Vehicles displaying caste names on the windscreen or number plates will now invite punitive action, according to an order issued in December by the Yogi Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata Party government in Uttar Pradesh. The move sparked a public debate in the state and other places on whether this would weaken caste assertion in our society. Will it contribute in diluting the caste system in India?
We have observed that despite all the modern influences in our society from the West, growing urbanisation, deepening democracy and progressing globalisation, the foundations of the caste system in India have not been thinned out sufficiently. Electoral democratic politics created an environment in which the caste system constantly kept getting oxygen and gaining a new life every election.
I think it is an admirable decision by the UP government, but it is not going to contribute a lot in weakening the deep-rooted caste system in India. It is certainly going to create a check on aggressive assertion of caste identities in the public space. In fact, this trend was first observed in areas like Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh where the neo-rich, locally dominant groups started flaunting their caste names on the windscreens and number plates of vehicles as a form of assertion. In reaction, the neo-rich sections of Dalits in these areas also started displaying their caste names on vehicles. This caused social tensions, in a limited sense, in these areas.
Sociologically speaking, it is a display of affluence or newly earned wealth with their caste identities. If someone studies such acts in depth, it reveals that in a way it is an effort by the neo-rich social sections to celebrate their success and give credit to their castes for these successes. The tendency to display caste identity in public may create jealousies and bitter reactions among others and may reflect in growing caste tensions in our society. We have observed that at various places, minor conflicts, social tension and violence take place due to this competitive displaying of caste identities, in Punjab and western UP. Slowly, this trend is being observed in other parts of Uttar Pradesh too. One can see an infectious spread of this trend also in other Hindi states.
It is true that this administrative decision of the government of UP is not going to give a transformative blow to the ingrained caste system of India, but it may stop one form of assertion of caste which has so far triggered hostility. As we know, abolition of casteism in India is a mammoth and long-term project. As suggested by Babasaheb Ambedkar, social steps like inter-dining and inter-caste marriages are needed for abolition of the caste system. Marxist theories seem quite hopeful that modernity may weaken the caste system in India. It is true that all these things contributed to the dilution of caste rigidity in Indian society, but abolition of the caste system is still a distant dream. In spite of these transformative social processes, the sense of caste identities reinvents itself constantly in new ways to display and assert itself.
The caste identities constantly take on new incarnations and reappear in our social life. They mutate like viruses and hurt the social bonding needed for development and growth. Even in this situation, such minor administrative actions may help create a check and control on conflict situations. The BJP and Yogi Adityanath seem committed towards strengthening Hindutva, and there needs to be a curb on assertive caste assertion to develop Hindutva unity in a social sense.