Posted: Tue, Jan 24 2012. 11:30 PM IST
How caste matters and doesn't matter
Although caste is indeed one of the operative parameters of Punjab
politics, there seems to be very little competition among the caste
communities of Punjab
Expert View | Surinder S. Jodhka
Bahujan Samaj Party (BJP) leader and Uttar Pradesh chief minister
Mayawati has urged the electorate of Punjab to vote for her party's
candidates in state assembly elections to fulfil the dream of BSP
founder Kanshi Ram.
The late Kanshi Ram, who has become a symbol of contemporary Dalit
assertion and political success, was born in Punjab and was active in
the state's politics for a long time. Notwithstanding its newly
projected image of being a party of all, the sarvjan, the core
constituency of the BSP has been and continues to be scheduled castes
(SCs), or Dalits.
Together, the 39 SC communities of Punjab constitute nearly 29% of the
total population of the state, close to double the national average.
With such a large population, they are perhaps the largest cluster of
caste communities of Punjab.
However, the BSP has hardly ever posed a challenge to the mainstream
political parties of Punjab. This time, too, there is little hope of
the party winning any seats. How do we explain this puzzle in a
democracy where "caste" and "community" frame the grammar of politics?
Or does this raise questions about the common sense of electoral
The modernist leadership of India had a very clear notion of
democratic politics. It was to be based on the idea of the individual
citizen. The ties of community and caste were to be forgotten with
time. This was not only a desirable state of things, but also a part
of the natural and inevitable process of evolutionary change. Modern
technology, industrialization and urbanization were to destroy all
"parochial" community ties. This, they believed, was what had already
happened in the West. There was no reason to think the trajectory of
change in India would be any different. Even someone like B.R.
Ambedkar, who always suspected the intentions of the largely upper
caste-dominated nationalist leadership, hoped that modernization and
urbanization would help the Dalits get out of the villages and break
free from the oppressive social structure of caste.
Democratic politics and even the modernization process have, however,
unfolded very differently. Soon after India introduced electoral
politics, sociologists and political scientists reported that not only
was democratic politics failing to destroy caste, but caste was in
fact going through a process of transmutation and seemed to be
surviving very comfortably with the electoral process. Individual
caste communities were getting into horizontal alliances and forming
what sociologist M.N. Srinivas described as "vote banks". Soon, a new
common sense of caste and democratic politics emerged.
By the 1980s, caste and electoral politics had become virtually
inseparable. From the lay public to the psephologists of popular media
and serious academic analysts, nearly everyone began to treat caste as
the most important variable influencing democratic politics in India.
According to this common sense, caste communities competed with each
other and determined electoral outcomes. Even when they did not
directly participate in electoral politics, they operated as pressure
groups and influenced the governance agenda of the Indian state at the
local, regional and national levels. Over the last three or four
decades, several political parties have come to be identified with
specific caste communities.
Punjab appears to be an odd case in this national framework of caste
politics. Although caste is indeed one of the operative parameters of
Punjab politics, there seems to be very little competition among the
caste communities of Punjab. The Jats, who constitute only around
one-fourth of the state electorate, have remained virtually
unchallenged. The last non-Jat who could become chief minister of the
state was Giani Zail Singh, and that was way back in the 1970s. The
two major political parties, the Congress and the Akalis, are both
Jat-led and Jat-dominated. Even the Khalistan movement was largely a
A more surprising fact about caste in Punjab is the virtual absence of
a challenge from the Dalits. Notwithstanding the positive effect of
Sikhism and Islam on the nature and practice of untouchability in the
region, the Punjabi Dalits have been quite a deprived population. Even
though they are mostly rural, less than 1% of all the agricultural
land is owned or tilled by them. In an agrarian society, land
determines everything. Even though the Dalits of Punjab are less
likely to be below the national poverty line, in relative terms their
deprivation is quite stark, and in comparison to other communities
they stand far below.
Interestingly enough, Punjab has also been witness to some of the most
vibrant mobilizations by the Dalits. From the Ad Dharm movement of the
1920s to the recent movement for a separate Ravidassia religion, the
Dalits of Punjab have often asserted their distinct identity.
Yet, the BSP seems to be an insignificant force in the regional
politics of Punjab, although it succeeded in rising to power in Uttar
Pradesh. How can we make sense of this? The answer perhaps lies in the
way we have come to understand caste and the excessive heuristic value
that we tend to attribute to it.
Notwithstanding its significance in the social and economic life of
Punjab, caste has not been an idiom of Punjab politics. The dominant
idioms of regional politics are shaped historically. Thanks to its
history of partition and communal divide, the most dominant idiom of
the politics of Punjab has been that of religious communities—the
dynamic of communal relations between the Sikhs and the Hindus. The
second important idiom of politics has been the region—the dynamics of
relationship between Punjab and the Centre. And the third important
idiom has been the social and economic class. At the local level in
the region, caste seems to be closely tied to class, perhaps much more
strongly than elsewhere.
Jat power is reproduced through a constellation of all these factors,
and as of now remains unchallenged in Punjab.
Surinder S. Jodhka is professor of sociology and chair of the Centre
for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal
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