by-Dushyant Sethi

Outrage over magazine’s report on caste break-up of CRPF personnel killed in Pulwama shows discriminated communities still find themselves pushed to roles with higher risk

A recent report in The Caravan has led to a lot of noise and fury. The magazine on politics and culture has focused on the caste break-up of the soldiers who died in the Pulwama attack. The report reveals the caste of the 40 soldiers who were immediately confirmed dead after the attack (a total of 49 were killed). Nineteen of them were OBCs, seven from scheduled castes, five from scheduled tribes, four upper castes, three Jat Sikhs, one Muslim, one high caste Bengali.

The outrage against the story comprises diverse arguments, ranging from the emotional ‘how dare you speak of the armed forces and caste in the same breath’ to the seemingly logical ‘CRPF provides for caste reservation and that is what explains the break-up and not any imagined discrimination’.

The ethnic break-up of the casualties in the Vietnam War also reveals the role of socio-ethnic discrimination. A 1970 study of the 197th Infantry Brigade quoted in the New York Times cites a complaint frequently made by black soldiers: “White NCOs always put black soldiers on the dirtiest details.” Statistics, also cited in the same story, substantiate this grievance: African Americans represented 11 per cent of the civilian population. Yet in 1967, they represented 16.3 per cent of all draftees and 23 per cent of all combat troops in Vietnam. In 1965, African Americans had accounted for nearly 25 per cent of all combat deaths in Vietnam.

The lesson here is simple and obvious to those willing to smell the coffee: discriminated communities often find themselves pushed to roles with higher risk.

Even though it is outlined in the headline, most arguments against The Caravan report miss the central premise: the contrast between the caste break-up of the raging anchors in TV studios baying for war and that of the soldiers who died at least in this terror attack. A senior editor who works at one of India’s largest newsrooms tells me that there isn’t a single Dalit colleague in his entire organisation.

A 2017 story in the Al Jazeera website by Sudipto Mondal points out that four fully funded seats for SC/ST candidates at the prestigious Asian College of Journalism went unclaimed for over ten years. Try naming a single prominent anchor or senior editor who is Dalit or adivasi. You won’t be able to because there are none.

One also has wilfully ignored the role of caste in India’s armed forces. A petition has been filed in the Delhi High Court, arguing that the appointments made to the President’s Bodyguard be set aside because only people from three castes – Jats, Rajputs and Jat Sikhs were asked to apply. Gaurav Yadav, the petitioner claims that he fulfilled all the criteria except for his caste and was rejected. A report in The Print cites a quote from an anonymous source in the Indian Army, justifying this criteria by saying that “The Army will establish that the present system of recruitment, based on historical legacies and constitutional propriety, is legitimate”.

It is well known that the Indian Army classifies several regiments on the basis of caste – a practice not followed by either the Navy or the Air Force. An affidavit filed in the Supreme Court of India by the Indian Army defended this with: “Certain regiments of the Army are organised on lines of classification because social, cultural and linguistic homogeneity has been observed to be a force multiplier as a battle-winning factor”.

One reasonable criticism against caste analysis of those killed in the Pulwama attack can be that it would be inaccurate to extrapolate that data to form conclusions about the entire organisation. But even this argument is ground for deeper enquiry into the caste question, not one for an outrage-filled refusal to even speak of the matter.

Refusal to talk about caste is par for the course at a time when even the national caste census data is being withheld by the Central government for about four years now. If only social evils could be wished away by staying silent about them, India would be a land free of so much evil.

Mumbai Mirror