Caste might be cast in stone judging from the way the dominant discourse gets conducted in India
“Caste is the most overwhelming factor in Indian life. Those who deny it in principle also accept it in practice. Life moves within the frontiers of caste and cultured men speak in soft tones against the system of caste, while its rejection in action just does not occur to them...” Socialist thinker Ram Manohar Lohia said this in 1964 but the words might be as relevant today as they were five decades ago.
The Ashis Nandy controversy illustrates the paradox of India’s opinion makers preaching caste equality while instinctively, reflexively, articulating positions that bunch them up on one side of the caste divide, thus reinforcing the very order that they have rejected. K. Satyanarayana exposes this contradiction with devastating examples in his article in The Hindu (editorial page, “The question of casteism still remains,” February 5, 2013). Mr. Nandy’s defenders have made the untenable legal claim that he should be judged not by what he said at the Jaipur Literature Festival but by his past record and scholarship. But worse, gradually the defence, which was originally grounded in Mr. Nandy’s right to free expression, has deteriorated into a free-for-all against Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBC) — who are presumed to have become “sacred cows” protected by “draconian” laws. If to question Mr. Nandy is intolerance, what does one call this rant?
Mr. Nandy’s initial statement was a qualified one: he said the Indian Republic was saved because the corrupt of today were from the “Scheduled castes, OBCs and now the tribals.” But the nuances went for a toss with his stunning insistence that West Bengal was free from corruption because “in the last hundred years, nobody from the OBCs, SCs and STs has come to power there. It is an absolutely clean State.” Forget the backhanded compliment to the Left Front leadership which has been deemed to be clean for being upper caste. The inescapable inference from this is that upper caste means no corruption regardless of the period of reference — today or a 100 years ago.
Nandy’s statement as peg
Per se this is indefensible. Yet if for no other reason than to make the caste debate meaningful, we also need to look at Mr. Nandy’s subsequent clarification — more so because contained in the clarification is an uncomfortable truth that the Indian intelligentsia has tiptoed around for too long. To quote Mr. Nandy: “What I meant was that most of the people getting caught for corruption are people from OBC, SC and ST communities, as they don’t have the means to save themselves unlike people from upper castes who can hide their corruption.”
The Nandy episode would have been well served if this statement had become the peg on which to examine the persisting caste prejudices and double standards that allow one kind of corruption to be exposed and the other to be hidden. However, it is important to understand that exposés and blackouts happen not only because one section is smarter than the other, which surely it is, but because the dominant discourse in India – as is evident from l'affaire Nandy itself — continues to be shaped by the socially advantaged classes. The media, as surveys have established, are a classic example of this stranglehold but upper caste dominance is as much a reality in academia and other key policymaking institutions. This collective is superficially progressive. Yet at a subconscious level, its members harbour all the entrenched biases, resulting in the backward castes being censured far more severely than their “twice-born” counterparts for the same alleged crime — be it ostentation, self-promotion, a specific legal violation or patronage of a particular caste group.
Mayawati and the Gandhis
A case in point is the differential treatment extended to Mayawati and the Nehru-Gandhis. This difference endures despite xenophobic intolerance of the First family by right-wing sections of the middle class. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief’s wealth and her self-projection — creating parks and monuments, naming projects after herself and celebrating lavish birthdays — have been obsessively written about by a media that ignored her political achievements until she compelled attention by forming in 2007 the first majority government in Uttar Pradesh in 17 years. The star of that watershed election was Ms Mayawati but the media ignored her, choosing instead to be embedded with Rahul Gandhi whose party finished last and is still stuck there.
Compare the relentless focus on Ms Mayawati’s financial assets with the easy ride given to Robert Vadra. The Vadra real estate papers were avidly consumed in private, they had been available for years with the principal Opposition party, but the veil on the Gandhi son-in-law’s vast business empire was lifted only after Arvind Kejriwal made bold to mention the unmentionable. Today, while Ms Mayawati finds the law chasing her, there seem to be no such anxieties for Mr. Vadra. In Prime Minister Vajpayee’s time, similar deference was shown to his foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya.
