Why Mayawati will never abolish caste – R. Jagannathan

Mayawati's one crore rupee garland

R. JagannathanMayawati is not trying to abolish caste; what she is trying to do is build a political super-caste by latching on to atrocities on Dalits and developing a larger tale of common victimhood that will make her powerful. – R. Jagannathan

Anybody who believes that Mayawati is protesting against the uncouth remarks made by Dayashankar Singh, or that the Dalit anger is about nothing but this insult and other atrocities perpetrated against them elsewhere, is missing the wood for trees. And to those pious “liberals” who think abolition of caste is something only the Brahminical Sangh leadership is opposed to, one can only say how little they understand human proclivities.

Let us be clear: caste tensions cannot be abolished. You can annihilate caste, as Ambedkar would have wanted, through extreme coercion and violence, but what you will get after this annihilation is another form of identity and differentiation that will again have tension in-built into it.‎ You may not call it caste, but ethnic, racial, religious and linguistic differentiation will exist. So trying to abolish caste by achieving some kind of uniform identity is impossible. People from the Buddha to Mahavira to Vivekananda to Ambedkar to Gandhi to Kanshi Ram to Periyar to the Communists have attempted it – and failed.

Dayashankar SinghMayawati is not trying to abolish caste; what she is trying to do is build a political super-caste by latching on to atrocities on Dalits and developing a larger tale of common victimhood that will make her powerful. This is no different from Muslim parties trying to build another powerful agglomeration, and the Sangh to build an overarching Hindu narrative. The Communists try and do this on the basis of class, but caste and religion offer better options for building common narratives than class, which tends to be fluid. Castes too were fluid once upon time, but the British tendency to slot people into boxes of identity and post-Independence electoral realities have ensured that castes have become more rigid than before.

Caste can wither away under the pressures of urbanisation and modernisation but can never be abolished through social action alone. The reason for this is simple: it is fundamental to human existence next only to biological imperatives like the need for food or sex. ‎

What is caste? It is a system of differentiation that allows human beings to decide who constitutes “us” and who is “not-us” or “them”. All systems based on the “us and them” narrative will ultimately degenerate into “us” thinking about “them” as somehow inferior, leading to the ultimate demonisation of the other.

If we didn’t have caste, we would use other markers to separate “us” from “them”. Why else would Muslims want to think of themselves as superior to non-Muslims, and why would Sunnis think of Shias and Ahmadiyas and Bahais as despicable, and so on, despite all of them believing in Allah and his Prophet? Is this not just another form of caste discrimination, even though caste is indeed different?

If, one day, we annihilate not only caste, but religious, ethnic, racial, and linguistic differentiation, we would still discriminate on the basis of which football club or IPL team we support.

So, rest assured, Mayawati is not trying to decry caste. She needs caste more than anybody else, for that’s all she has got. This is why when the BJP immediately tried to undo the damage done by Dayashankar by sacking him and expelling him from the party, Mayawati upped the ante and said she would have accepted this action as genuine if the BJP itself had filed an FIR against him and arrested him. And when her supporters threatened Dayashankar’s wife and daughter, far from apologising for the language of misogyny used by them, Mayawati said Dayashankar’s wife should have condemned her husband.

Dalit with Bahujan Samaj Party Flag‎In other words, Mayawati upped her demands every time they were met. This is not someone who is fighting casteism, but someone who is revelling in her caste identity and playing up victimhood for power and electoral gain.

The larger point is all the critics of caste tend to see caste in a unidimensional way, as a system of oppression. It is much more than that. It is kinship and social capital too. Critics of caste are on the wrong track. And political critics are empty vessels making all the noise. They like to use caste as a stick to beat their political opponents and also to demonise other castes, but they have gotten nowhere. The Communists did not abolish caste (show me one Dalit in the top rungs of any Communist party), the OBC parties did not abolish caste, the DK/DMK parties did not abolish caste, the Congress did not abolish caste, and even the Dalits are never going to abolish caste. Nor will the BJP do so, though it has the most to gain from a Hindu consolidation.

Caste will wither away when it is no longer useful to anybody, or to most people, but that day is far away. Right now caste is useful to everybody – to the ordinary individual, since it is a form of social capital, and to the political parties, as it helps mobilise voters to press the right EVM buttons. Ask Mayawati. There is a spring in her step, now that she has been insulted by the “upper caste BJP”. When she was ignored, she was in the dumps.

Caste may ultimately wither away, but in the short-term the best thing we can do is learn some political correctness, and ensure that it never results in violence. Fantasies about abolishing caste are just that: they will just drive discrimination underground. – Swarajya, 23 July 2016

» R. Jagannathan is a senior journalist and the editorial director of Swarajya Magazine.