Nikhil Kuruganti: Caste and Politics In India

Caste and Politics In India

Mayawati represents the exact anti-thesis of how I want a leader to be. Yet, she spearheads a political party that gives political power to the untouchables of India. Should I be sad or should I be happy that we have such a leader?

Indian lower caste groups act in two contradicting ways when it comes to dealing with their caste identity vis-à-vis India’s upper castes.

As groups, they continue to fight the upper caste and hence would like to identify themselves as different from the upper caste. In this respect, they would like to play the victim card to bargain for the maximum number of sops and benefits to uplift the lower caste. But as individuals, they like to move up the social and economic scale, and this apparently means emulating and behaving more like upper castes.

At an individual and family level, as Indian lower castes become prosperous, they would start becoming more like upper castes of India. Their rituals become similar to upper caste Hindus. Though the leader of untouchables, Ambedkar, urged them to renounce Hinduism to take up Buddhism, the present generation of Dalits would like to upgrade themselves to look and feel more like upper caste Hindus. The lower caste families that are well-off now start going to the Hindu temples, become extremely devout, invite the priest to conduct their rituals, and have deities at home the way an upper caste person would have. They would go through the same ceremonies that were denied to them for ages, with aplomb and satisfaction. At an individual level, a lower caste Hindu is trying to become upper caste though he denies that accusation at a group level.

India has a history of castes moving up and down the hierarchy. The founders of Maurya dynasty were lower caste, but once they became the rulers, they were given the status of upper caste. In the course of Indian history, many kings and noble families have moved up the hierarchy and thus elevated their own groups ranking.

The same trend continues, but now, there is a vested interest for lower caste to remain lower caste, at least in the legal system – because of sops like reservations, scholarships, etc. Therefore the lower castes will retain their lower caste labels, while the individuals and families will compete against each other to act and behave more and more like upper caste. Not all caste groups move up at the same time. Not all groups wield power and access to opportunity the same way. There is a race amongst these different lower castes on who is going to get to the upper caste status first. We will see different lower castes behaving differently during their upward mobility.

Caste-based Political Parties

When the lower caste parties, who woo their lower caste vote banks, come to power they start behaving exactly similar to other political leaders who preceded them. One cannot see the difference between the two. They start acting like the very masters they toppled.

Once the points on their victim card start running out, in an attempt to consolidate their position and to garner more votes, they affiliate with most unlikely caste groups. For example, in UP, we see lower caste groups in alliance with Brahmins and Rajputs, the very upper caste masters they came about to topple.

Emancipation of lower castes of India is a long journey. It may take few generations. It will involve many mechanisms and tools – it will involve reservations, sops, scholarships, free meals, and also the major social movements including formation of political parties dominated by caste affiliations. This is a journey for all of us, from an origin which is quite distasteful, surfeit with ill treatment of fellow human beings, discrimination, ostracism, persecution to a destination which promises utopia, where a man is judged not by his caste but by his character.

One of the sad aspects of such journeys is that it will throw up leaders who are not actually qualified by their character, but more by their affiliation.

One of the outcomes of these journeys is a future when each caste group would have almost similar access to political power (and hopefully opportunity). In theory, it is a time when every group is equally capable of coming to power.

I hope that such events and trends, not going the wrong way, would help Indians come to an understanding that we are all equal. Once we reach a stage where almost every group is represented adequately, our people may start looking for certain traits in a leader other than the mere affiliations to a certain group or identity. Hopefully, we may then learn to choose those leaders who are not just symbols of our identities but capable of delivering on basic expectations of equal citizens.

Indian middle class

Indian upper middle class and the elite news and media abhor and detest leaders like Lalu and Mayawati. When they do that, they are apparently scorning that lower caste Indian who these leaders represent. Such distancing and abhorring will in fact help these leaders in their cause. It’s exactly what these leaders want – a disapproval from the elite society of India. Their popularity soars because they will show to their vote banks once again that they are victimized by the elite and upper caste (not very different from how Narendra Modi plays his sympathy card that he is being targeted by the mainstream media and secular parties).

Lower caste will behave like upper caste

My observation is that with upward mobility, more and more of the lower caste would become equals to upper caste in terms of political and social power. While that is being achieved, the families and individuals of the lower caste will start behaving more and more like upper caste Hindus- even if that means going against the same tenets that actually spurred their revolution.

This also means they will identify more and more closely with upper caste Hindu behaviors and sentiments. They will detest and decry conversion of their fellow lower castes (who are poor) to other religions. They will identify themselves more with Vedas, the grand Indian history, and will try to seek their own place in that pantheon of ancient achievements. If needed, they will reinterpret the events of the pasts to condone the extremities meted out to them with some flawed and distorted logic.

They will make a U-turn to oppose and criticize the reservations-based-on-caste because it reminds them of their lowly origins. They would like to detach and disassociate with all the crutches and helping hands, special provisions and sops, the way a cripple who got a new leg would spurn his erstwhile crutch. They like to roll back those reservations which helped their fathers to get a jumpstart. They would like to deny these benefits to others who have not yet received them yet.

They will fight for preservation of Bharat Sanskruti more vehemently and vociferously – by joining the parades to denounce Miss Universe pageants and Valentine Day celebrations. In effect, they will become more ritualistic, superstitious and irrational just to prove to themselves (and others whom they are competing against) that they are equal to upper caste Hindus.

This would also mean a resurgence of Hindutva Movement on an unprecedented scale, where the middle class now comprises a huge lower caste community, where neoconverts are actually more fanatic. The enemies – Muslims, Christians, Communists, the intellectuals - would be hated with more fervor and passion.

These are some of the trends I disapprove of. Now, just because the upward mobility of lower castes of India would lead to resurgence of the movements I dislike, should I discourage that upward mobility?

Of course not!

That brings me back to Mayawati. Am I happy or sad? I am both happy and sad looking at leaders like that. But I would not stop her from taking up her cudgels against those who she thinks are her masters. If she wants to topple her masters, let her do it, in her own way. I may not subscribe to her methods, but as long as they are legal, and within the framework of Indian Constitution, I am not against her.

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