How a pre-Independence journey that began with the desire to abolish caste has led to a predicament, in which the need to de-legitimise caste is in conflict with the commitment to redress the disabilities of caste, requires closer interrogation, Satish Deshpande, Professor and Head, Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, said on Wednesday.

Delivering the Malcolm Adiseshiah Memorial Lecture under the auspices of the Malcolm and Elizabeth Adiseshiah Trust (M&EA Trust) at the Asian College of Journalism, Prof. Deshpande said it was the “unbridgeable divergence of these two routes … that make the ‘annihilation of caste’ seem more like a disabling dream than an empowering utopia.”

Pointing out that it was hardly surprising that Dr. Ambedkar’s cherished ideal, “the annihilation of caste,” remained to this day “an inspiring but vague destination without a reliable route map”, Prof. Deshpande felt that this was a good time to interrogate this utopia more closely.

In his view, the central predicament in caste was the hyper-visibility of the so-called lower castes and the virtual invisibility of the upper castes that had split society into two unequal and implacably opposed sections — one for which caste appeared to be the only available resource to improve life-chances in a game where the playing field was far from level, while for the other camp, caste had already yielded all it could and represented a “ladder that can now be safely kicked away.”

“While it is necessary to address the question of the lower castes and their demands for social justice, we will not get a purchase on the contemporary complexities of this institution unless we pay close attention to its taken-for-granted side, namely the ‘naturalisation’ of the upper castes as the legitimate inheritors of modernity,” he said.

Prof. Deshpande’s address, themed ‘Caste and Castelessness in the Indian Republic: A Brief Biography of the ‘General Category’, also retraced sociological, political, Constitutional and judicial perspectives, and the emergence and rise of the notion of castelessness.

Prof. Deshpande also pointed out that since the ‘Mandal’ upsurge, one of the defining events of the 1990s, provoked a re-evaluation of the scope of the ‘general category’, the most recent assertion of castelessness was provoked by the proposal to enumerate caste in the 2011 Census.

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