Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
On 14 April, numerous organisations celebrated the first law minister and Constitution-writer Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar’s 132nd birth anniversary. The celebrations this year perhaps surpassed those held in previous years, for Ambedkar’s contributions to uplift India’s Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, and other disadvantaged communities are increasingly being recognised nationally and abroad. This year, his birth anniversary was celebrated in over 150 countries. Most groups committed to social justice and equality, which oppose birth-based hierarchies and injustices, mark this day with reverence and hope. Often, this celebration takes on a quasi-religious overtone, as rituals are accorded more space than Ambedkar’s values. In this context, the struggle to fulfil the dreams he fought all his life for must be re-launched and sustained.
Other formations, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its Hindu nationalist progeny, deeply oppose the annihilation of caste and the principles Ambedkar stood for. Instead, they project the notion of harmony among castes, which does not involve altering the hierarchy inherent in caste. Ambedkar espoused affirmative action for the deprived sections of society. Reservations were initially meant to last for ten years—perhaps Ambedkar and others hoped a decade would be sufficient to root out the malice of caste from Hindu society. However, implementing the reservation policy itself lies in the hands of members of elite castes, and they found ways to circumvent it. That is why discrimination and exclusion based on caste have continued, and ending it remains a prerequisite to the march toward social justice.
The Constitution of India—Ambedkar chaired the committee that drafted it—provided reservations for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. However, backward classes, a significant constituent of society, did not get recognition or reservations. The Other Backward Classes (OBC) were not a legal category until the Mandal Commission report was implemented in the 1990s.
Further, the last decadal census that considered the caste composition of India was released in 1931. At the time, the proportion of backward classes was 52%, which the Mandal report relied on. It became the basis for ensuring 27% of reservations in the 1990s to the backward classes. These classes were identified based on social and educational backwardness, thus beginning India’s post-independence journey in affirmative action.
But reservations, for any social group, have always been an eyesore to a large section of Indian society. Groups such as “Youth for Equality”, which stood for the abolition of reservations, spread the idea that reservations have allowed undeserving people to find jobs at the cost of “deserving” ones. The social biases around Dalits and OBCs recently culminated in the deaths by suicide of Rohith Vemula and Darshan Solanki. This bias also formed the base of anti-Dalit violence in the 1980s in Ahmedabad and anti-backwards violence in Gujarat in 1985.
In the meantime, the BJP, using its Hindutva plank, floated organisations like the Samajik Samrasta Manch or Social Harmony Forum to reach the most marginalised sections of society. At an ideological level, the Hindu right-wing has made efforts to attribute the ills of the caste system to the “invading” Muslim rulers—the crux of Hindutva. This effort has paid it rich electoral dividends but did not improve the conditions for the poorest and most marginalised sections. One outcome was that the BJP has been able to score many victories for its leaders from constituencies reserved for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
The pracharaks and swayamsevaks of the RSS have pursued what is widely known as social engineering in tribal regions, encouraging Sanskritisation without rights and charitable works without demanding the State recognise the rights of the people who live in these backward and remote regions.
It is no surprise that the BJP and its associates also celebrate Ambedkar anniversary with gusto. Yet they undermine the need for a caste census which can pave the way to modify policies which would benefit the marginalised sections in a real sense.
This background makes Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s recent speech in Kolar, Karnataka, significant. He has asked for a population census and said the results of affirmative action are not visible in the top bureaucracy in the Union government, as hardly 7% belong to the most marginalised or backward sections. He said the findings of the 2011 caste census, conducted when his party shared power with other constituents of the United Progressive Alliance, must be made public. He said, “The data will provide evidence if OBCs, Dalits, and Adivasis don’t have enough representation in the country’s politics proportionate to their population.” Share in power and representation proportionately to their share in the population is a long-standing slogan and demand from India’s disadvantaged communities.
In contrast, the BJP is trying to dodge the issue. The party did not want a caste census and pleaded in the Supreme Court in 2021 that such a census would be “administratively difficult and cumbersome”. It said it was a “conscious policy decision to exclude such information from the census purview”. Its position has not changed. The real intent of the BJP vis-a-vis social justice becomes apparent when it makes crucial decisions.
During the last nine years, it introduced reservations for the Economically Weaker Section or EWS, a category that dilutes provisions for the non-elite castes and social groups. It is widely understood that the EWS category will help the better-off members of elite caste groups whose income is below a generous Rs 8 lakh a year cut-off. The BJP wants to obfuscate the fact that economic status was never a criterion to provide or deny reservations. Reservations in India are based on historical discrimination (for the Scheduled Castes), geographical remoteness (for the Scheduled Castes), and social and educational backwardness (for the OBCs). But the BJP wants to nullify caste as a category for people wishing to improve their societal position.
Its constructed biases are why the BJP faces the charge that Ambedkar’s principles don’t matter to it. Hindu-nationalist politics could spread widely precisely because it opposed the growing assertion of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and backward sections. Its foundational ideological pronouncements glorified holy tomes and traditions that boost traditional caste and gender hierarchies. A genuine assessment of the population of different marginalised sections is needed to modify our policies and bring society’s uneven and unequal growth on the path of equality.
Numerous and relentless deaths of students from non-elite castes studying in top educational institutions and allegations that caste-based discrimination led to these deaths should awaken us to combat caste-based discrimination. India must strive for a future where the annihilation of caste is the central credo of society.
The author is a human rights activist and taught at IIT Bombay. The views are personal.