Of late, Rajasthan has been witnessing a series of caste mahapanchayats. Rajputs started the trend. They were followed by the Jats and the Brahmins and almost all other castes are likely to follow suit soon. The immediate objective of these gatherings is to boost the clout of their respective castes in the political arena. They want to mount pressure on the political parties to field a higher number of candidates from their castes in the forthcoming assembly and parliamentary elections in the state.
What is certain is that in the coming days, caste-based panchayats will play a key role in shaping the politics of north India. The structure and working style across the different caste panchayats are identical. This indicates that a sort of caste resurgence is underway. They don’t call themselves representatives of a “jati” (caste) but of a “samaj” (community or society).
Clearly, they want to turn the clock back. Thanks to the infusion of modern thinking and exposure to democratic institutions, the people had gradually begun rising above caste considerations. However, the caste panchayats are bent on pushing them back into the narrow confines of caste.
That these panchayats are modelled on right-wing organizations is clear from what the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been saying from time to time. The RSS knows that its model of religious nationalism cannot succeed without promoting a narrow casteist mindset. For one, they have exploited religious sentiments to the hilt and whipping up more religious frenzy can now help them only in a limited geographical area or in diverting attention from the real issues. It can no longer help them build a pan-India appeal. That is why the forces of Hindutva are now increasingly seeking to strengthen the stranglehold of caste on society. It is apparent that this will adversely affect the cause of annihilation of caste, while strengthening caste identities and symbols. The folk deities of different castes are being institutionalized with the erection of grand temples dedicated to them. Large amounts of money are being collected from the people but it is not being used to provide educational or medical facilities to the poor of the castes concerned. Neither is it being used for promoting social reform. All this is an endeavour to restore priestly order in a new garb, with a well-oiled mechanism ensuring a steady flow of dakshina (gifts) from the ordinary people to the priestly class. This will ensure that the priestly order faces no challenge from any alternative social order.
The sociopolitical backdrop against which the mahapanchayats have been held in Rajasthan needs to be understood. Northwestern India has long posed a challenge to the communal forces. Having witnessed the horrific tragedy of the partition, the people in this region began distancing themselves from communalism. That led to shared interests taking precedence over caste loyalties, and the process of democratization began. It is also true that until recently this region was plagued by the internal contradictions that inform any society with a feudal structure, though it was challenged in some areas by different movements.
The historic farmers’ movement against the three farm laws, which began about three years ago, did succeed in subsuming caste identity into a wider class identity. Until then, there was no common thread connecting the farming communities of north India and that prevented their mobilization. The farmers’ movement broadened the “farmer” identity to such an extent that even the middle-class began supporting it.
What the caste mahapanchayats are seeking to do now is to break the broad class-based mobilization triggered by the farmers’ movement and bring narrow caste identities to the fore again. An embedded structure can easily disrupt the process of class-based transformation of society.
Another reason why the RSS is outrightly backing this model of caste panchayats is that they can be used to lead the process of social justice off course. The structure of caste rests on the foundation of injustice and is thus an antithesis to justice, both at the level of theory and practice. These caste mahapanchayats are being held in areas where khap panchayats are already active and have earned quite an infamy for unleashing brutal violence against inter-caste love affairs and marriages. These khap panchayats may take a “progressive stand” once in a while, as they did during the farmers’ movement, but basically they seek to tighten the stranglehold of caste on society. They take no stand on the issue of social justice. They only talk of “harmony between castes”, which is also the basis of the Sangh’s concept of Hindu Rashtra. But sociologists tell us that in a Varna-based order of social oppression, the oppressor and the oppressed communities can never live together in harmony. Such slogans only promote communalism and distort social reality.
By entering caste politics, the RSS is trying to prove that it is not the fiefdom of certain castes. It has also birthed a narrative which seeks to oust the issue of caste-based exploitation from public discourse and to undermine the ideal of a caste-free society. As part of this campaign, it is opposing caste census because that would reveal the social composition of society and then issues of distribution of resources and sharing of resources in proportion to population would arise. On the other hand, immersed in the supposed glory of their own castes, the caste panchayats will never align with others. Each caste will consider itself superior to others.
The leadership of these caste panchayats has emerged neither through a natural social process nor via a democratic election. A group of people, mostly well-off and keen to carve out an identity for themselves, have anointed themselves as the leaders of their communities.
These self-styled leaders stifle the leadership that emerges organically from within these communities and wants freedom from the scourge of caste. This obviously means blocking the modernization of these communities. The right-wing abhors such organic leadership because it emerges from the internal churning within these communities. On the other hand, the self-styled leadership wants the status quo. Thus, the caste panchayats are neither taking the democratic route for deciding their leadership nor following the age-old tradition of naming some men as panchas partly through elections and partly through nomination.
How do these caste mahapanchayats arrive at decisions? A caucus, which picks up the bill for the holding of these mahapanchayats and considers it as a wise investment, takes all the decisions on behalf of these bodies. The others who participate in these events just make up the crowd, which helps the leadership strike bargains with the political parties. The decisions of these bodies neither reflect the view of the ordinary members of the caste nor do these decisions influence them. However, they don’t oppose them either. “What difference does it make!” is the general attitude. If a few do stand up against the decisions of the coterie, they are “accommodated”.
Everyone is free to publicize these mahapanchayats. This means that anyone can release posters with slogans and pictures of his choice for publicizing these events. He is also free to choose the amount he wants to invest in the exercise. What is surprising is that the slogans and publicity is in keeping with the ideology of the RSS. They are never about equality, reason or justice but only talk about how their caste is superior to others. They also distort history, glorify monarchy and feudalism and flaunt the money and muscle power of their communities. Whenever the mahapanchayat of any caste is held, the capital Jaipur is flooded with posters of the event. There is hardly any debate in these conclaves. The speeches mostly dwell on ways to enhance the clout of the caste concerned. Social justice, the social ills afflicting the community and problems facing members of the caste are hardly discussed. These mahapanchayats have only disdain for the concept of gender equality.
The leadership of the mahapanchayats wants to perpetuate social tensions and ensure that there is no dialogue between the different castes and that the self-styled leaders are considered as repositories of the collective will and the consciousness of their respective castes so that they can serve their vested interests. They also want to undermine social harmony, put the issue of justice on the back-burner and directly or indirectly promote the status quoist approach of the RSS.
(Translated from the original Hindi by Amrish Herdenia)
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