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The Paradox of Democracy

Caste has become a favourite topic of discussion among social and political commentators in
India. Caste disparities, caste rivalries and caste alliances are written and spoken about endlessly
in the print and electronic media.
In assessing the prospects of various political formations, analysts pay more attention to the
divisions and groupings among castes than to the alignment of classes.
Yet this was not always so. At the time of independence, many well-meaning Indians looked
forward to a future that would be different from the past.
Among the features of their own past that they wished to put behind them were poverty,
illiteracy, ill health, ignorance, superstition and caste.
Nehru and his generation genuinely believed that democracy and development would bring in a
new social order that would free Indians from the shackles of caste.
The continued presence of caste in the 21st century should not lead us to overlook the many
changes that have taken place in its character and mode of operation.
To put it in a nutshell, caste was in the past mainly a matter of religion and ritual, of social
inclusion and exclusion on grounds of purity and pollution.
Today, it has become mainly a matter of politics, of the competition between groups for a better
share of the benefits of education and employment.
There are those who say that caste has increased its strength in Indian society, but they would
hardly argue that this is because the rules of purity and pollution have become strengthened in the
last 60 years.
The emerging middle class was the first to free itself from the manifold restrictions imposed by
the rules of purity and pollution.
The process began during British rule in the larger towns and cities. The new educational system
played an important part in undermining ritual restrictions.
First, by promoting new ideas, beliefs and values; and, second, by its association with open and
secular institutions in which social interchange could no longer be regulated by ritual rules and
restrictions.
In the colleges, the law courts, the hospitals, the banks and the offices, the middle class had to
operate according to procedures that made the old restrictions of purity and pollution appear
anachronistic, cumbersome and obstructive.

The association between caste and occupation also began to be loosened. The expansion of the
economy, particularly in recent decades, has led to the emergence of a multitude of new 'castefree' occupations, or occupations that have no specific association with any caste as was the case
in the past with occupations such as those of carpenter, blacksmith, potter, barber and
washerman.

The restrictions on intermarriage on grounds of caste have been the most resistant to change. But
the general trend has been for those restrictions to be loosened, and here again the middle class,
rather than peasants or workers, has led the way in moving away from caste.
Thus, in many fields of activity, caste has been in decline, and the middle class has played a
crucial part in contributing to the decline.
But there is one field, that of politics, in which caste has held its ground, or even increased its
hold. What part has the middle class played in giving a new lease of life to caste in the domain of
politics?
The mobilisation of support on the basis of caste and community has now become a universal
feature of our political life.
All parties engage in the practice and they all seek to defend it by the appeal to equity and justice.
No party will venture to oppose the claims made by a particular caste unless it can put forward
the claims of some other caste or community.
This has come to be described as identity politics, and it has displaced class politics even among
the Left parties. When they talk about social justice, they now mean parity between castes and
communities, not equality between individuals and households; and the abolition of classes is not
even a distant objective any more.
Yet, the divisions of class, based on inequalities of wealth, income, occupation and education
between individuals and households, remain both deep and significant.
What are the benefits that flow to the different castes and communities in return for their electoral
support, and to whom exactly do those benefits flow?
Identity politics is not about ritual precedence or even about social inclusion and exclusion in the
ordinary sense. It is about good degrees and superior jobs. These degrees and jobs are outside the
reach of most ordinary members of the disadvantaged castes and communities, such as
cultivators, sharecroppers and others in casual employment.
The competition for more degrees and better jobs is a competition between castes, but it is a
competition within the same social class.

Commenting on an earlier version of this competition in British India, K B Krishna observed,


"The non-Brahmin movement of Madras Presidency is no other than the movement of the later
educated middle classes who happen to
be non-Brahmins against the earlier educated middle classes who happened to be Brahmins."
The same middle class, which a 100 years ago took the fist tentative steps to break away from
caste, is now in the forefront of a political movement whose inevitable outcome will be to
strengthen the consciousness of caste.
If this sounds like a paradox, let me say that it will be naive to expect democracy in India to be
free from paradox.