Recently(*) the Indian state of Rajasthan, supposedly the “Land of Kings”, was host to one of the worst bouts of “caste riots” that India has seen in recent years, leaving at least 9 dead and many more injured. Eventually the Indian armed forces had to be brought in to quell the situation.
What is particularly bizarre about this incident is that the particular caste who led the rioting, the Gujjars (a formerly powerful tribe after whom Gujarat is named) are actually fighting to downgrade their official social status, in order to gain access to government jobs and university places that are reserved for the supposedly lowest castes. So now people are fighting for the right to be called low caste!
In the West, the normal stereotype of Hindus and India perpetuated through the media and colonial history books is that caste struggle involves high-caste Hindus (the evil Brahmins) trying to brutally lord over the suppress those lower down. In fact, modern caste politics is hugely different compared with what popular perception would lead one to believe. The struggle is waged between different groups purely for the pursuit of electoral power and possession of valuable state resources, by manipulating an out of control monster called “Caste Reservations”.
Post-Independence India set about trying to correct the historical injustices committed against certain sections of the population (the “Dalits”) by creating rigorous positive discrimination, known as “Reservations”. This allowed certain castes (called Scheduled Castes and Tribes) to be guaranteed a certain level of representation in government jobs and education.
The idea was that Reservations would be a short term arrangement to help certain marginalized sections of society into the mainstream. The system was supposed to be dropped after 20 years or so. But now, almost 60 years on and counting, reservations have been extended hugely, and so have the categories of people eligible. Even “middle castes” and “high castes” are trying to get a slice of the pie by trying to reclassify themselves! Political parties use promises of extending reservations to woo prospective caste vote banks. Some states are also introducing reservations for Muslims.
The ridiculous thing is that the system makes no provision for the actual economic situation of individuals and their families in dishing out these reserved jobs and university places. For example, a “Yadav” (the same group to which Shri Krishna belonged) have managed to have themselves classified as “Other Backward Castes” in some parts of India. Many Yadav’s are millionaires, but despite that they would still be eligible for reservations benefits, whereas a poverty stricken family from a so-called “forward caste” (and millions such families exist in India) would not!
The whole thing is ridiculous and needs to be scrapped in favour of a system which looks at the circumstances of individuals rather than entire castes. If anything, the current system is serving to perpetuate rather than erode hostility and inequality between castes, as the Gujjar-led riots is Rajastan so aptly demonstrate.
(*) This article was originally written July 2007, but the problem & principles described are still current. Several more riots have occurred since the article was written.