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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 34, August 10, 2013

Caste and Social Transformation in Indian Democratic Society: A Transitional Phase

Monday 12 August 2013, by Indrajeet Singh

‘We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. [. . .] On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. [...] We must remove this contradiction at the earliest moment, or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.’

—Speech by B.R. Ambedkar on November 25, 1949 in Constituent Assembly Debates, New Delhi, Lok Sabha Secretariat, 1989, vol. IX, p. 979

Whether men and women were ever born free on earth at some point of time is doubtful and questionable. People aspire for freedom, in fact they have been making efforts to break their shackles from time immemorial, but humans are, as we know, in the grip of worries and anxieties emerging from various fetters imposed sometimes by the laws of nature and by social conditions at other times. It is very difficult to find a person in this world who has never felt clouds of worries in his heart as reflected on his face. Mankind has been trying hard to fathom and launch a battle against the long list of sorrows and pains written by destiny and men themselves.

The contradiction between life and death is the most staggering pain in the life of the people. Every day men and women desire to live a long life but every moment death drives them towards the graveyard. It is a continuous battle in which life loses and death lays claim to victory at every instance. Perhaps this is a universal truth. We do not have the luxury of defeating death but mankind has the capacity to postpone it. To put it in other words, men also have capabilities and capacities to bring about sociological changes in a conflict-ridden society based on the hierarchical social structure. Mankind plays its total game of life in the domain which lies between birth and death. It is here that people make the ground rules to make life better thereby turning this world into a better place.

It is interesting to note that some people regard such rules as permanent and eternal. It is a highly conservative position and some people do not want to welcome new rules making the old rules redundant. One must understand very clearly that history is a constant process which goes from one step to another. There is another universal truth. If men worry too much they spoil their present life. This is the general tendency of people: when they should be taking to pleasures by enjoying the present moments of life, they ignite the fire of worries and anxieties in their life and deny themselves of enjoying a beautiful gift bestowed by god upon mankind.

The basic assumption which I want to make in this regard is that we should celebrate what we have achieved since independence but, at the same time, should make efforts to bring about social transformation.

So, what are the hopes and worries facing the Indian masses? What are the aspirations and anxieties before the Indian people? These days India is registering a silent transformation which is good news for some and despair for many. One can say that it is an irony and contradiction in the life of the Indian masses. What kind of transformation it is which is generating happiness and despair at the same time? In my opinion, change is not taking at one level but we can see that changes are taking place at various layers of social structure of Indian society. This transformation essentially is linked with four basic elements of society: politics, economics, religion and social conflict zones.

In social and political territories: new groups, which were earlier known as weaker sections, marginalised or subaltern citizens, are becoming significant socially and politically. In the economic domain, the economy is doing fine for a minority group, though its progress in the name of growth is always questionable. As far as religion is concerned, we have witnessed the rise of communal politics since 1980.

This short essay basically focuses upon the recent judgment given by the High Court of UP regarding the use of caste by political parties in the State. My assumption is that this decision is against the nature of Indian democracy. It may seem at face value that the judgment is progressive but in reality it is not. The system of caste in Indian politics and society is a transitional phase but it might take time to disappear.

The Allahabad High Court on July 11 stayed, with immediate effect, caste-based rallies throughout Uttar Pradesh, while giving notices to the Central and State governments, EC and four major political parties. “We stay caste-based rallies throughout the State of UP,” the Lucknow Bench of the Court consisting of Justices Uma Nath Singh and Mahendra Dayal said on a PIL filed by a local lawyer, Motilal Yadav. The ruling came into effect in the backdrop of the BSP recently organising Brahmin Bhaichara Sammelans in 40 districts of the State, including one addressed by party supremo Mayawati at Lucknow. The Court issued notices to the Congress, BJP, BSP and SP.

