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‘The Shudras: Vision for a New Path’ review: The paradoxical status of OBCs

The term ‘Other Backward Classes’, or OBCs, is an administrative category. It is typically deployed in the context of public policy and academic research. Is it advisable to construe the hundreds of sub-castes in the OBC category as a singular political community? Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd and Karthik Raja Karupusamy, political theorists and the editors of The Shudras: Vision for a New Path , seem to think so. While they acknowledge it could be problematic to see the Shudras/OBCs as a “monolithic unit,” it is this conceptual framing that informs the essays in this volume.

Enforcers of an ideology

The narrative argument that emerges from this anthology can be summarised as follows: Majority of Indians are Shudras. Over millennia, it was the Shudras who performed the labour involved in the production of food and material goods. But they were denied the prestige and wealth that accrues from productive work. Thanks to their social and spiritual slavery under Hinduism’s varnashrama dharma , the non-productive, minority Dwija (twice-born) elite comprising the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas exploited them for centuries. When colonial modernity and democracy enabled social mobility for the Shudras, the Dwijas came up with Hindutva. Funded by Brahmin-Bania monopoly capital, Hindutva politics is about tightening the Dwijas’ grip over every node of power that has a bearing on education, employment and political representation. Paradoxically, it is the Shudras who are the biggest enforcers of an ideology whose biggest beneficiaries are their oppressors.

This narrative raises two questions: What explains this “Shudra conundrum,” of turkeys voting for Christmas, as it were? And how do the Shudras forge a coherent politics of social transformation?

On the first question, the contributors do a fine job of delineating why Hindutva — which appears to target only non-Hindus — cannot possibly end well for Shudras and Dalits. But there is no convincing explanation for why something that’s so obvious to these writers makes no impression on the millions of Shudras who are in thrall to an ideology that sanctions their degradation. Ilaiah suggests this is due to the Shudras’ intellectual backwardness and spiritual slavery — both rooted in the ritual denial of access to learning and resources by their Dwija oppressors.

While this is certainly a major factor, it doesn’t explain why even the relatively ‘advanced’ OBC communities, who have had avenues of learning open to them for quite some time, are seemingly keen to embrace their own “socio-spiritual slavery” by supporting Hindutva. Putting all the blame on the Dwijas alone is a theoretical dead end — the byproduct of treating Shudras as a unitary group abstracted from socio-historical context. In trying to circumvent this dead end, the anthology raises more questions than it answers.

Objecting to a tag

For starters, how to build a politics around ‘Shudra’ identity when influential Shudra communities think of themselves as Kshatriyas and would object to the ‘Shudra’ tag?

It is undeniable that historically, oppressed communities have had to ‘ethnicise’ and reinvent their identity as a precursor to emancipation. That’s what the Dravidian movement did, and it’s why the ‘Untouchables’ became ‘Dalits’. And yet, would self-identification as ‘Shudras’ sharpen or bridge the already violent fissures between Shudras and Dalits?

Further, given Hindutva’s proven capability to capture power by using ‘Hindu’ identity as a lever to both transcend caste and offer status elevation within the caste order, it is no longer obvious to the OBCs that supporting a Hindutva party is against their self-interest. From a Shudra perspective, the suggestion that they should support one Brahminical national party instead of another Brahminical national party because the former is ‘secular’ and the latter is not, makes little sense.

While neither party would be progressive from a Shudra perspective, there is a case to be made for supporting the one that’s more likely to offer the marginal rewards of representation simply because it’s more likely to win. In today’s India, this would make the BJP the national party of choice for many Shudras, and so it has.

Alternative to Ram Rajya

The Breitbart doctrine holds that “politics is downstream from culture”, and to change a people’s politics, you must change their culture first.

The rightwing knows this, which is why it’s displacing India’s plural traditions with Hindutva. The authors in this volume recognise it too. Therefore, they contend that Hindutva cannot be stopped unless Shudras are de-brahminised. They believe Shudra de-brahminisation requires them to rediscover and embrace autonomous Shudra traditions.

Drawing on the work of Jyotirao Phule, they see an alternative to Ram Rajya in the kingdom of Baliraja, a deity of Maharashtra’s peasantry. Shudras in other regions have their own versions of Baliraja, which brings us to the final contradiction: Should the regionally fragmented Shudras take on a homogenising national force by building an alternative homogenous politics around ‘Shudra’ identity? Or does it make better sense to fight an oppressive homogeneity with a renewed and fiercely federated pluralism?

Notwithstanding the analytical problems attending the ‘Shudra’ category, this anthology brings the spotlight on the challenges facing a people who form not only the majority of India’s population but also the majority among Hindus. The Shudras is a timely intervention that ought to be read by anyone exercised by the paradoxical status of OBC communities in a country facing Hindutva hegemony.

The Shudras: Vision for a New Path ; Edited by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd & Karthik Raja Karuppasamy, Penguin Random House, ₹699.

sampath.g@thehindu.co.in


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