Menu Close

Caste, Religion & Ethnicity in Indian Politics

1] RELIGION & Indian Politics

Religion and politics have always been together. Religion and politics is neither new nor unique to India. It is universal phenomenon. There is considerable increase in use of religion since end of cold war. The end of clash of ideologies led to clash of civilizations. Secular ideologies gave way to religious fundamentalism of all sorts around the world.
Like any other -ism, communalism is also a political ideology. The purpose of political ideology is the mobilization of voters. When religion is used for mobilization of voters, it is called communalism.
Communalism is a politics of identity. Identity politics is appealing to passion or emotions of people. Identity politics is always violent.
Man is social ‘animal’. Man is dominated by passions, once passion is appealed, raised, they become uncontrollable. Reason will end and violence is bound to happen.
There is nothing wrong in being emotional or passionate about one’s own religion, culture or language. However it is wrong on part of elites to use people by appealing to issue for which people are emotional.

Evolution of communal politics in India

According to British historians, Indians have always been communal. The politics in subcontinent has always been communal. Marxist historian Romila Thapar challenges the orientalist discourse suggesting that there were no communal violence on the subcontinent before the advent of British, though there were local sectarian conflicts. As suggested by Edward Said, it was  a politically motivated project.

Evolution of communal politics during British

1] British started appeasement of Hindus as they though Muslims were responsible for 1857 revolt.
Sir S.A. Khan promised loyalty to British to prevent marginalization of Muslims.
2] British left Hindus for sake of minorities which are always better partners for imperialists.
3] British announced Bengal Partition in 1905 to divide Indians.
4] In 1906, Muslim League was formed in Dhaka.
5] In 1909, Statutory recognition that Muslims are separate community from Hindus.
6] 1919’s separate communal electorate was extended to other religious minorities.
7] In 1915, Savarkar formed Hindu Mahasabha against Muslim League.
8] IN 1923, Savarkar gave theory of Hindutva.
9] Mohammad Iqbal answered by giving concept of Muslim Ummah / Brotherhood.
He held that Quran does not permit Muslims to live under man made laws.
Quran does not look at Muslims as separate nationality. There is no concept of territorial nationalism, all Muslims are one community.
10] 1925, Formation of RSS: Hegdewar & Golwalkar. It was against pan Islamism. RSS promoted ‘militant form’ of Hinduism to overcome Hindu sense of vulnerability.
11] 1932 – Ramsay Macdonald award: After separating different communities on ground of religion, British wanted to reduce Hindus to minority.
12] All these developments ultimately culminated into partition on ground of religion and the subcontinent suffered one of the worst forms of communal violence.

Post independence

Till 1960s, there was no major riot in the country but the bitterness of partition was continuing. Nehru could maintain harmony partly because the position of Congress remained un-challengeable and also because government had put ban on communal organizations.

From 1960s to 1980s
The hegemony of Congress started breaking. Political competition started becoming challenging. Communal mobilization started. During lifetime of Nehru, communal riots took place in many towns – Jabalpur, Nagpur, Aligarh, Ahmedabad.
Selig Harrison has described 1960s as ‘dangerous decade’. According to western scholars, Indian experiment is over, India will not survive beyond 60s. There were communal riots, Linguistic movements, opposition to Hindi as national language, and demand for linguistic states.
‘Nehruvian consensus’ started breaking down. Fortunately India survived. During 1970s and 80s, massive use of religion started. The breakdown of the congress system was the reason that congress had to use religion as an ideology or political method.
One of the worst examples of religion based violence was the ‘uncivil war of Punjab’. It culminated into tragedy of operation ‘blue star’, assassination of Indira Gandhi and 1984 riots against Sikhs.

