by Ratnakar Tripathy
|Patidar reservation agitation 25 August Ahmadabad|
A lot of our conversation about the caste system in India is around the question whether the caste sentiment and consolidation have loosened or tightened over time and whether caste is here forever, to wither away only in the distant future. The upper castes in the country feel that caste is no longer very relevant and is being perpetuated by the Dalits and the middle castes. Such an opinion does indeed suit the upper castes very much as they continue to enjoy many traditional and newly acquired privileges and also pretend that no such privilege exists and that their wealth and power is entirely an outcome of their merit and talent. This is a delusion with grave consequences. Any questioning of the privileged status of the upper caste will incense them and they are wont to feel wounded and victimized. They feel that they have bent low enough since the days of the freedom struggle and will not deign any further. Indeed the caste system in the Indian society is going through a strange phase when every caste feels victimized by the other. The sentiment of universal victimhood is not entirely new though it is being voiced at a scale and a pitch unheard before. It is important to make a clear admission that such a shift in caste sentiments has indeed taken place before trying to grasp its nuances and its impact on today’s political conversation or lack of it.
Dalits quite justifiably feel victimized by the upper castes and the middle castes and have exhibited intense impatience with the continuing unfairness and oppression faced in their daily lives. The middle castes feel victimized by both the increasingly vociferous Dalits and the upper castes, although lately by seeking more reservation they seem to target the Dalits more pointedly than the upper castes. The Jat agitations in recent months and the Maratha mobilization in Maharashtra are two such glaring instances. In fact the recent Maratha gatherings were remarkably huge at several sites and unlike anything we have seen in recent times. The upper castes on the other hand have managed to purge themselves of the guilt felt over the past injustices inflicted by them and the younger generations are largely convinced that they have conceded enough ground to everyone below them. The emotional landscape of the caste system in India is thus a riven one with several gulfs that need to be bridged to normalize an unhealthy psyche. The trouble is our political parties including the mainstream are no longer able to build these bridges. In the case of the BJP in recent years, it may even be claimed that the will to lay bridges is missing entirely and the party aims to instead widen the gulfs for electoral gains. The ideology of Hindutva which may give the impression of a united front of all the Hindu segments has proved in haste that apart from alienating the Muslims, Christians and other minority religions, it is playing a divisive role among the Hindu population itself since it stands solely for the upper castes and is just another label for Brahmanism ideology. The Congress on the other hand is clearly unable to play its traditionally balancing role in the fast changing caste scenario and is likely to be reduced to a thin spread all over the country.
The recent mobilizations among the Marathas in Maharashtra, of the Dalits under the leadership of Jignesh Mewani and the Patidars separately in Gujarat and that of Jats in Haryana and the great numbers involved illustrate the point well. The question however remains – what are the political implications of a massive confrontation that seems to be brewing at the grassroots level? Some analysts have tried to see at the core of the unrests a grave dissatisfaction with the flawed agricultural policies of the governments at the centre, and others have linked the varied phenomena to lack of job creation affecting the youth that may soon reach crisis proportions as incomes are depressed and aspirations rise. But it would seem that none of these voices have yet found a clear-cut political language that aligns with the dynamics of party politics in India today or neatly fit into it. This is not to deny the graveness of the socio-economic impact of the widespread murmuring that we hear from the remotest corners of the caste society. On the whole we can only wait and watch and listen to these voices as they take a clearer political shape and rise above the level of self-mobilization and turn into viable forces articulating their demands and political positions and thus boldly enter the arena of everyday party politics and the polling booths. Victimhood and a sense of tremendous impatience with their predicaments are all that seem visible at this point.