A story to two caste struggles

The Dalit fighting for rights still upholds the universality of citizenship. The dominant castes insisting on consolidating their privileges reduce democracy to the worst kind of parochial politics

Politics cannot be studied as a mere set of facts as if they are little nuggets to be polished and examined on their own. Politics needs frameworks which provide ways for interpretation and understanding. One senses the need for this when one watches the sudden explosion of upper caste agitations. An ethnography of these demonstrations alone is not enough. One has to see them as statements of values, of the manner in which democracy is seen and assessed. One can see three visions of democracy contesting and overlapping with each other.

A politics of anxiety

The early socialist vision saw democracy as a place where rights to quality were worked out, where the marginal and minority groups used the democratic process to be empowered as citizens. Such a vision is captured in the careers of B.R. Ambedkar and Ram Manohar Lohia. The second kind of vision inaugurated after the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power was a majoritarian vision, where electoralism was a consolidation of numbers. The transition from democracy as a value to a fact of demography becomes obvious here. There is a third kind of contest emerging where democracy, like the market, becomes a competitive game, where right loses to might and democracy becomes a fragile Hobbesian word.

Here the battle is not for justice to the downtrodden but a search for consolidation and privilege. Quotas and reservation no longer embody a search for justice, but an interest group politics where the powerful seek to accumulate more power. There is a mirror inversion of concepts like justice, victimhood, fairness as these same concepts are used by higher castes in a new “Alice in Wonderland” way, where they insist words mean what they say.

There is a politics of anxiety played out by the upper class who see democracy not as a framework of universal values but as a basis for consolidating a parochial world. The contrast is stark between a Dalit or tribal battling for rights and the demands of upper castes such as Patels, Jats and Marathas. The logic of the scripts and the nature of political dramas is radically different. First, the Dalits’ protests for rights have the character of an appeal. They are seeking to go beyond deprivation. The upper caste protests convey a sense of threat, of aggression and violence. For Dalits, democracy is a value; for upper castes it appears relevant as long as it sustains them instrumentally in power. If democracy does not work, it can be discarded like an old piece of tissue or a rag.

The body languages of the two dramas are different. One acts as a shareholder threatening to sell his shares or dismiss the directors if the firm fails to show profit. The marginals speak the language of suffering, deprivation and pain. The dominant castes utter the language of privilege, of consolidation. Rights meet a mentality of consolidation. One creates a politics of consensus, protest and persuasion, the other engages in a game of threat, preferring democracy as a zero-sum game. The Dalit fighting for rights still upholds the universality of citizenship. The dominant castes insisting on consolidating their privileges reduce democracy to the worst kind of parochial politics, a bullyboy spectacle which makes democracy appear empty and ironic. One sees this drama enacted with ruthless clarity in the recent protest of Marathas.

Their political script is simple. On Sunday, September 11, lakhs of Marathas poured out into the streets of Pune, paralysing the city. They had two demands. The first was a demand to repeal the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and the second a demand for a greater share in the reservation. The power of the Maratha groups is seen not only in their hold on the city but also in the indirect endorsement of Sharad Pawar, the Maratha leader, and Raj Thackeray, chief of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. An endorsement of the two leading godfathers of Maharashtra speaks of the sheer power of the community.

And of atrocity

Central to the first of the demands is what one calls the politics of atrocity. Critical to this is a categorical act of denial of caste atrocity. The scenario of violence is typical and predictable. A Dalit youth is usually stoned or lynched on grounds of suspicion. His alleged crime is an illicit relationship with an upper class/caste girl. When investigated, the allegations hide deeper conflicts over grazing land. Such Gairan land often cultivated by landless Dalits has now been regularised by the Maharashtra government.

The upper castes feel the Atrocities Act is often misused and want it repealed. Yet what few talk about is a stranger legal battle where upper castes in turn file counter-cases of robbery and dacoity embroiling Dalits in the entrails of law. What is clear in discussions about these battles is that there is little respect for the rule of law. By turning the question of atrocity into a law and order problem, Marathas hope to get the Act repealed.

There is a strange reversal of victimology with upper castes almost amnesiac about their own atrocities and vigilantism. They are demanding justice for a 14-year-old girl who was raped and killed allegedly by three Dalit youths. It is almost as if history is inverted and the roster of atrocities against Dalits forgotten.

A misleading silence

The second demand is that Marathas as a caste community be brought under the reservation category. It is almost bizarre to watch a dominant community with roughly 33 per cent of the population — and which has electorally dominated State politics, virtually controlled the powerful cooperative movement — now play helpless and vulnerable, demanding reservation. As a wag put it, they are demonstrating a politics of anxiety about their various fiefdoms, signalling a future decline in power. The electoral frame which they dominated almost zero-sum style is now fragmenting as Other Backward Classes and Dalits enter the power game. It is an attempt to buy insurance for the future realising full well that the current quotas are a bit inelastic and that the Supreme Court has not looked kindly at their demands.

Currently the protests involve a series of silent marches as a statement of their problems. But the silence is misleading. What one senses behind it is the need to use violence to reassert power. One senses that a dominant caste community which feels threatened acts as if it is far more vulnerable than the communities it has exploited. There is a double danger here. First, that the silence so far is staged and temporary. Second, it is clear that what is being signalled is the possibility of violence as dominant groups which lorded over electoral democracy now feel threatened. It is not rights one is worried about but the very fabric of democracy. An electoralism which tends to go beyond the constitutional rules of the game negates democracy.

Such an attitude is not peculiar to the Maratha struggle. A contempt for law and order, the threat of violence and the rise of violence have marked all these dominant caste battles. The horrendous violence inflicted by Jats on other communities and on property was the hallmark of the recent struggles for reservation in Haryana. The second factor which has not been fully investigated or publicised is the full involvement and connivance of the local police in the agitation. It is almost as if law and order and justice are the preserve of dominant castes. Democracy as an aberration cannot or should not alter the dominant structures of power radically.

Between the appeals and protests of Dalits and tribals and the arrogant demands for continued dominance lies the new problematic form of democracy in India. Democracy as a way of life is threatened by electoral democracy as a rule game. First, majoritarianism threatens the pluralism of Indian democracy. Second, dominance of castes in the system threatens any hope for rights, for a more equalitarian system. The challenge of the future lies in how democracy reinvents itself to handle these two contradictions. Otherwise, India faces the final irony — that of democracy as a mechanism quietly corroding the institutional values of democracy as a value system.

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