Turning the tide on India's caste system

The carefully structured notions of India's caste hierarchy have remained unchallenged for thousands of years but a power shift is dawning, says Sreerekha Pillai.

The highest of the four main Hindu castes, Brahmins - the priestly caste - have enjoyed a lofty social status above Kshatriyas: Rulers and warriors; Vaishya: Farmers, merchants, traders, and craftsmen; and, Shudra: Servants of upper castes and peasants, for as long as anyone can remember. Of course, this neglects to mention those the system deems "untouchables" - those given the dirtiest jobs like latrine cleaners - who aren't even included in this heirarchical and heriditary system.

But Brahminical supremacy in India lies not only fractured following radical recommendations made by the 1991 Mandal Commission: a small effort at overcoming the legacy of a social arrangement designed to benefit one section of the population at the cost of another. Quite ironically its recommendations have more recently prompted the beleaguered “twice-blessed” Brahmin community to claim it has become a victim of “reverse discrimination.”

Two massive public rallies were organised in January in Rajasthan by the influential All India Brahmin Federation (AIBF) to launch a frontal assault against the erosion of the customary social rights and ‘privileges’ of the minority Brahmin community.

The AIBF’s main demand, as has been forcefully emphasised by the Federation’s Bangalore-based president K.P. Puthuraya, is that either caste-based reservations should be abolished entirely, or else similar reservations should also be provided for Brahmins - especially those who are economically backward.

Many such mass public protests have been launched in different parts of the country in recent years. But now it appears, and this should be alarming, that the mood of these activists is beginning to turn rather militant. The twin Rajasthan rallies clearly symbolised this intrinsic change as many Brahmin community leaders spoke out assertively while others raised powerful slogans, flashed banners and brandished farsas (a double-edged axe, which according to legend was used by Parashuram to wipe out Kshatriyas). It seems, according to various media reports, that this feeling is now more widely shared by a majority of Brahmins in the country because over 60,000 people attended these rallies in Rajasthan.

“Merit has been sacrificed for reservations,” argues Puthuraya, whose well-networked federation is the apex body of all Brahmin organisations in the country. He claims that the Brahmin community presently faces three major problems – primarily because of caste-based reservations. Firstly, because many Brahmins are economically backward and there are no compensatory privileges accorded to them; secondly, they do not have proportional political representation; and thirdly, there is a strong aggressive anti-Brahmin feeling among the other communities. “We have become like scheduled castes or scheduled tribes without any reservation,” he said.

The AIBF’s main demand, he adds, includes a 15 per cent reservation for Brahmins in government services and also in educational institutions. But, Puthuraya clarifies that all such reservations should primarily be based on an economic status criterion. The federation is also insisting on ‘adequate’ political representation.

However, opposing viewpoints are being expressed as well. For instance, while being strongly critical of AIBF’s ‘unwarranted’ demands, R L M Patil, the retired chairman of Bangalore University’s political science department, asserts passionately: “It is nothing but beggary for Brahmins to ask for caste-based reservations or political representation. Brahmins are neither an oppressed nor an illiterate lot, so they do not need any such artificial crutches. They are quite capable of taking care of their own community members.”

But he also maintains that “quality education has been denied to students belonging to the ‘forward’ communities because most of the merit seats in many academic institutions are being occupied by those who do qualify for preferential treatment on grounds of caste-based reservations.

This, he states, is a major cause for resentment within the Brahmin community and it should not be allowed to happen. And if it has to continue, then even the Brahmin community candidates must be provided similar priority and preference in educational institutions.” If that is ensured, then there is no need for Brahmins to be allocated any reservation quota in government jobs - because once you have acquired quality education one should be able to fend for oneself, he added.

“The country’s caste-based reservation policy is a political weapon, which is why no politician (irrespective of his political party affiliations) wants to give it up. But it is high time the whole system of such reservations was removed “because social contexts and realities have changed and these are outdated concepts,” according to Patil.

