There have been some changes in the social categorization of Shudras today compared to Rig Vedic and medieval times. They were divided into various social categories based on their occupation in the agrarian sector. They have been handling tasks from tilling land to cattle-rearing and anything in between for thousands of years. They were classified into artisanal communities such as weavers, carpenters, smiths, potters, tappers, fisherfolk, fruit gatherers, brick-makers, barbers, washermen and so on. Below Shudras, the social category of Dalits was formed almost in every village. They were deemed untouchable for all caste communities and did labour like leather work, cleaning of the village and so on.
A section of Shudras, over time, emerged as village-level landowners and feudal estate owners along with Kshatriyas, Brahmins and some Muslims. Banias were confined to business both in rural and urban areas. By 1947, Shudras easily formed the largest constituency, accounting for about 52 per cent of the population, as per the 1931 Census, while Dalits formed 18 per cent. Perhaps Vaishyas, Kshatriyas and Brahmins together might have constituted about 7 per cent of the total population. The remaining were Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Adivasis. Even today, the main agrarian economy is run by Shudras, with the support of Dalits.
Today, in some states, top Shudra communities like Kammas, Reddys, Marathas, Jats, Yadavs, Kurmis, Lingayats, etc., have their own regional political parties. These include the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), YSR Congress, Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), Janata Dal (Secular), SP, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), RJD, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and so on. Over time, these regional parties weakened the hold of national parties, especially the Congress. This slowly led to the rise of the BJP as an alternative national party in the 1990s.
During Jawaharlal Nehru’s time, the Shudra landed gentry sided with the Congress. Capitalist accumulation was weak till the 1970s, so the feudal Shudras felt that they were the real power centres in villages. Until 1990, the economy was mainly agrarian. Shudra landlords dominated the economy from the village to the district level. Only in some pockets did Brahmin and Muslim landlords have control. The main contradiction till the 1990s in terms of class was between tenants, agrarian labour and landlords who, in many states, were upper-caste Shudras.
However, the change, slowly but surely, began from the early 1970s onward. Slowly, the Indian industrial economy, both private and government, began to overtake the agrarian economy. In the 1971 elections, Indira Gandhi directly reached out to the village electorate, undercutting the rural control of Shudra landlords. She found great support among the Dalits. The landlords showed their power by attacking and burning Dalit localities across India, in places like Belchi in Bihar and Karamchedu in Andhra Pradesh. Under the leadership of the feudal Shudra landlord Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, the landed gentry tried to weaken Indira Gandhi. The Shudra feudal syndicate made Reddy contest for the post of president of India, but Indira Gandhi, with the support of the growing industrial class, defeated these efforts by propping up an independent Brahmin candidate, V.V. Giri, who eventually won.
In this process, Indira Gandhi constituted a coalition of non-Shudra upper castes (Brahmins and a section of Bania industrialists), Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and other minorities. Added to this, she had broad-based women support as she was perceived as a strong woman leader, often likened to Goddess Durga or Kali in villages. Shudra landlords began to be sidelined by the Congress. Hence, a large section of Shudras shifted to the newly formed Janata Party under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan and subsequently, after the 1977 victory, saw to it that the Mandal Commission was constituted under the leadership of a Shudra Yadav leader, B.P. Mandal.
During this period, the Jana Sangh, which had merged with the Janata Party to make it the single largest party, expanded its relations with Shudras. There was no OBC category in India at that time. Having supported the constitution of the Mandal Commission, though with the pressure of young OBC leaders like Sharad Yadav, Mulayam Singh and Lalu Prasad Yadav, the Jana Sangh, after breaking with the Janata Party, changed its name to Bharatiya Janata Party and used every opportunity to project itself as pro-Shudra. The anti-Muslim and anti-Dalit feudal networks within the Shudras helped the BJP strengthen the Hindu ideological bondage of Shudras during that time. Dominated by Brahmin–Banias, the party now took a more progressive posture than the Congress by slowly Hinduizing the Shudra/OBC masses up to the village level. After the V.P. Singh government implemented OBC reservation, both the Congress and the BJP played the subtle trick of flip-flopping between opposing and supporting the policy, but the BJP cleverly used the Babri Masjid–Ram Temple issue to further Hinduize Shudras/ OBCs. However, the emergence of pro-feudal Shudra regional parties not only weakened the Congress but also checkmated the rise of the BJP till 1999.
Even after the Congress returned to power in 1980, it did not include Shudras in its electoral coalition, and continued to be a combine of non-Shudra upper castes, minorities, Dalits and Adivasis. Both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi refused to implement the Mandal Commission’s recommendations. Under the V.P. Singh regime, Shudras got an upper hand and got the Mandal Commission report implemented. Meanwhile, the Shudra landed gentry also formed several regional parties in the north. At this juncture, the RSS–BJP mobilized uneducated lower Shudra youth around the Ram Janmabhoomi issue, and the demolition of the Babri Masjid gave the required impetus to their aggressive campaign. The ‘Jai Sri Ram’ slogan and the tying of a saffron thread around the wrists of Shudras/OBCs, giving them a Hindu identity, were part of that package. They portrayed the Congress–Muslim relationship as appeasement targeted against Shudras/OBC interests. By 1999, things had shifted in their favour, and in 2014, the trend became more vibrant, as witnessed by the BJP’s meteoric rise to power.
