WHEN THE GOVERNMENT IMPLEMENTED the Mandal Commission recommendations, in the early 1990s, it was meant to be a watershed moment for the Shudras. The measure reserved positions in government employment and public higher education for the Other Backward Classes—a category made up overwhelmingly of disadvantaged Shudra castes, traditionally labourers and craftspeople. The commission had identified these castes, part of the fourth and lowest varna of the Brahminical order, as holding a wretched place in Indian society. They lagged far behind the better-off castes on multiple social, economic and educational measures, yet were excluded from the system of positive discrimination created at Independence for the Dalits and Adivasis—officially, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The commission rightly created a separate category of reservations for the OBCs based on their historical backwardness.
The reservations were met with vicious backlash from Brahmin and Vaishya castes, and from a section of the Shudras as well. For decades, relatively prosperous, landholding groups at the top of the intra-Shudra caste hierarchy—the Kammas, Reddys, Kapus, Gowdas, Nairs, Jats, Patels, Marathas, Gujjars, Yadavs and so on—had been Sanskritising themselves, taking on the habits and prejudices of the Brahmin-Bania castes. In my book Why I am Not a Hindu, published in 1996, I described these “upper” Shudra castes as Neo-Kshatriyas, to reflect their hope that Sanskritisation would earn them the role and rank in the caste system left largely vacant by the waning of the Kshatriyas, traditionally the second varna.
Two and a half decades have passed since the Mandal Commission reservations came into force, the space of a full generation. It is time to ask: How far have the reservations brought the Shudra OBCs? What good has come to the upper Shudras who opposed them? Where do the Shudras find themselves in India today?
Shudras comprise approximately half the population of India, the second most populous country on earth. The Mandal Commission concluded in the 1980s that the OBCs, not including the “upper” Shudra castes, represent 52 percent of all Indians. This amounts to over 650 million people at present—more than twice the population of the United States, more than three times the populations of Pakistan or Brazil. By comparison, the “forward” castes—Hindu castes outside the OBCs, Scheduled Cates and Scheduled Tribes—all together count for no more than 20 percent of the Indian population.
For a group with their enormous numbers, the Shudras remain vastly underrepresented in positions of power across all aspects of political, social and economic life, be it in government or business, religion or education. Particularly at the national level, they remain subordinate to Brahmins and Vaishyas—particularly Banias. This applies just as much to the upper Shudras, who are today in a strange position. Their insistence that they had higher status than other Shudras contributed to their exclusion from the OBC lists. Now, millions of them across the country, angry at stagnant opportunity and mobility, are demanding that they be recognised as members of the OBCs as well, to get access to reserved positions.
Where are Shudras in the national economy? Even the richest of them continue to depend on the agrarian economy, the traditional Shudra mainstay, and have not made significant gains in industry or finance. Those realms are dominated by Banias, to whom they must turn for capital just as they always have. There are no Shudra business families to rival the likes of the Ambanis, Adanis or Mittals. Among the poorer Shudras, labouring castes continue to work in the fields, and now also on construction sites and in factories, where they are increasingly joined by Shudra craftspeople whose hereditary skills are devalued by modern industry.
Where are the Shudras in the national consciousness and culture? They have no significant role in the top intellectual, philosophical and sociopolitical spheres in contemporary India. No Shudra man—leave alone woman—is allowed a position of real influence in Hinduism, even as the religion is aggressively thrust upon Shudras everywhere. Shudras form the majority of India’s Hindus, yet they have no say in the religion. The casteist stricture against Shudras joining the priesthood is so ingrained that no Shudra even aspires to the position. Further, there are hardly any Shudra intellectuals who can talk about the group’s social and political place in India’s past, present and future. At best, such figures exist at the state or regional levels and operate in regional languages, cut off from national debate. Academia and the media have given little space to Shudra minds. Across the country, almost without exception, Shudra educational attainment is poor. In all intellectual and spiritual activity, they submit to the leadership of, mostly, Brahmins.
Where are the Shudras in national politics and government? They are barely represented among the higher judiciary and bureaucracy. The reality is that Shudra leaders are, at most, regional forces. Certain upper Shudra castes have mobilised very effectively and control powerful parties—consider the Yadavs in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, or the Kammas, Reddys, Kapus and Velamas in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. But the power of these parties and their leaders is confined to their home states and regions, and is often based on caste and regional chauvinism, preventing wider solidarity. These leaders’ attempts to ally with the powers at the centre have only underlined their subordination, and are yet to bring meaningful benefits to their Shudra constituents. The national parties—the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party—have no one representing the concerns of the Shudras in their circles of real decision-making authority. Both are controlled by Brahmins and Banias.
