Power and Contestation: India since 1989 (Global History of the Present)

Power and Contestation: India since 1989 (Global History of the Present)

by Nivedita Menon

ISBN: 9781842778159

Publisher Zed Books

Published in Calendars/History

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Sample Chapter


The recalcitrance of caste

The "backward castes" in power

The period since the mid- to late 1980s has seen a dramatic collapse of old political formations and parties, which had dominated politics in the Nehruvian era. Even the movements of that period, right up to the mid-1970s, were largely movements around economic issues and questions of corruption, black-marketeering, hoarding, and food shortages. Through the decade of the 1980s, there was a gradual erosion of the Nehruvian secular-nationalist imagination, and one of the factors responsible for it was the "re-emergence" of caste in public discourse.

The watershed, in this respect, was the implementation of the famous Mandal Commission Report and the agitation against it. "Mandal" has since become something of a metaphor in contemporary Indian politics. The commission, which was instituted in 1978, during the Janata Party government, under the stewardship of B. P. Mandal, a socialist leader from a "backward caste," was given the task of looking into the question of "backwardness" of certain castes and suggesting remedies for its redressal. For about a decade after the commission submitted its recommendations in 1980, the report lay in cold storage after the Congress, under the leadership of Indira Gandhi (and subsequently of her son Rajiv), returned to power. It was implemented under extremely contentious circumstances in 1990 by V. P. Singh as prime minister. Its main recommendations included 27 percent reservations in educational institutions and public employment for these "Other Backward Classes" or OBCs.

The alternative political formations that took power, first in the form of the Janata Party in 1978 and in 1989 as the National Front, were primarily formations of the lower-caste peasantry. This was a revolt that had been brewing over the past decades. The implementation of the Mandal Commission Report was thus not a simple governmental intervention; it was an intervention of this new formation in power seeking to make a claim to representation in the bureaucracy and other public institutions.

As soon as the government announced its decision to implement the commission's recommendations, all hell broke loose. There were widespread violent agitations all over north India, with the sons and daughters of "respectable families" taking to the streets. It was an unprecedented sight to see these young people, generally cynical about all political activity, taking to road blockades, demonstrations, picketing, and other such activities. Many of them even committed public self-immolation. Equally interesting was the sight of the usually cynical media backing the agitators to the hilt. New terms such as "mandalization of politics" entered public political discourse, generally referring, strangely, to a reprehensible division of Indian society along caste lines - as though caste oppression was a matter belonging to some very distant past. The tone and tenor of the public debate in the media seemed to suggest that but for the political opportunism of V. P. Singh, who wanted to cash in on retrograde sentiments of caste for purely pragmatic electoral purposes, India was well on the way to secular modernity. The debate was illuminating for a whole generation of people who had been brought up in the modern secular values of the Nehruvian era, who also had thought of caste as an injustice of the past.

What became clear in the wake of the Mandal Commission Report, however, was that this large group of OBCs, who constituted close to 60 percent of the population, had a negligible presence in government employment: about 4 percent. Also worth bearing in mind is the fact that even this small representation in employment was restricted to the lower rungs of government jobs. In other words, the overwhelming majority of public services were monopolized by the small crust of upper castes. In one estimate made by sociologist Satish Deshpande, about 20 percent of the population controlled about 95 percent of all jobs. Deshpande has also recently calculated the poverty–caste relationship on the basis of the National Sample Survey Organization consumption data, which confirm the strong relationship between low-caste status and poverty (Deshpande 2002).

What is relevant here, however, is not merely the incidence of poverty among different "backward" caste groups but, more importantly, the fact that even among the relatively better-off and educated sections of Dalits (the Untouchable castes) and OBCs, access to public employment, especially at the higher levels, is severely restricted. In other words, as Ram Naresh Kushwaha, an OBC parliamentarian, had put it in a parliamentary debate in 1978, the upper castes have always had informal reservations operating for them in employment; jobs were reserved for them. Manusmriti itself, he had claimed, was nothing other than a reservation of certain jobs for a certain category of people.

