The Age of the Elephant: The Politics of Caste in Uttar Pradesh

by Marissa Dearing:

Amidst the swarming crowds of Uttar Pradesh tower are hundreds upon hundreds of colossal stone and bronze elephants. Although the sheer scale and spread of this super-sized herd might suggest elephants here enjoy ceremonial reverence, the statues are neither sacred nor traditional. They are political mascots for the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a lower-caste party whose winning 2007 campaign slogans included “If you don’t vote for elephant, you will be history!” and “Upper castes must be humiliated!”

olitical parties in India engage in constant information war to gain votes. (Courtesy Lenin Raghuvanshi)

The elephants are not alone. BSP’s leader, Mayawati, who is so famous she goes by a single name, is a Dalit, a member of the “Untouchable” caste. Historically the pariah caste of Indian society, Dalits are prohibited from marrying, living, eating, walking, touching, and even making eye contact with those of higher castes and physically barred from temples, public wells, upper-caste neighborhoods, and other public areas. They have faced discrimination in nearly every sphere of daily life. Before losing power in last February’s state elections, Mayawati strove to overcome this corrosive legacy, using millions of dollars’ worth of state funds to build statues of Dalit heroes throughout Uttar Pradesh (UP), many in her own image. India’s largest and most populous state is as notorious for its extreme poverty as it is for its caste violence, and Mayawati’s flamboyant tenure generated immense controversy. From channeling state funds to extravagant projects promoting lower-caste interests to sporting outsized necklaces made of rupee notes worth between $400,000 and $2,000,000, Mayawati seemed to continually contradict the political interests she championed.

Last February, Mayawait’s elephants disappeared under endless sheets of pink and orange plastic by order of UP’s Election Commission, which feared the imposing symbols might inappropriately influence voters’ decisions in the upcoming state elections. The controversy surrounding caste and corruption, far from unique to Mayawati or UP, has been raging across India for the past decade. The multi-colored elephants of Uttar Pradesh seem to be just the latest red flags in the future of the world’s largest democracy.

Not all are convinced, however, that such zeal for a caste-specific party is so ominous. “It is not grotesque. It is not abnormal. It is not absurd to see that Indians are still voting on caste lines,” said Professor Priyankar Upadhyaya, the UNESCO Chair for Peace and Intercultural Understanding, and long-time resident of UP. Upadhyaya believes recent caste parties like the BSP in Uttar Pradesh have done much to give lower-caste groups a voice and dignity long denied them. Despite the constitutional prohibition of lower-caste discrimination decades ago, as recently as 1999, killing squads in the neighboring state of Bihar took hundreds of Dalit lives. Smaller-scale caste violence has persisted even today, often involving police, judicial, and official complicity decried by rural and urban Indians alike. Pervasive discrimination continues, denying Dalits access to adequate education, jobs, and social services, not to mention political representation.

But in recent years, caste parties have actually been a way for many of India’s underrepresented and severely underprivileged to force the state to listen to their concerns and improve their daily lives. Upadhyaya, for one, believes that Mayawati transformed Dalit identity in the UP.

“Dalits who, ten years back, would not easily display their identity as Dalit—now they come forward and say that they are Dalits,” said Upadhyaya. Such a transformation is in part attributable to the very programs for which Mayawati is so maligned in the Indian press: as Upadhyaya affirmed, prominent Dalit symbols in public places have helped establish equality as a new societal norm. Mayawati also worked to solidify her constituency’s protection through laws that make it much more difficult to exploit rural Dalits for their land or publicly abuse lower-castes without facing a weighty punishment.

In the last round of UP elections, however, the BSP was soundly defeated, in part due to the uproar surrounding Mayawati’s flashy opportunism, according to Lenin Raghuvanshi, a Dalit rights activist, participant in UP’s 2012 Election Watch, and cofounder of the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights.

