Twenty years ago, at the dawn of the new millennium and after the ‘Mandal decade’ of the 1990s, it looked as though the institution of caste had become legible in a new way (See “Caste and social structure”, The Hindu, December 6-7, 2001). The break with the past seemed decisive; a code had been cracked, and caste could be ‘read’ like never before. Like any newly literate person, we took it for granted that the change was permanent.
But the new age of caste clarity lasted barely two decades. Today, in the mid-Modi era after the novel coronavirus pandemic, we are struggling to come to terms with the perception that caste has become opaque again — the code has changed. What has changed? And how has it affected our understanding of caste?
To begin with, the perception of the ‘we’ has changed. It can no longer remain an unmarked universal ‘we’ that speaks for everyone, but must be acknowledged as upper caste. Specifically, this is the vantage point of the overwhelmingly upper caste liberal intelligentsia, a group that certainly has a caste location with its biases, but is more a spectator than a player in the game of caste. Unlike players (who must strategise to win the game while taking account of possible moves by opponents and allies), the spectator tries to map all possible moves by all players.
The other changes can be divided into two kinds — those that are internal to the caste structure itself and those that are located in the larger context. Leaving the contextual changes for later, the internal changes are taken up here, initially in relation to the largest group, the Other Backward Classes (OBCs).
On the OBCs
The re-orientation of caste in the new millennium happened largely because of the arrival of the OBCs on the national stage. The OBCs were good to think with for several reasons.
First, the OBCs helped to place caste the right side up. From the Nehru era until the 1990s, the dominant ideology had presented caste as the exception and casteless-ness as the rule. The OBCs forced us to recognise that the upper castes were a minority rather than the ‘general’ or universal category. Second, because they were an intermediate group, the OBCs invited closer attention to the notion of backwardness and the interplay of graded privilege and disprivilege in different caste clusters. Third, because they were defined as a residual category — neither in the Scheduled Castes (SC) or Scheduled Tribes, nor in the upper castes — the OBCs highlighted the pros and cons of categorisation and the challenge of internal disparities within large groupings. The OBCs were also important in themselves because of their demographic weight and distribution. They were present in most parts of the country and formed a large (usually largest) segment of every class group, from the poorest to the richest. That is why they had a special affinity for federalism and were instrumental in introducing coalition politics at the national level.
Is this way of reading caste still valid for caste analysis today? The short general answer is yes; but it is the particulars that matter for the more useful long answer.
The single most important change over the past two decades is that the process of internal differentiation within each large caste grouping has now penetrated much deeper. The impact of this process depends on the dimension of differentiation and on the contextual features which allow or prevent sub-groups from crystallising as distinct entities with an autonomous trajectory. The most common dimensions of differentiation are economic status, livelihood sources, and regional location. The single most important contextual factor that allows or prevents crystallisation as an independent entity appears to be region-specific electoral influence. For example, the Yadavs of Uttar Pradesh have not only coalesced as a coherent group, but have also facilitated the emergence of a derivative sub-group called the ‘non-Yadav OBCs’. Individual castes within this latter group, however, are yet to acquire a separate electoral identity.
Similar region-specific developments may be seen in cases such as the Mahars of Maharashtra or the Malas of Andhra Pradesh among the SC groups. But the emergent entity need not be defined as a distinct caste; and it may be an off-stage rather than on-stage actor in the drama of electoral politics. For example, economic differentiation within the upper castes has produced a division into the non-rich, rich and super-rich segments, but these are not sub-castes, and they are not (yet) a separate political constituency and remain within the larger upper caste fold. Nevertheless, such groups demand to be addressed politically and are of crucial ideological importance.
The upshot is that caste analysis today has no choice but to be fine-grained and multi-dimensional. This is not just a quantitative change — the crystallisation of new political entities triggers qualitative shifts as well, changing the game being played without making it an entirely new game. Moreover, caste being fundamentally relational, it is the changing dynamics between and among caste groupings that matters. From the point of view of the social sciences, what this means is that macro-analyses of caste will become more and more difficult; they will end up either as unhelpful (and unsustainable) generalities, or they will simply become a collection of detailed micro-studies.
Thus, the apparent opacity of caste today seems to have two different sources. The first is the exponential increase in the complexity of the field, largely because of the differentiation of the initial groupings that were far too big to remain coherent. It is not that the code of caste has changed but that the caste-text to be read today is far more advanced. In other words, we have not become illiterate with respect to caste but we have to raise our reading skills to a much higher level.
However, it is the second source of opacity that is far more consequential, and this is located not within caste but in its relationship to other contextual factors. The most important of these are neoliberalism as a hegemonic worldview that re-positioned state and market; the dominance of Hindutva as a political modality; the new media regime that saturates social life; the ongoing restructuring of federalism; and finally, the change in the ecosystem of official statistics.
Satish Deshpande teaches in Delhi University. The views expressed are personal