​​​​​​​Of course, politicians did not create the powerful Hindu caste system. They merely exploit this fault-line, exacerbating the caste animosities to build vote banks.

"Jaati na poocho sadhu ki, pooch leejiye gyan", sang India's saint-poet Kabir. (Do not judge a saint by his caste, imbibe his knowledge). However, the most-asked question in an Indian election is about the candidate's caste. Political analysts ask it, poll strategists ask it, and the voters ask it. The caste-related issues frivolous to outsiders are debated seriously in TV shows and newspaper articles during an election season. Such weird identity-politics is not played out in any other democracy!

Of course, politicians did not create the powerful Hindu caste system. They merely exploit this fault-line, exacerbating the caste animosities to build vote banks. There are four main castes - Brahman (priests and intellectuals), Kshatriya (warriors and kings), Vaishya (traders) and Shudras (servants including the untouchables). They form a hierarchical order that covers hundreds of sub-castes within a caste. Every caste is credited with certain attributes such as valour or craftiness. The tradition of caste-based military regiments established by the British continue.

The caste matters a great deal in Hindu rituals and ceremonies. Caste conflict is a regular feature of life in villages and cities. Many inter-caste marriages are destroyed by social sanctions. Some of these and at times even love affairs end in the crematorium.

A god intervenes

Hindu humans are governed by caste hierarchy, but a god was brought under its purview during the recent election campaign. Yogi Adityanath, BJP's monk-chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, hit the headlines by telling an election rally that Lord Hanuman, known in the West as Monkey God, was a Dalit (belonging to the most depressed caste). The statement made to garner the Dalit votes caused a huge blowback! In a country where Dalits were denied entry into temples, the Yogi called a god Dalit!

The statement highlighted the astounding complexity of Indian politics and of Hindu religion. Political parties face a difficult choice. They woo the oppressed and depressed castes in order to collect more votes. In doing so, they antagonise some upper castes. Religiosity and tradition expect them to respect the caste boundaries! Many upper-caste voters in the recent elections turned away from the BJP because of its support to positive discrimination in favour of the depressed castes.

By calling Lord Hanuman a Dalit, the Yogi offended the Brahmans, the priestly class. Some protesting Brahmans threatened to sue the chief minister. Interestingly, the Yogi is a Rajput (of warrior caste). BJP's mentor organisation RSS has mostly been headed by a Brahman and it is often asked whether a Dalit could ever head the RSS.

With the Yogi calling Lord Hanuman a Dalit, the Dalit leaders demanded that all Hanuman temples should have Dalit priests, and these should be handed over to them! The Dalits took their protests to some Hanuman temples and in one they forced the Brahman priest to leave the building.

A woman Dalit MP resigned from the ruling BJP complaining that Hanuman was humiliated and treated as a slave by the high-caste Hindus. She said Hanuman helped Lord Ram win the war against the demon king Ravan and yet this Dalit was turned into a monkey with a black face!

One leader in the Yogi's own party said Hanuman was not a Dalit but an Arya since the caste system had not started in his age! This will be contested by those who worship Ram as a Kshatriya (the warrior caste). A pro-BJP royal Rajput family claims to have descended from Lord Ram.

Conflicting claims

Contradicting the Yogi, the state BJP minister for religious affairs declared that Hanuman was a Jat (of an intermediate caste). He gave a simple reason. Only the people of this caste jump in to help anyone in trouble and since Hanuman fought Ram's battle, he was a Jat! A socialist leader of the same state said Hanuman was a Gond tribal. A Jain monk claimed that Hanuman was a Jain. Jainism identifies him as one of the 169 great persons, he said.

A Hindu monk-businessman who supports the ruling BJP invoked the sacred texts to say that the caste is determined not by birth but by the nature of duties performed by a Hindu. Since Hanuman burnt down Sri Lanka and made Ram victorious in his war against Ravan, he was a Kshatriya! While some Hindus do worship Ravan, fortunately none declared that a Kshatriya sinned by killing Ravan, the Brahman scholar.

As if citing the Hindu caste system was not funny enough, a Muslim politician declared that Hanuman was a Muslim because his name rhymed with common Muslim names such as Rehman and Usman! A wag said Hanuman was a Chinese because his name rhymes with Jackie Chan! All such statements were given due publicity in the media and led to serious high-decibel TV discussions!

Considering half a dozen conflicting claims made about Lord Hanuman's caste, only a law court can allocate the correct caste to this god and free him from an imposed identity crisis. Secular Hindus grumble that having dividing humans for political gains, the BJP is dividing gods on the basis of caste! Newspaper editors wrote that the poll campaign ought to have focused on the vital livelihood issues instead of on gods and castes.

Caste solidarity and self-immolation

Caste animosities transform the political scene. It happened following Prime Minister V. P. Singh's decision in 1990 to grant job reservation to the "other backward castes". The measure, based on the Mandal Commission Report, was designed to reduce inequalities. But by exacerbating caste divisions, it hindered the BJP's project to unify Hindus on one political platform. The decision did have the political objectives of countering the BJP's Ram temple agitation and winning the votes of the "other backward classes".

