Caste, Democracy and Market:

The Boiling Cauldron

Continued from "Ambedkar & the Dilemma of Social Democracy"

The question of the survival of democracy in India is linked with the rooting of social democracy in the country. Social democracy, in turn, is strongly confronted by the well-entrenched institution of caste in India. What further strengthens caste, ironically, is the inherited institution of parliamentary democracy. Caste and democracy are locked in a peculiar relationship. Traditionally, caste assigns rights to some and excludes many from the public domain merely on the basis of birth. As a pristine discriminatory social system, it permeated and continues to permeate almost all fields of the Indian society even today Everything is organised around it, as Thorat notes, ‘in unequal measures of social, religious, economic relations and rights’(2002). Opposed to the exclusionary nature of the institution of caste, democracy, on the other hand, is based on liberal legacy of “equal dignity and worth of all persons” (Meyer & Hinchman 2007:10). It promotes popular participation and freedom of action and speech. Caste as mentioned earlier shelved all such liberal principles that in turn render democracy into a farce. 

Though caste and democracy are antithetical to each other, but in certain respects politicisation of caste is flagged as having a positive impact on the deepening of democracy in post-colonial India. Scholars, of late, have started recognizing the fact that once caste structures get politicized they help in deepening democracy which in turn empowers the marginalised sections of the society (Yadav 1999; Palshikar 2004). 

Delivering a lecture on “Democracy and its Critics” organized by the United Nations Foundation, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen notes, ‘here is a need for caution, however, for those who believe that invocation of caste in any form in democracy is an evil force. As long as caste is invoked in speaking for a lower caste or uniting it, it is good’ (Hindu: 16 December 2005). Such a pragmatic view of caste eclipses the common conjecture predicated on the idea that the onset of the modernity project would inevitably render the institution of caste invalid as a power index in the long run. Politicisation of caste, however, does not go well with the grammar of fast economic growth model of the neo-liberal market-economy, which sharply underlines the phenomenon of the rollback of the state as a stumbling block in the way of economic growth and democracy.
What further complicates the process of deepening of democracy in India is the intermeshing of caste and poverty. The problem of poverty in India is not merely an economic issue as discussed above (cf. Sunil Khilnani, The Hindu, September 24, 2009). It is equally well entrenched in the asymmetrical caste structures of the Brahminical social order, which in turn, as Alam (2004: xvii) argues, ‘defy every norm of democratic justice, even of decency’. It is against this backdrop that the status of Dalits who have been pushed to the bottom of the social hierarchy in the Indian society needs to be examined rather critically in the wake of the implementation of neo-liberal economic reforms in the country.
The bulk of Dalit population in India falls in the category of below poverty line. Majority of Dalit population continue to live in: 

extreme poverty without land or opportunities for better employment or education. With the exception of a minority who have benefited from India’s policy of quotas in education and government jobs, Dalits are relegated to the most menial of tasks, as manual scavengers, removers of human waste and dead animals, leather workers, street sweepers, and cobblers. Dalit children make up the majority of those sold into bondage to pay off debts to upper caste creditors. Dalit men, women, and children numbering in the tens of millions work as agricultural labourers for a few kilograms of rice or Rs. 15 to Rs. 35 (US $0.38 to $0.88) a day (Human Rights Watch 1999:2).

Another factor that distinguishes poverty stricken Dalits from the poor of the upper caste in the country is their social exclusion. Scheduled Tribes (STs), Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and the other poor of the upper castes are generally clubbed in the category of economically deprived (economic exclusion) sections of the society. Historically, Dalits have been deprived of social, economic and political rights including the right to education and employment. In the rural areas, most of Dalits earn their livelihood as landless agricultural labourers and in towns as labourers and menial workers. In both the rural and urban sectors, Dalits live in segregated colonies and slums respectively.
 The relationship between caste and poverty seems to be of symbiotic nature. They reinforce each other and often club together in posing a serious challenge to the nascent institution of social democracy in India. The inextricably intertwined phenomena of caste and poverty is so well entrenched that it has failed to recede back even after the adoption of economic reform measures in India in 1991. On the contrary, the latter has further been strengthening the anti-democracy nexus between caste and poverty in the country.   
The capital intensive and profit driven model of neo-liberal market-economy has, in fact, not only flared up the dormant caste contradictions in India, but has also brought into light some fresh ones between Dalits and various ‘Backward and Other Backward Classes’ that have mushroomed in the post-Mandal era. Though the neo-liberal market- economy has been promised to provide an ample space to the socially excluded sections of the society by opening new and unrestrained opportunities for them in the fast emerging domain of free market economy in India, but the reality is the other way round. The neo-liberal market-economy has failed to ward off the contagious effect of the hoary and exclusionary institution of caste in India. Untouchability and democracy are antithetical. Democracy is totally negated in the scheme of untouchability. Democracy is premised on the liberal principles of freedom, equality and fraternity. On the contrary, untouchability thrives amidst inequality and denial of human rights. It promotes social segregation and denies freedom to the socially excluded sections of the society. It rests on asymmetrical social structures of difference and domination that preclude democracy to emerge in its natural stance. It is at this crucial juncture of vendetta between democracy and untouchability, the institution of free market economy enters into the whirlpool of caste contradictions in the social set up of the country. 
In the tug-of-war between democracy and constitutionally rendered illegal institution of untouchability, the forces of the free market economy sided with the latter. They strengthen the hands of the capital rich upper castes by making it almost impossible for the capital starved ex-untouchables to participate in the glamorous domain of finance capital. Since capital lies mostly with the upper castes, it is only they who matter the most in the multiplexes/malls of the new market economy. It is only they to whom the market has been pushing into billionaires (Damodaran 2008). There is hardly anyone from the ex-untouchables communities in India who have joined the elite club of the billionaires. Thus market does not only favour the upper castes, it also accentuates the gulf between the rich and the poor. Since poor and lower castes are co-terminus, market further marginalizes the lower castes by preventing them from entering into business operations.
If untouchability debarred the ex-untouchables from the public sphere, the free market economy discourages them from entering into the domain of business. If the former had squeezed the ‘public’ or the ‘social’ into ‘public’ or the ‘social’ of the privileged few (the savarnas/dvijas [upper castes]) only; the later seems to have mortgaged the entire economic domain of the country to the upper castes only. Market elevated a few upper castes and degraded many socially excluded lower castes. Quite interestingly, untouchability and free market economy join together in favouring the upper castes with immense wealth/privileges as against the lower castes who in spite of working hard have to live a life of abject poverty and severe deprivations. This in turn deprives them (lower castes) substantially of the periodic opportunities to compete for power berth in the electoral bogies of the political democracy in the country. Elections over the years, in fact, have become very costly affairs. They are beyond the reach of the poor and socially excluded sections of the society. Thus social exclusion and poverty deprive the lower castes of the opportunity to compete on equal footings with their rich and upper castes rivals in the limited electoral arena of the political democracy in India.
Thus it is in the above discussed context that untouchability used to preclude deepening of democracy in India by supporting the oppressive social structures of power in the country. It is in this very context that free market economy and social democracy become incompatible. Thus the neo-liberal free market economy model by virtue of its being anti-poor and anti-lower caste has ultimately led to squeezing the already skimpy space hard earned by the nascent institution of social democracy in India. Since social equality and freedom are inseparable, political democracy without social democracy is farce. In the absence of social democracy, the socially excluded sections of the society would find it difficult to participate effectively in the process of the political democracy. It raises the most obvious and perennial question of freedom: political v/s social and economic.

