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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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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