The Many Lives of Caste in Modern India

[Following my previous post, ‘We are Proud Hindus’, there has been an expected barrage of comments – all along very predictable lines. Most of them, characteristically, turn every critique of reprehensible caste practices of Hindu society into an expression of ‘casteism’ and immediately displace the criticism to their favourite enemy, Islam. For the benefit of readers who might be interested in a more reasoned debate, I post here an essay,  which was written some years ago and a version of which published in South Asian Journal. This is  just by way of making my own position clear. – AN ]

Politics in contemporary India is marked by the ‘resurgence’ of ‘caste politics’. In a sense, this is true. The past two decades have seen a dramatic collapse of the old political formations and parties, which had dominated the politics of the Nehruvian era.[1] Even the movements of that period, right up to the mid-1970s, were largely movements on economic issues and questions of corruption, black-marketing, hoarding and food shortages. Through the decade of the 1980s, there was a gradual erosion of the Nehruvian secular-nationalist imagination, and one of the factors responsible for it was the ‘re-emergence’ of caste in public discourse.

The watershed in this respect of course, was the famous ‘Mandal Commission’ agitation – which has become something of a metaphor in contemporary Indian politics. The Commission, which was instituted in 1978, during the Janata Party government, under the stewardship of B.P. Mandal, a socialist leader from a ‘backward caste’, was given the task of looking into the question of ‘backwardness’ of certain castes and suggest remedies for its redressal. For about a decade after it submitted its recommendations in 1980, it lay in cold storage after the Congress under the leadership of Mrs Indira Gandhi (subsequently taken charge of by her son Rajiv) returned to power. It was implemented under extremely contentious circumstances in 1990 under the Prime Ministership of V.P. Singh. As is well-known, its main recommendations included 27 percent reservations in public employment for these castes (known in India as the ‘Other Backward Classes’ or OBCs).

As soon as the government announced its decision to implement the Commission’s recommendations, all hell broke loose. There were widespread violent agitations all over North India with sons and daughters of ‘respectable families’ taking to the streets. It was an unprecedented sight to see these young people, generally cynical about all political activity taking to road blockades, demonstrations, picketing and such other activities. Many of them even committed self-immolation. Equally interesting was the sight of the usually cynical media backing the agitators to the hilt. New terms like ‘mandalisation of politics’ entered public political discourse. The tone and tenor of the public debate in the media was illuminating for a whole generation of people who had been brought up in modern secular values of the Nehruvian era. This was especially so because they seemed to suggest, almost one-sidedly, that caste was something that we had already left behind and it was the vileness of VP Singh, who wanted to cash in on such retrograde sentiments, for purely pragmatic electoral purposes.

It needs to be borne in mind that this large group of OBCs, who constituted close to 60 percent of the population, had a negligible presence of about 4 percent in government employment, when these recommendations were implemented.  Also worth bearing in mind is the fact that even this small representation in employment was restricted to the lower rungs of government jobs. Even today, almost two decades after the implementation of the Mandal Commission (starting 8 September 1993), a mere 6.87 percent jobs are filled by OBCs. Take for example, the following information received through an RTI application:

“Nearly 17 years after the implementation of 27% reservation for OBCs in central government jobs on the basis of the Mandal Commission recommendations, a mere 6.87% of those employed in various union departments in Groups A, B, C and D services belong to the group.
Thus a significant 20% posts across categories and departments reserved for OBCs remain unfilled raising doubts on the effective implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations. Documents obtained under the Right To Information Act (RTI Act) by Chennai-based biomedical engineering and activist, E  Muralidharan, reveal that just 1,93,228 OBC employees including 2,430 sweepers were employed in different central government departments as on January 1, 2008.” (Times of India, August 31, 2010)

