By Sumit Chaturvedi
28 October 2019
In this piece, Sumit Chaturvedi analyzes the methods used by upper caste groups in India to assert their particular caste and varna identities. He argues that upper-caste groups are using conferences, publications, social media and advertizing to reconsolidate their identities and recruit followers, and in doing so, are building identities that can be mobilized very quickly in the digital age. Further, he points out that this redeployment of caste identities is contrary to constitutional values and is being done with the express purpose of consolidating an overarching savarna identity that has as its basis the suppression of Dalit groups. He calls this a new type of “savarna assertion” which in no way challenges caste oppression and instead does the exact opposite – it legitimizes and enables caste violence and oppression.
Prevalent mainstream discourses on caste dynamics and politics tend to revolve around vulnerable caste groups. However, there is not enough scrutiny and interrogation of how dominant caste groups design their politics and power dynamics. Suraj Yengde in the introduction to his book Caste Matters writes, “By choosing to remain silent, the dominant castes effectively practise a thinly veiled ‘caste terrorism’ by pleading ‘ignorance’ over caste issues. The ‘ignorance’ is practised; it is intentional to not have to face up to reality and instead continue living in a cocooned world. Therefore, their problems become the rest of the world’s problems” (Yengde, 2019: 10). This approach of not questioning caste privileges feeds into a “casteless-ness” narrative. Dominant castes use it to create an impression that, while vulnerable caste groups engage actively and drive caste politics, dominant caste groups are passive agents in these dynamics and have not much to do with the related politics. One of the rare analyses of this phenomenon is found in Satish Deshpande’s article where he argues that “The other story – that of the ‘extra electoral’ coup effected by the upper castes through the transformation of their caste capital into modern capital – is not so well known. Because it runs with the grain of the dominant common sense – which is for obvious reasons monopolized by the vocal upper caste minority – this story is almost unseen and unheard” (Deshpande, 2013: 32-33).
Questioning privilege and power means questioning the logic of the system that fuels them. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and others were at the forefront of raising these questions in the context of the constitutional values of equality, justice, liberty and fraternity. By enshrining these values in legal provisions, the Indian constitution tried to formally delegitimize the systems that breed inequality, violence and injustice – the varna system among them. As Ambedkar pointed out, the varna system is grounded on fixed identifications. In his seminal work Annihilation of Caste, he writes: “The names Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra, are names which are associated with a definite and fixed notion in the mind of every Hindu. That notion is that of hierarchy based on birth. So long as these names continue, Hindus will continue to think of the Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra as hierarchical divisions of high and low, based on birth, and act accordingly” (Ambedkar, 2007: 27).Drawing from Ambedkar’s argument, to assert one’s own varna identity is to automatically assert one’s supremacy over others based on their relative position in the hierarchy. Yet while caste-based discrimination has been outlawed by the constitution, the caste system still exists as does the assertion of one’s varna identity. Instead of caste being annihilated, it is being asserted: upper caste groups have evolved multi-dimensional strategies to assert, normalize and further legitimize their varna and savarna (comprising of three varnas – Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya) identities. Savarna assertion through specific varna mobilization has allowed certain caste groups to become pressure-groups influencing political decisions. Meanwhile, the legitimization and consolidation of savarna identity has led to further strengthening of the traditional hierarchical and prejudicial attitudes.
Redeploying varna iconography and mythology
Many varnas draw their identity from particular myths and legends. Specifically, Kshatriya and Brahmin varnas have idols associated with them: Ram and Parshuram respectively are regarded as incarnation of the same Hindu god, Vishnu. Both these varnas valorise the aggressive masculinity of their respective gods, who double up as violent warrior idols. These gods also become the symbols around which these varna groups mobilize: as Ambedkar pointed out, Hindu mythology is rife with conflicts between the two varnas (2007). Using these icons also help these groups to establish their own hierarchical superiority.
The communities belonging to these varnas mobilize by disseminating the myths and images of these idols to facilitate the identification of their members particularly through publications affiliated with caste and varna associations, fictional literature and social media groups. Through this mobilization these communities have normalized the identification with varnas in everyday lives and legitimized them in the democratic polity.
Print culture is characteristically associated with the dissemination and sharing of modern identities such as the belonging to a nation state (Anderson, 1991). In the modern context, print has been utilized to share and mobilize traditional identities as well. This paradox allows traditional identities to acquire legitimacy in the modern democratic political context. Community publications by caste and varna associations are a unique example of how print is used to consolidate and legitimize intra-group solidarities (Chaturvedi, 2014).
