India: the Language of Caste

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed May 31 13:05:08 UTC 2006

>>From The Times of India Online

TODAY'S EDITORIAL: Language of Caste

In many ways, caste is about numbers. The political consensus we have for
creating OBC quotas in central educational institutions is largely because
parties are aware of the electoral clout of the other backward classes. In
1980, the Mandal commission assumed that the OBC component in the
population was 52 per cent. The National Sample Survey Organisation
estimates that OBCs form only 33 per cent of the population. The National
Family Health Survey concludes that the figure is only 29 per cent. The
Supreme Court's directive to the Centre to explain the rationale for OBC
quotas will further complicate the matter.

In the absence of reliable data, the Centre will be hardpressed to explain
how it has arrived at the figure, 27 per cent, for OBC reservations. The
last caste census was way back in 1931. Independent India decided to do
away with caste enumeration on the premise that it would divide the
country. It is time to question this premise.  Caste is a reality and a
crucial factor in influencing public policy. It is best to have empirical
data which reflect reality and formulate policies accordingly. A caste
census should go beyond mere enumeration of people and generate a social
and economic profile of various castes.

This would help the government to rationalise the OBC list. A caste census
is a necessary evil. What is lost in the quota debate is the impact of
technology and economics on social relations and how these are changing.
Occupation was the defining category that determined hierarchies in Manu's
varnashrama. Manu assumed that economic and social orders complemented
each other. It is true of the modern world as well. As economic relations
change, new castes are being constituted. Old castes and social prejudices
associated with them disappear. The H1-B visa created the caste of US
green card holder; the BPO boom is spawning a new caste of yuppies in call
centres. They have created new geographies, time zones, and aspirations.
Old social orders break down as market forces offer avenues of wealth
generation.  Economic emancipation subverts existing caste hierarchies.

In a knowledge economy, proficiency in English is the key to upward
mobility. Our education system should be revamped to equip students with
English language skills. Let students learn the language from the primary
class. In today's world, the magic potion for social emancipation is not
quotas but English, the commercial, medical and scientific language of the
world. Even desi language chauvinists will not disagree.

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