Posts Tagged ‘caste politics’

©Tessa Valo, 2007

Introduction: Caste Politics

Though the idea that caste is a part of a natural and moral order of things, that it is a hereditary quality which once for all defines ones position and occupational affiliation and which is associated with a particular law of conduct is rejected both by intellectuals and political leaders, caste is in Indian post independence politics continually used and abused in different ways. On one hand there is a struggle for equality but on the other hand group and caste identities are sharpened and boundaries between groups reinforced. As paradoxical as it may seem, this contradiction is already present in the Indian constitution, which on one hand calls for equality of opportunity and status for all citizens irrespective of caste, sex, religion etc. and on the other hand has a full package of reservations prepared for scheduled castes and tribes, OBCs etc. There is thus an inevitable tension emerging between two basic notions – the notion of individual and the notion of group rights. This tension runs through the whole Indian politics like a red thread, which can be observed in different states in diverse variations according to the composition of society and other important traits, but the principle remains basically the same. “Caste as […] a lived-in social reality is very much alive” (Weiner 2001:195), not only because of its long historical continuity, but precisely also because it is generously nurtured by the political processes and political mobilization which appeals to caste membership. Caste is used “as an instrument for social change. Caste is not disappearing, nor is ‘casteism’ – the political use of caste – for what is emerging in India is a social and political system which institutionalizes and transforms but does not abolish caste” (Weiner 2001:196). The Indian political parties are well aware that to build the electoral support and vote banks it is necessary to appeal to particular castes, tribes and religious communities. The caste rhetoric emerged especially in the context of mobilization of the lower castes especially by the India National Congress, which introduced the system of affirmative action – reservations – for scheduled castes and tribes. The caste thus became especially salient in mobilizing and organizing lower castes – with a long history of social, political and economical discrimination – in their struggle for equality, same opportunities and incorporation into the political system and processes of decision making. “Caste, once an instrument for the maintenance of hierarchy, is, paradoxically, seen as a vehicle for egalitarianism between castes, though not within them.” (Weiner 2001:209). But which type of identity is politically salient of course varies – in a land as great, as stratified, and as pluralistic and heterogeneous as India – over time and territory. While caste identities and Hindu nationalism are now particularly salient in the north of India, regional and linguistic identities are strong in Assam and the states of northeast, class identity and membership serves as a basis for mobilization and political action in Kerala and West Bengal. “Caste has become more salient as a political identity and as an institutionalized element of civil society” (Weiner 2001:220). Not only is caste institutionalized in politics through the system of reservations, which guarantee seats in government, access to educational institutions and employment in the administrative (which is a way how to get into position of political power) for selected – large – segments of society, but caste-based organizations are also emerging within the framework of the civil society. The particular group rights remain a source of conflict between those who support them and those who oppose them – while the forward castes oriented more towards the equality of opportunity than equality of outcome together with Hindu nationalist, who perceive the reservations as creating fission and conflicts within the Indian society which they are trying to unite under the ideology of Hindutva (and thus weakening it in the face of the threat of the Muslim Other), oppose the system of reservations, lower and middle classes mainly support the system of reservations and perceive it as a matter of social justice for victims of the Brahmin dominated caste system. But we must note that the system of reservations has helped mainly those forward within lower castes and was practically incapable of substantially changing the position of the backward in the lower castes. As Weiner notes, “material benefits to the lower castes have largely gone to their more advanced members, some castes (Yadavs, for example) have befitted substantially, others hardly at all, there are growing class divisions within each of the lower castes as the more successful individuals obtain positions in government while others receive few if any benefits” (Weiner 2001: 223). We must also make the point, though we do not have the place to elaborate on it here, that caste was and is linked in diverse ways to the former monarchical structures that are reflected in the patron-client relationships that substantially affect the Indian political scenes (Price 1989) and that questions of honor – again interlinked with the idea of caste in diverse ways – are another essential part of the Indian politics (Price1996 & undated manuscript). After this short introduction we will have a brief look at three examples of the role and meanings of caste in the Indian politics in three states – in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