The fundamental position of the Shudras has not changed. Brahminical belief continues to define them as the fourth varna, superior only to the avarna, or varna-less, Dalits and Adivasis. Indian society, faithful to the caste system, keeps them in corresponding roles.
“In the present state of the literature on the subject, a book on the Shudras cannot be regarded as a superfluity,” BR Ambedkar wrote in 1946 in Who Were the Shudras? How They Came To Be The Fourth Varna in the Indo-Aryan Society. New archaeological and genetic studies have raised questions over his theory of their origins, and whether the Shudras were Indo-Aryans at all, but beyond that the state of the literature on the Shudras has barely changed in all the years since. Hardly any scholars have turned specifically to the Shudra’s predicament in independent India. There are no good books on Shudra history or culture, and in the press there is barely any writing on the Shudras that looks beyond the narrow confines of electoral politics.
Simply, the Shudras have not so much as had anyone bring their problems to their own attention. Even Ambedkar’s writing on the Shudras failed to do for them what his other works did for the Dalits—make sense of their historical, political and spiritual situation, and inspire a pan-Indian movement for emancipation. Without a unified consciousness, the Shudras are co-opted into an unreformed Hinduism that still considers them inherently inferior, and are easily bent to the wishes of Brahminical political parties and social institutions. So now as much as ever, writing on the Shudras cannot be regarded a superfluity.
NARENDRA MODI BECAME PRIME MINISTER in 2014 on the back of proclamations that he belonged to the Other Backward Classes, implying that he was a representative of the Shudras. Many accepted the proclamation without the scrutiny it deserves. Looking closely at Modi’s caste group, the Modh Ghanchis of Gujarat, we should be skeptical of his assertion of Shudra status.
Modh Ghanchis have historically been in the business of both making and selling edible oil. More recently, they have also branched out into running kirana stores. This sets them starkly apart from Shudra castes, which have been mostly associated with agrarian production and labour—neech work, in the Brahminical mind.
The caste system is strictly ordered by occupation, and reserves commerce for the third varna, the Vaishyas. The Modh Ghanchis’ participation in commerce is a mark of Vaishya status. They are not treated as a neech caste in Gujarat. The community’s vegetarian habits also suggest Vaishya rather than Shudra roots. Modh Ghanchis are traditionally literate, as traders must be, and this is another sign of non-Shudra status. Caste rules prohibit Shudras from learning to read or write, and prescribe barbaric punishments for defying the ban.
Modh Ghanchis were not listed among the OBCs when the Mandal Committee recommendations first came into force. The Gujarat government granted them OBC status in the state in 1994, and the central government added them to its list of OBCs in 1999. Modi became the chief minister of Gujarat two years later. During state elections in 2002, 2007 and 2012 he never found it expedient to present himself as a member of the OBCs. He projected a Bania identity, and the Banias—by far the country’s most powerful industrial and business community—embraced him as one of their own. It was only when campaigning for the 2014 general election that Modi suddenly remembered his OBC status.
Narendra Modi is not the only BJP leader to make such strategic use of the OBC category. Sushil Kumar Modi, now the deputy chief minister of Bihar, was born into a Bania caste now listed among the OBCs. In several states, especially in north India, sections of the Banias have managed to get themselves added to the OBC lists. How these communities—with historical advantages in terms of varna, wealth, occupation and literacy—have come to qualify as OBCs is a mystery. This is an electoral strategy to help the Banias emerge as a major political force.
This should be an eye-opener for all Shudras. The OBC category is meant for those situated lowest on the varna scale, to address real social and educational backwardness. But some groups without a rightful claim to OBC status are using it to further their socioeconomic and political advantage. The Shudras are tricked into believing they are represented by leaders and parties that have no real connection to their difficulties, interests and culture, and that are denying positions of power to actual Shudra representatives.
There is a corresponding trend among the Shudras, with some castes at the bottom of the intra-varna hierarchy seeking recognition as Scheduled Castes to claim the official benefits that this brings. Their claims merit critical thought as well, particularly from Dalits, to guard against an imposition of Shudra power over Dalit castes. As a form of Shudra Dalitisation, going in the opposite direction to the Sanskritisation of the upper Shudras, it should serve not to sharpen caste conflict but to build greater solidarity among those struggling against caste.
