Caste and reservations: the two words are yoked together in public discourse. A conversation about caste in urban India ends up being about reservations. If the interlocutor happens to be privileged, he or she attacks the very idea as undermining “merit”. History, reason and even the facts of the case are at issue, so that a defender of reservations begins on the back foot, having first to explain the idea of merit as birth into privilege and the opportunities opened up by unearned social capital. The arguments that ensue have no neat endings.
Just as we see a casual denunciation of reservations, we also see practically all communities – right from the shudras to brahmins – staking a claim to backwardness and demanding some form of reservations or another, their share of what has reductively come to be seen as social justice.
Article 340 of the Constitution mandated that the government identify “classes” which were “socially and educationally backward”, and implement measures “to remove such difficulties [so] as to improve their condition”. The catch in this innocuous seeming article is that backward “classes” means “castes” to all intents and purposes, while carefully sidestepping the word, and provides for reservation measures to improve their condition. The political scientist, Christophe Jaffrelot, in his essay “The politics of OBCs” (Seminar, May 2005), traces the origin and usage of the expression “backward classes” to the early non-brahmin movement of 1870s in the Madras Presidency, and observes:
When India achieved independence, Nehru gave them a new name,though hardly more satisfactory: “other backward classes”, implying classes other than the untouchables and the tribes. But the key word here is “classes”: even if he was not the first to use it, Nehru was clearly intending to distance himself from an approach in terms of caste.
It is not as if Nehru was so anti-caste or progressive that he shied from the word caste. He was cast in the liberal mould and saw caste as primordial. He sought to wish caste away by not naming it as such. Whatever the reasons, the euphemism of class for caste entered the Constitution and has created confusion, a confusion that has been duly taken advantage of by the political classes with reservations for “class” groups being read into the Constitution mischievously. The point of intersection between these terms caste and class is the term “backward”.
In a country characterised by graded inequality, to use Ambedkar’s phrase, all people could claim social backwardness because even subcastes of brahmins could prove their “social backwardness” in relation to some other group.
With regard to educational backwardness, even today, seven decades after Independence, almost all castes could meet this criterion. This article built and packed a can of caste worms; what’s more, with a convenient lid that could be lifted by the ruling classes at any opportune moment, to re-caste anew all of society. The cardinal criterion for reservations in a country characterised by pervasive backwardness can only be insurmountable social prejudice, which leaves no viable recourse other than an exceptional measure such as the countervailing force of the state. Quotas represent that force.
This criterion cannot be diluted into backwardness. Special measures taken for other groups may be defended as aimed against backwardness in general, ensuring that developmental investments by the state do not further enrich the traditional elites at the expense of the masses. Despite the provision of reservations galore, this is precisely what did not happen in India, where the rich have gotten steadily richer and the poor poorer.
The key to fathom the reservations imbroglio is to understand the duplicity of the native rulers who succeeded the British and have been driving this policy in the service of capital behind a facade of social justice. The structural provision for it built into the Constitution skilfully consecrates castes and religion under the pretext of delivering social justice (read reservations) to the “lower” castes and retaining scope for the state to implement reforms. Nobody notes that reservations did not require castes as they were based on a composite administrative category called “Scheduled Caste” of which no equivalent obtained in the social world.
When the lawmakers outlawed untouchability, castes also should have been outlawed. Being an aspect of caste, untouchability would not go away unless castes were destroyed. Instead, our legislative history presents the spectacle of continually reinforced caste identities through proliferating reservation, accelerating with the introduction of the criterion of backwardness. Since castes and religions have a proven mettle in dividing the working class, capitalists can only relish their survival. What’s more, their interests coincide with those of the political class as caste and religion provide handy levers to manipulate the masses away from livelihood issues.
Among the Russian Marxists, Nikolai Bukharin directly addressed the question of the difference between a social class and a caste. As he explained in “Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology” (1921), a class is a category of persons united by a common role in the production process, whereas a social caste is a group of persons united by their common position in the juristic or legal order of society. For instance, landlords are a class; the nobility are a caste.
Economically speaking, this or that noble may be impoverished; he may have only the barest subsistence; he may be a slum-dweller; but his station remains that of a noble. Bukharin’s use of the concept of caste is similar to Weber’s conception of class; it serves to further distinguish Marx’s conception of class from that of Weber. Although written against the European context, Bukharin’s representation is accurate on how caste status functions in India.
A brahmin might be poor, living in a slum, but he would still command his birth privileges.
In his essay “The Future Results of British Rule in India” (1853), Marx himself had characterised the Indian castes as “the most decisive impediment to India’s progress and power”. In his writings, he was clear that there existed a causal connection between the archaic social formation of castes in India and relations of production. The point, however, is not anxiety over the difference between caste and class, but how to conceive of classes in a society in which people’s lives are primarily governed by castes[…] To Marxist Leninists, therefore, the class to which a person belongs is determined by “objective reality”, not by someone’s opinion.
What is the objective reality of India then? If one goes by the above definition, one would necessarily come closer to considering castes, especially lower ones, themselves as classes. Are Dalits, for instance, not differentiated from non-Dalits by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated by law, the law of Manu) to the means of production, by their role in the social organisation of labour and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose, and also their mode of acquiring it? This perhaps is the sense in which Ambedkar said that castes were enclosed classes.
But there is obvious difficulty in considering Dalits as a class because the law which made them different from non-Dalits could also apply to the various castes within the category of “Dalit”. While class potentially brings people together, the very nature of caste is to divide them by seeking hierarchy. The classes in India, therefore, are to be conceived with broad aggregation, in relation to the dominant mode of production – which means that class analysis in a caste-based society would necessarily subsume caste. For example, the proletariat would include most of the shudras and Dalits, but they would not automatically form a class until the caste contradiction between them is eradicated.
After all, even class interests are not conceived ab initio. They develop through the exposure of people occupying particular social positions to particular social circumstances, separate groups forming a class in so far as they make common cause against another class; remaining otherwise on hostile terms with each other as competitor.