“There is no such thing as the caste system anymore”
In April last year, Avinash Dutt and I had interviewed the political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot. We walked around Lodhi Gardens, tape recorder in hand, and I ended up transcribing more than five thousand words that night. Tehelka had published a shorter, edited version. Here’s the full thing.
I was reminded of this interview after encountering the argument here that there should be, and is, a Dalit-Brahmin alliance against the already much-demonised OBCs. I thought that this way of seeing the BSP’s victory in the Uttar Pradesh elections was not only incorrect, but also seemed to be in need of the argument that Jaffrelot makes in this interview: that seeing caste as a ‘system’ is outmoded, at least as far as electoral politics is concerned.
1- Shivam: Which is more important for the average Indian, religion or caste?
It is sometimes not only those two but much more. The leftist approach would consist of highlighting class as the main criterion in defining what is the man in the street. But we have learnt to know that there are many ascriptive identities and religion and caste are amongst the most important ones, especially in politics when you have to understand how people vote.
2: Shivam: But between caste and religion, what becomes more important for the average voter?
It depends on the context. In 1991, after Mandal, caste was very important, which is why the BSP and the SP could join hands: the anti-reservationists were so strong that the pro-reservationists had to join hands. Then things changed when Advani’s Rath Yatra re-highlighted Hindu identity and in some places, including UP, it worked. To be anti-Muslim came first. So there is no definite answer.
3: Shivam: In that sense has caste played a positive role by preventing a homogenised Hindu identity from taking shape?
That is one thing. Another is that caste politics gives the plebeians a block of solidarity and such numbers of people in that case work together and behave in such a way that it enables low caste parties to win many more seats and obliges mainstream parties to give tickets to OBCs. In that sense the caste-ification of Indian politics has been a factor of the democratisation of Indian politics. This is a paradoxical development, but without caste politics you would still have the old clientelistic vertical alignement à la the “Congress system” of the 1950s-1960s – and you would not have so many OBC Chief Ministers, MPs and MLAs.
4: Shivam: Yet what do you make of the BJP’s and the Parivar’s relationship with the OBC leaders and masses?
They have been forced to give tickets to these people but they have not given up the idea of transforming them into good, Sanskritised Hindus. In the case of Kalyan Singh it worked pretty well, as also Uma Bharti and Vinay Katiyar. All these people are OBCs with strong Hindutva leanings. So it does not mean they have given up their ideology. Also, the BJP might have given tickets to attract voters, but no responsibility in the party apparatus.
5: Shivam: So in the long term the idea is to bring all castes into the Hindu fold.
I do not think it can work that way because the heydays of Sanskritisation are over. On the contrary, caste politics is probably the most effective antidote to the Hindutva. Who are the main rivals of the BJP in UP? The SP and the BSP. There will be tensions between caste politics and Hindutva politics for quite sometime – at least in UP where, therefore, the Congress (a catch all party by vocation) and the Communists (who are class oriented) are marginalised.
6: Avinash: These tensions already seem to be hitting the glass ceiling for Uma Bharti, Babulal Marandi… Kalyan Singh is a pale shadow of himself; Shivraj Singh Chauhan is inferior to Vasundhra Raje Scindia who is a Thakur. The entire upper leadership is still strictly upper caste.
Indeed, the BJP has not promoted the OBC leaders in the party apparatus and at the government level at the centre. If you look at the places where the OBCs are in the BJP universe, they are more at the state level as MLAs or in the state governments but not at the top of the party apparatus and not in the important ministries when they were in power at the centre. This is clearly a disjunction reflecting a mindset. It’s also because the RSS movement is still imbued with an upper caste, mostly Brahminical ethos. If you look at the RSS pracharaks running the show, most of them are Brahmins. They are not ready to promote low caste people at that level. It’s remarkable that there has not been any non-Brahmin at the helm of the RSS except Rajendra Singh – a Rajput. That tells a lot. 80 years of a movement with always the same social profile and ethos.
7: Avinash: Inside the BJP office in Delhi have you noticed that the Brahmin and upper caste general secretaries have good cushy rooms and the general secretaries who are dalit or OBC have corner rooms.