The Dravidian Movement in Tamil Nadu

The case of Tamil Nadu serves as a good example for conceptualizing caste in a different way than it is traditionally understood, i.e. as a peculiar social institution and a distinguishing feature of the Indian society. This idea is in this context rejected as an orientalist construction and different ways of explanation are sought – the focus is instead on the idea of kingship, which is understood as a more significant influence forming social and political relations (Price 1989; Inden 1986). David Mosse, who did fieldwork among untouchables in Tamil Nadu, thus observes – contrary to the orientalist presupposition – that untouchables understood their own position and status not as a result of some inherent, inborn lowness, but as a result of specific historical conditions (Price 1989:569). The model implicit in the intercaste relations in Tamil Nadu is thus one of kingship – where the status of the overlord is bound to his practical capacity to command the labor of others (the possibility to claim kingly status is thus potentially open to all castemen who have acquired land) and where untouchables serve “as feudal retainers, and symbols of public honor and prestige for their high-caste overlords” (Mosse, cit. in Price 1989:569). Tamil Nadu was one of the first states to witness mobilization of low castes and substantial changes which both reached its peak between 1949 and 1967, when the political party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) which administered the movement won control of the government of Madras. Tamil nationalists (and the DMK speakers) constructed a new conception of Tamil nationalist cosmology which included the notion of honor which was related to the belief that all castes are equal and rejected the idea of ones superiority as based on ones caste status (Price 1996). The Tamil nationalism was thus focused on two main themes – equality and the special nature of Tamils as a people. Another important focus of the Tamil nationalist movement was the emphasis put on education as a mean of promotion of equality – open to all. On the other hand though the Dravidian movement was ideologically committed to the abolition of the caste system, in practice it used caste as a means of political mobilization and thus increasing rather than decreasing its (not only political) significance (Weiner 2001). But it must be admitted that a certain “transition had taken place in people’s conceptions from focus on a hierarchical nature of caste structures to a view of castes as embodying different substances” (Price 1996:366). Though human beings are considered as primarily equal, this fact does not deny the importance of ones rank or prestige, on the other hand, though “the DMK was against caste order […] other orders were suggested in the vision” (Price 1996:373), these developed around a specific notion of dignity, that could be potentially achieved by anyone regardless of caste (though before it was related to ones wealth, authority, caste membership etc.). “The focus on personal status and authority in a domain that one finds in this area is a function of the political particularism of social segmentation, the many informal units (including caste) within which much activity takes place. […] these small-scale sociopolitical units (segments) reproduce themselves partly through the utilization of ideologies which focus on the maintenance of relations of respect/honor for the person or persons who administer the affairs of the unit and manage both its infernal disputes and relationships with the world outside” (Price 1996:378).

The Case of Karnataka and Devaraj Urs

What distinguishes Karnataka from other Indian states is a comparatively higher social cohesion of its society and the fact that though we can find there a significant Muslim minority, clashes between Hindus and Muslims have been very rare. The social changes in the pre-Independence period were rather mild and Karnataka stepped into the post-Independence period without almost any change in patterns of land control and local power. At the local level the most villages have been dominated by two powerful minorities – the vokkaligas and the lingayats – who were mainly peasant proprietors whose wealth came mainly from crop cultivation. These two caste-based segments of society control a great portion of land around the villages; they serve as patrons and money-lenders for their clients and have a relatively high position in the caste system and they also dominate politics at the state level and other supra-levels (Manor 1989). “‘Politics’ still means power relations among persons and groups within the village or circle of villages” (Manor 1989:332). Though the dominance in Karnataka is less oppressive than in other parts of India, “Karnataka’s poorer villagers do perceive inequalities and exploitation are to a large extent products of class differences, but they tend to express this in the language heavily laced with caste clichés” (Manor 1989: 333). Caste is thus a crucial element in the system of dominance that can be observed in Karnataka and is continually reinforced by the present economic inequalities – caste and class differences thus interplay at various levels. A slight change in this trend came with the Chief Minister Devaraj Urs who brought more people from disadvantaged groups into the Congress party (during the elections of 1972) and thus disrupted the control of the dominant groups over the society and control of state politics. He also developed a series of development projects for disadvantaged groups – especially children; and provided houses to the poor. But “his programmes penetrated downward to the grassroots only imperfectly, intermittently and unevenly […]. The result of all this therefore fell short of major social change” (Manor 1989:350). An important point that should be mentioned here about Devaraj Urs is that he adapted the Congress machine politics to modestly progressive purposes (Manor 1989:352). Urs also tried to stimulate caste sentiments in order to develop new political base, he tried to revive old forgotten identities or create them anew and appeal to them. Thus he established diverse caste and group associations, he thus strengthened what he considered as well-rooted divisions in the concrete realities of village life and did not expect them to change in a short time and so he tried to get use of the rising political awareness of the depressed and weak castes. But lingayats and vokkaligas still enjoy and maintain the traditional dominance over the village. “They remain dominant at the local level and there is precious little evidence to suggest that any serious challenge is likely to arise soon to their position, or to the relative cohesion of rural society in Karnataka which is bound up with that system of dominance” (Manor 1989: 357).

