Home » Subject » Political Science » Notes » Caste, Religion and Ethnicity in Indian Politics

Caste, Religion and Ethnicity in Indian Politics

India is pigeonholed by more ethnic and religious groups as compared to other countries of the world. Many intellectuals viewed that India is a captivating country where people of many different communities and religions live together in harmony. Indian Population is polygenetic and is an astonishing merger of various races and cultures. Besides, numerous castes, there are eight "major" religions, 15-odd languages spoken in various dialects and a substantial number of tribes and sects.

Politics is the science of government and that part of ethics which has to do with the regulation and government of a nation or state, the preservation of its safety, peace, and prosperity, the defense of its existence and rights against foreign control or conquest, the augmentation of its strength and resources, and the protection of its citizens in their rights, with the preservation and improvement of their morals.

Politics as a notion generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs, including behavior within civil governments, but also applies to institutions, fields, and special interest groups such as the corporate, academic, and religious segments of society. It consists of "social relations involving authority or power" and to the methods and tactics used to formulate and apply policy. Modern political discourse focuses on democracy and the relationship between people and politics. It is thought of as the way people choose government officials and make decisions about public policy.

All over the world, the political processes have ascended out of social environment. Tribes, clans, castes, classes have existed around a social organization. Economy, polity, religion, family and kinship networks have operated under a social structure. Famous philosopher asserted that man is a political animal. He had in mind the social element. When elaborating the Indian society, it is multi-ethnic as well as multi-religious. Indian religions are pantheistic in which the nature is visualized as a manifestation of theology. There is an immense significance of Politics in India such as to run the country more efficiently, to manage the country with good rules and norms, to look in the internal affairs about the development of the country, to represent the country to the outside world, to issue different policies for the country.


In contemporary Indian scenario, caste mobilisation has become an important factor in determining Indian politics. According to Risley Caste, is a collection of families bearing a common name, claiming a common descent from a mythical ancestor, divine or human and professing to follow same hereditary calling and regarded by those who are competent to give an opinion as forming a single homogenous community. It is described caste as localized group having a traditional association based on one's birth in a caste, though at times associated with particular occupation (N.D. Arora, 2010). Caste, through a joint effort of its members to assert themselves, has presently intervened in both politics and administration mainly through franchise and institutions like Panchayati Raj. Whether it is the factionalism of Indian political parties or the nomination of candidates and the mode of election campaign, most things can be explained through caste interests and caste balance.

Ideally, caste and democratic political system signify opposite value systems. Caste is hierarchical. Status of an individual in caste-oriented social system is determined by birth. It has religious sanction by various holy texts, reinforced by priests and rituals. Conventionally, upper castes had been given certain privileges not only in religious area but also in economic, education and political spheres. Customary laws differentiate individual by birth and sex. 'That is, certain rules are austerely to women and Shudras and soft to males and Brahmins. Conversely, democratic political system backs freedom to an individual and equality of status. It stands for rule of Law. No one regardless of status is above law. Indian democratic system under the Constitution stands for liberty, equality and fraternity among all citizens. It struggles to build egalitarian social order. There are three consequences of such interaction between caste associations and political parties. One, caste members particularly poor and marginalized who were previously remained untouched by the political processes got politicized and began to participate in electoral politics with an expectation that their interests would be served. Secondly, caste members get split among various political parties weakening hold of the caste. Lastly, numerically large castes get representation in decision-making bodies and strength of the traditionally dominant castes get weaken. This explains the rise of middle and backward caste representations in most of the state assemblies.

