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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

One supreme example of attitudinal resistance to social reform is the blindly perverse opposition to legislating a uniform civil code on the totally false premise that this can only be done by abrogating personal codes.

The Real Battle: Equal Opportunity

Everybody, it seems, wants to be declared “backward” in order to move “forward” on crutches.

By B G Verghese

Deccan Herald, 28 June, 2010

It is a thousand pities that 62 years after Independence, India is still talking of and suffering from caste obsessions. Read gotra as an extension of caste and we have “honour killings”, acts of medieval barbarism at the behest of khap panchayats, being defended and debated. The motive for the most part is no longer religion or ritual even in some degree, as it once may have been, but crudely political, through vote-banking, a scramble for preferment by reservation in an economy of shortages, and a claim to superior social status in an upwardly mobile society that has traditionally been based on hierarchy, not merit.

The current debate has been triggered by the suggestion that caste enumeration be made part of the 2011 census after it was discontinued post-1931. The proffered rationale is that an accurate caste enumeration will enable the Government better to target affirmative action programmes in its social welfare and other efforts to ensure inclusive growth. This is a fallacy. Such numbers and classifications are and can be made available – and perhaps more accurately – through the National Social Sample and similar data collection exercises.

The Constitution abolishes untouchability and only mentions caste in the specific context of scheduled castes. Contrary to popular belief, it does not refer to “backward castes” but only to “socially and economically backward classes” (and to “weaker sections”) in respect of whom a commission may be appointed from time to time to investigate and make recommendations for ameliorating their condition. Hence the Backward Classes Commissions under Kaka Kalelkar and B.P. Mandal.

Nor does the Constitution refer to a casteless society per se but speaks of “equality of status and opportunity”, “fraternity” and a uniform civil code, all of which obviously rule out caste as a defining societal principle. We are not there by any means. So why reverse gear half way through the journey and give a fillip to caste through the Census?

All parties have elaborate caste and community breakdowns of the electorate for every constituency and woo them assiduously, the Left as much as any other. Policies and appointments are made with an eye on winning the support of these groups for electoral advantage. The talk of targeting welfare schemes through more nuanced caste enumeration is just so much humbug. Indeed reservation, and reservations within reservations, have become a crutch. There has been strong resistance to any exit policy and creamy layers have become a new privileged and exploiting class, determined to prevent the less fortunate among their community to rise and proper.

Everybody, it seems, wants to be declared “backward” in order to move “forward” on crutches. The process of sanskritisation or movement up the caste ladder is being reversed and retribalisation is taking place. This spells ill for the nation and can only breed mediocrity. One antidote would be to declare the entire populace backward o that none is more equal than others! The real answer, however, lies in affirmative action in favour of the poor and disadvantaged and to waste out the constitutional provision for SC/ST reservation over the next decade or so on the basis of a rational exit policy, universalisation of education and other rights-based measures.

Caste must be seen not in isolation but holistically as part of other behavioural attitudes such as gender or minority status. Majority and minority in terms of social behaviour are not numerical as much as attitudinal categories. Parsees do not behave as “minorities”; Hindutvadis do. Likewise, the majority Sinhala in Sri Lanka suffer from a minority complex. Gender relations (including dowry) are to a large extent guided deep down by property and property-derived status considerations. Hence the ugly and murderous phenomenon of female feticide. One supreme example of attitudinal resistance to social reform is the blindly perverse opposition to legislating a uniform civil code on the totally false premise that this can only be done by abrogating personal codes. With reference to the UCC, many perfervid secularists are truly diehard communists, allied in a common conspiracy to protect male property rights and slot people into castes, sub-castes and communities. They are truly enemies of equality and fraternity.

Those who oppose caste enumeration must therefore take up cudgels against “minorityism” and gender discrimination as part of broadbased social reform. The goal must be to strive for equal opportunity (not more and more reservation), a fundamental constitutional promise. Equal opportunity legislation has been pending for a year but is being opposed. Why is no one agitated? It is because we have been so busy tilting at windmills that the true enemy is often not discerned. It is the battle for Equal Opportunity that must be fought and won.

Social reform too must be pursued not just by the state but by communities and individuals. There is so much social rot around that we tolerate in the belief that it will just go away. Where are the contemporary versions of latter day social reformers? The Church seeks the scheduling of scheduled caste converts, indirectly perpetuating caste and mocking its own faith. Others are no better. Jagmohan, the former civil servant and Minister, has written of reforming and reawakening Hinduism in a new book just published. Maybe one of the reforms we should consider is the restoration of religious instruction in schools so that children know about the country’s many faiths and can imbibe their high moral values. This would be perfectly in keeping with true secularism and attune young minds to essential values of equality and brotherhood.

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