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Thursday, December 13, 2007

The caste system is not simply an instrument of oppression, as city intellectuals sometimes think

Why intellectuals have no mass base Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar, ET 5 Dec, 2007 Make ET your home page
At a recent book launch (Compendium of Parliamentary Briefs, a collection of briefs prepared for Parliamentarians in 2007 by PRS Legislative services), the keynote speech came from Arun Shourie (BJP). But the star speaker was Amar Singh (SP). He praised the oratory and intellect of Shourie. But, he noted, such intellectuals lacked a political base. Indeed, they had difficulty in getting elected. Chidambaram was a great intellectual, but lacked a mass base and could not always win elections. Manmohan Singh was another such example.
He recalled that when he came to UP from Calcutta, he was told to wear a turban and learn to unsheath a sword. These theatricals helped make him not just Amar Singh but Thakur Amar Singh. The Thakur identity provided a mass political base. Intellectuals and orators had an important place in Parliament, he said. But politics required, above all, people with a mass base. And intellectuals rarely qualified. How true! How sad!
And yet, not long ago, our leaders had both intellect and a mass base — Gandhiji, Nehru, Rajagopalachari, B C Roy, to name just a few. What has changed, and why?
The biggest reason is the erosion of the rule of law. We have legislatures, bureaucracies, police and courts to provide voice and justice to the people. But these institutions are corrupt and dysfunctional. For results, you often need money, muscle and influence. For influence, people look to fellow-members of the same caste, religion or region. This works better than appeals to high principles. This in turn elevates group politics and devalues intellectual principles. This was not always so. The British Raj was racist, favouring whites. But when dealing with issues between Indians, the British administration, police and courts seemed both capable and fair. They were not seen as captured by money, muscle or influence. Nor were they captured by any caste, religion or region.
Today, the police seem incapable of catching resourceful criminals (Dawood Ibrahim, Veerappan). Those caught and tried die of old age before being convicted beyond all appeals (Harshad Mehta for instance). Criminals fill state legislatures and Cabinets precisely because the organs of state cannot jail them. The rule of law has broken down, and people need influence outside the formal institutional framework. This is a key reason for the rise of identity politics. In the 1950s, political parties represented rival ideologies. But recent decades have seen the rise of parties based on caste (BSP, SP, RJD, PMK), religion (BJP, Shiv Sena) and region (AGP, Telegu Desam, BJD). In addition, we have identity-based parties from the old days (Akali Dal, the two DMKs. Kerala’s Christian and Muslim parties). National parties claiming to represent all identities have lost ground.
Let me share with readers a conversation I once had with a police officer in Muzzafarnagar. He said flatly that the police had no time or capacity left for crime detection, since they were stretched fully to manage public order. A local industrialist belonging to the SP did not pay his electricity bills, yet no official dared disconnect his power supply. Due process of law was too slow and distorted to provide voice to all sections of society. Yet, he said, caste reservations and transfers filled the gap in ways that might not be evident.
If a Yadav became the local collector or superintendent of police, local Yadavs obtained greater voice and justice. Dalits benefited similarly when Dalit officials were appointed. Ditto for Brahmins, Muslims, Thakurs and so on. The main issues of life were settled not by impartial process of law but by the discretion of officials and politicians in power. He felt that money, muscle and influence mattered a good deal, but added that influence was not simply individual influence but caste and religious influence too. Hence caste-based reservation was an important issue for everybody. Now, his presentation may be over-simplistic and overlook many other aspects of reality, yet it has a ring or truth. Despite glorious declarations in the Constitution that there shall be no discrimination on the basis of caste or religion, grass-roots reality is rife with such discrimination. Constitutional principles matter little, while caste and religion matter a lot.
The caste system is not simply an instrument of oppression, as city intellectuals sometimes think. Jatis, the operative caste groups at the local level, are self-help groups socially bound to assist members in times of need. They have elaborate internal norms for such assistance. Most jatis are occupational groups (fisherfolk, cobblers and so on), and this buttresses their social cohesion. These have become building blocks of mass politics.
Had India’s organs of state-delivered justice and voice regardless of identity, the traditional identity groups may have withered away. In fact, they have got stronger with the erosion, sometimes paralysis, of formal processes. At Independence, we had fairly strong and well-managed organs of state, though their reach was limited. The British Raj had no politicians, so there was no political interference. But after Independence, political interference first crept and then galloped into the bureaucracy, police and even the courts. This steadily eroded institutional quality and objectivity. Promotions and advancement no longer depended on performance alone, but on extra-constitutional loyalties. The rise of identity-based parties translated into identity politics in the organs of state too. The two trends reinforced one another.
This, then explains the current state affairs described graphically by Amar Singh. Intellectuals do not matter much because the high principles they profess and debate do not get translated into ground reality. What really matters is the ability to deliver outside the formal constitutional framework, and that depends increasingly on identity politics. Politicians are seen as incapable of delivering objective justice for all, but capable of delivering caste quotas and preferences, within and outside the formal system. There remains a place, of some honour, for intellectuals. But a higher place goes to politicians with a mass base. And a mass base in today’s context means identity politics. Jawaharlal Nehru would not have progressed far in such conditions.

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