WHAT constrains India from emerging as a superpower? The problems like corruption and terrorism identified for discussion in this issue are no ordinary irritants, they are real roadblocks. But the question is whether India is the only country faced with problems that impede progress? The truth is that there is not one country that has not encountered serious problems while moving upward economically. In fact, almost the whole developed world was embroiled in Cold War for almost half a century; still they maintained their lead by pursuing well thought out policies of economic progress.
The impressive performance and growth of Indian economy during last two decades justify the confidence that India shall soon emerge as a major economic power. The new regime of deregulated economy, tax reforms and commercial approach to public sector has led to production of quality goods and services at comparatively lower prices. Imagine the advantage India will have when we develop the full potential to sell world quality products at Indian prices. This is no wishful thinking as India is a huge continental economy, rich in human resources having the capability to lead in agriculture, information and many service industries.
With this optimistic economic scenario, we cannot hope to remain mired in poverty and backwardness forever. Organisations like Naxalites prosper in areas that have not seen the light of economic betterment. Once government becomes fully alive to its constitutional obligation to minimise the inequalities in income and eliminate inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities not only amongst individuals but amongst groups of people living in different areas, it will become far easier to protect people living in back-blocks from the marauding politics of violent extremism.
Similarly, many other problems though complex are not intractable and cannot keep India from attaining its destiny. But there is one identifiable problem that has caused immense grief to India in the past and still has the potential to derail India’s march forward. This challenge comes from separatist and divisive tendencies that promote sub-national loyalties at the cost of national unity. This is legacy of the British masters, who always insisted that India is a conglomeration of communities and castes and not a nation and coined the term ‘caste society’ to describe India.
R Coupland in his book The Indian Problem cites an official dispatch sent by Government of India in 1892, describing Indian society as “essentially a congeries of widely separated classes, races and communities with divergences of interests and hereditary sentiments” and suggested that such sectional opinions could be adequately represented only by the representatives of these groups. The colonial masters adroitly used official policies and constitutional measures to promote separatism to enfeeble national sentiments. Separate electorate granted in 1909 and census based on caste enumeration were part of this grand strategy.
After Independence our Constituent Assembly, feeling the pain and agony of the Partition, decided to build a constitutional framework that will root out the evil of separatism and weld India into one strongly united nation. They took two major decisions to help achieve the objective. One to give a decent burial to the system of separate electorate, that had robbed India of its unity and second to abolish untouchability-the foundation that sustained the birth-based caste system.
The implications were clear; all constitutions since 1909 had recognised communities and castes as the constituent units of India, now they will be replaced by the citizens. The new Constitution obliged the Indian State to secure to all its citizens: Justice, social, economic and political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation.
Clearly under the new Constitution, the old institutions, that thrived on inequity and discrimination, conferring privileges on few while depressing others, had become redundant. Consequently the first government of Independent India decided to remove caste enumeration from decennial census; a decision that has been followed by all successive governments so far.
In 2010, for the first time serious attempts are being made to revert back to colonial practice of caste based census. What is worrisome is that almost all political parties barring few dissenting individuals are lending support to this divisive move. The argument advanced in favour of caste census is that in India caste is a reality; therefore it must be reflected in the census. Further it is asserted that latest caste statistics will help in effective delivery of the affirmative action programmes.
No one can deny that caste is a reality, in fact it is so deeply entrenched in our social psyche that notwithstanding the constitutional prohibition we still come across horrible instances of untouchability. The recent case of UP, where some parents are reported to have withdrawn their children from schools because they did not wish them to partake food prepared by Dalit cooks is a pathetic example. It is also true that reservations for the SC/ST, that were initially provided only for 10 years have not yielded desired results even after 60 years.
But the question is whether revival of caste enumeration in census will help us in any manner in advancing towards the goal of a casteless egalitarian society or it will make the situation more complex by injecting fresh doses of caste and community consciousness. The birth based caste system is the corrupted and perverted form of the ancient Varnashram, that was based on gunas that is natural attributes and propensities of an individual. It means taking into account the merit and suitability of an individual to perform a given task. Later some powerful sections, in order to secure privileges for their own progeny, turned it into a rigid hereditary system. The whole constitutional scheme was designed to put an end to this enormity.
Swami Vivekananda, while speaking on the subject of Vedanta and Privilege observed: “The idea of privilege is the bane of human life. Two forces as it were, are constantly at work, one making caste and the other breaking caste, in other words one making for the privilege and the other breaking down the privilege. And whenever the privilege is broken down, more and more light and progress comes to a race. This struggle we see all around us.”
The enthusiasm for caste-based census can be explained as the manifestation of the same old mindset that seeks to make privileges hereditary. India shall move forward when both privileges and inequities are replaced by equality and fraternity, not by transferring hereditary privileges from one section to the other. The fact that caste is still a reality does not oblige us to accept the status quo. In fact it demands redoubling our efforts to get rid of this social evil. Not caste alone, communalism too is a reality. Does that mean, we pull down our secular framework and revive the old system of separate electorate? But who knows? If caste census can make a comeback then the other compelling reality of communalism will not reassert itself to revive the dead horse of separate electorate? That is the real challenge that can constrain India from attaining its destiny.
(The writer is a former Union Minister.)