Who is the General Category reserved for?

Why You Should Read This

  • There is a constant debate about reservations in upper caste circles. People keep talking about if they work, when they will be stopped, etc.
  • But this understanding of reservations – as a concession given by the “casteless” elites to those who suffered because of their caste – hides the real truth.
  • In this 2013 paper, Satish Deshpande explores how upper castes started claiming to be “casteless” and how this is just kicking away the ladder after climbing to the top.
  • We have condensed the original 8000-word paper into a 1600-word summary. You can read it in fullClick on each point to dig deeper and get the complete picture. in 8 minutes or skim itRead only the numbered points. in 1 minute.
  1. There is a strange paradox in India today. Upper castes constantly insist that they don’t see caste or benefit from it. For them, caste identity is no longer associated with hierarchy and discrimination, but with modern concepts such as merit and development instead. But for lower castes, their lives seem to be defined entirely by caste — even their best achievements are always tainted with the stigma of reservations.
    • Here’s a joke that did the rounds a few years ago: India decides to send a space exploration team to the moon. Feverish negotiations begin immediately on the composition of the team. After much haggling, it is decided to include nine members of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), six members of the Scheduled Castes (SCs), three from the Scheduled Tribes (STs), and, if there is any place left, two astronauts.
    • The joke is that after reservations, only two qualified people will get the job. But what is the caste of the two qualified people? While all the other members of the team are defined by their caste, why do we not know the caste of the two astronauts
      • Actually, we do know. They are upper castes.The same people who are likely telling this joke and laughing at it.
    • This is the central character of caste in India today: it is invisible when it comes to upper castes and it is hypervisible when it comes to lower castes.
      • For one group, caste is the identity through which they have to fight to make their lives better.
      • For the other group, caste is a ladder they have climbed to access all sorts of benefits — like wealth and qualifications — and now they can kick the ladder away and claim to be “caste-less”.
        • When this group talks about itself, the story that is told is never one about centuries of accumulated caste privilege enabling rapid progress. It is always a story of modernisation, development, and nation-building.
  2. This state of affairs can be traced back to the days of the freedom struggle. By the early 1900s, Congress leaders, who were at the forefront of the nationalist movement, knew they had to do something about caste – either reform it or abolish it. But they didn’t agree on what those words meant.
    • To the nationalist leaders, it was clear that the fundamental inequality of the caste system was an obstacle if India wanted to become “modern”. But there was no consensus in groups like the Congress on exactly which parts of the caste system were a problem and what the solutions could be.
      • Very few of these leaders — with the notable exception of B.R. Ambedkar — were talking about getting rid of caste entirely, since most of the people they represented and derived their power from would be completely opposed to such an idea.
      • Terms like “reform” and “abolition” were vague and meant different things to different leaders. Essentially though, they turned the conversation around caste into a debate on how to “modernize castes”.
    • M.K. Gandhi offers a good example of how the nationalist movement handled caste issues.
      • In 1922, even as the Congress was launching a campaign against untouchability, Gandhi was saying, “The caste system is the natural order of society. […] I am opposed to all those who are out to destroy the caste system.”
      • By the time of his death, Gandhi’s stance had evolved into an opposition of caste, but he — and other prominent nationalist leaders; always stopped several steps short of Ambedkar, who was calling for a complete annihilation of caste.
  3. As British rule over the subcontinent approached its end, the Congress realised that it needed to solidify its claim of representing “India.” In order to achieve this, it blocked the Dalit demand to be treated as a separate group, thus enlarging its vote base and masking its upper caste identity.
    • By the 1930s, the demand for a separate electorate for Muslims — special seats in the legislative assembly which only Muslims could vote on — was already too successful for the Congress to ignore.
    • According to the 1931 census, Hindus constitute 68% of the population. This figure included upper and lower castes, but not Dalits, who were calculated to be around 21%. A demand for separate electorates for Dalits, championed by Ambedkar, was gaining strength at the time. It was increasingly becoming clear that if it succeeded, the Congress’ claim to be the moral and political representative of India would be – at best – applicable to around 50% of the population.
      • Or to put it other words, the Congress would have to acknowledge that they represented only “caste Hindus”
