India’s 1st “census” of sorts was compiled during the tenure of Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II back in the late 1700s and was more in the nature of a complicated head count than anything else. Historians have long been at loggerheads about the nature of this effort that, to say the least, was unexpected from the person who, symbolically at least, gave away our independence.
While some historians say that the idea wasn’t really his, but belonged to a more farsighted courtier; the nationalist school of history has claimed that it was a more Company Sahib-led initiative to see what wealth lay to be taken. Although both schools have a great deal of evidence to support their respective claims, they are united on the issue of caste having not been an issue at those times; in other words no one made such a big hue and cry over it.
Now in 2011, 230 odd years down the line, the Govt. of India has agreed to include Caste in the census. That they have pushed Indian society back a good 100 years is not in doubt; neither is that fact that they’re bowing down to parties that have made caste their primary ladder to power; the important question is how do we get out of this almighty rut.
Nehru, the founder of modern India and its 1st family, not to mention its 1st PM was not only an atheist but a socialist to boot; that means he neither believed in God, nor the baseless and superfluous distinctions between men. He, doubtless, would have strongly disapproved of the doings of his party, just as he strongly disapproved of Gandhi’s acceptance of “reserved constituencies” for social and religious minorities back in 1935. The problem, then, was that Ambedkar, leader of the dalits, and Jinnah of the (then nascent) Muslim League were far more astute thinkers and negotiators than they were thought to be (by Nehru who was more of an idealist than anything else). Also they were neither impressed nor bowled over by Gandhi’s charm offensives and PR gambits; and since on both occasions Gandhi (who was never a formal member of the Congress Party) carried on these negotiations alone, disaster was bound to ensue.
The past, as they say, is history; and the world has certainly moved on since then. In 2007, for the 1st time in human history, more people around the world will live in cities than in the country side. India, as always, will be an exception to this; but even here the country side has changed. The India that Gandhi said lived in its villages is long gone, yet why does caste still play such a major role in people’s lives today and can the people do something to stop this relentless march to divisive policies.
One answer is to look to the urban middle class. Some say that when the urban, educated middle class makes up 50%-65% of the population, the politicians will have to change their rhetoric to suit these new aspirations, but that is still generation away at best. Even a progressive western education might not be enough to ward off the evils that befell our forefathers. The recent spate of caste-based honor killings in UP, Bihar and Haryana (where such things have become disturbingly common) show that even the most broad-minded of parents can be shockingly conservative (read boorish) when it comes to their daughters’ future.
The answer is to look back to India’s past, for clues to its future. The past must be re-examined in the cold light of reason and enlightenment. We must clearly examine every choice made and reflect on the roads not taken to properly gauge the course ahead.
There was once a concept called India, an idea that lived in its people; that idea must be found, its story unearthed and its message rediscovered.