Bengaluru: In June 2020, the Deparment of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) in California, USA, filed a lawsuit against IT company Cisco Systems for caste discrimination. The lawsuit by DFEH--the state agency responsible for enforcing California’s civil rights laws--noted that “higher caste supervisors and co-workers imported the discriminatory system’s practices into their team and Cisco’s workplace”, the Los Angeles Times reported on July 2. The caste of a Cisco employee, an Indian-American Dalit engineer anonymised as ‘John Doe’, was allegedly revealed--and passed on to others at work--by an “upper” caste colleague who had studied with him, over two decades ago, at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and knew that Joe had been admitted to the premiere institution through reservation because his name was not on the general merit list.

The case lays bare the complex issue of caste dynamics that operate in the garb of merit while undermining affirmative action such as reservation. While India has for decades had reservation for marginalised groups such as the scheduled castes (SCs), scheduled tribes (STs) and other backward classes (OBCs), in January 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government also introduced a 10% ‘quota’ for the economically weaker sections among the general category in government jobs and higher education institutions, IndiaSpend reported.

India needs to reimagine the idea of affirmation, says Surinder Jodhka, professor of sociology, Centre for the Study of Social Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), in this interview on caste, race and reservation. The idea of reservation needs to be opened up and the government needs to “collect more data on caste identities” in consultation with academics, the private sector, and other stakeholders.

Jodhka is a 2012 winner of Indian Council of Social Science Research-Amartya Sen award for distinguished social scientists. His recent publications include India’s Villages in the 21st Century: Revisits and Revisions (edited with Edward Simpson) and Mapping the Elite: Power, Privilege and Inequality (edited with Jules Naudet). He has also published Inequality in Capitalist Societies (co-authored with Boike Rehbien and Jesse Souza), and The Indian Middle Class (co-authored with Aseem Prakash).

Edited excerpts from the interview:

The Department of Fair Employment and Housing in California has launched a lawsuit against Cisco for caste discrimination against an employee. In a 2007 Economic and Political Weekly article based on interviews with human resource managers in India’s organised private sector, you (and co-author Katherine Newman) had noted that their opposition to reservations was “the relationship between modernity and meritocracy”. How do you now perceive the idea of merit, and the problems posed by caste in India, particularly in the private sector?

It is a larger problem of liberal social order. The emphasis was to move from ascription to individual-based achievement. There is a foundational problem with modernity and that can be seen in the public sphere. The legitimacy of inequality is sought through invisibilisation of identities. Identities, like cultural capital, soft skills, social network, come from ascription. At some level it is not just an Indian problem where individual success is legitimated on the basis of IQ and hard work; these are facades.

In the last 20 years, literature shows that [social] mobility has stopped [even] in most of the Western countries.

Reservation allows upper castes to claim success on the basis of merit and [believe that it has] nothing to do with identity. They do not realise their own privileges. So when corporate managers say that they only value merit and give no credence to caste, they only blind themselves to the pre-existing disparities. They tend to also look for soft skills and call them merit. The desired social skill, in reality, are monopolies of the relatively privileged. Individualisation of merit works as a strategy to justify inequality.

Is this narrative of meritocracy witnessed more in the private sector than in the public or government sector?

Even in the government sector there is a narrative of merit. The Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) refuse to implement quota despite being funded by the state. Similarly, the armed forces do not implement reservations, and the upper judiciary, too, has been a privilege of the privileged.

There has been a debate around extending reservation to the private sector, and there has been a pushback too. Must reservations be extended to the sector? If yes, then how should it be done?

This is a difficult proposition. It will not be easy to implement or even justify. If I have a small company and want to hire five people [and are required to meet reservation criteria], it would create all kinds of issues [including legal ambiguity]. However, this does not mean that [the] private sector should have no social responsibility. Caste remains an important indicator of disadvantage and must be recognised to be so by everyone, and everyone must work towards levelling the field.

We need to reimagine the idea of affirmation away from how diversity has been classically understood in the Indian context. Diversity is not simply about language, region and religion. Caste should also be recognised as an important axis of diversity. Though caste is not everything and other identities also matter, such as gender and religion, it can be a very important variable in the measurement of diversity.

If the corporate or private sector has to be encouraged to introduce affirmative action, they should be allowed to open it up and individualise deprivation by recognising a number of variables, such as nature of schooling, rural residence or even gender. This could be operationalised through the notion 'deprivation points'. JNU has been using such a system for its admissions--giving deprivation points based on caste, education (rural government school or private), migration from rural areas, gender, etc.

Affirmative action must be based on identity, otherwise it is not affirmative action. But identities must be imagined more openly through constant research and dialogue. The Indian state continues to work with fixed categories of classification that originated in colonial times.

What is the best way of reimagining identities considering that we generally follow a classification made by the government?

It is not just the government, there are other vested interests too, even from within the Dalits, who would not like the reservation policy to be touched. They also have their apprehensions because they do not trust the elite. However, we need to move from [a] fixed notion of caste to a more general culture of promoting equal opportunities and affirmation in favour of the historically marginalised, and caste should be recognised as an important axis of deprivation though not the only one. Any kind of discrimination should be severely punished, like it is done in many countries of the West.

Diversity is good for the private sector because merit is not restricted to the elite. Most of merit gets confused with what is understood as soft skills in the private sector. Bringing in more diversity will change it. When it comes to employment it is not about eradicating caste, but it is about getting opportunities [of social mobility].

If quota is presented to the private sector in the form of meeting certain percentages in employment, it becomes a problem. They should also be incentivised [for instance, an independent agency could be asked to rate private companies pursuing affirmative action, which can be a determining factor in their consideration for government contracts or companies could be put on a list of ‘good business practices’ companies for the general public.] That may change the status-quo.

Further, Indian society is changing very fast. There are others demanding quotas. In the last few years we have seen agitation by Jats, Patels and Marathas. These are dominant communities whose next generation has moved away from villages and agriculture, and are educated and aspirationally want to be in the cities.

While this is good for the country, we need to make space for them. Currently these spaces are monopolised by bania-brahmin [upper castes] clusters. Even though there are problems with their [dominant communities’] methods of agitation, they are also trying to make an important point and could be seen positively. They are not just asking for backward class status, they are asking for dignified education and employment in cities. They also represent transformative aspirations and energies.

The 10% reservation for the economically weaker sections among the general category in government jobs and higher education institutions by the BJP-led government has already, in a way, diluted the idea of affirmative action in India. With a new and aggressive nationalist narrative emerging against caste-based reservation, what is your projection about the future of this policy?

I think the policy will continue though its value is declining. It will remain confined to public institutions and government jobs. However, the quality of public institutions has been declining and it may further decline. Our education system is getting fast differentiated, where most of the quality education happens in privately run institutions. This has already happened at the level of school education and it is happening quite rapidly at the level of higher education as well.

The job front is also changing. Jobs at the lower end are mostly being outsourced, leaving no scope for the newly mobile rural SCs to get into the system. Some of the higher-level jobs [in the government] are also being taken out of the system and are being “opened” to consultants and those joining through lateral entries.

The Supreme Court recently observed that the right to reservation is not a Fundamental Right. In 2016, we reported how reservations help students from disadvantaged social groups to pursue higher education. How do you assess the court’s observation and its impact?

Reservation as a whole has had a positive impact on India, not just for the marginalised groups. It has developed stakes of those on the margins in the economic, democratic and educational system.

Education is a medium through which mobility can be attained, which implies that they have a stake in the system. I think people on the margins need to be reassured that their rights will not be taken away. Now, education has shifted from government to private institutions. Those from the reserved categories tend to see such pronouncement by the Supreme Court as a message against them. I am not sure if putting it like this serves any purpose.

There has been a demand for a fresh census to capture data on caste, which was last done in 1931. The Bihar state legislature passed a resolution that the demand be met. The Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) has not been updated in nearly a decade. How has this affected social mobility and opportunities?

The idea of reservation needs to be opened up. We need to collect more data on caste identities. For the first 50 years [after Independence] we were working with this illusion that modernisation will erase and eradicate caste. We know that it has not worked that way. Collective identities continue to matter almost everywhere and shape opportunities in everyday lives.

We need to collect rigorous data. It should be collected in consultation with academics, the corporate sector, and others [stakeholders]. The last time it [SECC data collection] was done in a hurry. There was no consultation.

Caste is not a pan-India system, and [is] not only about varna hierarchy or SC, ST and general category. There are many aspects that are regional and we need to look at how regional patterns of caste mobility have worked over the last half-century or more, like which are the castes and sub-castes that have gone up or down [in hierarchy]? These are aspects that the earlier generation of bureaucrats understood. For example, Jats in some pockets of Rajasthan are listed as OBCs, while in others they are not. Such bureaucratic wisdom may not exist now. So, we will need to generate data regularly (every five to 10 years), and need a body which is engaged in developing and understanding these aspects.

