Today, what is needed is a genuine assessment of the population of different marginalized sections and to modify the country's policies so that the uneven growth of society is brought on the path of equality. The deaths of the likes of Rohith Vemula and Darshan Solanki should awaken India to the need to combat the biases constructed against the socially marginalized sections and strive for a future where ‘annihilation of caste’ is the central credo of our society.
This year 2023, 14th April saw a plethora of organizations celebrating India's constitution architect Babasaheb Ambedkar's 132nd birth anniversary probably more than before. The occasion was marked by gaiety and celebratory spirit among the large sections of SC/ST/OBC (lower and outcast) community for whom he is the messiah. His contributions are recognized more and more, not only nationally but even at a global level. Most groups who are committed to social justice and equality, as opposed to birth-based hierarchies and injustices celebrate the occasion with deep reverence and hope. One can say that this occasion is also assuming religious overtones as at places rituals are being given more importance than highlighting Ambedkar's values. Surely there is a need to launch and sustain struggles to fulfill the dreams for which he struggled all his life.
There are other groups and formations who are deeply opposed to the principles and values for which Ambedkar struggled all his life. As such Hindu nationalists, RSS and progeny are totally opposed to Ambedkar’s core aim of "annihilation of caste". They project "harmony among castes" as their credo. Ambedkar stood for affirmative action for the deprived sections of society. Initially, there were provisions for reservations for ten years only. Probably Ambedkar had a hope that ten years will be enough to root out the deep malice in Hindu society. He probably did not take into consideration the fact that the implementation of the policy lies in the hands of the upper caste elite themselves, who in due course found ways to circumvent the proper implementation of reservation for SC/STs (Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) and so it had to be prolonged till the date, which is a requisite for the march towards social justice.
The constitution, the drafting of which he presided over, did give the provision for SCs and STs, still leaving out Other Backward Classes (OBC). This is a large constituent of society, about which not much attention was paid for a long time. The last time the decadal census took this into consideration was in 1931. It stood at 52 per cent at that time which later became the basis of giving them 27 per cent of reservations in the 1990s. There were some provisions for affirmative action but its proper implementation took place with Mandal Commission implementation only.
The reservations have been an eyesore to certain sections of society and they did float groups like “Youth for Equality” types which stood for the abolition of reservations. By word of mouth and other channels, it was popularized that due to these reservations, "non deserving" people find their way and the deserving ones are left out. Social biases got constructed around Dalit-OBCs and these social biases did get converted into the suicides of students of the likes of Rohith Vemula or Darshan Solanki. These biases also formed the base of anti-dalit violence in the 1980s in Ahmadabad and anti-OBC violence in Gujarat in 1985.
Why BJP opposes caste census
While BJP’s parent RSS initiated social engineering and floated organizations like Samajik Samrasta Manch (Social Harmony Forum) which was an attempt to co-opt these marginalized sections. Its efforts did pay it rich electoral dividends, which are reflected in the presence of a large number of BJP MPs and MLAs from the constituencies reserved for these sections. The large force of RSS 'pracharaks' and 'swayamsevaks' (preachers and volunteers) has relentlessly worked in these areas through social engineering, the process of Sanskritzation, and charity work among these communities.
At the ideological level, the Hindu right-wing has made tall efforts to attribute the ills of the caste system to invading Muslim kings and trying to project that all castes were equal before Muslim kings came. It is no surprise that BJP and its associates also make a show of celebrating Ambedkar anniversary. At the same time, they undermine the need for demands like caste census which can pave the way for modification of policies, through which the marginalized sections can benefit in the real sense.
It is this background that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s speech in Kolar, Karnataka becomes significant. Gandhi asked for a population census and stated that the results of affirmative action are not as visible as in the case of top bureaucrats like aecretaries in the Union Government, hardly 7 per cent belong to these sections. While putting forward this demand he also asked for the caste census findings conducted under UPA in 2011 to be made public. He correctly states that “The data will provide evidence if Other Backward Classes (OBC), Dalits, and Adivasis don't have enough representation in the country's politics proportionate to their population”.
In contrast, the BJP is trying to dodge the issue. A party that could undertake the massive and painful exercise of National Register of Citizens in Assam is rejecting the caste census! It told the Supreme Court (2021) that such a census would be "administratively difficult and cumbersome" and that it was a "conscious policy decision" to exclude such information from the census purview.”
The real intent of the BJP regarding social justice becomes clear at times of crucial decisions. Its decision to oppose caste census is one such. During the last nine years, the introduction of reservations for ‘economically weaker sections’ of society has already diluted the prevailing provisions and the upper caste with an income of 8 lakh rupees annually will also be eligible for reservations. Economic backwardness has never been in consideration for reservation, as the very concept of reservation was related to caste backwardness, caste as a handicap for one’s place in society.
It is clear that for parties like the BJP, Ambedkar’s principles don’t matter. As a matter of fact, Hindu nationalist politics came up precisely to oppose the rising assertion of SC/ST/OBC. The foundational ideological pronouncements of this politics glorified the holy tomes and traditions boosting the caste and gender hierarchy. Today, what is needed is a genuine assessment of the population of different marginalized sections and to modify the country's policies so that the uneven growth of society is brought on the path of equality. The deaths of the likes of Rohith Vemula and Darshan Solanki should awaken India to the need to combat the biases constructed against the socially marginalized sections and strive for a future where ‘annihilation of caste’ is the central credo of our society.
(The writer, a former IIT Bombay professor, is Chairman, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai. Views are personal.)