May be it is a co-incidence. Even if you don’t go into these details, obviously the mainstream ethos and dominant values remain the same. And they try hard to perpetuate these. Hence the importance attributed to the inculcation of samskars. By that they mean the building of good characters which are imbued with the values of the upper castes. Either you revere and emulate them and forget your Dalit/OBC identity or you remain below. These samskars refer to a Brahminical value system and ethos but it translates also in a whole body language. It’s an habitus to use one of the key words of Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology.
8: Avinash: Do you see any friction coming up…
The friction comes when OBC leaders of the BJP try to appoint “too” many people from their fold in the government. When Kalyan Singh did it, an upper caste lobby emerged with Mishra and Lalji Tandon joining hands to remove him. But the party soon realised that it needed Kalyan Singh because he was the one who could corner the OBC votes. This reflects a potential tension between two sections of the party, but it’s not as if Kalyan Singh introduced a new ethos – his ethos is the same.
9: Avinash: While researching for your Hindutva book, how open did you find the BJP and Parivar leaders to be? Did being foreigner help?
It did, because I was an outsider; I was not on their radar screen. Also I was very young and they wanted to educate me. It enabled me to apply the two methods I value most in social sciences, participatory observation and non-directive interviews.
10: Shivam: What do you make of the current controversy on OBC reservations?
If you have reservations in the administration, you need reservations in the university. How do you train the people that are supposed to do the job? For the SCs there were first reservation in the education system and then in the administration. So after giving 27% to OBCs in the administration it is rather logical that they are being given 27% in education. And the fact that the government has committed itself to increase the capacity of the universities by 54% so as not to penalise the upper castes is to my mind a very positive step.
11- Shivam: But despite that a lot of people are protest against the move. There’s been real great anger against reservations.
I think the upper castes should understand that they are going to be affected only in a limited manner and that reservations may help stabilise social relations. By giving some upward mobility to people who may otherwise not get a chance, you defuse a source of resentment which may generate tensions. Secondly, some measures for the poor upper caste people should be decided.
12- Shivam: But then how much reservations will we have, upper caste poor, OBCs, dalits say their population has increased, Muslims, Christians… is there space for the ‘general category’? The criticism is that we are dividing university seats not on the lines of merit but as dictated by “vote-bank politics”.
But this is only for the public sector, which is shrinking. We’re seeing private alternatives emerging.
13: Shivam: But the government is investing another 16,000 crores to increase seats.
So there will be room for everybody.
14: Shivam: One criticism of “Mandal II” has been that the many OBCs are powerful land-owning castes.
That’s why you have the creamy layer clause.
15- Shivam: Which the government does not want to implement.
I think the government should stick by the 1992 Mandal judgement.
16: Shivam: But political parties say if you remove the creamy layer clause, the ones most likely to take advantage of reservations won’t be able to.
You need the creamy layer clause for removing from reservations those who are in a position to support themselves. Those who don’t need the help of the state should not have quotas.
17: Shivam: So then what is the objective of quotas? IS it a poverty alleviation programme?
No it’s not; it cannot be. It is a way to create some elite groups in communities which would be unable to get a voice otherwise. When VP Singh said that Mandal was not a job-oriented scheme but for empowerment, he meant that he was not giving away these resources for poverty alleviation but enabling some representatives of these communities to enter into the corridors of power through the administration. And we know how important this is in this country. It means that there is someone of your group in a position of power. This is important in concrete terms because India is a community-based society and in symbolic terms because it shows that society is not blocked: some upward social mobility is possible.
18: Shivam: You are saying that affirmative action should always result in social mobility.
Yes, some limited social mobility. And this is the way positive discrimination programmes are generally carried out in the rest of the world. They are aimed at creating elite groups among communities which would otherwise not be able to come up. Take the blacks in the United States – it is not as if poverty has disappeared from the black community. But you see black people now at the helm of big firms. Would you have seen any Dalits in India’s high administration without reservations? They would not be there. And what would be the cost of that? 15% of population would be excluded from the country’s administration. The resentful ones might have followed the call of the Dalit Panthers and joined the Naxalites in larger numbers if such a developments had not occurred. Instead, the beneficiaries of the reservations built the RPIs and the BSP, parties which have never resorted to violent methods but played the electoral game.
