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Role of Caste in Indian Politics

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  • Last Updated : 25 Mar, 2022

Caste is a social category set out in a hierarchical order; it has derived its legitimacy from classical Hindu scriptures. Caste originated initially as ‘varna’, which divided the society into four occupational categories. Caste is the epitome of traditional society, a closed system where generation after generation of individuals did the same work and lived the same life.  

Caste as an institution is embedded in Indian society, it has changed and moulded itself to fit in the modern democratic politics. Caste and casteism that accompanied caste have never disappeared in India. As Rajni Kothari has effectively pointed out the politicization of caste in India has shaped the nature of Indian politics to a great extent. He proved that the politicization of caste is a two-way process. Caste needs politics as much as politics need caste.  

Role of Caste in a Society:

Caste plays a very important role in shaping the nature of Indian politics. Caste and politics have become inextricable elements of Indian politics. Theoretically, caste and democratic politics represent opposite value systems, as caste is hierarchical while democracy thrives on equality and freedom of the individual. Despite the contradictory nature of their value systems caste has laid its imprint on the Indian political system.  

Politics is a part of society; it cannot function in a vacuum. It is influenced by a myriad of social forces, caste is one of them. Caste influences the political attitude in the following ways:

  • Caste as a social stratification system has influenced the socio-economic and political scenario of the society.
  • Political socialization: Caste values and caste interest have determined and altered the political thinking, awareness, and participation of the masses to a great extent.
  • Nomination of candidates: Owing to the process of political socialization caste has influenced the nomination of the candidates and increased caste consciousness among the people.
  • Influence of caste on political propaganda of the parties: The political parties keep the caste affiliations of the candidates in mind while nominating them from particular constituencies, the propaganda of the parties is also greatly determined along caste lines.
  • Caste and Voting behaviour: Votes are demanded along caste lines. Caste determines and shapes the nature of election campaigns and voter turnout.

Caste, as we see, is an indispensable component of Indian politics, its influence on politics and society, in general, has its positive and negative impacts on the nature of the Indian federation.  

The Positive effects of Caste on Politics are as follows:

  • Caste Solidarity: In the last hundred years there has been an increase in the feeling of caste solidarity. The educated leaders have collected funds to help the poorer members of the caste, organized caste conferences, built caste hostels, hospitals, cooperative societies. GS Ghurye had argued as early as 1932 that the attack on caste hierarchy is not the end of caste in India it has, in turn, generated a new sentiment of ‘caste solidarity’ which can be described as caste patriotism.
  • Caste Groups and Alliances: The British government gave a considerable concession to the people of backward classes in India under their rule. To take advantage of these opportunities, the traditional caste groups made alliances with each other thus forming bigger entities. This laid the foundation of caste groups and alliances which continue to mobilize and consolidate people of the same caste even today.
  • Caste and Empowerment of the Disadvantaged: It has given people of the disadvantaged community to demand their fair share of power. Caste politics has given people from Dalit and Backward Castes to gain better access to decision-making. Caste solidarity has turned into their safety net guaranteeing them better representation.
  • Caste as a Cohesive force in Indian Politics: it is a source of unity among the members of the group and acts as a cohesive force.
  • The prevalence of caste politics in India has led to the enactment of legislation to protect the rights of the disadvantaged and marginalized. For instance: Protection of Civil Rights Act 1976.
  • The caste-based political parties are also solving the problems of the people belonging to the lower castes thereby mobilizing them and making them politically aware.
  • Caste associations have also played a role in spreading the culture of democratic politics in areas that were previously governed by tradition.
  • The caste associations also act as pressure groups that reinforce the views of the people belonging to the lower caste thereby giving them their due representation in the political arena.

The Negative effects of Caste on Politics are as follows:

  • Caste as divisive in Indian Politics: caste has often led to an unhealthy struggle for power and has fragmented the society into various caste groups.
  • Increase in social and political tension: the provisions guaranteed for the protection of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes have led to dissatisfaction of the other sections of the society leading to an increase in the social and political tension.
  • Regional political parties are also supporting dominant caste groups and mobilizing people along caste lines thereby hampering the spirit of harmony and solidarity of the Indian society.
  • The caste factor has also affected the policies and decisions of the government. They tend to favour the dominant caste groups and make policies favouring these groups, thereby leading to the alienation of the vast majority.
  • Caste politics also goes against the ideals of democracy which profess equality, and solidarity. Caste politics can also divert the attention of the government from pressing issues like poverty, development, and corruption to caste violence and tension.

Caste is constantly evolving and constantly changing its dynamism concerning Indian politics. As Sudipta Kaviraj says that there is a continuous process of churning of caste phenomenon in India. Its basis and modality of functioning are constantly changing through electoral politics, economic development, and cultural change. The Indian Constitution has taken several steps to promote equality and pursue concrete measures such as Reservation for Scheduled Castes and other welfare measures for the minority section, these measures have no doubt made some dent but the institution of caste is far from gone.

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