What was interesting about the agitation, and the highly charged public debate that followed, was that it was entirely conducted, on the part of the opponents of the Mandal Commission, in the most immaculately secular and modern language of "merit" and "efficiency." The question was posed as one of dilution, if not the elimination, of merit at the cost of getting in "unworthy" and "undeserving" people simply because they happened to belong to certain castes. "Would you like to be operated upon by a doctor who had become one through reservations?" "Would you like to fly in an aircraft that was piloted by a reservation pilot?" These were the kinds of questions posed by anti-Mandalites in these discussions. Not once was the question of upper-caste and brahminical privilege ever articulated as a question of caste privilege. Even more interesting was the fact that the more sophisticated among the anti-Mandalites were prepared to accept that there was a question of privilege involved here but that it should be addressed in terms of the secular category of "class": that "economic" rather than caste criteria should be the basis of reservations. The question was really one of poverty, they argued, rather than of caste.

Now, this is an argument that actually erupted in public discourse in the 1990s but has a fairly long and hallowed history. Evidence shows that it was an argument that had been rehearsed over the decades by the modernist upper-caste leadership. Right from the days of the Kaka Kalelkar Commission, set up in the mid-1950s for the purpose of addressing the same questions later taken up by the Mandal Commission, to parliamentary debates and more localized public discussions (at, say, the provincial levels), this was invariably the argument deployed by the opponents of positive discrimination. As Christophe Jaffrelot shows, many members of the Kaka Kalelkar Commission dissented from the commission's recommendations and, what is more, the Gandhian Kaka Kalelkar himself started developing serious doubts even as he submitted his report. Nehru, the immaculate modernist, legitimized this position thus: "If we go in for reservations on communal and caste basis, we swamp the bright and able people and remain second-rate or third-rate" (Jaffrelot 2003: 222–8). On this one question then, the Nehruvian elite and the Hindu Right were always in complete agreement. This agreement, one might venture to say, was fundamental to the post-1947 Nehruvian consensus.

Was Nehru a casteist, then? Were all those who opposed the Mandal Commission in the 1990s, who included respected scholars, also casteist? This is a question being asked today by the Dalitbahujans. The reality is that, by and large, such people were not casteists – at least in the conventional sense of the term. They were opposing the "bringing in" of caste into public discourse on very modernist and secular grounds. They sincerely believed that talking in terms of caste would be a regression into the past that they were so desperately seeking to annihilate. The point that needs to be stressed here is that this time round, caste was the banner of those who had been oppressed by it. The recalcitrance of caste is not a mere repetition of the older story. For in that story, it was the upper castes that held the banner of caste aloft in order to put people "in their place." Now things had decisively changed; it was the upper castes who were in constant and vehement denial of caste. Somewhere in this denial lies hidden the story of Indian modernity, a discussion of which is not, of course, within the scope of this book. For the present, we will simply sketch the broad outlines of that story and underline some of the complexities of present-day caste politics.

Let us return to where we began this chapter. Is there really a "resurgence" of caste? Is it the case that the question of caste has "suddenly" become important? Is the general middle-class perception that caste was dead, until resurrected by V. P. Singh, a correct perception? The answer is both yes and no. Yes, because there was a sense in which caste had been banished from public discourse and, to that extent, its reappearance is a new phenomenon. No, because this unspeakability of caste in public discourse was limited to civil society, that is to the domain of the secular modern institutions of society. It had not disappeared from society at large. In another realm, away from the watchful gaze of the modern elite, in the domain of what Partha Chatterjee calls political society, caste was a central category that framed the common ways of seeing and being in the world. The secret story of our modernity is, of course, lodged in the first realm, that of civil society, for it is here that we see the mutated upper-caste modern Indian Self, in perpetual denial of caste (and, to some extent, religion). There is no denying that this modern Self is really and genuinely modern; it wants to excise that shameful thing called caste from society's collective memory. The upper-caste-turned-modern-Self does not ever want to be reminded of this one aspect of its inheritance. It can deal with religion, for that is something that "we all have" – whether we are from the West or from the East. But caste is a blot that has affected the psyche of the mutated modern, the Unconscious, as it were, of the modern moral Self. Yet caste is the hidden principle that gives it access to all kinds of modern privileges precisely because it functions as cultural/symbolic capital.

