Casteism exists in India, let’s not remain in denial

We know that caste and untouchability persist in India. What we don’t know is the extent. Certainly, our politicians’ overt play of the caste card has ensured that their vote-banks stay intact, writes Namita Bhandare.

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The editor, a liberal man, is taken aback by my question. “I don’t hire people on the basis of their caste but their ability,” he informs me when I ask how many Dalits he has in his newsroom.

Nearly 70 years after Independence, my question should have been irrelevant. But a caste survey by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and the University of Maryland, United States, hints that it might not be out of place.

The complete survey will be released only next year yet Seema Chishti’s story in The Indian Express is telling about how untouchability is a pan-Indian practice — not just amongst Hindus but across religion (Jains, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians) and caste (including Scheduled Castes and other backward castes).

In response to a question — would you let an SC enter your kitchen, use your utensils — 52% Brahmins, 33% OBCs (other backward castes) and 24% Forwards by caste and 35% Hindus, 30% Jains, 23% Sikhs and 18% Muslims by religion, said they would not.

But because there are no benchmarks to compare this data with, it is hard to conclude whether things have improved, remained the same or deteriorated. Should we despair that one in four respondents practises some form of untouchability or rejoice that the majority three in four do not?

We know that caste and untouchability persist in India. What we don’t know is the extent. Certainly, our politicians’ overt play of the caste card has ensured that their vote-banks stay intact. India’s first socio-economic and caste census in 80 years, launched in 2011, is progressing. And while its outcome may well be used to
identify beneficiaries under various welfare schemes, it will also provide us with data that will enable us to begin an informed conversation.

Until then, we have only nuggets. We know, for instance, that a survey of first-year students on the IIT Bombay campus in September revealed that 56% SC, ST and OBC students felt discriminated against.

We know that a 2011 study published by the Economic and Political Weekly documented how 90% of the boards of India’s top 1,000 companies are made up of just two castes, Vaishyas (46.6%) and Brahmins (44%).

We know from a 2006 survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies that over 90% of decision-makers in the mainstream English print media and 79% in TV channels are upper-caste. If diversity is so obviously lacking in newsrooms, can coverage of caste issues be a priority?

The NCAER survey comes at a time when America is asking itself hard questions about race following the Ferguson riots. Despite a black president, is American society inclusive enough? Are people of colour represented adequately in the police forces, in the judiciary, in newsrooms, in public life?

The obvious manifestations of race and gender make exclusion hard to hide. But caste apartheid is more complex — a person’s caste is not obvious from the way he or she looks or even from their last name: Kumar gives away nothing about caste, for instance.

And yet, here’s the dilemma. Do we turn a blind eye to caste, convinced that an aspirational, upwardly mobile society will ultimately trample its ugly ramifications in the march forward? Or do we acknowledge it and ask overtly, ‘what is your caste’ in our interactions and hiring? To ask is to acknowledge an issue that is
anathema to civilised society. But to not ask is to remain ignorant, even delusional, of the extent of exclusion. There’s another danger in asking: What if it is
used to perpetuate segregation?

If there is a ray of hope, it lies in a suggestion made by the survey. High incomes have not made a dent in the practice of untouchability but education, especially
among Brahmins and OBCs, ‘makes a difference’. When we will begin to feel the impact of that difference is another matter. For now, the depressing reality is that caste and casteism are alive and well in a country that otherwise claims to be modern.
The views expressed by the author are personal