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Containing the caste phenomenon - The Pioneer

Sandhya Jain ()
21 October 1997

Title: Containing the caste phenomenon
Author: Sandhya Jain
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: October 21, 1997

An extraordinary phenomenon has recently manifested itself on the political
horizon. Unnoticed by political scientists and commentators, unsung by the
major political parties, it nevertheless represents the most exciting
possibilities for our future as a society and a nation. And by a curious
twist of fate, the standard-bearers of this marvellous occurrence-which I
would like to define as the "containment of caste"-are the very groups for
whom caste has hitherto been an inviolable ideology, viz., the Samajwadi
Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, and the Samata Party.

The recent troubles of the Bihar-based Samata Party, a party of the State's
non-Yadav Other Backward Castes (OBCs), are illustrative of this new
occurrence. Here, the Kurmi elite, which was all set to undermine the
backward caste confederation presided over by former Chief Minister Laloo
Yadav, is faced with a powerful challenge from within, mounted by upper
caste Bhumihar Rajputs, and perhaps tacitly supported by Brahmins, groups
that have hitherto been content to play a marginal role in the "social
justice" parties. The situation is grave enough to provoke the charismatic
Nitish Kumar to offer his resignation, though that by itself is no solution.

Surprisingly, the rustic, Yadav-based Samajwadi Party (Uttar Pradesh) and
the Dalit-based Bahujan Samaj Party have handled the caste factor with
greater finesse. Since last year's general election, both have consciously
sought to widen their respective electoral bases and appeal by giving
tickets to tipper caste candidates and ensuring their victory at the
hustings. Indeed, Defence Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav has taken massive
strides in this direction by appointing Mr Amar Singh (a Rajput) to a
critical party post, and actively opposing the rather zealous
implementation of the Harijan Act by the then Chief Minister, Ms Mayawati.
While the BSP has not so far accorded prominence to non-Dalits within the
organisation, it too is competing for a wider social base.

The national parties, however, do not appear to be fully cognisant of this
new reality. Both the Congress and the BJP seem excessively concerned with
their respective appeal among the politically assertive OBCs and Dalits,
while the OBC-based Janata Dal, convinced of its inability to woo the upper
castes, continues to harp on the tuneless melody of "social justice", which
now includes political reservations for women (and the party's hiccups over
the same).

Clearly, India is in a flux; there is a tremendous churning within. With
hindsight, one could proffer the view that the caste-mania unleashed by Mr
VP Singh's unilateral decision to Implement the Mandal Commission Report in
the vain hope of fobbing off a challenge, to his besieged Government has
passed its peak. The bloody autumn of 1990 can be said to represent the
pinnacle of the caste phenomenon in the Indian polity, while the BJP's
forceful challenge in the form of Mr LK Advani's Somnath-to-Ayodhya Rath
yatra may be said to mark the downhill journey of caste-as-polities.

Obviously, the undermining of such a colossal edifice as caste, with all
its associated values, intellectual and politico-economic structures,
cannot, and will not be, an easy task. The protagonists of caste politics
and the dealers in caste votebanks are too deeply entrenched in the system
to be readily displaced; they can be expected to fight back. Indeed, that
is why, despite all the upheavals witnessed in society and politics since
the Mandal versus Ram Janmabhoomi face-off in the 1991 elections, which
have yielded slow gains to the BJP, caste remains a powerful idiom of
self-identification and group mobilisation. Even the BJP has to acknowledge
and accommodate it. howsoever tactfully, in its distribution of tickets.

On a surface view, therefore, caste divisions appear to have become more
intractable, and caste more deeply rooted in the socio-political fabric.
The virtual stalemate at the Centre and in the politically crucial Uttar
Pradesh, where no party has been able to secure a majority in the past few
years, would seem to reinforce this view. As a matter of fact, the
stand-off is most likely to continue whenever elections are held next, both
in Uttar Pradesh as ",ell as at the, Centre.

But this is no more than the darkness before dawn. In reality, caste lost
its legitimacy with the collapse of the Nehruvian framework which promoted
and patronised caste and commune] votebanks, whilst professing to abhor
them. Thus, though the first serious challenge to the Nehruvian ideology
came from caste groups that felt deprived of access to development funds
and political patronage (the OBCs), the existence of caste as an autonomous
entity in politics was possible only so long as there was no alternative
ideological framework. The BJP has now offered such a doctrine with the
all-embracing philosophy of Hindutva.

I have no doubt that the tentative moves by inherently casteist parties
like the BSP and Samajwadi Party to increase their electoral acceptability
are in reality the first stirring of a new consciousness of ourselves as
one people, one nation. It is a rejection of that vulgar, secularist
definition of Indian society as a collectivity of ethnic, linguistic and
religious communities. It is a new experience of unity, and it is being
felt by society as a whole. The vulgar divide between elite and non-elite,
pariah and politically correct, is receiving a battering; the poet-sage
Subramania Bharati has already been resurrected on the Dravidian roll of
honour, while Dr Ambedkar is firmly ensconced in the national pantheon.

Suddenly this is an exciting age to live in India is being refashioned, its
destiny rewritten. There is a conscious move away from the stultifying
rigidity and dehumanising brutality of the caste system, which has lost its
moral legitimacy in the eyes of both its traditional defenders (the upper
castes) as well as its "victims" (the lower castes). The era of dogmatic,
unfluid caste boundaries is behind us, and the perceived increase in
atrocities on the, lower castes should actually be seen as proof of their
own assertion and struggle for dignity.

Commentators studying the rather aggressive assertion of Dalits under Mr
Kanshi Ham and Ms Mayawati have pointed out that the former are not a
homogenous grouping, that they have serious internal differences, and that
their mobilisation on common symbols will not yield uniform benefits to the
various Dalit castes and sub-castes. It is hinted that Ms Mayawati's caste
brethren will benefit the most, just as the Yadavs did at the cost of the
non-Yadavs; a sentiment which soon fractured the OBC movement.

There is some merit in this view, though I feel that as a nation we may be
reaching a new threshold, in which political parties will have to do more
than merely aggravate and exploit differences among caste, regional,
linguistic or religious groupings. Proponents of the divide-and-rule
thesis are unwittingly propagating the old doctrine of "suvarna" supremacy;
they would do well to bear in mind that groups that have experienced the
hollowness of 50 years of a "tryst with destiny" may no longer be so easily
disposed of through artificial cleavages.

In any case, this unique moment in history, when virtually all political
parties are fighting for the same national turf, affords us the best
opportunity to overcome the contrived divisiveness of the past. The
nation's mind and heart are throbbing and pulsating to a new note. We do
not yet quite know what it is, and how it will turn out. What we do know
is that after centuries of freeze India is regaining the plasticity and
dynamism of her original spirit. And in this new surge of self-confidence,
something new, some thing beautiful, is in the process of being created....

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