It is evident to any observer of the Indian situation that democracy has not led to equa¬lity. So for any social scientist engaged in a study of one seg¬ment of society, this revelation should not come as a shock. In a study of ‘untouchable politics’ and Indian social change, Barbara Joshi focusses on various aspects—social, economic and psychological—of existence among the schedul¬ed castes. Taking into account the historical roots and prob¬lems of the community, and the extent of its political inter¬est and participation, she seeks to illustrate this thesis through an examination of the con¬temporary situation of the scheduled castes in India. Caste has been a popular sub¬ject in Indian studies, and the pattern and scope of this book is similar to that of several sociologists who have attempt¬ed research based on inter¬views, census data and empiri¬cal analysis. The utility of this book lies in the fact that it synthesizes many previous debates on the scheduled caste problem.
Joshi uses earlier writings of the Western liberal tradition on caste, and adds her own data and experience. This study has its own empiri¬cal value though it does not concern itself much with theory. Joshi is convinced that the mobilization of scheduled castes would not have been possible without the policy of guaranteed proportionate re-presentation in the legislative bodies in India. She shows, with the use of a wide range of data, that the present material status and progress of the scheduled castes is closely related to their political development.
Thus, for instance, scheduled caste literacy which was 2 per cent in 1931, had increased to only 15 per cent in 1971; Employment patterns show that unemployment figures are significantly higher amongst scheduled castes than in other caste groups. More distressing, however, is the revelation that the problem of unemployment becomes increasingly severe for the better educated. Des¬pite reservation programmes in Government and the public sector, the author shows that discrimination continues to be a serious problem in the private sector. The severity of the problem is heightened by the fact that 90 per cent of scheduled caste persons live in rural areas—being linked to the rural economy their old status is often retained.
Land reforms ‘have done little to correct basic rural inequali¬ties’, says the author. The sche¬duled castes form a substantial section in agricultural labour and only 6 per cent of its families had purchased land between 1951 to 1960, com¬pared with 55 per cent of higher caste Hindus and 61 per cent of intermediate caste Hindus and Muslims. Unfor¬tunately, Joshi does not extend this study beyond 1961, but undoubtedly the situation would not be very different today, because, as she points out, ‘the political power of the landed peasant castes that benefited from the first wave of agrarian reforms has effec¬tively blocked major changes in rural economic power balances’. Any attempt to change the existing pattern has led to violence by upper castes against the harijans.
Joshi traces the roots of social policies for the ex untouch¬ables from pre-independence period. Her analysis reveals that the larger population re¬mained unaware of the debates generated by the reform move¬ment. Although early manu¬facturing, industrialization and urbanization introduced some new ideas and change, and the growth of cities created some social confusion by introduc¬ing an element of anonymity of caste, yet mass mobility was a far cry. The British did not want to alienate the in-fluential natives, and did not disturb the social patterns. Most of the early social re formers focussed on changes relevant to status alone, and the question of ‘untouchability’ was raised only around early 1900. It was only some amount of socio-economic change that led to a limited measure of social mobility.
Examining Gandhi’s position on untouchability, Joshi, after giving him due credit, remarks’ that ‘Gandhi’s comments on the subject, like those of seve¬ral high caste reformers of the period, were simultaneously practical and myopically pat¬ronizing’ and ‘Gandhi’s methods of re-educating the ‘twice born’ were simply rein¬forcing old prejudices’.
Ambedkar’s position was of course a more radical one, which the author recounts with some details of his life and work in chapter three. Though Joshi herself does not attempt a definition of equa¬lity, she observes quite cor¬rectly that Ambedkar was convinced that ‘sharp limita¬tions in differences in indivi¬dual wealth would be neces-sary.’ This belief stemmed from his practical experience and observation of the problem.
