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Caste and Castelessness

Towards a Biography of the ‘General Category’

As a modern republic, India felt duty-bound to "abolish" caste, and this led the State to pursue the confl icting policies of social justice and caste-blindness. As a consequence, the privileged upper castes are enabled to think of themselves as "casteless", while the disprivileged lower castes are forced to intensify their caste identities. This asymmetrical division has truncated the effective meaning of caste to lower caste, thus leaving the upper castes free to monopolise the "general category" by posing as casteless citizens.

This is a slightly edited – and very lightly referenced – text of the 12th Malcolm Adiseshaiah lecture delivered at the Asian School of Journalism, Chennai on 21 November 2012. As it forms part of a larger book project where there will be more space for proper footnoting and referencing, I have let this version remain almost exactly as presented in Chennai. This means that there are numerous fellow-travellers whose work I have benefi ted from even though I have been unable to cite them explicitly here. I am grateful to the Malcolm and Elizabeth Adiseshaiah Trust, and especially to C T Kurien, Rama Melkote, V K Nataraj and M N Shetty, for this honour. Those familiar with this fi eld will instantly recognise that my greatest intellectual debt is to Marc Galanter. For the critical engagement and encouragement that they have generously provided, I thank Mary John, Kalpana Kannabiran, V K Nataraj, Madhava Prasad and A Vaidyanathan.

Caste has been at the centre of public attention for a long time, especially in the last two decades. Despite being at the centre of our attention, however, caste continues to elude us in fundamental ways – or at least so it would seem. In this article I would like to explore some of the ways in which caste has proved to be elusive, and the reasons why this has happened.

The quickest way to map the terrain I wish to cover is to recount a joke that has been circulating on the internet. Popularised five or six years ago when the 93rd amendment to the Constitution introduced reservations for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in elite educational institutions, the joke goes as follows: India decides to send a space exploration team to the moon. Feverish negotiations begin immediately on the composition of the team, and after much haggling it is decided to include nine OBCs, six members of the scheduled castes (SCs), three from the scheduled tribes (STs), and, if there is any place left, two astronauts. This joke unintentionally offers us a deep insight into the central predicament of caste today. The insight is contained in the fact that the “astronauts” are not identified by their caste but only by their qualifications (as astronauts), whereas the quota-walas are identified only by their caste and not by their qualifications. In short, the joke correctly assumes that “we” will know the caste of the astronauts without being told, but will agree that it is irrelevant in the face of their qualifications, while simultaneously agreeing that though the quota-walas too would presumably have qualifications, these are irrelevant in the face of their caste. To put it differently, upper caste identity is such that it can be completely overwritten by modern professional identities of choice, whereas lower caste identity is so indelibly engraved that it overwrites all other identities and renders them illegible, along with the choices that they may represent.

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