Contrary to the expectations of forward-looking Indians at the time of independence, the caste system is still with us. The social anthropologists were in a minority when even at that time they pointed to the continuing strength and resilience of caste, but they have turned out to be right. In Calcutta, where I studied in the Fifties and at the Delhi School of Economics whose faculty I joined in 1959, it was considered backward and reactionary to pay too much intellectual attention to caste.
Many radicals have learnt through hard political experience about the continuing strength of caste. Some of them, as if to make amends for their past misjudgment, seem to argue as if caste and caste alone mattered in India today. Caste certainly matters but it is not the only thing that does, and it does not matter in the same way that it did in the past.
There are vast and striking disparities in material resources between the different castes. But caste has been sustained also by deeply entrenched attitudes of the mind. Some would even consider the hierarchical mentality created by caste to be its most recalcitrant feature. They would say that caste will retain its strength so long as this mentality remains rooted in society and that so far at least there is very little evidence of its displacement by a new outlook.
Caste prejudice, and particularly upper-caste prejudice against Dalits, continues to be very widespread although the forms of its expression might vary among different sections of society and between different institutional domains. Certainly, caste prejudice operates extensively where matrimonial choice is concerned. Even among enlightened Indians, an upper-caste man would not like to have a Dalit as his son-in-law. But here too there have been changes in the last 50 years, for although caste prejudice is still widespread, caste sanctions against violations of the traditional requirements of marriage have eased, particularly among the educated middle classes.
While caste prejudice operates in many domains, I would like to focus attention here on its operation in education and employment, particularly in public institutions. However much one might deplore caste bias or prejudice in matrimonial and other forms of private association, it does not violate any rule of law. No rule exists or should exist to debar a woman from marrying only within her own caste. The operation of caste prejudice in public institutions is another matter altogether in so far as it does violate the letter as well as the spirit of the law.
In a society in which caste prejudice continues to be widespread, it would be unrealistic to expect it to be completely absent from admissions and appointments in universities and government offices. How far does caste prejudice in fact vitiate selection processes presumed to take only merit into account' More specifically, how far do selection committees consciously or unconsciously discriminate against Dalit candidates on account of their caste'
I will for convenience confine myself to academic institutions of whose working I have some personal knowledge. I would like to make two general observations at the outset. First, bias operates in many ways in academic appointments and not just in the form of caste prejudice. Second, suspicions and allegations of caste prejudice and other forms of bias are endemic, and they should not be presumed to be well founded in every case. Speaking of German universities nearly a hundred years ago, the sociologist, Max Weber, had observed, 'No university teacher likes to be reminded of discussions of appointments, for they are rarely agreeable.'
My own personal experience contradicts the view that selection committees composed of upper-caste persons take a uniformly hostile attitude towards Dalit candidates on account of their caste. Undoubtedly there are some selectors who do that, but there are others who take a helpful attitude towards them so that the outcome is different in different cases. What seems to be obvious is that the operation of caste bias in selections and appointments has not remained unchanged in the last 50 years.
Let me recount a recent experience at a selection committee of a relatively small university located in a provincial town. I was present not as a subject expert but in the role of a kind of neutral umpire. There were seven candidates for two positions. When the discussion started after the candidates had all been interviewed, it became clear that there was general agreement on who should be placed at the top. Two of the other six candidates had impressed the committee favourably but there was a difference of opinion on which one of them should be placed second. At this point I proposed the name of one of the two and said that, if the subject experts agreed, she should be appointed since she was the only Dalit candidate. I was pleasantly surprised to find that everyone agreed to the proposal without any acrimony, and the vice-chancellor thanked me for helping his university to take its social responsibility seriously while protecting its academic interests. What I would like to stress is that I found nothing extraordinary either about the composition of the selection committee or the course of its deliberations.
Two or three generations ago, the very presence of Dalits in positions of respect and responsibility in public institutions would be intolerable to many, if not most, upper-caste Hindus. To some it was even unthinkable. Such persons were not inherently evil by nature, but their horizons were narrow and their minds frozen in time. It would be foolish to maintain that nothing has changed in this regard and that all, or most, upper-caste Hindus persevere in the belief that Dalits are incapable of acting like others when they are placed in positions of respect and responsibility.
Dalit achievement and assertion have played some part in dispelling the myth of the inherent inferiority of the Dalits. No society undergoing the kind of technological and economic changes taking place in India can remain completely impervious to the weight of evidence. Discrimination against the Dalits in public institutions is rooted partly in ignorance and partly in ill will. As more and more of them are seen to discharge their public responsibilities effectively, the ignorance about their capabilities will be dispelled, at least to some extent, and a more pragmatic attitude will come to prevail in selections and appointments.
Ill will towards Dalits and members of other backward communities is a somewhat different matter and it is fuelled by a different set of forces. Its continuance will depend on how aggressively the champions of Dalit rights assert their claims. There are well-meaning intellectuals who are driven by the rhetoric of social justice to insist that Dalits can never expect fair treatment from the upper castes and that discrimination against them is not only endemic but continues unabated. There is indeed much discrimination in our society but there is also a sense of fair play, and that sense is growing. It is a sensitive plant and it should be given fresh air to grow. To insist as a matter of course that there is discrimination against Dalits without even looking at evidence to the contrary does little good to the long-term interests of the Dalits themselves.