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Caste and Democracy


CASTE AND DEMOCRACY Caste has been a major basis of solidarity, stratification, and conflict in South Asia for many centuries, and it continues to play an important role in Indian politics. While caste was and continues to be a basis of social dominance, mobilization behind caste banners since the nineteenth century has often aided the democratization of Indian society. The important role of caste in democratic India is in some ways similar to the relevance of other axes of historically rooted inequality, such as race and gender, in other democratizing societies.

Anthropologists once understood the caste system mainly with reference to Hindu texts, which prescribe a hierarchical and seemingly static society. According to this view, caste was fixed by ancestry, and it determined a very wide range of rights and responsibilities related to occupation, social status, ritual status, and permissible forms of social interaction with others. The relevance of caste did mean that Indian society was hierarchical and that for a long period the avenues of social mobility were narrow. However, historians and anthropologists more recently showed that some groups were able to use economic, political, social, and military power to move up the caste hierarchy at different points, while others moved down the caste hierarchy, in ways that Hindu texts did not suggest was possible. Religious texts did not determine how caste operated as a category of social stratification; caste divisions were therefore relevant among most of India's non-Hindu groups—Christians, Buddhists, and Sikhs, and to some extent Muslims—even though the religious texts of these groups do not recognize caste.

The social reality of caste changed in some ways during British colonial rule. Colonial legal institutions understood caste much as the Hindu religious texts did, making the caste system more rigid in some respects than it had been before the onset of colonial rule. For instance, colonial regulation often increased the control of the upper castes over Hindu temples and limited the space for some religious rituals that departed from upper caste orthodoxy. However, some changes under colonial rule widened avenues of social mobility. The colonial state adopted preferential policies to give the lower castes (called the untouchables, the ex-untouchables, the Harijans, and later the Dalits) and the middle castes greater access to education and the growing bureaucracy. Some middle caste groups gained from the commercialization of agriculture and the growth of trade. The colonial censuses enumerated caste groups, much as they did religious groups, encouraging the widening of networks linking members of particular castes. The state was receptive to claims made on behalf of caste groups, urging the growth of caste associations, which demanded greater resources, status, and dignity for the castes they claimed to represent. Social reform movements emerged, many of which demanded a reduction or end to inequalities based on caste. The growth of mass politics and associational activity increased the political participation and to a lesser extent the political representation of the middle castes. Some leaders of the Indian nationalist movement and the Congress Party, the strongest political forces of the late colonial period, promised to reduce or eradicate caste-based inequalities once India became independent. However, forces to defend caste privilege remained strong both in society and in the Indian nationalist movement.

Caste associations have been an important part of civic life in India since the nineteenth century. While groups from different points in the social hierarchy formed these associations, the associations of the lower and middle castes became much stronger than those of the upper castes, which account for a much lower portion of the population. Caste associations claimed that the castes they represented once had, and ought to once again enjoy, higher social status. But, they also claimed that these castes were historically underprivileged, to demand greater access to resources. These associations grew through the twentieth century with the growth of mass politics, which often drew upon preexisting caste solidarities. As the weight of numbers was crucial to their success, caste associations defined caste affiliation in increasingly expansive ways, sometimes bringing together different groups of formerly unequal social status under new caste labels. In the process of claiming greater shares in resources, higher social status, and an end to various social restrictions, caste associations implicitly or explicitly challenged caste as a basis of social inequality. Claims to shares in resources proportionate to their population distribution highlighted implicit claims by the less privileged castes to equal worth. Such claims and mobilization to pursue them were conducive to political equality, but certainly did not end the continued role of caste as a basis of social dominance.

