The vulnerable underprivileged

The vulnerable underprivileged

FOCUS ON BRAHMINS : The new elites among the Dalits and the OBCs and the disadvantaged sections of the 'forward castes' are best typified as 'mezzanin

The new phenomenon that is gradually unfolding in Indian democracy is that of the underprivileged within the dominant castes. This issue for long was undermined as there was no political language to articulate their interests.

While on the one hand we have the phenomenon of new elites emerging among the subaltern Dalit and OBC social groups, there is, side by side, the issue of the disadvantaged among the more dominant castes such as the Patidars in Gujarat, Vokkaligas and Lingayats in Karnataka, Kapus in Andhra Pradesh, Jats in Haryana, and finally the question of the poor among the Brahmins. How do we characterise these social groups and assess their impact on the processes of democratisation?

Both the new elites among the Dalits and OBCs and the disadvantaged sections of the so-called forward castes are not elites in the traditional sense of the term, either sociologically or historically. They are best typified as ‘mezzanine elites’. It is imperative to understand the dynamics internal to these mezzanine elites beyond the received categories of elite and subaltern kind of distinctions.

Most of the Brahmins have migrated from the rural hinterlands of India to nearby towns and cities. They either lost their land or sold them in order to keep up with the changing economic pressures. The traditional occupations of continuing as priests have become economically unviable and socially unprivileged in comparison to previous times. Other professions such as being Ayurvedic doctors have also become unfeasible.

A large section of Brahmins (it is estimated up to 13%) in smaller towns have no property and means for proper higher education. They are finding it difficult to get government jobs and often settle for small-time private jobs, and face financial difficulties that we often associate with the so-called lower castes. 

There are a large number of cases of young men working as priests in local temples facing the difficulty of even finding a suitable bride as parents are not prepared for such matches owing to lower income levels and uncertain future.

Further, young men of such families are ill-prepared to take up various manual jobs as they continue to find them demeaning. The old hierarchies between mental and manual continue to plague them, and they are also victims of ‘reverse stigma’ where doing an odd job is seen as a loss of earlier social status. They often face public ridicule, opening the wedge between poor economic condition and continued self-claims of higher social status. Many of these families continue with the discriminatory caste-practices but now more in the private domain of their homes rather than in public.

Caste-based rituals have retreated to the private where they claim it does not disturb or impinge on social or public sensibilities. For instance, they continue to be essentially vegetarians and continue to believe in its superiority over non-vegetarian diet. This they believe can continue as a cultural practice rather than a discriminatory practice because all other castes too have their own caste-based practices and in fact, even refuse to marry outside of their castes. The moot question is, do practices that symbolised discrimination in the past can accrue the character of a cultural practice? And as social groups at bottom of the ladder, is it gaining social and cultural mobility?

Can they be practiced in the private domain without being scrutinised by public standards and discourses? For instance, can we equate Brahmins’ refusal to marry outside their castes when all other castes have adopted similar position towards inter-caste marriages? Or can one equate the discriminatory practices among the Dalit and OBC groups with that of the Brahmins towards other lesser privileged castes?

There is a late realisation among a few – in an ironic continuation of the Karma theory – that what Brahmins are facing today is a ‘punishment’ for their past deeds. They are socially ‘injured’ and cannot imagine replicating the discrimination that they stridently pursued in the past. They realise that other castes need a share of opportunities and dignity that was denied to them for centuries.

Political power

They also seem to see the point that it is also not practically possible to discriminate castes that have gained political power and economic advantage over a period of time. There is also a loss of respect for ritual status and religious practices in the public domain. Fast paced development and urbanisation has pushed religion to the backwaters of the everyday social life.

Other castes seem to be distinctly more united and organised in comparison to the Brahmins who are weak in terms of their capacity to socially and politically mobilise themselves. Many of these poor Brahmins now see good education as their only source of a good life. They feel some kind of financial help and governmental schemes need to be launched in order to pull them out of their vulnerable economic position.

Many, in fact, feel poor Brahmins today need reservation and scholarships in order to qualify and pursue higher education. The Andhra Pradesh government has announced a new scheme called ‘Vidya Bharathi’ in order to help Brahmins from poor families. Other parties such as the YSR (Congress) have pro-mised fee reimbursement in their party manifestoes. Even Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh was toying with 5% reservation for Brahmins from poorer backgrounds.

When we are witnessing unabated att-acks against the Dalits and return of Bra-hminical symbols such as sanctity of cow as a religious symbol, and they are being aggressively pursued symbolising a counter-revolution, how do we negotiate with the vulnerabilities of the underprivileged sections of the dominant groups?

(The writer is with Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. This article is based on interactions during a recent visit to the temple town of Srisailam in Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh)

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