Communalism in 1990s.
There is phenomenal rise in communal politics in 1990s.
Thomas Blom Hansen has explained the phenomenon of communalization in his book THE SAFFRON WAVE denoting the rise of BJP from 2 seats in 1984 to the status of formation of government and first successful completion of coalition govt.
To Hansen’s thesis, we can add that in 2014 elections, BJP could get absolute majority. Thus at least it has put halt on coalition politics. According to Suhas Palashikar, there is a possibility of India moving towards BJP system.
Since 1990s, there is a growth of communal parties. V.P. Singh was unable to manage the coalition, insurgency in Kashmir and Punjab, economic challenges; Played caste card by announcing implementation of Mandal commission. Mandal commission had consequences for BJP. It means division of Hindus on caste grounds. Hence BJP had to fall back on Ram Mandir.
Congress becoming fearful of getting marginalized, tried to appease Hindus by opening Ramajanmabhoomi. Congress followed double appeasement. To appease Muslims who were angry at Ramajanmabhoomi, Congress nullified revolutionary SC judgement of Shah Bano case.
Congress hijacking Mandir agenda left BJP more insecure, and no option but to start Rath Yatra. It culminated in demolition of Babri Masjid and subsequently Mumbai riots, Godhra riots, Gujrat riots and Muzaffarnagar riots.

Analysis of communal riots in India

There are four schools of thoughts.
1] Essentialist
According to this school, Hindus and Muslims are two antagonistic communities. Hence they are bound to fight against each other. This view has been propounded by western scholars like Louis Dummont. Jinnah’s two nation theory is also based on above approach.

2] Instrumentalist
Bipin Chandra. According to this school, communal violence whether pre-independence or post-independence is because of the elites. Elites prefer mobilization on the lines of caste and religion. According to this theory, politicians use communal politics but people are not communal. Hence after some time, normalcy come back.

3] Institutionalist
Asghar Ali Engineer. According to him, state policies promote communalism. State actions, public policy make one community insecure and nurtures the feeling that other are appeased and they are being discriminated.

4] Social constructivists
According to them, different communities continue to nurture some stereotypes against each other, they develop mental maps and live with that map. According to social constructivists, the lack of communication between the communities force them to live with such stereotypes. The trust deficit between the communities due to lack of communication is a major problem.

Contribution of Paul Brass: According to him, communal riots are not sponatneour events. There is a well developed machinery in the country. They are not riots, but programs of targeted violence. They are executed in a very professional manner. The atmosphere is never free of communal violence. Political parties never allow the atmosphere to be free. Communalism has to remain in the air.
He gives three stages of in the evolution of communal violence. There is proper division of labour according to him.
1] Preparatory stage: There are proper rehearsals. In this stage, there is a role of fire tenders. Keeping communalism in air through speeches.
2] Precipitation stage: This is a stage when major violence erupts. Now comes the role of conversion specialists.
3] Explanatory stage: Now the blame game starts.
According to him, everyone loves good riots in India. All parties are benefitted. Voters of all parties get consolidated due to polarisation. The most dangerous times to be watched is near elections. This also shows that communal violence can be easily controlled. According to studies, district administration has enough power to stop it within three hours. Prof. Dipankar Gupta has mentioned the concept of picnic riots. Proper picnic takes place after riots, people get awarded for work.. Parties take place.


The above analysis show that communalism and casteism are examples of increasing plebianisation (mobocracy) of Indian democracy. They can be considered as Indian variants of Fascism. As political competition will become cut throat, we can expect greater violence.
India is a diverse country. And different models can be applied to different parts of the country. In some parts, riots are result of politicization of the issues while in some other parts there exists ‘historic enmity’ in communities.

2] CASTE in Indian Politics

‘Indians do not cast their vote, they vote their caste.’

According to Christophe Jaffrelot, caste forms the mosaic of Indian politics. Mandal and Kamandal are the two idioms of Indian politics. Caste does not differ from religion and both are examples of identity politics.

What is caste?

There is no exact translation of the Indian term jati in European languages. Colonial masters used the term ‘caste’ for Indian practice of jati. The term caste comes from Portuguese word ‘casta’. casta denotes pure blood. Thus caste comes near to the western word ‘race’. The western word equates castism with racialism. India made anti colonialism and anti racialism as the fundamental objectives of Indian Foreign Policy. In response, western world always blames India for practicing one of the worst form of racialism and apartheid or racial segregation.

