• The Shudra Story

    Bindu Doddahatti

    February 28, 2019

    Caste has very interesting dimensions and realities in this country. We have a Prime Minister who has very strategically claimed the "Other Backward Class" (OBC) identity for political gains1, when in reality he has suffered no ignominy of being a Shudra individual. On the other hand, we have a vast majority of OBCs who detest being even called Shudras while unwisely clinging onto the imaginary Neo-Kshatriya and Neo-Brahmana identities. Dr BR Ambedkar has rightly pointed out in his book Who were the Shudras (1946), …the book is written for the ignorant and the uninformed Shudras, who do not know how they came to be what they are. They do not care how artistically the theme is handled. All they desire is a full harvest of material— the bigger the better.” Strangely enough, this statement holds true even to this day. On this note, I will briefly examine dominant castes of Karnataka to show how these communities have been trying to eliminate their Shudra identities with their upward economic mobility, without any significant upward intellectual or spiritual mobility. What was started by BR Ambedkar in Who were the Shudras is now being taken forward by prominent OBC scholars like  Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd. These scholars are igniting flames of rational inquiry into the minds of other Shudras, urging an exploration of the truth about their material existence and societal identities.

    The non upper OBCs/Shudras constitute of about 650 million out of the total population of India, and including the upper OBCs, the numbers seem overwhelmingly big. The Mandal Commission pegs their total share in the population at 52% (1980). Yet, as Kancha Ilaiah has stated, “the Shudras remain vastly underrepresented in positions of power across all aspects of political, social and economic life, be it in government or business, religion or education. Particularly at the national level, they remain subordinate to Brahmins and Vaishyas—particularly Banias.”2 If one were to look at the caste composition of the Supreme Court Judges, over 70% of them are upper caste. This is ascertained by considering the second names of the Hon’ble Judges. An RTI was filed to the Supreme Court of India seeking this particular information, and the Additional Registrar & CPIO of the Supreme Court responded stating that the information is not maintained3. Similarly, even in Karnataka where the OBCs like Vokkaligas and Lingayats have a strong political hold, they are poorly represented in places such as the High Court of Karnataka4, and elite educational institutions5 such as the Indian Institute of Management – Bangalore, Indian Institute of Science – Bangalore, and National Law School of India University – Bangalore6. This is no surprise as the Shudras, including the upper-Shudras in Karnataka, have remained backward when it comes to intellectual and scholarly pursuits. In order to understand this phenomenon, it is important to recognise how the "caste pride" operates in Karnataka amongst OBCs, which has led to their large scale marginalisation in the cultural, intellectual, spiritual and socio-political spheres of India.

    The word "Shudra" means a low caste person without civilisation, without culture, without respect, and without position7. Vokkaligas and Lingayats are the land holding dominant Shudra castes of Karnataka. The term "dominant" indicate their numbers in terms of population and also, political and economic power8. Although it is said that the Shudras were a part of the Kshatriya varna in the Indo-Aryan society, they were degraded socially and placed as the last varna of the Chaturvarna system9. Since then, they have historically been restricted to menial jobs and to serve the other three varnas – Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. Their intellectual and cultural growth was curtailed viciously by the upper castes, specifically Brahmins.

    The Shudras such as Vokkaligas, Lingayats, Patels, and Gujjars have traditionally been the "tillers of the land, cattle grazers, and harvesters of crops. They were also the soldiers in the service of different rulers through various periods of history10". It’s these traditional occupations that connect them to their "dominant land holding" status in modern day India. They did not have the opportunity to learn and get educated until the British took control of India, which meant that they remained completely out of the cultural and intellectual consciousness of the country due to the hegemonic nature of upper castes/ruling classes’ social and cultural practices and their access to social and cultural capital. This process barely left any space for an alternative consciousness of the poor, deprived Shudra and Dalit masses in the social environment of the country. As social scientist KM Panikkar has noted in Culture and Consciousness in Modern India: A Historical Perspective, “Culture is a description of a particular way of life, which expresses certain meanings and values not in art and learning, but also in institutions and ordinary behaviour.” This extension of hegemony can be seen even in the freedom struggle, where most of the leading political figures were upper caste and rooted for political revolution over cultural or social revolution.