Your question also connects with the issue of efficiency. It is argued that administrative efficiency is affected because of reservations. I can tell you that sometimes peasants go to the DM with their problems because he is of their group. For an administrator to be trusted by citizens is a matter of efficiency.
19: Shivam: So much of the controversy is over data. Do we need a caste census?
That might be a solution, though we know roughly what the figures are. The Supreme Court is not fair in this. We know the OBCs are between 30 and 50 per cent of the population.
20: Shivam: On the basis of the 1931 census?
Well, also the NSS. You have sample surveys which reconfirm this. At any rate, the OBCs are more than 27%.
21: Shivam: The debates around OBC reservations have remained the same since the time they were first had in the Constituent Assembly. That we have not been able to resolve them over 60 years, what does it say?
It means that equality and social mobility are very difficult to achieve in a society like India. The legitimacy of mobility – the legitimacy of those who are at the lowest level to come up – is very difficult to digest.
22: Shivam: Not just the student protestors but even the sociologist Dipankar Gupta has argued that ‘Other Backward Classes’ has been deliberately misinterpreted as referring to sub-castes because of vote-bank politics. Is there a case for not considering caste when deciding who the OBCs are?
Well, OBCs do not form a block. They are not a class but a collection of castes. You can see this in terms of voting behaviour – Yadavs do not often vote along with Kurmis. You can also see it in terms of disparities: there are many differences between Yadavs and Nais (barbers) for instance. Then the question is: why don’t we disaggregate the OBCs so that we have something more convincing in terms of class. At least OBCs and MBCs should be distinguished. This block, OBCs, is too diverse to be seen in terms of classes.
23: Shivam: But are Jats and Yadavs OBCs?
Well, Jats I agree are not. To include them was a purely political move on the part of the Vajpayee government to bring Rajasthan in the BJP fold. But with Yadavs it is much more complicated. Yadavs have come up now, but in many places they have nothing more than a pair of bullocks. They are not rich and influential people.
24: Shivam: In Uttar Pradesh?
Well, it depends. In eastern UP they are not. And if in Western UP they are to a certain extent, then the creamy layer clause should take care of it. You may be a Yadav but your father has so many acres of land and therefore you cannot be eligible to reservation. This reasoning should be extended to the SCs as well. The Chief Justice of India is a dalit but why should his son benefit from quotas?
25: Shivam: But the argument there is that as it is the Scheduled Caste quota seats are not filled anyway. So if you take the creamy layer away the objective of representation would be hurt.
Do you think these people really represent the “Chamars”? They are often co-opted by the system. They are part of the establishment. If they don’t let room for those who are below, they will just prevent their brethren to come up. There is some vested interest here. Sons of IAS officers should not get reservations. Even if the others to begin with are not of the same calibre, they must be given a chance to catch up – the same way they have been allowed to catch up in the beginning of the reservations.
26: Shivam: So beneficiaries of the reservations become part of the middle class and want to forget caste.
That was the rule of the game for decades – except in the case of Dr Ambedkar. It has changed only recently when personalities like Kanshi Ram remained true to the cause. When you look at what Congress Dalit MPs and ministers had become you realise that they were not strong advocates of their people. But I’m not expressing any value judgement over the middle class dalits who are cut-off from their people because it is very difficult to be in between two worlds. It’s a schizophrenic situation.
There is probably only one way to transcend this: to embrace a new identity. Those who have become Buddhist do not face this problem so acutely. Not only Buddhism does not hark them back to their dalit background and they can share this identity with other dalits who have not arrived.
27: Shivam: But some say that the Buddhist/non-Buddhist divide has only fragmented and divided the dalit movement, Maharashtra being the best example.
I think, rather, that in the end it will be the crucible from which all dalits will find a platform, not only in Maharashtra but also in different parts of India.
28: Shivam: What do you think has gone wrong with the dalit movement in Maharashtra?