Research on upper caste subcultures I conducted based on an analysis of publications registered by caste associations in Uttar Pradesh (UP) between 2001 and 2010 showed the role of print in mobilizing caste identity. From the Registrar of Newspapers of India database there were forty-four publications by upper caste and varna associations in twenty-one cities, but mostly Lucknow. The majority of these publications were registered in 2002 and in 2007. In both years there were elections for the UP state assembly thus indicating a direct correlation between these publications and heightened political activity. These publications are structured on the prevalent model of magazines and newsletters with articles, news, advertisements, etc., and provide a structural framework to organize varna associations in tandem with other modern organizations integral to democratic states. Since castes are not territorially bound, print provides an option to document the “caste’s history, geography, organization and sociology and serves as an archive of the activity of respective caste communities. All these notions provide a basis for caste identity to sustain and stand the test of time” (Chaturvedi, 2014: 37). Significantly, alongside caste-based publications, twelve out the forty-four examined publications were varna-based by Kshatriya, Brahmin and Vaishya associations. Often specific caste or sub-caste publications also share their respective varna iconography and mythology thus successfully superimposing varna identity over their own caste identity.
Since idols are specific to varnas and not to individual castes, these publications allow different caste groups belonging to the same varnas to share symbolism and identity and find commonality. For instance, Chaturvedi Chandrika, a registered publication brought out from Bhopal by a Chaturvedi caste association, in its May 2019 issue carried the image of Parshuram on its cover page. The birthday of this Hindu-Brahmin god falls on the Hindu calendar date of Akshay Tritiya. The issue wished its readers on the day thus superimposing the Brahmin identity on the sub-caste identity of Chaturvedi.
In recent years there has also been a surge in fictional literature based on mythological stories and characters borrowing from Hindu iconography and themes. Mythological tales are traditionally relevant in India, but newer nuances have been recently developed in popular literature, focusing in particular on the use of caste- and varna-based identities.
There are many modern-day authors using varna icons as their leading heroes in popular literature. One of the most prominent examples can be found in Amish Tripathi’s literature featuring not only varna iconography, but also the glorification of the varna mythology. For instance, his series of novels titled Shiva Trilogy, featuring a hero who borrows much of his character details from the Hindu god Shiva, selectively glorifies particular castes and varnas and simultaneously demonizes others. Amita Chaturvedi in her analysis of modern mythological literature, including Tripathi’s Shiva series, points out that the characters glorified in his literature belong to the traditionally dominant castes and varnas, while those being demonized are associated with historically backward caste groups and tribes. She writes: “[Tripathi] has shown Brahamins, Kshatriyas and Suryavanshis (Descendants of Sun) as superior while Chandravanshis (Descendants of Moon) and Nagas are inferior in this mythological universe.” Using a mythological logic, he especially eulogizes Brahmins and gives them super powers (Chaturvedi, 2018) and depicts Brahmins and Suryavanshis (clans with Kshatriya status) as ideal communities that other castes and tribes, such as Chandravanshis and Nagas, should emulate and aspire to. Alongside this objectionable description, Tripathi also consolidates the heroic status of Brahmin and Kshatriya identities by providing fantastical descriptions of characters belonging to these dominant castes and varnas. This helps reinvigorating a sense of pride and superiority among the readers belonging to these varnas and castes while otherizing those who do not belong to them. Chaturvedi also points out that very aggressive-violent traits are associated with the heroes featured in these novels thus providing the basis for militarizing the collective identities of these varnas. Since this literature is written in English, the message becomes more effective as it transcends barriers of nationalities and regions and consolidates dominant varna identities and narratives.
