Tuesday, April 17, 2007

‘There is no such thing as the caste system any more’

Recently in India, French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, author of seminal works on caste and Hindutva, spoke to Shivam Vij and Avinash Dutt.

For the average Indian, is religion more important or caste?

It is sometimes not only those two but much more. The Leftist approach would consist of highlighting class as the main criterion in defining the man in the street. But we have learnt to know that there are many ascriptive identities, and religion and caste are among the most important ones, especially in politics when you have to understand how people vote.

But, between caste and religion, which becomes more important for the average voter?

It depends on the context. In 1991, after Mandal, caste was very important, which is why the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party could join hands: the anti-reservationists were so strong that the pro-reservationists had to join hands. Things changed when Advani’s rath yatra re-highlighted Hindu identity and in some places, including Uttar Pradesh, it worked. To be anti-Muslim came first. So there really is no definite answer.

In that sense, has caste played a positive role by preventing a homogenised Hindu identity from taking shape?

That is one thing. Another is that caste politics gives the plebeians a block of solidarity. Such numbers of people, in that case, work together and behave in such a way that it enables low-caste parties to win many more seats and obliges mainstream parties to give tickets to OBCs. In that sense, the caste-ification of Indian politics has been a factor of the democratisation of Indian politics.

What do you make of the current controversy on OBC reservations?

If you have reservations in the administration, you need reservations in the universities. How do you train the people who are supposed to do the job? For the Scheduled Castes, reservations in the education system came first and then in the administration. So, after giving 27 percent to OBCs in the administration, it is rather logical that they are being given 27 percent in education. And the fact that the government has committed itself to increasing the capacity of the universities by 54 percent so as not to penalise the upper castes is, to my mind, a very positive step.

But there has been great anger against reservations among the middle class.

I think the upper castes need to understand that they are going to be affected only in a limited manner, and that reservations may help stabilise social relations. By giving some upward mobility to people who may otherwise not get a chance, you defuse a source of resentment which may generate tensions. Secondly, some measures for poor upper-caste people should also be decided on.

Do you think the beneficiaries of reservation become part of the middle class and want to forget caste?

That was the rule of the game for decades — except in the case of Dr Ambedkar. It has changed only recently when personalities like Kanshi Ram remained true to the cause. When you look at what Congress dalit mps and ministers had become, you realise that they were not strong advocates of their people. But I’m not expressing any value judgement on the middle-class dalits who are cut off from their people, because it is very difficult to be in between two worlds. It’s a schizophrenic situation.
There is probably only one way to transcend this: to embrace a new identity. Those who have become Buddhist do not face this problem so acutely. Not only does Buddhism not make them hark back to their dalit background, but they can share this identity with other dalits who have not arrived.

But some say that Buddhism has become another divisive factor in the already fragmented dalit movement.

I think, rather, that in the end it will be the crucible from which all dalits will find a platform, not only in Maharashtra but also in different parts of India.

What do you think has gone wrong with the dalit movement in Maharashtra?

In Maharashtra, dalit political leaders have often betrayed Ambedkarism for a kursi. The aftermath of the Kherlanji atrocities was very revealing in this regard. The leaders of the Republican Party of India did nothing. Ramdas Athavale was nowhere in the picture. Dalits — and among them dalit women — mobilised on their own. Had they not protested, no case would have been registered. Now at least a trial may take place, giving the judiciary an opportunity to do its job, even though the police has destroyed most of the evidence. I, therefore, would not say that the dalit movement has lost any sense of direction — its political leaders have, but socially and ideologically it is very active and alert.

You call it ‘India’s silent revolution’, but many insist caste politics is perpetuating caste and is responsible for unstable coalition governments.

To say that politics has institutionalised caste is to suggest that without this kind of politics you would not have caste.
If caste politics is a useful detour for the emancipation of the subalterns — because it enables the lower castes to form larger coalitions and to dislodge the elite who have monopolised power for centuries — it is a much lesser evil. It indeed permits some transfer of power to the plebeians.
So far as the instability of governments is concerned, I don’t think that happened because of caste politics but rather because of the regionalisation of politics, since parties broke into pieces along regional lines. But, in fact, this system is not so unstable because regional parties are now often part of coalitions which are completing the duration of their terms.

What is caste politics doing to caste?

It is forcing many sub-castes to join hands and sometimes even to merge. Look at the kshatriyas in Gujarat. This is a caste that has emerged out of a political process. In the 1950s, you had the Rajputs and the Kolis, which were OBCs. They decided to join hands against the Patels to fight this dominant caste more effectively. So a new caste has emerged, the kshatriyas.
Secondly, politics is transforming castes into interest groups. I would argue that there is nothing like the caste system anymore. There used to be one, in which the brahmins epitomised superior values for the whole of society, whereas the dalits were the opposite. Today, at least in the cities, you have the same people not in a vertical arrangement but in a horizontal line: all castes are in competition for power, jobs, seats in the universities — the public sphere is an arena where they fight. The idea of an all-encompassing social system is gone and this has resulted in some mobility. This has been one of the results of Indian democracy over 60 years.

If we could return to the OBC issue, do you think that post-Mandal reservations and OBC politics at large have hurt dalits?

Mandal, in the end, has made the OBCs more assertive and commanding vis-à-vis the dalits who often work in their fields as labourers. But the post-Mandal reservation has not taken anything to the dalits. The OBCs were really losing ground. If you look at the figures of the bureaucracy, you had many more dalits than OBCs there. That was not satisfactory because everybody needs to be represented in this. So something had to be done, to my mind, and I would argue something would have to be done for Muslims in the same way.

OBC leaders are somewhat silent in the current controversy because they want the upper-caste vote as well. The OBC is no longer a single, unified vote bank.

True, but if you compare the kind of reactions these people have today with the reaction they had during Mandal in 1990, you will in any case see a change. I think more and more parties which were reluctant then are now accepting caste-based reservations for OBCs. They can’t alienate 52 percent of the population. Look at the BJP manifestoes of the last 15 years. In ’91, they were for class-based reservations. In ’96, it was the same. In ’98, they started to say let’s implement the quota system as the Supreme Court has allowed it. Now they will not go against any caste-based policies for OBCs. So they have been convinced in less than 15 years. And they were the hardest nuts to crack. They have realised that they want all the voters, but also that the majority of the voters are OBC and that they’d better go along with reservations for them instead of opposing them at the cost of their voters.

But there are tensions between the BJP’s OBC leaders and its core, which remains strictly upper caste.

Indeed, the BJP has not promoted OBC leaders either in the party apparatus or at the Centre. If you look at the places OBCs occupy in the BJP universe, they are more at the state level as mlas or in the state governments, but not at the top of the party apparatus and were not in the important ministries when the BJP led the nda coalition at the Centre. This disjunction clearly reflects a mindset. It’s also because the RSS movement is still imbued with an upper caste — mostly brahminical — ethos. If you look at the RSS pracharaks running the show, most of them are brahmins. They are not ready to promote low-caste people at that level. It’s remarkable that there has not been any non-brahmin at the helm of the RSS except for Rajendra Singh — a Rajput. That says a lot. Eighty years of a movement with always the same social profile and ethos.

When all regions have their own parties and so do castes, is there space for national parties?

Well, there is space for national parties which are able to work in coalitions. The Congress, for instance, cannot go it alone any more. They used to try and think they could. But they realised they could only be the coordinating agency of a coalition. So they still play a useful part. They are national in the sense that they coordinate regional parties. The BJP is doing the same with the nda. The task of a national party today is to have about 150 seats and be the largest party in a coalition of 15 to 18 parties. I will be very surprised if any party in the near future is in a position to gain an absolute majority on its own.
National parties may roughly remain at their present level. This is good for democracy. Everyone is now willing to work in coalitions and make compromises. When the Congress enjoyed an absolute majority, this state of things enabled Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule in the ’70s and the ’80s. Today, the Congress has to discuss give-and-take with the regional bosses which support its government in Parliament.

You have just returned from Gujarat, what did you observe there?

I observed that Narendra Modi has asked Montek Ahluwalia to remove Mallika Sarabhai from Doordarshan, and then I could not resist thinking that liberty of expression for those who have a dissenting voice was not respected. And if India is a democracy, as Amartya Sen has claimed, because of the argumentative Indian, you may well need to protect those who argue — and for the right cause at that! I also heard that India’s best-known corporate houses have withdrawn sponsorships to the trust Mallika Sarabhai runs because of Narendra Modi. I find it most disturbing.

What is the importance of Narendra Modi as a signpost for the Hindutva project in the long term?

For the first time, the Hindu right has achieved what it has been longing for: to put Muslims in their place by organising ethnic cleansing and by displacing them from the cities. In Ahmedabad, they once lived in the heart of the city; now they have been sent to its periphery, they have become the second-class citizens the Hindu nationalists have always wanted them to be.
Not only that, but the Bajrang Dal has taken the law into its hands in an unprecedented manner. One of their leaders, Babu Bajrangi, who has been accused of murders in 2002 by several witnesses but who is still very much active, “rescues” against their will Hindu girls who have married Muslims or men who do not belong to their caste. He is also very good at intimidating the owners of cinema houses who may want to show films he does not appreciate, like Parzania. So far, the state has had no objection to his activities. Who will restore the rule of law in Gujarat?

Source: Tehelka

Apr 21 , 2006

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