Caste – National Dilemma

   Dr. Ambedkar knew very well the secret of the strength of the caste logic of Hindu society and therefore in his later public life, he realized the futility of his struggle against caste system existing in Hindu society. He realized that there was no way left for him to get social equality for the so-called lower caste people in the Hindu society and therefore he along with his many followers converted to Buddhism. He chose Buddhism simply because there was no place for the caste division, and therefore the caste discrimination, in this religion. In his choice, he was more moved by this temporal virtue of a caste-less community available under the religious fold than by any sublime purpose of life embodied in its tenets.

He was not a much spiritually inclined person. Buddhism is much profound religion with an enlightened vision of life and caste-less social organization is simply a concomitant of this vision. Dr. Ambedkar because of his whole-hearted and life-long preoccupation with the bitter struggle against caste-injustices in the Hindu society and, therefore, his less interest in any spiritual consideration did not know the spirit and real strength of castes or Varnas as they were originally conceived. And, for this very reason, he did not spot its weak underbelly and know how to strike at its life-nourishing node by taking advantage of its own logic to uproot the evil edifice.

  The logic of Varnas is plain and simple to understand, and its force lies in determining caste by Karma alone and not by birth. It is universally known and admitted by Hindus that originally caste or Varnas were to be determined by Karma or actions alone. Dr. Ambedkar could have insisted for restoration of the original pristine principle of determination of caste by Karma alone and not by birth. But he did not have any hint of this solution. He was a true soldier of Dalits but narrowly missed the weakest spot of his eternal enemy to strike. He simply converted to Buddhism.

But embracing Buddhism without any intention to use its vision to obtain Nirvana – the sole purpose of life – is no solution to get social justice. Even there, the so converted people have not been able to secure social respect and equality at the hands of upper caste Hindus.

  Constitution of free India under the intellectual inspiration of Dr. Ambedkar sought to resolve the existing social contradictions. However, in doing so the Indian Constitution has created a very serious contradiction, which the Indian judiciary today is trying to reconcile by resorting to an ingenious approach.

  Constitution prohibits discrimination among Indian citizens on ground of caste only and provides that the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of caste, among other things. However, it also provides that the State shall not be prevented by this Article from making any special provisions for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Also, Constitution seeks to secure Indian citizens equality of opportunity in matters of public employment by providing that no citizen shall, on grounds only of caste, among other things, be ineligible for, or discriminated against in respect of, any employment or office under the State. However, it also provides that the State shall not be prevented by this article from making any provision for the reservation of appointment or posts in favor of any backward class of citizens which, in the opinion of the State, is not adequately represented in the services under the State.

  The Indian judiciary seems to have applied so far successfully the constitutional tool of affirmative discrimination. But, then, it has given birth to a new consequential contradiction. It is observed by the Indian Supreme Court that there are sufficient indications in the Constitution to suggest that the Scheduled Castes are not mere castes and that they may be something less or something more. Though it is ruled that the time badge is not the fact that the members belong to a caste but the circumstance that they belong to an indescribably backward human group, the contrary social reality is recognized by the court by observing that since a contrary view is possible and has been taken by some Judges a verdict need not be rested on the view that Scheduled Castes are not castes. Thus, it is judicially possible to hold, and some Judges have also held, that the Scheduled Castes under the Constitution are the castes as they are understood in the traditional meaning of the word by Indian society.

Moreover, it is a mere judicial nicety only. In the real world of the Indian society, the Constitutional Scheduled Castes are taken by the popular view only the castes belonging to the lowest rung of the society, that is, Shudras of the Varna classification. It is not only the social reality, it is worse; today the powerful and dominant political forces with vested interest in such identification openly and aggressively hold and propagate the unity of the constitutional Scheduled Castes with these so-called lower castes in their electoral maneuvers.

  It is also said that discrimination on the ground of caste only has to be made by the State so that a stage in society is reached where there shall not be discrimination on the ground only of caste. The question arose as to how long this affirmative discrimination is necessary. The answer given is any length of time till thus protected citizens are transformed into socially equal citizens. Political motives apart, it is suggested that this time may run into not decades but centuries.

Is it not possible that by then the forward would become backward? The political class asserts that it is necessary to undo injustice that has been done during thousands of years and for this affirmative discrimination a period of a century is not a big deal. However, the Indian judiciary does not subscribe to this view, so far. It is a constitutional dilemma and the Indian judiciary is grappling today to resolve this dilemma.