The link between caste and politics has been analysed at two levels:

  1. How caste affects politics.
  2. How politics affects caste.

The interest and mindfulness of various castes in politics may be studied in terms of four factors: interest of castes in politics, political knowledge and political awareness of castes, identification of castes with political parties, and influence of castes on political affairs. Rajni Kothari (1970) scrutinized the relationship between caste and politics through evaluating the issue as to what happens to political system because of the vote of castes. He found that three factors such as education, government patronage, and slowly expanding franchise have entered the caste system because of which caste system has come to affect democratic politics in the country. Economic opportunity, administrative patronage, and positions of power offered by the new institutions and the new leadership drew castes into politics. This involvement (of castes in politics) resulted in two things: the caste system made available to the leadership the structural and the ideological basis for political mobilisation, and leadership was enforced to make concessions to local opinion and organise castes for economic and political purposes.

The caste system, which is based on the philosophies of purity and pollution, hierarchy and difference, has despite social mobility, been overbearing towards the Shudras and the outcastes who suffered the disgrace of ritual impurity and lived in abject poverty, illiteracy and denial of political power. The basis of confrontational identity politics based on caste may be said to have its origin on the issue of providing the oppressed caste groups with state support in the form of protective discrimination. This group identity based on caste that has been reinforced by the advent of political consciousness around caste identities is institutionalised by the caste-based political parties that acknowledge to uphold and protect the interests of specific identities including the castes. Subsequently, political parties have the upper caste dominated BJP, the lower caste dominated BSP (Bhaujan Samaj Party) or the SP (Samajwadi Party), including the fact that left parties have implicitly followed the caste pattern to extract distance in electoral politics. The Aggregate result of the politicisation can be precised by arguing that caste-based identity politics has had a twin role in Indian society and polity. It comparatively democratised the caste-based Indian society but simultaneously destabilised the development of class-based organisations.

When reviewing historical facts, caste politics became noticeable in India in the beginning of 1990s after the National Front government under then Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh decided to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, a government panel established in 1979 that called for a fixed quota (reservation) of jobs for the OBCs in the public sector.

Historical data indicated that Caste-based discrimination and domination have been a malicious aspect of Indian society and after independence, its implications with politics have not only made it possible for previously oppressed caste-groups to be accorded political freedom and recognition but has also raised consciousness about its potential as a political capital. In fact, Dipankar Gupta has emotionally exposed this ambiguity when he elaborates the differences between Ambedkar and Mandal Commission's view of caste. While the former designed the policy of reservations or protective discrimination to remove untouchability as an institution from Indian social life and polity, the latter considered caste as an important political resource. Actually, the Mandal commission can be regarded as the intellectual inspiration in transforming caste based identity to an asset that may be used as a basis for safeguarding political and economic gains. Though it can also be said that the upper castes by virtue of their major position were already occupying positions of strengths in the political and economic system, and when the Mandal intensified the consciousness of the 'Dalits' by recognising their disadvantage of caste-identity as an advantage the confrontation ensues.

The initiative of The National Front government was to reserve an additional 27 percent of seats for the OBCs led to dangerous clash between pro and anti-reservation supporters, and the government fell. For, there existed 15 percent of quota in the government jobs and the educational institutions for the Scheduled Castes (Dalit) people, and an additional 7.5 percent for Scheduled Tribes or tribal (aborigine) people.

After two decades, in April 2006, the ruling UPA government announced the OBC quota, and once again there was a strong opposition by sections of the non-reserved category people. The government's decision was challenged in the court of law. In May 2008, the Supreme Court of India agreed to the quota. However, there are far less protests as compared to 1990 which indicates that in the last 18 years, almost all parties have built their caste-based votebanks. This is also revealed in the fact that many OBC leaders have emerged as prominent politicians, such as Mulayam Singh Yadav from the SP, Lalu Prasad Yadav from the RJD, and Nitish Kumar from the JD-U.

It is appraised that after Independence, some caste associations were established with political objectives to compete in elections. In Gujarat, some of the leaders of the Kshatriya Sabha anticipated in the early fifties to form the party of the Kshatriyas. They soon repeated that they could not muster enough support to contest elections only on the strength of the Kshatriyas. Likewise, political elite of the Kurmis. Yadavas and Koeris encouraged the Bihar State Backward caste Association in 1947 to contest elections. During the 1950s, B. R. Ambedkar disparaged the use of caste as a political board. He expected the limitations of using caste as a political resource and instead emphasized eliminating the concept of caste from Indian society.

