Assertion of caste identity has increasingly become the favoured mode of agitation for rights by the working people of India. In fact, there has been no significant class based agitation of the working people since the first half of the 1970s. This shift has been paralleled by the retreat of the Left led mass agitations as well as the retreat of the Left organisational growth into its governmental enclaves of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. This is not to deny the existence of various left led movements in various parts of the country, some of them successful too, but none of these have been able to leave a lasting impact either on long term State policy, nor on political correlations.
The last hurrah of the Left led class based politics was the decade long agitations all over the country from the mid-1960s till the imposition of the Emergency by the Indira Gandhi led Congress government in 1975. It can easily be argued that the decision to curtail fundamental rights and crack down on the political opposition by Indira Gandhi in 1975 through the imposition of Emergency, was a response to the decade long class based movements which included an uncontrollable peasant rebellion in West Bengal and an all India Railway strike, among its most prominent examples. It must be kept in mind that there is a very close overlap between those who are the working class and small and medium peasantry and those who are identified with the Shudra and “untouchable” Jatis.
The first strategy of the ruling Congress to contain the growing class upsurge of the working people was to mimic socialist language, enact populist schemes and curtail the more glaring excesses of the ruling classes. When this strategy of the carrot was not entirely successful, the stick was brought out in the form of proclamation of Emergency. While this Emergency lasted less than two years, it had served its purpose well by successfully destroying the momentum of the class movements and re-establishing the control of the ruling classes over popular politics.
Thereafter, there was a lull of about a decade and a half before there was another upsurge by the working people to claim their rights, but this time, crucially, in the form of caste demands. This came in the form of the agitations for and against the implementation of the Mandal Commission which, among its other recommendations had asked for reserving a percentage of Central Government jobs for those listed by it as Backward Classes. The Indian State had, since its inception, worked out a scheme of reserving a percentage of Government jobs for the “untouchable” castes and tribals, who were listed in a schedule of the Constitution and were subsequently called “scheduled castes and tribes”. The Mandal Commission extended this principle to what it termed “other backward classes” (OBC) and the Government ordered blocking 27 per cent central Government jobs for OBC candidates. While the scheduled castes comprised exclusively the outcaste / untouchable Jatis, the OBCs were from the Shudra Jatis.
The recommendations made by the Mandal Commission merely followed the pattern in the Southern States of India where assertive political movements of the Shudra Jatis had led to large-scale reservations for OBCs in State Government jobs and educational institutions early in the life of the Indian republic. The Mandal Commission, like other previous models of affirmative action, had foregrounded land reform as the primary strategy to better the conditions of the OBCs, along with deep seated reform of the education system. Land reforms and extensive quality education would be, by their very nature, transformative of the living conditions of the OBCs, as well as of the scheduled castes and tribes. Reservations of jobs and seats of higher learning would, in this context, become truly temporary measures for the relatively short period it would have taken for the mass of the so called lower castes to bridge the gap of their aspirations.
It is instructive to note that Government initiative on the Mandal Commission recommendations were entirely restricted to reserving government jobs and seats in institutions of higher education. This was precisely what had been done with the the affirmative action for the scheduled castes and tribes. Unlike with the latter, there was not even a token measure of land reforms for the OBCs.
It is not difficult to fathom the reason for this. Reservation of government jobs and seats in higher education are almost exclusively targeted at those who are economically stable and have a steady family income. Only such families would have the luxury where all children are not forced to work and earn to contribute their bit to the family economy. Only such economically stable families would be able to subsidise at least one person for full time schooling, without which it would be impossible for anyone to aspire to higher education or a Government job. Therefore, such reservations are almost entirely for the benefit of the petit bourgeois (middle class) sections within the scheduled castes, tribes and OBCs. The political call for reservation as the primary, often only, measure for addressing the caste issue in contemporary India, is the political slogan of this rising middle class.
The fact that every now and then an individual from outside the petit bourgeois segment of these castes manages to overcome extreme poverty and discrimination and rises to higher education and government job through such reservations, makes him / her an exemplar for the masses of the poor and discriminated. This merely helps cement the ideological hold of reservations as the primary method of addressing the poverty and discrimination that forms the very basis of their life.
