Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju, in a two-part article published last week (“Looking back on the caste system”, The Hindu, January 8), “Why the caste system is on its last legs”, The Hindu, January 9) discusses the origin of the caste system and argues it is on its way out. In fact, he suggests that it is being kept alive by vote bank politics.
Justice Katju's announcement of the imminent demise of the caste system may be well-intentioned but it is based on selective analysis of past developments and present trends. He discusses the past without even a passing reference to the long period when Jainism and Buddhism, both of which rejected caste-based discrimination, held sway in the subcontinent. It was during this period that the development of productive forces, which he sees as a beneficial result of the caste system, took place. The period saw a flowering of arts and crafts.
Tamil Sangham literature bears evidence of the presence of various caste groups in the south in the early years of the Christian era, but not of caste-based disability. The caste system, as we know it today, emerged after the Vedic establishment gained political ascendancy in the north following the decline of Buddhism. It was during this period that the Code of Manu, which sanctified caste division, was written and enforced.
This aspect was discussed in great detail by an eminent scholar in law and Sanskrit, K. P. Jayaswal, in12 lectures on “Manu and Yajnavalkya – a comparison and a contrast” which he delivered at the University of Calcutta in 1919. The lectures were published in book form in 1929. After 75 years a new edition of this book was brought out by Cosmo Publications, a division of Genesis Publishing Private Limited, 24-B Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi 110002, in 2004, under the title “Manu and Yajnavalkya”.
Justice Katju eloquently describes how industrialization is rendering caste irrelevant by producing skilled technical personnel to undertake tasks performed by different caste groups in the feudal era. In doing so, he overlooks the fact that the process is actually doing further harm to the victims of the caste system. It deprives them of means of livelihood by eliminating their traditional occupations. The skilled jobs that are created go largely to the beneficiaries of the caste system who can access the training institutions far more easily than the victims of the caste system. The West Bengal example that he cites will prove this point. All available studies show that in that State the Scheduled Castes are worse off than in most other States.
Justice Katju's assertion that vote bank politics is now artificially propping up the caste system is based on a specious theory trotted out by the urban elite. One look at the results of the 1977 and 1980 elections is enough to know that India's voters keep the larger interests of the society in mind when they walk into the polling booth. This is not to suggest that caste plays no part in electoral politics. It does play a part not only in elections but in other contexts, like those of admissions, appointments etc too.
Caste may have outlived its utility but the caste system will remain so long as it continues to produce 'born beneficiaries' and 'born victims'. The argument that reservation is keeping caste alive is specious: it is the beneficiaries, not the victims, who keep it alive.