In the run up to recently concluded Gujarat assembly elections, a TV anchor of a prominent news channel kept accusing the face of Patidar agitation, Hardik Patel, of almost single-handedly taking the elections back to the inglorious age of caste politics of the 90s.
Instinctively, I realized – how by voting Narendra Modi to central power in 2014, and by the virtue of the other wins of the BJP in consecutive assembly elections across India – a fallacious assumption is being popularised that if somehow all castes start identifying themselves as Hindus, the days of caste distinction is over. This seemed to be the wisdom of the veteran anchor too. And, so to her obvious surprise, voicing the cause of reservation for a community that felt left out in the ‘Gujarat Model’ of development, as well as appealing to the community to vote for their aspirations, is going back to a history unfit for a mature democracy.
I will not sit in judgment of the deep socio-political understanding of the journalist, but this incident did leave me anxious with questions. Why is caste division in society a menace, which indeed it is? Is voting one way or the other in elections, enough to root out castes from our society? Is the alternative to caste to consolidate diverse communities under one larger identity umbrella? Is it even a wise recourse?
Castes in India are inherently hierarchical and legitimise unequal access to resources, besides the discrimination. An urban middle-class Indian might feel that this is no more a reality of 21st century India, and to them I can only suggest, to open their eyes and look beyond the obvious, even in their respective cities.
Post 1991 the inequitable access and distribution of resources has only deepened. It has obviously affected the already disenfranchised more, but has created further distress for rural and urban communities alike, even for people from what hitherto were considered well-off castes. I think the prudent debate should thus be around economic classes, but unfortunately, when caste identities in our society are so deep-rooted that practically no religion in India exists without these biases – this larger economic debate on class seems almost unviable. When nearly every Indian family holds their caste identity close to their heart, a constitutional aspiration of one community for privileges comes to me as no surprise.
How much ever we might feel venomous about caste politics and reservations, but the reality is that such politics have emboldened the backward classes socially, politically and economically. Needless to say, that yet much more remains to be done and also that such politics have not been without any backlash. But, believe it or not, this is also a truth that it is because of such politics somehow that today in urban India, as we work in MNCs, we are generally oblivious of each other’s identities and largely do not care. Therefore, we can afford to say in our social conversations that reservations should be done away with, or should be strictly on economic grounds while still seeking an arranged marriage alliance within our own respective communities!
In my opinion, any identity and its assertion is violence. Identity is a declaration of distinction between ‘me’ and ‘you’. Inherent in it, is the separation and a sense of superiority. The rift has been created not only outside but also inside. Internally, this separation constantly needs crushing and vanquishing our eccentricities to mitigate one’s existence within the deceptive identity. The truth that we all are aware of is the fact that our birth in any family is no more than an accident. Not that we cannot look for reasons, but this search would only be a philosophical quest.
Thus, according to me, to fictionalise any identity based on fortuitous birth is stupid. And to fictionalise a larger identity of religion, would be far more foolish for the same reason. Moreover, it would be dangerous when that consolidation is done in the vested interest of winning elections by instilling apprehension for other communities. A bigger lie is obviously a greater menace.
Some would argue then, what about unity?
The question of unity only deserves attention when there is diversity, and what better for diversity than so many unique individuals who do not compartmentalise themselves in abstract and definitional identities. Unity is in coherent co-existence of diversity, not in separation, but in harmony with each other. Thrusting any identity to unite is coercion and can only be a temporary cohesion, a forced sticking together. In this futile exercise, the fear of a mutual enemy is a must, and uniqueness a constant predicament. Whereas, in the acceptance of one’s individuality along with that of others, there is a continuous celebration of diversity that no one can ever take advantage of. In this unity alone there is strength and peace.
Why can we not then make our electoral decisions in individual capacity as humans, or better, nature? They are not larger make-believe identities, but our most intimate and immediate realities. Only then one day, we will cease to feel cheated every five years. This does not, though it may seem strange, need a social revolution. It is purely an individual acceptance of truth, ‘as it is’, without any pretense in sincere honesty. Until then we cannot claim to be moving towards a mature democracy or even a sensible habitation.