Caste Based Poitics in India

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Is India a

‘Caste Democracy’?

Introduction: Caste based politics in India

Though the idea that caste is a part of a natural and moral order of things, that it is a hereditary quality which once for all defines ones position and occupational affiliation and which is associated with a particular law of conduct is rejected both by intellectuals and political leaders, caste is in Indian post independence politics continually used and abused in different ways.

State politics in India has been particularly the hot bed of political casteism. Caste enters much more directly into the composition of political elites at the state level. For example the mysore cabinet is dominated by Lingayats and Vokkaliga, the Maharashtra Cabinet by Marathas, and some have refereed to the Madras Cabinet as a federation of dominant backward castes.

And though the Indian constitution has outlawed caste-based discrimination, the caste system, in various forms does continue to play a major role in Indian society and politics. A striking feature of the Indian democratic experiment has been the increasing use of reservations to achieve greater social justice and equality of opportunity. Much of this has occurred due to the shifting balance of power across demographics.

Since the 1950s, political power has been shifting away from upper caste Hindus to the rest, who are far more numerous. From a society where politics once held a marginal public role, India has become an intensely political society. By the 1970s, for instance, many Shudra castes—located above the outcastes—had gained enough economic and political clout to become a powerful ‘vote bank’. They now aspired to a larger share of administrative and educational opportunities, where they were underrepresented. Some of the largest and best-organized Shudra castes were the ‘Yadavs in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Jats in Haryana and Punjab, Marathas in Maharashtra, Vokkaligas in Karnataka, and Gounders in Tamil Nadu.’

And during the recent years, caste mobilisation has become an important factor in shaping Indian politics. Caste is a dominant factor particularly, in Bihar, MP, UP, Kerala, and Orissa. It can be a more potent force than ideology. A socialist voter would rather vote for a candidate of his own caste in a constituency that is also contested by the CPI-M or the CPI. Of course, in urban areas casteism is not a determinant. In large parts of the country, it is not politics that becomes caste-ridden; on the contrary, it is caste that gets politicized.

On one hand there is a struggle for equality but on the other hand group and caste identities are sharpened and boundaries between groups reinforced. As paradoxical as it may seem, this contradiction is already present in the Indian constitution, which on one hand calls for equality of opportunity and status for all citizens irrespective of caste, sex, religion etc. and on the other hand has a full package of reservations prepared for scheduled castes and tribes, OBCs etc.

There is thus an inevitable tension emerging between two basic notions – the notion of individual and the notion of group rights. This tension runs through the whole Indian politics like a red thread, which can be observed in different states in diverse variations according to the composition of society and other important traits, but the principle remains basically the same.

Caste is not disappearing, nor is ‘casteism’ – the political use of caste – for what is emerging in India is a social and political system which institutionalizes and transforms but does not abolish caste. The Indian political parties are well aware that to build the electoral support and vote banks it is necessary to appeal to particular castes, tribes and religious communities. The caste rhetoric emerged especially in the context of mobilization of the lower castes especially by the India National Congress, which introduced the system of affirmative action – reservations – for...
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