The BJP’s Modi-led victory in 2014 meant that the national political system fell under Bania control. Modi was backed by Bania industrialists such as Gautam Adani and the Ambanis, and his government has favoured them in return. Amit Shah, Modi’s number-two man, has been installed as the president of the BJP, meaning that a Bania now heads the ruling party. If the BJP was earlier famous as a “Brahmin-Bania” party, it is now increasingly a “Bania-Brahmin” one.
To understand the Shudra position in this scheme we can look at the treatment of M Venkaiah Naidu, who was forced to resign from a number of significant cabinet posts in 2017 and relegated to the ceremonial post of vice-president. Today, he serves his purpose as the most prominent Shudra face in the government, but is powerless. Or we can look at N Chandrababu Naidu, the Shudra chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. He enthusiastically championed the new government in 2014 and was promised special concessions for his state. Once settled in power, Modi and Shah broke those promises and turned him away. Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, has struck a similar deal with Modi and Shah, and is in line for a similar humiliation.
Modi grew in power by serving the needs of Bania capital, not the needs of the Shudras. It is his combination of Bania roots and an OBC certificate that made him the ideal face of the present BJP. The party depends heavily on Shudra voters for their numerical strength, but if that were all that mattered it could have courted them by backing other Shudra leaders. But nobody else could have appeased the Banias while playing the OBC card as Modi did.
PREVIOUSLY, THE BANIA'S POLITICAL POWER had peaked around the time of Independence, when they could rely on two hugely prominent leaders—MK Gandhi and Ram Manohar Lohia. During the Nehruvian years, under a Brahmin-dominated Congress, they became almost invisible in national politics, although they still had great influence through business, industry and the private press. The Banias later gravitated to the upstart Jan Sangh, which morphed into the BJP, but even there the leadership remained in Brahmin hands until recently.
How have the Banias achieved this rise to the very top of national government, defying the caste system’s relegation of their status and even pushing back Brahmin power? Under the sanyasi value system of the Brahmins, their work as traders was once considered demeaning—not unlike how the labour and agrarian production of the Shudras are still denigrated today. The Banias’ caste and caste occupation, however, are now treated with respect. What allowed this change, even while the perception of the Shudras’ work and status has remained unchanged since ancient times? The Shudras must study this question carefully, as it can serve them as an example and help them understand the causes of their continued marginality and oppression.
The obvious answer is money. When liberal capitalism is introduced to a caste-based society, the groups that benefit most are the ones that have, for centuries, had exclusive rights over commercial capital under the caste system. India’s encounter with the global market has cemented the Banias’ control over India’s capital and economy, and wealth brings status.
But this is only part of the explanation. The Banias have been rich for much longer than they have had high social and political positions. In the late colonial period, the Banias had plenty of money but still suffered from an intellectual inferiority complex before the Brahmins. Wealth alone was not enough to overcome this. The Banias had to produced philosophers to loosen the ideological bonds of their traditional social position.
In bringing them to where they are today, MK Gandhi and Ram Manohar Lohia were crucial not just as politicians, but also as thinkers who shaped Indian mores. Both were organic intellectuals of the Banias, both had prestigious Western educations and mastery over English, and both wrote and published extensively. They gained immense stature amid the largely Brahmin thinkers who directed the freedom movement and the early republic, and this greatly raised Bania prestige and self-respect.
Gandhi was especially impressive to the Brahmins. His public image and personal habits—his attire, his fasts, his vegetarianism, his obsession with purity in the Brahmin ritual mode—drew heavily on the ascetic values of Brahmin philosophy. He was a Bania paying tribute to Brahmin ways.
Just as importantly, Gandhi also opened a path for industrial capital to enter modern Indian politics. Publicly, Gandhi was severely critical of the industrial economy and advocated a return to village economics. Privately, he had no qualms about accepting the support of Bania industrialists and encouraging them in big business. The Birlas and Goenkas, in particular, gave very generously, clearly not threatened by Gandhi’s public rhetoric, and earned equally immensely. It is notable that Gandhi’s vision of village economics came with an idealised conception of caste as a desirable mode of the division of labour. He spoke against untouchability, but never against the caste system itself. Effectively, he endorsed the Vaishya monopoly over commerce and capital, and was willing to abandon the Shudras and Dalits to exploitation.
Independent India’s political establishment has largely followed Gandhi’s example ever since. Few politicians, whether Brahmin or not, can afford to look down on Banias and their capital. This is so even for many politicians who, like Gandhi did, publicly criticise the hand that feeds them.
