Why you should care

Even as the world’s largest democracy becomes an economic superpower, a huge chunk of its society is being left behind. 

All these years after independence, caste remains the elephant in India’s room, the albatross it can’t shake off. Those in lower castes are routinely discriminated against , and intercaste marriages can incite hatred. Theoretically, India’s affirmative action policies aim to end such exclusion. But those policies, which took effect 25 years ago, have a darker origin story than you might expect. As much in politics does, they began with one guy’s hunger for revenge.

Singh’s decision set urban India ablaze. University students lit themselves on fire.

The late Vishwanath Pratap Singh was India’s eighth prime minister, a title he didn’t win easily — the 1989 race was vicious. Singh had pitched himself as a cleaner alternative to his rival, Rajiv Gandhi, and the Congress Party, whom he accused of taking kickbacks in defense deals. But nine months into his tenure, Singh realized it’s a lot easier to talk about cleaning up Indian politics than to do the cleaning. The urban middle class that had voted him into power turned its back. Singh was doomed, says Shekhar Gupta , the former editor-in-chief of The Indian Express : “That one issue of corruption” was his greatest shot at leadership. Singh decided to win supporters back with some good, old-fashioned liberal policy: affirmative action. It would forever alter electoral politics in the country.

Scroll down to the “Go Behind the Scenes” button for a glimpse at affirmative action policies around the world.

Caste had been a legislative issue before. In 1979, the government established a one-man commission to help the so-called backward classes. The Mandal Commission found that 54 percent of India’s population was low-caste and recommended that 49.5 percent of government jobs and college slots be reserved for them. In other words, quotas for historically marginalized groups. It was a bonus that the social engineering strategy could “break the Congress’ vote bank forever,” added Gupta. But the Mandal Commission’s report languished in parliament. With huge majorities in parliament, the Congress Party had no reason to open that tinderbox or alienate voters.

Fast facts on India’s caste system


The system itself: There are 3,743 castes in India.

A *very brief* history: It traces back to the hymns of the Rig Veda , an ancient Hindu text. This system prescribes four classes. At the bottom lies the low caste, variously known as untouchables, Harijans (“children of God,” à la Gandhi) or Dalits.

Today: Caste-based parties still fare badly. In the 2014 elections, the three low-caste parties in North India won only eight seats collectively.

Singh did. He was smarting from the corruption fiasco. But his decision to implement the Mandal recommendations pissed off a chunk of the country and set urban India ablaze. Peeved about losing rank in an ever more aspiring India, dozens of university students took a page out of monks’ books and lit themselves on fire. Even the media didn’t join Singh’s ranks: “By bringing to the centrefold of this nation the concept of caste, Singh has indulged in an act of singular political immorality,” opined India Today , a leading newsweekly.

A 1922 stereograph of Hindu children of high caste, Bombay.

A 1922 stereograph of Hindu children of high caste in Bombay

One can’t say goodbye to caste yet.

Worse, Singh never became the messiah he had hoped to become. His tottering government collapsed just a year after his election, in November 1990. And even the backward classes he might have courted bailed; they flocked instead to regional caste-based parties in rural Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. And so Singh yielded to another host of caste-conscious politicians, including Mayawati, a blunt-talking former schoolteacher who wooed the Dalits, the lowest rung in India’s caste system, and Nitish Kumar, soft-spoken former engineer whose father was an Ayurvedic doctor. A quarter-century later, caste can seem a sideshow in the theater of Indian politics. The Congress Party was once the natural choice for minorities and the backward classes, yet in recent elections, it was reduced to just 44 seats in parliament.

Yet, one can’t say goodbye to caste yet, as canny Prime Minister Narendra Modi knows. When he took office in May, 10 of his ministers belonged to the lower castes. Modi himself? He’s claimed to hail from the lower castes, though opponents allege he’s lying. That’s progress of sorts.

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