UP Elections: The persistence of caste

May 11, 2007

Rediff messed up my name and took out something I said about women politicians throwing tantrums (eg. Jayalalitha and Mamta Banerjee), but here it is:


UP Elections: The persistence of caste

Rajeev Srinivasan

Mayawati’s landslide victory in Uttar Pradesh will no doubt encourage the chatterati to pontificate sagely about caste. They will nod their heads ruefully suggesting that, if only, if only, jati were to disappear, the Millennium would surely be upon us! They will also trot out, on TV, canned videos of alleged harassment of low-castes, and suggest that the BSP will forthwith put those uppity upper-caste people in their place.

The reality is that Mayawati’s rule will be a little stormy, as in the past. For reasons best known to themselves, female politicians in India tend to be capricious and throw tantrums (Exhibits A and B: Jayalalitha and Mamta Banerjee) and generally create havoc. We can expect many arbitrary and peremptory actions, including the revival of that shopping mall at the Taj Mahal. And large doses of competitive victimhood: makes for good copy, but it’s pretty meaningless.

The pontificators will also forget that, far from eliminating caste, what Mayawati has achieved is the actual consolidation of those at the top and the bottom end of the caste hierarchy, the Brahmins and the Harijans. She had realized that her traditional vote-bank of Harijans and Mohammedans wasn’t going to cut it, especially given the desperate pandering to Mohammedans by her main rival Mulayalam Singh Yadav. Kudos to Mayawati for deft use of the persistence of caste.

It has become a conditioned reflex for Indians to believe that caste is unremittingly evil. But jati and varnam are merely a codification of the fact that all humans are not born equal in their endowments: some are tall, some are fat, some are musically talented, and so on. Caste is about the ruthless Bell Curve, and is about as inescapable as race. It is neither good nor bad; it just is (casteism, however, is reprehensible, just as racism is.) In fact, caste must be useful, which is why it has survived for so long; and Mohammedans and especially Christians are enthusiastic practitioners of ideas similar to casteism in India and elsewhere: they revel in in-group-out-group dynamics and discrimination.

What Mayawati has demonstrated (and this has been shown time and time again) is that caste is an excellent mechanism for collective bargaining, wherein a group member has a better chance than an unattached individual. Jati acts as a trade union, with members attempting to grab more than its fair share of the pie that hasn’t grown, because of the dirigiste and suffocating nature of the Indian State.

It is entertaining that allegedly egalitarian Communist states too have their castes: rulers’ offspring get the plum jobs. Not too many children of Politburo members toil in the gulags of China, or have their organs harvested on demand. A recent report showed that 90% of China’s millionaires are relatives of high-level party bureaucrats. Such a fine job they are doing of collective bargaining to line their own pockets!

To go back to Mayawati, she has shrewdly figured out the real issues behind the rhetoric of caste relations. It would be amusing if it weren’t tragic that a lot of the chatterati have convinced themselves that the real problem is between the lowest and the highest jatis, and about how the former want to be just like the latter.

This is complete nonsense, because people of any jati are generally not looking to go up and down in the hierarchy of jatis. They are content with their existing in-group, even if they belong to a relatively ‘low’ jati. It is the belonging that matters; this is one of the signal differences between the atomized and unhappy citizens of Western countries and the relatively better-adjusted Indians.

It is also a fact that hardly any members of ‘low’ jatis are looking to become priests, although this is a war-cry raised by the usual suspects. In Kerala, there are seminaries where anybody can train to be a temple priest, but nobody is queuing up for the opportunity. Most people have a healthy attitude towards priest-hood: it’s like any other skilled occupation where you hire someone trained in it, if you are not capable of or not interested in doing it – much like you hire a lawyer, an architect, or a doctor.

Mayawati has created the first Hindu vote-bank by linking the top and bottom of the jati chain. It is the OBC jatis who have the numbers everywhere, and they have, after sustained agitation, managed to grab the levers of power in many places, a brilliant example being the stranglehold on power they have in Tamil Nadu. This however, means that the OBCs are corrupted, based on the dictum that power corrupts. Exhibit A is once again Tamil Nadu, where three innocent bystanders in a newspaper office were just burned to death in an internecine battle for political spoils in the DMK.

Mayawati has shown that there are many ways to skin a cat: by creating the Brahmin-Harijan vote bank, with a few Mohammedan votes thrown in, she has handily outmaneuvered the OBC-dominated Samajwadi Party. The question of the hour is whether others can follow suit. For instance, the BJP did not see this emerging trend and take advantage of it. Will they, now?