Gandhi’s political philosophy relied on financial capital from industry and cultural capital from Brahminism. This reflected the main premises of the Banias’ assertion as a community: they had great financial power, and had embraced the ways of the Brahmins. Gandhi embodied the Bania claim to equality at the top of Indian society and power.
The Banias’ relationship to Lohia was more complicated. They drew pride from his intellect and his open challenge to the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, a Brahmin. But the Banias never backed Lohia as much as they did Gandhi—he was a staunch socialist, and more of a threat to their interests.
After he quit the Congress in 1948, to pursue a socialist agenda, Lohia contributed, perhaps inadvertently, to the Banias’ political rise. His anti-Congress politics won support among many Shudras frustrated at their exclusion from the party as it reverted to Brahmin domination. Lohiaite socialism, which joined together ideas from Gandhi and Marx, became and remains a mainstay of much Shudra political mobilisation, particularly in north India. Lohia primed the Shudra masses to look up to Bania leadership—and the duo of Modi and Shah continues to benefit from this today.
Lohia’s position among the Shudras was only possible because of a vacuum of national-level Shudra leadership in both political and intellectual terms. The most significant Shudra mobilisation of the time came as part of the Dravida movement in what was then the Madras State, but its leaders, including Periyar, never found much of a following outside the territory. Though hundreds of Shudras emerged as local leaders and mass mobilisers during the freedom struggle, not one of them acquired national status.
The only exception to this, and the most visible Shudra leader of the era, was Vallabhbhai Patel. Patel earned a British degree and was a capable lawyer, but his intellectual horizons were limited. Unlike Gandhi and Nehru, he never focussed on historical, philosophical and theological issues. Gandhi used him for his mass appeal, as a peasant mobiliser, and Nehru later relied on him as an enforcer. The popular titles he received, “Sardar” and “Iron Man of India,” did not carry intellectual or philosophical meaning. Compare that with Gandhi’s title of “Mahatma,” or Nehru’s “Pandit.” Patel remained subordinate to Gandhi and Nehru, and never tried to chart an independent course for himself outside the Congress. He did not offer the Shudras any philosophy of empowerment.
Another crucial figure to study in this context is BR Ambedkar. Rising from a caste that Brahminism deemed untouchable, he too mastered English and studied in the West, and overcame far greater prejudice than Gandhi or Lohia to earn a place among the intellectual shapers of republican India. His example shows us the power of philosophy even when wealth is not available as an instrument of uplift, as it was for the Banias. He showed the way to progress for those most oppressed by caste. This involved constructing a Dalit identity that combined self-respect and a complete rejection of Brahminism and Hinduism, which he saw to be synonymous.
Ambedkarite philosophy has had some success in weakening Brahminism, but the Shudras never understood its power. If they had taken up this ideology or something similar, with a focus on the role of caste and religion in their oppression, their position today could have been significantly different. Instead, they turned to regional leaders promoting caste chauvinism as self-respect, and a socialism that spoke of economic but never caste oppression.
Early in the history of republican India, the Banias were shown the way to rise above their previous position—by joining industrial and business power to Brahminical culture. Gandhi was their prophet. They have since made further advances, to achieve their current status. Ambedkar built a radically different way for the Dalits, and they have made some progress too. The Shudras had no one to show them a way out of their trap, and they remained where they were, in the inferior spiritual, social and political position assigned to them by Brahminism.
IF THE SHUDRAS WANT TO BREAK FREE of the Brahminical trap, they need their own path-breakers. Today’s leading Shudra politicians are not only geographically constrained, they are also constrained intellectually. None of today’s most prominent Shudra politicians are intellectual leaders of any note, or have any vision for how to lead their constituents forward beyond the next election. They cannot imagine a way to unite and uplift all Shudras across the lines of caste and region. The work of imagining such a way must also belong to Shudra intellectuals, but there are hardly any of them who can take on sociopolitical and philosophical roles at the national level.
This is a shocking reality, and one that the Shudras must change. But to begin thinking about how to change it, we must first understand the nature of the trap that the Shudras find themselves in.
The hold of Brahminism traces back to the writing of the Vedic texts three millennia ago. Those texts established a philosophy that stigmatised all productive labour and science, and established the spiritual supremacy of the anti-materialistic and unproductive Brahmins. This ideology was challenged by others, but by the medieval period, starting roughly 1,200 years ago, Brahmin hegemony was deeply and widely established.