The litigant submitted that there was a gush of caste-based political rallies in the State. He said political parties were organising caste-based rallies in the name of different castes like Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya etc. Yadav submitted that while such events were causing damage to social unity and harmony, they were also corrupting the society which was against the spirit of the Constitution.

The first important question which baffles the mind of any citizen of India is: do castes really matter to us after 65 years of independence? The second question is related to what castes do to us and what exactly we have to do to the castes existing in India. When we pick up the first question, it really creates difficulty and obfuscation. The second question is even more difficult because we do not have any parameter based on which we can say that the system of caste is doing this particular thing to us and we have to do this particular thing to this undesirable system of caste.

First of all, let’s deal with the first question. Caste still very much matters to Indian citizens even in the modern world, though one must point out that different groups of citizens have different reasons for maintaining the system of caste. The upper castes want to keep caste alive to oppress the lower castes thereby maintaining their domination. It is very interesting to note that the lower caste groups, who are supposed to hate the caste system, also want to use their caste identity to gain benefits in the corridors of power and politics and, at the same time, they want to put a stop to the caste oppression imposed upon them by the upper castes. It is an ironical and interesting situation of the Indian society in modern India.

The second question is more interesting. The system of caste is doing a number of things to us. It decides wedlocks, social tools of inclusion and exclusion, social respect and disrespect, social status and, generally speaking, economic status. We can say that caste is a social system which basically is the product of the Hindu society. It is unjust and undemocratic because it was created without any democratic social contract with the majority of the people living in ancient India. It was imposed by the upper section of the Hindu society upon the weaker sections creating Jim Crow,1 segregation and pushing them into a straitjacket where no opportunities were left except to do menial, dirty jobs. These lower sections, which were known as lower castes, were denied social status, social respect, economic status and they were kept away from god who created mankind with the equal stock of faculties and skills. Untouchables were totally denied entry into temples. So these are a few things which caste did and is still doing to the people belonging to the lower castes. In a word, we can say that the foundation-stone of the caste was, and is, based on unjust interpretations superimposed by the upper-caste groups and that is not acceptable in the modern, liberal, democratic system of India.

Now, we have to deal with the second part of the second question. What to do with caste? Though a caste-based society is not at all a desirable system, the ghost of the caste system is still hovering over the Indian society. This ghost or monster of the caste system in modern India moves back and forth between the so-called upper castes and lower castes. The upper-caste groups host this ghost to maintain their hegemony in both social and political sectors. At the present time, paradoxically enough, the lower-caste groups have learnt very well to serve this monster of caste to make society more democratic for their people. They are using the tools of caste to rise not only in the social field but also in the corridors of political power. For the moment, the monster has turned threate-ningly at the upper castes and is sitting pretty in the domain of the lower and other backward classes.

In my opinion, the tradition of caste should be put behind into the unpleasant moments of history of India, but it is very unfortunate that even after 65 years of independence it is there, despite the fact that our tall leaders at the time of independence attacked the inequalities based on the caste system and hoped to abolish the system altogether. So the leaders aimed at creating an egalitarian society for the future of India. It is unfortunate and paradoxical that this dream of abolishing the caste system became a utopia and caste, which was thrown into the dustbin of history, has entered stealthily through the back door into the houses of Indian citizens who again, instead of rejecting it, have embraced it with much fanfare.

There is no denying the fact that the politicisation of caste has benefited the lower castes and other backward groups, especially in the southern region of India.2 But the question arises: have political parties, which mobilise different groups in the name of caste, ethnicity and religion, been able to bring about a society which is just and egalitarian? Generally speaking, the leaders of such parties have taken the advantage of the inegalitarian system but unfortunately they have failed the common people belonging to the weaker sections. These leaders, mobilising the lower and backward caste groups, have become another kind of elite keeping most of the people out of the purview of development and egalitarianism. It is important to mention here that such tendencies have afflicted the Indian society because the leaders have paid lip-service to the ideal of social democracy which I have cited in the epigraph of my essay. The upper-caste groups have not provided sufficient space for the lower and backward caste groups. They are still trying to maintain their ideology of an unequal society, based on either caste or religion. So the clear-cut answer to the second question of the second part is that India should be able to do away with the caste system but for sure that cannot be abolished through judicial activism, no matter how laudable the objective of such activism may be. It is a political and social problem and it should be handled in these domains. There is no doubt that the judiciary has a role to play in it but the role of the judiciary in this is limited.

