Caste reigns supreme in the present semi-feudal setting, more so, in a few states of Northern and Eastern India. This unique system of social stratification based on notion of purity and pollution, having four Varnas and umpteen’ Jatis’, determines the patterns of everyday life. Not only people are caste-conscious, they also become caste-centred, many a time. One such occasion could be elections.
In a situation of caste endogamy and clan exogamy, attempts for assertion of basic rights often lead to social tensions and conflicts. Changes in land ownership or the Govt. sponsored mobility, such as, reservation also add fat to the fire. Even the educated, profound and well meaning individuals interested seriously in bringing about an attitudinal change, get discouraged and disenchanted soon, given the complex nature of circumstances and obstinate leaders.
Compelling Factors-A time comes when such individuals are compelled to strike a compromise with the same norms of the system, which in their opinion, were fit for modification earlier. Thus generations come and generations go but ills of the system go on perpetuating. No permanent solution appears in sight. Exploitation and misguidance of the spirited individual, therefore, goes on unabated in the name of ritual ascribed status.
Three Levels of Conflict-Such a scenario leads to a series of rivalries and conflicts involving the three major Caste groups. Inter-caste conflict is mainly observed at the following levels:
(A)Between the Upper and the Middle Ranging Castes.
(B)The Upper Castes and the Scheduled Castes or Harijans and
(C)The Harijans and the Middle Ranging Castes.
Based on some research it has been noted that till the Sixties of the 20th Century ,incidents of conflict involved primarily the Upper Castes, such as, the Bhumihars and the Kayasthas. Gradually the former met with tough resistance from the Rajputs or the Kshatriyas. Brahmins, however, remained relegated to the background for a sizeable time as neither they possessed enough land nor they had muscle power at their beck and call.
From the Thirties of the 20th Century, the Intermediate Castes, such as, the Yadavas,Koeries ,Kurmis etc. began organizing and mobilizing themselves in a bid to compete with, as also ‘tackle’ the might of the Upper Castes. But actual assertion in this domain began taking shape in the Sixties, when infighting among the Upper Castes registered a rise. Consequently, the middle castes, now in the ambit of the Other Backward Classes (OBC) became a force to reckon with in the arena of politics in U.P,Bihar,M.P,Haryana,Rajasthan etc. Natural corollary was to further strengthen their hold in the countryside and have a say in the elections, other than to Parliament and State Assemblies.
Impact of OBC Commission Based Reservations
In tune with Article 340 of the Constitution, the appointment of Kaka Kalelkar Commission(1953)and the Mandal Commission(1978)for the O.B.C.’s at the Union level and that of several state Committees and Commissions, followed by far-reaching judicial pronouncements, spoke clearly of growing influence of the middle ranging castes. Owing to reservation facility later, ranging from 15 to 50% at the State level to 27% at the Union level ,the conflict between the OBC’s and the Upper Castes began becoming manifest. Swords were drawn at each other in more candid ways.
Resistance from the Upper Castes was out of the apprehension that their share of Government jobs would be taken away by the Middle Castes while the latter considered it as a step in the right direction, as the numerically weak Upper Castes had dominated every sphere of society. Whatever may be pro and anti-reservation arguments, the erstwhile harmony and co-existence ceased to exist. The conflict grew to alarming proportions between 1977 and 1992. Ripples were felt later. These are still being felt.
Upper Castes vs.Harijans
The second level of conflict concerns the upper castes and Harijans. Latter used to constitute majority of landless labourers in villages and were unfortunately, the traditional sufferers. Such a conflict has been essentially on account of usurption of land of Harijans and denial even of minimum wages to them. Attempts to unite them to secure a reasonable living have generally been suppressed. But in a few cases, the upper castes, apart from exploiting ,were also extending patronage in the crisis situations. Vis-a-vis middle castes, it was found absent.
The third level of conflict is between the middle ranging castes and the Harijans. The issues are akin to those involved in the second level. However, studies have shown that the method of deplorable atrocities by the former on the latter have been somewhat different in nature. In the post-1977 era, when freedom of expression got a fillip, Harijans expected improvement in their lot ,if not, the similar treatment prior to transfer of land ownership to the middle castes. Contrary to their expectations, they gradually lost patronage of land owners and were more subjugated in the changed situation. Police and the Magistracy too appeared non-cooperative and non-responsive. Several incidents bear testimony to it. But whenever their vote bank is needed for Government formation or providing stability thereto, Harijans assume temporary significance.
Implicit Levels of Conflict
Apart from the three explicit levels, there exists implicit levels of conflict among certain upper, middle and the Scheduled Castes. A contradiction or a tendency to look down upon is found between the Rajputs and Bhumihars or between Bhumihars and Brahmins. In the same way, cleavages have emerged between the upper and lower middle castes. The former are seen virtually ignoring the latter ,unless it is election time. Moreover, the feeling of superiority and inferiority has also contributed to dis-unity among the different Scheduled castes. The Chamars and Dushads are not found on equal footing ,according to each other. Some of the Dushads would not accept even water from the hands of a Chamar. .Differences also are noticed between the Bhogtas, Chamars and Ghasis. Hence, the element of untouchability even gets percolated within the S.C. category.
Rationality vs. Primordial Loyalities- One is constrained to believe that behind most of the happenings drawing the attention of conscious masses in some of the mentioned states ,there exists caste factor. It shows its true colour and dimension ,both in towns and villages. Elections held at various levels have been decided on caste considerations. Those having support of a dominant caste, come out with flying colours while those seeking secular votes normally get vanquished. Even in the educational institutions, trade associations and few public bodies, one would get an impression that rationality is being set aside to make way for primordial loyalities.
Pertinent question, therefore, is –If the educated individuals act like this, shall we blame the illiterate and tradition-bound masses ?.Certainly not.
Situation is changing in some spheres of society, such as, marriage and festivals but the process of transformation is slow and not free from any incumbrances. So long as governing elite encash the caste factor to pursue their vested interest , no substantive change is foreseen in the social structure.
Concluding Remarks-As a matter of fact, the governing elite especially the politicians, do not have any caste most of the times. Instesd they belong to the same ‘Interest Group’. Their interest lies in ruthlessly practicing and mastering a ‘Divide and Rule’ policy vis-à-vis the deprived non-elite masses. Thus they possess the dual identity of being and at the same time, not being the members of a caste. The case for urgent and justifiable entry of the educated and upright persons into the political cauldron, therefore, assumes significance