The Politics on the Oppressed: A Historical Analysis


The colonial rule in India, as well as the empires that existed before, were systems of exploitation built for the benefit of few and to the detriment of the majority. These economic systems which often revolved around caste accumulated wealth in the hands of the upper-caste groups. The lower castes who were mostly small peasants and landless laborers or engaged in small-craft production were left with the bare minimum needed to survive. Throughout the British period, there was an increasing consciousness among the lower castes over the exploitation and oppression by the upper castes. After the independence, the constitution did guarantee equality and ensured remedial measures to undo this historical injustice, the structural inequalities that had built up in a society were so entrenched that the lower castes could not compete with the upper-castes on an equal footing. From the 1960s onward, the lower castes slowly broke away from the Congress and mobilize for distributive justice- that wealth being created in the society be justly and equally distributed.

At the same time, there were conservative and reactionary counter-currents emerging in Indian politics. This movement led by the RSS and its affiliates ostensibly aimed at restoring India to its golden age. It argues that the western values of democracy and secularism were incompatible with Indian values and were causing moral degeneration in India. Stripped of all its pretensions, it was a movement led by upper-caste groups and supported by small and big businessperson for its pro-corporate and anti-socialist outlook. Their sole interest in the lower castes was for their numerical strength in a system of electoral representation. Their approach to the lower castes were not of social upliftment but appropriation through an appeal to religion. Modern Indian politics has been shaped in these two competing currents.

Subaltern Mobilization

In the 1950s and 60s, the socialists led notably by Ram Manohar Lohia concerned themselves with the question of poverty, inequality, and Social Justice. Lohia, a veteran of the Freedom movement and a lapsed Marxist, believed that in India caste, not class was the basic unit of society. Social and economic relations and structures of power and domination were based on caste hierarchy. The upper castes had monopolized power and wealth while the lower castes had been impoverished, rendered landless, and educationally backward. To break this cycle, Lohia chose the way of affirmative action for the lower castes. He demanded 60 percent reservation of seats in the Parliament, state assemblies, government jobs, and educational institutions for the backward groups (SC, ST, OBC, and women). SCs and STs already had representation in proportion to their population. The OBCs who made up around 52% of India’s population needed to be mobilized. The socialists were quite successful in doing this in the Hindi-belt states, particularly in UP and Bihar. In Bihar where the OBCs made up over 60 percent of the population, their representation slowly rose from 23.2 percent in 1962 to 30 percent by 1977. The number of OBC MPs from the Hindi belt also rose from 4.45 percent in 1952 elections to 13.3% in 1977, 20.9% in 1989, and 24.8% by 1996. At the same time, Upper-caste representation from the Hindi-belt came down from 64% in 1952 to 48.2 % in 1977, 38.2% in 1989, and 34.7% in 1998. The groups that most benefit from the rise of the OBCs were Yadavas, Kurmis, Koeris, and Jats. These were primarily peasant castes who had benefitted from the Green Revolution in the 60s and now under the aegis of their newfound economic power, were politically ascendant.

The Mandal Commission was formed by the Janata Party government in 1979 to look into the socio-economic conditions of the OBCs and recommend ways to uplift them. But before the Commission could submit its report, the Janata government fell. The subsequent Congress governments sat over the report for a decade. It was the National Front government of VP Singh that made the report public in 1990 and implemented its recommendations granting a quota of 27% for the OBCs in government jobs and educational institutes. Large scale protests by the upper castes broke out across the country. The upper castes had greatly resented reservations since independence as it ‘ate away their merit and hard work.’ Reservation in their opinion was throwing freebies just for the sake of vote-bank.

The same year Janata Dal, socialist heirs of Lohia and a core constituent of the ruling National Front coalition took power in Odisha, UP, and Bihar. In Gujarat, they shared power with BJP. The rise of the OBCs was irreversible now.

Meritocratic Reaction

The social and political assertion by the lower castes was met by stiff upper-caste resistance. Dalit atrocities, in particular, rose during the 1970s. As the lower castes captured power in most states, Gujarat’s politics became a laboratory for a new kind of politics.