Under it, Shudras were expected to produce the goods necessary for societal survival, yet stripped of their dignity for doing so and denied all spiritual and educational rights. Their life was tied to hard labour, denying them the leisure necessary for engaging in philosophy. They were banned from the priesthood—that was reserved for the Brahmins only—and from reading or writing, denying them the ability to access the Sanskrit scripture responsible for their oppression, let alone to interpret it for themselves. They also had severely restricted property rights. Many of the most valuable goods of the time were used as divine offerings, but Shudras could not deal in these, for fear that they would be tainted by their low status. Thus, two important areas of advancement were out of their reach: spiritual philosophy and the acquisition of wealth through business.
The Shudras had to wait until Muslim rule to acquire the right to private property. Shudra landlordism gradually came into being, but benefitted only a narrow set of castes, exacerbating the stratification of the varna. Landed wealth did not bring any wealth of new ideas. Muslim rule did not greatly diminish the status of the Brahmins, who retained much of their power over education and spirituality. They retained their hold over Shudra minds.
The first real challenge to this came in the colonial period—both from Christian missionary schools, and from efforts at compulsory universal education in the latter part of British rule. The Shudras, rather than embrace English-language education, let themselves be swayed by Brahmin nationalist propaganda. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a Brahmin now considered a national icon, was emblematic. After Jotirao and Savitribai Phule, both Shudras, established their pioneering movement of education for women and oppressed castes in Maharashtra, Tilak marshalled Brahmin criticism against them. He opposed all calls for universal education, arguing that educating women and the oppressed castes would endanger the caste order, and so, in his view, the Indian nation. Brahmin nationalists also portrayed the missionary schools as an existential threat, and campaigned against them. The Shudras, by and large, rallied behind the nationalists.
Many Brahmins, meanwhile, were early adopters of English education. William Carey, a British Christian missionary, and Ram Mohan Roy, a Bengali Brahmin, established a famous English-medium school in Kolkata in the early nineteenth century. The Banias also founded English schools in western India soon after. Both these varnas enthusiastically sent their sons to English schools, and these sons filled the administrative and legal positions that the British opened up to Anglophone Indians. Nehru, Lohia and Gandhi were all products of this trend.
When the British left, the Brahmins stepped smoothly into their place in the government. Now they had almost complete bureaucratic and political power, in addition to their control over spiritual and religious institutions. Nehru became the prime minister. His 17-year rule entrenched the structure of education in independent India. Brahmins and a few other elites, including many Banias, went to expensive, private English-medium schools. Everyone else was kept to poor public schools that taught in regional languages. Top, government-funded universities preferred graduates of elite private schools because of their “merit,” subsidising higher education for the already rich and dominant.
With the arrival of the Mandal reservations, Shudras finally have a chance at meaningful higher education as well. But, at university and beyond, they are hobbled by two legacies.
The first is their lack of proficiency in English. Most Shudras, like Dalits and Adivasis, still educate their children in government schools and in their regional languages. Compared to the Brahmins and Banias, they are almost two centuries behind in acquiring the language. Most of them are carried away by the Brahminical propaganda that regional-language nationalism is their asset, but it is not. The Shudras have never raised a demand for English-language education in all government schools across the country. The country’s top public and private universities function in English, but for most Shudra students it is too late to improve their skill in the language by the time they get to these institutions.
This hurts their performance and their post-graduation prospects. Proficiency in only a regional language also restricts them to regional opportunity and discourse. For better or worse, the highest levels of Indian business, bureaucracy, diplomacy, media, education and so much more function primarily in English. A great number of global institutions do so too. Shudras have no space in that world, leave alone Dalits and Adivasis. They are still an effectively illiterate mass in the English-speaking world, where Brahmins and Banias operate on par with Western elites.
The second legacy is an almost complete disinterest in philosophy—even a fear of it. In my experience as a professor, the highest ambitions of Shudra students are to become doctors, engineers, bureaucrats or, at most, politicians—not to become thinkers and writers who can influence societal and national ideas. This extends beyond just Shudra students as well. When I taught at Osmania University in Hyderabad, where most members of the senior faculty are Shudras, my colleagues rarely took a serious interest in philosophical issues. Their concern extended to power, politics and money at the local level, but they never aspired to leave a lasting imprint on knowledge. This is a hangover from the millennia of Brahminical intimidation.
The same hangover affects the Shudras’ approach to English as well. For generations, they were taught to fear Sanskrit, the language of the pundits. Now that the Brahmins have mastered English, in the Shudra mind it has become a pundit language as well. They treat it as a foreign tongue, one that cannot be learnt by agrarian people. This is why even rich Shudras who can afford to put their children in private English-language schools do not always do so.
