Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in Annihilation of Caste quotes William Morris, the British writer: “The great treading down the little, the strong beating down the weak, cruel men fearing not, kind men daring not, and wise men caring not.”
He could have been writing this today, as we witness a strange fever of cruelty and savagery descend like a bleak pall upon large parts of the world. The same avarice that saw the West colonise and plunder large swathes of the earth pushes it to now support the vicious havoc Israel is wreaking on the Palestinian people so that it can keep a foot in the crucial West Asian resource corridor. Israel’s leaders use the phrase “human animals” to describe their foes even as two million people are corralled in an open-air prison for daring to want a home. Choosing between the purveyors of the world’s most sophisticated weapons and the throwers of stones, the Western world picks the former as victims, turning strangely visionless in Gaza.
Back home, many quickly latched on to the victimhood narrative, not only using the Gaza war to feed their Islamophobia but to also drag caste into the picture, claiming that Jews and Brahmins are not oppressors but victims. Equating the anti-caste discourse to Hinduphobia is an attempt to piggyback on the Israeli fallback that any criticism of its actions is anti-Semitism.
None of this is new or surprising. When Ambedkar wrote that Hindu unity was impossible, he said it was because one Hindu regards as his brother not any Hindu but only one from his own caste. “So long as caste remains, there will be no sangathan,” he wrote. Ambedkar believed caste was the reason for the “timidity and cowardice which so painfully mark [the Hindu] …” The great Hindutva project also realised this early on and built heavily on the average Hindu’s sense of emasculation and victimhood to find a common enemy in Islam. When the largely Brahmin and Bania dominated BJP came to power in 2014, it continued to find ways to consolidate the Hindu vote, not by destroying caste but by wooing the suppressed castes with promises of representation and welfare. As Sanjay Kumar points out in his piece, the party doubled its support base between 2009 and 2019 largely on the back of Dalit, Adivasi, and OBC votes.
Unfortunately, when the BJP claims to fight caste divisions, its hands are not clean. Ideologically, it continues to be invested in regressive aspects of Hinduism, rooting for texts such as the Manusmriti that advocate a caste-based society. Dominant castes believe that Vedic scriptures are the supreme laws, something voiced quite often now, with demands for the Constitution to be either replaced or removed.
“Caste-based reservation continues to be the best way to give generationally marginalised communities a share of the resources they were traditionally denied.”
It is in this curious context that one must see the overall political approval for the Bihar caste survey, a reaction that Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav calls “nothing short of a miracle”. As the Mandal Commission already found, poverty and backwardness in India continue to be linked to caste. And caste-based reservation continues to be the best way to give generationally marginalised communities a share of the resources they were traditionally denied.
While our writers analyse the political fallout of the survey, especially in the light of the 2024 election, let us pause to think what such surveys can achieve socially. At the very least, they can spur the most underprivileged to unite and fight for a fair share of resources. If this can dent the overwhelming imbalance of power in India, it will be something. Just as we wish for the Palestinians in the Gaza, perhaps one day India’s Davids too can overcome the Goliath of caste.