Caste today is active in three main ways. First, it is a system that regulates the distribution of material opportunity or life chances, and hence it is a source of enduring inequalities. Second, it remains one of the primary modes of political mobilisation, even though caste politics is now far more disaggregated, complex and uncertain than it used to be. Third, and perhaps most elusive, for everyone except a small upper-class, upper-caste elite caste continues to be a form of community offering a sense of kinship, belonging and identity. The contexts of caste have changed in ways that affect all three modalities.
A rise and fall
The story of caste as a mechanism for regulating material opportunities in independent India can be told in terms of the rise and fall of what might be called the reservation-merit system.
In its original form, ‘reservation’ was a pre-Independence idea emerging from the Poona Pact of 1932 and codified in the Government of India Act of 1935. It was intended to be an antidote for caste discrimination rather than a remedy for backwardness. But, by the time the Constitution of the new Republic was adopted in January 1950, the idea had changed fundamentally.
The new Constitution abolished caste in principle but did not interfere with its practice. Reservation was now positioned as the exception to the general principle of castelessness, and seen as a kind of unearned ‘benefit’ provided by the state to certain castes. The rest of society was seen as the domain of ‘merit’, where privileges were assumed to have been earned through talent and hard work. In other words, caste-based allocation of opportunities continued unchecked except for a portion of government jobs and seats in public educational institutions. Unsurprisingly, the benefits of economic development — in both the state as well as the non-state sectors — have flowed in accordance with the caste hierarchy, with the upper castes getting the lion’s share. The reservation-merit system was founded on a dichotomy that has now collapsed, as shown by the quota for the Economically Weaker Sections, which effectively provides reservation for merit-walas. Today, the role of caste in reproducing economic inequality is plainly visible.
The story of caste as a form of political mobilisation began with its suppression in the years before and after Independence. Caste politics was first confined to the campaign around untouchability and then strangled by the Poona Pact, which effectively ensured that only Dalit representatives acceptable to the upper castes would be elected. Invocation of caste in public was frowned upon in the Nehru era, and the Congress always downplayed caste issues, even rejecting the First Backward Classes Commission report of 1955.
However, universal suffrage had its own logic. Backed by the irresistible force of numbers, backward caste politicians began mobilising their caste constituencies in the 1960s. But the “Congress system” confined them to the regional level, leaving the upper castes free to control national politics as they had in the freedom struggle.
After decades of consolidation in the States, backward caste politics made a dramatic entry onto the national stage in the 1990s. The Mandal turn not only made caste a national issue; it also shattered the myth of caste-as-exception that the Nehru era had nurtured. But the intervention proved unsustainable — the 1990s were marked by unstable coalition governments.
The rise and retreat of lower caste politics at the national level highlights the formidable challenge of aggregating local-regional caste constituencies to capture power at the Centre. This challenge is made more daunting by the increasing internal differentiation within all caste groupings, especially the Other Backward Castes. Another worry is the rapid transformation of the federal structure under the Narendra Modi regime, with the Centre usurping the financial and political powers of the States. A recent example is the repositioning of the Enforcement Directorate as a kind of super-agency, with sweeping powers under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, endorsed by the Supreme Court of India.
At a time when regional politics is seen as the last hope against an authoritarian and majoritarian regime at the Centre, events such as the change of government in Bihar may bring hope. However, it is hard to overlook the stark contrast today between the successful consolidation of an essentially upper-caste politics at the Centre against the challenges facing lower-caste politics when its State-level strongholds are being undermined.
The story of caste as a form of cultural identity has been overtaken recently by the phenomenal rise of Hindutva as a passionate, aggressive and almost pan-Indian form of identity-based mobilisation. The idea of development which emphasises shared interests was the ideological cornerstone of the Nehru-Indira-Rajiv Congress era, and also the main plank of Narendra Modi in 2014. The 2019 Modi regime has inaugurated a phase of Hindutva which emphasises a shared adversarial identity. This weaponised form of Hindutva would be expected to be the natural enemy of lower-caste politics because of the inevitable tension between horizontal Hindu unity and vertical caste hierarchy. Moreover, given that both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Sangh Parivar are dominated by upper castes, Hindutva has traditionally been marked as upper caste.
Demographic compulsions require Hindutva to seek substantial support from the lower castes. The central question of our time is whether it will succeed in this quest. How far will the upper-caste core supporters of Hindutva be willing to go to persuade lower-caste Hindus to join their movement? Until now, concessions made to lower-caste sensibilities have been limited to tokenism, ranging from the highlighting of Narendra Modi’s nominal OBC identity, or the noisy appropriation of national icons such as Ambedkar or local ones like Suheldev. Will more substantial gestures be made? Will the lower castes accept these overtures and agree to be foot-soldiers?
The answers to these questions will determine the directions that caste will take in the near future.
The contexts of caste have changed a lot in the last 75 years, transforming its meanings, whether as a system regulating life chances, a mode of political mobilisation, or a form of socio-cultural identity. But whether it is the lower castes who resist Hindutva or the upper castes who lead it to hegemony, caste itself will retain its central role even if it is enacted behind the curtain.
Satish Deshpande teaches sociology at Delhi University. The views expressed are personal