Jean Drèze, Hindustan Times
November 28, 2012
Some time ago I visited a Dalit hamlet in Rewa district. It was hemmed in on all sides by the fields of upper-caste farmers, who refused to allow any approach road to reach the hamlet. There were short roads inside the hamlet, but they stopped abruptly at the edge of it. The hamlet felt like an island, surrounded by hostile territory. I wondered whether any other country still cultivated such absurd and monstrous practices as the caste system. 

The next day I read an interesting article on this subject, written by my esteemed colleague André Béteille (The Hindu, February 21, 2012). The article began by pointing out that the hold of caste in social life is subsiding in many ways. For instance, the association between caste and occupation is becoming less rigid (as Chandra Bhan Prasad puts it more succinctly, “pizza delivery is caste neutral”). Similarly, the rules of purity and pollution are a little more relaxed today than they used to be. Following on this, Béteille argues that “organised politics” is the reason why “in spite of all this, caste is maintaining its hold over the public consciousness”. I submit, however, that there are simpler reasons for the survival of caste consciousness.

The real issue, actually, is not so much caste consciousness as the role of caste as an instrument of power. But the two are linked. To convey the point, some of us collected information on the share of the upper castes in positions of power and influence (POPIs) in Allahabad — the press club, the university faculty, the bar association, and the commanding posts in trade unions, NGOs, media houses, among other public institutions. The sample covers more than a thousand POPIs, spread over 25 public institutions. The share of the upper castes in this sample turns out to be over 75%, compared with around 20% in the population of Uttar Pradesh as a whole. Brahmins and Kayasthas alone have cornered about half of the POPIs — more than four times their share in the population. These are approximate figures, partly based on guessing castes from surnames, but the pattern is clear: upper castes continue to have overwhelming control over public institutions.
An attempt was also made to identify Dalits in the sample. This required further enquiries, since Dalits often do not have distinct surnames. In fact, many of them have no surname, or, at any rate, are listed in official documents (such as employee registers) under names — or nicknames — such as ‘Chote’ or ‘Sunita’. That itself is quite telling. More importantly, there was no evidence of any significant presence of Dalits in the sample institutions, except a few — such as the university faculty — where mandatory quotas apply.

The dominance of the upper castes seems to be, if anything, even stronger in institutions of “civil society” than in state institutions. For instance, in Allahabad the share of the upper castes is around 80% among NGO and trade union leaders, close to 90% in the executive committee of the bar association, and a full 100% among office-bearers of the press club.

Even trade unions of manual workers are often under the control of upper-caste leaders. There is some food for thought here about the grip of the caste hierarchy on social institutions, including some that are otherwise anti-establishment.

Perhaps Allahabad is particularly conservative in caste matters. It is, of course, just one city, and there is no intention here of singling it out for special attention. The point is to illustrate a general pattern that also applies to varying extents in many other parts of India. Indeed, many recent studies have brought out the continued dominance of the upper castes in media houses, corporate boards, judicial institutions, and even cricket teams.

Coming back to the issues raised earlier, it is not clear why “caste consciousness” would die in such circumstances. The dying of caste consciousness, in this situation, would sound like a good deal for the upper castes, since the system of domination would continue without much notice being taken of it. Dalits, for their part, have absolutely no reason to be unconscious of the dominance of the upper castes. A Brahmin who enters the press club and joins the company of other Brahmins and upper castes may be unconscious of the situation, and even feel proud of his lack of caste consciousness. But a Dalit who enters the same room and finds himself surrounded by upper-caste colleagues, some of them possibly active custodians of the caste hierarchy, is unlikely to feel at home. Similarly, the Dalits who are marooned in isolated hamlets of Rewa can be forgiven for feeling a little caste conscious.

No one can be blamed for being born in an upper caste, since it is not a matter of choice.
But perhaps this privilege entails a special responsibility to fight the caste system, instead of leaving that to the Dalits — or worse, obstructing their struggle for equality (like the landlords of Rewa).

Surely, for instance, there is a role for greater attention to “diversity” in public institutions, of the sort that has significantly reduced ethnic or gender imbalances in other countries. What prevents the bar association, NGOs or trade unions in Allahabad from ensuring that they do not become upper-caste clubs? Perhaps there is a constructive role here for caste consciousness of a different kind.

Jean Drèze is visiting professor, Department of Economics, Allahabad University
The views expressed by the author are personal