India’s New Caste Politics

Caste, once again, is casting its shadow over India’s politics. Caste-based “reservations” (reserved places) in education and government employment are supposed to benefit India’s most deprived, but in reality they have hardened, rather than eroded, India’s ancient system of discrimination.

Every now and then, particularly before elections, caste groups demand to be placed on the list of “other backwards classes” (OBC’s), in order to benefit from these reservations. Indeed, nowadays political parties dangle the carrot of reservations to ever more castes, and even promise to extend the policy to admissions into elite educational institutions and the private sector.

Many consider India’s increasing mobilization along caste lines a welcome assertion of “identity.” Indeed, intellectuals and politicians of all varieties almost unanimously hail the politics of caste identity as a move towards true equality. Some go so far as to argue that the recent rise of the lower castes in northern Indian politics and the implementation of reservations by the central government amount to a silent revolution, and that the politics of caste is secular and a bulwark against religious sectarianism.

Public policy, however, should be based on evidence and logic, not glib sociological babble. Whether caste is a good indicator of socioeconomic deprivation remains an unsettled issue. Indeed, the protagonists of caste politics and caste-based public policy simply cannot validate their assertions, offering only small-sample surveys that can be grossly misleading in the context of a huge country characterized by monumental diversity. Moreover, these studies typically pool castes into three large groups, which distorts the real picture.