Politicians can't afford it

Politicians use the group sentiments of people to sustain the system by rallying them against real or perceived injustices.

Politicians can't afford it

Controversy surrounds the demand by Lingayat factions for a separate religious identity by breaking away from Hinduism. While Lingayats form a sizeable chunk of the electoral support base of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Karnataka, Vokkaligas back the Congress in the state. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah hopes to split the Lingayat vote on this divisive issue.

The Lingayats are divided on the feasibility and benefits that would accrue from minority religion status as it would not make much difference to them in social or economic terms. Clearly, the demand for a separate religion is more politically motivated, rather than religious sentiment, as it would fragment the BJP vote bank. Those who want a separate religious identity may side with Siddaramaiah.

Karnataka politics is suffused with identity politics, in which different groups seek to establish relationships with existing power structures that can be manipulated to their benefit. The conditions of modern democracy, guided by universalist ideals, allowed various groups to create mutual associations to further their narrow interests and allowed them to become defined by these allegiances.

The Lingayat sect was born out of opposition to the rigidity of the Hindu caste system and the Brahminical order, somewhat similar to how the 16th century Reformation movement split Christianity into Catholicism and Protestantism. However, the Lingayats are now over 40 sub-castes. It is an acknowledged fact that caste discrimination exists in all religions of the country and is not limited to Hinduism.

In July 2017, the Congress government organised a conference in Bengaluru to commemorate Dr B R Ambedkar’s 126th birth anniversary in an attempt to attract Dalit votes ahead of the elections next year. The speakers eloquently emphasised that the discrimination they faced was a social evil, but no one talked about emancipating them.

Neither the speakers nor the declaration adopted at the end of the conference went so far to say that true emancipation would happen only when the caste system is eliminated from Indian politics. Why did the conference not aim for this ideal?

The caste system in Indian society originally may have been devised to ensure that people had an occupation and livelihood, maintain purity of lineage and provide ready apprenticeship, among other considerations.

Today, however, in a globalised world, the caste system has lost its relevance, especially in urban areas. No one looks for the caste of the owner of a company that offers a good salary package.

Caste does not determine where one works as long as it pays well; nor do employers specifically look for individuals from a particular caste for a particular job in most cases. This may still happen in rural areas but the Constitution has already provided laws that can be used against such practices.

The caste system that the country is infamous for is probably imprinted into the DNA of every Indian. All the religions in India that sprouted up to oppose the orthodoxy and rigid hierarchy of the older society have themselves succumbed to the lure of the caste system. In India, even Christianity, Islam and other religions have adopted the caste system. Dalits who converted to Christianity and Islam are still considered Dalits and are not accepted into the social mainstream. Similarly, the caste system follows Indians wherever they go. Interestingly, the British government recently sought to ban discrimination based on caste among the Indians settled there.

Also, matrimonial advertisements in newspapers are full of ‘caste no bar’ references. Increasingly, the youth today, when they seek companionship of the opposite sex, tend to ignore considerations of caste or religion, particularly in urban locations. Individual preferences, educational qualifications, earnings and in some cases hobbies and interests determine the choice of a companion from a matrimonial viewpoint.

Electoral gains

If caste has increasingly become irrelevant in social or economic terms, what makes it politically significant? Clearly, the caste system persists only because politicians would like to sustain it to garner votes when they do not have tangible results to display in development terms.

This is especially true of state politics where the formation of political parties itself is based on caste, even though the Supreme Court has banned such parties from carrying out electoral
campaigns on the basis of caste and religion. Politicians use the group sentiments of people to sustain the system by rallying them against real or perceived injustices. They claim success when they are able to secure preferential treatment for their caste.

There is now a competition for backwardness. Even the economically wealthier castes want backward or minority status only for the sake of this political reward. Once again, these rewards end up going to the already powerful in the community. The country, instead of uniting together for greater prosperity and development, gets divided along caste and sub-caste lines because community leaders want to become influential in politics.

The reservation system and the quota system were supposed to ensure that historically disadvantaged groups get a political voice, access to education, and opportunities for state employment. But the same system is now being exploited by politicians for power, and all rhetoric of empowerment lasts only until elections.

As one scholar pointed out, democracy has been replaced by ‘caste-ocracy’. Once elections are over, one sees that the plight of the disadvantaged sections of society remains unchanged. It is now in the hands of the people to put the final nail in the coffin of the caste system by not voting for politicians who play the caste card.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of International Studies & History, Christ University, Bengaluru)

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