    The result of this hegemonic erasure of alternative consciousness is evident even today as the Shudras do not occupy powerful and elite positions, which should have otherwise been proportionate to their share in the population. One glaring example is the share of OBCs in the lower judiciary. The numbers are so dismal and hold a mirror up to the Shudra lethargy towards educational and scholarly aspirations, despite their upward economic mobility. This lethargy is a direct outcome of their marginalisation. OBCs form just 12% of the lower court judges11, and less than 12% in central government jobs, but their share in the total population is about 52%. When such is the case, why are they proud of their caste lineage? 

    On the question of caste pride and social marginalisation, firstly, the dominant Shudra castes have fallen prey to the process of "sanskritisation" and upward caste mobility by brutalising the castes below them such as the Dalits and Adivasis. Secondly, they have latched on to the very process of hegemonic erasure that they were subjected to by the upper castes. As BR Ambedkar has stated repeatedly, caste system thrives on the practice of graded inequality. Shudras too were oppressed by the upper castes, but now they are the greatest oppressors of Dalits and other minority communities12. These Shudra groups have no proper understanding of their own oppressed identities and backwardness, which has made them believe that they are the Neo-Kshatriyas and Neo-Brahmanas.

    In Karnataka, the Vokkaligas strongly believe that they are the Neo-Kshatriyas and take pride in their surname – "Gowda". They use it as a weapon to terrorise caste and religious minorities13, just like the Jats and Reddys. One would find stickers stating "Gowdas", "Kurubas" behind cars, autos, and trucks all over Karnataka. This false caste pride plays out gruesomely when young people from the community try to marry outside of their caste. It’s not just Vokkaligas, even other Shudra castes like the Kurubas indulge in similar caste name parading.  

    Similar yet distinct, the Lingayats tread a slightly different trajectory, but it does not mean that they have not committed atrocities time and again against Dalits in Karnataka14. Although the Lingayats are categorised as OBC by the government of India, there is a growing demand to recognise them as a separate religion divorced from the roots of Hinduism. It is important to note that Lingayats are the followers of social reformer Basavanna, who in 12th century rose up against the discriminatory Hindu caste system, mainly Brahminism, and built a new Dharma which rejected the Vedas, caste and gender discrimination15. The majority of Lingayats today have Shudra roots, and they have not escaped the viciousness of caste. It will be interesting to see what happens to their OBC status if they were to be accorded the tag of a separate religion, as granting a separate religion status doesn’t take away the structural inequalities faced by them.

    Further, it is important to analyse the current status of OBC women and the impact of "caste pride" on the growing gender gap between OBC men and women and women’s participation in the workforce. There has been a significant drop in the percentage of women entering the workforce (5.8% for OBCs) according to data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) from rounds post-2004-05. Analysis of this data shows that there are multiple factors affecting women’s employment: the globalisation and deregulation of the country’s economy as well as the structural inequalities of gender and caste. The former, instead of diminishing the effects of the latter, as is often claimed it does, seems to in fact further perpetuate these inequalities. "Participation rates" of women have declined across all social divisions, SC-ST and OBC women show the highest decline, which highlights the role of the caste system; at the same time, the gender gap within each of these social categories is itself widening, demonstrating the effects of structural gender inequality16.

    There are also strong gender biases which influence the participation of women in the workforce. These often operate within the caste system, so women belonging to different castes are differently affected with SC-STs showing the highest increase in this gap, and OBCs not far behind17. This is a reflection of the social pressures that force women to perform all domestic care work, leaving no time for work outside the home18. One factor that exacerbates this process is "sanskritisation", where the lower castes (especially OBCs, as they are not as low as SC-STs in the caste hierarchy) attempt to gain greater social status by copying the rituals and traditions of the upper castes. One significant aspect of this is confining women to domestic labour only, and not allowing them to pursue work outside their homes even if they had the time and energy19.

    While it is clear that the Shudra castes in India are clearly lagging behind on various societal parameters of growth, there is a conspicuous absence of any sort of rebellion against the established caste hierarchy, and compassionate inquiry into their own roots.

    Shudra practices of untouchability against Dalits are well documented20, but the same is not done among Shudra castes. I, as a Shudra individual have experienced untouchability. My parents are also victims of untouchability, and were robbed of equitable educational opportunity. What makes caste so insidious is the fact that we were meted out such treatment not just by upper-caste individuals, but by another Shudra community that challenged the puritanical caste practices of Brahmins and yet continued to perpetuate the same against other Shudras. This is the travesty of caste system. Such instances of untouchability, denial of educational opportunities, and atrocities against OBC women are plenty among Shudra castes; however, they are not recorded for further inquiry and reflection by the concerned communities. The hegemony among Shudras in terms of sanskritisation, political and economic mobility needs to be studied meticulously.  

