India boasts of the oldest and among the farthest-reaching set of affirmative action policies, enshrined within the constitution, created for the purpose of tackling caste-based discrimination and generations of injustice. Despite this, the goal of the annihilation of caste is far from being actualised.
Often, critical evaluation of how justice for the Dalits and Scheduled Castes is being delivered is limited to strengths/weaknesses in implementation of affirmative action policies. When confronted with the persistence of caste-based discrimination, members of the privileged castes advocate for the removal of ‘ineffective’ reservation policies. This is an intellectually lazy stance to adopt. That reservation cannot solve all the issues of the caste system is not the fault of the policy, but rather speaks to the complexities of the caste system itself. For this purpose, alongside those critiques we must examine the source of the idea, and how the guideline on how to address casteism is being applied in society.
That reservation cannot solve all the issues of the caste system is not the fault of the policy, but rather speaks to the complexities of the caste system itself.
We can begin at Article 15 of the Indian constitution, which puts forth the condemnation of discrimination based on “grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them”. Caste is rightfully recognised as the basis for unjust social segregation and mistreatment. Furthermore, untouchability, the most overt form of social segregation, has been abolished since 1949 through Article 17. The most basic precept of the caste system – the hierarchy – is explicitly rejected in the founding document of the nation.
In addition to this, Article 14 introduces a nuanced understanding of equality within it. It posits conditionality to the well-recognised entitlement of ‘equality under the law’. For the purpose of alleviating generations of caste-based discrepancies, a just application of law has to take into account the socio-economic circumstance of the subject. Since justice is defined by what ‘one is due’ (Plato’s Republic), those suffering under the hierarchy of the caste system have been deemed deserving of greater compensation. Thus, the constitution demonstrates a recognition of how severely caste identity has impaired the quality of life of generations and demands sensitivity and accountability from jurisprudence.
Having acknowledged the difference in socio-economic and political realities between caste groups within Article 14, the constitution complements it with Article 16. Here, the state is urged to take measures to correct the imbalance of power between caste groups, and mechanisms for correcting power imbalance must ensure that disadvantaged castes are “adequately represented” – laying the constitutional groundwork for policies of reservation. Without state intervention, the constitution would have been guilty of accepting the status quo, allowing caste relations to remain as they are.
However, affirmative action has also been construed as undermining the traditional framework of equality. Such fear was manifest in the State of Madras v. Champakam Dorairajan case, where reservation policies were identified as violating Article 29, which prevents educational institutions from administrating admissions “based on religion, race, caste or language”. Following the decision from the case, provisions were created under Articles 15 and 16 to restrict reservation quotas to population proportions, in order to not violate equality of opportunity granted by Articles 15 and 16.
Taken together, these Articles seek to equalise the power distribution between caste groups primarily through affirmative action. In theory, there’s no need to look beyond affirmative action. As long as disadvantaged cases are being compensated through political and economic representation, we will eventually reach a point where reservation will no longer be needed because everyone has access to opportunity and wealth. Totally achievable, right?
Unfortunately, “nothing can emancipate the outcaste except the destruction of the caste system”, as pointed out by B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit man and one of the most vociferous critics of the caste system. Whilst the system persists, affirmative action will be needed to continually compensate caste groups that remain segregated. As it stands today, affirmative action has been rendered ineffective as a tool of empowerment for those oppressed under the caste system. In essence, the constitutional sensitivity to caste does precious little to challenge it as a philosophy of social organisation and identification, the very root of oppression.
As it stands today, affirmative action has been rendered ineffective as a tool of empowerment for those oppressed under the caste system. In essence, the constitutional sensitivity to caste does precious little to challenge it as a philosophy of social organisation and identification, the very root of oppression.
Nowhere is caste-consciousness more strongly upheld than by the societal institution of marriage by arrangement. Over centuries, the perpetuation of caste-based marriages has maintained segregation, where privileged castes continue to control the benefits that flow from it. Without inter-caste marriages – only 5.8% of Indian marriages were inter-caste (2011 Census) – caste remains rigid, with upper-caste members unwilling to renounce their identity. Ravindra Parmar, speaks about how his inter-caste marriage (he is a Dalit man marrying an upper-caste woman) is seen in Indian society: “The perception is that they are terrorists who revolt in society.” Whilst inter-caste marriages are constitutionally legitimised, it’s almost criminal that there is no regulation of the deliberate practice of basing marriage on caste-matching.
Within the politics of caste-based marriages, one cannot forget the role played by the patriarchy. In a blog piece, Christina Dhanraj frankly illustrates her experiences of modern dating and finding a spouse, as a Dalit woman. Whilst apps such as Tinder are progressive in their rejection of caste identity, Christina is still battling the “savarna gaze” of potential suitors, which stereotypes Dalit women as “unfeminine”, “victims” and “promiscuous” based on sparse depictions of them in mainstream media and myths spread within upper-caste communities. Again, we witness the strength of caste-consciousness; precisely why its rejection should not be equated to simple caste-blindness. Christina demands allies and communities to “have a serious discourse on the politics of desirability” which prevents Dalit women from living authentically.
Admittedly, the social realities of privileged castes and Dalits are so vastly different that an inter-caste marriage between members of the two groups is rare. Could an improvement in material circumstance bridge the gap? It likely will fall short of achieving that, based on Yogendra Yadav’s recollection of a caste-based incident, during an NDTV panel discussion. Based in urban India, a Dalit family discovers that upper-caste neighbours had thrown away – without eating – sweets that had been distributed to celebrate some good news. All that reservation, economic gain and political stature couldn’t prevent that family from experiencing the stigma of untouchability. Even with access to legal recourse, the crime is committed so innocuously that proving it would be near impossible. It is a testament to the insidious nature of caste, manifesting itself in ways that wreck unimaginable distress on those subjected to it.
Since caste operates in areas of life that the state finds difficult to intervene in – typically social relations – freedom from it will require solutions beyond affirmative action. In the case of persecuted identifiers, there is an active individual and societal attempt to challenge and forsake the philosophies of stigma – like misogyny, racism, xenophobia, nativism – except in the case of caste. In everyday life, there is an easy acceptance of caste. Whilst the founding fathers laid down a great constitutional foundation for a casteless society, that goal first requires an actively attempt to renounce any and all caste identity, instead of relying on half-heartedly administered affirmative action schemes.
Featured Image Source: BBC