In the 1970s, the Congress (I) in Gujarat had mobilized a coalition of backward groups known as KHAM. Standing for Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, and Muslim, this was a coalition of socio-economically backward groups that made up 55 percent of the state’s population. It was due to the support of this group that Congress (I) led by Madhavsingh Solanki won a stunning 149 out of 182 seats in 1980 assembly elections. The debutant BJP won 9 seats. This election also saw the rise in numbers of representatives from these traditionally backward groups. This assertion of the lower castes was bitterly resented by the upper castes. Just six months after the elections, anti-reservation riots broke out in Ahmedabad over the question of reservations in a medical college. Protesting students performed a public marriage between the “reservationist” bride” and the “government” groom. Students at a post-graduate medical college performed a symbolic surgery on the clay model of a Dalit student’s brain to show that it contained nothing but sawdust. Government servants from the upper castes and people in general soon joined the agitation as the state descended into chaos, arson, and violence. Dalits were the main targets of violence. The violence continued for more than three months and subsided only when the High Court rejected the plea of the agitating students.

The scene was repeated on a much larger scale when in 1985 the government decided to increase the quota for backward caste Hindus from 10% to 28%. Upper castes began an agitation demanding not just the rollback of this order but the entire reservation system. The riots that started from Ahmedabad soon spread to other districts. For seven months, there was looting, blasts, and stabbings. Government employees went on a strike demanding that reservation in promotion be stopped. In the report of a committee formed by the government to understand the nature and cause of violence, it was observed that even the police got divided into caste lines and acted in highly partisan ways. Madhav Singh Solanki had to resign from the CMs post even though he had been re-elected only a few months back. The government order was withdrawn.

The KHAM alliance broke down as the government was not able to sufficiently deliver on the promises it had made. At the same time, the BJP mobilized the groups ignored by the Congress- the upper castes and Patels- along with a rising middle class and came to power by itself in 1995.

Neo-liberal Politics of ‘Development’

National Front government fell in 1991 and the Congress governments that came to power implemented economic reforms and opened up the economy. By 1998, the Janata Dal had split into regional parties like RJD in Bihar, Samajwadi Party in UP, and Biju Janata Dal in Odisha. This decade also saw the rise of the BJP on the wave of its Hindu nationalist politics but its base was limited to the upper-caste and urban middle class. By this time the OBCs were being split along jati lines. Lower OBCs complained that the RJD and SP were just parties of the Yadavas and did not represent their concerns. Considerable realignments began as the lower OBCs revolted against Yadav dominance. BJP was quick to appropriate this section by promoting OBC leaders and allying with non-Yadav OBC leaders like Nitish Kumar. Increasing support among the OBCs gave the BJP enough numbers to win the electoral game. Upper-castes, ever resentful of reservations, anyway blamed all malaise on the reservation system. From jhola chhaap doctors to bad state of science and technology in the country, it was all because the reservation system had suppressed their merit!

In Bihar, riding on an anti-Lalu wave Nitish Kumar came to power promising good governance and economic growth, styling himself as ‘Susashan babu.’ From Mamta Banerjee in Bengal to Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, the formula was the same: Neoliberal policies wrapped in the rhetoric of development and good governance and interspersed with periodic doses of social welfare

In Gujarat, this combined with increasing social polarisation and conflict to engender a politics of domination and marginalization. Narendra Modi mobilized the middle-class and neo-middle class, Patels, and upper castes in general, sidelining Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims and won three elections in a row. Under Modi, corporates got a free hand as tax rates were reduced and projects got easy clearance often disregarding due bureaucratic process. The social sector was ignored and funds related to Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims were particularly underspent.

A report by the RBI shows that between 2005 and 2010, Gujarat spent an average of 5.1 of GSDP on social sector-less than all the States except Punjab and Haryana. Education was a case in point. Between 2001-02 and 2012-13, Gujarat spent an average 13.2 % of aggravating expenditure while the national average was above 15 percent. Of the 21 larger states, Gujarat ranked 17th in this regard. Labor incomes also remained stagnant.

The BJP won elections against the poor by making active use of concerns related to religious identity. Narendra Modi’s invoking of Gujarati regional identity was also key in keeping this social coalition together.

It was this ‘Gujarat model’ that was sold to the public in 2014 elections: a system arose which increased the wealth of the society without improving the conditions of life of large sections of society.

The trend in modern history around the world tallies with what has happened in India: historically oppressed groups mobilized to demand distributive justice pitched against an emerging neo-liberal agenda of state inaction and promotion of businesses by reducing taxes. The latter benefits the already dominant and prosperous groups and accentuates social inequality.


Shaheen Muddassir is a student of History and Political Science at Jamia Millia Islamia. He tweets at @shaheen93345




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