Demand for caste census reflects crisis in social justice policy in India
As the caste census became a hot potato in the mainstream media, villagers in eastern Uttar Pradesh said they had no idea what it was. “Hum logo ko iss se koi matlab nahi” is the common response we received from the villagers during a recent field study. However, a few young political workers from the opposition parties were aware of the debates surrounding the caste census.
The demand for a caste census raised by the leaders of some political parties has succeeded in reaching their cadres, but can it reach the rural voters of Uttar Pradesh?
Parties that demand caste enumeration lend themselves to a policy of social justice that focuses on the “power of numbers” in a democracy. But the whole project of social justice rests on the ethical aspect in a democracy. When too much emphasis is placed on numbers and majority in the distribution of opportunities and resources based on social justice, ethical ground is lost. What remains is an aggressive demand. This shows the crisis of social justice policy in India.
This crisis was caused by two factors. First, because the social justice project has not, to a large extent, been successful. Second, because of the rise of Hindutva politics which has emerged as a competitor in mobilizing backward and Dalit communities and integrating them into its fold.
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Disillusionment with the politics of social justice
As a concept, social justice policy is meant to represent the interests of all backward and marginalized people in a democracy. But over the past few decades, it has largely helped some dominant groups to strengthen themselves digitally. This trend goes against the very nature of social justice.
Those who claim to be fighting for social justice must act on two fronts: first, to strive for the development of the caste to which they belong, and second, to ensure an equal distribution of democratic resources among the most marginal and invisible backward and Dalit communities.
But today, social justice policy is plagued by structural inequalities and multiple marginalities deeply rooted in it. Although they are the product of the traditional power structure, these inequalities have never been fully corrected by the modern social justice project.
Communities with larger numbers are more valuable in democratic politics. Large numbers work in two ways: on the one hand, they help to counter traditional social domination, on the other hand, they also give rise to new forms of socio-political domination. In a democracy, digital force can empower a community to assert itself, but also to oppress other smaller communities. And this is where the dangers of majoritarianism lie.
The policies of Babasaheb Ambedkar, Ram Manohar Lohia, Congress and active parties in South India shaped the social justice movement in the years immediately following independence. Then came the Mandal Commission, which gives hope to the backward and marginalized. Their aspirations gave power to young leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Mulayam Singh, Mayawati, who became the guardians of social justice policy.
But while these leaders have gained power, they have failed to provide adequate political representation to marginal communities other than those to which they belong. As a result, a feeling of exclusion has developed in several backward and smaller Dalit communities. Disillusionment with social justice policies among a section of the marginalized created the space for the Hindutva Social Empowerment Project.
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Space for Hindutva Politics
It is interesting to compare that while social justice policy relies heavily on the state for opportunity, dignity and social respect, Hindutva policy combines state and state-run projects, programs social organizations and religious pride to give a sense of empowerment to the marginalized. . Social justice policy in India centers on pride in your caste identity; Hindutva politics appeals to a person’s Hindutva identity, which subsumes the caste identity.
When parts of backward and marginal communities experience economic mobility and political representation, they aspire to respect, not only from members of their community, but also from traditionally dominant communities, including upper castes. The Hindu ritual space—Puja-path, the teeth yatras, religious programs — also provides backward communities with a platform for socio-cultural mobility. We may have ‘intellectual’ debates about such forms of social inclusion, but for much of India, especially rural India, it matters.
While politics based on social justice focuses on secular democratic desires of the marginalized, Hindutva politics works on both economic and religious and cultural aspirations.
This Hindutva policy resonates with several backward and marginalized communities in northern India, particularly Uttar Pradesh, who felt excluded from the social justice movement. Many non-Yadav OBC and MBC castes, the most marginalized Dalits and semi-nomadic communities, have become supporters of Hindutva in recent years.
The Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and even the Congress of Uttar Pradesh want to reinvent themselves and reinvent their social justice policy by raising the need for a caste census and trying to counter the BJP-led project of Samajik Samrasta (social synthesis). But based on my observations in the field, the OBC caste census is not yet a problem in the rural UP. Making it an electoral issue that influences voting choices is difficult, to state the obvious.
Let’s see how opposition parties in Uttar Pradesh project caste enumeration as an issue in the upcoming elections. Interesting moments to come!
Badri Narayan is professor and director of the GB Pant Social Science Institute, Prayagraj, and author of “Republic of Hindutva”. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.