In other words, the overwhelming majority of public services were monopolised by the small crust of upper castes. In one estimation made by sociologist Satish Deshpande, about 20 percent of the population controlled about 95 percent of all jobs. Deshpande has also recently calculated the poverty-caste relationship on the basis of the National Sample Survey Organisation consumption data which confirm the strong relationship between low-caste status and poverty.[2] However, what is relevant here is not merely the incidence of poverty among different ‘backward’ caste groups but more importantly, the fact that even among the relatively better-off and educated sections of Dalits and OBCs, access to public employment, especially at the higher levels is severely restricted. In other words, as Ram Naresh Kushwaha, an OBC parliamentarian had put it in a parliament debate in 1978, the upper castes have always had informal reservations operating for them in employment; jobs were reserved for them. Manusmriti itself, he had claimed, was nothing other than a reservation of certain jobs for only a certain category of people.[3]

What was interesting about the agitation and the highly charged public debate that followed, was that it was entirely conducted, from the side of the opponents of the Mandal Commission, in the most immaculate secular and modern language of ‘merit’ and ‘efficiency’. The question was posed as one of dilution, if not the elimination, of merit at the cost of getting in ‘unworthy’ and ‘undeserving’ people simply because they happened to belong to certain castes. “Would you like to be operated upon by a doctor who had became one through reservations?” “Would you like to fly by an aircraft that was piloted by a reservation pilot?” Such were the kinds of questions that were asked by the anti-Mandalites in these discussions. Not once was the question of upper-caste and brahminical privilege ever articulated as a question of caste-privilege. Even more interesting was the fact that the more sophisticated among the anti-Mandalites were prepared to accept that there was a question of privilege involved here but that should be addressed in terms of ‘class’: that ‘economic’ rather than caste criteria should be made the basis of reservations. The question was really one of poverty, they argued, rather than that of caste.

Now, this is an argument that actually erupted in public discourse in the 1990s but has a fairly long and hallowed history. As evidence shows, it was an argument that had been rehearsed over the decades by the modernist upper caste leadership. Right from the days of the Kaka Kalelkar Commission, set up in the mid-1950s for the purpose of addressing the same questions that were later taken up by the Mandal Commission, to parliamentary debates and more localised public discussions, this was invariably the argument deployed by the opponents of positive discrimination. As Christohpe Jaffrelot shows, many members of the Kaka Kalelkar commission dissented from the commission’s recommendations and what is more, the Gandhian Kaka Kalelkar himself started developing serious doubts even as he submitted his report. Nehru, the immaculate modernist was the one who finally gave the stamp of legitimacy to this position thus: “If we go in for reservations on communal and caste basis, we swamp the bright and able people and remain second-rate or third-rate”.[4] On this one question, then the Nehruvian elite and the Hindu Right were always in complete agreement.

Was Nehru a casteist then? Were all those who opposed the Mandal commission in the 1990s, who included respected scholars of the country, also casteist? This is a question that is being asked today by the Dalitbahujans.[5] My answer to this question would be that they were not casteists – at least a large section of them were not. They were opposing the ‘bringing in’ of caste into public discourse on very modernist and secular grounds. They sincerely believed that talking in terms of caste would be a regression into the past that they were so desperately seeking to annihilate. The point that needs to be stressed here is that this time round, caste was the banner of those who had been oppressed by it. The recalcitrance of caste is not a mere repetition of the older story. For in that story, it was the upper castes that aloft held the banner of caste in order to put people ‘in their place’. Now things had decisively changed; the upper castes were in constant and vehement denial. Somewhere here, in this denial lies hidden the story of Indian modernity. In what follows, I will sketch what I believe are the broad outlines of that story and underline some of the complexities of present-day caste politics.

Let me go back to where I began this essay. Is there really a ‘resurgence’ of caste? Is it the case that the question of caste has ‘suddenly’ become important, implying thereby that till now such was not the case? Is the general perception that was aired in the media during the Mandal Commission controversy, that caste was simply resurrected by VP Singh, a correct perception? The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Yes, because there was a sense in which caste had been banished from public discourse and to that extent, its reappearance is a new phenomenon. No, because this unpseakability of caste in public discourse was limited to civil society, that is to the domain of the secular modern institutions of society. And it was precisely this unspeakability that made it impossible to challenge the continuing domination of upper castes over all institutions and resources – for it could not have been challenged in any other language. Secular-modern language provided no way of posing this challenge – just as it provided no vocabulary for challenging race-based discrimination in the West.

