A China Guy Goes To India (2): Caste and Democracy

Before I jump into today’s topic – caste and democracy – let me just note two newspaper stories that speak to my last China/India comparison. They both deal with the changing role of women in Indian society, which is, to my mind, a critical social dynamic in the interplay of tradition and modernity in India: one in the New York Times and the other in the Washington Post. A nice coincidence to see them.

Now, to the issue at hand: a clear difference between India and China is the historical experience and persistence of caste in the former, something that was palpable in my recent travels.

As we moved about from place to place, our main tour guide was quite straightforward and unapologetic about mentioning the caste status of other people we met. He himself was from a prominent Ksatriya (warrior and/or ruler) family, or, more specifically, a Rajput. One of our local guides was Vaisya (merchant, artisan), which he stated was the “number two” caste after the Brahmin (which would be disputed by Ksatriya but which also demonstrates the fluidity of caste hierarchy). We also noticed the matrimonial sections of the newspapers, pages dedicated to young people in search of marriage partners. These services were organized by caste – there would be a section of “Brahmin,” then “Agrawal,” etc. Some announcements said that caste was no bar to a match but the clear sense of the entire operation was that caste mattered very much for many, many people. The message was: you do not want your children (most marriages in many parts of the country are arranged by parents or senior family members) to marry someone from the “wrong” caste.

Nothing like this exists in China. But the question that this difference raises is: Does caste really matter in India? Or, how does it matter?

It obviously matters when it comes to marriage. In the social sphere more generally – who your friends are, how status is defined and reproduced, what is understood as popular – caste plays a significant role. I suspect it matters more for Dalits, out castes, and others at the bottom of the social hierarchy. They are excluded socially from high caste lives, even if their rights are guaranteed in the constitution and their political interests defended in the political process. But, in India, the social sphere is not wholly governed by political practices. Caste lives on despite political, and increasingly economic, forces that push against it.

Historically, the contrast with China is again notable. The Chinese imperial state very much shaped social and cultural life, especially through the examination system for access to bureaucratic office which created a cultural hegemony, of sorts, of Confucian learning. There was a certain homogeneity at the elite level that was forged by the recruitment practices of the centralized state. India, by contrast, never had the kind of political centralization that the Chinese empire achieved, even under the Mughals, and thus never created a similar kind of cultural homogeneity at the elite level of Hindu society (Muslim political society was obviously more centered around Islam). India, then, has always been more diverse and complex, socially and politically, than China.

For me, the bigger question is how caste matters in politics.

As I think about the interplay of caste and democracy, I am led to a counterintuitive conclusion: while caste obviously violates the core democratic ideal of equal rights, it may have played a critical role in the successful consolidation of Indian democracy.

To explain: the Indian independence movement was, at base, politically conservative. It was not aimed at fundamental transformation of Indian society but, rather, the removal of foreign power. Gandhi was a political genius in forging a mass-based nationalist movement that promised participation for all levels of Indian society, Dalits included. But when independence was gained, Nehru and other Congress leaders kept their eye on national modernization, not radical egalitarian promises. They were thoroughly democratic in their politics and outlook, as opposed to the Leninists in the Chinese Communist Party, but their brand of democracy was procedural and conservative, allowing high caste power-brokers to maintain their social and economic standing in the new order. Caste was rejected in the constitution but was hard-wired into the political system. Christophe Jaffrelot, in the new book The State of India’s Democracy, explains:

The Congress leaders came mostly from the intelligentsia whose caste backgrounds drew generally from the literati castes, which includes Kayasths and, more importantly, Brahmins These politicians had established close working relationships with traders and industrialists even before independence These groups were allies against the British and remained allies after 1947 Similarly, Congress politicians initiated some collaboration with the landlords when they understood that they needed the landlords in order to win elections. These landlords still exerted a strong influence over the peasants, not only because they were their bosses, but also because they lent them money on a regular basis. The authority of these elite groups derived from their socioeconomic domination and from their social status: they were all of the upper castes and therefore commanded symbolic power (67-68)

He goes on to point out:

In this framework, the government depended upon these [upper caste rural] notables to a large extent. As a result the socialist discourse of Nehru could not be taken to its logical conclusion. Land reform, for instance, was never really enforced in order not to alienate the rural big men who supported the Congress party. (68)

The conservative nature of early Indian democracy (things have been changing since the 1980’s with the broader empowerment of low caste people) might help explain why democratization was able to consolidate there. In socio-economic terms, Indian democracy is an anomaly. Broad cross-national studies suggest that success in democratization (not the actual initiation of democratic transition but its likelihood of succeeding over time and consolidating) requires a level of economic development higher than India’s. From this perspective, Indian democracy should have failed. But it has persisted, even through the Emergency of Indira Gandhi.

It may be that democracy has succeeded in India precisely because of its conservatism early on. Power brokers and privileged high caste people bought into the democratic system from the outset because they believed their interests would not be fundamentally challenged by it. They were willing to work through the new democratic system, and thus contribute to its consolidation, because they were secure in their power and prospects. This may have been bad for lower levels of society – land reform was not pressed as far as it should have been, and thus poverty has persisted – but it has been good in terms of maintaining certain freedoms and avoiding horrific man-made disasters like China’s Great Leap famine, which Amartya Sen argues was caused, broadly, by a lack of democracy.

This may be an unsatisfying idea for those who want to understand democracy as more egalitarian and potentially transformative. But when we think about actually existing democracies around the world, we can see that many of the most successful (if by “successful” we mean not being overthrown by authoritarian power and maintaining a certain level of civil and political rights) democracies, we will notice the inherent conservatism of their politics. That is not to say that all democracies will always remain conservative and resist fundamental social change; rather, such change will come gradually, only as the anxieties of power-holders are counterbalanced by newly mobilized political forces, a process that takes time.

There may be a lesson here for China and the prospects for democracy there.

India, in the first instance, reminds us that democracy could be possible in China. The argument that China is too undeveloped economically and socially is obviously insufficient, an apology of Party bosses who do not want to yield power. Especially these days, with an expanding economy and dynamic society with high rates of literacy, it is hard to accept a socio-economic denial of Chinese democracy.

But India might also suggest that if China were to democratize (and I’m not holding my breath), consolidation and long term success would depend upon the cooperation and participation of current power-holders. In the Chinese case, that means party leaders; they would have to buy into whatever process of democratization that unfolds and they would have to feel that they could, for some time at least, maintain their power and status under conditions of democratization, just like high caste Indians in the first several decades of Indian democracy. If a more adversarial or contentious process were to develop, one in which party leaders felt threatened and endangered, their resistance could derail democratization.

That, at any rate, could be an Indian lesson for Chinese democratization.

– Read also “A China Guy Goes To India (1): Tradition and Modernity.


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