Caste and politics mix in India’s Hindu “cow belt”
The last time I went from New Delhi to Uttar Pradesh was in January 2007 to cover the Kumbh Mela, one of the largest religious gatherings in the world. Around seven million Hindus and thousands of holy “Sadhus” descend on the junction of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers to pray and make offerings.
I stood where the two rivers meet along with thousands of poor Hindus performing their ritual baths. At night, whole families huddled together to keep warm on the river bank. Small paper boats with candles floated precariously down the river.
At the time, this felt like the essence of Hinduism — a relationship with nature and its cycles, its running rivers, the elements of fire and water. New to India then, I don’t remember thinking about caste once in my three-day visit.
The second visit to the state this month was an eye-opener.
A journalist’s early impressions on a trip are often gleaned from the back seat of an airport taxi. Uttar Pradesh is the heart of the Hindu “cow belt” and one of the poorest, most populous and caste-ridden places in India. Yet what we drove through this time looked like a birthday bash for royalty.
The state capital Lucknow was decked out in mile upon mile of blue decorations, light bulbs and banners to celebrate the birthday of the new chief minister — a Dalit (“untouchable”) former teacher known as Mayawati. She has stormed onto the national stage as such a champion of the rights of the poor that she’s known as the “Untouchables Queen.”
Welcome to caste politics in Uttar Pradesh.
Mayawati is everywhere in Uttar Pradesh. Statues of her abound thanks to a building spree she launched that employs many Dalits and other lower castes. She has spent lavishly on one of India’s biggest highway projects, creating even more jobs for the poor, and on parks dotted across the country’s most populous state. A huge park in honour of her party’s founder is being built in Lucknow for around $100 million. Hundreds of poor women bricklayers toiled nearby, their children camped out next to them.
Mayawati is a politically astute politician. Many analysts rate her as a middle-of-the-road leader who surrounds herself with well-meaning technocrats. But her rise highlights the importance of caste in northern Indian politics — and what Indian critics of this kind of caste politics call the darker side of Hinduism.
Despite the secular ideals of modern India, whose founders prided themselves on not being a religious state like neighbouring Pakistan, Uttar Pradesh shows that caste politics is alive and kicking in this part of northern India.
Much of this surfaced because the Indian government decided two decades ago to introduce caste quotas into civil service hiring and college admissions. Around one-third of state jobs are now dished out by caste preference.
It pays to have a caste and be proud of it. Academics and reformers may say the essence of Hinduism does not have to be related to caste and that one can coexist without the other. But it’s hard to see that on the ground in India these days.
The rise in caste politics has also been accompanied by the rise of Hindu nationalist political parties that say the prevalence of caste shows India is a religious, not a secular nation. The main Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), just scored important victories in the western state of Gujarat last month and the southern state of Karnataka (its capital is high-tech centre Bangalore) in November.
I spent three days in Uttar Pradesh visiting Dalit villages where poor villagers were beaten up by higher castes for collecting firewood from the wrong forest, and where water supplies are so bad and appeals to officials for help so ineffective that their only hope left is their rain god. I talked to politicians, academics and NGO workers.
All their talk was related to caste. It was a sobering look at the flip side of the modern hi-tech India that so often hits the headlines. For all the talk of a globalising India, Mayawati’s focus on caste may be a sign of things to come. She has talked about running for prime minister in the next elections, in 2009, and some Indian analysts think she could pull it off.
My second trip to U.P. left me wondering what path caste and Indian politics will take. Can Hinduism keep the spirit I saw last year on the banks of the Ganges, where caste seemed secondary, if even only for a few days? Or will caste stay and grow in India’s political fabric, justifying those politicians that say India is religious, not a secular society?