(WQ) Modi's india: Caste, Inequality, and the rise of Hindu Nationalism

Indian democracy has not blown up. But Ambedkar’s contradiction persists, and the caste foundation of India’s political structure maintains the hierarchy at the root of the country’s tremendous inequality of status and condition. Much of the careful thought of the nineteenth-century reformers and the founding generation has been shunted aside by the force of caste-based politics on the one hand and capitalist materialism on the other. The political principles on which the Indian state is founded have not been sufficient to create an inclusive, egalitarian society. Although the post-independence generation of Congress politicians promoted a secular vision of the Indian nation, they did not pursue the kinds of reforms that might have brought social reality closer to their political ideal. In doing so, they opened the way for the ascendance of caste-based politics and, ultimately, the more reactionary rise of religion in politics.

Hindu nationalism, with its dual focus on cultivating traditional social practices and providing social services afforded neither by the state nor economic growth, would seem to provide the strongest alternative to a modern capitalist society. But Hindu nationalism itself has adapted to India’s increasing wealth. The upper castes, particularly the Brahmins, once prided themselves on simple, even ascetic, living; they now hold up material success as another sign of caste superiority. The traditional Hindu elite is no longer distinguishable from the modern economic elite.

Prime Minister Modi is the living embodiment of this troubling marriage of Hindu nationalism and capitalism, of traditional social hierarchy and modern materialism. While he has maintained the support of his elite urban business constituents, he has proven himself to be as much a disciple of the Hindu Right as he was in his youth. Even as the RSS offers hope and basic services to thousands of poor, lower-caste youth like Aakash, we cannot take the organization’s apparent social egalitarianism at face value. At its core remains the inequality that has long marked Indian life.

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Posted in * Culture-Watch, * Economics, Politics, * International News & Commentary, * Religion News & Commentary, Asia, Hinduism, India, Other Faiths, Politics in General, Rural/Town Life

3 comments on “(WQ) Modi's india: Caste, Inequality, and the rise of Hindu Nationalism

  1. Katherine says:

    When I was in India as a foreigner caste issues were opaque to me, but Indians themselves always knew what caste other Indians were, or if they were Christian or Buddhist, what caste they or their ancestors had been before conversion. Discrimination by caste is officially illegal and in practical effect universal. Two thousand or more years of cultural habits will not be easily erased in the land where the habits developed.

  2. Pageantmaster Ù† says:

    To some extent the indian caste system appears to be ethnic/racial in root. The lowest caste, the Dalits or untouchables are often very dark and distinctly recognisable. At the bottom of the scale, they have taken to Christianity, having eternally little to lose, although in this world being a Christian often brings more misery for them.

    By contrast those Brahmins, the priestly caste and top of the system that I have met have often been light brown almost fair which presumably goes back to either some ethnic source or deliberately avoiding too much sunlight.

    For those who think we do not have a caste system, consider in Europe the treatment of the Romany, in Australia the Aboriginal peoples, the Rohinga in Burma or in the US the native American. Now and again one meets those who have overcome the institutional and cultural difficulties and it has been a rare privilege to have met them. They have had to be outstanding to have made their way through the system.

    In many ways Christianity has found its natural seedbed among these groups.

    It is worth pondering the meaning of the word ‘outcast’ and its centrality to Christianity: He gathereth together the outcasts

  3. Katherine says:

    Pageantmaster, I believe the sanskrit based word for “caste,” [i]varna[/i], means “color.” The upper castes trace their origins to the Arya who migrated into India from, basically, Iran. The southern states of India, whose residents on average are darker, speak a non-sanskrit based language.

    In my observation in Maharashtra state, many Protestant Christians were, as you say, previously low caste, but many Indian Catholics are from higher castes, having converted under Portuguese influence in Goa in particular. And of course the original Christians, Syriac affiliated, are there in primarily south India.