes including those which have ceased to be economically and educationally backward. The agitation against the Mandal Commission Report was continued with the tacit support of the very political parties in the Opposition, which had promised in their election manifestoes that the
Recommendations of the Mandal Commission would be implemented.

The constitutional validity of the reservation policy was then challenged in the Supreme Court. A decisive majority of a nine Judges Bench held that the recommendations of the Mandal Commission were constitutionally valid, except in regard to the "creamy layer". It is significant that the Supreme Court majority did not attach the stigma of casteism to the main recommendations of the Mandal Commission.

Reverting to the general question whether the attempts to uplift the backward castes should be disapproved on the ground that they amount to casteism, it is necessary to distinguish between recognition of the existence of the caste system and an approval of that system. That the caste system exists in Hindu society is an undeniable fact and nothing is gained by simply not recognising it. An incipient idea that the caste system may gradually disappear if it is not officially recognised found expression in the practice adopted in the ten-years census in India after 1931. In the subsequent six ten-yearly censuses, the column which described the caste of the individual has been dropped. This has not affected to any extent the existence or strength of the caste system.

A considerable number of enlightened Hindus are opposed to the caste system. Some of the youngsters who believe in the slogan of "Jatti Taro" refuse to use their surnames on the ground that, by doing so, their caste would be revealed. While the repudiation of the caste system by reformist Hindus, young and old, is fully commendable, it does not appear that their attitudes has affected to any substantial extent the existence and strength of the caste system.

Caste is an extension of a joint Hindu family. However, while the family remains a laudable social institution, the caste system is undoubtedly harmful. It is harmful for two reasons. In the first place, there are social gradations in the caste system, some castes being higher and superior in status to those below. The higher castes had till recent times the monopoly of education as also of economic resources. The lower castes remained educationally, economically and socially backward. There was, and there still exists to a large extent, a definite social hierarchy between all castes, from the Brahmins at the top to the Scheduled Castes at the bottom. The second defect of the caste system, which
really sustains the first, is that every caste continues to be endogamic. Marriages are confined almost always to couples belonging to the same caste. The caste system is stabilised by endogamy as well as by social gradation. It is a harmful social institution but its harmfulness is increasingly greater as we go down in the social gradation and reach the level of the Schedule Castes.

Nepotism is another great evil associated with casteism, but it is not confined to the caste system. It is found in various types of groups including family circles.

The caste system has been in existence for more than 2500 years. It was opposed both by Buddhism and Jainism. Attempts to eliminate the system were made from time to time. Guru Nanak was opposed to casteism, but his endeavours resulted in the establishment of a separate religion, and some of the Hindus who became Sikhs still continue to have caste distinctions. The Lingayats in Karnataka, Arya Samajis in northern and central India, the Brahma Samajis in eastern India, were all opposed to the caste system, but the caste system still continues with undiminished strength in the bulk of Hindu society. It appears that the caste system will be weakened only if a large number of inter-case marriages take place so that endogamy, which effectively sustains the caste system, is gradually eroded. Inter-caste marriages, which were repeatedly condemned in Bhagwat Gita as "Varna Sankar", seem to be the most effective way of eroding the caste system and possibly abolishing it in future.

There was a strong non-Brahmin movement in Maharashtra started in the second half of the 19th century by the dynamic and progressive leader belonging to the Mali (gardener) community, Mahatma Jyotiba Phule. Later Babasaheb Ambedkar intensified his movement amongst the untouchables now designated as the Scheduled Castes, for social equality. Nobody, excepting perhaps some elements from the Shiv Sena, condemns Babasaheb Ambedkar on the ground that he was a casteist. His example clearly shows that the endeavour to uplift those castes which are at the lower grade of the caste system does not amount to casteism. The endeavour is aimed at reducing caste differences and is therefore an anti-caste endeavour. Dr. Ambedkar's movement among the Scheduled Castes is now followed by a movement for the improvement of the lot of the intermediate castes called the OBCs (Other Backward Castes). Just as Dr. Ambedkar's movement was not casteist, so also and for the same reason the movement for the upgradation of the OBCs cannot be characterised as casteist. It is a movement for the establishment of social, economic and educational equality in Hindu society, which is probably the most effective method of eventually putting an end to the evil of the caste system.

Majority communalism gets the support of a considerable proportion of the Hindu elite belonging to the upper castes. The majority of the Hindus, however, belong to the lower castes. They are not deeply infected by the virus of communalism, though they are occasionally drawn into communal riots by some of the elitist Hindu fanatics who are also the bearers of animosity towards the Indian minorities consisting of Muslims, Sikhs and Christians.

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