In Maharashtra the dalit political leaders have often betrayed ambedkarism for a kursi. The aftermath of the Khairlanji atrocities were very revealing in this regard. RPI leaders did not do anything. Athavale was nowhere in the picture. Dalits – and among them Dalit women – mobilised on their own. Had they not protested no case would have been registered. Now, at least a trial may take place – to give an opportunity to the judiciary to do its job, though most of the evidence has been destroyed by the police. I therefore would not say that the Dalit movement has lost any sense of direction – its political leaders have, but socially and ideologically it is very active and alert.
29: Shivam: You call it democratisation, but caste politics is said to have contributed to the abyss of crime and corruption that UP and Bihar find themselves in.
Yes, but frankly speaking, would the others do it differently? The media, especially India Today, was very quick to highlight the faults of the lower caste politicians. But have the upper caste politicians behaved any differently? Why should the lower caste politicians bear the stigma of the whole political set-up?
30: Shivam: So what happens to development?
You need more investment in villages. You have only 2% growth in the primary sector this year, as compared to 10 or 11% in the secondary sector and 11 or 12% in the third sector. This is not sustainable development. 60% of India lives in the villages and can only contribute 18% of the GDP. There is a problem there. The state should come back and invest in irrigation and implement the land reform that never took place in India. Such changes in rural India are the preconditions to any national development, though industrialisation is naturally another priority.
31: Shivam: You call it India’s Silent Revolution, but many insist caste politics is perpetuating caste and is responsible for unstable coalition governments.
These are two different issues. First of all, to say that politics has institutionalised caste is suggesting that without this kind of politics you would not have caste. That is a big assumption. Caste was there before. This is the basic unit of Indian society.
32: Shivam: But caste politics does depend on stagnant vote-banks and to that extent only deepens caste identity.
Yes, probably. But arranged marriages are also perpetuating caste – why does nobody speak against them? And if caste politics is a useful detour for the emancipation of the subalterns because it enables the lower castes to form larger coalitions and to dislodge elites which monopolise power for centuries, it is a much lesser evil. It indeed permits some transfer of power to the plebeians. So far as the instability of governments is concerned, I don’t think that when it happened it was because of caste politics but rather because of the regionalisation of politics, since parties broke into pieces along regional lines. Look at the JD(U) in Bihar, the NCP in Maharashtra and the JD(S) in Karnataka. But in fact, this system is not so instable because now regional parties are often part of coalitions which are completing the duration of their terms.
33: Shivam: So what is caste politics doing to caste?
It is forcing many sub-castes to join hands and even sometimes to merge. Look at the Kshatriyas in Gujarat. This is a caste that has emerged out of a political process. In the 1950s you had the Rajputs and the Kolis, which were OBCs. They decided to join hands against the Patels in order to fight this dominant caste more effectively. So a new caste has emerged, the Kshatriyas. The second thing that politics does to caste is that it transforms castes into interest groups. The castes are not part of a system anymore. I would argue that there is nothing like the caste system anymore. There used to be one, in which the Brahmins epitomized superior values – for the whole of society – whereas the Dalits were the opposite. Today, at least in city, you have the same people not in a vertical arrangement but in a horizontal line: all castes are in competition for power, jobs, seats in the universities – the public sphere is an arena where they fight. The idea of an all-encompassing social system is gone and this has resulted in some mobility. This has been one of the results of Indian democracy over 60 years.
34: Shivam: In the differences between caste politics in the north and the south, what has been the most interesting?
In the south everything started much earlier but stopped after a while. The anti-Brahmin movement in the south, as also in the west, started in the late 19th or early 20th century. The Brahmins were dislodged by the dominant castes – Marathas, Lingayats, Reddys, Kammas. But then they made no room for the OBCs – except during short periods, like the Devraj Urs years in Karnataka – and they are still in command. In the north things took much more time. In the ‘60s Charan Singh was not in a position to make the Congress understand the need to make room to the kisan in the power structure and he had to leave the party. But when things started to change, they changed much more drastically. In the ‘90s, the OBCs and dalits have largely replaced the erstwhile ruling upper castes in the Hindi belt. So the Brahmins and Rajputs remained in power nearly 50 years more than the south, but the catalyst of Mandal has been a powerful one. Now of course they are trying to come back with the coalition of extremes. A third scenario is the Communist dominated states – where upper castes remain in power!