Though BSP’s loss could signal the decline of caste-driven politics, many remain unconvinced. But caste will likely continue to play a major role in determining how Indians vote. Caste is deeply ingrained in Indian society, and has been a basis of political identity. Many voters assume elected members of their own caste, a sort of “extended family” as Upadhyaya termed it, are most likely to help them get into schools, find adequate jobs, and receive the social services they need. “People [just] go back to their caste shell,” said Upadhyaya.

Many, like Raghuvanshi, hold caste responsible for India’s rampant corruption; voters often support candidates of their own caste despite blatant corruption or incompetence because they believe that once in office, co-caste representatives will reward them with benefits like jobs or college admission. The resulting impunity pervades Indian politics: in UP, almost half of all members of the legislative assembly have criminal cases declared against them, and the state’s newly elected chief minister has strong familial ties to political power in the region.

Despite a continuing corrupt political system, UP’s elections suggest times are changing in India. Reports on election returns indicate some Dalits chose to vote against their lower-caste champion Mayawati to protest her corruption and extravagance, and there is reason to believe such shifts away from purely caste-based voting may run deeper than this election in this state this year.

“Caste took a little bit of a back seat,” said Gaurav Saigal, a principal correspondent for the Hindustan Times. Saigal believes this switch is due in part to the strengthening of Indian civil society.

In a country where everything from a driver’s license to a restaurant permit to avoiding wrongful arrest requires a bribe, Indians’ greater capacity to organize, inform, and participate through social media like Facebook, Twitter, and personal blogs has resulted in widespread insistence on government transparency and accountability.

“Civil society…made the issue of corruption a grassroots issue,” Saigal said. “85 percent of the electorate could understand that [corruption] is a word that affects them in their daily lives.”

Indians are demanding more than the transactional status quo from their governments, and Upadhyaya believes that eventually, real evidence of good governance may eventually draw people away from electoral caste lines (as has happened in the state of Bihar under Nitish Kumar). Pressure for fundamental change in India is mounting.

Activist Raghuvanshi sees that change taking a radical form in UP: “a new Dalit revolution.” In villages and cities across UP, Indians are now rising up against the caste system and joining a new Dalit movement, a revolution not restricted to Untouchables, but open to all opposed to the caste system.

“Without eliminating [caste] in this country, how are you going to eliminate corruption in the society?” Raghuvanshi asked. “It is the most corrupt system in the world.”

Increasingly, activists from higher castes, like Raghuvanshi, have been going into villages to wash Dalits’ feet, eat with them, and raise awareness of political and social issues in hopes of erasing caste divisions

and decades of marginalization (largely uncovered by the Indian press, he added). Even over his lifetime, Raghuvanshi has already seen a great deal of change.

“When I was a kid… in an upper caste family, I never [saw] Dalits coming to our marriages [or] to eat with us, but now [it’s] happening all the time,” he said.

At the same time, the lower-caste poor are working to transform and empower themselves through modernization. According to Raghuvanshi, the younger generation is now increasingly relying on the Internet to stay informed and build communication networks. Dalits in rural villages and urban slums have used radio, television, and SMS text messaging to learn about and discuss events beyond the immediate locale; some have used SMS networks to broadcast news of local human rights abuses to activists like Raghuvanshi. “They’ve changed themselves very dramatically,” he said.

For Raghuvanshi, this new, inclusive, and unified Dalit revolution represents the best hope for the future of Indian democracy, calling it “the force [that’s] going to change the feudal system of India and [help India] join the real global democracy.”

After decades of politics rooted in caste divisions, the foundations of Indian democracy are shifting. In the aftermath of the recent state elections, leaders of several major parties in UP have acknowledged that the caste system has been the root of rampant discrimination and corruption in India, and increasingly, the political consensus is that its divisions must be ended. Perhaps UP’s notorious elephants are not stony omens about the rising tyranny of caste but milestones marking how far democracy in India has come.

Marissa Dearing ‘14 is a Political Science and Humanities double major in Berkeley College. Contact her at