All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 1990

Communal Politics in India

Mr. Prasad, who immigrated from India in 1975, is a free-lance writer in Atlanta, Georgia.

The communal card always played a key role in our electioneering, but has never enjoyed the blatant currency it is beginning to now. The tragedy is that it is not the ruling party alone that is to blame. For decades, political parties of all hues have pandered to communal forces.”

Recently, a reporter—while discussing the brutal killings and property damage caused by communal riots in India—wondered about the powerful influence of caste and religion on India’s public life. He recommended that a sociological study be undertaken on the subject.

During the euphoria of India’s struggle for independence, many predicted that this anachronistic division of society would disappear with the spread of literacy. But the communal virus continues to affect all—poor and rich, literate or otherwise. In a recent speech, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi said that the people are still dividing themselves on the bases of religion, caste, and sub-caste, and that this is perhaps the most dangerous trend in the country today.

It is common to talk about how each caste is represented in the state and central cabinets. For example, one indian commentator recently stated: “Choosing a high caste man [as a chief minister] would have been tantamount to setting the clock back in a state where the alignment of social classes and castes had definitely been in favor of the backward castes.” Politicians and newspapers routinely engage in such calculations.

In the name of socialism, the government concentrates power in its own hands, controls access to production, and engages in arbitrary distribution of goods and services. In such an atmosphere, to belong to a group with influence over politicians and bureaucrats means survival, progress, and prosperity. The caste system serves as an old solution to these new problems.

In day-to-day life, communal influences are very strong. If you are a government official, for example, your superior, who may belong to another caste or religion, can downgrade your evaluation and thus your chances for promotion. You can be transferred to places you never knew existed. People belonging to a powerful caste can obtain jobs, promotions, and exclusive permits and licenses. It is cheaper than to pay the huge bribes.

People belonging to other castes and religions feel threatened, huddle together, and wait for their chance at the wheel. Leaders of these groups negotiate with politicians for a slice of the power in return for votes. “We have decided to create a strong vote bank on our demands. Only those who support these will get our votes,” says a religious leader.

Even the judicial and police appointments aren’t immune from communal considerations. With enough support from politicians, one can engage in criminal behavior with no fear of reprisal or punishment. With the backing of these criminals, politicians intimidate their opponents on a regular basis. Thus, one cannot dream of entering public life without the constant support of an army of hooligans.

“I cannot trust police any more in this town,” says a victim of recent communal clashes. People, out of desperation, take the law into their own hands, and communal riots are as predictable as monsoon rains.

This artificial division of society does trouble some Indians. The judge who recently ruled in favor of “Tamas”—a television show attacking fundamentalists in both the Hindu and Muslim communities—said, “the message is loud and clear, directed as it is against the sickness of communalism . . . the extremists stand opposed . . . when realization dawns on both communities who ultimately unite as brothers.” Both Hindu and Muslim extremists opposed the screening of this program.

For most people in socialist India, however, the lure of communalism is too powerful to resist. By belonging to a ruling caste, you get a promotion and your son gains admission to a good college. Soon, belonging to a particular religion or caste becomes an integral part of your self-image. You learn to distrust “others” as a part of this learned behavior that benefits you.

Politicians know that if they ignore these powerful forces, they are doomed. They go with the flow, and gain maximum advantage from caste and religious differences. The power they accumulate-all in the name of socialism—helps them cater to various factions. The caste system thrives in this atmosphere of political patronage.

There is another reason why people distrust “others” and seek comfort among their caste members. The explanation can be found in Hernando de Soto’s magnificent book, The Other Path, in which he describes the various networks of “cousins” and “uncles” operating in Peru’s underground economy.

People in free market economies slowly learn to trust strangers. The reason is simple. You and your business partner have an enforceable contract. The same goes for consumer and provider, landlord and tenant, stockholder and company, employer and employee, and so on. Respect for private property and enforceable contracts enable millions of strangers to deal with each other in complex, large-scale production and distribution processes.

In India, as in Peru, high tax rates and overwhelming governmental regulation have driven a large part of the economy into the informal sector. Even the legal businesses have two sets of books.

People operating in such an illegal underground economy don’t have the luxury of enforceable contracts. They have to depend upon people they know and can relate to. In India, the caste system serves as a convenient vehicle for that kind of kinship.

Communal politics in india is a new phenomenon spawned by socialism. Deregulation, reduced tax rates, and transfer of productive processes back to the people will melt away the foundations of the underground economy. All this coupled with decentralization will destroy the forces behind communalism, corruption, violence, and disorder.