Caste in India
Could caste politics give way to something more sophisticated?
Oct 22nd 2011 | NOIDA | from the print edition
Untouchable but not intangible
PINK sandstone elephants stand to attention on granite plinths.
Fountains leap, as more elephants squirt jets of water. Within a huge
dome stand sculptures of prominent dalits, formerly known as
untouchables. Most striking is a hefty bronze of the woman who ordered
the place built: Mayawati, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), shown
clutching a giant handbag.
A young visitor, craning his neck, suggests tourists will crowd from
afar to see all this. Many already have. Ms Mayawati herself visited
on October 14th, hurling purple rose petals to inaugurate the dalit
tribute park in Noida, near Delhi, in UP's western tip. She brought
40,000 supporters for the night to celebrate their identity.
Opponents carp at her splurging 6.8 billion rupees ($139m) on a few
acres of grass, some saplings and walls of self-aggrandising
stonework. She retorts, with some justification, that upper-caste
Indian leaders, such as the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, have parks and
museums aplenty. And, she says, since dalits have been abused by their
countrymen for centuries, there is immeasurable value in gestures to
lift their caste pride.
In four spells as chief minister she has done plenty of that. Several
thousand statues have gone up, mostly of herself, of former dalit
leaders and of elephants—the symbol of her Bahujan Samaj Party. Her
backers are largely the lowest-caste,who vote by identity and relish
success achieved by one of their own. With over 40m dalits in UP
alone, Mayawati's political strategy has looked shrewd.
But her opponents, sensing a recent shift away from voting by caste in
neighbouring Bihar state, are hoping otherwise. They see the lives of
many dalits changing fast, especially for those flocking to urban
areas like Noida to do casual labour, shedding jobs as sweepers or
tanners that once defined them as outcasts. Such economic mobility may
weaken their caste identity, as could better education. And more than
half of dalit families in some poor parts of UP depend for their money
on remittances from urban migrants. So plenty of voters may yet come
to care more about development, misrule and corruption than about
If so, they have much to grumble over. The state, home to huge numbers
of poor, runs a big deficit, has wretched roads and public services.
While Ms Mayawati partied in the park, television news showed
underfunded health workers in eastern UP struggling to combat an
outbreak of encephalitis that has recently killed several hundred
people, mostly children. Now the Central Bureau of Investigation hints
that it will at last prosecute Ms Mayawati for corruption over
evidence of huge growth in her personal assets.
Voters will soon have their say, as Ms Mayawati must call state
elections within months. Since UP is huge—with 200m people, it is as
populous as Brazil—these are treated as test-runs for national
elections, which must follow by 2014. The UP vote is wide open. Ms
Mayawati vies to be a national figure, perhaps even India's first
dalit prime minister. Rivals seek to split off dalit sub-castes. Rahul
Gandhi, a Congress Party scion, campaigns among all the state's
castes, including dalits.
Beneath the changes and the politicking, caste still has a firm hold
on politics. Harsh Mander, a social activist who has surveyed ongoing
untouchability, talks of "dismaying" caste divisions. He cites a study
of ten states which found dalit children fed separately from their
peers in over a third of rural schools. Statistics suggest dalit
poverty, infant mortality and illiteracy are much worse than the
There are more hopeful studies, though. One of them, designed and run
by dalit researchers including Chandra Bhan Prasad, who works for the
University of Pennsylvania, suggests "huge" changes in dalit social
life in UP. The researchers tracked stark new consumer, dietary,
grooming and work habits among dalits in two districts. In one, where
only 3% of dalits had used toothpaste in 1990, 82% did so by 2007.
Those who ate tomatoes rose from 3% to 57%. In another area only 23%
of dalits reported sitting with guests of other castes at weddings in
1990, but, by 2007, 91% did so. The studies are now being repeated in
five more areas,
Seemingly trivial, such trends in fact describe a rapid weakening of
caste identity, says Mr Prasad. He praises the arrival of
"caste-neutral" jobs such as delivering pizzas, and says visible
consumerism that shows wealth is quickly becoming more important as a
sign of status than caste. "You can be any caste you like, but if you
don't have a mobile phone you are nobody", he says. If so, pink
elephants and bronze statues may prove less effective in getting out
the dalit vote.
Get all ZESTCaste mails sent out in a span of 24 hours in a single mail. Subscribe to the daily digest version by sending a blank mail to ZESTMediafirstname.lastname@example.org, OR, if you have a Yahoo! Id, change your settings at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ZESTMedia/join/
On this list you can share caste news, discuss caste issues and network with like-minded anti-caste people from across India and the world. Just write to email@example.com
TELL FRIENDS TO SIGN UP:-
If you got this mail as a forward, subscribe to ZESTCaste by sending a blank mail to ZESTCastefirstname.lastname@example.org OR, if you have a Yahoo! ID, by visiting http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ZESTCaste/join/
Also have a look at our sister list, ZESTMedia: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ZESTMedia/Yahoo! Groups Links
<*> To visit your group on the web, go to:
<*> Your email settings:
Individual Email | Traditional
<*> To change settings online go to:
(Yahoo! ID required)
<*> To unsubscribe from this group, send an email to:
<*> Your use of Yahoo! Groups is subject to: