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India: Why Does a Caste Aspire to Move Down the Social Ladder?

No other topic causes such emotional stir in India as the caste issue and everything related to it.

September 22, 2015

No other topic causes such emotional stir in India as the caste issue and everything related to it.

A political career like that of Hardik Patel is only possible in India. The 22-year-old activist owes his new national celebrity status to the agitation he led for his caste, the “Patels.

That, one could argue, is not uncommon in a country where politics and caste interests have been interlinked since time immemorial. What is extraordinary about Hardik Patel’s campaign is that the caste he is going to the barricades for is all but underprivileged.

Patels are probably better represented among professionals and industrialists than any other peasant caste in the whole of India,” says Christophe Jaffrelot, expert on South Asia.

Enlarge A street in the city of Vadodara, Gujarat where the agitation broke out.

Last month, ten people were killed at a rally carried out by Patels in the West Indian state of Gujarat where they comprise about 15% of the population. The violence led to a wave of solidarity.

In his speeches, Hardik Patel tries to rebut the claim that his caste is wealthy and privileged. “Over the past ten years, thousands of farmers committed suicide. A large number of unemployed youth, too, took their lives,” Patel told The Times of India. He blamed caste politics and the official reservation system for the misery of his community.

Understanding the caste system

It is not possible to understand Indian society and its domestic politics without referring to its deep-rooted caste system. “Nowhere in the world are inequality by birth and moral neutrality to such discrimination so institutionalized as in Indian society,” writes Jayaprakash Narayan, the founder of the Foundation for Democratic Reforms.

India’s constitution explicitly prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, gender or place of birth. However, the egalitarian theory prescribed back in 1950 by India’s founding fathers and societal reality lay light years apart.

To atone for the worst injustices inflicted on certain castes, the constitution allows for a system of quotas for these particular castes. Over the years, the state has enacted a series of proportional reservations for government jobs and higher education.

Vote-bank politics

The initial intention was to fade out reservation after ten years. However, the hope that the “most brutal, most vulgar, most hierarchical of all social orders” – as Indian author Arundhati Roy defines the caste system – could be overcome in just a decade, did not materialize.

Over the years, governments have extended the reservations, enacting new programs for new beneficiaries. As a result, more and more castes benefited from state promotions.

This expansion was driven also by partisan political motives. Affirmative action programs became a valued instrument in the hands of politicians and electoral strategists. For them, programs and policies are secondary.

More important are electoral alliances based on castes, also called “vote banks.” Political parties target particular castes or religious minorities, addressing their specific (often parochial) demands ahead of elections. Quotas and other government dole outs are important patronage instruments in the fight for votes.

Defeating the purpose?

One of the paradoxical features of India’s caste politics is that the programs initially introduced to eliminate inequalities based on caste have in effect stabilized, if not reproduced that very system.

The welfare programs do not take into account the social or economic neediness of the individual recipients but the membership in a specific caste or sub-caste.

Hardly any other topic causes such emotional stir in India as the caste issue and everything related to it. This explains the huge media exposure of Hardik Patel’s agitation.

Interestingly enough, Patel is not asking for the abrogation of reservations for other castes or groups. He is careful not to provoke the ire of others.

He speaks only for his people, he says, demanding his caste be formally demoted to the category of “other backward classes,” or OBC, as this social group is officially termed.

A campaign to move down the social ladder is remarkable and unusual under all circumstances. Patel’s peculiar campaign has a logic understood only in the context of India’s unique reservation system: By demanding the collective downgrading of his caste, he expects Patels to be treated like the other “backward classes” with guaranteed access to state sponsored employment and higher education.

Patel’s agitation is further proof of the fact that caste-based reservations have degenerated into a massive politically guided redistribution system.

No hope for change

Commentaries arguing in favor of abolishing the quotas fill the opinion pages. Liberal commentators and others argue that reservations are not compatible with a modern market economy.

This debate about castes and reservation comes at a time of high tension in India’s competitive domestic politics. The campaign for the Assembly elections in the state of Bihar is in full swing. The Bihar election is being considered the most important political event of the year.

Traditionally, caste politics play a crucial role in Bihar. Once again, the parties are busy establishing caste based alliances.

“The case system is the engine that keeps modern India moving,” says Arundhati Roy. There are no signs that the political class wants to change this state of affairs – particularly not at the time of elections. And sometime and somewhere, there are always elections in India.

More on this topic


Politics and caste interests in India have been interlinked since time immemorial.

Inequality by birth and moral neutrality to such discrimination is institutionalized in Indian society.

Quotas in India are important patronage instruments in the fight for votes.

Steps taken to eliminate caste inequalities in India have in effect stabilized that very system.

Patel’s agitation is proof that the reservation system is really politically guided redistribution.