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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 45, October 30, 2010

How to Meet the Caste Challenge in Politics

Saturday 30 October 2010, by Chaturanan Mishra

Caste-based regional political parties have come up because the Central Government did not address the problem of regional backwardness. Such regional parties may appear to give the impression of democracy reaching the people down below. But there is one big danger: such regional parties may lead to the balkanisation of the country if they turn into separatist movements as in Kashmir, the North-East region, Bodoland etc. The threat to national unity springing from this phenomenon should be brought to the knowledge of our people. Our history teaches us that such a balkanised India twice led to enslavement—once by the Muslim invaders and then by the British with a few thousand forces.

Even today the country mates out the worst treatment to the Scheduled Castes. And the frequent killings of the SCs are already being discussed in the United Nations Organisation which is examining if these stem from something similar to racial discrimination as in South Africa. If we fail to check such crimes we could well be treated like South Africa. This will turn out to be a national insult. This too needs to be brought to the knowledge of the people.

My earlier thinking was that with the penetration of politics and not religion into the caste hierarchy, castes would gradually get weakened since politics brings about such change quite often. But the khap killings in Haryana and the support these are drawing from the masses alongside the hesitation of the Congress Chief Minister and other parties to staunchly oppose and wage a concerted struggle against such a scourge presents quite a different and alarming picture dangerous to both our secular politics and the Constitution. Herein also lies the threat to national unity. Likewise the largescale killing of the girl child—even when the female foetus is in the womb of the mother—in that very region and the absence of any social movement against this inhuman crime denotes a movement in the opposite direction.

These pernicious developments urgently demand a social movement for reforming caste thinking and caste-based politics. The need of the hour is a social forum to launch a social reform movement at the panchayat level; and this brooks no delay.

THE upper-caste people must first be told in no uncertain terms that their mindset has to radically change—their idea that they can continue as in the olden times is not only retrograde, but such functioning in today’s context is next to impossible. The backwards and Dalits will never accept their domination as in the past. The old concept that the socially downtrodden were condemned to their low status due to the sins in their past life has gone forever. Secondly, our Constitution, Parliament and State legislatures as well as the governments will never allow them to get their old supremacy restored. Hence it is in their own interest that they completely abandon that thinking as soon as possible and take the lead in fighting untouchability and other regressive discriminatory traditions as well as bringing about social and economic change side by side with weeding out corruption among government servants at least at the local level. They should be made to understand that these steps on their part will earn them respectability. Thus a campaign among the upper castes on these lines is absolutely imperative.

Learned Professor Sachindra, in his book Sujat Bharat, has extensively quoted from Marx, Engels and several famous historians as also Hindu religious texts while collecting lots of materials for studying the caste system. But in his conclusion to destroy the caste system he has suggested the creation of a Sujat system by the government. I am not opposed to making all facilities for ensuring inter-caste marriages but I fear the proposal to create Sujat will result in adding one more caste. This happened in our history too: various saints, who tried to end the caste system, actually set up new castes like Kabir-panthi, Bouddha, Jain, Sikh etc.

Caste has its own importance. A person belonging to any specific caste finds her/his own history, her/his forefathers’ history, discovers important personalities of that particular caste, gets to know her/his own importance in her/his community etc., and these she/he does not like to destroy. Under the caste system it is easy to find boys and girls for marriage. Castes have different gods like Vishwakarma, Salmesh and others. There are kuldevatas as well. Apart from the gotra, there is the diyadi system, different marriage systems et al. Hence the immediate call should not be for destroying castes. Despite Prof Sachindra’s objection to the reservation system for SCs, STs, backwards and others like women, it has to remain in place and there is no doubt that it has helped these sections to quite an extent. By giving examples of the improved positions of those who availed the reservation facility one can fight the strong conviction among large segments of people that the condition of those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder is because of their deeds in previous life.

The thinking that only struggles on economic issues or changes in the people’s economic condition will weaken and eventually end the caste system is not true. Take the case of us in the CPI. Despite launching successful struggles for land to Dalits and backwards in Bihar and UP, we lost our mass base and many backward and Dalit cadres to Lalooji and Mulayamji.

As the Chief Minister Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh took several economic measures like distribution of government land (including charagah land) to the Dalits. Dalits were also given the option to open primary schools in their areas and appoint teachers of their choice to be paid by the government. But at the time of election the Dalits voted for the BSP and he (Digvijay Singh) was defeated.

This only shows that with economic measures alone one can’t effectively fight casteism.

The author, a veteran Communist leader, was the Union Agriculture Minister in the United Front Governmentat at the Centre (1996-98). He was also the President of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) for sometime.

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