It sparked a violent agitation by the upper caste students. Self-immolation by some students gave a tragic twist to the protest. The agitation lit caste fires in young minds and sparked a political storm. The BJP, whose core constituency includes a large section of the upper castes, resumed its agitation for building the Ram temple and went on to withdraw its support to the V. P. Singh Government that lost its majority in Parliament and resigned.

Many upper-caste voters do not like positive discrimination in favour of the backward castes and resent the BJP's stand on job reservations for them. The BJP does not dare to weaken that policy and displease the lower castes but its attempt to enlarge its footprint alienates the upper castes as seen in the recent state elections.

Different political parties are supported by a coalition of specific caste groups. Such coalitions usually stick with their preferred party for a few years. Some join a group for a couple of years then switch their support to another party. In some democracies, such coalitions are based on shared ideology, in India these are formed on the basis of caste solidarity.

Building your caste profile

All parties draw up poll strategy on the basis of the constituency's caste profile. Messages in the election speeches are tailored to suit the dominant caste, ideological coherence is sacrificed. If a candidate belongs to caste A, his rival belonging to caste B fields dummy candidates of caste A to divide the opponent's votes.

Incendiary rumours enhance inter-caste and intra-caste animosities. False statements fuel sub-caste jealousy. Political rivalry is promoted among the caste groups. The dominant caste in the village tries to impose its political preference on the depressed section by issuing threats. If the election results show that the dominant caste leader's fiat was ignored, the defiant voters are subjected to violence. Extensive opinion polls, by indicating the voting preference of a particular caste group, make it easy to take revenge.

Newspapers give the caste-wise break-up of the candidates fielded and the candidates who win the elections. Caste matters in the selection of the candidates and shapes the content of the poll campaign speeches. When the government is formed, the media highlights the caste composition of the cabinet. It wasn't so in the newly independent India when democracy was less mature.

Earlier, some secular political leaders tried to reduce the role of caste in politics. Congress leader Indira Gandhi once ran a successful poll campaign with the slogan: Na jaat pe, na paat pe, muhar lagegi haath pe (We shall ignore the candidate's caste and sub-caste and vote for the Congress symbol of hand.)

Today no party ignores the caste factor that influences the voting behaviour and creates vote banks. Every party devises it poll strategy by considering castes and sub-castes. Paradoxically, even the BJP, while committed to uniting Hindus, plays caste-based politics in a big way. BJP minister has no hesitation in saying that since Congress President Rahul Gandhi belongs to an upper caste, his party cannot bear to see Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is not from an upper caste. BJP's spokesman Sambit Patra publicly asked Rahul Gandhi to declare his Gotra (his specific clan within the caste). This question usually comes up when a matrimonial alliance is discussed!

The BJP and caste

The RSS which is BJP's ideological mentor has mostly been headed by a Brahman and it gives no place to the minorities. A large section of its followers happens to belong to the Baniya caste engaged in business. The ruling BJP, known earlier as a Brahman-Baniya party, has been reaching out to other castes. And yet the organisation is still dominated by the upper castes, as indicated by a detailed analysis of its hierarchy by ThePrint.

Prejudices die hard. So, the BJP leaders in the southern state of Kerala invoked the low caste of its leftist chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan to attack him. He is being asked to leave his political office and go back to his caste profession as toddy tapper. The chief minister is trying to implement the Supreme Court's judgment lifting a temple's ban on the entry of young women. The BJP has launched a violent agitation in defence of faith and tradition. It believes that by consolidating the upper-caste votes, it would be able to make political gains. The Prime Minister made vague comments about belief and said nothing to discourage his party men from defying the Supreme Court judgment.

While some BJP leaders do not refrain from making casteist comments, the party has co-opted even Dr B. R. Ambedkar, a Dalit icon. In protest against the oppressive and discriminatory caste system, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism taking thousands of his followers with him. He had warned the nation against Hindu hegemony and burnt a copy of Manusmriti, a Hindu law book containing casteist verses.

The support of the lower castes in elections is invaluable. It is more so for the BJP since it ignores Muslims and marginalises them to please its die-hard Hindu supporters. Since it has to woo the lower castes, in this limited context, political compulsions have made the BJP less exclusive. It publicises the caste of its candidate if he or she is from a depressed caste. It does so in the case of Prime Minister Modi who is not from an upper caste. If a party opposing it has a large following in a particular caste, the BJP fields a candidate belonging to the same caste in order to draw away voters of that caste. It does not matter any more which caste dominates the party. All parties play this game, but the case of the BJP is worth noting since its declared objective is to unite Hindus.

Caste rivalries and religious polarisation during election campaigns disturb social harmony and often cause violence. Elections come and go but tensions continue. Political leaders generate emotional frenzy through divisive rhetoric, mythological tales and false warnings of the danger posed by the religious "Other" or other caste community. Sectarian statements and violence during the election campaign have become the new normal. In this atmosphere, no one talks of the abolition of the caste system.

L K Sharma has followed no profession other than journalism for more than four decades, covering criminals and prime ministers. Was the European Correspondent of The Times of India based in London for a decade. Reported for five years from Washington as the Foreign Editor of the Deccan Herald.

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