Democracy In India Part 10: Scourge of casteism in slow retreat as more and more youth marry for love
There are two contrary trends in Indian democracy: While caste remains alive in politics and society, it is also giving way to more democratisation in some regions, most notably in Gujarat.
Editor's Note: As the Indian Republic turns 70, Tufail Ahmad begins a journey through the country to examine the working of democracy at the grassroots level. Inspired by the French author Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured America and wrote Democracy in America, the author — a former BBC journalist and now senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute — will examine how sociological realities of India and the promise of democracy interact with each other in shaping the lives of the Indian citizen. This report is the tenth in a series called "Democracy in India".
Surat: In this series, I try to focus on how society impacts democracy in India and in what ways democracy moulds societal modes and behaviours. The third part of the series discussed how caste and politics collide violently in a cyclical struggle for power in Indian democracy. I noted that Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity, Sikhism, and Bhakti and Sufi movements have failed to eliminate caste, and raised the question if democracy could eradicate caste from India. There are two contrary trends in Indian democracy: While caste remains alive in politics and society, it is also giving way to more democratisation in some regions, most notably in Gujarat.
For thousands of years, India has been an unequal society whose cohesion originated from caste-based discrimination. However, democracy — as a movement of ideas and enlightenment about equality and individual rights — has been inculcating democratic and rational attitudes among youth. In some regions of India, a noticeable trend is that intercaste marriages are taking place frequently, but those are either between youth based in cities, or between those who have studied in towns and returned to villages. In fact, cities have emerged as drivers of democratic social change in India: As part five of this series examined.
While intercaste marriages are limited in number and therefore do not show large-scale social change in most regions of India, they do show an increasing trend. The situation in Gujarat is revealing. Dr Jayesh Shah, an author and research consultant at the Centre for Culture and Development, an NGO based in Vadodara, said caste is becoming insignificant for those below 40 years of age. "But this happens at social level. Socially, there is a different situation. Politically, the situation is different: There is more caste", he observed, perhaps in an indication of caste-based political mobilisation in the last Gujarat Assembly elections.
Shah found that in Gujarat, there has been a rise in intercaste marriage in the past few decades. He carried out a study of official data on marriage registrations in Gujarat between 1980 and 2010. Over these decades, not even half of Brahmins in Gujarat married within Brahmin caste, with intra-Brahmin marriages declining from 49.6 percent in 1980 to 46.8 percent in 2010.
It means 53.2 percent Brahmins married outside their caste in 2010. The figure for Brahmins marrying into Other Backward Classes (OBCs) was around 8 to 9 percent for different years, while roughly two percent married someone from a Schedule Caste and about half a percent married someone from a Schedule Tribe (ST) over these decades.
Similarly, as per Shah's data, the percentage of Rajputs marrying Rajputs is declining: 43 percent in 1980, 33.7 percent in 2000 and 31.1 percent in 2010. It shows around 70 percent Rajputs in Gujarat marry outside their caste. Interestingly, at least every fifth Rajput married into OBCs, the actual figure being 22.3 percent in 2010. In 1980, the percentage of Rajputs marrying SCs was zero, but it rose to 3.3 percent in 2000 and 2.7 percent in 2010. Of the Rajputs marrying STs, the figures were 5.4 percent in 1980, which rose to 6.2 percent in 2010 (see the statistics table).
In 1980, 17 percent of SCs married outside their caste, which rose to more than 25 percent in 2000 and further to over 33 percent in 2010. The percentage of SCs marrying upper castes was less than two percent in 1980, but rose to 6.9 percent in 2000 and further to 7.7 percent in 2010. More Patels, an upper caste, are marrying outside their caste now than they did a few decades ago. In 1980, over 17 percent Patels married outside their caste, with this figure rising to over 22 percent in 2000 and nearly 28 percent in 2010.
Since these statistics are based on marriage registrations in Gujarat, they indicate a real social change in Indian democracy. "Intercaste marriages are also happening in villages and small towns, not only in cities," Shah said, adding: "Caste had become redundant in Gujarat over past few decades, but from 2015 onward there is a political consolidation of castes. Political parties tell youths: You belong to a certain caste". He noted that there is a "dual behaviour" whereby people in Gujarat are rejecting caste socially, but accepting it politically.
