Books Review


By Christopher Jaffrelot, Permanent Black, Delhi,2003, p. 505, Reviewed by: Afroz Alam

Indian socio-political scenario has undergone and is still undergoing a process of rapid transformation. A change is particularly significant in the political mobilization of the low castes. India, at least in its earlier incarnation reflects a picture of political democracy which was captured by social elite that neglected social democracy. The socio-religious and political movements, agrarian transformations and affirmative action of the state policy have certainly awakened unconscious silent mass of society to empower and emancipate, motivate and mobilize themselves to assert their claim in the power structure of the society. In this respect, South and West India have achieved a level of maturity due to strong dalit movement in the past. Similar developments were notable by their absence in North India till 1970s. At the end of 1970s, the low castes mobilizations were gradually, and more or less surreptitiously, taking over in north India. Electoral success of Janata Party 1977 and Janata Dal in 1989 assertiveness of the lower castes in the name of  ‘kisan’ and quota respectively, which effectively challenged the congress system.

These reflections have been provoked by a reading of the excellent and most tellingly titled book, India’s silent Revolution : The Rise of Low Castes in North Indian Politics by Christopher Jaffrelot.

The author is “value frank” in declaring his very purpose of study, his perspective and hypothesis in the introductory part which itself represent the ‘epitome’ of the book. Why power alternated always in the closed circle of upper castes? To answer these questions, the author hypothesizes, that ‘the democratic weight of the upper caste and their role in the local power structure prepared the ground for the development of conservative ideologies and the establishment of the Congress’s clientelistic politics’ (p.8)

In the first three chapter of the book, Jaffrelot explores the ideological conservatism of congress which he finds in the Gandhian ‘organicistic world view’. Quite sympathetic to Ambedkar, he  dubbs Gandhi as ‘Social status quoist’ who resisted alternative egalitarian agenda of Ambedkar in order to support upper caste domination. He looks at Madan Mohan Malviya, Rajindra Prasad and Seth Govind Das critically argue that “intelligentsia recruited from the elites of upper castes, often went hand in hand with Hindu traditionalism” (p.63)  Even he finds Nehru, in habit to co-opt Notables (Zamindars, Rais, Maharjas, Landlords, Businessmen) as a part of his genuine ‘vote bank’ politics.

After analyzing first four general elections (1952-67), he highlights the stability of over representation of upper castes among congress’s cadres, Mps, MLAs in UP, Rajasthan, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. How was congress successful in receiving support from groups which were poles a part in the social structure of North India? The answer lies in the co-option of Scheduled Caste leaders by the Congress which only contributed to the dependence level of Scheduled Castes on upper caste and sustained “clientelistic arrangement of ‘Congress System’ (p. 114) for long. Jagjivan Ram, B.P. Maurya, Chedilal Sathi were fine examples of Congress’s co-option strategy. The author points out that affirmative action provided hardly any incentive for scheduled caste MPs and MLA’s to foster political consciousness of the Low caste. It was largely because the reservation policy worked as the “smokescreen of the egalitarian discourse” (p.91).

Jaffrelot dismisses Weiner’s thesis about the ‘open elite system’ of the Congress Party in the 1960s (Weiner, M., Party Building in a New Nation: The Indian National Congress, UCP, 1967) with the support of reliable data that intermediate and low castes were conspicuous by their absence among the Congress’s MLAs the state party leaders and state Governments in North India. Even the split of 1969 and Indira Gandhi transformative agenda was superficial, the new entrants represents ” more or less the same  social category” (p. 133).

A striking feature of the second part of the book is the author’s comparative analysis of the non-Brahmin and low caste movements in South and North India. The three case studies of Maharashtra, TamilNadu and Gujarat persuades  him to think that the caste associations and affirmative action policies in these regions prepared the ground for the “ethnicisation” and “empowerment” of the non-Brahmin castes. The notion of ‘Other Backward Class’ and the reservation policies in the late 1960s and early 1970s eventually substituted itself into that of Non-Brahminism in the South and West. The Congress resisted the ‘institutionalization of this notion’, yet the kalekar and the various state  commissions in North India helped the low castes to move towards a form of group consciousness. Jaffrelot calls it a new step in the process of reshaping caste identity (p.253) in North India.

Part IIIrd  of the present study, explored two different traditions –the socialist and Charan Singh’s Kisan Politcs, Mandal Affair and the rise of low castes and finally the renewal of Dalit politics with the rise of BSP to power. The modus operandi of socialist’s strategy of ‘social emancipation’ and Charan Singh’s Kisan identity were conspicuously power oriented. This was the main reason they began to make common cause in the 1970s.

The implementation of the Mandal commission Report, by the V.P. Singh’s government crystallized a new social coalition, the OBCs, which was able to create new horizontal solidarities. The numerical consciousness of OBCs effectively questioned ‘vertical clientelistic linkage’ which reflects in the transfer of power from elite groups to subalterns. Jaffrelot marked this change as ‘Revolution’ in Aristotelian terms which ushered in the second sage of Indian democracy.

The political context created by the Mandal Commission reports gave more visibility to the Scheduled Castes by the organized effort of Kanshi Ram. Over the last fifteen years the BSP has been almost constantly on an upward trend with one point programme, ‘take power’. The main concerns of author’s analytical detail was to prove that politicized version of caste is responsible for the democratization of India democracy. How far can the Congress and the BJP adjust to the rise of the lower castes? The author discusses this question in the chapter 12 and 13.

As to why the transfer of power from upper castes to subaltern groups did not lead to violence, the author gives the following reasons. Firstly, the whole process is incremental; the upper castes are still in command, with OBCs forming a second line leadership. Secondly, the rise to power of the lower castes is very uneven. Thirdly, the conflict is not based on a clear cut political opposition. Fourthly, the liberalization of the economy has opened new opportunities, for the upper castes in the private sector; Fifthly, the rise to power of the lower castes is not irreversible and linear.

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