India adopted the liberal democratic system which is basically based on equality, liberty and justice. It also gives importance to individual initiatives to develop one’s faculties. So if we have to abolish caste from this country, that seems to be a distant dream, India must make efforts to implement the principles of the liberal democratic system in right earnest. If it does not happen in our society, and India is not able to create an egalitarian society based on social justice, the Indian society is bound to witness not only a ‘Second Democratic Upsurge’, but third, fourth and so on. We cannot prognosticate the nature of such upsurges. No doubt the second upsurge, as spelt out by Yogendra Yadav, increased the participation of the backward castes.3 But the question that remains to be answered is: has such participation in elections improved the material and moral conditions of the people belonging to the backward castes? Has such participation created equal participation in social sectors too? Or is it a camouflage used by certain elite groups of the concerned castes to fulfil their own interests in the name of improvement of backward castes?

In the present scenario, the verdict of the High Court of UP is not compatible with the nature of Indian democracy. A true liberal society has not taken roots in the Indian society. The state and its citizens have not made genuine efforts to create such a society based on the principle of equality, liberty and justice, whether they belong to the upper castes or backward castes.

It is a well-known fact that, according to Article 19 of the Constitution, to assemble peacefully and form associations is a fundamental constitutional right which is subject to public order and morality. If there are no violent clashes and no public disorder, such rallies based on caste mobilisation cannot be stopped.

There is another fact which we should keep in mind. There are provisions mentioned in Part XVI [from Article 330 to 342] of the Constitution for the appointment of Commissions for Backward Classes and reservation for Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes on the base of the caste structure. The introduction of the recomm-endations made by Mandal Commission also derive strength from provisions mentioned in Article 16 of the Constitution for backward classes.

The Court should pay attention to one fact, that political parties also hold rallies on the basis of class, religion and ethnic groups. The Allahabad High Court decision may also imply that this is another step to stop the participation in politics of the backward castes which have no resources except for unity based on caste or stuff like that to come to power and participate in Indian democracy on an equal basis. Thus as long as discrimination, symbolic violence, and social abuse against the backward or lower castes are there in society, and as long as groups belonging to the lower and backward castes rely absolutely upon state and political protection and do not make individual efforts to spread the reservoir of their faculties and skills, the monster of caste is here to stay in the Indian society eating into the vitals of the country’s social structure leaving it in an unproductive and regressive state.

It is important that the Indian people should consider the caste system as a transitional phase, not as a permanent social reality which cannot be erased. The need of the hour is that we, Indians, regardless of caste, ethnic religious and regional identities, should develop some universal values upon which the edifice of the idea of India can stand with pride and glory. 


1. According to the Wikipedia, Jim Crow laws are the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation, and the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains for Whites and Blacks. The US military was also segregated. State-sponsored school segregation was declared unconsti-tutional by the Supreme Court of the United States only in 1954. Generally, the remaining Jim Crow laws were overruled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

2. Christophe Jafrelot, India’s Silent Revolution, [Oxford Apartments, Delhi: published by Permanent Black, 2003].

3. Yogendra Yadav, ‘Understanding the Second Democratic Upsurge: Trends of Bahujan Participation in Electoral Politics in the 1990s’, Transforming India: Social and Political Dynamics of Democracy, edited by Francine R. Frankel. Zoya Hasan, Rajeev Bhargava, Balveer Arora, [New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000].

Indrajeet Singh is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Guru Nanak Dev Khalsa College, Delhi University. He can be contacted at indrajeet69@gmail.com

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