Sociological explanation of caste

Louis Dumont has described caste system as Indian model of social stratification which is opposite to the western model of stratification based on class.
Comparison between caste and class.
1] In class, the status is determined by merit or worth. In caste, it is determined by birth.
2] Economic criteria is used when people are classified in different classes. The criteria of purity and pollution is used in identifying the status of a person in caste system.
3] Class system is open and any person can jump from lower class to higher class whereas Caste system is rigid, it cannot be jumped.
M.N. Shrinivas has challenged Louis Dumont’s perspective. According to him, Dumont’s approach is too textual. In practice, there is not much difference in western and Indian tradition. Class is as static as caste. Class is as based on birth as caste.

M. N. Shrinivas held that caste system was not entirely rigid. Mobility was permitted. He coined the term ‘Sanskritization‘ – persons of lower caste adopted the practices of Brahmins e.g. Stopped eating non-vegetarian food, thus reducing the pollution and have been elevated to the higher status. There are many examples among Sudras who have been elevated to the status of Kshatriyas.
There are also examples where untouchables e.g. Jatavs in Agra have been Sanskritized. However once reservation have been introduced, they have been de-Sanskritized.

M.N. Shrinivas has given the concept of ‘dominant caste‘ – the term upper caste is misleading. We have to understand the role of dominant caste in India. Dominant caste denote the castes holding economic power, social power and political power. In most of the situations, upper castes like Brahmins and Kshatriyas are not the dominant castes.
The are three characteristics which make a caste, dominant caste. There may be regional variations. They are land owners, numerical majority, social status e.g. Yadavs are the dominant caste in UP and Bihar, Jats are the dominant castes in Haryana and western UP, Marathas are dominant caste in Maharashtra, Reddis, Kammas and Kapus in Andhra Pradesh, Lingayats and Vokkaligas in Karnataka.

History of Caste Politics in India

It is present since ancient times. Hinduism denoted the alliance of Brahmins and Kshatriyas, Buddhism denoted alliance of Vaisyas and Kshatriyas. Britishers also promoted caste politics. They conducted caste survey. Communal award aimed at giving separate electorate to the different castes e.g. Dalits. thus dividing Hindu society. Political parties during national movement were parties of different caste e.g. Congress was the party of Brahmins, Justice party and D.K. were the parties of OBCs, Republican party was the party of Dalits.
After independence Indian constitution does not abolish caste. Maintains caste as a basis for distributive justice or affirmative action policies. Caste continues to play prominent role in elections, formation of political parties. Every political party, specially the regional parties are the parties of a particular caste. Linguistic reorganization, Green revolution, Mandal commission has strengthened the role of caste in Indian politics.
The beginning of coalition politics since 1989 show the increasing regionalization of Indian party system i.e. More and more regional parties at center. Which means greater role of caste in Indian politics. The role of caste in Indian politics is now known as Mandalization of Indian politics.
We can categorize Indian society into three prominent groups.  1] Upper castes.  2] OBCs.  3] Dalits.
In Indian context, even non-Hindus, including Muslims have caste system. The religion and caste is a overlapping term. Muslims in India can be considered as a caste. They can fit in either OBCs or Dalits. We see the combination of Yadavs and Muslims (SP and RJD). We can also see combination of Dalits and Muslims (BSP). Rise of BSP had impacted the fortunes of congress in a big way. It has taken away the Dalit vote bank of Congress. Muslim vote bank also got divided. Congress had lost its entire base because even Muslims have left congress for other parties. Though still congress represents Muslim votes and the votes of other minorities primarily Christians.

Role of Caste in Indian politics

There is a lack of consensus among the scholars whether caste has strengthened Indian politics. Some believe that caste has strengthened Indian democracy. e.g. Rajani Kothari, Christophe Jaffrelot, Yogendra Yadav, Satish Deshpande. On the other hand, Andre Beteille, Ashutosh Varshney, C.P. Bhambri are against the role of caste as it weakens democracy. They consider it as a threat from a long term perspective.

1] Contribution of Rajani Kothari.

He gives the credit of success of Indian democracy to the caste. Caste provided the basis for the mobilization and integration of the people with democracy. Absence of caste in other countries of the third world is actually responsible for the failure of democracy in these countries. According to him, not only caste has impacted politics, politics has also impacted caste. A phenomenon called as ‘politicization of caste’.

Politicization of Caste.