After the nationalization of banks in 1969, a change began to take place in the market economy of India. However, the parallel growth of the private sector with the support of the banking system meant that Indian capital started accumulating in the hands of a few Indian industrialists and businessmen. They subsequently started backing the Congress in electoral politics. The Indian Banias saw the Congress as the party of Mahatma Gandhi, who came from their community. Indira Gandhi’s name linked her to Mahatma Gandhi as an added factor. Even the big industrial Banias supported the Congress more than the Jana Sangh with that sentiment. The Congress started financing elections with the support of newly accumulating Bania capital, neglecting the weakening Shudra landlords. The land reform programme weakened them further. At the same time, the Brahmin– Bania intellectual class, both educated abroad and in Indian universities, became more Congress-friendly, and even the left intellectuals became more pro-Congress.
A notable fact is that among these intellectuals, there were hardly any Shudras. As a result, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Shudra elite were in regional politics, whether as leaders of their own regional parties or with the Congress or the BJP. Not a single leader emerged with the required quality of English education and modern sophistication. Thus, the Congress, the BJP and even the communist parties were populated, at the central level, by Brahmin–Bania leadership. Though the communist parties have had Shudra leaders like Puchalapalli Sundarayya and Chandra Rajeswara Rao, they were never caste conscious. They also did not train and promote Shudra/OBC young leaders who could grapple with the problems of caste and class and lead a national campaign. Hence, the communist parties came under the grip of Brahminic forces. As the BJP began to grow, they began to weaken.
Quite tragically, Shudra/OBC communities failed to produce a sophisticated English-educated intellectual class that could enter the central universities, English media and the corridors of sophisticated writing. A small section of Shudras was confined to agrarian riches, which are of middle-class nature, with local power lying in its control of a state’s regional language. The remaining were either lower middle class agrarian or urban labour. Even the Shudra/OBC regional rich did not aspire for a national power base. The real power base lay with the bureaucratic and intellectual class and, in those spheres too, Shudras/OBCs were unable to gain a foothold.
Spiritual intellectuals play a critical role in developing such a national-level intellectual force. Historically, there is no such spiritual intellectual force among Shudras. Amongst Brahmin and Bania castes, the spiritual intellectual force generated a national discourse around spiritual texts. A common thread of cultural codes was constructed across the country within Brahmin–Bania caste communities, even more than amongst Kshatriyas, due to the culture of reading Brahminic texts like the Ramayana, Mahabharata and particularly the Bhagavad Gita. They promoted the Gita, but not Sri Krishna, as he was a Shudra. Instead, they promoted Rama, a Kshatriya who was always under the control of a Brahmin guru.
Shudras did not even have a strategy like the Brahminic RSS to promote Krishna. Crucial textual knowledge was not allowed to spread among them. Nor did they understand the importance of spiritual textual engagement and philosophical growth as they were historically confined to tilling land and producing food and attaining satisfaction through these activities. They never understood that their heads were under the control of Brahmin priests, and their purse under the control of Bania business forces. Until India became a fully grown capitalist country after the liberalization of 1991, they naively thought they were the rulers of India. Now, Shudras are nowhere and there is no brain and money power among them to fight the all-round authority of Brahmin–Banias. In spiritual, social, business and political fields, Brahmin–Bania brain power controls the nerve centres of the nation.
Even in Europe and the Middle Eastern countries, social and political thinkers and political leaders emerged from families and communities that had long engaged with Biblical and Quranic spiritual intellectual discourse. Here, such spiritual intellectual discourse was confined to one community, Brahmins, and later extended to Banias and Kshatriyas. Yogi Adityanath, a Kshatriya, came into political leadership from spiritual leadership. Mahatma Gandhi, Ram Manohar Lohia and Narendra Modi came from a Bania background with familial engagement and a spiritual knowledge of Hinduism, and the childhood text-reading culture of the community. All Brahmin leaders have that spiritual and political capital. Shudras/OBCs do not have these resources even now.
Tamil and Bengali Brahmins, for example, entered national power structures in a systematic way, both through the political and bureaucratic power mechanism. They got into English media quite significantly, and have a strong sense of nationhood. Shudras/OBCs have no such sense as they possess only a very strong sense of region. This localism of Shudras/OBCs gave enormous scope to Brahmin–Bania communities to handle everything on a national scale—wealth and power.
Meanwhile, because of the reservation system, a small section of Dalits and reserved-category Shudras (OBCs) and English-educated Muslims also became somewhat visible in Delhi. Particularly after the BJP came to power by overthrowing the regional parties, the Shudra upper layer started feeling the pinch. The castes which ruled the states found themselves deprived of any share in bureaucratic, intellectual and political power at the national level, and started demanding to be included in the reservation system. Marathas, Patels, Jats and Gujjars managed some reservation space within their states because of their organized fight. The BJP government, just before the 2019 elections, enacted a law through the Constitution (103rd Amendment) Act, 2019, granting 10 per cent reservation in jobs and education for the economically weak among Dwijas, Shudra castes and minorities that were so far deprived of any reservation benefits. This step made the lower middle class and poor amongst the Shudra and nonShudra upper castes vote for the BJP in the 2019 elections. The Hinduized Shudras also voted for the BJP.
The excerpt, with permission, has been taken from the essay “Shudras and Democratic India,” by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd. The essay was published in the book “The Shudras: Vision For a New Path,” edited by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd and Karthik Raja Karuppusamy, Penguin Books India.
Art work by Raneesh Raveendran (oro) for Indian Ruminations