| Militant assertion
An article on Harijans (as they were called then) that I wrote for an Australian newspaper many years ago prompted A.L. Basham, the eminent historian, to argue that upper-caste anger was to be expected in the wonder that was his India if indulgent laws emboldened pampered Harijan youths to swagger through bazaars deliberately handling fruit and vegetables meant for consumption by Brahmins.
The Indian response to my article was even more intriguing. The New Delhi official in charge of external publicity — he later headed the foreign office — ranted and raved and badmouthed me to his cronies. A tame journalist who obliged people in high places urged me to grovel in apology. I asked if the objection was to the article’s contents (which had all already appeared in Indian papers) or to it having been published abroad. I was met with stony silence.
Basham chose an unfortunate example but his valid point was that privileges without social progress were producing a form of militant assertiveness that invited reprisal. Given the linkage between caste and economics in rural areas, it was bound to provoke violent clashes. Events like the latest bloodshed in Rajasthan have proved him tragically right, strengthening the case for a dispassionate and disinterested reassessment of a situation that disgraces modern India and results in periodic turmoil.
The telling phrase, “vested interest in backwardness,” coined by a commissioner for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, had not then entered the public consciousness. Nor the other linguistic innovations produced by caste conflict. “Depressed”, for instance, conveys not a state of mind but lowly status. There are now the “backward” (some of whom are highly intelligent and educated) and, in Karnataka, the “more backward.” Not to be confused with either, the “other backward classes” can be financially well off and locally influential, no matter where they rank in Manusmriti’s hierarchy.
The semantic revolution also turned “untouchables” into Harijans and, later, Dalits, aka the scheduled castes. The “captains” and “doctors” who lead the Gujjar Sangharsh Samiti appear to bear out reports of a “creamy layer”. All these groups, even Adivasis (more prosaically, the scheduled tribes) are subject to what sociologists call “brahmanisation”. That means you can take the deprived out of the caste system but you can’t take the caste (or class) system out of the deprived.
Authority ignores all this, as it does the effect, use and misuse of quotas. India’s high commission in Canberra sent a long statistics-laden letter to the newspaper for which I wrote, showing how the list of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes went up at each counting. The future foreign secretary sent me a clipping and his journalistic sidekick crowed that since more and more people wanted to become Harijan or Adivasi, they were the most popular parties in town.
The context of that episode merits explaining. It was the age not of police firings and army columns being rushed to trouble spots (as in Rajasthan) but of selective lynchings and killings in villages. The most horrendous instance was in Tamil Nadu where around 20 agricultural labourers were burnt alive in their huts. The courts acquitted the landlords behind this gruesome massacre on the astonishing grounds that men in their position did not directly indulge in such activities. They engaged flunkeys to do their dirty work. If the law enforcement machinery then hunted down the perpetrators and brought them to book, it was not reported.
The nature of persecution varied from place to place. A man might be murdered for daring to give an upward twirl to his moustache when his entitlement was a downward droop. Or for treading a path reserved for his betters or, worse still, daring to cast his gaze on a village belle beyond his reach. The law and its guardians looked away. Labourers who asked for the stipulated minimum wage were branded Naxalite and hunted down.
Another new phrase — “forward caste” — entered the vocabulary. “You should write,” a turbaned village elder of the Yadav community once instructed me, sitting on a charpoy in what used to be Bihar’s Arrah district, “that all law and order problems will come to an end if magistrates give gun licences to all the forward castes.” Cutting off the head might be one way of curing headaches.
A situation that is rooted deep in India’s traditional psyche and might even have claimed an economic rationale in remote times has been transformed into the idiom of contemporary electoral politics. That is what Jawaharlal Nehru did when he introduced reservations in spite of his own honourable instincts, as reflected in a letter denouncing special treatment that he wrote to state chief ministers soon after independence. Perhaps Nehru did believe in 1950 that the policy was for only a decade. But he must have known long before it came up for renewal in 1960 what a terrible genie he had allowed to escape from the bottle.
It has been politics all the way since then. Belchhi was a ghastly blot on India’s claim to be a civilized nation. But Indira Gandhi’s lumbering elephant ride there was her political comeback trail after the Emergency. A beleaguered V.P. Singh no doubt expected a resurrected Mandal Commission report to earn him the everlasting gratitude of millions of supposedly backward class people, thus serving as an elixir of political life. One gathers that the present Central government’s brainwave was prompted by even more narrow personal considerations: fearing gubernatorial exile, Arjun Singh sought to secure his own future in the cabinet by creating an indentured nationwide lobby.
Rajasthan is paying the price of these stratagems. Gujjars account for about five per cent of the state’s population and are listed as OBC. But Jats (15 per cent) take up most of the OBC quota and Meenas (10 per cent) are in the scheduled tribes category. Hence the Gujjar demand to jump up or down or sideways into the scheduled tribes list. Vasundhara Raje half-promised support when seeking Gujjar votes but forgot all about it when she was elected.
Leaving aside the expediency that has hoisted the chief minister with her own petard, there is a grotesque inconsistency about this blurring of borders between community and tribe. The Gujjars are not alone in being prepared to take on whatever identity they think promises the highest rewards. If no existing label is adequate, a new one will be invented. Demands defy logic. A community that claims a rich historical past studded with kings also demands special treatment because of present impoverishment. Another group might plead that visible affluence is negated by lowly ritualistic rank. Some Brahmins in south India sought special recognition from the Mandal Commission on economic grounds. Opportunism is the name of the game. Everyone plays it for what can be got out of it. Uplift is not on anyone’s agenda.
Ideally, the entire 1950 prescription should be abolished. But civil war would probably ensue if crutches that have been in place for 57 years were suddenly to be pulled out. Nor should they, at least not so brutally. The case for affirmative action in deserving instances cannot be lightly dismissed. But what action' And for whom' These conundrums must be resolved on the basis of pragmatic, not perceived, criteria if Nehru’s reservation policy is ever to serve any purpose. Now it only fragments Indian society and hands over to the ruling party of the day an instrument of persuasion that is beyond the reach of scrutiny but is far more pernicious than outright bribery.
But why blame politicians alone' The official who reprimanded me connived with political machinations by trying to sweep the Harijan question under the carpet. His only interest was a superficial image. Neither gave a damn for the nation’s health. No wonder Basham’s warning was ignored.