Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The politics of caste

A decent piece in the latest Economist on the upcoming Assembly (local state legislature) elections in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state (with ~170 million people). UP is a perfect case study in the rise of regional caste-based political parties.
Politics in UP, whose 170m people live in one of India's poorest states, at the heart of the Hindi-speaking “cow belt”, are tethered in caste. Two parties dominate. One is the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) of Mulayam Singh Yadav, a patronage machine for members of his lowly Yadav caste and their allies, including members of the Muslim minority; it won 143 seats in 2002. The other is the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which won 98 seats and performs the same function for dalits, those, once called “untouchables”, languishing beneath the caste system. Because neither party can muster a majority, they form unstable governments by allying variously with each other, Congress or with the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won 88 seats in 2002.

Their governments have in a way been revolutionary. Despite decades of quotas for civil-service jobs and educational places, and other affirmative action on behalf of dalits and “other backward castes”, India's caste-system is written in granite, especially in the countryside. For example, the BSP's pugnacious leader, Mayawati, whose sole policy was to increase those quotas, meanwhile made alliances with high-caste groups partly to ensure that local bigwigs would not prevent her dalit supporters from voting.

The resulting administrations have also been riotous, vindictive and hugely corrupt. Miss Mayawati's was accused of wrongdoing over a foiled plan to append a shopping mall to the Taj Mahal, UP's—and India's—most famous monument; Mr Yadav is under investigation, at the order of the Supreme Court, for being suspiciously rich. Organised crime, or “goondaism”, is the law in UP; unsurprisingly, given that policemen are often the biggest goons.
The story of how democratic politics (or about as democratic as politics get in hierarchical and feudal India) has strengthened caste-based identity is a fascinating one. I wonder how the author of India's constitution (which makes absolutely no bones about being focused on complete social reform and restructuring), Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (himself a Dalit, of the Mahar caste from central Maharashtra) would have viwed these developments. The front page story in today's Indian Express is on a pre-election poll conducted in the state, which predicts another hung assembly and a continuation of the current patronage regimes. Another story looks at the recommendations to include both Muslims and Christians in the official classification as Dalits, in order to extend the benefits of reservations (ie quotas in government jobs and educational institutions) to them.

I don't intend to enter into the turbulent waters of the debate on reservations (I generally am skeptical that these actually achieve their intended results. Yep, bring on the accusations of elitist upper-caste bias.). And yes, this rise of regional caste-based political parties is indeed revolutionary (along with other things, such as a President from the lower castes). Especially when one stops to think that a majority of Indians are from the lower castes (this includes the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Castes)! It makes one marvel at the phenomenal power of a system that has managed to keep such a vast majority in thrall to a small minority for centuries, if not millenia, in conditions that make the apartheid regime of South Africa seem positively enlightened. Caste is deeply ingrained in the Indian mindset (I often say that it's one of the unique distinguishing characteristics of Indian civilization), and is not going to be abolished overnight, no matter how many high-minded slogans folks come up with, and no matter that it is officially "abolished" by the Constitution (or rather, caste-based discrimination is). What is so evident, however, is that even as these systems of patronage take advantage of the democratic machinery to bring some sense of political empowerment to the lower castes (without actually challenging or upsetting any of the feudal alignments of power), caste-based identity is, in fact, deepened. Divisions are emphasized. Any connection with a larger, national idenitity, transcending these barriers, is consequently attenuated.

Then there's the whole issue of how Dalit Christians fit into this mix. More on that some other time.

[And God forbid that one of these elected dispensers of patronage actually succeed in building a mall at the Taj!]

No comments: