Caste is the basic building block of Indian society and democracy. It decentralizes India and creates a fractal overlay across society enveloping every facet of life. Much can be said about its origins and heterodoxies, but today I want to explore how it influences politics and modern society. While caste’s impact on Indian society is mixed, I believe caste politics is the single most corrosive and destructive element in Indian democracy today. So many policy problems can be traced to the dizzying devilry that results from the lunacy of caste tribalism.
But why is caste so important to Indians in the first place? Caste serves multiple functions. Caste is a community. A sense of belonging and asabiyyah when times get tough. When the riots hit, it is your caste kin who will take and throw punches for you. It gives you your rituals, your traditions, your ways of worship, and so much more. Many castes have a divine origin story or a tale where their caste bravely overcame injustices from that caste. Caste is a polity. When election time comes, the candidate from your caste ensures your castemen will occupy government positions, be forgiven of crimes, and have a seat at the roundtable of power, perhaps even the throne itself. Caste is an economy. It can be a financial safety net, a business network, or a source of credit and capital. It can be the cornering of a market or government seats. Caste is all-encompassing, as real and essential as air and water for so many Indians.
So what separates run-of-the-mill 1990s Mandal-type caste politics from Jatitva? Jatitva is the political expression of Critical Caste Theory. Jatitva is Mandalism taken to its logical conclusions. It is the view that the Indian state should exist to be beholden to one’s caste. If Hindutva means a Hindu Rashtra, Jatitva means Jati Rashtras, where one’s caste must be the most powerful demographic group in their locale; if this isn’t achieved, then India must be decentralized heavily or even break. Jatitva means caste should define India. It claims one’s caste is more important than an overarching Hinduism, if not the rejection of mainstream Hinduism itself. Jatitva presents Hinduism as a societal ruse of ruin, Hindutva as a political conspiracy, and the Indian state as an economic oppressor.
A Feigned Death
Jatitiva is a decidedly reactionary movement against another recently reactionary Hindutva yet does indeed have deep roots. Years ago, Ambedkar claimed that Hindu society was a figment. He saw Hinduism as simply a collection of castes, each with such different distinctions that it was difficult to pin these people as a Hindu nation or consciousness. He would designate Hindus as rats living in their own holes, refusing to interact with each other. Now Ambedkar was a master at rhetoric but an amateur at history. Both Hinduism and this collection of castes lived simultaneously. Jatitva focuses on the holes as natural homes. Hindutva focuses on the fact that Hindus had become rats by staying in those same holes. But what really transformed the dynamic of caste was the advent of modern democracy along with the bureaucratization of castes during the British Raj and later during the Indian Republic. Some had their holes become deeper; others came out of the holes to explore horizons.
Now, everyone says they want to annihilate caste until election season comes, which in India means every few months. Even Ambedkar, who titled the idea and a book on the phrase was later reduced to a caste monger in the latter part of his life as the idea of caste annihilation annihilated itself. That is because caste is a useful weapon. A tool of division and dominance. It animates Indians, especially Hindus, in a way few other identities can. Much of this is not just nurtured in the Indian outback where community ties are understandably strong, but instead, a large source of caste divisions is sown in the mills of Indian bureaucracy and governance. Caste today is as much political engineering as it is a people’s evolution.
The result is one of the most vicious forms of identity politics on the planet. And just as with any other type of identity politics – it encourages irrational, anti-social, and inefficient behavior as well as voting patterns. It results in a profoundly dysfunctional Indian state and governance. Instead of focusing on developmental issues or blind justice, the Indian state concentrates on appeasing castes for votes. From giving a random statue the wrong caste identity to trying to pass an economic reform that breaks the stranglehold of a caste on a market, normal government policies quickly get covered in kerosene and lit aflame by the slightest spark that singes the pride of a caste. Violence quickly follows the “dishonoring” of one’s community as buildings blacken with ash, streets are stained red with blood, and a Netflix sepia tone engulfs the scene with dust rising amidst the trampling riot of an enraged caste. It all is pitifully pathetic.