  It was admitted a correct principle that providing employment under the state by reserving places for Dalits would raise their social status and equalize them with the so-called upper castes. It was thought that such places of power and position would make the so-called upper caste people to admit the occupant Dalits to a rank equal to their own. This principle is flawed in its logic and has been disproved by history of India. Money, wealth, power and position of authority have not been able to secure one a status equal to the so-called upper castes. There are many examples of this failure in the Indian history.

  This flawed principle has forced the Indian judiciary to resort to newer concepts, like creamy layer, that are equally invalid. The judicial logic goes that provision of the position of power with a state mantle by means of reservation is bound to raise the social status of the so-called lower castes and a time comes when such occupants become equal to the advanced so-called upper castes. At that stage, thus goes the logic, the progeny of such occupants do not need special protection by way of reservation. The creamy layer people belonging to the so-called lower castes attain social status equal to all other ordinary people and therefore in their case there should not be discrimination on the basis of caste.

India today is facing a political storm on the justification of this judicial concept of creamy layer. The opponents argue that attaining a position of power by the so-called lower caste persons (perhaps for too short a period) does not make the occupants socially equal. There is a dilemma here. If attaining a position of power by a person belonging to so-called lower caste does not socially equalize him with the rest of the advanced citizens, then what is the justification of providing him by reservation a position of power to which he is not otherwise entitled? And, if the attainment of the position of power does raise his social status, then why the creamy layer persons whose social status is raised should not be treated equal.

In fact, the idea of providing reservation was included in the Indian constitution to bring an equality of social status where all castes would be equal or a caste-less society would be evolved in India in due course of time. This impression gets reinforced by the fact that the initial period for providing reservation was fixed only ten years.

  Judiciary in India, as elsewhere, has the limitation of working within a constitutional framework. It is attempting to give a helping hand to the nation in resolving the age-old caste conflict existing in Indian society. In the context of the constitutional right of equal opportunity to all citizens in the matter of public employment and reservation, it is aptly observed by the Indian Supreme Court that the backward classes seek justice and the general class (seek) equity, and the difficulty comes in when the third variable comes in, namely, the constitutional requirement of ensuring the efficiency in the public services, which the judiciary is asked to reconcile and to find a stable equilibrium among the three conflicting claims. Has the judiciary been able to find a working formula that would establish such equilibrium –stable or otherwise – among these antagonistic claims?

  The demand for justice by backward classes is the logical consequence of a peculiar Indian historical past, the claim for equity by general class is the expression of a natural human aspiration and the requirement to maintain efficiency in public services in the country is an imperative for national survival in this age of fierce international competition. Finding such equilibrium is a political task that has been thrown upon a nation by her past demanding resolution.

  It is too tall an order for any judiciary to resolve. The Indian judiciary has been doggedly grappling with this problem and, in an effort to be more penetrating in its reach and soothing to the raw nerves of collective national psyche, has been taking and shifting postures ever since the birth of Indian Constitution.

In its latest judicial wisdom, the nation’s highest court has aptly observed that reservation is necessary for transcending caste and not perpetuating it. It is emphasized that the reservation has to be used in a limited sense; otherwise it will perpetuate caste-ism. On the crucial point of establishing a stable equilibrium among the three competing claims, it has sought to resolve the problem by ruling that the elements of efficiency, backwardness and inadequacy of representation are required to be identified and measured, which calls for the need of collecting relevant data.

Courts are not allowed as a matter of constitutional prudence to dabble with policy matters, which are inherently political in nature, and therefore are not equipped to resolve problems that call for political wisdom of a people. The approach of Indian judiciary in this respect is commendable. But it is not sufficient at all to resolve the problem.

  Today the original idea of the Constitution framers of ushering young India into a casteless society by providing reservation for initial ten or so years of democratic India is no longer a cherished ideal of public psyche in our divided society. It is convenient for a nation to ignore or distort the stark facts and find alibis to look the other way. But it is really hard to face the truth. Today, for the so-called lower castes, it is the matter of redressing the historical injustice done to them by the so-called upper caste.

  How that injustice can be redressed? It can only be done by doing to the so-called upper castes that they had done in the past to the lower castes. It is reversing the castes upside down. Here there is no need of weakening or eliminating the caste to make the society caste-less but to empower the lower castes. It is not transcending caste but perpetuating it.

  Therefore, the agenda of social justice is born out of and nourished by an idea of the need to create caste consciousness among the lower castes to achieve that objective. It is a stark reality. It is not possible for the Indian judiciary to halt this political process for long. It is a fact that reservation has failed to push the caste ridden Indian society to a caste-less one. On the contrary, it has kicked start a political process of undoing the injustice done to the lower castes in the past by strengthening the caste consciousness.

