The remarkable ways in which the Hindu caste system works, has been a mystery that hundreds of scholars have explored over the decades and yet continue to fascinate them. Politicians looking for electoral gains might rail against the system but find no compunction in building their support purely on the basis of caste.
The Samajwadi Party led by Mulayam Singh Yadav is largely based on his support base of Yadavs?this is no great secret. RJD, with the socialist label is also a party of Yadavs? and significantly the party of UP Yadavs does not see eye to eye with the same caste of Bihar. In other states too, there are caste considerations that motivate political parties. The Congress for decades built a combo of castes that secured its power pegs?in Gujarat for instance it had that KHAM hardsell but BJP was able to break through this and build a larger constituency cutting across caste loyalties.
In Maharashtra, the NCP'sMaratha base is well recognised as a strong force. When NTR rode to power in Andhra Pradesh in 1983 pushing out the Congress for the first time in 30 years, Indira Gandhi sought to counter his charisma and the financial clout of his Kamma supporters with a combination of more backward people like Kapus, Velammas and others. Not many political parties in the country can claim that they are above pandering to the reality of caste.
The Marxist analysts who have portrayed caste in terms of class conflicts have however, been confounded with their inability to sow bitterness against the so-called oppressor castes within the Hindu society. We have a wonderful example here from Tamil Nadu. Ramaswami Naicker or Periyar as he is better known, built up the entire Dravida Kazhagam movement on the basis of Brahmin bashing. He ridiculed the faith in God. He rallied the OBCs in his state on the plea that the Brahmins and other upper castes have monopolised government jobs and professions and the deprived castes must snatch power from them. He even called for a separate Dravidastan saying that the four Dravidian languages of the South and the people speaking them were different from the North Indian and culturally even more ancient than the Aryans. However, except in Tamil Nadu nowhere else in the South the people bought this theory.
In Tamil Nadu DMK that Periyar'smain disciple Annadurai built up to provide a Marxist muscle to the caste based movement, did not succeed in gaining power till Rajaji came on the scene in 1967 and allied with DMK. The alliance of Rajaji with Annadurai was described as Brahmin-OBC combination. Rajaji'swhirlwind campaigning brought upper caste support to bolster DMK and its OBC base (castes like Nadars, Thevars etc who were mostly traders and artisans). It swept the Congress out of power and installed Annadurai as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. The Congress has never regained power in that state since 1967.
What happened to the anti-God campaign of the Dravida movement? The DMK, despite the alliance with Rajaji who was a great scholar and devotee of Hindu culture, did not embrace the faith of the Brahmins but gradually it gave up that open abuse of Hindu gods. Later when the DMK split and MGR led his followers out of it to form the AI-ADMK, this trend intensified. After Jayalalitha, a Brahmin, took charge of AI-ADMK, the new leader has dared to exhibit her faith openly visiting temples and making large donations to them and even participating in temple festivals and Hindu holy days. DMK too has not been left untouched with M. Karunanidhi himself welcoming Satya Sai Baba to his residence a few months back and his family members prostrating before the godman.
Religion is strongly embedded in the politics and politicians of the South. NTR'scharisma that enabled him to win over two-third of Assembly seats in AP in 1983 and repeat this in 1985 in the face of the Congress subversion of his prospects, was largely influenced by his playing the role of Hindu gods in the mythological films in which he acted till then. Political leaders in the southern states are regular visitors to the famous temples of the peninsula like the one at Tirupati and other places. In Kerala K. Karunakaran who was Congress CM for several terms had made it a habit to visit the famous Sri Krishna temple at Guruvayoor on the first of every month without fail.
In Karnataka, the two powerful communities Lingayats and Vokkaligas have their own several maths and no politician of these communities dare to displease these maths in the advancement of their political careers. In the undivided Congress, the chief ministerships alternated between the two communities and when a section of the Congress went with the then Congress(O) and finally merged with the Janata Dal, Indira Gandhi built up an OBC combination to beat the Lingayat-Vokkaliga base of the Congress(O) and Janata Dal. Within the Janata Dal the conflict between the two castes remained and they could join together only under Ramakishna Hegde, a Brahmin. The moment he stepped down, the party fell apart and only a fraction of the old Janata is what is now under the name of Janata Dal(secular) under the nominal leadership of Deve Gowda, a Vokkaliga.
Caste is thus a part of the Indian reality but it does not necessarily follow that this is a divisive reality within the larger Hindu superstructure. The present success of Mayawati after she build up a coalition of her Dalits with Brahmins and sections of Muslims should go to expose the Marxist perception of caste in terms of oppressed and oppressor where the two are in bitter conflict. History also does not support the idea of perpetual conflict between the castes. One recalls the establishment of the Maurya empire in the fourth century BC. It was entirely the handiwork of the shrewd Brahmin Chanakya also known as Kautilya who later wrote the great volume on Political Economy. He discovered Chandragupta, the son of the Nanda king through his lower caste wife. Guided by Chanakya, the so called lower caste Chandragupta seized the kingdom and established the first Hindu empire recorded in history, the glory of which the Greek writer Megasthanes described in his book.
The historic parallel with the coming to power of Mayawati the Dalit leader, cannot be missed. Even through the trying times when India was ruled by invading forces from outside the region, several movements arose that sought to raise people above the boundaries and constraints of caste. Several treatises on the Bhakti movement for instance stress this factor of people'sparticipation belying caste differences and seeking an integration of different Hindu sections through the path of divine worship.
Even the Marxists who sought to apply a totally alien tool of historical analysis to Hindu social developments, could not overlook the fact that the entire Marxist movement has been led in this country by the upper castes?EMS and AK Gopalan in Kerala and the entire Marxist leadership in West Bengal came from the upper strata; no different was the communist leadership in Andhra and Maharashtra?SA Dange, PC Joshi, Ravi Narayan Reddi, Sundarayya, et al.
There may have been Dalit or OBC leaders from among the lower castes like Dr. Ambedkar and Mahatma Phule or Narayana Guru who awakened the oppressed to their human rights but it cannot be denied that the push to reform Hinduism and remove the stigma of untouchability arose from the very upper castes who were the beneficiaries of the iniquitous system that prevailed. Mahatma Gandhi, Veer Savarkar, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Dr. K B Hedgewar, the list is endless, all worked tirelessly to help the Hindu Society to wipe out the stigma of untouchability and integerate the Dalits into the rest of the Society.
It is a sobering thought that had the Congress not confined this upliftment to a mere tokenism after independence there would have been no need for these castes to seek empowerment on their own and a BSP to rise on the ashes of the Congress prospects in India'slargest state.
(The writer can be contacted at [email protected])