“Madam, your family marriages are arranged or love?”
I was trying to think of a fitting reply to the last in a series of bizarre questions from the census workers, when I noticed they were glancing at a plaque – it contained my grandfather’s name, which reveals his caste. That was in May 2010 – a whole year before the proposal for inclusion of caste in census was approved by the Cabinet. A journalist became quite a hero in media circles for answering a direct question about his caste with “outcast”. Apparently, the response was duly registered.
Few proposals have encountered less opposition in Parliament. Because in India, when people cast their votes, they vote for their castes.
But will enumeration of caste data lead to anything substantial, apart from helping politicians target their promises and tirades in various pockets? In combination with details of income, will it grant the underprivileged access to education? The question of caste is particularly iffy in Tamil Nadu. While the North has seen massive protests by students against caste-based reservation, Tamil Nadu has been increasing its reservation quota for “Backward Classes” in quantum leaps so that the total percentage of reserved seats is 69, far higher than the 50 percent stipulated by the Supreme Court.
The issue is complicated further by the fact that the term “classes” – which indicates economic rather than social hierarchy – has somehow become synonymous with its converse “castes”. However, few states have seen a stronger backlash in the face of attempts to exclude the “creamy layer” from benefits than Tamil Nadu. When Chief Minister M G Ramachandran passed an order to this effect in 1979, his party’s candidates for the Lok Sabha lost so badly that he panicked, withdrew the order and increased the reservation for Backward Classes by 19 percent – nearly doubling the quota.
Despite repeated rulings by the Supreme Court, the state – like most others – has ignored directives on removing the “Creamy Layer”.
In July 2010, a Supreme Court Bench hearing a writ petition, granted protection of Tamil Nadu’s current quota for another year, asking the State Backward Classes Commission to revisit the reservation issue “on the basis of the quantifiable data in respect of the communities in question.” At the moment, this doesn’t include family income. Worse still, economic backwardness is weighted at just 10 percent in determining the “backwardness” of a group – which leaves poorer students competing for fewer seats.
After the announcement of this year’s school final exam results, the newspapers were filled with heart-warming success stories of school toppers whose parents were construction labourers, domestic help or security guards. Lost in the paragraphs containing the children’s dreams of becoming lawyers, doctors or engineers were the footnotes – they would continue to work in the fireworks factories and cotton mills where they moonlighted, unless someone could sponsor their higher education. As things stand, free seats and scholarships are being doled out to people who don’t need them.