The Mandal Commission was formed in 1979 by the Janata Party government under Prime Minister Morarji Desai with a directive to "identify the socially or educationally backward". The Commission was set up to consider the question of seat reservations and quotas for people to redress caste discrimination, and used eleven social, economic, and educational indicators to determine "backwardness." In 1980, the commission's report confirmed the affirmative action practice under Indian law whereby members of lower castes (known as Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes and Tribes) were given exclusive access to a certain portion of government jobs and slots in public universities, and recommended changes to these quotas, increasing them by 27% to 49.5%. L R Naik, the only Dalit member in the Mandal Commission rejected to sign the Mandal recommendations, as he afraid that well-to-do OBCs would corner all the benefits of reservation.

In 1990s, several parties like Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal started appealing that they represent the backward castes. Many such parties, relying primarily on Backward Classes' support, often in association with Dalits and Muslims, emerged as powerful in Indian states. At the same time, many Dalit leaders and intellectuals started realizing that the main Dalit oppressors were so-called Other Backward Classes, and formed their own parties, such as the Indian Justice Party. The Congress (I) in Maharashtra long relied on OBCs' backing for its political success. Bharatiya Janata Party has also showcased its Dalit and OBC leaders to prove that it is not an upper-caste party. Bangaru Laxman, the former BJP president (2001-2002) was a former Dalit. Uma Bharati, former CM of Madhya Pradesh, who belongs to OBC caste, is a BJP leader. In 2006, Arjun Singh cabinet minister for MHRD of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was alleged to play caste politics when he introduced reservations for OBCs in educational institutions all around. In Tamil Nadu, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party rose to power under the rumour of "Brahmin oppression". Many upper-caste Brahmins have criticized of reverse discrimination, alleging that Tamil Brahmins (Iyers, Iyengars) have left the state, due to a "hostile atmosphere" predominant against upper castes in the region.

In political term, caste has a basic role in the decision making process that even the reorganization of states in India had to struggle with it so that no caste group dominates a particular territory. Although untouchability has been forbidden under the Constitution. Harijans and Adivasis have also been given legal safeguard as a positive measure. Government made an attempt to create economic and social impartiality but these reservations have affected Indian politics in an unpleasant manner. Groups declared backward are now not prepared to relinquish the concessions that accumulate to them by the label of backwardness. Caste has thus become a major hurdle in the establishment of a casteless society and has paved communal connections. Even the politicians are caught in the network. On the one hand, they would like the differences and preferences based on caste to be abolished and on the other, are well aware that these are helpful in securing the vote.

The development role of caste association also play vital role to persuade voting pattern. Even political parties are considering caste as a vote bank. This empowered the lower castes to be politically influential on the basis of numerical preponderance. In selecting candidates for elections, political parties often giving consideration to the caste composition of constituencies. Sometimes, several castes are using politics in their attempt to better their conditions or to accomplish their goal. Reservation policy is another feature in which caste system also influence Indian politics.

It is well recognized that role of caste in elections has two dimensions. One is of the parties and candidates and the second is of the voters. The previous notion seeks support of the voters projecting themselves as champions of particular social and economic interests, the latter while exercising their vote in favour of one party or candidate whether people vote on caste consideration. Different parties accommodate certain castes in distributing party tickets. While nominating candidates parties take into consideration caste of the aspirant candidate and numerical strength of different castes in a constituency. Caste leaders also mobilized their followers on caste lines so that they could show their strength. In the fifties wherever caste associations were able to maintain their unity and did not formally align with ally one party they appealed to their members to vote for their caste fellows irrespective of their party affiliation. For a very insignificant number of respondents, candidate's caste was the main consideration. Some of the respondents might have voted for persons who happened to belong to their caste. But it was not caste voting. They voted for the candidate not because person was of their caste irrespective of his party and ability. They, voted because person was the candidate of the party to which the respondent felt closer for variety of reasons including the feeling that the party would "protect his/her" interests or the party had done good work for the people like him/her. Their main consideration is their perception of their interests. In a given alternative parties candidates, they consider as to who would serve their interests better than others. If the candidate is own caste, which they identify as theirs, they vote for him/her.