Meanwhile, the Brahmin-Bania castes have become as jealous of English as they earlier were of Sanskrit. Elite English-language schools and universities—once almost exclusively Christian institutions, but increasingly private enterprises controlled by Brahmins and Banias—have been very resistant to adopting the Mandal reservations. St Stephen’s College in Delhi, for example, has no reservation of seats for OBCs. Its alumni include a long line of prominent Brahmin-Bania intellectuals, but it has never produced a Dalit or Shudra intellectual ready to challenge the Brahmin and Bania hold on Indian life.
This combination of factors could explain why the massive Shudra community has not been able to produce even a single equivalent of Ambedkar—an English-speaking, Western-educated leader of national stature who could write the Shudras into the modern discourse on identity and oppression, as he did for the Dalits. This absence means that Shudra oppression is still not part of the national conversation even among progressive Indians. Like Ambedkar’s father, many Shudras were also in the British army, and could have educated their children in the kinds of British schools that Ambedkar went to. Yet few did. It is beyond my comprehension how Ambedkar’s family found the daring to go beyond the assigned limits of their caste but so many Shudra families failed to do so.
The deepest roots of these Shudra inferiority complexes lie at the spiritual level. They have internalised the idea that they have no place in the highest domains of knowledge, and behind this idea is the ingrained notion of inequality. This is entirely due to the Brahmin-controlled spiritual system, which has convinced the Shudras that they do not have the same rights as the dominant castes even in the eyes of god. The Brahmins’ most powerful weapon to enforce that concept is the priesthood, and they have guarded their exclusive hold over that position more fiercely than any other. No Shudra has ever become a priest at the famous temples in Tirupati or Puri, or any number of lesser Hindu sites. The denial of even the aspiration to priesthood has been central to making the Shudras disinterested in philosophy and intellectual progress, as philosophy has its oldest origins in religious discourse.
Until they overcome this, the Shudras cannot dare to think for themselves, and will continue to submit to Brahmin spiritual, social and political philosophy. Last year, for the first time, a religious board in Kerala followed the same reservation policies that apply to government recruitment in its selection process for temple priests. This meant that 30 of the 62 priests it appointed were Shudras, and six were Dalits. This is a necessary correction to Brahmin hegemony, but the truth is that such steps are unimaginable across much of the country today.
THE SHUDRAS HAVE NEVER BEEN SERIOUS about overcoming their lack of skill in English, or their disinterest in philosophical and intellectual pursuits. This must change if they are to produce intellectuals capable of bringing their continued exclusion from national politics and discourse to an end. But the question remains as to what paths are open to any Shudra intellectuals who are ready to tackle their community’s predicament.
Early on, they will have to make a fundamental choice—to continue their allegiance to Hinduism and the politics that promote it, or to break away from the Hindu fold. To understand this choice, it is useful to compare the trajectories of two communities, the Marathas and the Sikhs.
The Marathas are typical of Shudras who have taken the Neo-Kshatriya path. Their reaction to lowly status has been a caste chauvinism centred on the figure of Shivaji, the seventeenth-century Maratha monarch. Other upper Shudra groups have also been convinced of the notion that each of them produced a great ruler at some point. In the absence of Maratha thinkers, the popular image of Shivaji has been constructed largely by Brahmins to suit their needs. This image emphasises Shivaji’s bravery as a warrior but not his astuteness as a general and politician, and so Maratha assertion emphasises valour over intelligence. It shows nothing of his anti-caste reforms and the Brahmin opposition to him. It highlights his battles with the Mughals and European colonialists but not his appointment of Muslim generals, and so the Marathas take pride in him as an icon of Hindu nationalism.
Today, the Marathas are stalwarts of Hinduism and Hindutva, and a Brahmin-dominated BJP rules Maharashtra while the Banias of Mumbai command the state’s financial capital. Spiritually, they follow the Maharashtrian Brahmins, with no thought of becoming priests themselves. They are demanding that they receive OBC status, but it was their conviction that they are superior to other Shudras that minimised their chances of being added to the OBC list in the first place. The same tricks have been played on many non-OBC Shudras.
