Can Modi break down the Indian millstone of caste and clan?

If Narendra Modi manages to break – or even to weaken – the debilitating stranglehold that caste and clan have on Indian life, he stands some chance of releasing the huge potential that is still buried deep in the country. Paradoxically, his brand (now mellowing) of Hindu nationalism may allow him the freedom not only to challenge the shackles of caste and clan but also to keep in check the extravagant expectations engendered by the pampering of minority groups (which was unavoidable with a coalition government).

The caste system in India probably represents the oldest surviving form of institutionalised racism in the world. It predates Hinduism and probably started first by classifying specialists by the virtue of their professions. That was possibly 5,000 years or 250 generations ago. But with sons following fathers in their professions heredity entered into the social classification. In due course – the caste system was probably hijacked by Hinduism and then evolved into a genetic classification defining social status and even “permissible” professions for each caste.

The caste system is so prevalent and so insidious that it can even survive religious conversions. I know of some Christian families – who converted to Christianity some 200 years (10 generations) ago – but where the pre-conversion caste still survives and comes into play when arranging a marriage.

Whatever and whenever the origin, the caste system is still so ingrained that the vast majority of Hindu marriages still conform to caste rules. In many parts of rural India, close to 50% of marriages may be consanguineous (first cousins) but this drops to less than 30% in urban areas. In many communities the level of inbreeding is reaching worrying levels. Development and improvement of living standards has given a slow reduction in these numbers. But very often the castes and clans are perpetuated by the very “affirmative actions” that were supposed to eliminate them. The advantages and privileges afforded by many of these programmes has led to whole communities fighting to retain their caste differentiation. They are committed to protecting – genetically – the purity of their “low caste” to retain the privileged status they enjoy within “affirmative action” programmes for education and employment.. The caste system still dominates political life in many areas and can lead to local and state governments often being dominated by a particular caste or clan. And when one particular caste or clan is in power they regress to a medieval feudalism and see the territory they govern as their fiefdom.

Modi made all the right noises when he addressed Parliament for the first time as Prime Minister and acknowledged that casteism and regional differences had damaged India. But the difficulties he will face in trying to root out the racism inherent in the caste system cannot be underestimated. An entire political party may be dominated by a particular caste or clan. The recent barbarism in central India is a case in point. Currently Uttar Pradesh has a government – it seems  – “of the Yadvas, by the Yadavs for the Yadavs”!!

FirstPost: The rape and murder of two girls in Badaun seems to have triggered a shake-up in the Uttar Pradesh government machinery which even the near-decimation of the party in the recent Lok Sabha election could not do. Not only has Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav transferred hundreds of officers, suspended more than half a dozen, withdrawn security or armed guards from dozens of individuals and dismissed dozens of nominated officials, but the Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav has disbanded party units at various levels.

But what the SP leadership has been unable to shake off is the popular perception that all the moves are more political in nature rather than an honest effort to actually change the way the state is being governed.  …….. the feeling has grown that the establishment is trying to protect the alleged culprits in the Badaun case despite the international outrage at the rape and murder of two cousins aged 15 and 14, whose bodies were found hanging from a mango tree in a village in Badaun district on 27 May. Preliminary post-mortem investigation had revealed that both had been gangraped and then hanged from a tree, and that the cause of death was hanging.

….. Mulayam’s nephew Dharmendra Yadav is the MP from Badaun and most of the police stations in the district – as well in the state – have Yadavs on the force. This phenomenon is typical of the Samajwadi Party’s reign in Uttar Pradesh and had been seen during the 2004-2007 SP regime also. “The ruling family in the SP has always been protective and supportive of the Yadavs, regardless of the criticism it attracts. The police recruitment in 2004 also reflected this. The perception among the Yadav community is very strong that the ruling family would go to any extent to protect their clansmen,” says a non-Yadav SP sympathizer. “In the Lok Sabha election the party lost all seats contested by non-family members, and it is now critical for it to consolidate whatever Yadav support it has in the community in view of the coming by-elections in the state, including Mainpuri which is close to Badaun.”

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