Caste is not going to go away. It is, if anything, strengthening, even in the cities, contrary to the facile Communist idea that it will disappear over time. Caste is useful, in a very real sense. If the Indian economic pie had grown so rapidly that there was no need for collective bargaining, caste would have lost some of its economic rationale (see my earlier column Reservations: The Economic Factor http://www.rediff.com/news/2006/may/10rajeev.htm ). As things stand, study after study has shown that some of the biggest success stories in business in India are really stories of caste-members helping each other out: for instance, the industrious Gounders who have built up the multi-billion dollar textile powerhouse in Tirupur.

Those who recognize the value of caste and utilize it will thrive; those who do not fall by the wayside. Mayawati has just proven this in UP.

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7 Responses to “UP Elections: The persistence of caste”

  1. rmathews Says:

    But jati and varnam are merely a codification of the fact that all humans are not born equal in their endowments: some are tall, some are fat, some are musically talented, and so on. Caste is about the ruthless Bell Curve, and is about as inescapable as race. It is neither good nor bad; it just is (casteism, however, is reprehensible, just as racism is.)
    =========================
    Codification of fact? And why should these “facts” be codified? Are you saying that the offspring of a night soil worker are only capable of carrying nightsoil? I thought capitalism and democracy helped ensure that those of a higher calibre were most successful. Why do we need this to be codified other than to preserve the status quo?

    I see you have covered your bases well by saying that “casteism” is reprehensible – Its pretty clear from what you’ve written that that is definitely NOT what you’re thinking

    Have you done a survey among various jatis to find out exactly what their social mobility needs are? How do you know they are not looking to go anywhere?

    The argument about the communist elite is as most of your arguments and “facts” are pretty ludicrous

    Maybe you haven’t been living in the 21st Century – Facts as you call them need to be independently corroborated

    Rajeev – once again you have made an art out of making inane arguments and citing non existent facts

    Its pretty clear from your article which end of the Bell Curve you’re on

    I’m an atheist but I suppose only God can help us if you are as you claim to be an alumni of one of the IIT’s – Please lets bring on reservation

  2. dhara Says:

    The Jati and Varna is about creating magnificient and granduer civillization, that can inspire certain voltire of europe even when under serious attack.

    People think it is about nigh soils, about racial wars as they do in europe, about slaughters, conversion, progress and so on.

    Mathews picked on one such idea, where as it was an uncoomon thing for many to use toilets at the start of century, unless one stayed in cities( less than 5%) of population. People engaged for carrying night soil would be 0.00001% of the population, and we agree that they were not engaged in philosophy or trade.

    Why people go to that insignificant number, when avoiding bigger slauthers by imperial cults ? What they hide ?

  3. dhara Says:

    While the european colonists have covered their base in night soil argument ( they have killed thousand times more humans in europ only, forget about the animals they slaughter), the humble article by Rajeev is a good one to make some people rethink about their campaign against the Jews.

  4. dhara Says:

    Few in India would dare to talk against arrogant editors, and what goes behind imposing various political correct ideas. Thanks for the small favours in posting the unedited article. for rediff, all are not empowered to talk against an woman politician even if she throws tantrums.

  5. rmathews Says:

    Rajeev – isn’t it obvious from quality of comments that you’re “supporters” leave both in Rediff and on this site that the whole Bell Curve theory is utter nonsense.

    Its pretty obvious that the vast majority of you’re supporters are from the so called Upper Castes

    See the example of “Rational”, “Educated” and “Intelligent” thought above – Not one meaningful, well thought out, reasoned argument.

    Do you take classes for these people? Because they sure sound like they’ve learnt from a master

  6. abhishek01 Says:

    Of late, inspired by a few successive articles, a couple of ‘lords of the nightsoil’ have sprung up in the media.

    It is quite common these days to link the wretchedness of every individual to caste. The underlying assumptions are that firts, there is no upper caste living in wretched conditions, and second, it is not the corrupt and criminally negligent government departments responsible for this – it is upper castes and the most evil of them -brahmins.

    A few weeks back I was reading about how there are still nightsoil carriers in the railways. This department has had reservations for ages now, at all levels, to the tune of half of its workforce, and so many high ranking officials from SC/ST/OBC but the limits of their laziness is such that they have done absolutely nothing for the lot of these people. And still casteim/ upper castes are responsible!

    To improve the lot of everyone is a tough job. Blaming castesim for our combined failure in all departments of governenace and civility is not going to serve any purpose.

  7. rmathews Says:

    I agree with you Abhishek – You are absolutely spot on when you say that caste is often blamed for govt failures. My nightsoil argument was aimed at Rajeev’s moronic “Caste is a Bell Curve” theory.

    My argument is that why should it be codified. If you are intelligent and Hard working in a democratic capitalist society you will be recognised.

    The level of effort you put in will automatically determine your status in society. Your future doesn’t need to be set in stone based on who your father is or was


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