Social media have been a force to reckon with when it comes to influencing socio-political discourses, equations, developments and mobilizations. These platforms have helped the democratization of public opinion formation and marginalized communities have used them to bypass earlier economic constraints. However, social media have allowed traditionally dominant groups to mobilize in similar ways. Social media groups affiliated to caste and varna associations are inexpensive ways to share iconography, narratives and symbolisms. There has been a tremendous increase in upper caste and varna groups on social media in the past decade; most of them use the iconography of the respective varna idols to identify themselves and propagate both mythical and non-mythical narratives. My previously mentioned research also looked at social media groups of particular varnas and how they pursue specific agendas. For instance, “a Facebook group maintained by the Akhil Bhartiya Brahman Utthan Samiti is explicit with its iconography of ‘Parshuram’ and the agenda regarding a shared brahmin identity, paradoxical to its stated objective of doing away with caste based reservations and caste considerations.” (Chaturvedi 2014: 35)
Social media groups have a unique advantage of an easier and more voluminous shareability of content. Even though there is a mix of personal opinions, news and facts shared interchangeably on these groups, the agenda behind the content specifically aim to further the varna– and caste-based narrative. Mobilization of varna identities through social media provides a specific socio-political angle to these narratives combining traditional and mythological themes with modern political, economic and social concerns. These groups on social media lack effective censorship and content regulation and are freer to share and alter historical narratives, which further the perspectives of dominant castes and varnas and are often offensive and derogatory against marginalized and vulnerable groups. Varna mobilization on social media has also allowed its consolidation on a global level. The members of upper caste and varna diaspora have been able to connect with each other transcending national boundaries and come in solidarity with the upper caste/varna agenda.
Cultural legitimation in today’s world is strongly associated with consumerism. Merchandise representing the iconography or symbolism of a certain community, by its very presence in the market, provides legitimacy to that identity. In a fast-emerging trend, there has been a proliferation of this kind of goods – including clothes, stickers, posters – with varna iconography featuring icons, names of the varnas stylized as logos as well as phrases associated with these varnas and castes. Donning the varna identity on clothes is the modern equivalent of sporting varna symbols such as the janayu, or sacred thread. Not only are these merchandises available in stores, they are also featured in websites and sold by multiple sellers. Through these clothes, available for all ages, the varna identity is mobilized and stylized to be made compatible with modern culture.
Besides clothing, the stylized iconography and imagery pertaining specifically to Brahmin and Kshatriya varnas are also being mobilized through stickers displayed on vehicles. The recent trend of putting up stickers of aggressive versions of some Hindu gods such as Hanuman and Shiva on cars and bikes has been well documented as a concerning socio-political development (Bhowmick, 2018). These products have increased the visibility of varna identities in everyday life thus normalizing such caste- and varna-based attitudes.
Augmenting traditional narratives
Apart from print and social media, there has been an increase in symbolic performances of group identities by those belonging to upper castes or varnas in urban areas. These performances, traditionally prevalent in rural areas, are now also orchestrated by urban upper caste and varna associations and are receiving the patronage of various political parties. Taking out processions celebrating idols and icons has been a long continuing tradition in India.
One of the most prominent examples of varna pride in the past few decades are the processions organized by Brahmin associations to celebrate the legend of Parshuram on his birth anniversary (Jayanti). In UP there has been a reinvigoration of the celebration of Parshuram as a symbol of Brahmin identity. Political parties have taken notice of the mobilization of Parshuram’s iconography and have started putting up hoardings for these celebrations. Moreover, a political party such as the Bahujan Samaj Party, which once used the slogan like “Tilak, Tarazu Aur Talwar, Inko Maaro Joote Chaar” (Vermillion, Scale and Sword should be thrashed away) has now completely altered its political platform by making overtures to the Brahmin community alongside its traditional electoral base. In appealing to the Brahmin community, leaders of the BSP in many cities have also been commemorating Parshuram on his Jayanti. In doing so the party has created a strange paradox.
The BSP has in fact traditionally iconized some of the most celebrated anti-caste social and political reformers such as Ambedkar and Jotirao Phule. While Ambedkar had openly declared his doubts over the Brahmin community ever being able to stand in favour of social solidarity and fraternity and to help in dismantling casteism, Phule had directly criticized Parshuram in his seminal work Gulamgiri (Slavery) as a violent aggressor whose myth is representative of ruthless brahminical violence against non-Brahmins (Phule, 2006). By trying so desperately to appeal to Brahmins and celebrating Parshuram, the BSP has now completely made a U-turn from its original commitment to take forward the anti-caste reformers’ legacy to delegitimize the varna and caste system that culminated in 2005 when the Samajwadi party government declared a public holiday on Parshuram Jayanti (Kumar, 2007). This amplification of a social custom helped provide political legitimacy to a varna idol through official commemoration as well.
Ram’s appeal has been long associated with a pan-Hindu identity. M K Gandhi’s reverence of Ram and his call to make the independent nation of India in the image of Ram Rajya (Ram’s kingdom) is well known. However, since the Ramjanmabhoomi movement in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Ram’s symbolism became extremely significant for a majoritarian Hindutva identity especially in northern India. This included all castes and varnas as Ram became a religious and political symbol for the Hindu community as a whole. Thus, Ram was not exclusively available to Kshatriyas as an icon like Parshuram was to Brahmins.
