Members of the upper-caste and Other Backward Class groups take part in a strike over a legislative amendment to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act in Allahabad on Sept. 6, 2018. Photo: AFP
Members of the upper-caste and Other Backward Class groups take part in a strike over a legislative amendment to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act in Allahabad on Sept. 6, 2018. Photo: AFP

India’s centuries-old caste battle has taken an interesting turn, with “upper caste” communities – historically accused of discrimination and marginalization of underprivileged communities – agitating to “protect” themselves.

The so-called upper caste or general community, that makes up the bulk of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s traditional vote bank, alleges that marginalized communities have been given “too much” power and attention under the Narendra Modi government

On Thursday, the community called for a nationwide bandh, or shutdown, to oppose last month’s amendments to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

The amendments overrode an earlier Supreme Court order and stipulated that a preliminary enquiry would not be required to register a criminal case against any person accused of atrocities against SC/STs, or Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. It removed the need for any approval before making arrests and also ruled out anticipatory bail in such a case.

“Upper caste” communities expressed fear that Dalits, or untouchables, might implicate them in false cases of atrocities. They also said the BJP had “sacrificed” their interests to woo the Dalit community for political gains, ahead of the 2019 general elections.

The bandh was more prominent in BJP-ruled states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh and even turned violent at few places. BJP lawmaker from Uttar Pradesh Surendra Singh also joined the demonstrations. Even Other Backward Classes (OBCs) joined the protests, citing past incidents of false cases being filed against them.

On social media, the groups were also urging people to choose the NOTA (none of the above) option, while voting, to “punish” the BJP.

BJP spokesperson Naveen Srivastava accused the opposition of fueling the upper caste unrest. “We don’t believe in caste politics. Party works for the welfare of all. To address the concerns of upper castes, a plan will be chalked out soon. We would ensure that the SC/SC Act is not misused,” he said.

Wooing lower castes

The amendment is not the only contentious issue for upper caste communities.

The federal government has increasingly pushed for reservations for SC, ST and Other Backward Communities (OBCs), despite the communities already being entitled to a 50% quota of government jobs and educational institutions across India.

The BJP is also increasingly appointing Dalits and OBCs as governors and giving them nominations to the Rajya Sabha – a recent trend that has irked many upper caste Indians.

The Modi government has also decided to conduct the first OBC census in 2021 – a move upper castes are viewing as another attempt to broaden the contour of reservation, which could hurt their interests forever. The OBC population was estimated to be 52% three decades ago.

“BJP has taken its long-time supporters for granted. Their fake love for Dalits would rather help BSP and Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and other regional parties elsewhere to consolidate,” Kendriya Brahmin Sabha’s national president Satishchandra Mishra said.

“If PM can make parliament overturn the apex court verdict for benefits of Dalits, why doesn’t he do the same to build Ram temple in Ayodhya? We had never expected him to go to this extent just for the greed of power,” Mishra said.

Senior journalist Shiv Sharan Geharwar said this disgruntlement against the BJP will grow and its impact would be visible in 2019 general elections.

Party leaders admit that the BJP is working to shake-off its Brahmin-Baniya, or upper castes, tag. This bid has unnerved its traditional support base in north Indian states, where caste plays a major role in electoral politics.

A great unease is also being felt in India’s most populous and politically significant province Uttar Pradesh. The crucial state accounts for 80 of the 543 seats in the Lower House of India’s parliament. It is the electoral turf of Prime Minister Modi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh and main opposition leader Rahul Gandhi. It also accounts for roughly one fourth the BJP’s seats in the House – 68 of 274 seats.

Shailendra Singh, a senior journalist from Lucknow, said that upper caste agitation will subside before the 2019 election as no political party would champion their cause. Most BJP leaders hold the same belief.

The caste arithmetic

Party insiders admit that the 2019 elections will hardly be a cakewalk for the BJP, due to the lack of jobs, rising oil prices, rupee depreciation and the nationwide caste-based unrest. “Besides, the party’s potential gains from the overtures to quota communities could be annulled by the loss of general category votes,” Singh said.

“BJP has peaked its performance in 2014. It will only decline now. Not only upper castes, party would lose Dalit and backward votes as well due to misrule and dirty caste politics,” OBC leader and Samajwadi Party legislator Sunil Yadav said.

The BJP, meanwhile, is not worried. “The party had polled over 31% votes nationally in 2014 elections. As per our internal assessment, nearly one-third of votes came from the upper castes while two-third came from Dalits and other backward communities,” a BJP insider said.

According to the 2011 census, upper castes make up roughly 15% of India’s population, while Dalits and scheduled tribes comprise about 16.5% and 8.5% respectively. OBCs are about 45.5% of the population. This implies that reserved categories make up nearly 70% – more than two-thirds – of the electorate.

Clearly, the general category is not as important for electoral politics as the rest. They never vote en masse, and many of them don’t vote at all. “Of 15% general voters, BJP got support of roughly 10% in 2014 polls. We may lose a fraction of this but that could be covered up by other communities,” a BJP leader said, requesting anonymity.

Traditionally, regional parties have had major stakes in caste communities, but in 2014, the BJP managed to dent rival vote banks considerably, with the development plank.

In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, OBCs – especially the Yadav community – traditionally voted for the Samajwadi party. But the BJP wooed the non-Yadav groups, which comprise approximately half of the total OBC population.

Similarly Dalits, especially those belonging to the Jatav sub-caste, were traditionally Bahujan Samaj Party supporters. But the BJP managed to woo non-Jatav sub-castes like Rajbhars and Lodhis, shrinking BSP’s base by half.

Both strategies helped the BJP sweep Uttar Pradesh in 2014, which led to the party’s national victory. And owing to its latest decisions, the party hopes to win comfortably in 2019 as well.