The Caste System is the basis of Hindu social organisation. There are more than two thousand castes and sub-castes in India. Most of the castes are confined to relatively small geographical areas within a particular racial and linguistic region. It is within the rural areas that the caste system has its most powerful hold. Traditionally, members of each caste occupy by virtue of their birth, a well-defined status and role within the society. Each caste is hierarchically ranked according to the ritual purity of its traditional occupation, though the occupation has now nothing to do with the castes any more. The caste system is so deeply rooted in the Indian traditions that the ascriptive identity of caste cannot be escaped even by abandoning the traditional occupation. Caste is determined by birth, not by occupation.
Casteism has not only shattered the amity of Hindu community but also affected Indian politics. It has become an integral part of Indian politics. Caste plays an important role in the elections. All permutations and combinations of castes are taken into account before fielding candidates for the elections. All political parties try to secure their support from caste associations, whenever and wherever available. There are also a few parties based on racial or caste pattern such as Jharkhand Party, Republican Party of India, Dalit Panthers, Vishal Haryana Party, etc. Consequently, the ‘caste’ is the most important political party in India. Caste is a predominant consideration that influences voting behaviour among the rural voters. However, it is much less relevant among the urban voters.
The caste system is responsible for social stratification and class conflict. Reservation policy of the Government, or what is called as “protective discrimination”, extended to Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes, is seriously resented by the ‘higher castes who consider themselves to be victims of “reverse discrimination”. The caste system is the most powerful barrier in the establishment of social equality, as envisaged by the founders of our Constitution. A number of legislative as well as executive measures have been taken by the Centre as well as by a number of States to fight out the evils of the Caste system. The basic problem of the caste system is related to two aspects – (a) discrimination against the Scheduled Castes and the socio-economic injustice against them; and (b) the cast manipulation and caste appeals for gaining political leadership and winning elections. The caste factor is mostly dominant in the Northern States, especially (U. P., Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan – BIMARU States). The worst feature of the system is the atrocities against the Dalits. During elections, there are numerous reports, from various parts of Northern India, of Dalits having not been allowed to exercise their franchise freely. In free India, efforts have been made to get rid of the vices of the system. But the Constitution and the law cannot bring about the complete elimination of these social discriminations. The problem has to be tackled by the society itself. It will exist so long as it receives social acceptability and political patronage.
The controversial Mandal Commission Report has on the one hand, divided the castes both vertically and horizontally and on the other, the issue of giving social justice through reservations in job, has emerged as an easy vote-gathering mechanism. The Janata Dal calls itself as a champion of the lower and backward castes and its all overtures in this connection are directed towards cornering their votes. Ever since the National Front announced the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report, there has been a virtual political and social upheavel and more than five decades after India’s Independence, the newly emerging caste consciousness is guiding India’s political destiny. The political parties, unmindful of deadly consequences, are pushing the country and her people to the dark lanes of middle ages.