Equally importantly, it had not disappeared from society at large. In another realm, away from the watchful gaze of the modern elite, in the domain of what Partha Chatterjee calls political society, caste was a central category that framed the common ways of seeing and being in the world. The secret story of our modernity is of course, lodged in the first realm, that of civil society, for it is here that we see the mutated upper caste modern Indian Self, in perpetual denial of caste (and to some extent, religion) in all his/her splendour. There is no denying that this modern Self is really and genuinely modern; it wants to excise that shameful thing called caste from its memory. The upper-caste-turned-modern Self does not ever want to be reminded of this one aspect of his/her inheritance. It can deal with religion, for that is something that ‘we all have’ – whether we are from the West or from the East. But caste is a blot that has affected the psyche of the mutated modern in ways that can be best expressed in Freudian terms: Caste is the suppressed/ repressed, the ‘unconscious’ as it were, of the modern moral Self (the Superego?). Yet, caste is the hidden principle that gives it the access to all kinds of modern privileges precisely because it functions, as Deshpande suggests, as cultural/symbolic capital.

To the oppressed castes, especially the lowest among them, that is the Dalits, this repression of caste appears as a conspiracy of the brahminical castes to deprive them of their voice. It appears to them to displace what is their bitter lived experience to another domain – that of class, for instance. The story that the Dalit wants to narrate can only be told with reference to the history of caste oppression. It is there that the secret of their exclusion and cultural mutilation lies. One of the critical elements of the recalcitrance of caste in contemporary Indian politics is therefore, the search for a past, a cultural legacy, a history and a sense of Self. The oppressive structure of caste functioned, in relation to the Dalits in particular, through their almost complete exclusion from ‘society’ such as it was. Here I will not go into stories of daily humiliation and degradation that was and has been part of Dalit life, as these are by now fairly well articulated, documented and discussed. I will merely briefly refer to one aspect of their exclusion: their exclusion from any kind of access to learning – of whatever kind, including elementary skills of reading and writing. The implications of this forced exclusion are far greater than might appear at first glance. For these took away from them any possibility of registering their own history, creating their myths and literature – in other words, deprived them of any sense of their own past. It was therefore, only with the arrival of colonialism and the opening up of public spaces and institutions to the Dalits, if in a limited fashion (because of upper caste opposition) that these became accessible to them. It is therefore, only in the early twentieth century, strictly speaking, that the Dalits really found their voice – in the sense of being able to record their experience of oppression and talk about it publicly. And it was at this precise moment that the mutated upper caste modern began to legislate a certain modern universalist language, decrying all attempts to talk of caste oppression as ‘casteism’, a sign of ‘backward consciousness’.

There is therefore a peculiar ambivalence that marks Dalit politics and discourse today. On the one hand, it invests tremendous faith in modernity because it is really with its onset that possibilities of Dalit emancipation opened up in significant ways; on the other, it exhibits a strong aversion to the dominant, secular-nationalist discourse of modernity in India that it sees as irrevocably ‘upper caste’ and the root of the re-institution of upper caste power over modern institutions.

This ambivalence is visible not only in the field of cultural politics, as it were, but equally in the field of politics as such. In this field, the dynamic is somewhat different but what makes it possible for the Dalit political formations like the BSP, to chart out a course that radically questions the common sense of the secular modern, is its deep distrust of the old nationalist and secular elite. A case in point is the relationship of BSP and much of the Dalit intelligentsia, with the emerging secular political formations, especially in North India. It is well-known that here, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, the Bahujan Samaj Party, has repeatedly gone into an alliance with the main party of the Hindu Right, the Bharatiya Janata Party. It has formed governments along with the BJP, not only in 1993 and 1997 but also in 2002, in the year of the Gujarat massacres of the Muslims. In this period, when the BJP and its partner organisations of the Sangh family have bared their fascist fangs, leaving nobody in any doubt about their intentions, the BSP entered into an alliance and formed a government with the BJP in UP, and its top leaders even campaigned for it in Gujarat during the subsequent elections.

