Is there a Khan Market cast of mind?

As long as the old elite remains ignorant of its own sins, the Khan Market gang will remain incapable of reading the country or mounting any worthwhile challenge to the hate around us. Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images
16 April, 2022

After a brief visit to Uttar Pradesh during the recent election campaign, I came back to Delhi convinced that the Bharatiya Janata Party was winning the elections easily. I was surprised by the scepticism around me—it was not just journalists who declared there was a Samajwadi Party wave; even those who had never left Delhi in over two decades were lecturing me on the BJP’s imminent loss. 

It is evident that even journalists I respect are finding it increasingly hard to get a sense of what is happening on the ground. The country is now divided in ways it never was, and conversation across these divisions is increasingly difficult. It is easy to be misled when you start from Delhi and call up a contact in Uttar Pradesh, who then puts you in touch with others who predispose you to see what you want to see on the ground.  

Terming this the Khan Market cast of mind runs the danger of lending credence to the vilest form of labelling and abuse of people who are already beleaguered, who seem to be among the few in the country who see worth in the Constitution. But, for this very reason, it is necessary to face up to Modi’s evocation of the “Khan Market gang.” Soon after his 2014 victory, I could not help but noting that times of great moral clarity, when right and wrong are evident, blind people to their own failings. To consider an attack by Modi as a badge of honour without looking inwards only helps Modi. 

To truly comprehend why the “Khan Market gang” gets so much attention from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ecosystem requires a look back at the country’s political history over the past three decades. With the emergence of parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, the upper-caste hegemony over the country was challenged for the first time since Independence. While a small section of the upper-caste elite that has been part of—and, in fact, controlled—the secular project continued to oppose the BJP’s rise, the vast majority of their fellow upper castes welcomed it. They found that this was a party created in their own image of Hindu greatness.

The visceral hatred and contempt that the new rulers have for what they term as the “Khan Market gang” stems from the different choices the two elites made. It is the hatred and fear any new and insecure elite has for the old. The new elite sells the old elite as deracinated, aware that it needs to destroy the old elite’s claim to the same caste privilege it now invokes to speak for all Hindus. 

The description is not far from the mark. The old liberal Hindu elite was religiously more inclusive, embracing its upper-caste equivalents such as the Muslim Ashraf and the Sikh Khatri, but it had deluded itself into believing it was beyond caste. This was a remarkable feat, the equivalent of declaring oneself colour-blind and claiming race did not matter in an all-white setting in the United States. 

It is true that the old elite had escaped one of the defining features of caste: marriage within their community of birth, arranged and sanctioned by their parents. Caste inequity is graded, and the Brahmins and Banias at the top are its biggest beneficiaries, but caste continues to exist because, all the way down its graded hierarchy, people marry within their community at the behest of mummy and daddy.   

The old elite’s occasional ability to choose partners for themselves gave them the illusion that caste no longer mattered in their world. It never occurred to them that the partners they were choosing were from very similar castes, that the milieu they had created was entirely upper caste and had made no space for the diversity of India. In this they were only paralleling the Congress’s own failure, which is unsurprising since the fate of the old elite has always been intertwined with that of the Congress. 

The abdication by the vast majority of upper castes was evident in the party’s 2014 defeat. Having lost the financial and intellectual clout that comes from Brahmin and Bania support, it was also unable to hold on to a large number of supporters from segments that had traditionally supported it, such as Adivasis and Dalits. In the aftermath of the defeat, it was clear the Congress would not be able to wrest back the upper castes from a party shaped to continue their hold on the country. The least it could have done was to open up to the diversity of the country. 

In the aftermath of Modi’s ascendance to power, I attended several gatherings where academicians, journalists, lawyers and members of civil society gathered together to discuss the way forward. Not once at any of these have I seen the gaze turned inwards to the room, to ask how a group so unrepresentative of the country, and so unaware of this irony, can even begin to make headway in such a cause.

In the years since 2014, the new elite has expanded its base. Without letting go of real power, it has still taken care to embrace Dalits and Other Backward Classes in good measure. This should not be lazily read as the deepening of democracy by the BJP—rather, it is the BJP realising and responding to the deepening of democracy. Even as it opens its ranks to such groups and allows them greater access to administrative power than the Congress ever did, it envelops them in a climate of hate to ensure their attention is directed outwards to the Muslims, away from the inequity within the RSS’s Brahminical fold. 

The old elite, in the meantime, has gone on pretending nothing has changed. It is eight years since 2014, certainly time enough for any efforts at increased diversity and inclusiveness to show up. But consider the G-23 list of the Congress. More than a third are Brahmins, and half are either Brahmin or Thakur. Consider the NDTV ads of their anchors beaming down at us, a majority of them Brahmins, all of them upper castes. Look through the editorial ranks of even the new digital portals who lead the challenge to this government, and you see the same old caste profile. Stare at the faculty at Ashoka, take the case of any of the most prominent civil-society organisations or consider any gathering of people from the Left and the same phenomenon is repeated.

Given this is true of professional spaces, where an active effort to increase diversity should have been mandatory and yielded results by now, it is only to be expected that the social spaces inhabited by the liberal opposition to Modi in the metros remain even more closed. It is now an instinct with me to look around and note the caste composition of a room or a gathering. This is an easy feat for most people in the country, and certainly for any journalist with a passing experience of the field. But it seems out of place in the very surroundings where this awareness is needed most. On the few occasions this topic has come up, the inevitable response has been, “How can you even ask a person’s caste?” But you do not have to ask anyone their caste, you just have to know their name. If, despite this, some are still clueless, then they are engaging with the politics of the wrong country.     

This instinctive response of mine has only made me realise that these spaces have not changed, neither will they. In such settings, it is possible to hear fervent and articulate arguments about climate change, privacy, gender, dietary choices or any aspect of economics without anyone taking note of the striking lack of diversity in the room. 

India is a vast country, so it is easy to mistake the diversity of regions and religions for a representative diversity of the country. A diversity rooted in caste privilege is not representative of the country; it only represents the people who have always ruled it. The new elite is no different but is cannier and more dangerous. It is working hard to ensure it is not displaced from below, which explains its ideological and organised commitment to anti-Muslim bigotry. When the old elite challenges this, as it is right to do, it remains ignorant of its own sins and shows no signs of correcting them. As long as this remains true, the Khan Market cast of mind will remain incapable of reading Uttar Pradesh, incapable of reading the country and certainly incapable of helping mount any worthwhile challenge to the hate we see around us.