Inequality is a big issue that everyone is facing. If inequalities persist and become worse, [the] corporate sector may not be able to generate demand because wealth is getting centralised. Inequality is a systemic question. When it gets tied to categories and identities, they become politically dangerous. As a healthy society we must be able to do this, like through the use of technology. Brazil was able to connect socio-economic variables during [former President Lula Inácio Lula da Silva] Lula’s regime and were able to implement social welfare programmes effectively.

It is the only way to deal with poverty and exclusions in a society like ours. Even in situations like the current pandemic, we need systematic data to protect people from vulnerabilities, such as those of the migrant workers we witnessed recently.

The COVID-19 health crisis has exposed inequalities in India, particularly witnessed in the exodus of migrants from urban areas. Many migrants, usually from the marginalised castes and religious groups, continue to be employed in low-paying informal jobs. Governments and industry leaders have talked about extending work hours and relaxing labour laws. How do you look at social structures and the idea of labour change as a result of the pandemic?

People need to be assured that they would be taken care of. We need to change the narrative and say that we are with them, rather than create a narrative around [economic] opportunity [during a pandemic].

This is a moment of crisis and as a state system our resources and energy must be mobilised to make sure that people on the margins are offered all possible support. Everyone feels vulnerable in a situation like this.

The pandemic will have an effect. We can see how students are struggling with online teaching. Many have poor or no connectivity in rural areas. It is hard for research students to step out to do fieldwork. These social contexts are not liberating or opportune moments. If we do not have classroom education, it is going to collapse. If students have to study from home the next few years, we may not have a skilled population. We can’t do science experiments or innovative research online. There is an entire supply chain [which will get affected].

Race relations are tense in the US which is witnessing the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd, and violence around it. India reported nearly 43,000 cases of atrocities against SCs and more than 6,500 against STs in 2018, as per NCRB data. How do you compare issues of caste and race, and why do we not see such an outpouring against discrimination in India?

We are a very different kind of society. Culturally and temperamentally, we are still not [a] very democratic people. We love our joint family, patriarchs and traditional orders. We are a political democracy, but substantively we are fine with having our gender and caste differences.

The race issue has been historically different. Although it is not easy to create binaries in understanding race, it is more clear [compared to caste]. Much of the Black population in the US is urban and the country is also urban. India is also going through this process [of urbanisation] but it is still rare to see non-Dalits joining Dalits in a protest.

[The] Khairlanji massacre [in 2006] led to Maharshtra being paralysed. Similarly, when a visiting Dalit religious leader was killed in Austria [in 2009], Punjab was paralysed. We witness such mass reactions occasionally, but they are all exclusively by Dalit groups, generally by a specific community of the Dalits. Even Dalits rarely come together on such issues. Caste-based divisions among them also continue to be strong and they continue to shape their politics and mobilisations.

Despite urbanisation and economic changes, and political parties like the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party gaining support in the last three decades, SC and ST households earn 21% and 34%, respectively, less than the national average while OBC households fare better but still earn 8% less. How much has class-based politics changed the socio-economic structure in rural areas compared to caste-based politics? Do urban regions fare differently?

There has been [a] churning in our society and in the way we approach inequalities or vulnerabilities. For example, very rarely did social scientists focus on caste while talking about poverty and inequality during the early decades after Independence. [The] ground situation was also different. A large proportion of the rural population (20%-30% or more) was engaged in agricultural labour. They also had their unions. There was clearly a question of class in the rural context.

Similarly, farmers mobilised around question of price [of their produce] and their discrimination in urban markets. Nationally also there was [a narrative of] class politics. With mechanisation and growing use of technology, these identities have become fragile. There is hardly any working class politics in India today. Left politics and trade unions have declined.

There has also been a rise in right-wing religious groups. Do you find India becoming more religious in the last few decades?

Changes taking place on ground have created spaces for identity politics. Globalisation-led mobility has also created anxieties and insecurities. So one way was to go back to the perceived identity pride like in nationalism and religious identity. This is also a response to ‘ontological anxieties’ (one’s existence and the meaning or purpose of life) produced by the changes on ground. We see a growing fascination for religious identity--new babas, deras in Punjab and elsewhere. There is a new kind of demonstrative and mobile religiosity. This is also because community- and kinship-based ties have weakened and people feel lost. It is not only in rural areas that such changes are happening though these trends are generally more visible among mobile populations.

(Paliath is an analyst with IndiaSpend.)

We welcome feedback. Please write to We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.