Anand Teltumbde’s Republic of Caste is a masterful narration of the social and historical life of caste in India, of how communities have been systematically disempowered, and how such exclusion is in the very DNA of the republic
Hours after a flyover under construction in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi collapsed in May, a message started going viral on WhatsApp. In it, photos of mangled steel girders of the bridge were spliced with large fonts that screamed how such accidents were to be expected in a country where large numbers of engineers and officers came from “reserved categories”, and therefore, as the anonymous creator of the message held, were not meritorious and deserving.
This is a sentiment many Indians hold close to their hearts, despite there being no proof of affirmative action diluting merit, or indeed, “meritorious” general category students being particularly adept at anything apart from templatised MBAs, or monopolising professions that backward and scheduled castes are stopped from entering. Still, pervasive hatred for reservation, and glib stories about “losing out” on college seats – as if there can be a birthright on it – have become an essential part of the social discourse in India.
It is this condition that academic Anand Teltumbde attacks frontally in his new book Republic of Caste, a masterful, if somewhat rhetorical, narration of the social and historical life of caste in India and how it has seeped into and morphed every institution in its mould. In 13 chapters, Teltumbde spans politics, education, agriculture, atrocities and reservation to underline how Dalit communities have been systematically disenfranchised and disempowered, and, more importantly, how such exclusion is not an aberration, but in the very DNA of the republic.
It is a difficult proposition, not least because writing on caste is still far from adequate. An exploration of how caste shapes the country and the consciousness of its citizens is as good as absent, save from Dalit publishers and writers, many of whom struggle for funds and exposure in “mainstream” publishing that continues to be monopolised by dominant castes.
Teltumbde’s strength lies in interspersing the history of the formation of the republic with perspective on how those nation-building processes have evolved into modern-day caste practices that shape the state. This kindles new questions on what has been long-accepted canon.
For example, we have grown up studying the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 and associated agitations as the First War of Indian Independence. But were these little more than associated castes fighting for dominance, and did its roots lie less in the imagination of sovereignty and more in regaining caste control? Or, how would our imagination of communal tensions and secularism change if we remember many of the people who converted to Islam were lower caste who faced hostility from stalwarts like Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of Aligarh Muslim University, who thought they were impure.
Teltumbde makes several provocative arguments but the best are on the evolution of contemporary politics, the critique of the Indian independence movement and on reservation. He correctly diagnoses the dominant caste rhetoric of reservation as barely-disguised panic over lack of control, but goes further to suggest that the architecture of such discrimination is embedded into the Constitution itself. This is a counter-intuitive argument, because the document is seen as the only protection for the marginalised today. But Teltumbde points out how the document has been implemented and reminds the reader that BR Ambedkar, India’s first law minister and widely regarded as the father of the Constitution, was himself disillusioned with his efforts merely three years after the formation of the republic.
He also delves at great length into the 1932 Poona Pact, where MK Gandhi forced Ambedkar to give up on separate electorates for Dalits and instead opt for reserved seats. This development, Temtumbde argues, is responsible for the generally hapless current state of Dalit representation despite large numbers of scheduled caste MP and MLAs. This is a common grouse of Dalit movements that often complain their political leadership has no real power and is beholden to upper-caste leadership of mainstream parties, especially because non-Dalit voters hold a majority in reserved seats and therefore Dalit politicians have to constantly appease majority communities, whose interests never align with those from marginalised castes.
The other big insightful-if-controversial argument in the book is on corruption and who civil society feels comfortable branding as corrupt. Teltumbde examine the ease with which Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati or former Bharatiya Janata Party chief Bangaru Laxman – both Dalits – were termed as corrupt while those with far more damaging legacies, corrupt corporate, and those who have been institutionally compromised are routinely feted in public. He uses similar arguments to criticise the middle-class, dominant caste concerns of the Aam Aadmi Party, which grew out of an anti-corruption movement and which, he argues, isn’t so much interested in systemic changes to root out corruption, but in superficial tinkering.
At the centre of the book’s focus, and I suspect Teltumbde’s politics as well, is land rights. He berates the Dalit movement for splintering and what he believes is selling out without focusing on questions of land. He accuses the Left of being too blind to see that questions of land and class affect Dalits the most. But there is a flip side to this concern. In recent decades, as agriculture has fallen into distress, middle and dominant castes have increasingly felt their control slip (think of the Maratha and the Jat agitations in the past three years) while some within the Dalit communities have been able to transition out of rural economies on the back of education. How poor, disempowered Dalit farmers would deal with a crushingly unprofitable agrarian system if given land is a question Teltumbde acknowledges, but has an unconvincing answer to.
The book pulls no punches, and the author’s criticism is directed at the BJP, which he accuses of saffronising Ambedkar, and at the Congress, which he thinks has let independent India down. But this may also be the book’s big weakness. Large tracts are reserved for the criticism of urban, well-to-do Dalits. This comes across as unfair. It doesn’t take into account the hostility and derision even well-to-do Dalits battle and the effort it takes for a Dalit to maintain a semblance of influence among networks that see them as the other, as unmeritorious and undeserving. To survive in such company is in itself praiseworthy.
As Ambedkar wrote, “It is your claim to equality which hurts them. They want to maintain the status quo. If you continue to accept your lowly status ungrudgingly, continue to remain dirty, filthy, backward, ignorant, poor and disunited, they will allow you to live in peace. The moment you start to raise your level, the conflict starts.”
Teltumbde reserves particular contempt for those he terms as sell-out Dalits and those who argue for symbolism than the supposedly more real fight for land. But, as he himself acknowledges in a chapter on caste atrocities, the mere use of symbols – such as a Buddha vihar or an Ambedkar statue – is enough to unleash monstrous violence on Dalits. Surely then, to erect symbols is resistance in itself. The book is also content to explore the social milieu of a handful of states such as Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh but takes little note of similar, long-running anti-caste resistance movements in places such as West Bengal. The insights drawn, therefore, sometimes appear locked in a perspective that could have been further informed by drawing from heterogeneous regional examples. Similarly, Teltumbde is bold in offering solutions but some of the remedies suggested – such as capping affirmative action within a family or nationalising the country’s school system are either self-defeating or far fetched. There is also little exploration of the ways in which caste shapes our conceptions of gender and sexuality and Dalit women are absent, except in the context of sexual crimes against them.
The last few years have seen a remarkable churn in India’s caste consciousness. More Dalits are today speaking up against pervasive discrimination though their numbers are far from adequate. Politically, the false dichotomy between caste politics and development politics is slowly unravelling as more and more dominant communities display their insecurity in the rise of the people they once controlled. And, as India looks ahead to a general election where caste coalitions are expected to play a key role, Republic of Caste is both a cautionary tale and a promissory note of the India that has betrayed Ambedkar’s vision and mangled the spirit of his Constitution, and the things we need to urgently explore, if not remedy, if the republic has to keep the promise it made to its most marginalised.