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Can caste be banned from Indian politics?

In the first days of this year, in a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court of India banned political candidates from seeking election on the basis of caste, religion and language. On the surface, this ruling seems to be appealing to secular voters, upholding the secular values of the constitution and implementing the principles of democracy.

But it also seems to be contradicting a 1995 Supreme Court ruling which considered “Hindutva” (Hindu nationalism) and “Hinduism” a “way of life”, rather than an ideology that belongs to a certain caste or religion. The court has been silent on reviewing the Hindutva issue.

There has been praise from seculars on the ruling and respect for the judiciary has further increased among ordinary people. But while the verdict is indeed an important new development, there are still questions about its practicality because caste, like religion, remains an integral part of Indian society.

WATCH: Thousands take to streets in India caste protests (2:37)

Caste is everything

India is a nation of caste and religion. It is a nation where caste is policy. Upper caste policy is to move upwards, while lower castes continually struggle in their lowly status.

Everything that happens here is based on caste. At every stage of our life, caste becomes important. We are unable to understand what is going on in the country if we disregard caste. We also see Justice T S Thakur, who delivered the court ruling, through the eyes of caste because the surname, Thakur, also represents a caste.

When caste is so integral in our society how can we separate caste and religion – a solid foundation – from politics and elections?

There are three main parties in India today: the Congress Party, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Communist Party. The Congress and BJP are outwardly “secular” parties. The BJP promotes itself as the party for Hindus, and on caste issues it says it is “secular”. However they choose to self-define, if we search further, we find that the soul of these parties is brahminical, i.e. belonging to the highest caste.

The prominence of caste also applies to politics before India’s independence. Priestly Brahmins who controlled the Bania caste – which had close business connections with them – have unjustly benefited from the new political reality, and that is why India’s politics is called Brahmin-Bania politics.

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If we observe regional parties, we notice that one way or the other the foundation of these parties is also caste or religion. For instance, Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal Party (RJD) are supported by the Yadav community; Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is supported by Dalits; Shriomani Akali Dal by Sikhs’ Telugu Desam Party by Kamma; YSR Congress Party by Reddy; Janata Dal (S) by Vokkaliga. 

The Congress, BJP, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, All India Trinamool Congress and other parties also depend on caste and religion of the region where they operate.

Muslims as a minority have always participated in party politics since before independence. Engaging in politics for the welfare of their community is their right. Just like the All-India Muslim League in the first half of the 20th century, new parties like the Social Democratic Party have emerged to carry on similar politics with a religious element.

The identity of politics

India’s politics has been defined as integration of caste and consolidation of resources.

Caste is a reality in this nation – political power has always been with the minority upper castes and the same situation continues today.

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The majority of Dalit Bahujans, religious minorities or Adivasis have never ascended to positions of power. Keeping this in mind B R Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution, famously said, “The root of untouchability is the caste system; the root of the caste system is religion attached to varnashramam, and the root of varnashramam is Brahminical religion, and the root of the Brahminical religion is authoritarianism or political power”.

How can the Bahujans, without engaging in caste politics, escape this brahminical hold and achieve power? Ram Manohar Lohia, an Indian socialist, once said, “Caste is a reality in India. It always crystallises but never liquefies.”

WATCH: India – Dalit protesters call for change (2:25)

All about power

Isn’t coming to power based on the demolition of Babri Masjid not politics? And what about using the Gujarat riots for political gain? Isn’t it a political game giving a coat of nationalism to beef eating and the food habits of minorities and Dalit Bahujan?

When Bahujan politics are responding adequately to all of this, and organising effectively, we need to be aware of the politics behind this Supreme Court decision. These people have come to power based on the politics of caste and religion, and have experienced everything.

Just when the lower strata of society have achieved some realisation and started indulging in Bahujan politics, will judgement like this not create hurdles?

We have reservations based on caste, and on this basis, seats are allocated to state legislative assembly and parliament with the seal of the constitution. This is direct caste politics. What does the Supreme Court say on this?

Caste is not to be looked at simplistically. It is the identity of Adivasi, nomadic and Dalit people, and because of this Kanshi Ram, a politician who wanted to annihilate the caste system, came up with this slogan: “Jaati Todo Samaj Jodo” (Leave caste, unite society).

An important statement from him is a fitting response to the current judgement: “Manuvadis ruled India by dividing castes, but I am going to rule India by uniting castes”.

C S Dwarakanath, lawyer at the High Court of Karnataka, is former Chairman of Karnataka State Commission for Backward Classes and is an influential public intellectual.

This article was translated from Kannada by Sridhar Gowda.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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