In all, caste has become an important determinant in Indian society and politics, the new lesson of organised politics and consciousness of caste affiliations learnt by the previously despised caste groups have transformed the contours of Indian politics where shifting caste-class alliances are being encountered. Total effect of these mobilisations along caste-identities have resulted not only in the empowerment of recently emerging groups but has increased the intensity of confrontational politics and possibly leading to a growing crisis of governability.

Religion: Another type of identity politics is that produced through the development of a community on the shared link of religion. Religion is a collection of belief systems or cultural systems that relate humanity to spirituality and moral values. Many religions may have organized behaviours, clergy, adherence or membership, holy places, and scriptures. The practice of a religion may also include:

  1. - Rituals
  2. - Sermons
  3. - Sacrifices
  4. - Festivals
  5. - Funerary services
  6. - Matrimonial service
  7. - Meditation
  8. - Prayer
  9. - Music
  10. - Art
  11. - Dance
  12. - Public service
  13. - Other aspects of human culture.

Religions may also contain mythology. It can be used to enhance oneself financially or spiritually. It can also be used to manipulate and control others for good or evil ends. It has been used as an effective political and commercial tool as evidenced by the many historic records of religious wars. Religion has great influence on political pattern in Indian society. Politicians use religion as their loopholes. They hide their black money in the names of religion and trusts. Politician use religion to gain success in politics.

Researchers have argued since many years to elaborate the notion of religion. Some highlight the idea that religion is concerned primarily with conceptions of God, divinity and the meaning and order of human existence. Others have asserted the way religion serves to draw distinctions between sacred (that is, transcendent or other-worldly) forms of space and belief and more mundane, or profane, domains of 'worldly' human endeavour. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973), focused on the symbolic power of religion and its ability to influence how people understand their place in the world and also to communicate meaning to the actions they undertake. Some researchers have indicated that the idea of religion as a distinct category or sphere of human activity reflects a specifically Western worldview and historical tradition. Talal Asad (1993) stated that in other cultural traditions, it is not so easy to make a firm separation between religion and other spheres of life such as politics, culture, society and economics.

There are many explanation for the concept of religion. According to anthropologist Clifford Geertz, religion is " a system of symbols which acts to, establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic" (Geertz 1973).

Theologian George Lindbeck asserted that religion is "a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that makes possible the description of realities, the formulation of beliefs, and the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings, and sentiments" (Lindbeck 1984).

Marxist authors such as Louis Althusser highlighted in writing that religion functions as a form of 'false consciousness' which socializes us into accepting as normal certain historically and materially contingent relations of social power (Althusser 2001).

In India, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism are major religions practised by the people. Numerically, the Hindus have the majority, which stimulates many Hindu loyalist groups like the RSS (Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh) or the Siva Sena and political parties like the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) or the Hindu Mahasabha to claim that India is a Hindu State. These assertions create homogenising myths about India and its history. These claims are contradicted by other religious groups who predict the likelihood of losing sovereignty of practise of their religious and cultural life under such homogenising claims. This initiates contestations that have often resulted in communal uprisings.

Religion in Indian politics can be linked to the country since pre-independence periods. It is supposed that the British, who ruled India for more than 100 years around the 19th century, pitched one community against the other to decline the freedom struggle. They especially thrived in pervading a feeling of anxiety among sections of the Muslim community concerning their wellbeing in a country that had a majority Hindu population and emerging Hindu nationalist voices. As a result, the Muslims demanded reserved seats in the legislature and a separate electorate. The British acceded to their demands through legislation, known as the Act of 1909.

