Wednesday, March 7, 2012

[ZESTCaste] Joseph Tharamangalam: Caste in politics is linked to grim realities

Joseph Tharamangalam: Caste in politics is linked to grim realities
March 08, 2012

Why is caste such a dominant feature of Indian social life? According
to Andre Beteille, in his article "India's destiny not caste in
stone," Feb 21, it is because of electoral politics and the media
which keep caste alive. India's constitution may also have played a
role. While creating a nation of citizens and citizenship rights it
also kept caste alive. Outside of politics many changes, slow but
steady, have transformed caste practices and caste consciousness in
such areas as inter-dining, inter-caste marriages and caste-based

That the forces of modernisation are associated with what sociologists
call a move from particularistic to universalistic forms of social
relations is a generally accepted view and should come as no surprise.
We saw this happen in India with the coming of the railways which
simply could not provide separate coaches for different castes.

So let us grant that the changes Beteille notes are taking place with
the caveat that he may be over-stating the case. The fact that the
more than three lakh manual scavengers of India are almost exclusively
drawn from Dalit communities must provoke some serious thinking about
the issue. It would also be interesting to know much inter-dining and
how many inter-caste marriages have taken place in the Tamil Nadu
village where Beteille did his PhD research some six decades ago.

To restrict access: The problem with Beteille's argument is that it
ignores some critical dimensions of caste that doggedly persist and
perhaps underpin some India-specific features of the country's
development path. These dimensions are sustained by a material base
defined by vastly different control over resources and the means of
coercion. These are now deployed, not so much to enforce rules of
purity/pollution, but to restrict access to vast numbers of Dalits and
Other Backward Classses (OBC) to resources and opportunities old and

The politics of caste cannot be understood if seen outside this
context and delinked from these realities.

Social indicators: A widely noted paradox about India's development
can shed some light on the endemic deprivations suffered by the lower
castes. Despite its high growth India fares very poorly in almost all
measures of social indicators provided by major international and
Indian organisations (e.g., the Human Development Index or HDI, the
Multiple Poverty Index or MPI, the Global Hunger Index or GHI) in
comparison with developing countries at the same or even lower levels
of economic growth and per capita GDP.

Its low HDI ranking (119 in a list of 169 in 2010 — compared with
China's 89) is attributable to its exceptionally low indicators of
basic education and health. It ranks particularly low in such measures
as Infant Mortality Rates, malnutrition, underweight and stunted
children and pregnant women who are underweight and anaemic. Even more
scandalous is India's ranking in the GHI with a ranking of 66 out of,
below even its south Asian neighbours except Bangladesh; the country
is home to the single largest pool of hungry people in the world, 255
million who make up 21 per cent of its population.

The MPI provides a similar scenario; 455 million making up 55 per cent
of the population, are MPI poor and eight Indian states contain more
MPI poor people than 26 of the poorest African countries combined.

Behind these figures are two significant facts about Indian society:
first the country has an unusually large underclass, and second,
prominently figured in this class are the lower castes (especially the
Dalits) and the Scheduled tribes. In all the relevant social indictors
the figures are considerably worse (difference of 10 per cent or more)
for these groups.

For example, while 55 per cent of Indians are MPI poor the figures for
SCs and STs are 65.8 and 81.4 respectively. Note also that the worst
performing states are generally the ones with high proportions of SCs
and STs.

System of violence: The abysmal socio-economic condition of the lower
castes is not a random occurrence but is embedded in historically
inherited structures that have resisted radical change. India's
historical failures — aborted land redistribution, neglected
agriculture (except during the Green Revolution period of
the1960s-70s) and a soft approach in attacking caste iniquities — have
helped to maintain these structures. In this context it is interesting
to look at another enigma in India's trajectory, its very poor record
in primary education (e.g. in contrast to East Asia) during the same
period when it made great strides in scientific, technical and other
forms of higher education spawning the now famous Indian middle class.

One explanation for this massive failure is that early planners
pursued a misguided view that it was the latter forms of education
that India needed for rapid economic development. But there is another
explanation in which caste figures as a factor. A benign version of
this view is that upper caste Indians, following their habits of the
hearts, simply did not see the merit of educating the lower castes.

A less benign version argues that the project of educating the low
castes may have met with resistance from the upper castes who feared
that such a project and consequent upward mobility of the lower castes
would jeopardise the control and management of their low caste
workers, dependents and servants. Having done fieldwork in rural Bihar
and observed such dynamics at work, I see some merit in this last

Finally, it is important to note that this structure is maintained not
just by ideology and pollution rules but also by considerable
violence. It is indeed a system of structural violence manifested by
constant threats and periodic outbursts of physical violence employed
by land owing upper castes threatened by changes in established
relationships and also by the lower castes who dare to resist or
retaliate. "Atrocities against Dalits" — ranging from murder, rape and
arson to such humiliating practices as parading Dalit women naked in
the village and making the victims consume human excreta, are
reasonably well documented.

India's parliamentarians regarded these as serious enough to enact the
"Atrocities against Dalit Act" in 1989. While the effectiveness of the
act is disputed, Dalit activists insist that the act cannot be
implemented without political pressure from below.

In the wake of recent patterns of economic growth that are further
marginalising rural dwellers and agricultural labourers, concerned
activists and scholars such as Amartya Sen (whose famous studies on
Indian famines have noted the disproportionately high numbers of
Dalits victims in Indian famines) have called for the building of
"countervailing power" through better political organisation of
underprivileged groups.

What, then can we make of Beteille's suggestion that caste would
simply have disappeared if only it had been kept out of the domains of
politics and the media? To be sure, he has an important case about the
misuse of caste by self-serving politicians and media persons. But the
prescription for depoliticisation of caste is surely a non-starter.
Perhaps a better route would be the one traversed by Kerala where the
political mobilisation of the lower castes was integrated into broader
rational-legal and universalistic forms of organisations across caste,
community and religion into modern forms of trade unions and parties.

Yes, we have abolished untouchability, the need today is to abolish
the material base of the system that sustained untouchability, now
spawning newer forms of discrimination and violence.


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