Last Sunday, addressing a gathering in New Delhi, Mohan Bhagwat spoke about a problem that could not be resolved “until goodwill is created in society”. What was this problem preoccupying the man who heads the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, arguably India’s most powerful organisation, the parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party?
Reservations – India’s affirmative action policy aimed at increasing access to higher education and government jobs for communities discriminated on the basis of caste.
Bhagwat claimed social conflict over reservations could be resolved within a minute, without any changes in law. All that was needed, he said, was a harmonious exchange between the policy’s opponents and supporters.
The day before he made these remarks, the corpse of a Dalit man in Tamil Nadu was lowered from a bridge with rope because his funeral procession was not allowed to cross the agricultural fields owned by members of a higher caste. After a video of this indignity went viral, the administration intervened – by allotting a small plot of land for the Dalits to cremate and bury their dead, away from the higher castes, who, along with blocking passage through their fields, had also denied Dalits access to the village cremation grounds.
From separate cremation grounds to separate tea tumblers, those at the bottom of India’s caste-stratified society continue to be treated as untouchable. Even those who are spared the worst indignities must often struggle for basic education and opportunity. Every social indicator carries the imprint of caste – the average Dalit woman in India, for instance, does not live to see her 40th birthday, her life expectancy being 14 years lower than that of her higher caste counterparts.
And yet, instead of calling attention to caste discrimination, Bhagwat, who wields enormous influence over the Indian government, frets about the continuation of reservations.
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This is because the RSS, despite its proclaimed aim of ending caste divisions and uniting Hindu society, remains fundamentally an organisation led by members of the upper castes. Even the Narendra Modi government, which could not have won its large majority in India’s Parliament without the support of the backward castes, has a dominance of the upper castes in its cabinet of ministers. In fact, the dominance has only increased from its first term to the second term.
For now, the BJP is able to gloss over these contradictions through a clever strategy of enabling smaller castes to challenge more powerful castes in their fold – Yadavs among backward castes and Jatavs among Dalits in Uttar Pradesh, for instance. But it is unclear how long this approach will stave off larger questions of social equity.
Before such questions begin to be asked, the RSS would like to decisively settle the question of reservations. Or, so it appears, given Bhagwat’s preoccupation with it, given what RSS ideologues have said in the past.
This is worrying. Much can be done to improve the design and outcomes of India’s affirmative action policies, but to dismantle them out of a misplaced sense of upper-caste aggrievement would amount to setting the clock back.