Citizens of tomorrow

How rapid urbanisation will unravel the politics of caste.

What will happen to caste as India rapidly urbanises? This is one of the most intriguing, and significant, questions for Indian politics and society in the coming two to three decades.

In traditional India, the caste system was a social institution that provided a hierarchical ordering of castes in a geographic area. Upper castes had maximum privileges, and as one moved down the hierarchy, the bundle of rights became lighter. At the lowest level, the Dalits had virtually no rights, only obligations. Despite the inequities, most people ideologically internalised the system, as has historically been the case in all hierarchical societies. Of course, outright coercion also buttressed the system, especially if those lower down violated hierarchical norms.

Given the historically rooted denial of rights to lower orders, caste politics in democratic India has thus far primarily taken the form of sammaan ki rajniti (politics of dignity). All lower caste parties of India, initially in the south, later in the north, have had this as a master narrative of their politics, though there were others issues as well. Such politics has also taken retributive forms, as lower castes, using their numbers, have hit back after coming to power.

Will this mode of politics survive as India becomes increasingly urban? In 1951, only five Indian cities had a population greater than 1 million each. By 2011, three cities Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata had more than 10 million people each, and 53 cities had populations of more than one million each. By 2031, six cities are projected to cross the population threshold of 10 million. Depending on what measures are used and how rapid urbanisation is, India's population, 32 per cent urban in 2011, could well be substantially over 40 per cent urban in 2031.

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