Caste and Politics in India


A Downtrodden Woman

Posted on 1-July-2009

     On 3rd June this year, Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament elected Mrs. Meira Kumar as its Speaker. She is the daughter of Jagjivan Ram, who was born into the chamar caste, one of the untouchable castes of India. Rising from the extremely deprived circumstances of the caste of his birth, he became a prominent leader of the Indian National Congress in pre- and post independence India.  Well regarded as a leading member of the depressed classes, a skillful politician and an efficient administrator, he served as a minister in Government of India almost without interruption from 1946 to 1979. He died  a wealthy man in 1986.

     In the days preceding Mrs. Kumar's election, Indian media almost unanimously highlighted two of her personal characteristics,--suggesting directly or indirectly that these were determinant in the decision of her political party to propose her name for the Speaker's post: that she is a woman and that she is a dalit. After her election as Speaker, the Prime Minister of India said in parliament, while congratulating Mrs. Kumar, that the occasion was historic because a woman and a dalit had been elected Speaker. If he said anything else about Mrs. Kumar's other qualifications for that important office, he said it so softly that it was not heard. Now to the ears of anyone sensitive to the common meaning of the Hindi/Sanskrit word dalit as downtrodden--in spite of the trend over the last two or three decades to use the word dalit in Indian political discourse to indicate the untouchable castes, the common meaning of the word still prevails--the description of Mrs. Kumar, who was raised in the house of her government minister father, herself a lady of substantial financial worth, as a dalit must sound jarring.

     An uncharitable view of the Indian Prime Minister's words describing Mrs. Kumar's election would be to call them graceless. He found no words of praise about the new Speaker's personal or political attainments and the two most important reasons for her choice as Speaker that he highlighted had both to do with accidents of her birth: her gender and her caste. It is not known how Mrs. Kumar felt hearing the Prime Minister's words but probably many in her place would have felt insulted. A more generous view of the Prime Minister's remarks would be that he was being surprisingly candid. By saying what he did the Prime Minister openly spelt out the political calculations that led to his party's decision to propose Mrs. Kumar for the Speaker's office which was to appeal to two constituencies: women and the untouchable castes. A more wily politician would have clothed his statements differently.

     At the last Indian general election, held in April and May this year, political parties which drew sustenance from support among different caste, religious or regional groups  did less well than forecast  by all kinds of know-alls. Journalists, political pundits and assorted commentators, ever ready to come out with instant analyses, generalisations, canned wisdom or simply profound sounding inanities ascribed this to the rejection by the Indian voter of "sectarian politics" rather than look for the simpler explanation which is that the Indian voter, like voters elsewhere, tends to vote against those seen as corrupt and those seen as guilty of misrule. As if  the calculations of the Indian National Congress in naming Mrs. Kumar for the Speaker's post were not enough to prove the pundits and their ilk wrong, the BJP, the main opposition party in Lok Sabha which was given the privilege of naming the Deputy Speaker, chose Mr. Karia Munda, almost certainly calculating that in doing so they would increase their following among another depressed group in India: those known as the scheduled tribes.

     Whether or not and to what extent voters in Indian elections vote on the basis of caste loyalties or of loyalties to their religious communities, preferring a candidate of their own caste or religious community over another, is not always clear. But a number of studies suggest that political parties without exception, while selecting candidates for elections or in choosing people for different offices have more often than not been by guided by demographics of caste in different constituencies or by their belief that naming members of different caste or religious groups to different offices would earn them the loyalty and support of those caste or religious groups. Such calculations are routinely made by "national parties" as much as by "caste based" parties. The result is that competition among political parties for influence among caste groups often creates frictions and violence between castes. The result also is that caste boundaries show no sign of becoming more blurred. Nor is there any sign that caste and religious community as definers of loyalty and identity are losing their importance in the calculations of political parties. Such calculations are there to stay for many years.

Linked Article:

Affirmative Action to Help the Dalit in India

Also on this site:               Introduction to The Waste Sad Time             The Waste Sad Time



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