The Bihar caste survey and the social justice agenda

The ruling coalition in the State has the opportunity to inaugurate a new kind of politics by using the caste survey data to rejuvenate and deliver the social justice agenda

November 15, 2023 12:16 am | Updated 01:59 am IST

An enumerator meeting residents in Patna during the caste-based census in Bihar

An enumerator meeting residents in Patna during the caste-based census in Bihar | Photo Credit: PTI

The government of Bihar has taken two historic steps that move it ahead of all other States in the country as well as the central government on the long road to social justice. It has conducted what amounts to a caste census (despite the legal nomenclature of a survey) and made public the population numbers associated with different caste groups. Even more important, it has now revealed, at least partially, the additional data that tell us something about the broad socio-economic status of castes.

However, the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Janata Dal (United) combine may squander its well-earned lead if it falters in the crucial third step — of using the caste survey data to rejuvenate the social justice agenda. Going by the measures announced so far – expansion of reservations to 65% — Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar seems intent on pouring new wine into old bottles.

The new context that frames the social justice agenda in the third decade of the 21st century demands a response that goes beyond the strategies of the 20th century. This new context has four main dimensions.

Providing ‘decent work’

First, there is the global economic situation, where neoliberal policies have re-positioned States as market-enablers while severely constraining their social welfare capabilities. The hard fact is that despite — or because of? — four decades of market-friendly policies, the formal sector of the Indian economy offers less than 8% of all jobs. While reservation remains relevant as a mode of providing representation to marginalised groups, it is hopelessly inadequate as a means for reducing caste inequalities. The challenge — and it is a formidable one — is to imagine new ways of providing on a mass scale what the International Labour Organization (ILO) calls “decent work”.

Also read | Poverty highest among Scheduled Castes, lowest among Kayasths

Second, like many other countries in the world, India today is ruled by an authoritarian regime built around a personality cult focused on a single leader. The important point is that the hegemonic power of this regime is being used to alter the shape of the Indian state like never before in the history of our republic. Core constitutional norms such as the system of checks and balances between different organs of state; or the distinction between government, party and individual leader; or the basic federal structure of the Indian union are being undermined in ways that are already hard to reverse and may soon become irreversible.

An ideological hegemony

Unlike the first two dimensions of the current context, the last two are explicitly related to caste. The third and most visible aspect of our society and polity today is the arrival of an overt and aggressive north-Indian Hindu upper-caste hegemony in the guise of the ideology called Hindutva. This hegemony itself is not new. Indeed, it has been a permanent feature since Independence, with a brief interruption during the 1990s. But while the earlier upper-caste dominance of the Nehru-era wore the garb of secularism and socialism and was neither overt nor aggressive, the Modi-era version is the opposite in each of these respects. Today, we have a violently anti-secular, unabashedly crony-capitalist form of dominance that insists not only on one nation, one leader and one religion but also on there being one and only one way of being Hindu, or even of being Indian. The caste hierarchies of Hinduism are attempted to be folded into a larger Hindu identity shaped by the upper castes, and defined by a visceral hatred towards Muslims and, to a lesser extent, towards Christians.

The fourth dimension — the most challenging from the point of view of social justice — has to do with the internal differentiations that are now an undeniable aspect of every major caste group. In other words, not only is there more than one class in every caste group but also the interests of these different classes cannot be easily harmonised in a one-dimensional caste politics. The indications are that caste politics will have to become more and more coalitional and address similar class-fractions across multiple castes if it is to remain electorally viable. This may also precipitate a class polarisation within castes with unpredictable consequences. There are intriguing asymmetries here that need to be considered: it is easier for upper caste politics to deal with the problem of poor upper castes than it is for lower caste politics to deal with the problem of rich lower castes. The former goes with the grain of democratic politics in general, while the latter is against the grain.

The ruling coalition in Bihar stands at a historic crossroads. It has the opportunity to inaugurate a new kind of caste politics that takes account of the various dimensions of our present. To do this, the habits of the past will have to be broken, while maintaining continuity with the core of the social justice agenda. The crucial point, obscured in the past but highlighted by the current conjuncture, is that caste politics can no longer be automatically equated with the politics of social justice. If this equation was taken for granted in the past, it was largely because of a misrecognition — itself prompted by the dominant upper caste ideology — that “caste politics” effectively meant lower caste politics. While the immediate effect of this misrecognition was to make upper caste politics invisible, it also shielded lower caste politics from critical scrutiny.

Effective counter-assertion of State rights

On the other hand, the politics of the lower castes, even when it is not fighting for social justice but for the interests of a particular community, can still be an effective counter to the politics of Hindutva, which is the current avatar of the politics of the upper caste neo-elites. Bihar has already been playing this role to some extent by halting the triumphant march of Hindutva politics across north India. Along with Karnataka, Kerala and Rajasthan in recent times, Bihar has also led the resistance against the erosion of Indian federalism. The very act of conducting a caste count was an assertion of the rights of States to fashion locally-relevant policies.

Bihar Caste Survey | What are the implications?

The survey itself raises questions that will profoundly affect our collective future as a nation. A census is ultimately about aggregated numbers, and as such, it privileges larger numbers — in other words, it carries the seed of majoritarianism. In the context of a majority-rule electoral system, the counting of identities like castes seems to juxtapose the “portrait” model of representation against a “proxy” model. Should our political representatives be judged by how well they resemble us (like a portrait), or by how well they act on our behalf (like proxies)? Bihar has the opportunity to show us that even if sharing the same identity is a necessary condition for representation today, it must not be accepted as sufficient.

Satish Deshpande is currently the M.N. Srinivas Chair Professor at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru. The views expressed are personal

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