Freedom: Social v/s Political   
Though political liberation from the British rule was the central theme of the Indian freedom movement, the question of freedom had never been merely a ‘political’ issue in colonial India. It had always been intertwined with the ‘social’ of the country. In other words, the question of freedom from the external/British rule was closely tied with the much larger as well as complex internal question of freedom from the oppressive Hindu caste system in the country. But the mainstream anti-imperial stance of the Indian freedom movement failed to address the later larger question of social exclusion of the vast number of downtrodden/ex-Untouchables of India who were sandwiched between the oppressive systems of internal colonialism of Hinduism on the one hand, and British colonialism, on the other. The ex-Untouchables were, thus, doubly oppressed. They had no hope for any relief whatsoever from the Hindu social order as it was based on the doctrine of permanent inequality in every sphere of life.[1] Their social conditions too remained almost unchanged even during the long spell of the so-called liberal minded British rulers who probably did not like to touch the institution of caste lest it unleash revolt from within the upper caste hegemonized Hindu society (Ambedkar speech at Roundtable). On the contrary, the British rulers rather reinforced caste as it helped them in some ways in maintaining their hold over colonial India [2] (Thekaekara 2005). Though the constitution of independent India has provided ample space to the inherited institution of democracy, it has yet to overcome the subtle legacies of centuries old caste structures in the country.
Since Hindu society is intensely rooted in the pre-modern system of caste-based social hierarchies, it openly clashed with the liberal principles of equality and liberty. It is basically indifferent to the liberal principles of individual worth and justice, which blocked the way for the natural growth of the social democracy in the country. Caste inculcates a sense of complete alienation among those who have been condemned to live separately as ‘outcastes’ away from the mainland habitations of the upper castes. The goal of Political freedom of the people of India can never be accomplished in the real sense of the term until and unless the deprivations and sufferings of the large numbers of the ex-Untouchables are removed by completely annihilating the oppressive caste system of the Hindu society (Ambedkar 1995[1936]). In the words of Dr. Ambedkar, “Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy” (Three Historical Addresses 1999:53). Social democracy, in fact, is the ‘cornerstone’ of the edifice of political democracy in India. Saheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh, one of most prominent of the few forerunners of the institution of social democracy in India, also expressed the similar views, of course much earlier, in his less quoted article published in the June issue of Kirti 1929. He was of the firm opinion that Political freedom gained from the British colonialism could not last long if failed to be accompanied by a massive social and economic reforms measures for the transformation of the rotten undertaken in the internal social set up of the country.
The next section attempts to explore, how free market economy operations under the phenomenon of globalisation have affected the lives of the marginalised sections of the Indian society, which had, hitherto, been looking towards the state for some support to stand on their own feet. Since the very logic of globalisation is based on the notion that welfare state is a hindrance in the way of the global free market economy, it contained no space for the welfare of the socially excluded and marginalized sections of the society. This has further deepened the marginalisation and exclusion of the downtrodden and has severely limited the possibilities of their emancipation in the neo-liberal free market economy system of globalisation. It is against this backdrop that the processes of globalisation and the principles of social democracy come into an open clash.  

Continued to: "Globalisation, Dalits and Social Democracy" 

1.  In the Hindu social order, rights were not granted on the basis of an individual’s personal worth. They are, in fact, granted or denied on the basis of one’s social status in the Hindu caste hierarchy (Thorat 2002). For those who had been pushed to the bottom of the hierarchy, it hardly matter whether they enjoy any human rights or not (Ramaswamy 2001).
2.  It is in this context that Dr. Ambedkar spoke forcefully in the London Roundtable conferences against the British rule in India.


More by :  Prof. Ronki Ram

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