The Dalit upsurge

To the oppressed castes, especially the lowest among them – the Dalits or the Untouchables, this repression of caste appears to be a conspiracy of the Brahminical castes to deprive them of their voice. It appears to them to displace what is their bitter lived experience to another domain – that of class, for instance. The story that the Dalits want to narrate can be told only with reference to the history of caste oppression. It is there that the secret of their exclusion and cultural mutilation lies. One of the critical elements of the recalcitrance of caste in contemporary Indian politics is, therefore, the search for a past, a cultural legacy, a history and a sense of Self. The oppressive structure of caste functioned, in relation to the Dalits in particular, through their almost complete exclusion from "society" such as it was. Despite a plethora of laws, the situation on the ground has not changed significantly and even at the level of secular modern institutions discrimination continues. This has also led, in the recent past, to a major conflict as many Dalit groups sought to take the struggle to the United Nations. The conflict surfaced around the United Nations Conference on Racism and Related Forms of Discrimination held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. A large number of Dalit organizations and NGOs took this opportunity to launch a vigorous campaign to raise the question of caste discrimination in that forum. This provoked outraged reaction from the government and other nationalist circles, leading in turn to a vigorous public debate. The argument put forth by the nationalists was primarily that this was an "internal matter" of the nation and could be redressed within the forums provided by the law of the land (Thorat and Umakant 2004: xxiii). This did not cut much ice with the Dalit leadership, which had witnessed the operation of the law and governmental machinery at (bitter) first hand during the five decades since Independence. Others – among them academics and journalists of some standing – also joined the debate with the argument that "caste" after all is not "race" and unlike race, is not a biological matter (Beteille 2004.).

Contemporary theoretical developments have assuredly shown how thin this dividing line is, and how race, too, is a matter of social construction rather than a simple biological phenomenon. Moreover, the fact is that both caste and race share a common feature, along with the Burakumin of Japan: that of being discriminations based on descent (and to that extent, caste is a "related form" of racism). Eventually the Dalit leadership did succeed, in the teeth of major opposition, in raising the issue at Durban, though they remained dissatisfied with the outcome (Thorat and Umakant 2004: xxii–iii).

Here, we need not detail the stories of daily humiliation and degradation that continue to be part of Dalit life, as these are by now fairly well documented and discussed (Valmiki 2003; Moon 2002). Suffice it to note that even today, Dalit settlements in villages – and often even in cities such as Delhi – are spatially segregated. Untouchability and hate-speech with regard to them are rampant. Even today, they are not allowed to draw water from the same well from which upper castes get their drinking water. The brutality of this exclusion/oppression is quite unparalleled. And here, the irony is that in large parts of the country, it is the resurgent backward castes who are the most brutal oppressors of the Dalits. This gives a peculiar twist to the phenomenon of the revolt of the lower castes, to which we shall return below.

For the present, let us simply refer, briefly, to one aspect of their exclusion: from any kind of access to learning – of whatever kind, including elementary skills of reading and writing. This was an age-old practice of the caste system. It was, therefore, only with the arrival of colonialism and the opening up of public spaces and institutions to the Dalits, if in a limited fashion (because of upper-caste opposition), that these became accessible to them (Geetha and Rajadurai 1998; Nigam 2006b). It is, therefore, only in the early twentieth century, strictly speaking, that the Dalits really found their voice – in the sense of being able to record their experience of oppression and talk about it publicly. And it was at this precise moment that the mutated upper-caste modern began to legislate a certain modern universalist language, decrying all attempts to talk of caste oppression as "casteism," a sign of "backward consciousness."

There is therefore a peculiar ambivalence that marks Dalit politics and discourse today. On the one hand, it invests tremendous faith in modernity because it is really with modern institutions inaugurated by colonial rule that possibilities of Dalit emancipation opened up in significant ways; on the other, it exhibits a strong aversion to the dominant, secular-nationalist discourse of modernity in India, which it sees as irrevocably "upper-caste" and as the root of the reinstitution of upper-caste power over modern institutions.

Dalits, OBCs and secularism/communalism

This ambivalence is visible not only in the field of cultural politics but equally in the field of electoral politics. While the dynamic in electoral politics is somewhat different, the explanation for Dalit political formations such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) charting out a course that radically questions the common sense of the secular modern must be understood in the context of its deep distrust of the old nationalist and secular elite. A case in point is the relationship of the BSP and much of the Dalit intelligentsia with the emerging secular political formations, especially in north India. In the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), the BSP has repeatedly gone into alliance with the main party of the Hindu Right, the Bharatiya Janata Party. It has formed governments with the BJP, not only in 1993 and 1997, but also in 2002, in the year of the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat. In this period, when the BJP and its partner organizations of the Hindu Right had left no doubt about their intentions, the BSP entered into an alliance and formed a government with the BJP in UP, and its top leaders even campaigned for the BJP in Gujarat during the subsequent elections.

Excerpted from "Power and Contestation: India since 1989 (Global History of the Present)" by Nivedita Menon. Copyright © 2013 by Nivedita Menon. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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