THE BAD Indian caste practice is almost as old as the gods and is today the most damaging and most developed example of how humans try to impose superiority and suffering on others by virtue of their birth. Hindu texts speak of four levels, or varnasthat form a broader caste pyramid in society. At the top are the Brahmins or priestly caste, the Kshatriyas or warrior class and the Vaisyas or merchant class. At the very bottom come the Shudras, or worker castes. The rest doesn’t even count: outcasts.
The British Raj integrated varnas into its imperial rule and perpetuates the caste system, with the expelled “untouchables” now known as Dalits facing immense discrimination for their “polluted” work, including the disposal of human waste. In their honor, the founders of the Indian Republic faced injustice. The affirmative action enshrined in the Indian Constitution, largely written by a Dalit intellectual, BR Ambedkar, was a world first. The “Reservation Policy” is an amazing quota system for public offices, places in publicly funded colleges, and many elected assemblies. The purpose is to serve the Dalits, who now make up 232 million of India’s 1.4 billion population, as well as the 120 million or so adivasis, Tribal groups that mainly live in remote parts of the country.
These are the “planned” castes and tribes. Affirmative action has expanded since then. A commission of inquiry in the 1980s found 52% of Indians to be members of a new category, the “other backward classes,” eligible for reserved seats. The Supreme Court then ruled that no more than 50% of the public positions could be reserved. But states often cross borders.
Other castes advocate classifying them as backward and thus qualifying for quotas. These include groups that sociologists call “dominant” such as the landowners Patidars of Gujarat, the Jats of Haryana, and the Marathas of Maharashtra. Some of their protests in recent years have been both huge and violent. And just last month, a political delegation from the northern state of Bihar to Delhi awakened the desire for expanded reservations, which demanded a national census of the castes.
One motivation for such landowner castes, says Himanshu, development economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, is stagnating agricultural incomes after relatively prosperous decades. At the same time, slowing economic reforms mean that urban opportunities for rural young people are limited. Unemployment is high.
Comfortable jobs in government become the greatest hope for advancement. But the absurdity only grows. With unofficial caste surveys suggesting that more than half of the country may be considered “backward”, the proportion of the population claiming to be eligible for a reservation potentially exceeds 80% – which is a positive measure not for a minority, but for the majority implied.
It is not clear how many socio-economic problems have resolved reservations – not least because successive governments have been uniquely interested in their effectiveness. The measures promoted a lower caste bourgeoisie. However, the strong economic growth after 1990 did much more to reduce poverty. In the meantime, inequality has actually grown both between and within caste groups. Mixed marriages between castes are rare. Separation of apartments by caste is widespread. You can be lynched for getting married above your caste, refusing to work for the local landowning caste, or even drinking from the village well.
The top three are now varnas most of the plum have public and private jobs. Of the top 89 civil service posts, only four are not held by high-profile Hindus. The toxicity of the caste even extends to other religions. The ancestors of almost two-thirds of India’s Catholics are Dalits who converted to escape the stigma. But of four cardinals and 31 archbishops, only two are Dalits.
Perhaps India’s quota program is better than its absence. However, social scientist Dipankar Gupta argues that the correct answer to deep-seated poverty, inequality and discrimination should be comprehensive social programs that cover areas such as housing, health and education, rather than specific programs for different minorities. And so the suspicion grows that even the most well-intentioned reservation policy helps to perpetuate the injustices of the castes. Even low-caste activists are more likely to fight for better rights for their caste than for an end to a pernicious system. For politicians, positive action is a much easier option than investigating India’s persistent injustices.
Correction (September 9, 2021): The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Dipankar Gupta is a member of the Indian School of Public Policy in Delhi. This was changed above. We apologize for the mistake.
This article appeared in the Asian section of the print edition under the heading “Die Schattenkaste throws”