You are on page 1of 2

OPINION

A REPRESENTATION
OF NOTHING
Is the national census an attempt to dismantle the caste system,
or simply a restatement of colonial manipulation?

demand to include caste in the


them. But can we say whether they are similar
census driven by cognitive interest,
or dierent? Well, it looks like Badagi and
policy considerations or sheer politiShetty pick out professions, and the rest seem
cal pragmatism? What should those
to be (intellectual) traditions. Why are such
who are skeptical about not only this
heterogeneous items bundled in this incomexercise, but about the very idea of a
prehensible fashion into a caste system?
caste-system do when the enumerator knocks?
Moreover, why are Buddhism and Jainism
VIVEK DHARESHWAR
When the census enumerator visits me and
religions and Madhva and Iyengar castes?
Scholar
asks me about my caste, I want to ask if I could
What is caste and what is religion?
enter computer scientist or liberal or MarxWell may you ask. No matter whom you
ist. If Badagi (carpenter), Madhva and Iyengar are legitread or ask the colonial missionaries, administrators, the
imate candidates, its not clear whats illegitimate about my
Indologists, or scholars in London, Cambridge, Oxford, Paris,
suggestion. If those English words dont sound like caste
Heidelberg, Chicago or their Indian counterparts and discinames, let us use ganaki, udari, edpanthi and demand that
ples you will not nd an answer. Rather you will hear a lot
these names be included in the list. This is another way of
about hierarchy and sanskritisation, but no coherent
making the simple point that we in fact have no clear idea
explanation or theory of what these categories are. It matters
what we are expected to say when we are asked to give our
little that hierarchy as a principle is to be found only in the
caste. Many of us by now have no
social system and theology of
diculty in appreciating why it feels
medieval Europe than anywhere in
odd or downright unreal to write
India. And it is to this day unclear
THERE IS NO ONE
Hindu against the column reliwhat social process sanskritisation is
TERM TO ELICIT
gion. It is no dierent with the catesupposed to pick out (from which
gory caste. Some reection on our
forgotten village). Some recent
ETHNICITY. WHAT
practice of identifying communities
scholars have even realised that
HAS A BADAGI GOT TO
or showing belongingness to groups
along with quarks and queers and
thavu yava matadavaru? yava
everything else, caste (and religion)
DO WITH A MADHVA?
sampradayadavaru? (whats your
too is, yes, discursively constructed.
mata [belief], your sampradaya [traSo caste is anything you want it to
dition]) shows that there is no one term to elicit what in
be. (Similarly, Hinduism which was not there before the 18th
the west would be ethnicity. That caste-jati and religion have
century has now come into being, and as a religion, no less).
been made into such a term does not mean that they have
For others, caste-system is the same as Brahminism (whatthat salience or intelligibility. What has the Badagi got to do
ever that is), but for all of them it is something that has existed
with a Madhva? Maybe the former makes the latter a chair to
practically from time immemorial and which, so the story
sit on. Other than that, nothing at all. Why are these items
goes, has been sought to be abolished by Buddha, Allama,
Badagi, Madhva, Iyengar, Shetty, Buddhists and Jains put
among others, down to missionaries, liberals and Marxists of
together in a collection or system? One can think of doing so
our own time. Unsuccessfully of course, but no one seems to
for various reasons, may be to track the transactions between
have a clear grasp of this entity that has supposedly persisted
S THE

18

CURRENT AFFAIRS

TEHELKA 22 MAY 2010

SHAILENDRA PANDEY

Fracturing society As more and more caste groups (like the Gujjars above) agitate for quotas, can the caste census serve any real purpose?

for many millennia! It outlived giants like Buddha and Allama


in their eyes violated moral norms. The colonial archive is to
(its a dierent matter what one really nds in their writings,
be seen, then, not as providing the descriptions of our social
but who is interested in that?) and it confronts us today with
world that conscientious administrators and compassionate
all its might, though we are still unable to identify it. Doubtmissionaries have left behind, but as containing the active
less such failures have only enhanced
traces of colonisers actions. The
the resolve of the State, politicians
present caste census will be an
and the intelligentsia at its service to
attempt to repeat and reproduce
THE CASTE CENSUS
make one more attempt to abolish it.
those actions, but this time as and
WILL REPEAT AND
But this time the strategy seems
for representation. Will this repetito be to complete the representation produce a tragedy or a farce?
REPRODUCE THE
tions that colonisers had begun, so
Most of our social scientists have
ACTIONS OF
even if we do not cognitively know
only ever wanted to complete the
what a caste system is, at least we
reform initiated by the colonial state.
THE COLONISERS
can have a full representation of it.
Having never attempted cognitively
This way we can nally put the
to understand our social world, they
nishing touches to our notion of representation, making
perhaps think it is far easier to create a world they can
it Indias unique and so far only contribution to western
manipulate. So when the holy alliance of politicians and
political theory.
intelligentsia are readying the State to complete this bizarre
There is a minor hitch though: when the colonisers
and simplied world, lets at least try to create some new idenundertook caste enumeration, they were not providing a
tities. Maybe the Supreme Court, the nal arbiter in matters
description of what there is in the social world. Their so-called
epistemic such as whether an entity is religious, whether a
descriptions were oblique instructions for action; they were
symbol is religious, and whether a category is appropriately a
instructing each other about how to deal with what they saw
caste-category can be brought in to give its ruling!
as groups with bewilderingly dierent practices. Practices that
Vivek Dhareshwar is a Bengaluru-based scholar
WRITERS EMAIL: vivekdhareshwar@gmail.com

22 MAY 2010 TEHELKA

CURRENT AFFAIRS 19