1] Secularization
It shows how politics has changed the nature of caste. Earlier, caste was important for ritual purposes now caste is important for secular benefits like employment, education etc.

2] Integration
Normally understood as disintegrative force, but democracy has compelled different castes to integrate, form alliances. We see both fusion and fission. Some of the prominent caste coalitions of Indian politics has been – 
AJGAR -> MAJGAR (Muslims, Ahirs, Jat, Gujjar and Rajput). This coalition was proposed by Sir Choturam and later on by Chaudhary Charan Singh in context of western UP and Haryana.
KHAM (Ksatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis, Muslims). Coalition formed by Congress in Gujarat.
Muslim Yadav coalition formed by SP and RJD in UP and Bihar.

3] Consciousness
When caste enters into politics, it develops into new consciousness. The consciousness gets politicized. It results into the lower castes becoming aware of their importance. Hence they themselves go for autonomous mobilization in politics e.g. Initially Dalits were led by Congress but gradually they realized their importance and formed their own party – BSP.
The phenomenon of politicization of caste has been described by Rudolph and Rudolph as ‘modernization of the tradition’ and ‘traditionalization of modernity’.
Christophe Jaffrelot calls caste based mobilization as India’s ‘silent revolution’.
Prof. Yogendra Yadav suggest that the interaction between caste and politics has led to the ‘democratic upsurge’. Yogendra Yadav talks about 1) 1st democratic upsurge in 60s which symbolize OBCs coming out of Congress.  2) 2ns democratic upsurge in 1990s when Dalits left Congress and formed their own party.
This shows that caste based mobilization may ensure that the democracy is India does not remain just a topsoil.
Lalita Chandrashekhar in her article EMANCIPATORY POWER OF CASTE POLITICS. suggest that caste based mobilization has bridged the gaps between different sections of the society. It has dislodged certain castes which had dominance. She gives example of RJD which has made Yadavs (OBCs or intermediate caste) a formidable political entity. She also gives example of JDU of Nitish Kumar who united castes below Yadavs and gave them the political voice.

2] Caste as a Weakening Force.

C.P. Bhambri – According to him, caste politics is not good in the long term. He believes that caste politics leads to communalization. When one party uses caste, the other party will have to use religion.

Caste based mobilization has not resulted into any concrete transformation in the distribution of power in the society. As far as elections are concerned, Indian democracy is a great success. However democracy is not just elections. Indian democracy has not done well between elections. Now the battle should be for deepening of democracy.

WHY there is a role of caste in Indian politics?

1) Rajani Kothari – Since society is traditional, caste and religion based mobilization is natural. 
2) MN Shrinivas – Caste is present in the minds of Indians at a subconscious level. 
3) Andre Beteille –  i) Indian constitution abolishes untouchability without abolishing caste.  ii) He puts question mark on the wisdom of Nehru. How Pandit Nehru was thinking to achieve caste free India and communalism free India when constitution itself mentions caste as a basis of public policy.
4) Kanchan Chandra – According to her, when political patronage is based on caste, how can we think of caste free politics.

OBC politics in India.

OBCs are the intermediate castes. The most important factor in Indian politics because of their numerical strength. In the constitution, they are described as OBCs which distinguishes them from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.  If we go by Manusmriti, the castes which come in the category of Sudras are now called as OBCs.
Marc Gallanter COMPETING EQUALITIES : LAW AND BACKWARD. He suggests that OBC is loose conception, which makes it keep on changing.
OBC represent large number of intermediate caste. Primarily peasants, farmers, cultivators, artisans.. they are internally differentiated the status of some is more with respect to schedule castes Some powerful OBCs in Indian politics are Yadav, Kurmis, Jats, Gujjars, Reddys’ Vokkaligas, Patels, Marathas etc.
OBCs are the most important force, have dominance in all fields. They are land owners, they are in political power. Most of the chief ministers in most of the states, they are also present in administration.

History of OBC politics in India

Christophe Jaffrelot in his book THE SILENT REVOLUTION has explained the rise of OBC politics in north and south India.