Tracking the BSP
I had my first real brush with deep-seated caste attitudes in 1988 when I was in Allahabad for a Lok Sabha by-election contested by Rajiv (Gandhi) challenger V.P. Singh. His opponents were Sunil Shastri from the Congress and Kanshi Ram from the BSP. Singh was the media darling and Mr. Shastri derived his importance from being his principal opponent. The BSP faced a near media blackout, and as it turned out, the party was equally contemptuous of the “manuwadi” press. BSP volunteers blocked me off from their meetings, saying they knew what I would write. Over the years, as I tracked the BSP’s astonishing growth, I could not help but notice the unfailingly skewed media coverage of the party, whose rallies would be reported, not for their content but for the traffic chaos they caused.
As a part-time journalism teacher in 2005, I would discover the same unconscious bias in the essays turned in by my students. Writing on Ms Mayawati’s birthday, they left out the political aspects of the event, concentrating instead on her diamonds, her “flashy” clothes and the size of the cake she cut. They would accept later that diamonds and silks were worn by other women politicians too but that somehow, these outward manifestations hit the eye more in the BSP chief’s case. There is an ironic reality here that must be understood in its proper context. What people saw as distasteful flamboyance was a political tool that Ms Mayawati consciously employed, especially in the formative years when it was important for her to raise the self-esteem of her constituency. This was explained to me by the part Hindutva, part OBC Uma Bharti. The Dalit girls in her village were forbidden from crossing the threshold into even OBC homes. But they would rebel in their own way, wearing Mayawati hair clutches and imitating her mannerisms, thereby signalling that they would not be kept down by force. The handbag, symbolising status and accomplishment, is similarly a deliberate presence in the much-criticised Mayawati statues.
Admittedly, the showmanship can get excessive, as it did in 2010 when the then Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister wore a gigantic garland of currency notes, estimated to add up to several crores of rupees. This kind of extravagant cash display undoubtedly raises questions about source and accountability. However, in all the outrage over this incident, the media missed mentioning that Indian politicians have traditionally been weighed against coins. At election time this becomes a means of adding to the party coffers without the bother of disclosing the source.
There is equal duplicity around the perceived caste consciousness of parties such as the BSP and the Samajwadi Party (SP). As a journalist posted in Lucknow in the late 1980s, I was witness to the transfer of power in Uttar Pradesh from the Congress’s Narain Dutt Tiwari to the Janata Dal’s Mulayam Singh Yadav (now with the SP.) The latter took charge to immediate accusations of Yadavisation of government and bureaucracy. Nobody cared to find out which castes ruled in the previous regime. In 1984, 93.8 per cent of the principal secretaries and secretaries to the U.P. government were from the upper castes and 78.6 per cent of the District Magistrates were from the upper castes, including 41 per cent of Brahmins (Christophe Jaffrelot, India’s Silent Revolution).
Political empowerment of the backward castes is a dramatic reality today. But social attitudes have stayed frozen. Why else would 50 per cent of all Central schemes and projects be named after the Nehru-Gandhis? Why would there be a chorus of protests over Mayawati statues but not over the renaming of the Borivali National Park after that champion of democracy, Sanjay Gandhi? In her outstanding book, The Grammar of Caste, Ashwini Deshpande cites evidence from four pioneering studies on the Indian urban labour market to conclude that employers discriminate between equally meritorious candidates on the basis of their caste identities. “Employers talk the language of merit and confess a deep faith solely in the merit of the applicant. However, they also believe that merit is distributed along lines of caste, religious and gender divisions. Nowhere do employers see this as discrimination. It is as if they were describing a neutral and unbiased state of the world.” Back to 1964 and Ram Manohar Lohia?