The only Shudra intellectual of renown to emerge from Maharashtra was Jotirao Phule, who was born into the Mali caste. But his all-India stature was built by Kanshi Ram, a Dalit leader from Punjab, and not by the Marathas. They do not remember him with pride as he was very critical of the Hindu social and spiritual system, and his legacy was suppressed by the Brahmins and Hindu nationalists. Phule wrote of Shivaji as an anti-caste reformer, but the Marathas have forgotten that. More recently, the Maratha rationalist Govind Pansare wrote of Shivaji as a social reformer too. He was assassinated in 2015.
The only major group of Shudras to successfully escape Brahmin and Bania control is the Sikhs. To do this, they had to completely break away from Hinduism and forge their own spiritual system. They constructed their own scripture, the Guru Granth, and run their own religious centres. They control both the major political forces in Punjab, the Akali Dal and the state unit of the Congress. Unlike the Shudras, the Sikhs have acquired global visibility and are even rising in the power structures of countries such as Canada. Their spiritual independence gave them the base for these achievements. The only other groups with power and prominence in the Indian diaspora are still Banias and Brahmins.
This does not mean that Sikhs are an entirely progressive force. In Sikhism and across Punjab, Dalit Sikhs, who form a large part of the religion and the state, continue to face discrimination from Jat Sikhs, former Shudras who now dominate the religion. But it remains that Brahmin-Bania hegemony is not possible in Punjab today.
The Nairs of Kerala, considered Shudras in the caste system, also present an interesting example. A sizeable portion of them improved their status by converting to Syrian Christianity and embracing English-language education in colonial times. From that base, they extended English-language education to Hindu Nairs as well, and the community has gradually gained prominence in Kerala and beyond. In Karnataka, the Lingayats’ long fight against the Shudra status historically attached to them has culminated in demands that Lingayatism be officially recognised as a distinct religion from Hinduism.
The Marathas, like most Shudras, have not been able to produce gurus and intellectuals of their own because as a community they have never challenged the Brahmin ideology. Phule understood this, and challenged the caste control of Shudra society, but the Marathas did not continue his philosophical critique of Brahminism.
The Shudras still have the option of developing Phule’s thought, laid out in his book Gulamgiri, published in the 1870s. They can add to it Ambedkar’s philosophy, which established a clear political and, importantly, spiritual alternative to Brahminism. If Ambedkar had not made this contribution, the Shudra philosophical position would have been even poorer than it is today.
Another choice for Shudras looking to challenge Brahminism is conversion. The dominant castes—led by the BJP and its ideological controller, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh— are against this. But history shows that they themselves have used conversion to their gain. In Goa, Bengal and elsewhere, many Brahmins converted to Christianity in the colonial period to gain stature among the colonisers.
The Shudras have the option of rejecting Hinduism for radical anti-caste doctrines or other religions, but in the present situation it would be naïve to expect that massive numbers of them will use it. Many of them, at least for the foreseeable future, will want to keep living as Hindus. These Shudras must demand equal spiritual status, and equal access to the priesthood. They must fight for the right to engage with and interpret Hindu scripture through Shudra eyes. They must insist on free and open Hindu theological schools and colleges, where any Hindu, regardless of caste, can choose to pursue priesthood. It is essential for the Shudras to understand their collective power within Hinduism. Without their numbers, that religion risks collapse. If they do not use their strength, the situation will remain unchanged. Their position will remain like that of the Nairs, who claim to be ardent Hindus but have no intellectual influence on the religion, deferring to the Brahmin priests.
The time has come for Shudras to ask for equality in every sphere, or to seek alternatives in every sphere. If Hinduism does not accept their insistence on spiritual equality, they should consider forming new religions as part of their movement for assertion. They must reject the low status imposed on them by Brahminical thinking, and the notion that offending the dominant castes comes with the risk of bad karma and rebirth. For that, they will have to produce a massive amount of alternative thought and literature that can displace the current paradigm.
Alternative Shudra literature and philosophy must focus on establishing a base for Shudra self-respect, whether within Hinduism or outside of it. The parallels for this kind of writing exist in other movements of oppressed people across the world, from the Black Power movement in the United States to the Dalit movement here in India. These movements have produced histories, novels, films, spiritual discourses and more that reject the degrading images and beliefs of oppressed people that have been handed down to them by dominant groups, and replace them with constructions of their own making. These new ideas are the fuel for social and political action.
For Shudras, self-respect must begin by subverting the Brahminical theory that the work of production is spiritually polluting. What Shudras do, what they make and even what they eat is shown in Hindu religious and philosophical texts as unworthy of divine respect. Historically, they have been so diffident in the face of this assault that they have been convinced that they do not have a culture of their own. But just because this culture has not been written into books does not mean that it is not there.
