As India is gearing up for the upcoming general elections, one is forced to question whether the days of caste politics are finally over? For the majority of Indians who have grown up reading English-language op-eds, the agenda of Mayawati’ Bahujan Samaj Party may seem outdated in the face of Bhartiya Janata Party’s all-inclusive Hindutva. The political narrative today, once dominated by the issue of caste, has been systematically replaced by religion. The country today has the highest ever literacy rate and urbanisation produced from economic growth. Caste identity, modernisation theory would lead us to believe, ought to erode in contemporary India. Somehow even today, caste as a factor persists in Indian politics.
India has been struggling with the question of caste since it’s independence. India’s constitution explicitly abolished the practice of untouchability and instituted reservation for specific communities.
Affirmative action was introduced to enable the young republic to move beyond caste. The policy was intended to ensure the emancipation of Scheduled Castes. Reservation, policy’s architects hoped, would pave the way towards an egalitarian society. The result of which, the idea of caste would cease to exist. Positive discrimination has, paradoxically, as a result, perpetuated the problem instead of decreasing it. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the assumption that just the emancipation of the lower caste alone would eradicate the entire idea of caste is a far-fetched approach. As Shashi Tharoor puts it, ‘India is a land of multiple identities, and one of the key identities, inescapably, is caste.’ An upper caste Brahmin associates himself with his caste the same way a Yadav does. In both the cases, their caste is just another identity they happen to share with others. Secondly, the moment the government recognises the idea of caste through the system of reservations, it gives way to identity politics. The demand for reservation by Patidars in Gujarat and Jats in Haryana, both dominant politically in their respective states, is one such example. The system of reservation, instead of reducing caste system on the ground has instead politicised it. In today’s India, casteism is not just a social problem but one that manifests institutionally.
The Myth of Economic Growth
The Green Revolution is regarded as an economic achievement concerning its ability to commercialise farming in India. The result though was not that good. The state of Punjab that inhabits the largest percentage of Dalits in India is the best example. Despite land reforms, the Jats who make up the landowning class owned 80% of the arable land while Dalits held a mere 5%. The new market-oriented agriculture naturally favoured the landowners. The Green Revolution ended up increasing the prosperity of dominant Jats along with further marginalisation of Dalits.
Economic growth does not help in eradicating casteism, as caste unequally divides the resources in the first place. Specific groups with control over resources benefit from that prosperity. In India it is the hierarchy of caste that dictates this trend: in the case of Punjab Jats got more affluent as they owned the land, Dalits got more miserable as they did not. The relation between class and caste further fuels the identity assertion of both Jats and Dalits, which in turn keeps the idea of caste intact.
Popular imagination portrays urban spaces as sites of emancipation. Based on the assumption that urban areas provide more economic opportunities and better wages to workers. This liberty is absent in a rural economy which sustains caste-based division of labour. Ambedkar recognised this categorical difference and told Dalits to migrate to urban spaces to escape the ‘dens of iniquity’. The urban areas do hold a substantial population of Dalits as well as affluent classes, but a bird eyes view of the cities today would certainly tell a different reality. The latest census of 10 most populous cities shows that most of these cities exhibit a high level of segregation. There is a disparity concerning access to necessary public goods such as drinking water. The better of areas do have access while the slums, which are mostly inhabited by people of lower castes, lack necessary infrastructure.
While urban spaces are segregated due to economic differentiation, does caste matter for the new urban India? The answer to this question cannot be answered objectively but analysed through different choices Indians make in urban areas.
One of the choices is marriage and specifically intercaste marriage. It is safe to say that in urban, middle-class India young people are no longer looking for a partner within their caste. While caste may not be the only factor, a recent survey suggests that it still remains one of the factors in that choice. Taboos against intercaste marriage are stronger for women, so the study focused on both upper caste and Dalit women, and the result was not surprising. While there was interest shown by the subjects on various aspects of the proposals: which included high income, high-status matches which were similar in age, height and educational background. There was a strong inclination in the Dalit women for intercaste proposals compared to a lesser in upper caste ones. In simple terms marriage was a means to upgrade their economic or in this case, their caste status.
The Way Forward
Education is always considered a means to eradicate something as irrational as the institution of caste. Despite reservations, Dalits remain massively unrepresented in various public universities. There is also substantial evidence suggesting the lack of awareness regarding the entire concept of reservation in rural areas. Ironically, the reservation was specifically meant for the downtrodden in rural areas.
What is required in the end is not the takedown of reservation, but a revamp, which ensures that it manages to fulfil its primary goal. Unfortunately, the system of reservation instead ends up introducing the idea of caste to students from educated, urban spaces who have never actually experienced it physically.