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The rise of ethnic politics in India has been so dramatic and unstoppable that its hot-blooded rhetoric has blurred some cold economic facts. At least two major, economically costly political events in 2008 had their roots in ethnic agitations. In May, Colonel Kirori Singh Bainsla’s Gujjar Arakshan Sangharsh Samiti led a 21-day economic blockade in Rajasthan, demanding Scheduled Caste (SC) status for Gujjars on a par with the powerful Meenas of the state, also an SC. Later, in June-July, the agitation in Srinagar against the temporary transfer of a 100-acre plot of land in Jammu to the Amarnath Shrine Board cut off vital trade routes to the Valley.
“What we call ethnic politics is grounded in economic compulsions,” says Sudha Pai, professor of political science at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Large-scale migration of labour and displacement caused by developmental projects have created pockets of disenchanted communities, who have discovered they are heard better when they speak in one voice.
Parallely, regional aspirations have flowed seamlessly into the expanding cesspool of ethnic politics. Caste groups are now distinct vote-banks. The Dalits and Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh, the Gujjars and Meenas in Rajasthan, the Vokkaligas and Lingayats in Karnataka, the Patels in Gujarat and the Patils in Maharashtra: their successful grandstanding and political allegiances have thrown the potential of ethnic banding into prominent light. No politician is averse to its allure, or unaware of it.
In Rajasthan, for instance, the Gujjars, a backward community that lost its only traditional means of livelihood in hunting, earned notoriety in crime from the likes of Nirbhay Gujjar, a dreaded dacoit of the 1990s. It took a Kirori Bainsla to mobilise the Gujjars into demanding SC status — hitherto looked down upon socially. Bainsla’s calculations stem from the realisation that emerging out of the economic morass in which the Gujjars found themselves required extraordinary measures.
“Today, within the castes, sub-castes are fighting for their space,” says president of the Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee (RPCC), C.P. Joshi. “Small groups want recognition in their own right and ideologically bankrupt political parties capitalise on such emotions by using them to win votes.”

In another example, Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) has succeeded in drumming up some sort of support because of the presence of large numbers of unemployed local youth. “We are against outsiders being given preference in all kinds of jobs at the cost of the locals,” says General-Secretary and MNS spokesperson Sirish Parkar. “They work for less, which has spoiled the job market and local people are suffering because of that.”

Indeed, “The present round of caste and ethnic upsurge is not the usual upper caste versus lower caste rivalry but a socio-economic phenomena where people in Maharashtra, even though a handful, are asking for deportation of migrants because they see them as being responsible for what they have not been able to get in life,” says Professor Pai. “Ultimately, it is a fight for a share in the same pie. Till the pie gets larger, these conflicts will go on.”

(AP & Reuters)

It Takes A Region
The present ethnic upsurge traces its roots to the emergence of regional parties as power centres in their own right. “Issues related with identity are not new,” says sociologist and co-author of Power and Contestation: India Since 1989, Aditya Nigam. “They have only become visible now because of the proliferation of visual media.” Nigam says the collapse of the Nehruvian secular nationalist discourse and the governmental way of classifying communities are the two factors abetting ethnic uprisings.
“Historically, barring perhaps the actual untouchables who were engaged in professions like scavenging, all other caste groups fall under grey categories and can be defined either as SC, Scheduled Tribes (ST) or Backward Communities,” Nigam adds. “Recent ethnic agitations are power struggles centred around this classifications-based approach to governance, and the whole issue of delimitation.”
The 1971 Census constitutionally provides for 79 SC and 41 ST reserved seats in the Lok Sabha. These numbers will change once the presidential nod for the latest report on delimitation is received. Even where no identity issues are involved, the mere presence of two major communities is enough to trigger rivalries. Karnataka’s power tussle has always been between the Vokkaligas and the Lingayats — even though they form only 13 per cent and 15 per cent, respectively, of the state’s population. “Thanks to their dominant numbers in the state, and their long experience in the political arena, you cannot ignore these two communities,” says Rajeev Gowda, professor of social science at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.

One Nation, Many People
Caste calculations are so complex now that even upper castes are inching closer to the Bahujan Samaj Party head and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, who is identified as a Dalit leader. Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are already vulnerable to Naxalites, identified by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the single largest threat to national security. The Bodoland and Gorkhaland agitations in the North-East are becoming more visible. In the midst of such rising tensions, a shift to a nationalist discourse that seeks development of the nation rather than that of communities is imperative. Barack Obama’s campaign to become the first African American president of the United States holds some answers, not least because it was vastly successful as well.
India’s history as the world’s largest democracy is far younger than its fragmented medieval and colonial past when up to 500 small kingdoms comprised the Hindustan that is now called a modern, democratic socialist republic. Communal, regional and, now, ethnic lines are re-drawing crucial national concerns. The repercussions of this trend can only be dangerous.
shalini dot sharma at abp dot in
(Businessworld Issue 06-12 January 2009)

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