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Since 1st March, 1999
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Caste and Democratic Politics in India Edited by Ghanshyam Shah, Permanent Black, Rs 695

The modernization project in India really took-off only as recently as the middle of the last century. Scientific progress, industrial development, the establishment of transport and communication networks are integral to this project. But modernity, despite its claims to rationality, hasn’t helped people to shrug off primordial loyalties like caste, religion and ethnicity.

The Constitution tried to prevent the perpetuation of the caste system in India. But 50 years after independence, it must be said that the project has not been very successful. Rather, over the years, this phenomenon has acquired new complexities and nuances.

This volume offers an exhaustive analysis of the many facets of caste in India. It has four parts. Part one has essays on the concept of caste. Part two investigates the relationship between caste and power, while part three examines the role of caste in political processes. The fourth section deals with reservation, one of the most debated issues in contemporary Indian politics.

Sociologists are divided over an exact definition of caste. For one, its relationship with “jati” is not always uniform or consistent. Two, caste varies a lot over time and space. G.S. Ghurye uses ethnographic details to analyze the caste system on the basis of six important features. Louis Dumont, on the other hand, constructs a framework for the caste system, in which caste is essentially a hierarchical system based on the opposition of purity and pollution.

Part two has an essay by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, which shows how, despite his abhorrence of untouchability, the father of the nation believed in the varna system. In another essay, B.R. Ambedkar completely rejects completely a social order based on the caste system. Ram Manohar Lohia, on the other hand, was perceptive enough to foresee the potential of caste as a mobilizing force in competitive politics.

The caste system is essentially a class system where stratification is based on the economic status of the group. D.L. Sheth’s essay shows how backward castes comprise an overwhelming majority of the poor, the marginal farmers and agricultural labourers. Lately however, a small but vocal section has emerged among many of these caste groups, which have formed regional- and national-level associations. Contemporary Indian politics has thus become a contest for representation, in which these groups operate as independent and distinct interest groups vis à vis the upper castes.

Numerical strength is very important in a democracy. Thus, large caste groups have an edge in political bargains with the government and political parties. In order to counter them, lower caste groups have tried to expand their network at the regional and national levels by forming associations like “sabhas” and “sangams”. Kothari and Maru write about this phenomenon, but assert that indigenous patterns of communication and differentiation have not lost their relevance.

The realignment of social forces is importance while discussing the role of caste in political processes at the state level. Different kinds of caste alliances in Karnataka, Bihar and Gujarat have been analyzed in this volume by Manor, Sanjay Kumar and Shah, respectively.

The caste system legitimizes and perpetuates hierarchy and inequalities based on birth. But increasingly, there are attempts towards a democratic transformation of Indian society. Examining the politics of reservation, Shah argues that reservation is a way of state intervention to provide assistance to those who have been deprived by the caste system. But such state intervention has to get the support of other socio-political and economic groups.

In examining the interactions between the caste system and political democracy in India, this volume rejects the familiar dichotomy between a traditional society and a modern polity. It gives the ground realities of India’s caste system and will thus be of help to students as well as scholars.

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