Caste-ing COVID 19 and Indian Federalism

Image Courtesy : Al Jazeera

India’s governing system is based on the dual polity, i.e. central/national government and state Governments. While both Centre and states are endowed with sovereign powers, Centre has been enabled with more dominance. The negotiations or balance of power are upheld through concurrent and exclusive powers. Thus, strong Centre, cooperative federalism and flexibility are the main components of Indian federalism. Nonetheless, have these important three principles of Indian democracy come to be effectuated in the clock of ongoing national crisis? Has the Centre performed its constitutional supremacist duty? Or has the central government endangered the Indian federalism, bypassing the states and declaring nationwide lockdown? Are states standing in support with their respective citizens in an ongoing health emergency? Are both Centre and states supporting its poor masses? Do Centre and states consider the migrants as equal Citizens? And who is responsible for the inhuman condition and deaths of the migrants, states or the Centre? One can find answers to these questions by looking into the constitutional arrangements of Indian federalism.

Many have argued that the Centre’s decision of lockdown by invoking Disaster Management Act of 2005 is unconstitutional and has undermined the constitutional federalism and the fundamental rights of citizens’ rights of states and local governing bodies. The poor coordination between states and Centre has also been discussed as a reason for the growing number of positive corona cases.

However, the poor coordination between states and central government, the constitutional arrangement of states at periphery and Centre with supreme authority, planning by the government and many such questions do not answer the present plight of migrant workers in its fullest sense. As migrants are poorest of the poor and are parts of the traditional poverty circle, they remain as quasi citizens for the Centre and permanent surplus for the States.

Additionally, the majority of them belong to lower caste and Adivasi background. As a result, prioritising migrants’ problem is not a political compulsion for the ruling BJP’s as it doesn’t hamper BJP’s permanent upper caste vote bank. It is in this context, BJP’s idea of ‘powerful Centre’ is embedded into the age-old upper-caste supremacy and not into the constitutional principles of responsible and robust Centre.

BJP’s centralism and upper-caste supremacy: 

Going beyond its conventional boundaries, BJP in the last general election has successfully broadened its electoral base in the non-Hindi region. BJP’s overwhelming victory in the north-eastern states has broken its traditional image of ‘Cow belt party’. Nevertheless, its conservative representation – of ‘One Nation One Party and One leader – in the contemporary political spectrum is still deeply rooted in the dominant cultural ethos of North India. Moreover, such long-cherished dream of BJP originally emerges out of the RSS Upper caste idea of cultural Brahmanical homogeneity.

Historically, Brahmanism with its inherent tendency of appropriation has absorbed or influenced sections of people across regions and religions, North India; however, – specifically, Uttar Pradesh has remained as its original and dutiful Centre. Although historians have given various reasons, north India with the highest population of Brahmin and other upper caste have invariably been nucleus in the construction and perpetuation of Brahmanism. BJP as ‘Authentic’ Ghar (Home) of the upper caste reproduces the cultural form of Brahmanism within the constitutional framework of polity and politics.

The post-independent electoral politics for long had remained in the upper caste clutches. While the educated upper caste elites represented central or national politics, the states were controlled by the traditional dominant castes. Although not much has been changed, the lower caste OBC and independent politics of Dalits during the nineties ushered in a new era in the fabric of India’s political democracy. Even though the discourse and issues of lower caste politics emerged in national politics, their strength resided in the local-regional caste configuration. The emergence of RJD politics in Bihar, capturing the State power in Uttar Pradesh by Samajwadi Party and later by Bahujan Samaj Party and several other lower-caste political fronts in different regions created a dent in the den of traditional upper-caste politics and power.

The uninterrupted reign of power by Thakur fiefdoms, “almighty Brahmins” and erstwhile Rajwada families started facing severe challenges if not complete uprooting of them by the lower caste and Dalit mobilisations. Consequently, assertion and emergence of lower caste politics at ground later antagonised the upper castes against the idea of regional politics and political parties. After reservation, mobilisation of lower caste in regional politics acted as a thorn in the traditional political path of upper castes.

BJP leaving Congress behind with its ‘One Nation-One Party and One Leader’ quite successfully catered to the upper caste angst and consolidated upper caste vote bank in its favour. This also led to the resurfacing of the aggressive communal politics in north India in the 1990s. During this time, to counter the independent mobilisations of lower castes, the binaries were propagated; dichotomies of caste Vs nation, democracy Vs development and Hindu majority vs. Muslim minority were popularised at grassroots. With such discourses and constant communal polarisation BJP gained prominence in north Indian electoral politics and consequently captured the Centre. Thus, BJP’s centralism is entrenched in the north Indian upper-caste supremacy and is opposed to the democratic constitutional federalism.

During the nationwide lockdown, the adamancy of government not taking any substantial measures to mitigate the miseries of migrant workers is a clear example of this. As the majority of migrant workers come from north India mainly from M.P, U.P and Bihar, which are again BJP ruled states and are touted to be the primary source for the BJP’s electoral successes; the government should have acted more immediately and promptly. However, the not acting responsible does not damage BJP’s traditional upper caste vote bank as majority migrants belong to the Dalit, Adivasi and Backward communities.

This also goes on to show that the BJP has transformed India’s federal structure into the centralised rule of upper caste over oppressed masses. Ambedkar in constituent assembly defended strong Centre and the weak state as an exceptional and important principle in the Indian constitution to protect the union of India, his warning of misuse of the constitution by ruling classes stands validated with the existing situation at hand. While Upper castes with the new market economy have monopolised the national wealth and resources, BJP by misusing both central and state political power have been busy in criminalising independent movement by the lower caste against upper-caste hegemony. As a result for the Indian economy lower caste and Adivasi have remained as surplus bodies and for the Indian state, they continue to be quasi citizens.

Independent Press is under threat

We believe that if we owe an explanation to anyone, it’s our readers. We make the powerful accountable to this democracy and remain answerable to only our readers. This becomes possible only with a little contribution from you. Consider making a small donation today and help us remain a free, fair and vibrant democracy watchdog.


Rahul Sonpimple

Author: Rahul Sonpimple

Rahul Sonpimple is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His research focuses on Dalit movements and leadership. He is also an active member of the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association in JNU. He has completed his Master’s degree in Dalit and Tribal Social Work at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
More from Rahul Sonpimple