Jatitva seeks the entrenchment of this system as well as caste itself. In no way are its adherents interested in any form of annihilation. Rather, they seek to jostle their caste into power, frequently by destroying or exploiting another caste in the process. Ambedkarites, regional caste parties, and even pan-India parties who tout the destruction of caste instead put every resource they can into freezing and deepening divisions. Caste rouses people to such an irrational (or rational depending on what we discussed before) degree, that it can easily override other pro-social and pro-state policies such as infrastructure and development, especially in local and state-related elections. Welfare marries caste as both central and state governments fashion caste-based sops into electoral arrows that they nock once elections arrive. Reservations are a trusted sword to scythe society over and over again as the original 22.5% (15% for Scheduled Castes and 7.5% for Scheduled Tribes) reserved category in education has ballooned to 50% across the country with many states breaking that limit and not just in education but also government jobs as well. And now we have the opposition bringing the guillotine as they propose reservations be raised to 75% with proportional representation not just in public positions but also in the private sector too. This is plainly untenable for individual achievement, societal stability, and country-wide development.
Identity politics is natural in a democracy, but the fractious and toxic nature of caste has morphed Indian identity politics into a radioactive monster. Every district, especially rural ones, descends into caste conflict and calculus as people only want a person of their caste as a candidate. This kills the opportunity for more qualified candidates who are chosen based on more meritocratic factors rather than simply what caste they are born in. Smaller castes are either pushed out or if lucky function as stranger kings settling and splitting the difference between larger communities. This ultimately results in a feudalistic outcome where a system of patronization dominates local Indian politics causing many violent criminals and corrupt caste mongers to win out on tickets.
Caste necessitates that demographics are destiny. The phrase “jitnī ābādī utnā haq” loosely translates to “as much as one’s population is one’s right.” More contextually, it means that however populous a caste is, it should receive just as much of a share. This call is gaining steam amongst the opposition as it seeks to use Jatitva to shatter the broad Hindu coalition amongst Hindutva. The execution of this phrase is one of the most surefire ways to slaughter the animal spirits of the Indian economy. Hereupon India faces a looming threat of Lebanonization. If the political structure and private corporation of India are reduced to a compartmentalized carapace of caste, it will only encourage further divisions and even violence. And fundamentally, Jatitva won’t just harm the macro potential of India, it will encourage an aeon of strife on a micro level as well.
Caste is indeed integral to the body of Indian society as we’ve seen so far. It serves important functions ensuring that the societal body keeps running, regardless of its inefficiencies. But like other appendages and organs of a body, it can also develop a tumor. Caste, especially due to the politicization of it in Jatitva, is now morphing into a cancerous mass.
Most pre-modern societies had a system to organize society. Caste was an expression of this with hierarchies and checks and balances that all ebbed with time and territory. But due to its ritualistic aspect in addition to the bureaucratization of caste, it has endured while other systems have crumbled – but not without a few changes along the way. Family caste traditions and rituals, a pivotal piece in the diverse expression of Hinduism, are eroding against the ocean of modernity. Instead, what we have left is a bare obstinate rock of caste pride covered in a toxic moss of bigotry.
Old hierarchies replay out like reincarnations in India’s rural areas. The scourge of caste discrimination still rings loudly when untouchables are denied temple entry, water access, celebrating weddings, mourning funerals, and so many other ordinary things in life that are the right of every human. Luckily these regressive bigotries are reducing, which means hierarchy now becomes horizontal. Each caste can hit back just as hard as the other. This has caused an internecine conflict to rage across the countryside. When caste conflict erupts, a Hindu ceases to be a Hindu, rather falling into the holes of caste. The Hindu becomes a Reddy, a Rajput, a Ror, a Ramnami, etc… tossing away religious brotherhood into the fray of fratricide. And it isn’t just riots that stoke this sentiment, simple elections do the trick just fine. A zero-sum mentality develops meaning every government policy is either an affront or an aid to one’s caste. ‘If it helps the other guy, it hurts me.’