Reservations are, along with electoral democracy, the preferred method for co-opting this emergent Shudra and “untouchable” Jatis’ middle class within the matrix of ruling class power, but as junior members. Preferred both by the beneficiaries as well as with those who dole out this largess. It is a significant point to note that the lack of interest exhibited by the Indian State towards the agendas of land reforms and widespread, quality education have been mirrored by the poliitcal leadership of the scheduled castes, tribes and OBCs. Land and educational reforms receive only a formal acknowledgement, if at all, by the leaders of these so called lower castes. This only goes to underline the class basis of the lower caste assertion. True to its middle class political nature, this politics rails against the inhumanity, injustice and oppression inherent in caste discrimination (which brings it closer to left politics), but is wary of raising demands for wealth and resource redistribution which would endanger their, already fragile, class position (which pushes it to make common cause with the right).
With the growth of the Indian economy over the past two decades, the space and need for such cooption of the emergent middle classes into the State’s power matrix has only increased. Reservations become crucial in this process of co-opting since they help reduce the intense social discrimination that these so called lower castes face from the so called upper castes. This discrimination prevents members of these so called lower castes, even when they have the basic education and economic wherewithal to aspire for higher education and government jobs, from actually getting these. Traditionally, the junior members of this ruling class power matrix (the middle class) have been the so called upper castes. Today the rise of the erstwhile Shudra and “untouchable” Jatis to middle class status and their clamour for power, threatens the position of those who have traditionally occupied this space. It is therefore not surprising that the most intense and virulent opposition to reservations for these so called lower castes has come from the traditional middle class which derived from the upper castes.
The success of caste based reservations should not be seen in terms of whether it has helped ameliorate poverty among the scheduled castes, tribes and OBCs. The overwhelming majority of them remain poor, landless or with tiny plots of unproductive land, illiterate, diseased and discriminated. The purpose of this strategy is not to address these livelihood issues but to reduce the social discrimination faced by members of these so called lower castes, to empower them, so that they effectively discharge their functions as fully paid junior members of the ruling class power matrix. The success of this strategy is precisely that despite the continued prevalence of poverty, illiteracy and ill health, the primary demands of these castes has shifted from livelihood issues and a destruction of class/caste power to a those of empowerment, reservations and dignity.
The key to the success of this new caste politics of empowerment and dignity in overwhelming the politics of livelihood is the question of human dignity. Scheduled castes primarily, but also the tribals and OBCs, face a form of discrimination and inhumanity which has few parallels in human history. Despite the slow erosion of the material base on which the caste form of class division first emerged, there has been little automatic erosion of the degrading practices associated with caste discrimination. Whatever change and reform has taken place has almost entirely been the result of sustained political agitation by the so called lower castes. And this change has not happened without severe opposition from those who claimed to be on the top of the caste hierarchy. Not one inch has been given graciously and each advance in demanding and guaranteeing human dignity has been met with violence and resistance. Traditional left politics, led by the communist parties as well as by the more radical sections of the national movement, assumed that caste (and other pre-modern) discriminations would fade away on their own once the basic economic causes for exploitation and poverty are addressed. In this approach, traditional left politics has miserably failed to address the immediate and intense question of human dignity, or rather the lack of it, which wracks all individuals of these so called lower castes each moment of their lives.
The fact that, irrespective of economic position, all members of these castes face deep seated discrimination and indignity in their daily lives, provides the material basis for entrenching the politics of empowerment and dignity as the primary concern of these castes, but under the class leadership of the middle class elements within them. It is important to note that politics of empowerment, as an end in itself, can never lead to emancipation but merely the cooption of the empowered within the prevalent power matrix. It does not call for the destruction of class or caste power in society, but merely the equitable distribution among all aspirants of this power irrespective of their caste identity. This politics of empowerment, as soon as it has achieved its end of cooption into the power matrix, becomes easily amenable to authoritarian, even fascistic politics, since the newly empowered want to protect their newly gained privileges from the threats of the poor and property-less.
The more the politics of empowerment entrenches itself as the favoured mode of politics among these so called lower castes, less remains the space for classic communist politics based on livelihoods and systemic change.
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A somewhat smaller and less nuanced version of this article was published in my weekly column in The Post, on 18 July, 2007.
(The comments till No. 4 were made before this article was modified and extended beyond the newspaper column)