The present numerical level of scheduled caste representa¬tion, Joshi says, ‘is not the pro¬duct of dramatically improved scheduled caste political capa¬city for competition’ but only due to the reservation policy. Scheduled caste persons on the whole still have a lower average of political infor¬mation than higher castes. Their inadequate economic resources frustrates them from the outset. In fact, even in the reserved constituencies, selection depends on the back¬ing of a strong party, as well as various other factors of multi-party contests. Joshi argues that though organized radical grass-roots challenge to the status quo is appealing, the rifts within the sche-duled castes, as also prejudices which alienate ex-untouch¬ables from their fellow poor have contributed to this failure to carry out this strategy successfully. Here, Joshi touches the crux of an impor¬tant problem—that of deep-rooted ideologies which cause factions within a class, but she I does not develop it further.
The author questions one of the key concepts of western sociology —mainly that of ‘modernization’ as the most effective ally of traditionally suppressed groups like the scheduled castes. In her case study of four cities (Kanpur, Delhi, Aligarh, and Agra) her results question the validity of this model to the scheduled caste groups. Her examina-tion of the industrial work force reveals that the ex-untouchables dominate rela¬tively low status occupations in industry. A comparison with this survey of the mana¬gerial elite shows that only 0.4 per cent of respondents belong to the scheduled castes. Discrimination, thus, occurs at every level, and especially in hiring procedures. There is hardly any study to show scheduled caste activity in labour unions, and Joshi her¬self, unfortunately, does not examine this important lacuna. Joshi shows that scheduled caste groups ‘remain self-con¬sciously socially distinct’. Even in areas (as Kanpur) where the residential pattern is ‘thoroughly mixed’, com¬pared to other cities, actual social interaction is limited. College students still faced segregated housing. Thus her conclusion, that urbanization has not meant automatic inte¬gration of scheduled caste persons into the rest of the dominant society. Moderniza¬tion is just one of the factors, as it raises expectations and capability, but does not break ‘traditional’ social ties.
In examining Harijan poli¬tical attitudes, the author comes to perhaps the obvious conclusion that scheduled castes and their spokesmen have diverse and contradic¬tory views, varying ideas of what constitutes equality, and no one spokes-man, and a lack of strategy or specific cohe¬rent guiding philosophy. Their political affiliations differ—like those of any other class. Joshi shows, with the use of examples, that though this is not a homogeneous group, it can wield important politi-cal influence if it tries. Problems of this group obviously need the country’s attention. One proposal suggested here is that the office of the Commissioner of Scheduled Castes and Sche¬duled Tribes should be given some authority to enforce his recom-mendations at the State and Central levels.
The author tries to measure the influence of the Harijans on political events by examin¬ing the position of their repre¬sentatives in policy formula¬tion and imple-mentation in some select legislative assem¬blies. The result obviously cannot be specific. Joshi concludes, however, that poor economic resources, lack of information and general lack of formal education lead to serious limitations on the MPs and MLAs.
The author’s conclusions are evidently those of a liberal scholar working within the existing framework. The scheduled castes are still a backward community in all respects, facing ‘traditional’ problems of low status and discrimination. Yet the policy of political reservations has assisted this group in various ways, by giving them access to political organization and centres of public decision-¬making. The ex-untouchables are now becoming active in supporting policies for social and economic change. It is necessary, thus, for reservation policies to continue, as all studies indicate that there has not been much change in the overall existence of scheduled castes, and traditional expres¬sion of untouchability and negative stereotypes of Hari¬jans are still widespread.
To the question of whether the general development pro¬grammes and protect-tive feat¬ures are adequate to reduce caste-linked disparities, Joshi answers that it is easier to move against the privileges of small elites such as zamindars, than to move against wide¬spread problems of unequal access to land, jobs and gene¬ral economic upliftment. Her answer delinks a related issue. Any move towards equality, (and political equality is also related to social and economic equality) would have to alter various structures in society, which would necessarily alter the privileges of the wealthier classes. If this is not done, we will continue to deceive ourselves with incremental changes which only bolster the status quo.
Anuradha M. Chenoy is Lecturer, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.