LONDON — 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 backward classes” (OBCs) 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 toward 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 socio-economic 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 distort the real picture.

Since India gained its independence, the government has systematically refused to collect sufficient data on the socio-economic aspects of caste. The huge mass of evidence available in the censuses and land revenue settlement reports from 1901 to 1931 lies ignored. If caste is a good indicator of deprivation now, it should have been even clearer in the past. But statistical analysis of this evidence — the only accessible macro-level quantitative data for the whole country — does not confirm caste as a clear indicator of deprivation.

For example, less than one-third of workers in this period followed their traditional caste occupations. Workers belonging to each caste pursued a wide variety of occupations, although agriculture provided the bulk of employment.

Each caste contained a varying mixture of landless laborers, cultivators and landlords. While some castes concentrated on one, others were equally involved in a number of occupations. Access to literacy and to jobs in the government sector and modern professions was limited to a small section of the population usually belonging to the high castes.

Access to land was uneven. Farmers, the single largest occupational group in most castes, with ritual rank ranging from high to low, were highly differentiated in terms of size and economic status. The size of holdings was similar for most upper castes and some lower castes. Thus, the economic status of households varied a great deal within each caste.

In any case, the majority of peasants belonging to any caste, upper or lower, were poor. In many castes of low ritual rank, landlords, prosperous cultivators and traders were found, some of whom actually paid income tax.

Consider the average economic position of the members of each caste in this sample. Generally, most high-ranking castes occupied high economic positions, and the majority of the “untouchable” castes were confined to the lowest economic positions. In some regions — such as Mysore (Karnataka), Madras (Tamil Nadu) and Uttar Pradesh — some lower castes occupy higher economic positions than high castes.

The most obvious fact in the data is the great disparity in the economic positions of castes sharing the same ritual rank. Such differences are particularly acute for middle-ranking castes, which are now called OBCs, and are observed in all parts of India. Even among the untouchables, some castes have higher economic status than others.

Among the middle-ranking, agricultural castes, some had high economic status due to improved agriculture brought about by canal irrigation and commercialization. Most other cultivating and artisan castes, enjoying similar ritual ranks as the financially more successful group, occupied much lower economic positions, which resulted in an amazing degree of heterogeneity among backward castes. In some regions — Uttar Pradesh, Bombay (Maharashtra and Gujarat) and the Telugu-speaking areas of Madras (Andhra Pradesh) — the lowest economic positions were occupied by some “backward” castes, not by untouchables.

Hence, caste has not been an indicator of material deprivation, even during the early decades of the 20th century. But boosters of caste politics claim that it is not economic deprivation but the social backwardness from which these castes have historically suffered that makes caste reservations necessary.

In fact, the whole population of the lower castes did not suffer from an equal degree of ritual handicap. There was an elaborate gradation and hierarchy among the middle-ranking and even untouchable castes, which governed interaction between them and kept inter-caste socialization to a minimum.

Historically, the rich in each low caste emulated the customs and rituals of the upper castes, such as child marriage, the payment of dowries, and prevention of widows from remarrying. Sometimes, well-off sections of low castes broke away to form new castes and managed to achieve higher ritual status. Usually a prosperous caste succeeded in raising its rank in the ritual hierarchy.

By using caste as a criterion in public policy, India’s government is effectively treating the rich and the poor equally, thereby conveying benefits to the former. This helps co-opt the elite among the lower castes to the ruling coalition, and keeps the poor divided along caste lines. But it is hypocritical to argue that this does anything to eliminate poverty.

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