The Allahabad High Court’s recent decision to ban caste-based rallies, calling them a threat to social harmony, was received with much fanfare with ‘national’ political parties condemning their regional siblings for propagating caste-based vote banks. The verdict was greeted with cheers from civil society too. Debates about equality — the sort that doesn’t pay heed to caste — ran on most TV channels with anchors holding forth on the need for development-oriented politics.
All this was far removed from the ‘lived’ realities of India’s lower castes: Dalit children are still refused education and institutional bias still bars Dalits from becoming leading bureaucrats, politicians, and even journalists.
Increasingly, it seems urban India’s idea of political leadership doesn’t match the aspirations of a section that is still struggling for an equal share. Development has come to mean roads, high-rises and SEZs, not access to basic services and physical safety. Upper caste privileges have transformed into modern capitals of property, position and education. Thus, upper caste welfare is congruous with national development goals, and is demanded irrespective of caste identity.
For a vast majority of the OBCs and Dalits, however, politically negotiating their caste formation remains their only shot at righting the skewed idea of equality. This is why the banning of caste rallies may be harmful, and not just because the move is seemingly in contravention of Article 19 of the Constitution that allows everyone to meet or gather peacefully.
Most political parties hold rallies to mobilise supporters, to get their message across, and to campaign. They also deem this indispensable for the democratic process. Similarly, caste rallies are necessary for the caste-underprivileged to form a collective political body, their only democratic bargaining tool. Caste politics represents an opportunity for the lower castes to organise themselves and to collectively bargain for rights. To right a biased system, we need Dalit lawmakers and this can only happen with mobilisation.
A quarter century of mobilisation has led to the entry of a clutch of lower-caste representatives in the state and national legislatures, which have traditionally been upper-caste strongholds. This has made possible the passage of legislation like the SC/ST(Prevention of Atrocities) Act. All this progress can’t be undone.
Our penchant for equality curiously stops at caste, not extending to region or religion. Perfectly happy to support a ‘Hindu nationalist’, we don’t recognise that communal sectarianism hurts “social harmony” as the HC puts it, more than caste does. This was evident both in Ayodhya in 1992 and Gujarat in 2002.
A section wants caste to become obsolete and to christen everyone “Indian”. It isn’t a coincidence that those who can afford a caste-neutral identity are predominantly urban and upper caste. Recurring incidents initiated by khaps in Haryana and the recent violence in Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu, following an inter-caste marriage, show that caste isn’t dead. Within this context, taking away a politically potent tool from those who have the most to lose is a naïve attempt at misplaced equality.