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What is it with India’s continuing obsession with caste? And was Ambedkar miserably wrong?


India’s great, liberal constitution was supposed to end the millennia-old obsession with the idea that your place in life, including your occupation, is set at birth.

It abolished “untouchability” – the practice whereby others in society exclude so-called untouchables, or Dalits, as polluting – which has now mostly disappeared from Indian society.

Various laws forbid discrimination on the basis caste.

At the same time (it is somewhat contradictory) official schemes push “positive” discrimination by caste, reserving quotas of places in higher education, plus jobs in government, to help groups deemed “backward” or deprived.

In turn, some politicians have excelled at appealing to voters by caste, promising them ever more goodies.

For example Mayawati, the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state (population: over 200m) and just possibly a future prime minister, leads a Dalit party.

In another northern state, Bihar, parties jostle to build coalitions of caste groups.  Everywhere voters can be swayed by the caste of candidates.

But don’t blame politicians alone.

Strong social actors – such as leaders of “khap panchayats” (all-male, unelected village councils) or doughty family elders – do much more to keep caste-identity going.

Consider marriages.

In rural areas it can be fatal to disregard social rules and marry someone of a different, especially lower caste.

Haryana, a socially conservative state in north India, is notorious for frequent murders of young men and women who transgress.

Even in town, caste is an important criterion when marriages are arranged.

Look at matrimonial ads in any newspaper, or try registering for a dating site, and intricate details on caste and sub-caste are explicitly listed and sought (“Brahmin seeks Brahmin”, “Mahar looking for Mahar”) along with those on religion, education, qualifications, earning power and looks.

Studies of such sites suggest that only a quarter of participants state that “caste is no bar”.

Such attitudes also reflect the anxieties of parents, who are keen for children to marry within the same group, because marriages bring extended families intimately together.

As long as marriages are mostly within the same caste, therefore, don’t expect any law or public effort to wipe away the persistent obsession with it.

That seems set to continue for a long time: a survey in 2005 found that only 11% of women in India had married outside their caste, for example.  What is changing for the better, if too slowly, is the importance of caste in determining what jobs, wealth, education and other opportunities are available to an average person.

No caste exists for a call-centre worker, computer programmer or English teacher, for example. The more of those jobs that are created, and the more people escape India’s repressive villages, the quicker progress can come.

The vast majority of India’s 170 million Dalits live amid a thicket of grim statistics: less than a third are literate, well over 40 per cent survive on less than $2 a day, infant mortality rates are dramatically higher than among higher castes.

Dalits are far more likely than the overall population to be underweight, and far less likely to get postnatal care.

While caste discrimination has been outlawed for more than 60 years, and the term “untouchable” is now taboo in public, thousands of anti-Dalit attacks occur every year.  Hundreds of people are killed.

I think the modern day hatred for Ambedkar – the framer of India’s constitution  – by various castes eventually springs from the above, it springs from the fact that he led the moral and utilitarian argument for preferential treatment of certain castes that has eventually led to strengthening of caste identities and competition for the preferential treatment through “affirmative action”.

I am pretty sure Amebdkar would be as much distressed as his opponents are today.  Ambedkar stood for free market capitalism (He had a doctorate in economics).

While he probably thought of time limited reservation as a good idea he did not expect the Indian state to grow as much.  He always thought that Dalits through the sweat of their brow would rise up automatically once they have the economic freedom that was denied to them through customs and traditions.  He was miserably wrong.

His name and ideas are now used to do things that are extremely troublesome for almost every Hindu including the dalits themselves.



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