In 1915, Hindu nationalists established the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha (All India Hindu Assembly) to counter the Indian Muslim League (a political party) and the secular Indian National Congress, a forum founded in 1885 that afterward became a political party. In 1923, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (popularly known as Veer Savarkar), the Hindu Mahasabha founder, coined the word 'Hindutva' (Hindu-ness) to define who is a Hindu. In 1925, KB Hegdewar, the Hindu Mahasabha vice president, founded the RSS.

The tensions between groups of the Hindu and Muslim societies resulted in the Indian Muslim League demanding a separate nation for Muslims. When the British were to formally depart the country in 1947, the British India was divided into the 'Hindu-majority' India and the 'Muslim-majority' Pakistan. The Partition had dangerous consequences on both the nations. It resulted in a mass migration of 14.5 million people from India to Pakistan and vice versa, and the killing of around 1 million people related to religion of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim in the violent clashes that followed.

In 1951, the RSS began a political party, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh or BJS, under its leadership and control. In 1980, the BJS was succeeded by the BJP.

The BJP, which struggled to become a national party and an alternative to India's one and only major party at the time, the Congress, espoused a resolution in June 1989 to build a temple of Rama in Ayodhya (Uttar Pradesh state), which the party claimed as the Ram Janmabhoomi (the birthplace of God Rama). The BJP and Hindu nationalists asserted that Muslim ruler Babur had demolished a temple of Rama to build the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in the 16th century. In September 1990, BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani undertook a Rath Yatra (procession on a chariot) to promise the construction of a temple of Rama.

The Ayodhya issue intensified the political dividends. In July 1992, Advani, the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha (House of the People), reportedly told the House, "You must recognise the fact that from two seats in parliament in 1985, we have come to 117 seats in 1991. This has happened primarily because we took up this issue (Ayodhya)."

In December 1992, supposed activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a sister organisation of the RSS and the BJP, demolished the Babri Mosque. This not only encouraged communal violence in several parts of the country, in which many people died, but also separated people along religious lines. Consequently, the BJP emerged as a major party.

Progressively, the BJP emerged as a dominant party at the national level for the first time in May 1996, but the government lasted for only 15 days. It again gained power in March 1998 as the leader of the NDA and ruled the country till March 2004.

In 1998, the BJP began targeting Christians after Sonia Gandhi, an Italy-born Catholic and wife of late former prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, became the president of the Congress. Presently, BJP is ruling party in India.

The generally acknowledged myths that process the identity divide on religious grounds centre on the 'appeasement theory', 'forcible religious conversions', general 'anti-Hindu' and thus 'anti-India' approach of the minority religious groups, the 'hegemonic aspirations' of majority groups and 'denial of a socio-cultural space' to minority groups. Traditionally, the Hindu revivalist movement of the 19th century is considered to be the period that saw the separation of two separate cultures on religious basis, the Hindus and the Muslims that developed further because of the partition. This division which has become institutionalised in the form of a communal philosophy has become a major challenge for India's secular social fabric and democratic polity. Though communalism for a major part of the last century signified Hindu-Muslim conflict, recently, contestations between Hindus and Christians have often crystallised into communal battle.

The rise of Hindu national decisiveness, politics of representational government, persistence of communal perceptions, and competition for the socio-economic resources are considered some of the reasons for the generation of communal beliefs and their change into major riots. Identity schemes based on religion have become a major source of skirmish not only in the international background but since the early 1990s it has also become a challenge for Indian democracy and secularism. The growth of majoritarian assertiveness is considered to have become institutionalised after the BJP that along with its 'Hindu' constituents gave political cohesiveness to a consolidating Hindu consciousness, formed a coalition ministry in March 1998. However, like all identity schemes the falsifying of a religious community polishes over internal differences within a particular religion to generate the "we are all of the same kind" emotion. Thus differences of caste groups within a homogenous Hindu identity, linguistic and sectional differences within Islam are shelved to create a homogenous unified religious identity.

