Caste still counts


An important subtext of the popular narrative of change in Indian politics has been the decline of caste. Caste has always been seen as a ‘problem’ for the functioning of democratic politics in India. In popular view, its presence in public life has been an indication of India’s continued backwardness. Wily political entrepreneurs have kept it alive because of the ignorance and tradition-bound behaviour of the Indian voter.

The rapid economic growth ushered in by liberalisation has succeeded in bringing about a significant change in Indian society. Over the past two decades, a new middle-class identity has become the dominant normative. Even the poor dalit desperately wishes to move out of the traditional agrarian economy and rural landscape to newer occupations and opportunities offered by the urban economy. This change has been widely viewed as a great transformative moment that has the potential of making Indians forget caste and become truly modern.

This, however, is a delusion. The protests by dalits remind us of the continued significance of caste in India. Those who have traditionally been in dominant positions have also been mobilising their caste identities to secure gains. The agitations by Patidars in Gujarat and Jats in Haryana demanding the inclusion of their caste in the list of Other Backward Classes are examples of this.

I am not arguing that the continued significance of caste is an indication of a complete absence of change in society, or that the growth of Indian economy has had no impact on political and social life. On the contrary, the manner in which the caste question is being framed by dalits is a direct outcome of the processes of economic change.

In other words, caste remains a mediating reality in the process of economic growth. At another level, this also implies that caste exists not merely in our minds, but also in material realities. It has shaped distribution of land, capital and culture. Those differences and disparities shape opportunities and resources that different communities have at their command when they come to play their part in the economy, polity and everyday social life.

It is not only to dalits and backward communities that caste matters. Those on the other end also work towards protecting their inherited privileges, which is often done through the language merit.

Jodhka is professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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