India's postcolonial rulers proclaimed commitments to build democracy and to reduce different forms of social inequality. An important dimension of these tasks was the need to address caste-based inequalities. The postcolonial political elite chose to retain caste rather than shift to income as the basis of eligibility for "affirmative action" preferences and required preferences for the lower castes, but left similar preferential treatment for the middle castes to the judgment of state governments. It was claimed that all preferences would be phased out as the social mobility of the lower and middle castes increased. Preferential policies, however, benefited only a small proportion of the middle and lower castes, partly because they were restricted to education and government employment, the latter accounting for a significant but declining share of the workforce. Caste quotas increased rather than declined after decolonization. This increase was not due to the limited effect of these quotas in promoting social mobility, but because the subsequent growth in the mobilization of the middle and lower castes placed pressures on governments to maintain or expand caste preferences. Eligibility for these preferences became more expansive, and came to include many middle castes that had already experienced much social mobility. The introduction of more tiered preferences in some states partly counteracted the expansion of eligibility, reserving a share of seats in colleges and within the bureaucracy for the less well-off groups among the middle castes.

India's Constitution accorded citizens the fundamental right of protection from discrimination on the grounds of caste, and the practice of untouchability was made punishable. Indeed, the executive and the legislature swiftly initiated official efforts to end caste discrimination in postcolonial India. However, the bureaucracy and the police did not follow up the legislative commitments to any significant extent, especially regarding the practice of untouchability, partly because of the inadequate promotion of the lower castes to the upper echelons of these institutions. For instance, police officials pursued cases of violent discrimination against Dalits only in a sparing manner, mainly in regions where the lower castes had some political power. Indeed, police officials themselves often discriminated against the lower castes, showing a tendency to imprison and physically abuse them more readily than they did other citizens. The enumeration of castes in censuses changed after decolonization. The earlier practice of counting specific castes was stopped, supposedly to give caste affiliation less official recognition, but the lower castes (now called the "scheduled castes" in official language) continued to be enumerated because of the state's stated concern to attend to the condition of these groups. Growing pressures from middle caste groups led to a minor revival in the enumeration of all castes in the census of 2001, and this practice seems likely to be fully revived in the next census.

Caste has been among the major criteria governing the choices of many voters since electoral politics began in India in the early twentieth century. Voters focus on various aspects of caste in their political preferences: the caste of individual candidates, the representation of particular castes in the membership or leadership of parties, the castes with which parties might explicitly identify themselves, or the extent to which parties address the demands of particular castes. The significance of caste as a criterion in the choices of many voters did not, however, ensure that the numerically preponderant lower and middle castes enjoyed considerable political power. The political participation of the lower castes remained low in the first two decades after independence. The reservation of many parliamentary and legislative constituencies for lower caste candidates increased the political representation of these groups. It did not, however, give these groups much of an independent political voice, as parties dictate much of the behavior of legislators in India, and many lower caste legislators until recently had little political clout.

The political power of the middle castes grew more rapidly than that of the lower castes. They acquired a strong and independent political voice, mainly in regions in which movements and parties representing these groups became significant. This happened through the 1950s and the 1960s in much of southern India, but the political power of the middle castes grew comparably only from the 1970s onward in northern India, where the middle castes remain weaker than they are in southern India even into the twenty-first century. In other regions, such as West Bengal in eastern India, radical peasant mobilization increased the power of the largely middle and lower caste peasantry, although the Communists and other radical parties did not mobilize behind caste banners. Parties that either explicitly mobilize a coalition of the less privileged castes, or that draw their support primarily from the middle and lower castes, ruled various states at different points—notably Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal. While such parties have not ruled India on their own, some of them were members of the multiparty alliances that ruled India at different points from the late 1980s onward.

The growing political power of the middle and lower castes urged some publicists and scholars to proclaim that this would prove an effective route to social equality. The increased political power of these groups certainly opened routes to social mobility through such means as the expansion of caste quotas, the increased distribution of patronage to the middle and lower castes, and greater receptivity in the bureaucracy to the demands of some of these groups. However, the middle and lower castes did not experience an increase in their income and property comparable to their increased political representation. Besides, the improvements in opportunity resulting from the political empowerment of these groups were concentrated among small sections of these castes. Increases in economic power did not bring about commensurate improvements in social status and reductions in social restrictions. The political empowerment of the middle and lower castes has not as yet made caste irrelevant as an axis of social dominance, nor has it brought in its wake widespread social equality to India.

Narendra Subramanian

See alsoCaste System ; Development Politics ; Economic Development, Importance of Institutions in and Social Aspects of


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