This is the essential spirit of Jatitva. A maddening myopia. A parochialism that closes one off to a more cosmopolitan and expansionist Hindu identity. A zero-sum mentality where one’s village, one’s state, nay the entirety of India is reduced to a giant bucket filled with an assortment of crabs constantly knawing and clawing at each other to prevent one another from rising above the rest. The universality and grandness of the Atman is forgotten for the garment of caste. Rather than realizing the eternal transmigration of one’s divine body, they cling to the ragged cloth known as caste as if it is their only life and refuge. When one views everything through the prism of caste, an astigmatism forever features in their perspective.
An Ancestral Sin
Some say social justice is the antidote to caste, yet in a purported bid for social justice, India created its own version of a blasphemy law – the SC/ST Act. For the Ambedkarite, perhaps the biggest hypocrite in India (in a dead-heat competition with the Indian liberal), caste must be annihilated until one mentions a sprawling reservation or this heinous, acutely illiberal act that condemns people to jail simply on the accusation of discrimination from someone of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe background. Many landed castes, whose fortunes waned and waxed with time have been clubbed into the OBC (Other Backwards Caste) category granting them access to benefits previously enjoyed by SC and ST folks despite their mixed past where they exchanged the mantle of oppressed and oppressor freely. Hatred against upper castes has ironically been mainstreamed by many upper castes themselves, as academia, media, and political offices are disproportionately upper-caste-dominated. Upper caste elites threw their own to the frenzied masses of mob revenge masquerading as social justice, as many joined hands with rabble-rousing caste leaders blaming every ill of society on folks who were starving either just as much or slightly less than them. Supposed sins of the ancestors have now become a mainstay in Indian political discourse as Jatitvadis seek to etch those sins into the foreheads of their enemies.
The twist of fate in caste’s tryst with modernity is that the future may provide upper castes much fewer incentives to identify with their caste if not outrightly abandon it. Already functionally a minority community, albeit one that consists of many market dominant groups, continued and heightened caste consciousness will serve no good to a group frequently and unfairly blamed for so many of India’s problems. The more urbanized upper castes are already moving away from caste consciousness with higher intercaste marriage rates, especially in more urban states. Caste traditions and identification with their caste is fading as class and a more cosmopolitan Hindu identity takes root as the canopy of Hindutva spreads. One Indian dichotomy of many is that more liberal urbanites vote for the right wing party while conservative provincials vote for the left wing party. This demarcation in many cases simply comes down to the difference in the grip of caste on one’s mind.
For adherents of Jatitiva, it is not caste that should be annihilated, rather they seek the annihilation of Hinduism as we understand it today. A common tactic of Jatitva is appropriating widespread Hindu beliefs as the property of a single caste or region. In Northwest India, it posits Jathera, ancestor worship, as the original religion of Jats. In Jharkhand, it frames tree worship as the way of the Sarnas. In Tamil Nadu, it joins Dravidian bile claiming Murugan and Shiva as Tamil, not Hindu gods. All of these are integral and ancient pieces of Hinduism common across India, yet Jatitva must uphold these falsehoods to fracture Hinduism. In many ways, caste is now becoming an antagonistic rather than a supplemental force towards Hinduism. This isn’t organic of course as no historical movements mimic these separatisms. These agitations are engineered.
Under the guise of progressivism and internationalism, the most “liberal” of Indian ideologues team up with the most regressive, parochial, caste-obsessed Indians to enact Jatitiva. Across my sojourn on a briefly popular application called Clubhouse, those who opposed India and Hindutva, whether Islamists, Ambedkarites, various ethnic chauvinists, or even supporters of the opposition (not much daylight from the aforementioned to be honest), all agreed on one strategy – heighten caste tensions to break the united Hindu vote and rising consciousness. Parochialism was the toxin of choice to spread across the neurons of the Indian mind. Jatitva is the culmination of years of backroom election strategizing capitalizing and accentuating fault lines within Hinduism.
The Indian is now faced with a choice: Will they once again descend into the tribalism of yore, whereby each caste quibbles with each other until quivering in defeat against a foreign foe? Or will the Indian uphold the covenant of the Republic, casting aside caste and advancing into cosmopolitanism? Unite or Die.