Last year, international cricketer Suresh Raina was trolled for saying in the context of Chennai’s cultural milieu that “he was a Brahmin”.
In another incident last year, Indian star Ravindra Jadeja was bombarded with polarized responses when he posted online: ‘Rajput Boy, Forever’.
At first glance, an individual claiming to be a Brahmin, or a Rajput, may seem like innocuous statements.
However, if someone makes claims about ‘Brahmin pride’ or ‘Rajput pride’, there are bound to be varying interpretations and reactions. For, many would read the age-old caste privileges inherent in such claims.
Statements about caste identity, however, would be read differently from, say, a folksinger, who happens to be a Dalit. Here, the affirmation will be read as an affirmation stamped with rebellion, as also a quest for equality.
In the current context, where the idea of New India takes center stage, the discourse of rendering caste identities irrelevant has also gained ground.
Today, it is recognized that all caste groups and communities have contributed to the glory and national revival of the nation. The effort now is to feature unsung heroes from all underprivileged caste groups and communities who otherwise have not had their due in Nation history. Be it Birsa Munda or Avantibai Lodhi or Raja Suhel Dev, all icons are truly representative of India.
Meanwhile, a concerted effort, through state intervention, under the “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” vision, is also underway to make caste less relevant. In many states where caste-based outfits are gaining prominence, it is often seen that these specific caste groups are preferred for government programs and the privileges that come with it.
Under the current Narendra Modi government, with welfare schemes reaching the most disadvantaged, and now aiming for saturation, good governance is expected to make caste divisions redundant.
Much has been made of the new class of ‘labharthrees’ (the class of people who have been recipients of central government welfare schemes). It is perhaps an emerging pan-Indian category of the neo-middle class.
Caste, in addition to family and religion, forms the foundation of social structures and institutions in India. A debate, however, needs to grow in the current context if Caste is more relevant.
UP, over the past few years, has witnessed some very interesting social interventions. When a political party represents various caste groups, with various groups sharing power more or less equally, it marks the democratization of power. The UP state is a classic example of how the BJP has brought all Caste groups and communities together, while ensuring that social harmony is not compromised. Some call it social engineering. Some call it a bigger Hindutva project at work. Studies have documented the rise of the BJP in UP through the support of all caste groups including OBCs, MBCs, Dalits and upper castes.
But there are also instances where Caste divisions are accentuated, often by Caste outfits. They have disastrous consequences on our social fabric and on national unity.
Caste parties, like some contesting in Uttar Pradesh’s elections, often invoke particularistic identities and loyalties. They also often perpetuate dynasties. Sections of opinion writers used to call this form of politics “social justice” politics.
The truth, however, is that it is only when caste is rendered irrelevant and harmony is ensured that the politics of social justice prevail.
Our opinion writers and columnists often discuss how Caste “can be used to checkmate” Hindutva. It’s a lazy argument. It also misses the most important point – the real quest should be to make India caste-free.
While regional caste outfits have a vested interest in keeping the caste alive, it is therefore incumbent on national parties and institutions with a national vision to see the big picture.
So it’s just not the BJP, but every national formation and institution – Congress, to cite one example – or the popular media, or the schools, colleges and universities, will have to start a conversation about how to make the Caste irrelevant. This must be the concern of any well-meaning Indian. Institutions such as the judiciary have often invoked Ambedkar’s “caste annihilation”.
The idea sketched above should also be complemented by the efforts of spiritual gurus, for they, together with monasteries and mutts, wield enormous influence. In 1969, in his presidential address at the 16th Bharatiya Jana Sangh convention, Atal Bihari Vajpayee made a fervent appeal to spiritual and religious gurus to fight untouchability and give impetus to the upliftment of SC/ST. He added: “If even today a Dalit groom has to face opposition (by anti-social elements) while taking out his wedding procession, it only means that we have a long way to go to bring Hindus together. , with ‘bandhutva’ as the unifying force”.
Of course, we have come a long way since then. But the conversation needs to shift gears now. We should invoke more often Ambedkar, Phule, Savarkar, Sree Narayana Guru, Deendayal, Lohia and countless others, who have tirelessly campaigned for equality.
While this is a truly long-term project, spanning decades if not centuries, Vision 2047 must encourage ideas that make Caste irrelevant. A start has been made. Let the results of the current elections give impetus to the conversation.
To conclude with examples from the sports world, MS Dhoni, a Singh, was never known for his caste credentials. He remains one of the most admired leaders in the country’s sporting history as he is still identified with the India jersey, or the jersey of the IPL team he represents.
To cite another example from the world of sports, the Indian women’s hockey team is a prime example of the aspirations of New India. The team led by Rani Rampal is full of self-taught girls, from very modest backgrounds, often mofussils and pockets of rural India. It is not caste but the spirit of united India that makes them stars, on the pitch, off the pitch.
All of us, including those in the political class, have much to learn from the shining stars of New India.
(The writer, a former JNU, is a political analyst. Opinions are personal)