A system of hereditary and hierarchical caste-based stratification still governs political, social and economic life in India, over seventy years after Independence. According to a 2018 study, the Dalits, the members of the so-called lowest castes in India, earn on average less than half what upper-caste people do. Forty percent of adult respondents in Delhi—one of India’s more progressive states—support laws preventing intercaste marriages. There has never been a Dalit prime minister of India, despite the fact that the community comprises nearly a fifth of all Indians. A large number of upper-caste people even admit to practising untouchability—avoiding physical contact with Dalits, or objects touched by Dalits.
Why the caste system persists is an exceptionally difficult question. Hindu reformers have sought to show that casteism and untouchability are perversions of Hinduism, unlicensed by the most important scriptures, and could therefore be abolished through resources within Hinduism. Marxist parties view the caste system as an essentially feudal socio-political structure, which, combined with certain distinctly Indian religious and cultural characteristics, has made it abnormally persistent, and it can therefore only be abolished through inclusive class struggle. Finally, Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, perhaps the most important of the caste abolitionists of modern India and the chairman of the Drafting Committee of India’s Constituent Assembly, explained casteism as licensed by the Hindu scripture the Manusmriti, arguing that it is therefore only possible to abolish it through the “annihilation of caste”: that is, by discarding casteist scripture, or by Dalits conversions out of Hinduism altogether, combined with specific and separate legal and political representation of Dalits.
Each of these solutions has been tried by different—sometimes conflicting—agents. None has worked completely, but each has contributed to a reduction in casteism. Gandhi, one of the traditional Hindu reformers, led some of the most vigorous efforts aimed at the abolition of untouchability. The Sangh, the foremost of the hardline traditionalist Hindu organizations, was praised by Ambedkar—who was otherwise highly critical of Hinduism—for its internally casteless structure. The Marxists continue, across campuses and in the few areas where they have organizational strength, to lead struggles in solidarity with members of the marginalized castes, with more consistency than many mainstream parties. Finally, the Ambedkarite approach has largely been codified in Indian law, which defines a set of robust provisions guaranteeing affirmative action in government jobs, educational institutes and legislatures. A number of Dalit parties along the lines recommended by Ambedkar now exist, foremost among them the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). As a result of these developments, casteism has been diminished and even stigmatized to the extent that Prime Minister Modi finds it politically expedient to publicly proclaim his supposed membership of a lower caste.
All three approaches have had their failures, too. Notably, the Sangh and many of its allied organizations have historically been committed to a form of ethnonationalism that excludes and even stigmatizes the Abrahamic faiths. This has resulted in horrific pogroms and hate crimes, which often end up especially targeting Dalits, many of whom have converted to Christianity or Islam to escape caste-based persecution—though not always successfully. The Communist Party of India, which is Marxist and theoretically free from all casteist bias, has never been led by a Dalit leader, much to the consternation of Ambedkarite organizations.
Inequalities in Conflict
Much more complex, however, has been the fate of the identitarian solutions that claim to be inspired by Dr Ambedkar’s original efforts. According to the mainstream savarna (i.e. non-Dalit) dominated political parties, the results could not be more straightforwardly positive. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has proclaimed, “Even if Ambedkar appears today, he cannot snatch this very right [i.e. affirmative action] of yours,” although the benefits of affirmative action in any area have been highly exaggerated. Both the major national parties in India—the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party—have developed dedicated mechanisms for managing “caste arithmetic” and have often formed coalitions with the BSP, which remains a durable political force in India.
