While for the Savarna Indian, to be without identity is an assertion of equality, for the vast numbers of Non-Savarnas, it is in the head-count that the quantum of caste privilege starkly stands out
Since its inception, on paper at least, India’s Constitutional foundations declare its push to become a casteless society. The New India was founded on principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, andthe Indian Constitution was framed with a view to protect its people from being vulnerable to any kind of discrimination.
Article 14 of the Constitution underlines the right to equality before the law and Article 17 abolishes Untouchability. Caste however is not directly disparaged in India’s foundational document.
We have seen a lot of instances in this last decade of people exercising their liberty by determining an identity or themselves that foregoes caste and religion. In the 2011 Census, around 29 lakh people in India chose to not state their religion for the religion category.In 2014,the Bombay High Courthad directed the state not to compel any individual to declare or specify his religion in any form or any declaration, the Court quoted the apex courtwhich had observed:
“Article 25, as its language amplifies, assures to every person subject to public order, health and morality, freedom not only to entertain his religious beliefs, ...but also to exhibit his belief in such outwardly act as he thinks proper and to propagate or disseminate his ideas for the edification of others.”
Similarly, the Madras High Court in 2016 affirmed that when a person or, in case of a minor, their parents do not wish or unable to disclose the religion and caste, the same need not be insisted upon in instances where they are seeking admission for their child.
More recently, during the 2017-18 academic year, more than one lakhschool students admitted to classes 1 to 12 in Kerala have left the caste and religion columns blank. In February 2019, M.A. Sneha became the first woman to receive a “no caste, no religion” certificate from the government.
These cases are a strong indication of the changing tide in the country where we see Indians are more self-actualised and are moving towards forming a more secular demographic.
As heartwarming as these incidents are, and as hopeful as they make one feel for India’s future, are these examples are painting a complete picture? The Non-Savarna Indian would tell you a different side to the story. When you are bornDalit, letting go of your caste is often not possible.Far too often, others don’t let you. You can change your surname, convert to Buddhism,and you may still be primarily associated with what you were born into. Even after getting a Harvard education, parting from your Dalit caste is about as easy as parting from your shadow.Letting go of one’s identity would also mean letting go of any state assistance offered to offset the societal disadvantages placed on your community. Ajay Kumar, the executive director of the NGO Rights which works for the upliftment of dalits, while commenting on the news from Kerala, noted, “It is easy for the privileged to sacrifice caste while dalits can’t do that. It has been only 60 years since dalits in Kerala have accessed education. Even today, they are not in a position to sacrifice their legitimate rights.”
Worse still, socio-political non-representation and callously chosen government policies can result ineffective invisiblity for the non-Savarna Indian.This amounts to a moreforced loss of identity, and is precisely why the under priviledged often organize their politics around group’s interests.
Dr. Ambedkar once said, “rights are protected not by law but by social and moral conscience of society.”Forced invisibility can show us why the state’s efforts to uplift the downtrodden haven’t had much effect on their social standing.
A simple example of forced invisibility is the manner in which the governments of the last two decades have handled collecting census data. As stated by the Census Board of India, the decennial census performsthe dual objective of collecting valuable information which assistsgovernments in planning and formulating policies, and providing the basis for reviewing the country's progress in the past decade.Despite the crucial role the census plays in forming effective government policy, we haven’t collected caste-wise data since the 1931 census (except to count the number of people falling in the categories of Scheduled Castes and Schedules Tribes). To this day, we rely on the 1931 censusdata to caste-relatedpolicies.While a caste census was conducted in 2011,the Centre has been sitting on its findings over alleged worries of the results causing political strife and more demands for reservation.
In August 2019, nearly 100 villages in Thane and Palghar districts passed a resolution to boycott the enumeration process for the 2021 census until the government reverses its decision to not include the OBC caste data in the census, going back on its promise from last year. “If you aren’t counted, you don’t exist. You need to demand your visibility first to be able to ask for what belongs to you rightfully,” explained social activist Sunil Deore.
Identity politics is not the problem
Is it fair to not count caste-wise data over concerns of encouraging identity politics?
Identity politics involves people belonging a particular groupengaging in politics to protect their group interests. Going by this definition, one can see that identity politics, in fact, plays anintegral role in the democratic process. Progressive movements for women’s rights and queer rights have both come from identity politics.The use of identity politics only becomes a hindrance to the nation’s growth when it fuels tribalism, creating in an “us versus them” dynamic. As long as a group’s interests are in line with constitutional principles and align with the overarching interests of the country, identity politics only builds a fulfilling democracy.
Another important point to consider is that caste-based and religious minorities often don’t have any other option but to rely on identity politics. Majoritarian political parties base their agenda on different forms of minority erasure, and while the supposed secular parties mayshow solidarity towards minorities, theyare rarely seen creating space for minorities among their ranks.
It is difficult to make policies that can benefit a community if they don’t have an understanding of that community’s struggles. For example, in an effort to prevent use of offensive slurs against the Dalits, the Centre directed private satellite TV channels and government departments to avoid using the term ‘Dalit’ and to use ‘Scheduled Castes’ instead. This advisory was in accordance with the orders of High Courts of Bombay and Madhya Pradesh.
However, what neither the Centre nor the High Courts had considered at the time was, being referred to as ‘SC’ has become offensive in practical usage, and the term ‘Dalit’ has been a term of empowerment for the oppressed community. This goes to show the need for minoritiesto be adequately represented in positions of power.Without the support of any other organisation, caste-based or religious minorities have no choice but to form their own factionsso as to participate in political affairs. In such cases, the only way to be heard is to be seen.
So how should the non-Savarna Indian navigate through issues of self-identity? In an ideal world, where every single Indian has been unshackledfrom the weight of their caste or religion, a “non-Savarna Indian” wouldn’t be defined as such—the term wouldhold no significant meaning. They, too, would then have the freedom to derive their identity from what they choose.
However, at this time, when an equal society remains a dream for vulnerable communities, and being a minority means facing resentment just for being that minority, the road to obtain civil rightsis of collective, relentless struggle. Out of necessity, then, one identifies with the community that has banded together to be heard in socio-political discourse.