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« Nerd sweat, conservation of (prasad) | Main | The bird that made a big splash »

February 07, 2012


I have often wondered whether it is caste politis that make Indian democracy 'work'. There is an interesting article by Jeffrey Witsoe which seems to support this view:
Corruption as Power: Caste and the Political Imagination in the Postcolonial State
There is more recent follow up in EPW:
Everyday Corruption and the Political Mediation of the Indian State: An Ethnographic Exploration of Brokers in Bihar

It is the old divide and rule argument isn't it? There are always competing interest groups in the polity, and none of them can accept the supremacy of any single other group. I have also read arguments that caste also stabilizes religious divides (i.e hindu communities can stay monolithic for very short times at best, and probably the same goes for other religions as well). I don't see caste going away in my lifetime at least in India.

Kris: You are probably right that caste is not about to become a non-issue in India any time soon. It is too entrenched a system, so much so that other religious groups in India which do not officially subscribe to a caste system - Christians, Muslims, Sikhs - are not immune. But the other communities do not generally benefit from the caste based reservations for state jobs as Hindu lower castes can. There was an interesting article in the New York Times recently on this matter. While I am no fan of the caste system in private or in public and find it abhorrent that human beings are pigeon holed for life based on the accident of birth, I had to agree that if one community benefits from state sponsored affirmative action derived from past and current discrimination, others in similar social groups should too. I wrote the following elsewhere and am copying it here.

I was in UP for a few short days (Lucknow, to be specific, where the Muslim population is 35 - 40%) during the recent Indian elections. What I saw in my touristy casual way, looked encouraging. The debate seemed to be centered around jobs and economic development and not religion. All communities were active in the process and results, reflect that. The UP state assembly has a sizable number of Muslim representatives many of whom defeated their Hindu counterparts in the election. Several major political parties are now taking into consideration whether poorer Muslims should be afforded the same benefits that are available to "lower caste" Hindus, the distinction being based on birth and traditional occupations.

The Indian govt. classifies certain groups within the Hindu community as "backward" and hence needing a helping hand in the field of education and government jobs. seThe reservations are designated to benefit SC / OBC. These stand for Scheduled Castes (mostly the "untouchables") and Other Backward Classes. My point is that these groups in a highly stratified class based society, related to their centuries long family occupations, get automatically hemmed into a way of life and economic situation by the lack of mobility due to accidents of birth. Muslims are just as "caste" ridden as the Hindus although Islam doesn't recognize the difference officially. Poor Muslims therefore are stuck the same way in their centuries old traditional occupations in rural India without the benefit of better opportunities whereas the poor Hindu of the economically lower classes have some opportunity to take advantage of the state sponsored benefits. ...

The Samajwadi Party led by a Hindu leader of one such "backward" class (Yadav) has won big in the recent election in Uttar Pradesh which has a large number of poor Muslim population. The party has the support of the majority of UP Muslims. The SP leaders promised to extend the same special reservation benefits to the economically "backward" Muslims as are available to their Hindu counterparts. I think that is fair. Although I don't like any classification based on caste, race or religion, the system is set up to work that way for the Hindus. It is therefore okay to enable poor Muslims to benefit also. In the end, it does come down to economic class irrespective of religious ones."

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