The Shudras are carriers of a millennia-old culture centred on their agrarian and productive work. Its values are not the sanyasi values of asceticism and inaction, but ones of fertility, creativity and effort. Shudra culture eschews the frequently violent stories of Hindu mythology for tales of material plenty. It replaces the metaphysical obsessions of the Brahmins with an immense knowledge of nature, agriculture and production processes, learnt through scientific observation and practical experience. Through their work, the Shudras have been engaged in medicine, husbandry, engineering and many other productive disciplines. All of this should be recorded and celebrated.
Shudras must insist on the great value of their work and culture. They are producing basic resources—food, clothing, housing, art, music and so on—that allow the survival of the nation. Shudras must ask who contributes more to societal well-being, the labouring Shudra or the ascetic Brahmin. If the culture of productive communities is treated with dignity and respect, they will employ more and more of their energies, further adding to the national good. The suppression of the culture and self-respect of the country’s largest productive and labouring mass means a huge loss of national resources. This understanding should form the core of a new Shudra nationalism.
A new paradigm of Shudra consciousness will go far towards building a national politics outside Brahminism and Bania economics. Besides throwing off their self-denigration, the Shudras will have to redefine relationships between castes within their varna, and also their relationship to oppressed castes and communities beyond it.
If the Shudras want to make their large numbers count on the national level, beyond the confines of their home states and regions, they must construct a pan-Indian Shudra identity, without intra-Shudra discrimination. The Brahminical notion of Shudra inferiority is written to apply to the varna as a whole, so it must be tackled as a whole, not on a caste-by-caste basis.
A change in Shudra consciousness will also affect the state of Dalits and other oppressed groups. Once the Shudras discard the philosophical basis for believing in their inferiority, they will no longer have a basis to believe that other castes are beneath them. Once they stop serving Brahmin and Bania interests, they should see no advantage to intimidating Muslims or Christians. On the contrary, they will find many reasons to stand with all those whom Brahminism wrongs. This should also be part of Shudra nationalism, which should never be antithetical to assertion by Dalits, Adivasis or other groups battling Brahmin and Bania domination.
THERE IS A NEED TO LOOK at Shudra self-denigration and the dominant forms of Indian nationalism and national politics today. Brahmins and Banias have dictated the direction of popular national feeling right from the freedom struggle, and in the absence of their own intellectuals the Shudras have unquestioningly followed those views. Ambedkar raised a dissenting voice to point out that any pursuit of national glory was empty without reform to end the country’s shocking social inequalities, but his perspective was sidelined.
Today, the Shudras are enthusiastic supporters of Hindu nationalism, without realising that it is actually Brahmin-Bania nationalism. The BJP’s Hindutva assures the supremacy of the RSS’s Brahmin ideologues, and its economic policies inflate the profits of giant Bania-owned corporations. The Congress can put forward no economic alternative, and its “secular” nationalism increasingly resembles the BJP’s Brahminical one. Rahul Gandhi, the Congress president, has declared himself a thread-wearing Brahmin, seeming to think that this strategy can endear him to the masses.
Much of Hindu nationalism is built on Shudra oppression and exclusion. The politics of cow protection is one example. The theory of the cow being a sacred animal is the work of Brahmins, who never grazed the animal and never depended on it economically. That burden belonged to the Shudras, but they have no say in constructing that animal’s status. The bans on cattle slaughter since Modi came to power have destroyed the cattle economy, since farmers can no longer sell their animals for economic purposes. But the Shudras have quietly accepted this tragedy, which has damaged the rural economy across the country.
Hindu nationalism has won the Shudras nothing but stagnation. The highest levels of the intellectual, spiritual, political and economic domains remain mainly in Brahmin and Bania hands after Modi became the prime minister. There has been no change in the Shudras’ social or economic status. Hindu nationalism has only further consolidated the power of Brahmin ideology and Bania capital, and the Shudras are protecting it even at their own cost.
Ambedkar wrote in Who Were the Shudras? that Brahminism had rendered the Shudras a “low-class people without civilization, without culture, without respect and without position.” All that has happened since his time has failed to fundamentally alter this deplorable fact. Only a new Shudra consciousness can change it, and set the Shudras, as well as the country, on a better course.
Correction: An earlier version of this essay incorrectly stated that Jotirao Phule belonged to the Maratha caste. The text has been corrected to reflect that he was born into the Mali caste. The Caravan regrets the error.