There are two levels of problems involved here. First, the actual relations between different caste groups and second, the logic of electoral politics. On the face of it, it only seems logical that in order to break upper caste hegemony there should be a larger alliance of the OBCs and Dalits. This had seemed to be a promising line of action to many leaders of the late nineteenth early twentieth century like Jyotiba Phule of Maharashtra and Periyar EVR Ramasamy Naicker of what is today Tamil Nadu. Hence they had advocated the idea of a ‘Nonbrahmin’ unity (Periyar) or a unity of the Shudraatishudras (Phule) in order to challenge the hegemony of the brahminical elite. And up to a point this did have an impact in the first half of the twentieth century, insofar as brahminical stranglehold over society in these two regions was seriously challenged. Even Kanshi Ram, the chief architect of the present Dalit upsurge in North India, believed that his party should not simply be a Dalit party but a party of ‘bahujans’ (literally, majority). Hence the name, Bahujan Samaj Party. The bahujan samaj, in Kanshi Ram’s rendering was to be forged through a broad alliance of the Dalits, the backwards and the minorities – particularly the Muslims. Kanshi Ram also saw clearly that the Dalits alone, comprising no more than about 20 percent of the electorate in any constituency, could not possibly challenge upper caste dominance. Hence the aggressive slogan of the period of the rise of the BSP: Tilak, tarazu aur talwar/ inko maro joote chaar (thrash the Brahmin, the Bania and the Rajput with shoes).

The problem however, began after the first alliance of the BSP and the Samajwadi Party led by Mulayam Singh Yadav, representing the backward castes formed its government in UP in 1993. Within a short time it became apparent that as soon as the political pact that was forged between the parties moved toward the countryside, sharp conflicts between the two groups began playing themselves out. It was during the panchayat elections that the conflicts became really serious and many Dalit leaders and intellectuals realised that much of their present conflict in the villages was with the dominant backward castes who had consolidated their hold following the post-independence land reforms. In many states, it was these castes, comprising the erstwhile tenants, now become landowners, who were their main oppressors. And they were not willing to change their attitude towards Dalits in everyday matters, even in the face of the political alliance at the state level. In many areas it was they who had been preventing the Dalits even from casting their votes.

More importantly, this was the period of the sharp rise of the Hindu Right. Very soon, this threat of the Sangh combine was to become the most important reference point for all future electoral-political alliances. The parties of the OBCs, represented by Mulayam Singh and Laloo Yadav in the two most important northern states of UP and Bihar, positioned themselves firmly against the BJP and the Sangh combine. It is worth remembering that in the period of the build-up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, it was these two leaders who had displayed the most determined opposition to the BJP. Mulayam Singh in fact used the entire force of the state machinery, during his chief ministerhsip, to prevent the kar sevaks from demolishing the structure of the masjid in November 1990. It was during this same period when LK Advani’s notorious Rath Yatra entered Bihar, en route to Ayodhya, that Laloo Yadav displayed exemplary courage in arresting Advani, leading to the eventual downfall of the VP Singh government of which Laloo was a part. It was in this context, that the anti-communal, secular front came into existence, and the OBC parties naturally acquired a crucial position within it, given their stance. This is where the problems began, as far as the BSP and the newly assertive Dalits were concerned. To throw their lot with the secular front unconditionally was to tie their own hands and throw themselves to the wolves. For the conflict with the OBCs in the countryside was now playing itself out in its most aggressive form.

This is where the deep distrust of the common sense of the secular-nationalist, so ingrained in Dalit politics comes into play. For, it did not really have a moment’s hesitation in joining forces with the BJP in forming a government and in a sense, it was to open the floodgates for later realignments where parties like the Telegu Desam Party and the AIADMK and DMK were to enter into alliances with the BJP, in order to form the government at the Centre. Not only did it form governments with the BJP, the BSP in its last round of power-sharing even bent over backwards to help the BJP leaders in the Babri Masjid demolition case. The point here is not simply that the BSP went into a power-sharing alliance with the BJP, for there are enough precedents of many other parties and groups doing the same in different ways, in different times. Even the Left is not entirely free of that taint. The point here is that it entered into this alliance with a clear argument against the dichotomised mode of politics where the ‘communalism versus secularism’ conflict was presented by the secular front as simple common sense, as if it subsumed all other conflicts and exhausted all other problems. This manner of privileging the ‘secular versus communal’ conflict in a manner of speaking, presented the secular front as a non-negotiable: you had to enter the front only on the terms already set by it. There was no possibility of any negotiation here, especially with regard to the backward caste parties. It is here that despite its history of attempting to build an anti-upper-caste-Hindu alliance, and despite the fact that it sees its project as irreconcilable with the Hindutva project, the BSP displayed its refusal to take any proposition as given and non-negotiable. The sole concern that guided it was whether its move would help its own project of Dalit liberation.

