Sowing division: caste is crucial in Indian elections

Of course,
politicians did not create the powerful Hindu caste system. They merely exploit
this fault-line, exacerbating the caste animosities to build vote banks.

lead Supporters listening to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath in March, 2018.
Hindustan Times/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Jaati na poocho sadhu ki, pooch leejiye gyan”,
sang India’s saint-poet Kabir. (Do not judge a saint by his caste, imbibe his
knowledge). However, the most-asked question in an Indian election is about the
candidate’s caste. Political analysts ask it, poll strategists ask it, and the
voters ask it. The caste-related issues frivolous to outsiders are debated
seriously in TV shows and newspaper articles during an election season. Such
weird identity-politics is not played out in any other democracy!

Of course,
politicians did not create the powerful Hindu caste system. They merely exploit
this fault-line, exacerbating the caste animosities to build vote banks. There
are four main castes – Brahman (priests and intellectuals), Kshatriya (warriors
and kings), Vaishya (traders) and Shudras (servants including the
untouchables). They form a hierarchical order that covers hundreds of
sub-castes within a caste. Every caste is credited with certain attributes such
as valour or craftiness. The tradition of caste-based military regiments established
by the British continue.

The tradition of
caste-based military regiments established by the British continue.

The caste
matters a great deal in Hindu rituals and ceremonies. Caste conflict is a
regular feature of life in villages and cities. Many inter-caste marriages are
destroyed by social sanctions. Some of these and at times even love affairs end
in the crematorium.

A god intervenes

Hindu humans
are governed by caste hierarchy, but a god was brought under its purview during
the recent election campaign. Yogi Adityanath, BJP’s  monk-chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, hit the
headlines by telling an election rally that Lord Hanuman, known in the West as
Monkey God, was a Dalit (belonging to the most depressed caste). The statement
made to garner the Dalit votes caused a huge blowback! In a country where
Dalits were denied entry into temples, the Yogi called a god Dalit!

The statement
highlighted the astounding complexity of Indian politics and of Hindu religion.
Political parties face a difficult choice. They woo the oppressed and depressed
castes in order to collect more votes. In doing so, they antagonise some upper
castes. Religiosity and tradition expect them to respect the caste boundaries! Many
upper-caste voters in the recent elections turned away from the BJP because of its
support to positive discrimination in favour of the depressed castes.

By calling
Lord Hanuman a Dalit, the Yogi offended the Brahmans, the priestly class. Some
protesting Brahmans threatened to sue the chief minister. Interestingly, the
Yogi is a Rajput (of warrior caste). BJP’s mentor organisation RSS has mostly
been headed by a Brahman and  it is often
asked whether a Dalit could ever head the RSS.

With the Yogi
calling Lord Hanuman a Dalit, the Dalit leaders demanded that all Hanuman
temples should have Dalit priests, and these should be handed over to them! The
Dalits took their protests to some Hanuman temples and in one they forced the Brahman
priest to leave the building.

A woman Dalit
MP resigned from the ruling BJP complaining that Hanuman was humiliated and
treated as a slave by the high-caste Hindus. She said Hanuman helped Lord Ram
win the war against the demon king Ravan and yet this Dalit was turned into a
monkey with a black face!

One leader in
the Yogi’s own party said Hanuman was not a Dalit but an Arya since the caste
system had not started in his age! This will be contested by those who worship
Ram as a Kshatriya (the warrior caste). A pro-BJP royal Rajput family claims to
have descended from Lord Ram.

Conflicting claims

Contradicting
the Yogi, the state BJP minister for religious affairs declared that Hanuman
was a Jat (of an intermediate caste). He gave a simple reason. Only the people
of this caste jump in to help anyone in trouble and since Hanuman fought Ram’s
battle, he was a Jat! A socialist leader of the same state said Hanuman was a
Gond tribal. A Jain monk claimed that Hanuman was a Jain. Jainism identifies
him as one of the 169 great persons, he said.

A Hindu monk-businessman
who supports the ruling BJP invoked the sacred texts to say that the caste is
determined not by birth but by the nature of duties performed by a Hindu. Since
Hanuman burnt down Sri Lanka and made Ram victorious in his war against Ravan,
he was a Kshatriya! While some Hindus do worship Ravan, fortunately none declared
that a Kshatriya sinned by killing Ravan, the Brahman scholar.

As if citing
the Hindu caste system was not funny enough, a Muslim politician declared that
Hanuman was a Muslim because his name rhymed with common Muslim names such as
Rehman and Usman! A wag said Hanuman was a Chinese because his name rhymes with
Jackie Chan! All such statements were given due publicity in the media and led
to serious high-decibel TV discussions! A
wag said Hanuman was a Chinese because his name rhymes with Jackie Chan!

Considering
half a dozen conflicting claims made about Lord Hanuman’s caste, only a law
court can allocate the correct caste to this god and free him from an imposed
identity crisis. Secular Hindus grumble that having dividing humans for
political gains, the BJP is dividing gods on the basis of caste! Newspaper
editors wrote that the poll campaign ought to have focused on the vital
livelihood issues instead of on gods and castes.

Caste solidarity and self-immolation

Caste animosities
transform the political scene. It happened following Prime Minister V. P. Singh’s
decision in 1990 to grant job reservation to the “other backward castes”. The
measure, based on the Mandal Commission Report, was designed to reduce
inequalities. But by exacerbating caste divisions, it hindered the BJP’s
project to unify Hindus on one political platform. The decision did have the
political objectives of countering the BJP’s Ram temple agitation and winning
the votes of the “other backward classes”.

