The great caste and class divide

Published : Aug 01, 2003 00:00 IST

The Indian political system is pulled apart by the forces generated by democracy and the educational system. Only a greater understanding between these two sections can keep the nation united.

THE movement for Independence has now passed into the world of legend, and will, without doubt, end up as myth. Perhaps an epic will slowly grow out of it, and the leaders who are still remembered as all too human will come to be seen as divine. For the moment, though, we have the legends, and one of them is that the movement was a great struggle where ordinary people stood shoulder to shoulder against the white colonial power. The image is straight out of Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, particularly the sequence when row upon row of men clad in white go up to the ranks of police to be savagely beaten down, while the women help the injured to stations where they are given medical aid. Civil disobedience and non-violence (ahimsa) which Mahatma Gandhi so ardently believed in and propagated, seemed to make all Indians one, irrespective of caste and other considerations.

The truth was, of course, quite different. Caste was very much a part of the social fabric of the time, as were other divisions such as religion, but all of them were overshadowed by something much bigger then, the movement for Independence. Once Independence came, the first leaders, including Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, had the Constitution of India so framed as to reflect equality. Specific provisions were written into it to give the castes and tribes seen to be deprived, oppressed and backward the same opportunities and, consequently, the same kind of freedom as the `upper' castes. These were enlightened ideas and like most such ideas were not grounded in actual fact.

Consequently, it took very little time for politicians to begin using caste as a weapon to gain political power; and for those perceived as the backward castes, Dalits, to realise that they had the numbers, and could become, as they have now become, a formidable factor in the politics of different States. While the `upper' castes, the Brahmins in particular, have been routed as a political force in Tamil Nadu, in other States they have suffered a fate only slightly different - they have realised that unless they, too, stand as a community, they will be made as irrelevant as in Tamil Nadu, and that by themselves they are of little consequence - they have to ally themselves with other groups, which is what they have done in many States.

The Congress party may claim that caste is of no consequence to it, but it is; one reason for its losing power is the breaking away of groups based on caste, all originally part of the Congress' social base, and internal caste manoeuvrings that manifested themselves in candidates chosen from different communities in different areas and in some of them being defeated by the machinations of their own party people during elections.

Whatever the Constitution may say, therefore, caste is a major factor in society today; Dalits are asserting themselves, wielding power and laying claim to more. One can aspire to a rewarding political career if one belongs to the right community, and asserts that identity. Will we ever see the removal of the provisions in the Constitution giving the `disadvantaged' castes protection? Not in our lifetime we will not, and it is doubtful if the next generation will see it happen either. For a very simple reason - these provisions give political power. And which politician in his right mind is going to give that up?

But side by side with this, another development has been taking place over the years. This is the division of society in terms of classes created by the educational system in the country. Over the years, there has been a steady growth of what are called public schools, which are in fact anything but that - privately owned and funded schools where students are taught exclusively in English, and where they learn to think and speak in English; in fact, their mother tongue is English, whatever they may say it is in a traditional, formal sense. These students go to some select colleges, and to institutions in India and abroad to become professionals in their chosen fields - medicine, chemistry, biology, management, technology of various kinds, law, advertising, and so on. While a fairly large number go abroad, a much larger number of them stay behind and are absorbed into the growing corporate sector, or, as in the case of information technology, form a group on their own.

The others are those who study in government-run schools and colleges, who then crowd into the civil services at various levels - including what was once the preserve of the first lot, the Indian Administrative Ser<147,1,7>vice - and into trade, and other professions. And a number of them join politics. It is from this lot that our politicians come, for the most part. If there are a few from the first group, they do not really count; the days of political personalities like Pandit Nehru have gone. Most of the power brokers of today come from this group, and it is here that caste counts for a great deal. You have to belong to this class, and within it, to the right caste and community.

What this means is that economic power at the highest levels, especially when it is part of international economic power groups like multinationals, is in the hands of the first group, and political power in the hands of the other. The first uses professionals from among their own kind to use and cultivate the other, and the second resents and is in general suspicious of the first. As the years pass the isolation, the divide between the two, has grown. The isolation continues. You actually have scholars and writers from the first group so fascinated by the second that they study and write about them, and try to analyse them. They can do this only because they perceive themselves as quite different from the others; they see absolutely no common characteristics at all. The wielders of power in the second group, not to be outdone, point to the first as oppressors and predators in their election campaigns, preying on the country's wealth and giving it nothing in return. Of course, once they are seated in various ministries they are not averse to accepting discreetly proffered gratuities of generous proportions from some in the first group.

And as this process goes - or tumbles - along, what suffers is society as a whole. We have always been a mosaic of cultures and different people - Gujaratis, Bengalis, Tamils, Nagas, Mizos, Punjabis and the rest - but great issues like Independence bound us together. Now it is our democracy and our education that is pulling us apart, or will do so if what has been going on all these years goes on unchecked. Only a much much greater understanding between the two groups and between castes and communities will keep us together and integrated; we cannot look to external issues like war, or something else, to do that. External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha has reportedly been talking of an European Union (EU) type of system for Asia, or South-East Asia. We need to form something like that in India first.

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