Ruminations: Caste wide open
The Nalgonda caste murder has underscored the visceral division in Indian society – a faultline that runs dangerously deep. Pranay and Amruthavarshini’s case tells you that caste prejudice is pervasive and the perpetrators of caste violence – large in number – closed to the idea of a changing world.
The police quoted Maruthi Rao, Amruthavarshini’s father as saying: “I am more concerned about my status in the society than my daughter. I am not worried about killing Pranay. I was prepared to go to jail and planned the murder.”
He is not the first person accused of caste murder to say something as chilling and callous as that to justify his actions. In fact, he could well have triggered copycat attacks from parents opposed to intercaste marriages. Days after Pranay’s killing, the father of another girl in Hyderabad attacked his daughter and Dalit son-in-law, leaving both critically injured. The second case checked all the boxes on caste prejudice – the couple was married at an Arya Samaj temple because of objections from the girl’s relatives who threatened her with grave consequences if she married the Dalit boy. The girl’s father was the one who carried out the attack.
On the one side is the government’s ambitious Dalit outreach, the creation of institutions like the Dr Ambedkar International Centre where the Bharatiya Janata Party recently held its national executive. The resolution at the meet said: “A new India is rising on the able shoulder, and out of the skilled hands of millions of young men and women, especially the SCs and STs.” But, when placed against the ground reality of caste violence at Nalgonda and Hyderabad all that appears to be like a dream sequence.
Progressive political leadership and a strong movement against the caste system prepared the basis for the reservation policy. Bhimrao Ambedkar started the Scheduled Caste Federation which later became the Republican Party, a left-leaning organisation. It initiated movements in several states and presented a charter of demands to the government soon after its creation. As caste prejudices continued to affect the lives of the lower castes, it gave birth to more militant caste parties that were politically savvy enough to come to power in states like Uttar Pradesh that reported a large number of cases of caste discrimination.
The creation of new, militant caste parties continues – Chandra Shekhar Azad Ravan’s Bhim Party is an example. As is the rise of firebrand Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, MLA from Vadgam in Gujarat.
The lack of success – or lower-than-expected success – of this reservation policy and the increasing politicisation of caste has been the cause of this. Paradoxically – this is in the context of the Dalit outreach – this has also been the cause for support for the Indian right. In fact, the questionable success of affirmative action in democracies across the world has prompted a right turn and India appears to be no exception. This is the entrenched forces of status quo and generally the vested interests digging in. In India it has coincided with the simultaneous ousting of the left-centrist parties at the centre and in the states.
But, caste politics in India is complicated. There is no known formula for success – and by extension to channelise anger. The Bahujan Samaj Party, at one time the third most popular party in India, rose on the call of Dalit empowerment and a painstaking growth in its support base. Once it was comfortable with its success , it wanted to draw in more to its fold and become more centrist. That provided the seed for its successful ‘sarvajan’ experiment. However, this strategy changed when it was questioned from within and it was replaced by the difficult Dalit-Muslim alliance – which bombed for the party. Now the rise of Mevani and Chandra Shekhar threatens to divide the Dalit vote which will be all to the benefit of the ruling right.
That is easier said than done, though. As recent history has shown, the Indian right’s positioning on the caste and reservation is work in progress. Ahead of the Bihar elections in November 2015, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat had suggested that there should be a review of the reservation policy. It was a reiteration of the Sangh’s traditional position, articulated when MS Golwalkar was Sarsanghchalak, that economic criteria should be the determining factor in this. However, that statement had the potential for upsetting the electorate and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remark at an election rally soon after – “Rights given by Babasaheb Ambedkar for the socially backward classes will never be taken away by my government” – failed to stop the now-disbanded mahagathbandhan from winning.
Cut to the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections of 2017, by which time Modi and the Indian right had firmly established themselves. This was a time that Yogi Adityanath equated caste with furrows in a field, providing the argument for order in society – in other words, he pitched for the status quo. Then, Bhagwat again, at the just-concluded three-day RSS lecture series in New Delhi said reservations should continue until its beneficiaries felt the need to give it up. He said, “1,000 varsh ki bimari theek karne ke liye agar 100-150 saal humko neeche jhuk kar rehna padta hai to yeh mehnga sauda nahi hai.” He added, in what could be clarification of his earlier remarks in Bihar: “Reservation is not the problem. But the problem is politics on reservation.”
As India struggles to find adequate resources for all its citizens to prosper, reservation is likely to become an even more divisive subject. With people competing for access to resources, anger will be directed at the weakest. It will manifest itself in many ways. The Nalgonda incident might seem like honour killing, but there is only one way to look at it – through the prism of caste prejudice. The advantage of having a rightwing party at the helm is that you get to hear a point of view that articulates the sentiments of Hindu conservatives and represents them politically. In that sense, they could influence opinion in a way that pushes back caste prejudice. If the BJP is able to effect that, it will be one of its biggest achievements.