A key impact of democracy is that the Indian government promotes intercaste marriages. In 2013, a scheme was introduced to give financial incentive of Rs 2.5 lakh if the marriage involved a Dalit. Many state governments offer financial incentives for intercaste marriages. On 7 May, it emerged that Maharashtra plans to bring in a law that promotes intercaste and interreligious marriages. Such efforts indicate that the constitutional values of equality and democratic rights are entering the consciousness of the people, especially youth. Intercaste marriages would not be possible without democracy.
Whether upper castes or Dalits, no Indian youth now wants to retain caste. This is a revolution of the mind democracy is ushering in India's youth. "In next 20 years, our politicians cannot divide us on caste lines. In 20 years', in the time of my grandson, there will be no caste", Shah said. While he is right, Shah's optimism appears valid in the context of Gujarat. Elsewhere, caste remains a basis of social discrimination and a political tool, despite changes at the social level and in cities where it becomes invisible.
In Gwalior, my conscience was shaken when a Dalit youth, perturbed over my argument that democracy has led to empowerment of lower castes, shot back at me: "What empowerment you are talking about it? Our entire life is spent in our own mental struggle against ourselves, against apman (abuse) we suffered through centuries". A Khasaria (name changed), a youth who works in a government department in Gwalior, said that in offices, SCs and upper castes work together, but they sit at separate tables during lunch.
During April 2018, when I interviewed members of the Dalit community, the protests over the Supreme Court order staying automatic arrests under the SC/ST Atrocities Act were front and centre in their minds. Most interviewees were afraid to reveal their names, even when they were not saying anything controversial.
R Soni (name changed), who works in a government department in Gwalior, said that in Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh even bank managers, who come from the most educated class of Dalits, can't rent homes in areas dominated by upper castes and have to move to "Dalit areas".
Another Dalit youth in Gwalior told me that there is no change in mansikta (psyche) of upper castes. "You enjoy the movie on Phoolan Devi in which she is undressed completely. But you engage in violent protests against Sanjay Leela Bhansali's movie in which even an insult is missing against Padmavati." This is because Phoolan Devi was a Dalit, he said, while Padmavati was an upper caste Rajput woman. "The problem is that the upper caste educated class is not even willing to accept that there is discrimination against Dalits", he added.
An advocate in Gwalior district court noted that even lawyers are divided along caste. "I heard an upper caste advocate saying that ab swarn yug aa gaya hai (now the era of upper caste has arrived)," he said and pointed out that there is not a single Dalit judge in any of the benches of the high court of Madhya Pradesh. "In lower courts too, not even five percent judges are from the SC/STs", he said, giving a rough estimate, and added that political parties in power approve only the names of upper caste judges for high courts and the Supreme Court.
In May, several news stories emerged which showed discrimination against Dalits. Union minister Uma Bharti found herself in the midst of controversy after she skipped a meal with Dalits and had to apologise for it. Rajnish Kumar, a Dalit villager at Lohgarh in Aligrah district, was surprised around 11 pm when Uttar Pradesh cabinet minister Suresh Rana arrived at his home unannounced with food ordered from a catering service. On 4 May, Anupama Jaiswal, the basic education minister in the Uttar Pradesh, landed in controversy for saying that ministers brave "mosquito bites" at Dalit homes.
In Jaipur, I met Dr Omprakash Siravi, director of Dr Ambedkar Studies Centre at the University of Rajasthan, and asked him to comment. "In villages, even though the food is the same, Dalits and non-Dalits sit separately to eat", he said, adding: "We will see change when Dalits are also able to eat at the home of upper castes." He also noted that educational levels among Dalits in rural areas is low and caste-based discrimination remains associated with mid-day meals at schools in rural areas across India.
Caste remains a building block of Indian society, though it is also changing: As the intercaste marriages in Gujarat reveal. Casteism remains a sobering reality even in government offices, courts and panchayats. But, positive changes can be seen too. The oppressed castes are becoming more vocal. Intercaste marriages take place in urban areas.
In some regions, in this case Gujarat, intercaste marriages are taking place in both urban and rural areas. In cities, youth do not care for each other's caste. Ideas about caste are flowing from the Indian polity into civil society. This is because political parties engage in competitive politics and remind people of their castes at election times. "After two decades or so", Shah said, "Politicians will have to surrender to civil society."
The author is touring India to write a series on the workings of democracy. He is a senior fellow at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC. He tweets @tufailelif
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