Caste is not only relevant but important today. It enables one to get power and position if he is this side of the divide, or makes him suffer and lose, if he happens to be on the other side. There is no question of right or wrong in this matter since there is a justification and logic in this historical process of retribution. Modern secular India is clueless today about this sinister phenomenon’s life-sustaining nectar or its mortal naval points.

  Then, there is another dilemma confronting modern India. The provision of the position of power under state by constitutional mechanism entails a correspondingly high responsibility and duty. If there has to be an employment under state of those who are not found fit or competent enough to such positions but have been employed so only because of the affirmative discrimination by way of reservation, then the nation in this age of fierce international competition has to pay a price and suffer in many arena.

This disadvantage may put the nation in peril even to the degree of mortal consequences. As a consequence of employing those who are not competent enough to be so employed, a stage is bound to come when in the country there would be abundance of military commanders who cannot win the wars, medical doctors who cannot cure the patients, engineers who cannot run the industries, pilots who cannot fly planes etc.

  Is it possible that there is no application of reservation principle in such skill oriented state jobs and the rest of the lucrative but non-skilled jobs – like ministers, governors, judges etc. – are subjected to the principle of reservation? It is possible. If it is done, it would be pure case of undoing injustice that has been inflicted for centuries on the so-called lower castes; or, in reverse, it would be pure case of doing injustice as a matter of tit for tat by those who have suffered injustice Then, there would be a class of masters composed of the lower caste people occupying higher positions under the State and a class of servants composed of the higher caste people who would be serving their masters by doing dirty jobs, which had been done for centuries but in a converse position.

  In a democracy there is the rule of majority. In India, there is no doubt that the so-called lower caste people are in majority and they must rule. They have been deprived of the basic human dignity for centuries and they are united – or going to be united soon – alone by their caste consciousness. Logically, they must and would rule India. They would more likely than not undo the injustice that has been done to them, in the manner indicated above. Then, what would happen to the people belonging to the so-called upper castes?

They would also – sooner or later – unite to resist the process of upside downing of position of power, resulting into the civil strife. This may turn out to be a very serious social upheaval –civil strife – that India may not be able to withstand and come out in a single piece. Is India heading in this direction? The time would tell.

  Any way if India needs to move towards an enlightened society where there may be social justice to all citizens, there are two ways open to her. If India gives any value to spiritual wisdom, she should make caste a relevant factor in all sphere of public life where caste should be determined by actions of the individual concerned. There may be constitutional provisions to enforce caste by actions and for crossing over of individuals’ caste. Criminal provisions may be legislated to give teeth to such provisions.

Or, alternatively, if India gives a damn to spiritual values, then instead of moving along the line of caste based reservation, she should provide reservation to matrimonial alliances of lower and higher castes. In this way, the heterogeneous progeny could perhaps be saved from impending social upheaval. Here we may again quote the words of Swami Vivekananda that he spoke while dealing with the age-old caste problem of India. In an interview that he gave to The Hindu on February, 6, 1897, when asked of his views on the relation of caste to rituals, he said: “Caste is continually changing, rituals are continually changing – so are forms. It is the substance, the principle that does not change. It is on the Vedas that we have to study our religion. With the exception of the Vedas, every book must change. The authority of the Vedas is for all time to come; the authority of every one of our other books is for the time being. For instance, one Smiriti is powerful for one age, another for another age. Great prophets are always coming and pointing the way to work. Some prophets worked for the lower classes, others like Madhava gave to women the right to study the Vedas. Caste should not go, but should only be readjusted occasionally. Within the old structure is to be found life enough for the building of two hundred thousand new ones. It is sheer nonsense to desire the abolition of caste. The new method is evolution of the old. Instead of frittering away our energies on ideal reforms, which will never become practical, we had better go to the root of the evil and make a legislative body, that is to say, educate our people, so that they may be able to solve their own problems. Until that is done, all these ideal reforms will remain ideals only.”

The truth of the words spoken 115 years ago about the futility to abolish the system of castes in India is testified by the 65 years’ history of free India. Instead of going to the root cause of the evil of the caste system – caste by birth and not by Karma – we as a nation have been frittering our energies on ideal reforms incorporated in our Constitution, one after another, only to find that the remedy has proved worse than the disease and caste by birth and its ill effects are eating away the vitals of this country.

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