How can caste pride be Casteism?

By Rajdeep Sardesai
16 November 2014 09:58 IST

A simple tweet, all of 140 characters, can be hazardous to one’s health as I have discovered to my cost yet again. Last Sunday, as Narendra Modi went in for his first Cabinet expansion, I tweeted: “Big day for my Goa. Two GSBs, both talented politicians, become full cabinet ministers. Saraswat pride!” I was referring to the induction of Manohar Parrikar and Suresh Prabhu in the Union Cabinet. Rather than see my tweet as a statement of fact, I was accused of being casteist and worse. Typical of the noxious side of social media, I was barraged with abuse and hate mail.

“GSB” refers to the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins, a tiny, but highly progressive community of fish-eating Brahmins that I belong to which nestles along the Konkan coast, across Maharashtra, Goa, through to parts of Karnataka. In his valuable book Saraswats, Chandrakant Keni traces the history of the Saraswat community, of the migration from Kashmir, of how they faced oppression from the conquering Portuguese, how they zealously held onto their family traditions and village deities, and placed a premium on education as a path to upward mobility.

Despite the small numbers, the Saraswat community has contributed enormously to the country: In cricket, led by the big two Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar, Saraswats have scored more than a hundred Test hundreds; in cinema and the arts, we have the splendid Girish Karnad, Shyam Benegal, Guru Dutt and the latest Hindi film dream girl, Deepika Padukone; in education, the Pais of Manipal have led the way; and in business and finance, the likes of Nandan Nilekani and KV Kamath have been pioneers.

Which brings me back to my original tweet. Is expressing pride in a community’s achievements a sign of casteism as the critics suggest? Casteism is when a caste identity is used to promote hatred and separateness towards the other, when it creates social barriers based on occupation, marriage or inter-dining. My tweet was aimed at highlighting a piece of trivia which I believed was interesting: of the four Cabinet rank ministers sworn in, two belonged to a small Brahmin community with no real political base.

There is a political significance to this fact which we must not lose sight of, and which sadly the limitations of social media prevent a more detailed explanation of. Traditionally, Cabinet formation involves a certain tacit acknowledgment of caste, region and community pressures. This means that a Union Cabinet is often based on delicate negotiation and compromise with competing interest groups. You need, for example, a Ram Kripal Yadav to challenge Lalu Yadav’s claim of being the foremost Yadav leader of Bihar; Giriraj Singh is a Bhumihar upper caste leader; a Birender Singh becomes the BJP’s Jat face in Haryana; Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi becomes a “minority” face; there are Dalit and tribal MPs who need to be accommodated. Only extreme political correctness would prevent us from accepting this reality.

In this political milieu, the Brahmins have usually lost out because their numerical strength doesn’t justify greater political representation. Which is why it is significant that Parrikar and Prabhu made the cut: It suggests, importantly, that there is still space for merit within a caste-driven polity. Both Parrikar and Prabhu are highly educated, one an IITian, the other one of the youngest heads of a co-operative bank (incidentally called Saraswat co-operative bank). It is their track record as efficient technocrat-politicians that perhaps impressed the prime minister sufficiently to give them important portfolios. It didn’t matter that their caste identity wasn’t a potential vote bank: Their proven skills as administrators have rewarded them.

Indeed, in the last month, we have seen the gradual melting down of traditional caste affinities when it comes to choosing politicians for key posts. For example, in Maharashtra, the BJP preferred Devendra Fadnavis, a Chitpawan Brahmin from Nagpur over a Maratha leader like Eknath Khadse. Even a few years ago, this would have been unthinkable as the Marathas are the dominant caste in Maharashtra politics while the “three and a half per cent” Brahmins are seen to have retreated to the private sector. Fadnavis was preferred because he was seen to fit in with the image of a younger, more dynamic leader than his rival for the post.

In Haryana too, the BJP chose Manoharlal Khattar, a non-Jat leader ahead of any Jat claimant in the state because the party leadership felt he had the image of a clean, hard-working politician with strong proximity to Modi and the RSS. By disregarding Jat demands for the top post, a message was perhaps being sent out again: Capability, not caste, would be the decisive factor while choosing a chief minister.

Does this mean a permanent rupturing of the bonds between caste and political success? No. Let’s be honest: It will still be difficult for political parties to distribute tickets at election time without keeping caste considerations in mind. Caste loyalties will still shape voting preferences in several parts of the country: a Mayawati will still rely on her Jatav vote and the Samajwadi Party on a Yadav vote. There will still be battles for power between the Lingayats and Vokkaliggas in a Karnataka, between Kammas and Reddys in an Andhra.

But while these caste wars are fought, there is a creeping realisation that caste alone will not guarantee electoral victory. You need a more inclusive “caste-plus” appeal that will attract newer, younger voters based on qualifications that go beyond narrow caste identities. The prime minister himself is a good example: He belongs to the small Ghanchi OBC community of Gujarat, and yet has been able to challenge and demolish the dominant castes of Gujarat based on his political achievements. When he became prime minister, posters sprung up across Mumbai with the Ghanchi Samaj congratulating him. Is that casteism or caste pride?

This article first appeared in The Hindustan Times with a heading "Identity is not always destiny".

Blogger's Profile

Rajdeep Sardesai

One of India’s most respected journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai, has nearly three decades of journalistic experience in print and tv. He has been the founder- editor of chief of IBN 18 network, which included CNN IBN. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the managing editor of NDTV 24 x 7 and NDTV India. Rajdeep has won more than 100 national and international awards for journalism, including the Padma Shri in 2008. He is currently consulting editor at the India Today group.

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Previous Comments

What is wrong in announcing this ? When there are caste based reservations in education and jobs, applicable people rush to avail these for benefits even if they well do in society. Infact in politics it is a step further to align , get maximum votes and being a Mass leader for the oppressed.. Why dont we object to this ?

How does 140 Characters makes a person casteist ? It's a simple info on a select community political leaders (Educated) and their rise in the Govt. who will strive to get back Ache Din for the country

- Vinay Kamat, Mumbai | 04 th December 2014 20:10

 

All that Mr. Sardesai says to justify his tweet would be fine if he was just another citizen or to be specific just another GSB. The fact that he is a celebrity journalist makes his caste pride unjust. He can be proud of his home state of Goa and could have shown pride that two Goans made it to the rank of Union Cabinet Ministers but when he mentions caste the whole country can scrutinize a national journalist taking affiliation to a specific caste. A journalist should be an unbiased voice of news and events instead if they start to sound off their affiliations (read as biases) it is unfair to the readers who follow his voice and their critique gets justified although its unfair to him as a person.

- Prabhu, Alabama, USA | 26 th November 2014 04:54

 

Excellent post. One can be proud of his name, surname, village, state, caste, religion. No harm. But when it comes to state affairs these prides should submerge with broader and wider entity and dissolve itself beyond recognition.

- Madhav Bastodker, Ponda | 17 th November 2014 17:57

 

Rajdeep's father was a Goan Saraswat and obviously like his other caste brothers who believe in Anulom and not Pratilom as written down by Brahmins in the scriptures, he did not feel proud of a Bengali becoming a President of India despite having a Bengali mother.

This is nothing but hypocrisy. Saraswats have been always close to the rulers and there is nothing ' novel' about it. They have been always a privileged class and their achievements are well known right from the time of Mhal Pai. And it is not a big deal for Prabhus and Prabhu Parrikars to ascend to the power.

Rajdeep has no background of working with masses. He is an elite who got his degree in law from London and then shifted to journalism.

Many thought of him to be an enlightened soul who had risen beyond narrow walls of caste but the fact that he wants to publicly identify himself with Saraswat community. Currently, he is not as powerful as he was at one time as the media is controlled by pro Modi forces and may be this is his was to sneak back into a plum position by holding the flag of his 'caste' high.

- Suyash Kuwelkar, Dubai | 17 th November 2014 12:46

 

It shows that you are a casteist. Just like several millions of those existing here in India. People like you should make an effort to dissuade people from thinking on the basis of cast, etc. and instead focus on character, capability, and integrity of the person.

- Dessai Saresh, Goa | 17 th November 2014 02:34

 

A very well written and appreciable article in true journalistic traditions. Not a word that I think should have been not written, but my reservations are on one point alone. In todays casteist world, for these two phrases, re caste,he has been attacked, but it was not because of just these alone. Rajdeep Sardesai does not write upon people based on other castes or writes about shortcomings of Saraswat Brahmin families. They are there for ex. strong conservatism (more than 55%), strong inward focus only on their family, city and again caste, (ever-ready to attack people of their own caste who are not for their benefits). May be in wider circle as in metropolitan areas Mr Sardesai does not realize these issues, but they become irritating factors in groups with small populations such as in towns in Goa

- Kalidas Sawkar, Panaji Goa | 16 th November 2014 11:29

 

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