When the Chhattisgarh government announced to increase the OBC quota from 14 per cent to 27 per cent last month, some upper caste youth came out on the streets of Raipur this week to protest against the decision. As part of the protest, they cleaned the roads with brooms. Newspapers splashed these photographs the next day prominently and unquestioningly.
This was not an unusual sight. Anyone who keenly observes Indian media and the sociological developments in the country would know that such forms of protest are quite common. But what the keen observer may not notice though is the inherent irony. In trying to question the need for caste-based reservations for the marginalised communities, the upper caste youth end up acknowledging the existence of caste system in the 21st century by choosing these modes of protest tropes.
They expose the upper castes’ derision toward some occupations.
Protests, in specific ways
Except when meant for the upper castes, like the Narendra Modi government’s 10 per cent EWS quota, all reservation moves have seen people turn up on the streets. In 1990, then-V.P. Singh government’s decision to implement the Mandal Commission’s recommendations led to protests that turned violent. Youth opposing the 27 per cent quota for Other Backward Classes in central government jobs shut down offices, blocked roads, set buses and public properties on fire. There were incidents of self-immolations. Some also tried to manhandle Sharad Yadav on JNU campus and burn down the house of Union welfare minister Ram Vilas Paswan.
Along with such violent protests, there were media reports about students in Lucknow protesting by polishing shoes, cleaning cars and plying rickshaws.
When then-HRD minister Arjun Singh had implemented the OBC reservation in higher education in 2006, protesting doctors just stopped treating patients. The site of the protest was AIIMS hospital, which went against the high court order prohibiting protests on the campus. Medical students, once again, took to sweeping the roads and polishing shoes. At that time, doctors belonging to Scheduled Castes and OBC communities had condemned these forms of protest and demanded swift punishment against people indulging in such acts.
So, what explains the upper castes choosing these specific occupations to register their protest only when the matter pertains to reservation? What are they trying to say?
I am not discussing here the legal, constitutional and moral part of the quota debate. But I am trying to map the mindset of the anti-quota protesters who indulge in such acts, which constitute derogatory connotation for other groups.
Division of labourers, not just labour
Societies in South Asia have a unique social system that ascribes specific jobs to each social group. Like the castes, there is hierarchy in the jobs assigned to specific groups. In Hindus’ religious text Bhagavad Gita, the Supreme God assigns Karma (jobs) to each Varna (class) according to their respective Guna (qualities). A Hindu is not supposed to violate or disrupt the Varna Dharma.
Babasaheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar cites five major lacunas in this regard.
1. Among the many arguments propagated in defence of the caste system is that it’s a division of labour. But the caste system is also a division of labourers – an unnatural division that puts labourers into watertight compartments. A hierarchy has been established where the labourers are graded – one is above the other.
2. This division of labour is not spontaneous, or based on natural aptitudes. This system of division appoints tasks to individuals in advance — selected not on the basis of trained original capacities, but on that of the social status of the parents and birth. This has made the caste system an inescapable burden for people for centuries.
3. The caste system will not allow Hindus to take up occupations that are vacant, if they do not belong to these job categories hereditarily. So, in a way, caste becomes a direct cause of much of the unemployment we see in the country.
4. The division of labour brought about by the caste system is not a division based on choice. Individual sentiment and preference have no place in it. It is based on the dogma of predestination.
5. There are many occupations in India that are considered degrading by the Hindus, and provoke aversion toward those who are engaged in them. There is a constant desire to escape from such occupations among some people because of the stigma and slight.
A person subscribing to the idea of caste hierarchy will consider it disrespectful to indulge in certain occupations and jobs. This is why we see protesters performing symbolic acts like polishing shoes or cleaning the streets. They are trying to highlight the spectre when they will be forced to do such ‘menial, lowly’ jobs that, according to them, are reserved for members of the lower castes. And all this because of reservations.
Prof N. Sukumar, who teaches Political Science in Delhi University, argues that “such prejudiced expressions in the public domain reflect the sense of entitlement embedded amongst the upper caste meritocracy.”
The pure and the impure
The Hindu way of life is preoccupied with the concept of purity and impurity. Some jobs are considered pure while some jobs are impure to the point that a Hindu just cannot imagine doing it. According to Celestin Bougle, a French philosopher who has written a treatise on caste system, says, “this opposition (to ‘impure’ jobs) underlies hierarchy, which is the superiority of the pure to the impure, (and also) underlies separation because the pure and the impure must be kept separate.” According to him, hereditary specialisation, hierarchy and mutual repulsion are the basic characteristics of this system.
In reality, it is a religious notion and such impurities are permanent in nature. Even things like Gandhian reform or declaring untouchability illegal or stringent SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act have failed to eradicate such practices. In their paper titled ‘The Continuing Practice of Untouchability in India: Patterns and Mitigating Influences’, Amit Thorat and Omkar Joshi argue on the basis of empirical data that “the notions of ‘purity and pollution’ are ideas which, despite the spread of education and the advent of modern lifestyles, tend to stick and prey on our religious and social insecurities.”
This explains why upper caste quota protesters, who are otherwise urbane and educated, resort to polishing shoes and sweeping roads to display their anger. It would seem that modernity, urbanisation, higher education, and seven decades of democracy have failed to dispel the caste notions of purity and impurity from the minds of the Indian youth.
Is there a solution?
French anthropologist Louis Dumont, whose work Homo Hierarchicus is considered to be the last systematic attempt by any Western scholar to understand and deconstruct caste, suggests: “The impurity of the untouchable is conceptually inseparable from the purity of the Brahaman. They must have been established together or in any case must have reinforced each other. We must get used to see them together. In particular, untouchability will not truly disappear until the purity of the Brahaman is itself radically devalued.”
Does it look like it will ever happen?
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.