There has, however, been a sustained and intelligent critique of this brand of identity politics, and it has come primarily from a section of the Dalits themselves. Professor Anand Teltumbde is the grandson-in-law of Ambedkar: a former top-level executive at a petroleum corporation who went on to become an influential academic economist on the radical left and one of India’s foremost scholars of caste, and is now a political dissident, jailed on dubious charges. In his magnum opus, the Republic of Caste, he conducts a magisterial examination of the sociology, economics and politics of caste in India, after seven decades of Independence and as many years of caste-based politics and legal provisions. The conclusions he reaches are surprising, to say the least. Of specifically caste-based upliftment measures, he says:
The key to fathom the reservations [group-specific affirmative action] imbroglio is to understand the duplicity of the native rulers who succeeded the British and have been driving this policy in the service of capital behind a facade of social justice … Our legislative history presents the spectacle of continually reinforced caste identities through proliferating reservation, accelerated by the introduction of the criterion of backwardness. Since castes and religions have a proven mettle in dividing the working class, capitalists can only relish their survival. What’s more, their interests coincide with those of the political class, as caste and religion provide handy levers to manipulate the people away from livelihood issues.
Of caste identitarian politics, he is even more critical. In his view, such politics have not been useful in the long run, and might even be positively harmful, because caste-based identitarianism is in complete contradiction to the aim of abolishing caste. Identitarian movements, even those seeking to end oppression, are uniquely vulnerable to further “splitting … into rivals for patronage” from whoever is currently wielding political power. If a formal political entity is instituted to safeguard such a movement, it faces “goal asymmetry”: its very existence and power depend on the structural oppression it seeks to destroy. Finally, even if such a political entity somehow gained power and became part of the political ruling class, it would have no choice but to continue its identitarian assertions while in power, which would result in “a dynamic reinforcing of caste consciousness.”
The upshot of all this is what Professor Teltumbde calls the Republic of Caste, a country where all politics, activism and social relations revolve around the creation and management of caste-based identitarian coalitions. This leads to some surprising results. Most astonishingly, the leader of the BSP, Kumari Mayawati, herself a Dalit, once attended a Brahmin Bhaichara Sammelan (literally: “Congregation of the Brahmin Brotherhood”) in order to announce her support for special protections for poor and unemployed Brahmins, the highest group in the traditional caste hierarchy. Try to imagine Cornel West attending an event dedicated to the advancement of the white race, and you may begin to grasp the ridiculousness of the Indian situation.
All this seems outlandish, even to those of us in India who have had the time and resources to study the question of caste in some depth. Yet, this bizarre and complex situation was inevitable from the day when caste identities were consecrated in our constitution and thereby made an integral part of public culture. From that point onwards, the mainstream struggle for social justice was no longer about the abolition of oppression as such, but about the satisfaction of the most pressing needs, at any moment, of each caste qua caste.
Notwithstanding the fivefold division that is sometimes artificially made for the purposes of narrative simplification to non-Indians, there are over three thousand castes. With the exception of a few at the very top and bottom, every caste is below many others in the traditional hierarchy, and above many others. Even without bringing in the highly complex and nonlinear ways in which gender and religion interact with this system, practically everybody can claim to be part of an oppressor group in some ways and an oppressed group in others. Politics in India therefore usually relies on finding or creating just the right caste bloc in order to champion its interests in opposition to those of other caste blocs, always in the name of some perfect equality, which is just visible on the horizon—and yet never arrives.
Life in the Matrix
This is the teleological and practical end of the politics of intersectionality that now dominate the political conversation in the United States. The idea that one’s politics must be based on one’s position within a “matrix of domination” has been put into practice in India for over seven decades now, with few positive results, and little progress to show towards the vision of the “annihilation of caste” on which modern India was built. All it has done is harden caste identities to the extent that widespread public observation of untouchability and opposition to caste miscegenation coexist alongside widespread public support for an affirmative action programme that reserves half of all the positions in institutes and public workplaces for historically disadvantaged groups. Once one comes to genuinely believe that identities are reducible to oppressor–oppressed dichotomies within an ever-growing matrix—and can never be anything more than that—at some point, one will want to be as much of an oppressor and as little of a victim as possible.
