Saturday, April 07, 2007

Satish Deshpande on caste inequalities

Satish Deshpande's Contemporary India: A Sociological View (Penguin, 2003) has a revealing chapter on caste inequalities. The bulk of the chapter is on establishing the reality of significant inequalities using a variety of data (the 1999 NSSO survey data, and employment in government and corporate sectors). In presenting his analysis, however, he makes an important point that the data on matters related to caste are insufficient -- in both quantity and quality. And he uses this point to comment on India's sociologists and their attitude towards the institution of caste:

... [E]ver since independence, the Indian Census has resolutely refused to ask citizens their caste, on the ground that the new state was 'caste blind', and that previous attempts to collect such data were part of the imperial 'divide and rule' policy. So the only reliable data we have on caste is restricted to the three way classification of 'Scheduled Caste', 'Scheduled Tribe' and 'Other'. [...]

The active antipathy towards caste after independence was the joint product of, first, the nationalist movement and its campaign against caste distinctions, and, second, a reaction against what were seen as deliberate colonial policies to create and sharpen divisions among the Indian people. [...]

Whatever the merits of the antecedent causes, the post-independence backlash against caste was strong and sustained. It ensured that one of the paradoxical lessons of modern governance -- that the state must measure whatever it wishes to eradicate -- would not be learnt. As a result, the data we have on caste inequality are not only meager but also reluctant, so to speak, needing to be coaxed into existence, and dependent on the accidents of scholarly interest and statistical convenience. What needs to be emphasized is that unlike other comparable situations, the paucity and poor quality of these data is the result of willful if well-intentioned neglect: we refused to collect such data because we thought we should not collect them and did not need them. However, the irony is that the end result is not very different from what might have been the case had there been a great conspiracy to suppress evidence of caste inequality. [Pages 107-109]

Earlier in the chapter, Deshpande points to how, in this post-Mandal era, Indian sociologists did not have much to say or contribute:

Today, a decade after the bitter controversy over the Mandal Commission report, we may be better placed to appreciate the irony in the fact that this controversy offered us -- albeit by accident -- a rare window of insight into Indian sociology. Given the centrality of caste, an undeniably 'sociological' subject, one would normally have expected the discipline to shed light on the controversy rather than the other way around. Of course, such expectations were not entirely belied. But while some sociologists did gain rare public attention for their comments, the discipline itself gained little in prestige and authority.

That was not because sociologists adopted unpopular stances. In fact, the most prominent among them were vocal in their support for the anti-Mandal position which dominated urban middle-class perceptions of this issue and received wide and strongly sympathetic coverage in the metropolitan media. But, by and large, sociologists were unable to say anything that went beyond popular commonsense.

... By addressing crucial questions which the overnight experts were unable to answer, sociologists could have demonstrated that their discipline provides insights that commonsense cannot. But it seems in retrospect that the sociologists' silence on questions of caste inequality was not so much perverse as prudent. As a matter of fact, despite all its claims to an expertise on caste, Indian sociology did not have the answers, never having shown much interest in macro-analysis of caste inequality. The important point, though, is that this lack of interest was itself invisible because it was so much a part of business as usual in Indian sociology. It took a national crisis as big as Mandal to alert us to this blind spot, and to goad us into recognizing it as a problem. [Pages 100-102]

After pointing out that much of sociology of caste was done at the 'micro-level' -- in the villages (M.N. Srinivas' "field" view of Indian society). But ...

While this has certainly yielded valuable insights, [almost exclusive reliance on fieldwork] has precluded any significant attempts at developing a macro-perspective based on a more broad-based coverage of the field. Survey methods in particular remained underdeveloped.

But most important, perhaps, is the fact that influential sociologists have tended to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds on this issue. They have been the first to criticize the methods used and the macro-data produced to track caste inequality ... However, they have also been in the forefront of opposition to initiatives for the systematic collection of macro-level data on caste, even though they have not, by and large, shown any eagerness to suggest alternative methodologies for data collection.

In the early 1990s, for example, mauling the Mandal Commission's report for its weak database and questionable methodology had become something of a professional pastime for sociologists. But rarely were critics willing to specify what available datasets the Commission had failed to utilize, precisely how it could have improved upon its methodology, and, more generally, how it could have done a better job within the given constraints. And yet, a few years later, when the collection of caste data in the 2001 census was being mooted, the same voices were heard denouncing this proposal as not just impractical but pernicious. Once again there was little concern for suggesting alternatives. [Page 104]

One final extract about the sociological significance of macro-perspective:

... Drastic and sustained differences in shares and proportions averaged across very large numbers of individuals from different social groups cannot be explained in terms of differences in individual abilities and circumstances. As Emile Durkheim demonstrated long ago, although every individual suicide is undoubtedly an intensely personal event, the average rate of suicide in a society is a social fact. Explanations for differneces in rates of suicide in two different societies or social groups (numbering in millions) cannot be sought at the individual level -- we must look to social factors that affect the group as a whole. This is why the commonsense approach that seeks to turn data on the under-representation of the lowest castes in the privileged sections of society into evidence of the 'lack of merit' of these castes is sociological nonsense. Any individual member of any caste may do well or not depending on his or her abilities and resources, but when we speak of rates of representation for whole communities with millions of members, all such inter-individual differences are averaged out. If genetic explanations are ruled out -- as they have been for a long time -- the only reasonable explanation is in terms of the social mechanisms (whether intentionally or accidentally created) of systematic discrimination. [Page 121]


  1. barbarindian said...

    Perhaps not a civic response, but I must say, old cow dung served on new banana leaf, only this time the banana represents the state of republic in the days to come.

  2. Shivam Vij said...

    Barbarindian, when were you known for civic responses anyway?

  3. obc voice said...

    hadn't noticed this review earlier.. may i suggest you read this review too - ?
    look at how different the conclusions are.