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 a first in a series called "Democracy in India".
A key characteristic of democracies is to prioritise the individual over the community. But, the 2 April protests called by Dalit groups across India, the burning of the homes of a former and a current Dalit member of Rajasthan legislative Assembly on 3 April, and continuing tensions over caste politics indicate that Indian democracy is prioritising the community over the individual. It appears that nearly seven decades after the Constitution came into force, the politics of caste and religion has enslaved the citizen. There is no light at the end of this tunnel.
The framers of the Indian Constitution did not write the role of political parties. However, political parties emerged through a set of rules and the Election Commission of India. In their lust for power, all political parties have been using caste and religious identities to foment conflict in Indian society. The Bharatiya Janata Party discovered Hindutva to divide Indians along religious lines, while the so-called secular parties used a distorted form of secularism to cause religious divisions.
Parties use caste to divide Indians. Most recently, BJP governments of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, to cultivate the Kshatriya vote bank, went to the Supreme Court, demanded that the Bollywood movie Padmaavat be banned, and lent a helping hand to the Karni Sena. Interviewed four days before the 2 April protests by Dalit groups, Ram Bhuwan Singh Kushwah of the Swami Vivekananda Kendra in Bhopal said: "After Independence, casteism should have ended, but it hasn't. Politics in India is strengthening caste instead of removing it. Politicians are dividing Indians along caste lines".
"Even today, a Scheduled Caste person may not become the Prime Minister of India without some support of swarna jatis (upper castes). To become prime minister, a Scheduled Caste person will necessarily need support of the upper caste leaders of a political party", he says. Kushwah's point is that caste is so deep rooted in Indian society that democracy is unable to eliminate it. In Indian democracy, he says, "Byakti balwan nahee huwa hai, jaati sameekran balwan huwa hai" (the individual is not empowered; rather, the caste combination has been empowered).
It was not always so. In the first two decades after the Constitution came into force, political parties generally did not have any wings in the name of SCs, STs or religious minorities. Kushwah says that by the 1970s, non-Congress parties began forming morchas (fronts) in the name of caste and religion. He recalls that in the 1970s, when the Jan Sangh formed caste-based morchas, its members opposed it; but today even the BJP, the successor to Jan Sangh, has established these morchas as permanent part of the party structure. In reaction to the Jan Sangh, Congress too established SC/ST and minority wings, he says, adding that before this, such caste-based and religion-based "cells" used to exist only in the apparatus of the government.
A senior IAS officer in the government of Madhya Pradesh, where at least eight people died in the Bharat bandh on 2 April says parts of Gwalior city are under curfew even two days later. He differs slightly from this perspective. The officer, who did not wish to be named, spoke days before the bandh: "We in the government are not prioritising communities over the individual, but such things are happening naturally as part of the Indian politics". His argument is that most government policies ultimately aim at delivery of services to the individual, and not communities.
While this argument is valid, it is also the case that government leaders, to ensure that their parties win votes, pander to communities. In Madhya Pradesh, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has routinely organised meetings of different interest groups such as maids, barbers, rickshaw pullers, and SC/ST students. While these groups may sometimes appear to be professional classes, the sociological reality of India is such that occupations are essentially linked to caste.
This means that a Brahmin is not even remotely likely to be a barber or a maid. In parts of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, a lower caste bridegroom will not be allowed to ride a horse on his wedding day. Despite seven decades of Indian democracy, the link between caste and occupation has not been broken. It is also the case that political parties will necessarily use these societal divisions to capture power. BJP, which emerged as a party with a difference, went on to use caste and religion. Its efforts to unite Dalits with upper castes are limited to forging the unity of Hindus against Muslims.
In this process of interplay between identity and politics, BJP may have learnt from the Congress, which is beginning to re-learn the same: This time from the BJP. Such identity politics will continue for the foreseeable future. In Indian democracy, the individual stands defeated.
The next generation of Indians, the first-time voters born in the 21 Century, lose out. Youths who do not have jobs are ultimately political tools in the hands of parties. So, is there a way forward? A discussion must begin on how to make political parties accountable through a far-reaching legislation to form the basic framework of the Constitution.
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
Updated Date: Apr 13, 2018 14:32 PM