The quicksand of caste

Should the ambit of reservation be expanded? An open letter to Dalit friends

Friends, the very act of writing on reservations reveals a profound failure. We have not evolved a practice of common citizenship. Reservation about any form of reservations runs the risk of being an exercise in bad faith. What locus standi do I have to even begin to make any arguments? I cannot even pretend to imagine what it means to suffer the horrendous violence and indignity associated with caste. Can anyone trust the state to deliver on more effective forms of empowerment? How can anyone make a good faith argument that we need to move beyond caste? The comforting illusion that caste need not matter is itself a mark of privilege. How can one even say that it is time to break the tyranny of compulsory identities? Caste is a compulsory identity; its reality is still socially produced. So what is the point of bemoaning the fact that the state now categorises us in ways we cannot escape? In short, the attempt to transcend caste lines breaks down even before it begins. Caste has become like quicksand; simply the act of talking about it implicates you in it. Since we cannot escape our caste, we cannot speak to and speak for each other.

But we are stuck in this impasse. The government is moving, with unusual alacrity, to amend the Constitution to overturn court rulings that restrict reservations in promotions. The political consensus on this subject is not a sign of normative consensus; it is a sign that the chasm between citizens is so deep that the only tactful thing seems to be withdrawal in silence.

I am not writing to debate the technical merits of the constitutional amendment, or the legal absurdities that have now piled up in our system. I also do not share the grounds on which so much of the argument in these areas is made: unthinking usage of an abstract idea of merit. But this is a small plea to clear some space for the consideration of alternative paradigms. Otherwise, we shall not only remain tyrannised by compulsory identities, we will face an intellectual closure that will forever shrink our possibilities.

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