35: Avinash: So we can say that castes are breaking the discrimination barrier for opportunism. OBC leaders have refused to come out strongly in the reservations imbroglio. They are somewhat silent because they want upper caste votes as well, and OBC is no longer a single, unified vote bank.
True, but if you compare the kind of reactions that these people have today and what reaction they had in the Mandal of 90 you will in any case see a change. I think more and more parties which were reluctant are now accepting caste-based reservations for the OBCs. They can’t alienate 52% of the population. Look at the BJP manifestoes of the BJP over the last 15 years. In ’91 they were for class-based reservations. In ’96 still. In ’98 they started to say let’s implement the quota system as the Supreme Court has allowed it. Now they will not go against any caste-based policies for the OBCs. So they have been convinced in less than 15 years. And they were the hardest nuts to crack. They have realised that they want all the voters, but also that the majority of the voters are OBC and they better go along with the reservations for them instead of opposing at the cost of their voters.
36: Avinash: When all regions have their own parties and so do castes, is there space for national parties?
Well, there is space for national parties which are able to work in coalitions. The Congress for instance cannot go alone anymore. They used to try and think they could. But they realised they could only be the coordinating agency of a coalition. So this is still a useful part that they play. They are national in the sense that they coordinate regional parties. The BJP is doing the same in the NDA. The task of a national party today is to have about 150 seats and be the largest party in the coordination the coalition of 15-18 parties. I would be very surprised if in the near future any party will be in a position to gain an absolute majority on its own.
37: Avinash: That is clear, but do you think national parties are slipping further?
The risk of a split in the BJP is very limited since factionalism is not reaching such proportions in the party, and for the Congress, it is not impossible but the worse period when Madhavrao Scindia, Arjun Singh and N.D. Tiwari were out seems to be over. Many congressmen might have realised that it would be suicidal to get divided that way. National parties, therefore, may roughly remain at their present level. This is good for democracy. Every one is now willing to work in coalitions and make compromises. When Congress enjoyed an absolute majority, this state of things enabled Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule in the ‘70s and the ‘80s. She could impose President’s rule in non-Congress states and exert power in a centralised manner because of her majority in parliament. Today the Congress has to discuss give-and-take with the regional bosses which support its government in Parliament.
38: Avinash: So the regionalisation is of a national nature.
Yes, because the game is still national. You have to build national coalitions. So small parties can have a say now. You must give voice to groups and regions which were ignored because you need to take along everyone.
39: Shivam: If we could return to the OBC issue, do you think that post-Mandal reservations and OBC politics at large have hurt dalits?
Mandal, in the end, has made the OBCs more assertive and commanding vis-à-vis the Dalits who are often working in their fields as labourers. But the post-Mandal reservations has not taken anything from the Dalits. The OBCs were really losing ground. If you look at the figures of the bureaucracy you had many more dalits than OBCs there. That was not satisfactory because everybody needs to be represented in this. So something had to be done, to my mind, and I would argue something would have to be done for Muslims in the same way.
40: Shivam: But affirmative action for Muslims might mean that Hindutva may just get another stick to stand on.
Society has to understand that if it doesn’t do anything for the Muslims, if it lets them sink, it will be at the cost of the country at large. It’s not as if positive discrimination means you have to take something from the elite to give it to those who have nothing. The elites will be the first beneficiary of a stabilisation of society.
41: Shivam: How?
Well, because otherwise, the train may well slow down or even derail. I was in Vidarbha a month ago. In this region 1,500 suicides have been committed in one year. This is just one example that if you don’t do anything for these people, why don’t they go the Naxalite way? Why would they play this game that the cities are so happily playing, the game of capitalism. They have to buy the Monsanto seeds for growing their coton now and the State doesn’t buy the crops unless they are of Monsanto seeds. This is the globalisation game that the middle class is very happy to play. Why should the poor play this game? Same with the Muslims. I was in Ahmedabad yesterday. I could see Muslims who are surviving in relief colonies for five years. They have been pushed to the wall. No justice – at least no trial! -, ABL ration card, few voting cards, little compensations, not much water and electricity and far away schools. Why should they not hit back if there is no other alternative? To bring these people back on board, positive discrimination represents a minimum cost for maximum gain.