In post-independence era, India the majoritarian assertion has generated its own antithesis in the form of minority religions assertiveness and a resulting confrontational politics that weakens the syncretistic dimensions of the civil society in India. The process through which this religious assertiveness is being increasingly institutionalised by a 'methodical rewriting of history' has the potential to reformulate India's national identity along communal trajectories.

It can be evaluated that In the Indian culture, religion has significant role. Political leaders realized that to retain unity in India, there is a need to remain secular. Therefore, Gandhiji had been preaching brotherhood among the different religious groups. Nehru was a strong supporter of secularism. Their efforts could not separate religion from politics rather in politics the vested interests started exploiting caste and religion to achieve political advantage. After independence, religious places are used for political publicity and the religious sentiments of the people are excited in order to gain political control of the State. This emergence of religion-political party has endangered the secularism in India. It is dreaded that if it succeeds, there is a possibility that many other political parties with caste and religion as the basis may come up.

Ethnicity: Ethnicity refers to physical characteristics as well as social traits that are shared by a human population. Some of the social traits often used for ethnic classification include:

  1. - Nationality
  2. - Tribe
  3. - Religious faith
  4. - Shared language
  5. - Shared culture
  6. - Shared traditions

Ethnicity denotes to selected cultural and physical characteristics used to categorize people into groups or categories considered to be significantly different from others. In some cases, ethnicity involves merely a loose group identity with little or no cultural traditions in common. In contrast, some ethnic groups are coherent subcultures with a shared language and body of tradition.

Ethnic groups may be either a minority or a majority in a populace. Whether a group is a minority or a majority also is not an absolute fact but depends on the perspective.

For many people, ethnic categorization implies a connection between biological inheritance and culture. They believe that biological inheritance determines much of cultural identity. In 1871, English anthropologist Edward Tylor wrote that cultural traits are entirely learned. Subsequently, a baby can be placed into another culture shortly after birth and can be thoroughly enculturated click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced to that culture, regardless of their skin colour, body shape, and other presumed racial features.

Several political scientist consider that political movement centred on ethnic identity. It is a major source of discordant conflict in the world today. Some researchers argue that the world is in the process of an ethnic revitalization that threatens to wrench apart established systems of order. The apparent increase in ethnicity-based solidarity and political activity is most often attributed to the opportunity presented by recent shifts in the nature of political, economic, and moral authority. There are two ways in which the idea of ethnic identity is used. One, it insiders the creation of identity on the basis of single attribute - language, religion, caste, region. Secondly, it considers the formation of identity on the basis, of multiple attributes cumulatively. Though, it is the second way formation of identity on the basis of more than one characteristics such as culture, customs, region, religion or caste, which is considered as the most common way of development of the ethnic identity. The one ethnic identity is shaped in relation to the other ethnic identity. The relations between more than one ethnic identities can be both harmonious and conflictual. Whenever, there is competition among the ethnic identities on the real or imaginary basis, it uttered in the form of autonomy movements, demand for session or ethnic uprisings.

To summarize, caste, religion and ethnicity is entrenched into Indian politics. Many theorists asserted that caste is a social phenomenon of Indian society. By partaking in the modern political system, caste is now visible to divisive influences and a new form of integration resulting from a new system of universalist-particularist relationships. Caste has gained a powerful position in Indian politics. Religion also has significant role in Indian Politics. Religion and Politics co-exists in India. Religion can guide a politician but a politician prejudiced in favour of one religion, can never be good for all citizens. A politician is the representative of the general people of India, and he/she use the spirit of religion to promote communal coordination. The spirit of religion is an inner revelation, but politics leads to rights of the people. Religion is not opposed to science. Religion binds people with duties to perform.