Consanguinity and community of economic interests are the factors that most effectively bind a group together. Endogamy and a common occupation within each caste were the pillars of our caste system. They consolidated each caste into a rigid and exclusive brotherhood with its own rules and its own leadership, a fraternity that lasted countless generations and gave the caste system a durability that few other social structures have achieved in human history. They also ensured that each caste was so wrapped up in its own concerns and so hostile to others that no sense of Indianness emerged until centuries of racist colonial domination created a shared grievance against a common enemy.
The colonial masters have gone. Since their departure the divisive effects of the caste system have been steadily dissipating the sense of nationhood that their rule created despite the existence today of the countervailing forces of economic growth, urbanization and industrialization. The latter have induced occupational and regional mobility and fostered a degree of anonymity that weakens kinship and caste ties. In urban, industrial India, new economic alignments are emerging. Even inter-caste marriage, that ultimate solvent of the system, has made a timid beginning.
Two factors have however diluted the impact of growth and helped the preservation and reassertion of caste identities. First, there is the yet-localized and limited nature of economic growth: vast tracts of the Hindi heartland (including all Uttar Pradesh and Bihar), the tribal belts of Rajasthan, central and eastern India as well as the inaccessible North-east remain outside its pale, steeped in essentially agrarian economies with age-old traditions and power-structures. In this huge part of our world, traditional caste roles are still socially enforced and murder of couples who have the temerity to stray outside their castes is routine. This, of course, is a transient factor. As the mainstream of growth broadens and engulfs more of the country and its population, its eroding effect on caste is bound to intensify.
Far longer lasting however will be the consequences of deliberate mobilization of caste identities by politicians in search of a power base. All politicians are shrewd enough to realize that merely invoking caste loyalties cuts no ice with the electorate, particularly when the opposition could do likewise. Loaves and fishes, or at least expectations of loaves and fishes, howsoever seldom fulfilled, are needed as well — and caste quotas constitute the ideal instrument for the distribution of these goodies. ‘Social justice’ provides the perfect fig-leaf for this exercise in electoral bribery. And once a politician or a political party begins this game, as V.P. Singh did for the ‘Mandal’ castes in 1989, Pandora’s box is well and truly open: the compulsions of electoral competition ensure that all others must willy-nilly follow suit.
For the ideologues of caste-based reservations, quotas are intended to rectify the inequalities implicit in the hierarchic structure of the caste system. The fact that at least 90 per cent of the educational and employment benefits from a caste quota are captured by the microscopic elite within the targeted caste is regarded by them as a deplorable but minor flaw (which can be easily corrected) in a grand egalitarian scheme.
Quota politicians know better. They know that benefits for the ‘creamy layer’ are not unintended and dispensable by-products of the scheme but essential to its very design. One must give credit where credit is due. Quotas were fashioned by politicians, not by ideologues, and their primary purpose was achievement, not of equality, but of caste consolidation. Sixty years of reservations have not improved the relative status of our scheduled castes, but they have produced a Mayavati at the helm of a militant SC movement. The Mandal movement has not reduced inequality anywhere, but it has transformed the politics of UP and Bihar into an open display of caste conflict with shifting patterns of coalitions and alliances among the warring castes. National parties are increasingly irrelevant on this battlefield because they have preoccupations other than caste. Even governance issues matter little in these states, as the long tenure of Lalu Prasad in Bihar demonstrated. As for corruption, the pervasive venality of the Indian politician has long devalued this as an electoral issue: where everyone will surely steal, why shouldn’t I vote for the thief of my caste rather than the thief of yours'
Quotas, while failing conspicuously in their overt purpose of uplifting the least advantaged, have thus been supremely successful in their hidden agenda, the consolidation of caste identities and the caste vote. And effective caste consolidation requires a strong caste leadership with adequate resources; only such a leadership can direct the manoeuvrings of the caste vote bloc or formulate and enforce a coherent course of action for the whole caste. Exclusion of the creamy layer from quota benefits would not only totally contradict the personal interests of the leadership; it would also drive a palpable wedge between the interests of the leadership and the perceived interests of its flock that would undermine the credibility of the former. Little wonder therefore that, the laments of the quota ideologues notwithstanding, the creamy layer has kept its tight hold over quota benefits intact over the six decades spanned by reservation policy. Indeed, it is now supposed to be a standard argument for the retention of this hold (articulated, for instance, quite openly and unashamedly by Ram Vilas Paswan) that, if the creamy layer is excluded, 90 per cent of seats and jobs allotted to the quota castes would remain vacant. Clearly, the protagonists of reservation policy know who are its real beneficiaries and consciously wield it, not as an instrument of equality, but as a rallying cry to unite their castes behind them.
Unite for what purpose' At best for savage electoral bouts like those between those accomplished wrestlers, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayavati. But away from the limelight of these well-refereed electoral dangas, in obscure towns and villages, an undeclared caste war rages between the landed other backward classes and their Thakur allies, and the landless SCs — a war that ensures that UP and Bihar remain the most criminalized states in the country.
Not that the Hindi belt is unique as a caste battlefield. The clashes between the Vanniyars and the other OBCs in Tamil Nadu, the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas in Karnataka, the Kammas and the Reddys in Andhra Pradesh and between all of these castes and the Dalits in all these states have become endemic. The Naxalite insurgency that now engulfs all of tribal Andhra, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkhand and Bihar is primarily a war of scheduled tribes against essentially OBC landowners. The North-east is simmering with countless tribal mutinies, demanding autonomy, sometimes for groups that number only a handful. And northern India a mere fortnight ago watched pitched battles over reservations between armed mobs 50,000 strong who had to be separated by the army.
In their quest for personal political strongholds, the politicians have indeed fragmented the country into a thousand Little Indias, each in determined and militant pursuit of its narrow interests. And if only they can paralyse the growth process (as Arjun Singh in his determined assault on quality in education and industry threatens to do), they will have succeeded in returning the country to a medieval anarchy in which caste was the only reality. ‘Social justice’ would then have been well and truly served.