Interestingly, contrary to his organisation’s charter of demands, Puthuraya is of the opinion that any kind of reservation is “discriminatory” and “anti-progressive.” He is of the firm view that if they are not abolished outright, reservations should at least be “tapered” and must be restricted to merely one generation of beneficiaries. But he also advocates that as long as casteism and caste reservations exist in India, Brahmins would be forced to fight for their rights. After all: “Poverty has no caste,” he asserts quite rationally.

But Puthuraya does have his detractors. “One cannot really compare between a poor Brahmin and a poor Harijan,” says G. Sivaramakrishnan, chairman of the sociology department, Bangalore University. He is of the considered opinion that instead of asking for reservations, it would be much better if the rich Brahmins decided instead to help the poor Brahmins financially.

It is typical of any community, he says, to have such deep disparities when they are being measured on the basis of an individual’s financial or economic status. But demanding reservations is not the answer. Its high time one scotched this tendency to demand special treatment just because one is economically a have-not. The Brahmin community has never been considered backward because many of its members are educationally and socially very forward, so the voice of the economically backward Brahmin minority goes unheard.

Take an example of a temple priest or a purohit, he says; they are educationally well-qualified and well-respected in Indian society, but they earn a very meagre sum of money as salary. This prevents them from being qualified as a backward class because the Constitution qualifies a community as being backward only if it is economically, educationally and socially backward. Compare the priest to a farmer from SC or ST, he might be the owner of acres and acres of highly productive agricultural land, but he still has to bear the brunt and the social stigma of being a lower caste and he also faces the additional handicap of illiteracy. The Brahmin community, on the other hand, has always had the advantage of being a community, which has enjoyed a lot of opportunities and clout in educational and political spheres, especially in the bygone eras.

Dismissing any chance of the demands of the Brahmin community being accepted, a few senior politicians point out there is no possibility that a “community representing a mere five per cent of our country’s population will ever get 15 per cent reservation.” They feel that the Brahmin community’s only realistic chance in this context is to try and be listed in the economically backward category. Right now this category enjoys a four per cent reservation in government jobs and academic institutions in Karnataka. But they admit there is no chance that their demand for political representation would even be considered, because the Constitution provides reservations in the federal and state legislatures only for the SC (15 per cent) and ST (three per cent). “It is highly unlikely that the Constitution will be amended just to placate an agitated Brahmin community, especially given the political clout that backward classes now enjoy in Parliament.”

Commenting on similar lines, Rajashekar V T Shetty, editor of Dalit Voice (a magazine devoted to Dalit community affairs), said that any community can demand reservations, but they must always keep in mind their population. According to him an estimated four per cent Brahmin population demanding 15 per cent reservations is obviously a “disproportionate and incorrect” request.

Shetty says: “In India all reservations for backward segments of our society should be based on their population, for which we will need to armed the Constitution. The Indian government till date has not taken a caste-based census of the population, which is the first thing that should be done. Only a minuscule (3 per cent) of the deserving people are getting their share of the various benefits of caste-based reservations. This situation needs to be rectified.”

The Supreme Court’s counter endorsement of the Mandal Commission’s omnibus recommendations, which sought to neutralise caste divisions, may in fact provoke further internal-communal rifts and social fragmentation – if the criteria for granting reservations for select economically, educationally and socially backward communities remains unchanged.

But now, a stage has come where the apex court has had to pass some strictures against the small ‘creamy layer’ which has succeeded in cornering the various benefits and privileges linked to caste reservations. However, the efficacy of the court’s order is still being debated in our legislatures – all the more sharply because there is no consensus on how to define this ‘creamy layer’ or on whom it comprises.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that irrespective of all these measures, the ideal of ensuring the social upliftment of the under-privileged classes through selective caste reservations has not been met as effectively as it was envisaged.

Not surprisingly, the poorest of the poor and the neediest of the needy still remain in as miserable a situation as ever. So what is the guarantee that any kind of reservation on any pretext would help the Brahmin community now?