The current issue of EPW has an interesting article on conceptual differences between caste and class and their role in the reservation policy. Some of the author K.D. Saksena's points struck me as being very similar to the ones that Vivek Reddy has made before on this blog. He traces the current system of classification of backward classes using caste as the central determinant to the Mandal Commission report, argues that the terms caste, class and community are quite different in their meaning and implications and finally suggests the use of criteria other than caste, in particular, the linking of backwardness to ‘occupational communities’ and the use of economic tests to overcome the current ‘mess’. He explains that idea in some detail contending that the number of people in various occupational categories may already be known. He argues that this ought to be politically palatable since such categories of people are likely to be clustered in certain areas which may be conducive to their being cultivated as vote banks.
I did not find all of his claims entirely convincing. For example, he claims that in caste, as against class, mobility of any kind, either horizontal or vertical does not exist. This is true if he is talking at the individual level – a person cannot change his caste label; but caste hierarchies as a whole are not static explains M.N.Srinivas in his book ‘Caste in Modern India’. Also, sociologists generally believe that vertical mobility is higher for women of any caste than men. Another point the author makes is that while some castes may have a traditional or hereditary occupation, they are basically not economic groups but are usually based on religious and mythical traditions. The original chaturvarna system has religious as much as occupational significance no doubt but is it true that all the several thousand castes and sub-castes have religious and mythical basis? I doubt that.