Why caste persists in politics

An internal code, culture and values make a caste special to its members.

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:10 pm IST

Published - February 28, 2012 12:52 am IST

KURUKSHETRA 13/04/2010
An All Casts (Khap) Maha Panchayat in progress presided by Ranjeet Singh (in turban) to discuss over marriages in same Gotra attended by hundreds of representatives from all over Haryana, Western U. P. and Rajasthan including Mahendra Singh Tikait in Kurukshetra on Tuesday, 13 April 2010. Photo: Akhilesh_Kumar

KURUKSHETRA 13/04/2010 An All Casts (Khap) Maha Panchayat in progress presided by Ranjeet Singh (in turban) to discuss over marriages in same Gotra attended by hundreds of representatives from all over Haryana, Western U. P. and Rajasthan including Mahendra Singh Tikait in Kurukshetra on Tuesday, 13 April 2010. Photo: Akhilesh_Kumar

What explains the persistence of caste consciousness in our politics? André Béteille explores this in his piece in The Hindu ( >India's destiny not caste in stone , February 21, 2012).

Béteille's argument is structured thus:

Media experts are preoccupied with caste and its role in politics. Divisions of income, education and occupation are ignored, and caste alone is stressed.

Béteille says in 60 years a great many things have changed. These are things that change over generations, and so don't interest the media. People dine with one another now. To insist on these rules of ritual purity in the age of the college canteen, he says, would cause a scandal. The “custom of marrying within the caste is still widely observed,” he accepts, but adds “it will be difficult to argue that caste consciousness in matrimonial matters has been on the rise in recent decades.”

To him such things indicate the steady dying out of caste consciousness in matters outside politics. So then what explains the persistence of caste in politics? Béteille says: “The consciousness of caste is brought forward to the fore at the time of elections.” How? “Private television channels have created a whole world in which their anchors and the experts who are regularly at their disposal vie with each other to bring out the significance of the ‘caste factor'.”

Let us agree with Béteille that caste is not India's destiny. But let us also examine why it persists in our politics if it's dying out elsewhere as he claims it is. The Constitution created rights, Béteille says, but could not eradicate caste from the hearts of its citizens: “For many Indians, and perhaps the majority, the habits of the heart are still the habits of a hierarchical society.” Adult franchise opened up the possibility of mobilising electoral support on the basis of caste, but outside politics “the consciousness of caste has been dying down, though not very rapidly or dramatically.”

In showing changes in society, Béteille refers to such things as pollution and inter-dining. That is to say, in interactions members of caste A have with members of caste B. This is the prescriptive aspect of caste. The Constitution skewers it through Articles 15, 16 and 17, but it was dying even a century ago. The Sanatani Gandhi does only perfunctory penance for sailing to England (and so losing his caste), and promptly sails off again, to South Africa. The prescriptive aspect is eroded easily by modernity because it is prejudice and superstition. Adherence brings little benefit. It erodes also because, as Béteille says, urban life brings proximity, in the college canteen and the city bus, where such rules are not easy to follow.

Is this aspect of caste, the one that is dying out, what produces caste division in politics? Is it why people cleave to their caste when they vote?

Two examples

No. The reason for the persistence of caste in politics is something entirely different.

It has to do with the internal code of the caste, its positive aspects, its culture. What makes it special, according to its members, and distinguishes it from the other castes. This aspect erodes more slowly, if it erodes at all, because it is felt .

Two quick examples will illustrate what is meant. Let us look at the castes of the 10 richest people in India, according to Forbes magazine: Lakshmi Mittal (Baniya), Mukesh Ambani (Baniya), Azim Premji (Lohana), Ruia brothers (Baniya), Savitri Jindal (Baniya), Gautam Adani (Baniya), K.M. Birla (Baniya), Anil Ambani (Baniya), Sunil Mittal (Baniya), Adi Godrej (Parsi).

Nine of the 10 are from mercantile castes, including the only Muslim. The break up as we go further down the list is diluted somewhat in favour of the other castes, but not by much. Even first generation billionaires, for instance Adani, the Ruias and Sunil Mittal or Uday Kotak (Lohana), tend to come from mercantile castes. Wealthy Muslims like Premji or Khorakiwala (Lohana) also tend to follow this pattern. It is not easy to find many Indians of non-mercantile castes who run businesses of scale.

The Baniya is convinced that his ability to raise and manage capital is demonstrably superior to that of the rest. He sees this as a result of his caste's culture, which stresses the ability to set aside honour, to compromise.

Honour killing

Now let us look at honour killing. Murdering their daughters for honour is almost exclusively done by the peasant castes of north India, especially the Jats of Haryana and Punjab. What is honour killing? Honour is bestowed on us by others. We cannot honour ourselves. Honour killing is successful only when his caste accepts that the Jat has redeemed his honour by murdering his disobedient daughter.

The Jat receives from his caste's values the ability to be rigid about honour, to not compromise. This distinguishes his caste, and he takes pride in it. Baniyas don't do honour killing because their community gives them no honour for killing their daughters. The division will not be papered over by modernity.

This explains Béteille's marriage problem. Castes inter-dine but don't inter-marry much. Why not? Not for fear of pollution, but because of a positive attraction towards people with the same values, which emanate from caste.

This is also the aspect of caste that drives people to vote for their own kind. Whether or not the media emphasise this is unimportant. The fact is that the Indian votes confessionally. For him or her, merit comes from caste values. This condition may not be forever unalterable, as Béteille points out. But it is also evident that modernity by itself has thus far not dented it as it has the prescriptive aspect of caste, the one Béteille focuses on to make his argument.

“The average villager devotes far more thought and time to home, work and worship than to electoral matters,” says Béteille. If he means to say that this takes him or her away from caste, he's wrong. Home, work and worship are precisely where caste is embedded most powerfully, and the reason why caste consciousness persists in 2012. Voting is only an extension of this consciousness that has, in fact, not changed that much.

Perhaps it will change in 100 years. But even if it does it won't be because news channels have stopped talking about it during elections.

>Read André Béteille’s response

( Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media .)

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