In the recently started tradition of celebrating Maharana Pratap Jayanti in some cities of Uttar Pradesh, the hoardings and banners commemorating the event feature not only images of Maharana Pratap but also those of Ram. Ram’s iconography is associated with other Rajput icons whilst invoking Kshatriya symbolism of warriors and kings. The organizers of these celebrations are Kshatriya mahasabhas (associations) and other Rajput associations. Another common theme between all of these figures is the Suryavanshi identity, invoked by the Rajput kings as well as Ram and commonly associated to Kshatriya varna or Rajput clans. Kshatriya associations use religious and historical figures simultaneously to showcase their varna heritage embedded within the mythological Kshatriya narrative. While Ram is widely acknowledged and revered as a Hindutva and Hindu icon, Kshatriya narrative uses his iconography to gain legitimacy from his mythological and political value.
As Vaishyas do not have any particularly popular or aggressive icon associated with their identity, this varna uses modern ways of organizing itself. Vaishya varna is traditionally associated with traders’ and business classes, who also belong to various castes and sub-castes associated with trading and business. For many years they have potently combined their caste identities with their professional status in the form of caste-based traders’ associations that are prevalent in many cities. Recently, these castes have increased their interests in mobilizing themselves politically like Kshatriyas and Brahmins.
The most pertinent example of this strategy are the international Vaishya conventions – often supported by political leaders – held for past years by an organization called Vaishya Mahasammelan (Vaishya Congress) in various cities in northern India. For instance, before the 2017 elections for the UP state legislative assembly, more than 200 politically influential people, members of Parliament and Legislative Assemblies as well as ministers, attended one such convention in Agra where they deliberated on strategies to further the representation of the Vaishya community in the upcoming elections.
In a similar convention organized in Lucknow in 2018, the political patronage was so conspicuous that the then Home Minister Rajnath Singh reportedly laid foundations of multiple development works. In September 2019, Dainik Bhaskar from Morena reported that Vaishya Mahasammelan aimed to recruit at least ten members each month. The Vaishya varna has scaled the tradition of trading and business by organizing themselves as caste-based guilds at a larger level. With the recent demands for a greater political role for the community, and with political parties supporting these demands to the extent of promising more electoral representation, the Vaishya identity is gaining more political legitimacy.
Savarna and varna identities have pervaded in recent years the cultural, social and political domains through different mediums and strategies. These democratic strategies and practices have been used effectively in the social and cultural domains to legitimize the varna identity and build it up as a political group. This formulation of group identity is positioned against some long-standing constitutional provisions and protections. For instance, cross-varna solidarity has come in handy while protesting against the reservations policy based on the principle of representation of historically disadvantaged groups or for the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. These provisions and protections are an important aspect of Indian constitution’s ability to ensure principles of justice, equality, fraternity and liberty.The legitimized savarna identity and agendas in socio-political and cultural domains allow savarna groups to mount attacks on the aforementioned provisions and their underlying constitutional principles. Ambedkar in his closing address to the Constituent Assembly stated: “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.” His words seem to be prophetic: a democracy that increasingly agrees with and legitimizes a logic based on social hierarchy and inequality finds itself contradicting its constitutional values and remains in peril indeed.
Ambedkar, B.R. (2007): Annihilation of Caste, New Delhi, Critical Quest. (Revised Edition).
Anderson, Benedict (1991): Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, New York: Verso. (Revised Edition).
Kumar, Vivek (2007): In Sudha Pai (Ed.) Political Process in Uttar Pradesh: Identity, Economic Reforms and Governance, New Delhi: Pearson Longman.
Phule, Jotirao (2006): In G P Deshpande (Ed.) Selected Writings of Jotirao Phule, New Delhi: Left World Books. (Reprint)
Yengde, Suraj (2019) Caste Matters, Gurgaon, Penguin Random House India Pvt. Ltd.
 Vermillion, Scale and Sword were symbolic of Brahmin, Vaishya and Kshatriya community respectively. The three varnas as already illustrated are part of the savarna identity which have the twice-born status accorded to them. Bahujan Samaj Party’s leader Mayawati at one point openly professed her vehement opposition to these groups.
Sumit Chaturvedi is an independent journalist and researcher who blogs at OpinionTandoor.in. He writes on politics, culture and economics.