Almost the first task undertaken by Jawaharlal Nehru after independence was to abolish caste. All government records, registers and application forms deleted the caste column. It had taken the nation some 88 years to rub off this stigma of discrimination.
Ironically, the same Congress party, which was instrumental in throwing out the British, has announced that the next census in 2011 will include a caste column. The Manmohan Singh government was reluctant to introduce one because some cabinet members argued that caste was against the ethos of the freedom movement. But none of them appears to have a commitment to a casteless society, the prerequisite to a viable system of democracy.
Political parties in the opposition had their way because the government after putting up a brave front caved in. True, the ruling Congress does not have a majority in the Lok Sabha. But it could have mustered one if it had stood firm on principles. It did not have to placate the leaders of the Other Backward Classes (OBC) for the sake of staying in office.
The government does not seem to understand the repercussions of turning parochial. It should have at least held consultations with the National Integration Council which is meant to discuss such problems. Caste is something that will affect the nation as a whole. Parliament which does not represent more than 50 per cent of the electorate cannot push back the country into the dark ages.
Electoral politics have blinded the three Yadav leaders — Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal's splinter group and the two former chief ministers, Mulayam Singh Yadav from UP and Lalu Prasad Yadav from Bihar. They have betrayed their mentors, socialist Dr Ram Manohar Lohia and Gandhite Jayaprakash Narayan, who propagated a casteless society.The Yadav leaders have argued that the OBC would be entitled to more reservations in employment and educational institutions after the census, which they expect will show their caste followers in larger numbers. They already enjoy a quota of 27 per cent, four per cent more than the scheduled Castes and tribes.
The supreme court has limited reservations to 50 per cent. If OBC leaders want more, they have to appeal to the court. The census will not give them more reservations. Nor can parliament. The forum is the supreme court which in its judgment thought that at least 50 per cent of jobs or admission to education institutions had to be on merit.
Where is the guarantee that the census would quantify the numbers accurately? There are risks of fudging. An enumerator goes to an ordinary person and asks him about his caste. The latter can say anything in reply. There is no authority or guidelines for the enumerator to verify the response. His job is merely to write what is told to him.
Traditions and customs have moulded India and the rest of the subcontinent in such a way that the caste system has also affected Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. Islam preaches equality and this is the reason given by Hindus as to why caste barriers should not be recognised among Muslims for reservations. A Karachi labour leader who met me in Delhi told me that even workers in Pakistan have come to be divided on the basis of caste (zaat).
In India, the Muslims belonging to OBC, for example, carpenters, weavers, etc., have been enjoying reservations like their Hindu counterparts. There is a demand to accommodate the Muslim 'dalits' in the quota given to the scheduled castes. The Sachar committee on the plight of the Muslims has also recognised that there are 'dalits' in the Muslim community.
My knowledge of law, however limited, tells me that a caste column would violate the basic structure of the constitution. The preamble says that the people resolve to constitute India into a “sovereign socialist democratic republic”. In the Keshvanand Bharti case, the supreme court has said that objectives in the preamble contain the basic structure of the constitution which cannot be amended by the power that parliament exercises.
Caste is the antithesis of democracy or socialist ideology. Any action to reintroduce caste identities, which the census will seek to do, is unconstitutional. Still, if the government wants to go ahead with caste categorisation, it should refer the matter to the supreme court. Since ultimately the matter will be decided by the supreme court, why not start the exercise now?
The Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) agreement to caste identification is surprising. The party is all the time going on about the country's emotional unity. Its support for something divisive is because of electoral considerations. It wants to be seen with the Yadav leaders who are trying to project the census of caste as a step towards progress. The BJP, like other political parties, knows that elections are increasingly contested on an appeal to sub-castes, not caste alone.
Poverty is not confined to the OBC. In a country where 40 per cent people earn less than a dollar, the concerted effort of political parties should be to extract people from deplorable economic conditions in which they are stuck. It is time to change the basis of reservations from caste to poverty. The criterion should neither be caste nor creed but how much a person earns.
Whatever the benefits of reservations, they have been primarily cornered by leaders belonging to the creamy layers of OBC and the scheduled castes and tribes. The supreme court has said more than once that the creamy layer should be defined so that the benefits go to the next generation. But the leaders of these communities, particularly the Yadavs, refused to do so because they want to appropriate the gains. How to end their monopoly is the real problem. They have to be curbed if India is to remain a casteless society.
The writer is a leading journalist based in Delhi.