42: Shivam: How seriously can the Brahmin-BSP alliance be taken?
I think it should be taken seriously, for one good realpolitik reason, that they have one common enemy: the Yadavs and their leader, Mulayam Singh. It makes sense to thus join hands. I would not be surprised if the BSP attracts Brahmin votes where it has Brahmin candidates. If you remember, this was the old recipe of a coalition of extremes that the Congress successfully implemented for a long time. The only difference now is that the upper end of the coalition will be the dalits whereas Brahmins would be the junior partners.
43: Avinash: You have just returned from Gujarat, what did you observe there?
I observed that Narendra Modi has asked Montek Ahluwalia to remove Malika Sarabhai from Doordarshan, and then I could not resist thinking that liberty of expression for those who have a dissenting voice was not respected. And if India is a democracy, as Amartya Sen has claimed, because of the argumentative Indian, you may well need to protect those who argue – and for the right cause at that! I also heard that India’s best-known corporate houses have withdrawn sponsorships to the trust Malika Sarabhai runs because of Narendra Modi. I find it most disturbing. In the multilateral balance of power that the UN has established, there is something called conditionalities. It means “We will help you if governance is more human”. Some conditionalities sometimes bring values back in. Companies who invest in Gujarat can surely exercise such pressure on the Gujarat government. Narendra Modi should know that investors cannot be taken for granted.
44: Shivam: What is the importance of Narendra Modi as a signpost for the Hindutva project in the long-term?
For the first time they have achieved what they have been longing for: to put Muslims in their place by organising some ethnic cleansing and by displacing them out of the cities. In Ahmedabad yhey lived in the heart of the city; now they have been sent at its periphery: they have become the second class citizens the Hindu nationalists have always wanted them to be. Now they are 20 kilometres away in the middle of industrial areas.
Not only that, but the Bajrang Dal has taken the law into its hands in an unprecedented manner. One of their leaders, who have been accused of murders in 2002 by several witnesses but who is still very much active, Babu Bajrangi, “rescues” against their will Hindu girls who have married a Muslim or to a man who do not belong to their caste. He is also very good at intimidating the owners of cinema houses who may want to show films he does not appreciate, like Parzania. So far, the state has had no objection to his activities. Who will restore the rule of law in Gujarat?
45: Shivam: What counter-strategies should civil society organisations devise against the Hindutva project?
First of all they should dispell the stereotypes of the Other. The kind of image of Muslims that you come across amongst the middle class today is amazing. Muslims are depicted as prisoners of the Qu’ran, ill-treating their wives, polygamous, bent to Mecca and basically traitors supporting Pakistan. Some may be of that kind, but most Muslims I have met are trying to get by in difficult times and are deeply attached to India, their country.
47: Shivam: But those running the Hindutva project are educated!
Educated in their own way. The education system in India does not foster critical thinking. You get a very automatic kind of education, hardly society-oriented. Secondly, you need urban planning. There are so many ghettoes. People don’t get to know each other. They don’t know the other because they don’t meet the other.
48: Shivam: But in Gujarat it is said the Muslims in the ghettoes felt safer.
Which is not so right. The place where Babu Bajrangi was leading the mob, Naroda-Patiya, is a Muslim ghetto that they cordoned which permitted them to butcher the people more easily. 80 people from 500 families died. It’s not easy to be protected when you cannot go out of the ghetto. But it is for sure that the Muslims want to live amongst themselves in today’s circumstances.
49: Shivam: Narendra Modi has been trying to say the riots are history, Gujarat is about development and economic growth.
Both things may be true. You can have a ‘shining Gujarat’ and desperate Muslims. The problem is if Muslims become more and more desperate they may contribute to tensions in the state and that may not be good for Gujarat.
50: Shivam: Your forthcoming books?
There is one edited volume on the militia phenomenon in South Asia, an edited volume on the consumption patterns of the middle class in India and China and then a third edited volume on the changing profile of the Indian MLAs in 22 states of India over fifty years.