Situation in south
OBCs are more dominant, OBC politics is older and more mature.
1. The composition of the society in South is different from the composition in North. In South, the only upper caste has been Bramhins. Majority of the population is of OBCs. 
2. In South, leaders like Jyotiba Phule (Satyashodhak Samaj), EV Ramaswamy Naykar (Self-Respect movement), Shri Narayan Guru (Shri Narayan Dharma Paripalan Yoga – SNDP), they were successful in strengthening the consciousness among OBCs. Because of the numerical strength, Bramhins were not in a position to counter the challenge.
3. In South, ethnicization took place. It has led to the assertion of Dravidian identity.

OBC politics in North
1. In North India, because of movements like Arya Samaj, Shuddhi movement, there has been greater influence of Vedic religion.
2. In North, more than one upper caste and hence not so easy for backward to counter.
3. In North, backwards went for sanskritization, thus Bramhinism continued.
4. Instead of autonomous parties like DK (Dravid Khadga), OBCs in North remained the part of Congress for Long. (Hegemony of Bramhinism).
5. Hence there is a late arrival of OBCs in the political scene in North as a autonomous force.
The increasing influence of OBCs is described as ‘Mandalization’ of Indian politics. OBC politics and demands revolve around reservation, hike in MSP in agriculture etc.
Satish Deshpande in his article THE OBC PRIMER OF INDIAN POLITICS suggests that Indian politics is to be read and interpreted with reference to the direction of OBC politics in India. OBC politics is ‘heart of Indian politics’. OBCs form around 42% of the population which means around half billion people thus strategically unavoidable. They are going to be present in any alliance. State politics is nothing but OBC politics. The arrival of coalition govt. at union marks the influence of OBCs at national level. OBCs are in ‘thick of the caste’. It means they are going to determine the future of caste politics itself. Whether caste will become prominent or get diluted it will all depend on the choices made by OBCs.

Dalit Politics in India.

Dalit mobilization in India goes back to pre-independence times. It is a assertion of Dalits against their exploitation by upper castes or caste Hindus. The biggest contribution towards politicization of Dalits is of Ambedkar. Within Dalits there had been 3 choices for their upliftment.
1] Co-option. Dalits to remain with Congress. e.g. Leaders like Babu Jagjeevan Ram preferred co-option. At present there is even a rightward shift symbolized by leaders like Ramvilas Paswan and Udit Raj. They believe that annihilation of caste is a utopia, hence to gain tangible benefits, it is better to work with the major parties.
2] Autonomy. Approach of Ambedkar. Ambedkar preferred constitutional approach but Dalits should be an autonomous force. This approach is represented by Kanshi Ram, the founder of BSP. The slogan of BSP was Baba tera kaam adhura, kansiram karega pura. BSP represents ‘blue flag with elephant’. Blue flag represents the sky. Elephant represents the numerical strength.
Mayavati has been an example of the success of Ambedkar’s approach. Ajay Bose in his book BEHENJI: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY OF MAYAVATI, suggests that Mayavati could successfully implement Ambedkar’s approach, after 3 short stints, she won comfortable majority in 2007. This time she has done successful social engineering by forming alliance with Brahmins. However later on, she suffered from Megalomania (one thinks very great of himself) and delusions, at present she has been reduced to leader of Jatavs only. This section of Dalit leadership (Autonomous force) is on decline.
3] Radicalism. Radicalism among Dalits is inspired by Marxist idea of struggle and revolution. Ambedkar had rejected the approach. Inspired by Black Panther’s movement in USA, disappointed with the politics of co-option, certain sections of Dalits formed Dalit Panthers. The leader include Namdeo Dhasal, Raja Dhale, JV Pawar. Dalit Panther aimed to counter Shiv Sena. However the movement could not continue because some of the leaders like Namdeo Dhasal co-opted with Congress.
In recent years, there is a revival of radicalism as symbolized by ‘Elgar Parishad’, ‘Bhim Army’ led by Chandrashekhar Azad (Ravana).

