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Learn from Bose how to rise above caste

Any accentuation of caste-based identities in a situation of acute job scarcity will lead to the sharp polarisation of society.

G.D. Bakshi  New Delhi | 5th Sep 2015

Subhas Chandra Bose with Indian National Army soldiers.

The Patidar and Patel agitation in Gujarat for the status of Other Backward Classes (OBCs), resulted in widespread violence, where the Army had to be called in. Similar was the case with the Jats and Gujjars, who were agitating to be declared as backward classes and wanted to be brought within the ambit of reservations and affirmative action, based on caste and community. After the 1857 uprising, the British colonial masters did their utmost to accentuate India's caste faultlines. They started District Manuals, Gazettes and Imperial Surveys to map India's caste demographics. Then in 1872, the first caste based census was conducted as a special component of the British divide and rule strategy. Sir John Seeley, the author of this census, wrote, "The Mutiny was in a great measure put down using the races of India against each other... Indians do not have the capacity to develop an idea of nationality. So long as a regime of caste persists, it is difficult to see how the sentiments of unity and solidarity can penetrate and inspire all classes of the community."

Today, the great pity is that we are doing unto ourselves, on the caste front, what the British were not able to do as thoroughly while colonising us. They exploited every fault line in Indian society to divide the people and polity. The very justification for colonial rule was based on the argument of imperial justice — that India was such a cauldron of warring castes and creeds that it needed a foreign power to impose justice and equity; that because of their divisions, Indians were not fit to rule themselves.

The primary aim of the freedom struggle, therefore, was to fashion a pan-Indian identity beyond the confines of caste, creed, language, religion and race. Today, our politics has lost all sight of the project to fashion this identity. Pygmy politicians have found mobilisation based on caste identity markers to be the primary and easiest basis of political mobilisation — forgetting in the bargain that caste was one of the primary constructs of the imperial project of divide and rule. We continue to divide ourselves today only at the extreme peril of our existence as a unified state.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was against the barriers of caste and creed. In his 60,000-strong Indian National Army (INA), he used militant nationalism as a primary motivational tool. Even though over half his force consisted of prisoners from the British Indian army, he dispensed with the colonial ethnicity-based model of regiments that accentuated regional or sub-nationality factors, which were supposed to be a check against the rise of Indian nationalism. The miracle was that as far back as in the 1940s, Bose made this militant nationalism-model work flawlessly in the INA. Soldiers of all castes, creeds and religions lived together, ate together in common kitchens and fought as Indians first and last.

Today, we need to replace caste based affirmative action with a model that is based purely on economic criterion. That will help take care of our society's genuinely weaker sections and target affirmative action to where it is most needed. We need to end the petty politics that needlessly strengthens caste and sub-regional identities at the expense of the larger Indian identity. It, thereby, weakens the nationalist impulse and the very idea of India. The colonial idea was to keep the Indian population divided and at war with itself. Do we need to invoke that metaphor of divisiveness today? Can we afford this as a nation state?

Any accentuation of caste based identities in a situation of acute job scarcity, will lead to the sharp polarisation of Indian society. With a major youth bulge and some 200 million new job seekers coming into the job market in the next few years, it will lead to serious crisis and conflict. Such a badly skewed affirmative action system, which puts half the Indian population within the ambit of caste based reservation in perpetuity, militates against all ideas of natural justice. Today, we need the ideals of Bose, we need his burning zeal and commitment to the idea of India, and not the tribalism and atavistic divisions of caste.

Caste has long outlived whatever utility it had in an agrarian society. As societies industrialise and urbanise, populations tend to homogenise and caste becomes a meaningless anachronism. Can you ask people their castes in crowded metros and trains or buses? Let affirmative action be restricted purely to economic criterion that targets the poorest of our poor. With Aadhar (UID) cards and better demographic mapping tools, this can be done.

Hardik Patel is just 22 years old. He represents India's demographic youth bulge, which is entering our job market. To employ them all we need to generate some 200 million new jobs within the next five years. This translates into 30 million jobs a month. So far we have failed to reach this level of employment generation. Unemployment on such a massive scale can lead to huge law and order problems. We will need systems that are seen to be manifestly just and equitable. We will have to ensure that the competition for scarce government jobs and the professions of doctors and engineers does not descend into outright caste-based wars. We have little time to get our act together. That is why the quest for what happened to Bose is only a metaphor in our search for answers for the ills that afflict our nation state today. The ideals of Netaji Subhas Bose are sorely needed in these turbulent times to preserve the very idea of India.

Maj Gen (Dr) G.D. Bakshi SM,VSM (Retd) is an Army veteran.

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