How the 'backward' are finally coming forwards

India's Silent Revolution
March 5, 2004

This detailed work provides a compendious history of the relationship between Indian political elites and subalterns and makes a powerful claim for a political "revolution" that has recently occurred.

In the south and west of India the dominance of the upper castes was challenged long ago, but in the northern Hindi-speaking "cow belt", Congress Party rule consolidated the powers of merchants, money-lenders and landlords and, consequently, the triumph of "formal" over "popular" democracy. The political consequences were striking - an "astonishing" stability of upper-caste representation in the governments of north Indian states such as Uttar Pradesh that impeded many national initiatives. The strategic co-option of "scheduled caste" (formerly Untouchable) figures, combined with what Christophe Jaffrelot terms the "smokescreen" of egalitarianism provided by affirmative reservation (in practice, largely thwarted), ensured continuance of this caste dominance.

However, this "empty discourse" of social transformation that permitted the Congress Party to retain its stranglehold on north India for several decades following independence faced two key challenges. The first was the rise of Charan Singh's Indian Revolutionary Party in the late 1960s and his subsequent alliance with the socialists, resulting in the first Janata government of 1977-79. The second was the belated implementation of the Mandal Report's "quota politics" by Janata Dal's administration in 1990.

Jaffrelot invokes a rather phantasmic domain of the "lower castes", which he is simultaneously forced to disavow. Lower castes may occasionally display a strategic unity but they are also riven by hierarchy.

Jaffrelot's subheadings (for example, "Grassroot mobilisation or Yadav manipulation?") disclose the complex ways in which successes for lower castes are frequently advances for specific caste interests.

He makes an energetic case for the sociological reality of this revolution.

None can deny the significance of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the election of a Dalit, K. R. Narayanan, as president of India in 1997. In the end, however, Jaffrelot is forced to contradict some of his more ambitious claims. The book is prefaced with an epigram from B. R. Ambedkar, the scheduled-caste chief author of the Indian constitution who, speaking in 1949, pleaded: "We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well" - and went on to define social democracy as "a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life".

Jaffrelot ultimately falls back on this as an alibi, to spell out how the social aspects of this democracy remain largely unrealised. The revolution, it turns out, is about to happen: "the upper castes are still in command", but the other backward castes constitute "a new generation in the waiting".

The final, almost throwaway punchline concerns the manner in which the liberalisation of the economy has provided opportunities for upper castes to consolidate their position without resorting to an increasingly regulated bureaucracy.

The revolution, it seems, has been cancelled. But that, we must hope, might be the subject of Jaffrelot's next book.

Christopher Pinney is reader in anthropology and visual culture, University College London.

India's Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India

Author - Christophe Jaffrelot
Publisher - Hurst
Pages - 505
Price - £30.00 and £17.50
ISBN - 1 85065 398 4 and 670 3

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