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Caste Discrimination Still Casts A Long Shadow Over Indian Politics

The BJP's politics offers no promise to lower castes.
The BJP's politics offers no promise to lower castes.
Harish Wankhede

NEW DELHI — Mangesh and Aarti loved each other. Both belonged to the same village, professed the same religion, had the same cultural heritage. Their class and status in society did not differ much either. Yet, their families objected to their marriage. The two were from two separate castes. Marriage would mean going against the set conventions of society.

The two, who had hitherto been loved and admired by their respective families, suddenly became the target of their own families' hatred and disgust. The village panchayat (council) swung into action. It censured both and levied penalties on the girl's family. This was followed by intimidation, social abuse and even physical harm. Distressed by blows from both their families and society at large, the two committed suicide.

Society is often governed by archaic, conservative and patriarchal norms. Unwritten societal laws that expect women to avoid "transgressions' are the ones that often legitimize repressive control over a woman's sexuality. A woman's body is also attached to caste pride and exploited as a social asset for the consumption of men. Endogamous marriages are the outcome of such a primordial idea that thrives even today. The institutionalized social rule of "marriage within the same caste" disqualifies and punishes anyone who chooses differently.

A change in the social psyche

The function of the caste does not stop here alone. It serves to further monitor, sanction and discipline individual lives and represses possibilities through which a common social collective can emerge.

Modern ideas of human equality and fraternity have challenged age-old values of a hierarchy-based caste society. The constitution of India promotes equality between citizens and abhors discrimination based on ascriptive identities, including that of caste. Social reform movements and modern ideas of nationalism have further downplayed the role of caste affiliations and mobilized people along other abstract ideas like citizenship, human rights and even the Hindu identity. This has naturally brought about a gradual change in the social psyche and today, many do not value their caste affiliations as an asset.

At a protest rally following the death of a Dalit student in 2016 — Photo: Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

It might come as a surprise that V.D. Savarkar, the politician and prime proponent of Hindutva ideology, had called the caste system an "idiocy" and claimed to have wanted to smash the order completely. He viewed the caste system as an evil that fragmented Hindus and made them vulnerable to the attacks of foreigners. Similar to Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar, Savarkar also considered untouchability a sin and a blot on society.

Later, other ideologues also projected Hindutva as a modern unifying force that aimed to reform the coercive Brahmanical order and instead sought to engage every person of every caste as an equal inheritor of the ancient Hindu cultural heritage. In recent times, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has mobilized an impressive Hindu collective comprising Dalits and marginalized Other Backward Classes under its flag.

Modern ideas of human equality and fraternity have challenged age-old values of a hierarchy-based caste society.

The Hindutva project has been successful in creating what can only be called fictional unity at political locations.

During specific cultural festivals or during certain religious moments, a collective Hindu identity is also on display. However, away from the political and cultural project of building a collective notion of unified Hinduism, the social turf has always remained fragmented on caste lines.

Two caste groups can hardly ever be seen to forge close social associations or familial ties. Social life still functions with distrust, animosity and jealousy between various caste groups. Within the private familial sphere, the three major fragments of the society — social elites, lower castes and Dalits — still operate according to their given cultural norms.

Hindutva's political project may be successful when it comes to bearing electoral dividends, however, it has failed in altering segregated and compartmentalized everyday caste behavior.

Clever manipulation

Caste has remained a hegemonic paradigm under which vast social and cultural aspects of Hindu lives are still governed, especially their marital relations. Any cursory look at the number of honor killings, rapes and acts of violence against Dalit women or experiences of "normal" caste discrimination and intolerance would reveal that the social milieu is still unattached to humanitarian civil norms.

Dalits are the worst sufferers of this arrangement. A vast section among them live in abject poverty, face discrimination and often suffer caste-based violence. Any attempt by them to disturb the conventional social norm meets with severe physical punishment meted out by dominant castes.

In the recent general election, the BJP has achieved impressive success within such a fragmented society. However, this success is not based on the moralistic appeal of that aspect of Hindutva ideology that is critical to segregated caste practices. Instead, it has been achieved through exploiting the demography of a fragmented caste society.

Conventional social differences between caste groups are consciously manipulated into stiff social and political rivalries. The BJP has utilized various caste associations and their cultural and ritualistic symbols for its political purpose. It provided a new political voice to different caste groups and mobilized them against the dominant castes or against Muslims. Such Machiavellian tactics have redefined the conventional grammar of caste politics and re-emphasized the relevance of caste in democracy.

There are differences between the earlier model of caste politics and the "new social engineering" innovated by the BJP.

Conventional social differences between caste groups are consciously manipulated into stiff social and political rivalries.

The earlier version of Ambedkarite-socialist politics had a strong zeal for social reforms and an aspiration to gain political power. It wanted to craft a cultural revolution on modern ethics and was predominantly secular in its credentials.

Current BJP politics offers no such promise to lower castes. Instead, in the current discourse, the hegemonic and exploitative version of Brahmanical Hinduism has found new cover in the name of Hindutva nationalism. The cultural and social domination of the social elites has become aggressive and legitimate. The new Dalit carry no independent cultural or ideological metal that may force the BJP to adopt an effective agenda for social justice or social reforms.

For all of Hindutva politics' claims of Hindu unity, it has no social program to achieve this goal. For example, concern for those who enter into inter-caste marriages, or a woman's claim to choose her partner freely, or the Dalits' repeated appeals for dignity have no popular flag bearers within Hindutva circles.

This is because such questions categorically challenge the cultural and patriarchal values of the dominant castes.

The current right-wing dispensation does not wish to disturb the functional social normative. Instead, Hindutva proponents politicize caste division, encourage patriarchal social values and celebrate Brahmanical cultural assets.

The possibility that everyday social life could divorce from patriarchy and particular caste affinities is still a distant dream. The contemporary political milieu, dominated by right-wing politics, does not offer any reformist agenda that can erase caste divisions and transform it into an egalitarian social order.

Harish S. Wankhede is an assistant professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, School of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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