Updated: May 24, 2011 15:35 IST

When caste & religion surged

K. N. Panikkar
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RELIGION, CASTE AND POLITICS IN INDIA: Christophe Jaffrelot; Primus Books, Virat Bhavan, Mukherjee Nagar Commercial Complex, Delhi-110009. Rs. 2250.
The Hindu
RELIGION, CASTE AND POLITICS IN INDIA: Christophe Jaffrelot; Primus Books, Virat Bhavan, Mukherjee Nagar Commercial Complex, Delhi-110009. Rs. 2250.

Post-Mandal, Indian politics got plebianised, resulting in the OBCs and others gaining power

The closing decades of the 20th century witnessed an unprecedented surge of caste and religion in Indian politics. It was then the Hindu communal forces, after a long wait, managed to occupy the centre stage, riding on the emotional wave generated by the agitation for putting up a Ram Mandir at the disputed site in Ayodhya. This was achieved primarily through a clever manipulation of ‘Ram' as a symbol of Hindu identity. The Bharatiya Janata Party, the political front of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, exploited the Mandir-inspired religious frenzy to capture power at the Centre.

A parallel development in Indian politics was the emergence of backward castes as a decisive factor, thanks to the report of the Mandal Commission, which unleashed an avalanche that had the potential to unsettle the existing power equations. The implementation of its recommendation for 27 per cent quota in government jobs for the ‘Other Backward Classes' created a new social ambience, with the members of the lower castes gaining self-confidence. Both developments aroused a lot of passion, leading to social conflicts and violence.

It is not surprising, therefore, that a bulk of the study of Indian politics of this period, both by Indian and foreign scholars, revolved around them. Notable among the latter is Christopher Jaffrelot, a Paris-based researcher. He has come out with a good number of publications, besides his doctoral dissertation, on issues related to ‘Hindu nationalism” and lower caste politics. His works constitute a substantial contribution to the understanding of Indian politics. And this, despite the avoidable repetitions and, sometimes, insufficient research, which are perhaps inevitable in the Western academic climate of ‘publish or perish'.

Ethnic nationalism

This book presents a collection of his published essays under six heads: ‘Secularism at Stake'; ‘The Sangh Parivar'; ‘Communal violence'; ‘The Rise of the Lower Castes'; ‘The Political Culture (of voting) in India'; and ‘India and the World'. The author, who (in the first section) traces the origin of ethnic nationalism to the 19{+t}{+h} century reform movements, considers these movements as “a reaction to the threat of Western domination and especially to a two-fold cultural challenge — utilitarian reformism and Christian proselytism.”

This argument is extended to account for the rise of communalism, which Jaffrelot calls ‘Hindu nationalism'. To quote him: “The sentiment that Muslims pose a threat to the majority community was the root cause for the crystallisation of a form of Hindu nationalism about one hundred years ago, its reactivation in the 1920s and 1930s, and most recently in the 1980s and 1990s.” This, surely, is an oversimplification; it overlooks the complex ideological, social, and political dimensions of Hindu communalism.

Then follows a discussion on the structure and functioning of the different branches of the Sangh Parivar and communal violence, with the focus on the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat. In Jaffrelot's view, “Gujarati patriotism and anti-Muslim feelings” contributed significantly to Narendra Modi's triumph in the 2007 elections, with development and economic achievements serving as a “very convenient fig leaf for the middle class, which wanted to find more legitimate arguments for justifying their vote for the BJP.”

In the 1990s, Indian politics acquired a positive dimension, and that was the assertiveness of the lower castes to gain their rightful place in society. During the post-Independence period, the middle class drawn from the upper castes had established their hold over the economy and the bureaucracy, and Ambedkarism was pushed to the background. All this changed radically in the wake of the Mandal Commission (1990) calling for affirmative action that would entitle members of the backward castes (officially categorised as the ‘other backward classes') to a fair share in employment, a proposition that had long-term implications for Indian democracy and greatly impinged upon the existing power structure. As Jaffrelot says, “it was a turning point in terms of the democratisation of Indian politics since the Mandal affair forced the lower castes to join hands in order to defend their common interests as OBCs against the resistance of the upper castes.” Post-Mandal, Indian politics got plebianised, resulting in the OBCs and other lower caste formations gaining power in north Indian States.

Indo-U.S. relations

The focus of the section on India's foreign policy is Indo-U.S. relations which, says the author, has undergone a qualitative difference in recent years. First, America is now more eager to engage with China than India from an economic point of view. Secondly, the Indian aspirations on the nuclear front may not be in consonance with President Barack Obama's thinking. In Jeffrelot's opinion, the ties between the two countries may not have deteriorated in any significant way, but they have at least hit a plateau.

The author identifies four processes that have contributed to the transformation in Indian politics since 1990: the plebianisaton of politics; the ethnicisation of democracy; liberalisation (cum inequalities); and rapprochement with the U.S. In conclusion, he strikes a note of optimism that the resilience of the rule of law and the innate strength and capacity of the political system would see the country through its journey to modernity — an optimism that needs to be tempered with such ground realities as growing inequality in a neo-liberal policy framework and the increasing influence of multi-national capital.

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