Envying the lower castes

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Suddenly everyone wants to be low-caste, said Badri Narayan. It used to be considered an extreme disadvantage to be in one of India’s oppressed castes or indigenous tribes. But decades of affirmative action and quota systems have changed all that. Now, many lower-middle castes are agitating to be reclassified as “more backward,” in effect “struggling to move down the ladder of caste in order to rise up from the accumulated disadvantages that centuries of social oppression have saddled them with.” Illiterate and isolated, many of these people are trained only for “pre-modern” vocations like basket weaving, which have no future in the modern world of plastics.

Those listed as Other Backward Classes want to be slotted in as Scheduled Castes so they’ll have a better chance at government jobs, while many in the Scheduled Castes want to be put in the even lower Scheduled Tribes category. But it’s unlikely that simply changing a label will help these people. “Their problem is one of invisibility.”

There are dozens of small sub-castes, each one too politically unaware even to secure the benefits it’s owed. “What they need is not a shift in category.” The lower castes need education, and they’ll only get it when community leaders make their voices heard.