    Moving forward, the Shudras have so much to learn from the Ambedkarite and Dalit-Buddhist movements. Shudras have played a vital role in many anti-caste struggles before, for instance, the "Maharas movement"21. In fact, the pioneering anti-caste struggle was led by Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, a Shudra individual. Moving away from their oppressed Shudra identities in search of an elusive caste pride has rendered them faceless in the country’s cultural consciousness. Shudras need to work towards the annihilation of caste, keeping in mind their privileges as well as their subjugation by upper-castes.


    [1]‘Fake OBC finger at Modi’, Special Correspondent, 9 May, 2014, available at https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/fake-obc-finger-at-modi/cid/182604 
    [2]‘Where are the Shudras?’, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, 1 October, 2018, available at https://caravanmagazine.in/caste/why-the-shudras-are-lost-in-today-india
    [3]Dy. No. 2016/RTI/18-19/SCI
    [4]RTI reply from the High Court said, ‘information not maintained’.
    [5]‘Why Are There Still Such Few SCs, STs and OBCs at IIMs?’ Siddharth Joshi and Deepak Malghan , 18 January, 2018, available at https://thewire.in/caste/iim-sc-st-obc-diversity
    [6]Jain, Chirayu and Jayaraj, Spadika and Muraleedharan, Sanjana and Singh, Harjas and Galanter, Marc S., The Elusive Island of Excellence – A Study on Student Demographics, Accessibility and Inclusivity at National Law School 2015-16 (May 30, 2016). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2788311 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2788311 
    [7]‘Who were the Shudras’, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1946), available at https://www.mea.gov.in/Images/attach/amb/Volume_07.pdf 
    [8]‘The Dominant Caste and Other Essays’, M.N. Srinivas (1987), Oxford University Press. 
    [9]Supra note 8 
    [10]‘The Shudras Want Empowerment, Not a Giant Statue of Their Iron Man,’ Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, 31 October, 2018, available at https://thewire.in/caste/sardar-patel-statue-of-unity-shudra-brahmin-bania 
    [11]‘Data: OBCs just 12% of lower court judges’, Pradeep Thakur, January 29, 2018, available at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/62687268.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst 
    [12]‘Why caste battle in Tamil Nadu never ends’, M Kalyanaraman, Bosco Dominique, 24 August, 2015, available at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/48646204.cms#utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst
    [13]‘Atrocities of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in Karnataka since 1980 a case study of socio economic and political causes’, K. Keshava Raju, Dept of Political Science, Karnatak University, available at http://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/handle/10603/95396 
    [14]Ibid 
    [15]‘Making Sense of the Lingayat vs Veerashaiva Debate’, Gauri Lankesh, 5 September, 2017, available at https://thewire.in/history/karnataka-lingayat-veerashaive-debate
    [16]‘Crisis in Female Employment’, Neetha N., November 22, 2014, VOL XLIX NO. 47, Economic and Political Weekly 
    [17]Ibid 
    [18]‘Why so few women enter the job market in India’, Udayan Rathore and Pramit Bhattacharya, 21 June, 2018, available at https://www.livemint.com/Companies/Jf6nR0giRAWIeO94zexvdM/Why-so-few-women-work-in-India.html 
    [19]‘Sanskritization & Gender: Discrimination in Labor Market at the Intersections of Religion and Caste in India’, May 19, 2015. Shreya Parikh 
    [20]‘We do not touch them’: Shocking caste discrimination in Karnataka district, finds new study’, S Sentalir, Scroll.in, 21 January, 2019, available at https://scroll.in/article/909979/we-do-not-touch-them-shocking-caste-discrimination-in-karnataka-district-finds-new-study 
    [21]‘How Dalit-'Lower Caste' Unity Laid the Foundation for the Ambedkarite Movement’, Yashwant Zagade, 7 December, 2018, available at https://thewire.in/caste/lower-caste-ambedkar-anti-caste-struggle

    Bindu N. Doddahatti is a litigator with the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore. She is currently working on making legal aid more accessible to under-trial prisoners, and religious and sexual minorities. She is also associated with various peoples movements working on the issues of caste, and gender.

    Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.

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