Democracy and caste

  • The encounter of democracy with caste is a historical process accommodating two sets of opposed values
- Gérard Toffin
Democracy and caste

Jul 8, 2014-

There is a common understanding that caste is antagonistic to democracy. Indeed, the hierarchical universe of the caste system is theoretically at odds with the equalitarian requirements of substantive democracy. It is rather difficult to achieve and even to envisage Article 1 of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, dating back to August 1789: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights”, in a country like Nepal where 81 percent of the population is Hindu and divided into unequal castes based, among other hierarchical values, on the language of purity and impurity. Homo hierarchicus appears to be fundamentally opposed to Homo aequalis.

State failure and caste

This inconsistency between caste and democracy is frequently voiced in Nepal by intellectuals, activists and politicians. In his book, Fatalism and Development, Dor Bahadur Bista, an anthropologist, explains the failure of the country in various sectors, its incapacity to turn around its economy and society owing to the prevalence of Hindu values and to the high-ranking position of Brahmans in the hierarchical order. In examining alternative models, Bista points to the equalitarian spirit that prevails among Tibeto-Burman-speaking ethnic groups. In other words, the caste system is seen as the evil of Hindu countries, the cause of its weakness and its fateful flaws.

Despite a lack of infrastructure and huge disparities between geographical regions and sectors of the economy, India, however, has succeeded in raising the standard of living of a large part of its citizens and in competing with Western capitalist countries in a number of economic sectors, including even the most sophisticated ones. It is presently emerging as an economic superpower. The largest caste society in the world has successfully transformed itself, though all the while following its own models and upholding its cultural traditions. India has proved that high-growth-rate development is not incompatible with caste, despite the tenacity of the latter in society.

Adapting to democracy

In fact, Indian democracy has adapted well to the caste system. Thanks to affirmative action policies that have been implemented on the subcontinent since the end of the nineteenth century, Dalits and ‘low’ castes have benefited from numerous quotas and are much more integrated today in the mainstream social structure. Reservations have conferred social privileges on Dalits and Other Backward Castes (OBCs) who have thereby reached high positions in

the political sphere, including within the federal state structure. Narendra Modi, the new Indian prime minister, himself comes from an OBC caste.

In actual fact, positive discrimination has induced a complete change of the political elite, especially in the northern Hindu belt. Low- and middle-caste associations have become extremely powerful and play an important role at regional state levels, especially in the North. In other words, caste appears to be a positive instrument for democratising India.

Anthropologists, for their part, have shown that in the absence of a strong (or sound) state, the caste system provides local communities with a form of cohesion. The system counteracts the atomisation of society; it links together groups even if it is based on unequal bonding; it introduces commonality and mutuality, especially at a very local, village level. In many rural parts of India and Nepal, traditional Muslims, for instance, are integrated into the Hindu caste system and take part in performing rites of passage. They share rituals and beliefs, even if they do not mix. Caste protects them in many ways from further exclusion and stigmatisation. It may even be asserted that the weakening of caste links in cities as well as the strengthening of a religious consciousness have exacerbated the Muslim situation. More often than not, fundamentalist religious identities are more of a threat to democracy today on the subcontinent than caste. In addition, studies by social scientists have demonstrated that the separation of status and power, politics and religion, has helped to establish secularism and that Hindu traditional notions of sewa (service) has positively impregnated the political milieu.

Two opposing values

There are, however, some obvious limits to these explanations. First, caste has not fully changed. It is still an instrument of domination and exclusion in India as well as in Nepal. Despite the politics of quotas, Indian upper castes remain over-represented in assemblies. In fact, affirmative action has failed to address many forms of inequality in education, health and employment opportunities. In Nepal, affirmative action is still in its initial stages and the situation of the Dalits and the Tarai ‘low’ castes is worse than in India. The patronage system still prevails in local assemblies and prevents people from freely participating in civic life. Moreover, politics is not the only area where caste prevails; it exerts its influence in daily secular and sacred domains, often invisible to the external observer, and is much more exclusionary.

As a number of Indian sociologists have warned, discriminatory rights have also proved to be a danger to democracy if they are established once and for all. They transform castes into competitive, corporate, substantialised bodies to the detriment of former linkages in the past. Likewise, reservation legitimises caste; it strengthens social barriers and inhibits the emergence of trans-boundary forms of belonging. Politics in these affairs is grounded in extremely parochial concerns. In order to cumulate advantages, groups can even compete for backwardness, which is obviously not the essence of democracy.

Be that as it may, it must be recalled that even if caste has changed over time, it has its roots in ancient India, whereas democracy is a new concept in South Asia. The encounter of the two notions and social orders has to be seen as a historical process consisting of the accommodation of two sets of opposed values. Democracy has been vernacularised and integrated in the caste language. At the same time, caste has been transformed into a corporate affirmative group to adapt to the new political game. The relationship between caste and democracy has to be scrutinised at the junction of these two processes.

Toffin is Director of Research at the National Centre for Scientific Research, France

Published: 09-07-2014 09:21

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