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This is an issue which often hits the headlines in India as seen in the Justice Karnan episode. Is there a better way to handle sensitive caste matters other than aggravating them?



~By Col R Hariharan


The unsavoury episode of Justice CS Karnan has left many red faces, not only in the Supreme Court, but among all of us, including “enlightened” citizens. From the popular perspective, repeatedly reinforced by the media, there is no justification for his unconscionable behaviour. Of course, it was an aberration waiting to happen because of the systemic flaws in the Collegium system to the higher judiciary. It has been done without applying the limited systemic checks before his appointment.

Thanks to Justice Karnan, the selection system’s soft underbelly has been exposed. But as a nation that loves to endlessly debate every issue without quickly acting, we can expect no radical change in the system. As the Supreme Court is inclined to defend its turf, probably some cosmetic changes would be made in the system. It may sound cynical, but that is the way we handle problems, following the Middle Path (with no offense to Gautama Buddha), rather than bite the bullet to take hard decisions.

But, this article is not a legal critique of Justice Karnan’s judicial misconduct. This is also not an apology for the theatrics that accompanied the misconduct. It is to take a closer look at the national issues it signals.


For too long, we have ignored such misconduct from those occupying high offices, both in bureaucracy and politics. They usually belonged to powerful non-Dalit segments that call the shots and we invariably chose to ignore them for that reason. But Justice Karnan suffers the double whammy of being a Dalit and holding a high office. That is one reason for the high decibel outrage.

Karnan’s caste muddies the waters in making a dispassionate analysis of his misdemeanour because the nation is dominated by the upper and middle castes. Our founding fathers, driven by social consciousness, introduced reservations for Dalits and tribals who were traditionally marginalised from the national mainstream. When lawmakers made the transient arrangement a permanent feature of the constitution, they perpetuated caste differences further. Mandalisation was part of it and strengthened caste stratification. Now, more castes are vying to be classified as more backward than others in a nation that is trying to move forward.  We have been living with the anachronism of caste identity, rather than competency.

It is immaterial whether we consider caste reservation right or wrong. Already, for two generations, caste identity has been a huge source of power. It is here to stay, be it in politics, governance, education or employment.

Many castes are vying to be classified as more backward than others. We have been living with complexities of caste identity.

Caste plays a key role in shaping not only political perceptions, but also our social discourse. It is obvious in matrimonial columns where caste takes priority over racism, seen in our preference for fair skin. Less obviously, it permeates our private conduct as well, thanks to the social conditioning we receive from childhood.

We would be living in cuckoo land if we believe we can amend the constitution to abolish caste reservations. The constitution did not invent castes; it only gave it a statutory recognition. Caste panchayats had been there from times immemorial. Castes were based on hereditary occupations, somewhat like the trade guilds that flourished in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. These panchayats became the dispensers of both social justice and social security. They provided the muscle in caste confrontations as also led the palaver to resolve such confrontations. The reservation policy has queered this system because caste-based occupations have given way to knowledge-based ones. Dalits and marginalised communities have taken advantage of it to climb up the social ladder. Though occupations have changed, the system based on caste identity has not vanished. In fact, they have been reinforced by political parties that pander to divisive identities of caste. Almost all political parties have separate cells for dealing with various castes. In urban areas, political parties or their factions are operating the morphed version of caste panchayats.


In my state of Tamil Nadu, caste reservations were institutionalised two decades before Independence. The government of Madras presidency (which included the whole of Tamil Nadu state) led by Chief Minister Dr P Subbarayan (father of Communist leader-turned Congress minister Mohan Kumaramangalam) implemented caste-based reservations in­ 1927. Actually, it was implementing an earlier government order (G.O.No. 613) of 1921 that introduced caste-based reservations. The government’s implementation order G.O. Ms. No.102 of 1927 introduced reservations for Dalits, Christians and Muslims; it also reduced reservations for Brahmins from 22 percent to 18 percent and for other castes from 48 percent to 42 percent.

It is immaterial whether we consider caste reservation right or wrong. Already, for two generations, caste politics has been a huge source of power.

I remember when the order was abolished in my state after Independence, my non-Brahmin classmates observed a day of protest, boycotting classes and shouting slogans against the Congress party and Brahmins, a minuscule minority hogging government jobs till then. Since then, for three generations, Tamil Nadu has practised institutionalised caste reservations with mixed results. Educated Dalits have clawed their way into politics and find a place in occupations that were the preserve of other castes.

That is how many Dalits from the state are now in government jobs in the highest echelons. This has been resented by backward classes, who have also benefitted from the system.

Political turf wars based on caste equations have become an essential part of coalition forming. However, it translates into virulent caste conflicts when politics fails to provide answers to social confrontations.

However, much of the change is more symbolic than substance. In the 60s, in my small town in Tamil Nadu, the streets were named after the caste of people who lived there. And nobody made a big noise about it. Now, I find the same streets are named after national or state political leaders. Their traditional caste tags have been dropped, often resulting in ridiculous distortion of names. For instance, TT Krishnamachari Salai (road) in Chennai has become TT Krishnama Salai. The state’s avowed desire to help Dalits (called Adi Dravidas) has given rise to Adi Dravida hostels, which are really ghettos built exclusively for Dalit students. It presents a cameo of the state’s skewed approach to transform well-meaning ideas into actions, skewed by ingrained caste prejudices.

Perhaps, a study of the impact of 80 years of caste-based reservations in Tamil Nadu could provide useful pointers in handling the unsavoury fallout of perpetuating reservations. It is possible such a study has already been carried out. If so, it is time to dust it up and take some remedial actions.

But the moot point is, are there any takers for improving the way we handle caste issues, apart from shouting slogans and expecting politicians to use their jugaad to handle critical issues? I have my doubts.

Col R Hariharan, a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the International Law and Strategic Studies Institute

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