My caste and I

The decision to, in principle, enumerate caste in the Census is a monumental travesty. At one stroke, it trivialises all that modern India has stood for, and condemns it to the tyranny of an insidious kind of identity politics. The call to enumerate caste in the Census is nothing but a raw assertion of power wearing the garb of social justice, an ideological projection of Indian society masquerading under the colour of social science, and a politics of bad faith being projected as a concern for the poor.

It is not news that India is deeply structured by hierarchies of various kinds, including caste. These hierarchies still appallingly define structures of opportunity and oppression. But the vision of a just and modern India was founded on an aspiration to promote justice without falling into the same pinched up identities that had kept us narrow and bigoted for so long. The premises of a caste census reproduce the very things we had so long laboured to fight. The precise contours of the Census are still not clear, and much of the debate has been on the practical difficulties of this exercise. But there is little doubt how enumerating caste will condemn us in a normative sense.

First, a caste census condemns us to the tyranny of compulsory identities. The premise of enumeration is that we can never escape caste. Our identities are not something we can choose; they are given as non-negotiable facts which we can never escape. The state has legitimised the principle that we will always be our caste. This is a way of diminishing our freedom, agency and dignity in a way that even votaries of tradition could not dream of. It takes away the fundamental freedoms we need to define ourselves. Is there not a deeper indignity being inflicted on those to whom emancipation is being promised? You will be your caste, no matter what. There is a risk of gracelessness here. But we have too many purveyors for whom social justice is endless stratagem to assert the power of compulsory group identity, rather than finding the means to escape it. In the name of breaking open prisons, they imprison us even more.

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