Analysis of Dalit politics by Pratap Bhanu Mehta

In his recent article titled NEW DALIT CHALLENGE, written in context of Bhima-Koregoan incident, he suggests that the new generation of Dalit politics is reflecting profound changes. 1| No more satisfied with winning constitutional recognition.  2| Rejection of ‘managerial approach’.  What is managerial approach? It is a upper caste strategy to co-opt Dalits in the symbolic order without any real shift of power. Managerial politics creates class of beneficiaries to exhaust the question of social justice and diffuse the conflict. (e.g. Making Dalit speaker or president.)  3| Dalits are building counter hegemony . They are going beyond the politics of survival. They are challenging history. They are re-writing the history. They are taking more antagonistic postures e.g. In Bhima-Koregoan, instead of using the phrase ‘we won’, they used the phrased ‘you are defeated’. According to Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the pressure of new Dalit imagination is colliding against the upper caste strategy of containment.
According to CP Bhambri, it is good that consciousness is increasing but Dalits should make alliances with the progressive forces otherwise they will limit the scope of their own struggle.

3] ETHNICITY & Indian Politics

Since the end of cold war, ethnic movements and ethnic conflicts have become the prominent political conflicts. According to Horowitz, since 1990s research on ethnic issues has become the core field in social science research.
Ethnicity can be defined as a sort of collective consciousness which can be due to common dissent, language, religion and history. Ethnicity is at the core of the idea of nation. However there can be multi ethnic nations e.g. European nations have been homogeneous, based on common language whereas India, USA are multi-ethnic nations.
Homogenous nations are cultural nations. (natural) whereas multi-ethnic nations are ‘political nations’. It means, they have to be built politically e.g. Indian constitution provided for a) Federalism, b) Secularism, c) Welfare state,  to convert India into a nation. Indian model of nation building is called as ‘salad bowl’ model. Whereas US model is called as ‘melting pot’ model.

Ethnicity in India.

James Manor in his book ETHNIC POLITICS IN INDIA suggests that there can be four ways to describe ethnicity in India. 1) Religion  2) Language  3) Race  & 4) Caste.
According to Prof. S D Muni, ethnicity is not a challenge to the territorial integrity because identity markers of Indians are not permanent. Their identities are fluid, can be changed by the political class as per convenience. If sections of Indians can be united on the basis of language, the unity can be broken on the basis of caste or religion.

Reasons for Ethnicity in India

1] Co-existence of modernity and tradition. (Rudolph & Rudolph, Atul Kohli, Rajani Kothari). When democracy is introduced in a traditional society, ethnic basis of mobilization is taken by the elites.
2] Charles Taylor – He looks at ethnic movements as assertions by marginalized communities.
3] Neera Chandoke – The attempts by the state to homogenize the population, actions like ethnic mapping make people conscious of ethnic identities.
4] Prof. S D Muni – Ethnicity is not the choice of the people but preference of political parties. Similar views are expressed by Prof. Dipankar Gupta, who says that ethnicity is not a popular passion but the preference of elites in India.

Democracy and ethnicity.

Atul Kohli, in his article CAN DEMOCRACIES ACCOMMODATE ETHNIC CHALLENGES? has given following observations.
Democracy in traditional society leads to mobilization on ethnic lines. The traditional elites fearful of losing their privilege try to mobilize people on ethnic lines. Ethnic challenges if not dealt properly can create threat to the territorial integrity.
Democracy is one of the factor causing problem but democracy is the only solution also. He has given comparative analysis of different leaders handling different ethnic movements. He appreciates the way Pandit Nehru handled Tamil nationalism. The way Pandit Nehru handled it democratically has subsided the cessations trends permanently. He also appreciates the democratic handling of movement in Assam and Mizoram by Rajiv Gandhi. He is critical of the way Indira Gandhi handled the crisis in Punjab. She preferred coercive methods over accommodation.
Atul Kohli believes that such aspirations should be dealt democratically but it can happen only when 1| The leader at the center has democratic attitude.  2| The ruling party at the center is strong enough to take strong decisions. (If the position of party is weak because of lack of sufficient majority, it may create challenges in handling such movements democratically.)
Sarkaria commission suggests that ethnic movements are never ethnic movements purely. There is overlapping political and economic aspirations. It suggests democratic decentralization as the way forward.

Posted in PSIR 1B

Related Posts

Notify of
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Comprehensive and Precise notes. Thank you for the uploads.


Hello… In this section regionalism and UCC are missing.. Can you please add them in coming days?