August 08, 2020
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The Coming Caste Wars

Mandal could have helped transcend caste. But we are moving in quite the opposite direction: a ­narrowing down of democracy to group claims. Here’s why.

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The Coming Caste Wars
Recasting The Caste Discourse
A Maratha rally for reservation in Nashik
Photograph by Apoorva Salkade
The Coming Caste Wars

From violence to silent marches, the unl­ikely warriors­—the intermediate castes of north and west India, in particular, Jats, Patels and Marathas—are on the war path over reservations. So, the nagging questions emerge: why does everyone want ‘reservations’? Why have certain communities become restless at the present juncture? Where do we go from here?

A short detour of ‘Mandal’ is necessary to put things in perspective. OBC reservations and share in power were the essence of the Mandal issue, though the latter point was not formally part of the recommendations or the policies. By the latter half of the 1990s, it looked as though a consensus had finally emerged on the Mandal (or OBC) question. No political party was opposing OBC reservations and all of them were also keen to accommodate the political claims of communities identified as OBC.

Mandal, of course, was a double-edged weapon. It had possibilities of transcending caste by building caste blocs and opportunity for democratic expansion. Yet it also contained the possibility of strengthening caste awareness and narrowing the concept of democracy to group claims. Its supporters (this writer was among them) expected the former to happen. The way politics played out over the past quarter of a century, the former possibilities were outweighed by the latter. Thus, the unintended consequences of Mandal constitute the larger context in which the present spate of agitations by the middle peasantry castes needs to be understood.

The growing clamour for reservation is related to society’s shrinking ability to fulfil the dreams globalisation unleashes.

Four processes have coincided in producing the present moment of unrest. Let us first look at the process not directly involving caste. Nobody seems to be wanting to talk about this aspect—the effects of the economic policy process. But it is relevant at two levels.

One, precisely at the moment when first- and second-generation graduates from many agrarian communities are entering it, the job market has become extremely insecure. Just as globalisation keeps releasing new dreams, the ability to fulfill those dreams appears to be shrinking among greater parts of society. This is directly rel­ated to the clamour for reservations.

Two, from the 1980s, large-scale privatisation of higher education began without any social security mechanisms to ensure escalating costs of education didn’t shut the door on the needy and newer ent­rants. The fallout: private education became difficult to access just as public sector education became a monumental national fraud—churning out unemployable graduates.

While all sections of society were confronted with these distorti­ons, some groups—the middle-peasantry castes, in particular—were more disastrou­sly trapped as they couldn’t neutralise liberalisation’s adverse consequences. Besides, the entrapment of the middle-peasantry castes is more about our ways of handling (or rather not handling) the caste question over the years.

Historically, the ‘intermediate’ or middle peasantry castes rose to prominence at varying points in time. Specifically aro­und the 1950s and ’60s, they became powerful through democratic logic (many of them were quite numerous in the newly formed linguistic states). They also benefited from the anti-upper caste politics that facilitated a large coalition among the middle peasantry and the non-peasant, non-Kshatriya castes (resulting in the non-Brahmin platform).

In contrast, the Mandal discourse produced the administrative and political category—‘other backward classes’. The Mandal report and its partial implementation inevitably produced a division in the ‘non-Brahmin’ category, isolating the middle-peasantry castes that were not listed as backward. This isolation from the rest of the non-Brahmin castes has put them in an awkward situation.

At the same time, the political elite of middle-peasantry castes failed to share their newly acquired power with their mostly agrarian caste brethren and ensure steady improvements in their lifestyle. In most cases, the elite were happy being junior partners of the dominant sections of the urban, non-agrarian economy. So, a contradictory picture began to take shape—while socially, the caste composition of those who held political power cha­nged somewhat, the balance of power in terms of economic policy remained unfavourable to the same middle-peasantry castes.

This contradiction is at the core of the social unrest characterising these sections. On the one hand, among the masses of the agitating castes, there is a deep-seated suspicion of the urban economic power centres and, on the other, a simmering frustration over their own political leadership that has practically abandoned them.

Along with these developments, a collective amnesia seems to have developed over the deeper social relevance of reservations as a tool for affirmative action. Instead of being organically linked to issues of historical discrimination and caste injustice, the idea of reservations has slipped into a convenient policy tool to ameliorate any and all social dissatisfactions and shortcomings.

As a result, the category called ‘OBC’ too is becoming an omnibus of social groups who are unhappy with their present ­socio-economic location.

The people agitating for reservations are (mis)led to believe that reservations addr­ess economic difficulties and/or that reservations are a matter of expectation in proportion to share in population.

This delinking of reservation policy from the complex issues of caste hierarchy and discrimination (that, in turn, produce backwardness as a structural impediment) has caused the crowding of the OBC category in state after state. Today, neither the elite from the middle-­peasantry castes nor the leaders of the historically discriminated backward com­munities dare convince the agitating masses that their complaints, though genuine, might not fit into the broader prism of caste-based injustice. Thus, there is a closure of conversation. Instead, a constant attempt to expand the OBC category is under way to such an extent that it would finally become redundant.

An interplay of these four processes—­liberalisation without adequate social ­security, isolation of the middle peasan­try (intermediate) castes, failures of the pol­itical elite from these castes and the waylaying of the reservation discourse—have produced the current series of mass agitations often without any established leadership. Where do we go from here?

Politics are contingent, yet we can project five possibilities. One, the near future will witness a sharpening of single-caste identities leading to caste-conflicts. These would be rough times involving multiple levels of caste conflict. Two, and paradoxi­cally, despite conflicts unfolding on the basis of caste, the caste question (structural hierarchies and socially discriminatory practices perpetrating and legitimising inequalities) will get sidelined. Three, the ensuing caste conflicts and caste-based mobilisations would facilitate the diffusion of attention from the flawed equilibrium between agrarian and urban economies. Four, democratic politics would unravel more and more as claims by groups and communities make it difficult for us to judge policies on the basis of public interest—a process of disintegrating the fledgling publicness of our collective existence will get a boost. Power and resources would be claimed exclusively on community basis and procedures, rights and ­institutions would have less significance in our democratic discourse as compared to such group-based claims.

Correspondingly, and finally, the agitations and claims they are advancing would have a lasting impact on our founding document—the Constitution. By tinkering with Mandal jurisprudence (and a possible amendment to set aside the 50 per cent limit), the delicate constitutional equilibrium reached on questions of social justice and affirmative action policy, as also on the question of democracy as group claims and democracy as constituting the larger publicness, would be lost.

It is always an irony of democracy that mass mobilisations constitute its vibrancy, but mass mobilisations may also erode consensus or produce flawed consensus. It is to be watched if the ongoing unrests produce a flawed consensus that will continue the entrapment against which these unrests are presently directed.

(Suhas Palshikar taught political science at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, and is chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics.)

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