Caste in doubt

When the best minds of a society begin to substitute argument by fear, it reflects a larger crisis. This was my first reaction after reading Pratap Mehta's article ('My Caste and I', IE, May 12). What is truly extraordinary about this article is the extent to which unusual reliance on rhetoric and anger make him share the assumptions of his adversaries: he appears to be as spellbound by the magic of caste as the casteist mindset he seeks to expose.

As always, Mehta's article makes a valuable point. I agree with him that thinking about social justice has reached a dead-end in contemporary India. The politics of social justice often becomes a cover for blatant casteist politics. Reservations have become a mental reflex blocking any thinking about alternative strategies for affirmative action. An obsession with caste as a category tends to obscure other axes of inequality that operate independent of and within castes. He reminds us that a democrat needs to be alerto attempts that reduce citizens' identity to an accident of birth, that caste must not be the measure of everything.

The real questions, then, are: Which practices contribute to such a reduction? How can we move beyond the politics of one-dimensional identities? And how does the recent decision about the census relate to all this? Unfortunately, instead of responding to each of these, Mehta sweepingly invokes first principles.

This leads him to conflate two policy decisions that have radically different justifications and consequences: full census of all Hindu castes and a more limited exercise of enumerating OBCs. A full caste census involves questions of principles, but an OBC enumeration follows from a simple administrative logic: a modern state cannot recognise a social group in its laws and policies and then refuse to count them. Mehta directs his fury at the unlikely caste census and assumes that it applies to the real scenario of OBC enumeration.

... contd.

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