The politics of intersectionality makes it exceptionally vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous political elites—because it is usually accompanied by a postmodern rejection of universal values, reason and even objective truth; and because it reduces social justice to struggles over identity. The result, as Professor Martha Nussbaum puts it, referring to the relativism of the postmodernist Judith Butler, is this: “For every friend of Butler, eager to engage in subversive performances that proclaim the repressiveness of heterosexual gender norms, there are dozens who would like to engage in subversive performances that flout the norms of tax compliance, of non-discrimination, of decent treatment of one’s fellow students.”
Professor Nussbaum was writing polemically and hypothetically, but political programmes have been built on thoroughgoing relativism. Many of the Nazis were (and are) committed intellectuals, who took to heart the Nietzschean and Heideggerian criticisms of the glorious German Enlightenment. They realized that though they might be viewed as the “greatest criminals” of all time, this judgment would be based on a concern for the oppressed which was mere ressentiment carried over from traditional morality. Once they had succeeded in their struggle, this would be discarded in favour of an identitarianism, in which glory earned through the mere fact of struggle justified everything.
The Value of Rationality
Decades upon decades of postmodern and postcolonial scholarship has yielded little by way of social or material improvement for India. Indeed, in terms of forging a culture that is healthy and just, it may well have yielded less than nothing. In The Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar eviscerates every argument made by caste apologists, arguing that, while people are “undoubtedly unequal” in “physical heredity,” the allocation of resources on the basis of irrelevant factors such as caste—as opposed to individual ability—was plainly unjustifiable and had led Hindu society into “a life of continuous defeat” at the hands of better organized peoples, such as the Mughals and the British Empire.
Largely as a result of Ambedkar’s insistently rational arguments, including an acerbic debate with Gandhi, who had previously been an apologist for the caste system but changed his mind radically as a result of that encounter, the largely non-Dalit but usually educated members of the Indian Constituent Assembly came to unanimously accept the legal abolition of caste discrimination in all forms. The importance of this cannot be overstated: at a time when caste was absolutely central to Hindu identity—so much so that Gandhi wrote that “I do not know how a person who rejects Caste, i.e. Varna, can call himself a Hindu”—it was not identitarian politics but open, rational debate that won India’s Dalits their human rights.
But that was while there still were, at least among the educated class, universally accepted objective standards of truth in history, and of value by which the quality and worth of a life could be judged, and of rationality by which one argument could be judged better than another. It was also a time when one could state that the culture of a colonized people may have had something to do with their falling prey to colonization. Now that some parts of academia have done away with all standards, even the most obvious practical ones, one can finally say, with the highly influential postmodern Hinduism scholar Rajiv Malhotra and the Ghent School postcolonial theorist S. N. Balagangadhara, that the caste system—and any other inconvenient fact to be explained away—is actually a colonialist conceptual essentialization of a culture that is non-essentialist at the core—and therefore, in practice, immune to critique.
This type of apologetics has not gone down well with scholars, including activist scholars, who have to live amid and fight against the worst aspects of contemporary Indian culture. For instance, Professor Meera Nanda, one of the signatories of the Harper’s letter against cancel culture, has long documented and severely criticized the many ways in which postmodern scholarship has legitimated not only inequality but pseudoscience and even pseudohistory in Indian academia, by insulating it from rational critique on the grounds that rationality is somehow irredeemably white or patriarchal.
In Indian politics, as in the contemporary intersectional identitarian consensus that now seems to be forming in the west, the underlying theory seems to be that the assertion of multiple oppressed identities and the acknowledgement of multiple oppressor identities will somehow lead to a levelling of hierarchical identities altogether. Yet, what evidence is there to support this hope? It does not seem to be working out that way in India. Has the assertion of different identities ever worked to dissolve those identities?
Perhaps we sceptics may turn out to be completely wrong. Yet, to assume, without evidence, that ever-escalating identity assertion is the correct approach, and to suppress all questioning of this approach, is not healthy democratic politics. It is political theology and—like all other forms of theology—must be kept firmly out of the public political domain.