In this story of the recalcitrance of caste in contemporary India, one thing is clear: The script of modernity in India has to be and is being rapidly re-written. The upper caste secular claim to the modern is being revealed, every day, every hour, as a mode of preserving secular privileges and power that are inherited from an already existing non-secular power.

[1] The term ‘Nehruvian era’ is being used here to refer to an era that actually extends far beyond the person of Jawaharlal Nehru himself – almost upto the beginning of the 1980s, when the terms of political discourse and practice were still articulated within a secular-nationalist framework that was put in place by the Nehruvian leadership.

[2] For further details, see Satish Deshpande (2002), Contemporary India: A Sociological View, Penguin India.

[3] See Lok Sabha Debates, Sixth Series, Vol. XXII, No. I, Lok Sabha Secretariat, Feb. 23, 1978, Pp. 340-3

[4] Christophe Jaffrelot (2003) India’s Silent Revolution: The Rise of the low Castes in North Indian Politics, Permanent Black, Delhi. See especially the discussion on pages 222-228.

[5] The term ‘Dalitbahujan’ is a recent coinage that refers to the broad spectrum of lower caste groups ranging from the untouchable castes, that is Dalits, to the other lower castes generally referred to as Shudras in the language of the chaturvarna system.

2 thoughts on “The Many Lives of Caste in Modern India”

  1. Aditya:

    Thanks for posting an article without diatribe.

    What I again question is the focus on “top-jobs”. Apart from being a symbolic victory what else does it accomplish?

    Your example of how OBCs had benefited from the land-reforms, and then became the new class of oppressor, was exactly the point I was trying to make in the previous discussion. BTW, I am a technologist, with very little humanities education; I have very little knowledge about the issues you raised and discussed. However my experience living in different parts of the world suggest that no group has a monopoly on exploitation.

    Looking at the American society, one reason the African Americans have been able to make huge progress since the 60s, was access to education. Education up till class XII is guaranteed by the state. Of course there is a difference between good schools/bad school and good neighourhoods and bad neighourhoods. However, a black person born after the 60s had the opportunity to work his way up. Affirmative Action in higher education and hiring of course helped the process along. But that itself would not have been successful if there was no access to pre-college education.

    In India, we have affirmative action at the college and government job levels, but very little attempt to provide access to education at the primary school level. It is a table with no legs. I gave you an example of how IITs make affirmative action work; by making sure that the students from the under-privilidged sections are equipped to compete. If it was all an upper-class fiefdom, it would have been very easy to throw them under the bus, and then point fingers on the a policy which does not work.

    The Indian nation is at a cusp where it can leave the Hindu growth rate behind, and really expand the pie. The role of the government in providing employment will continue to decline. In this new environment, the return on any investment in improving the education and the opportunities from the grass-roots, bottom-up level will have a far bigger impact, than any battle fought at the top. The top is increasingly becoming less and less relevant.

    A dalit VC of JNU or DU or whatever will not help the millions who still struggle. Education and the ability to partake of the expanding economic pie will.

    I also believe that there is an emerging class in India, primarily urban, which for most part is willing to look beyond caste, class etc. They may be what you call the creamy layer. One big problem is that a vast majority of this class is not conscious of what happens outside their cocooned world. Most of them disconnected from the “real India” (as some would call it). However, their apathy to the sufferings should not be confused with an ingrained bias against the under-priviledged. This class has the wealth, and more importantly, the willingness to make things better. Perhaps thoughts on harnessing the power of this class will help the fight against injustice forward.


  2. Does the process of rewriting the script of modernity begins from a post modern position or it is to start from pre modern condition?


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