      • The Poona Pact of 1932 ended any hopes of a separate Dalit electorate. Gandhi opposed the demand by embarking on a fast unto death – the first time he had ever done so — which forced Ambedkar to concede.
      • The compromise that was settled on in the end was “reservations.” Separate electorates might’ve allowed scheduled castes to enter independent india as equals. Reservations, on the other hand, were “concessions” granted by the “majority” to the “minority”.
  4. After independence, India’s new constitution abolished discrimination based on caste. Even though it allowed “compensatory discrimination” in the form of reservations in order to remedy the damage of the caste system, it framed this as an “exception” to the rule.
    • When independent India’s constitution was being drafted, two opposing needs clashed. On one hand, there was the need to abolish the caste system. On the other hand, there was the need to uplift those that the caste system had oppressed.
      • In the first case, caste had to be ignored. In the second case, caste had to be recognized.
    • The solution to this puzzle came in two parts. On one hand, a fundamental right guaranteed equality and non-discrimination. On the other hand, a directive principle , encouraged — but did not mandate — the government to give special considerations to SCs and STs
      • These two provisions are “neither equal nor symmetrical”. The right to equality is fundamental. Any programme to help oppressed castes would appear to be an interruption to this right to non-discrimination.
      • Thus, even the recognition of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes was understood as an “exception” that the country was making for the benefit of these groups.
  5. This meant that caste was now – legally speaking – only a source of disadvantages. Upper castes could see themselves as “caste-less” – all the advantages they had derived from caste could now be represented as the result of hard work and “merit.”
    • Since the only exception to the rule of equality was made to recognise SCs and STs, upper castes were now freed from their connection to caste in the eyes of the law. Thus the constitution erased any question of debts or responsibilities that upper castes might have due to their privileged position.
      • So now, the upper castes stopped using their caste when interacting with the state — because they could “give up” their caste without giving up any power or resources tied to it.
    • In this way, upper castes are able to describe policies that benefited them as “development” or as justified by “ market forces” while oppressed castes cannot do that. They have to constantly invoke caste to fight for their basic rights.
      • So caste becomes something that only oppressed groups have.
  6. It was only in the 1980s, when the Mandal Commission proposed reservations for OBCs, that there was broad public debate about how the unreserved or general category had become a space reserved for upper castes who were less than 20% of the population.
    • When the creation of the OBC quota left upper castes as the only group without reservations, it suddenly brought into focus how “general category” had become just another way of saying “upper caste”.
    • After the Mandal Commission, the Supreme Court explicitly declared that this could not be allowed. It declared that the General Category should not act like an upper caste reservation (as they are not an oppressed group).
      • The court held that reserved seats were strictly meant only for those who would not have normally been accepted in the general category. Thus, any candidate who qualified through the general category could not be forced into a reserved seat just because they come from a group that has reservations.
  7. Today, it seems that younger generations of upper caste families might actually genuinely believe their own claims of being “casteless”. Since their parents transformed their caste capital into wealth and social capital, they don’t see the role of caste in their lives.
    • The 2011 census was supposed to provide new data on caste populations in India. During the census, there were public campaigns by upper caste groups to not declare a caste at all.
    • While this is a trend that dates back at least to the 1931 Census, it is possible that in the younger generations of upper caste families there are people who genuinely believe in their “castelessness”
      • If previous generations have done the “work” of transforming caste capital into wealth and qualifications, younger generations would not be able to see the role of caste in their lives.
      • To quote Deshpande, “It is for this group – and this group alone – that family seems to have replaced caste as the source of social capital.”
    • But if we truly mean to annihilate caste, it isn’t enough just to understand how it disadvantages lower castes. We also need to understand the advantages it grants to upper castes — and then dismantle them.

Source text: Towards a Biography of the ‘General Category’
Publication: Economic and Political Weekly
Author: Satish Deshpande

Note: This summary reflects an argument put forward by one scholar in one paper that we think would be interesting or useful to discuss. It does not represent academic consensus on the topic, which is always growing and evolving. If you would like to know how other scholars have built on or critiqued the arguments presented in this paper, click here to see some of the works that cite it.