Andhra Pradesh and the NTR Phenomenon

Though the trajectories and the situation of the state of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka appear to be similar, there are significant differences. There is a higher level of social tension in Andhra Pradesh. This fact made it much more difficult to create broad coalitions of support among diverse social groups (Manor 2004:274) and the politics itself – especially in the era of N. T. Rama Rao (NTR) and his party Telugu Desam (TDP) – did not appeal to and represent (and did not even have the potential to do so) concrete social groups. NTR as a popular (and populist leader) dominated the government and its “ministers and legislators had few opportunities to channel goods and services to the social groups from which they came and which the TDP needed to cultivate. An interesting example of the caste politics in Andhra Pradesh also in relation to the NTR is the case of Guntur. There exists an enduring conflict between Reddis and Kammas. “The Kammas dominate the district in social and economic spheres” (Kohli 1988:1003). The emergence of NTR (himself being Kamma chief minister; 1983) in this district is conceived as a defeat of Reddis and the emergence of “Kamma raj”. The political structure in Andhra Pradesh thus enabled these caste divisions to be expressed through different parties – the two competing castes allied with two rival parties. NTR thus hardened the caste cleavage already existing.

As we have seen, caste interplays with politics in numerous ways. And though we have not elaborated the examples in detail, we have given an idea of how caste and caste sentiments can be used for political purposes, generating or partially solving conflicts, creating more tensions or on the other hand also tempering them. None of the examples can be generalized and none of them can be considered as representative, but they all shed at least a bit of light on the highly complex position of caste in Indian politics.


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Kohli, Atul. 1988. The NTR Phenomenon in Andhra Pradesh. Political Change in South Indian State. Asian Survey. 28(10):991-1017.

Manor, James. 1989. Karnataka: Caste, Class, Dominance and Politics in a Cohesive Society. In: Framkel, F.R. & Rao, M.S.A. (eds.). Dominance and State Power in Modern India. Decline of a Social Order. Oxford University Press. Pp. 322-361.

Manor, James. 2004. Explaining Political Trajectories in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. In: Jenkins, R. (ed.). Regional Reflections. Comparing Politics Across India’s States. Oxford University press. Pp. 255-284.

Mooij, Jos. 2003. Policy Processes in Andhra Pradesh. In: Smart Governance? Politics in the Policy Process in Andhra Pradesh, India. Overseas Development Institute. Pp. 10-20.

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Price, Pamela. 1996. Revolution and Rank in Tamil Nationalism. Journal of Asian Studies. 55(2):359-383.

Price, Pamela. Ideological Elements in Political Instability in Karnataka: Janata Dal in the late 1990s. Manuscript, University of Oslo.

Suri, K.C. 2002. Politics of Pragmatism. In: Working Paper 180. Democratic Process in Andhra Pradesh, India. Overseas Development Institute. Pp. 37-45.

Weiner, Myron. 2001. The Struggle for Equality: Caste in Indian Politics. In: Kohli, A. (ed.). The Success of India’s Democracy. Cambridge University Press.

Inden, Ronald. 1986. Orientalist Constructions of India. Modern Asian Studies. 20(3):401-446.

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