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Caste: mapping positive changes

Sulochana, a young woman from a tribal community in Maharashtra, walks confidently to the podium to address a gathering of women sarpanches on 10th February, 2016,  in Lonara village just outside Nagpur. Her speech, accompanying her accepting an award for her exemplary work as the sarpanch of Chorgaon village, is a celebration of how it is possible to overcome innumerable obstacles in the fight for justice.

Ramaswamy Elango, born into a scheduled caste community in Tamil Nadu, exudes a joyous enthusiasm while presenting a seminar paper at a the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a major Delhi think tank, on 23rd February, 2016 on how good local governance is overcoming caste prejudices in some parts of Tamil Nadu.

At the same seminar, Dr. Anand Teltumbde, a management professional at the Vinod Gupta School of Management IIT Kharagpur and human rights activist who was born into a Dalit family, makes a passionate case for annihilation of caste itself – arguing that this alone will ensure both social and economic justice.

These are fleeting glimpses of the changing face of caste in India that rarely make the headlines in national, let alone international, media. The primary reason for this is that caste discrimination and violent attacks on lower castes are still rampant across India. And the noisy and violent riots made by various groups caste-based groups, not earlier regarded as backward, for reservation quotas in government jobs and educational institutions, has stolen the headlines.

In fact, there is increasing success of how caste based discrimination is being reduced, even eliminated in some contexts.

Before they are denounced as stray anecdotes – important in themselves for a nuanced understanding of Indian democracy as a work-in-progress – it is important to look closely at patterns of change. For, as Elango says, positive stories bolster the confidence of those who are caught in bitter conflicts.

Change is being fostered by a combination of progressive legislation, political struggles by the erstwhile lower castes and sustained work by civil society organisations.

For instance, over the last 20 years thousands of women like Sulochana have been elected to panchayats across India. This has been possible not only because the 73rd Amendment to the Indian Constitution, in 1992, created 33% reservation for women in panchayats but also because NGOs spread across India have worked to train and empower women to be more assertive and effective in local governance. Prakriti, a Nagpur based NGO set up in 1990, works in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh with a special focus on women from tribal and lower caste communities.

“Even though I got elected to the panchayat the village tried to stop me from hoisting the national flag on Independence day because I’m a woman and I’m a Dalit” Sharda Dhanvij a sarpanch from Wardha, said at Prakriti’s awards function.  “But I fought for my right to hoist the flag and I succeeded” she added – drawing thunderous applause from the 150 women sarpanchs in the audience at Lonara this year.

Teltumbde, who has documented many cases of caste atrocities and campaigned to gain justice for the victims, says that this will be eliminated only when “the monster of caste [is]… annihilated by an alternate idiom of politics based on class.” Identity constructed with the idiom of caste simply ends up reinforcing it, not getting beyond it.

This assessment is validated by more and more caste-based groups, that have not earlier been regarded as backward, demanding reservation quotas in government jobs and educational institutions. Over the last one year such demands have erupted in violent agitations in Gujarat and Haryana.

But reservations, by themselves, are not enough. Teltumbde refers to reservations as a ‘mirage’ in a context where structural problems – like access to proper nutrition and education – remain unsolved. Numerous studies have shown that a large percentage of Dalit children are discriminated against in schools across India.

Part of the problem is that the bulk of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward castes, are in the informal sectors of the Indian economy. The Pune-based Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) has responded to this reality by bringing Dalit entrepreneurs under one umbrella and helping aspiring Dalit entrepreneurs. Their rallying call is: ‘Fight caste with capital’ and ‘Be job givers, not job seekers’.

So far the DICCI has touched the lies of a small portion of people at the bottom of the caste ladder. But its presence is of vital importance – as an aspirational beacon and for highlighting the number of successful Dalit entrepreneurs.

Much is known about how and why lower castes are excluded from participation in access to natural resources, educational institutions and jobs. It is equally, if not more important, for social science researchers and policy makers, to focus on what goes right in situations where discrimination has been eliminated or even reduced.

For instance, it is shameful that the vast majority of out-of-school children in India are either scheduled caste, scheduled tribe or Muslims. But it is equally significant to note that rates of enrollment and retention are on the rise. Between 2009 and 2011 the total proportion of out of school children in age group 6 to 13 years declined from 4.28% to 2.97%. In the same period the proportion of Scheduled Tribe children out of school declined from 5.60% to 4.36%.

Harsh Mander, a former bureaucrat and director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Equity Studies, acknowledges that there has been no systematic study of those communities or sectors where discrimination has been overcome or significantly reduced. Teltumbde confirms the lack of a systematic study that has theorized the positive change, largely because the pervasive phenomenon of structural discrimination overwhelms the examples of positive change.

Research institutions and policy makers which venture to undertake a systematic, and much-needed study of the positive changes will be operating on a slippery slope. Such a shift in research focus will run the risk of feeding a facile feel-good effect or detracting attention from the sheer scale of persisting caste prejudice. What is required is a more granular understanding of what is facilitating progress towards dignity for all and highlighting the precise change agents that are illuminating the path of an epochal process of transformation.

Rajni Bakshi is Gandhi Peace Fellow, Gateway House.

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