Anti-Mandal agitation against job reservations for other backward classes.It sparked a
violent agitation by the upper caste students. Self-immolation by some students
gave a tragic twist to the protest. The agitation lit caste fires in young
minds and sparked a political storm. The BJP, whose core constituency includes
a large section of the upper castes, resumed its agitation for building the Ram
temple and went on to withdraw its support to the V. P. Singh Government that
lost its majority in Parliament and resigned.

Many
upper-caste voters do not like positive discrimination in favour of the
backward castes and resent the BJP’s stand on job reservations for them. The
BJP does not dare to weaken that policy and displease the lower castes but its
attempt to enlarge its footprint alienates the upper castes as seen in the
recent state elections.

Different
political parties are supported by a coalition of specific caste groups. Such
coalitions usually stick with their preferred party for a few years. Some join a
group for a couple of years then switch their support to another party. In some
democracies, such coalitions are based on shared ideology, in India these are
formed on the basis of caste solidarity.

Building your caste profile

All parties
draw up poll strategy on the basis of the constituency’s caste profile. Messages
in the election speeches are tailored to suit the dominant caste, ideological
coherence is sacrificed. If a candidate belongs to caste A, his rival belonging
to caste B fields dummy candidates of caste A to divide the opponent’s votes.

Incendiary
rumours enhance inter-caste and intra-caste animosities. False statements fuel sub-caste
jealousy. Political rivalry is promoted among the caste groups. The dominant
caste in the village tries to impose its political preference on the depressed
section by issuing threats. If the election results show that the dominant
caste leader’s fiat was ignored, the defiant voters are subjected to violence.
Extensive opinion polls, by indicating the voting preference of a particular
caste group, make it easy to take revenge.

Newspapers
give the caste-wise break-up of the candidates fielded and the candidates who win
the elections. Caste matters in the selection of the candidates and shapes the
content of the poll campaign speeches. When the government is formed, the media
highlights the caste composition of the cabinet. It wasn’t so in the newly
independent India when democracy was less mature.

Earlier, some
secular political leaders tried to reduce the role of caste in politics.
Congress leader Indira Gandhi once ran a successful poll campaign with the
slogan: Na jaat pe, na paat pe, muhar
lagegi haath pe
(We shall ignore the candidate’s caste and sub-caste and
vote for the Congress symbol of hand.)

Today no
party ignores the caste factor that influences the voting behaviour and creates
vote banks. Every party devises it poll strategy by considering castes and
sub-castes. Paradoxically, even the BJP, while committed to uniting Hindus,
plays caste-based politics in a big way. BJP minister has no hesitation in
saying that since Congress President Rahul Gandhi belongs to an upper caste,
his party cannot bear to see Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is not from an
upper caste. BJP’s spokesman Sambit Patra publicly asked Rahul Gandhi to
declare his Gotra (his specific clan within the caste). This question usually
comes up when a matrimonial alliance is discussed!

The BJP and caste

The RSS which
is BJP’s ideological mentor has mostly been headed by a Brahman and it gives no
place to the minorities. A large section of its followers happens to belong to
the Baniya caste engaged in business. The ruling BJP, known earlier as a Brahman-Baniya
party, has been reaching out to other castes. And yet the organisation is still
dominated by the upper castes, as indicated by a detailed analysis of its hierarchy
by ThePrint.

Prejudices
die hard. So, the BJP leaders in the southern state of Kerala invoked the low
caste of its leftist chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan to attack him. He is being
asked to leave his political office and go back to his caste profession as
toddy tapper. The chief minister is trying to implement the Supreme Court’s
judgment lifting a temple’s ban on the entry of young women. The BJP has
launched a violent agitation in defence of faith and tradition. It believes
that by consolidating the upper-caste votes, it would be able to make political
gains. The Prime Minister made vague comments about belief and said nothing to discourage
his party men from defying the Supreme Court judgment.

While some
BJP leaders do not refrain from making casteist comments, the party has
co-opted even Dr B. R. Ambedkar, a Dalit icon. In protest against the oppressive
and discriminatory caste system, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism taking
thousands of his followers with him. He had warned the nation against Hindu
hegemony and burnt a copy of Manusmriti,
a Hindu law book containing casteist verses.

Dr. B R Ambedkar, the Dalit icon.The support
of the lower castes in elections is invaluable. It is more so for the BJP since
it ignores Muslims and marginalises them to please its die-hard Hindu supporters.
Since it has to woo the lower castes, in this limited context, political compulsions
have made the BJP less exclusive. It publicises the caste of its candidate if
he or she is from a depressed caste. It does so in the case of Prime Minister
Modi who is not from an upper caste. If a party opposing it has a large
following in a particular caste, the BJP fields a candidate belonging to the
same caste in order to draw away voters of that caste. It does not matter any more
which caste dominates the party. All parties play this game, but the case of
the BJP is worth noting since its declared objective is to unite Hindus. No one talks of the abolition of the caste system.

Caste rivalries
and religious polarisation during election campaigns disturb social harmony and
often cause violence. Elections come and go but tensions continue. Political
leaders generate emotional frenzy through divisive rhetoric, mythological tales
and false warnings of the danger posed by the religious “Other” or other caste
community. Sectarian statements and violence during the election campaign have
become the new normal. In this atmosphere, no one talks of the abolition of the
caste system.

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