The Bihar government’s controversial decision to provide microwave ovens to all legislators is a good occasion to reflect on exactly what’s been cooking in the politics of the state in recent years in the name of ‘empowerment’.
The underdevelopment of Bihar has figured prominently in post-colonial discourse in India, with the focus almost exclusively on the subaltern, suppressed classes. Much of the discussion has been around the oppression of lower castes by upper castes, the struggle of the very poor, and the plight of women in a firmly entrenched patriarchy.
Yet there is another section of society in Bihar whose existential reality demands that we question the convenient theoretical assumptions that underlie any discourse on social justice and development. This section – people of lower middle class but upper caste background – has been ignored by scholars as well as politicians. If scholars consider their struggle to be too ordinary to be documented in their theses, politicians see this section as no more than a pawn to be used in the ‘forward versus backward’ political battle. No one wants to talk about their everyday, ordinary struggles.
What do I mean by ‘upper caste, lower middle class people’? Generally, those who are not classified as Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe or Other Backward Class are deemed to be upper caste. But while the upper caste identity is recognised and discussed, there has been no robust debate on who make up the lower middle class sections. In my view, the lower middle class consists of those who, despite their precarious economic condition, are not poor enough to be officially treated as ‘poor’ by the government.
In the discourse on identity politics, “intersectionality” has been a buzz word in recent years. The term is a reference to the multiple axes of oppression faced by people owing to their multiple identities. But is intersectionality applicable only to those who are at the intersection of different forms of discriminated identities? Can there not be a double burden of simultaneously carrying both a privileged (social) identity and a discriminated (economic) identity?
Poor upper caste individuals, deprived of many of the economic benefits that their well-off caste brethren enjoy, end up being haunted by their upper caste identity. This is especially manifest in public and government institutions. It is an undeniable fact that caste-based fraternising is actively promoted in government organisations. Even promotions are based on caste allegiance rather than on merit. If earlier, the upper castes were favoured, the balance sharply tilted towards the backward castes during the 15-year long reign of Lalu Prasad and his wife, Rabri Devi.
One of the consequences of the rise of the backward castes was the unfortunate emergence of militias like the Ranvir Sena which expressed their discontent through guns and bloodshed. The gory conflict between the upper caste militias and the backward castes devastated the latter, especially Dalits who faced the wrath of the Ranvir Sena. But the bloody campaign also sucked into its vicious orbit the frustrated poor from the upper castes who were often used as instruments by the powerful to serve their narrow agenda. The poor among the upper castes ended up taking the help of these militias because of the corrupt, self-serving and lopsided nature of government institutions which gave them no space and systematically allowed the powerful to exploit the politically weak.
The violent tension between the castes aside, caste discrimination often takes more subtle forms and here too upper caste men and women from the lower middle-class often end up as victims. In a double whammy, upper-caste individuals from the lower middle-class are considered too privileged for reservation and other benefits intended for backward sections. At the same time, they are shut out from avenues for upward mobilisation by their inability to access finance and loans from banks because they are too weak financially. The cycle of double denial deepens and perpetuates the misery of this section. Frustrated by the lack of effective recourse, they have to bear the subtle discrimination operating at various levels against them. This is particularly acute when it comes to availing government largesse intended for individuals from economically backward sections.
The victory of the rainbow coalition in the recently-concluded assembly election has led to assertions that a process of bottom-up empowerment is happening in Bihar. Nothing could be further from the truth. The conflict for power was between upper-caste landed ruling classes and an elite backward caste consolidation armed with agrarian and mercantile capital, which left no space for the poor and the marginalised.
Mayank Labh is at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad