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Caste politics in India

 

Electoral policy, Census operations and preferential treatment on basis of castes together paved way for the entry of caste into politics. It started long ago, during British rule, which divided Indians and kept them busy in their internal fights.

As Aine-Akbari pointed out, though influence of caste was immense on public minds in medivial India, but was confined within social arena only. Institution of caste was independent of government. Decentralised self-regulated systems were modes in social, political and economic life of the country. After gaining power in 1858, British rulers used social, demographic, linguistics, religious and cultural diversities of India to enflame anti-national, anti-secular and castiest tendencies. To keep their power intact, they played off one part against other- caste against castes, Hindus against Muslims and province against provinces. They created split in 3 stages, first they appeased Hindus, then Muslims and at last backward castes. They continued their ‘divide and rule’ policy till end and kept Indians busy with their internal problems.

British launched an ideological attack on on Indian culture and systems to spread prejudice against everything native. Brahmins/uppercastes were potrayed as oppressors and exploiters of backward castes and poor. Along with mental doze, British rulers encouraged formation of many caste groups against upper castes, in whom they saw a potential threat to their rule in India. With the backing of British government in India and missionaries, educated non-Brahmin communities organized their caste fellows, raised their voice against upper castes and pursued their sectarian interests. By 1920’s, numerous organizations/political formations on basis of caste and community grew into larger collectiveness by keeping contacts and alliances with their counterparts at other places; formed associations and federations at local and regional levels and emerged as a powerful political force.

Leaders of backward castes aimed at obtaining legal rights and position of power through government intervention. They insisted on their separate identity and sought special legal protection and share in politics and administration. Many leaders like Mahatma Phule, Ambedkar or Gopal Ganesh criticized Hindu hierarchical structure. They wanted eradication of caste system, because to them, it engaged many people to forced labor or unsavory jobs, imposed many restrictions on them, prevented them from joining mainstream of the society and subjugated them with the help of the religion.

Granting separate Muslim electorate through Government of India Act 1909, (Minto Morley Reforms) brought the idea of communal electorate to the forefront. Around 1909, non-Brahmin Community was divided into two – Backwards and Untouchables. The suggestion of Census Commissioner suggested to exclude untouchables (comprising about 24% of Hindu Population and 16% of total population) from Hindu fold in 1911 census gave a new dimension to casteism in politics. It increased the importance of untouchables in political circle, in social circle, and in their own eyes too.

In 1930, Starte Committee suggested to sub divide the backward classes into untouchables, aboriginal hill tribes and other backward class. Communal Award of 1932 created a permanent split in Hindu Society. It made impossible the assimilation of different castes under one fold. Seeds of casteism sown by British blossomed to its full in independent India.

Electoral politics has given a new lease of life to casteism after independence. Castes have become basis for political mobilization. Dependence of politicians on caste for their survival gradually increased. Growing political mobilization on caste and communal basis for electoral purposes fostered caste-conflicts and caste rivalries. Numerical strength of intermediate and lower castes plus Muslims makes a strong electoral base for politicians. Therefore, they woo them frantically. Caste has become the most convenient, effective and quickest channel for communication and a reliable source to create vote-banks.

During 60’s and70’s, though taken roots, caste politics was confined to local and provincial politics, where caste divisions were being used for creating vote-banks. At national level, politics was largely dominated by economic issues and question of corruption. After the downfall of Mrs. Gandhi in 1977, era of populist appeals and pursuance of sectional interests started with a force at national level too. Mandal commission appointed by Janata government submitted its report in 1980. Realizing changing ground realities with intermediate caste replacing upper castes as owners of the land (a development of 1960s and 70s) and sensing the mood of the people, the Mandal Report was kept in cold storage for 10 years, from 1980 to 1990) by Congress Party governments of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

In 1990, insecure politicians and their parties had plunged the whole nation into worst form of caste and communal divide, when United Front goverment decided to implement Mandal’s recommendation on Reservations. It polorized public opinion along caste lines. How power was to be distributed within and between institutions became less important for political leaders, than how to share it by various groups of society. Idea of social justice was gradually linked with empowerment theory and sharing power equitably by different sections of society. Displacement of attention from institutions and liberal policies to distribution of power between caste and communities represented a shift towards start of populist politics. After it, Every possible cross division is being introduced by various political parties and their government. They divide people on every possible front be it on basis of castes, creed, class, gender, region, minority-majority etc. telling them that for centuries they have been deprived of their fair share of power by elite groups of society. However, demonstrable political history of Independent India shows having a Dalit President, a Muslim President, a Sikh President, a woman President, a Prime Minister, a Sikh Prime Minister, many Dalit Chief Ministers in Provinces and thousands of Collectors, commissioners, Superintendents of Police and senior bureaucrats in other areas of administration in short span of 61 years of Independence.

Governance on basis of castes or by perpetuating and encouraging caste divisions is repugnant to principles of democracy. Democracy does not guarantee equality of conditions, it guarantees only equality of opportunity. Communalism and casteism are bound to destroy unity of the nation and narrow down aspirations of people. National solidarity in a democratic set up demands Government to recognize only two ends – individual at one end and nation as a whole at the other. Nothing should be encouraged to organize itself in between these two ends to the detriment of freedom of an individual and solidarity of the nation.

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September 12, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

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