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Caste – The Irresistible Bogey of Indian Society

Caste – The Irresistible Bogey of Indian Society

By Raghunath Nageswaran

Edited by Namitha Sadanand, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist

When the election season arrived with a bang, I strongly believed that opportunistic alliances looking to cash in on societal divides will be disowned by the voters this time, since local issues have been dominating voter moods. Things might not pan out that way it seems, given the strong caste and community loyalties that underlie the voter’s decision to vote in favour of a candidate fielded by the party that represents his/her community. Just as how we have the ‘Jat Heartland’ in northern states, there is the ‘Vanniyar Heartland’ in Tamilnadu. Voters belonging to the specific community are sharply influenced by their party’s toxic mass appeal, which divides different social groups for gaining political mileage. People belonging to that section staunchly believe in remaining united and voting as a ‘single-block’, so that their representative will safeguard their socio-economic interests.

The support of the Lingayat community is vital for the electoral victory of the BJP. That is precisely why the return of Yeddyurappa set off celebrations in the party. Since he belongs to that community, he brings with him the truckload of support that will shore up the party’s electoral prospects. Lingayats form 18% of the population of Karnataka. The Congress party, which is devoid of any kind of support from this section plans to take on the challenge by banking on the popular support it enjoys among the backward classes. It is reported that this block has contributed heavily to the Congress’ vote share in most elections.

The picture is disturbing in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where election victories are brazenly contingent upon caste support. In Uttar Pradesh, the major concern of all four chief parties in the fray (BJP, Congress, S.P and BSP) is swinging the floating non-Yadav OBC votes in their favour. Each of the four parties has been devising strategies to tap this set of votes that have the dubious distinction of switching allegiances on a consistent basis. But we can draw solace from the fact that if at all there is one area where there is inclusion of the marginalised in the mainstream, it is politics. Every disadvantaged caste group has a political party that seeks to address the problems of the community. These notoriously strident voices have been the emerging identity of the Indian brand of politics. The ‘happy’ news is that Indian polity now has a cemented identity in place.

I was reading a commentary on the need to design uniform yardsticks to assess the eligibility of underprivileged social groups to qualify as ones requiring more representation. The idealistic author was deeply worried about the lack of spirit of oneness. He asks, “Are we not Indians first? Born in India, are we not Indians?” His concerns are irrefutably legitimate. But how do we deal with the fault-lines which continue to polarise society? The answer lies in doing away with these divisions. This might seem to foster equality, but what about fairness and justice? These are complex questions that need nuanced thinking and pragmatic solutions.

As India’s distinguished historian Romila Thapar rightly observes, political groups draw upon history to create identities. She feels that we haven’t created identities that would be compatible with a secular society. What can we do about it? At an individual level, shunning the sense of casteist superiority starts from cleaning the toilets we use. Readers might frown upon this ‘freaky’ idea, but therein lies the roots of the solution to the problem we’re trying to address. We can do much more to wipe out prejudices and discriminatory tendencies. Is there a link between this and political integration? As the situation evolves for the better, we will bump into that connection.

In the Gita, Lord Krishna says, “The four-fold order was created by Me according to the divisions of quality and work. The emphasis is on guna (aptitude) and karma (function) and not on jaati (birth). The Varna or the order to which we belong is independent of sex, birth or breeding. A varna is determined by temperament and vocation – not by birth or heredity”.

My stance on caste is, that it is one of the most inhumane and pernicious practices which has been institutionalized and practised with ruthless sense of disdain and prejudice. In this regard, my views are the same as that of Gandhi’s. His approach was rather anomalous during the initial stages, but since he was broad minded enough to accommodate an opponent’s point of view, he had the ability to reflect upon his views; examine the validity of criticism, incorporate them into his thinking and arrive at a nuanced understanding of the subject in question. For instance, he was not a votary of inter-caste dining and inter-caste marriages when he launched his mission of abolishing untouchability. But constant rebukes from Ambedkar moulded his views on this count and later he realized the efficacy of inter-caste marriages.

But in the larger scheme of things, Gandhi wanted the upper-caste Hindus to be of service to the Panchamas, so that they can seek atonement for the sins they committed by discriminating against and degrading them. So, he wanted the upper caste Hindus to pay heed to him and did not want to antagonize them. This wasn’t the most judicious of solutions. I personally feel that he should have advocated inter-caste occupational mobility. Had he been an advocate of this, the objectives of social and economic mobility would have been achieved and self-sufficiency would have been the logical outcome. A child born to a Brahmin couple might not have a flair for the vocation assigned to him/her by its religion. He might have entrepreneurial faculties, so he must be allowed to move freely towards that vocation. Making caste and its concomitant vocations water-tight bodies is irrational.

We have to choose between two options – a caste-based society which is segregated to perform social and economic functions and a caste-less society. Both the cases warrant structurally progressive change in the attitudes of people. It is about having the willingness to accept that the person who belongs to a historically backward or disadvantaged community is equally capable of performing skilled jobs as one from a privileged community. It is about acknowledging and appreciating the worth of the activities performed by another individual in a different sphere, because every activity is an important cog in the socio-economic wheel.

I quoted the Gita to garner attention to the fact that the division of human beings was not engineered on the basis of birth. It was squarely segregation on the grounds of vocation. It is supposed to have been a horizontal segregation; we tampered with the definition and twisted it out of shape for establishing supremacy over the other groups, making it a vertical and stratified structure. When there is inter-occupational mobility, the concept of hierarchy becomes anachronistic; provided people’s worldview is broad enough to understand that every person deserves equal respect and dignity, no matter what he does, as long as his deeds are noble and serve the interests of the society.

In India, untouchability is still rampant in several pockets. A study conducted in Gujarat pertaining to the conditions of the Dalits brings the prevalence of shocking practices to the fore. Prohibition of inter-caste marriage, violent treatment of couples marrying out of caste, difficulty in renting homes in a non-Dalit locality, touching water pots being considered ‘defilement’ and discrimination with regard to food are pervasive in those 1589 villages surveyed. On top of it, there is horizontal discrimination too. As long as political capital is made out of such divisions, inter-caste and intra-caste repugnance will continue to prevail.

In some belts, there has been a tremendous positive attitudinal shift, and communities that were hitherto relegated have gained social acceptance. But if one takes the bigger picture into consideration, the situation continues to be dismal. This is not meant to pour cold water on their struggle to achieve upward socio-economic mobility, but to accept the reality that the improvement is not fast-paced. It is gradual and incremental. I hope successive generations repudiate the notion of caste based on religious and social dogmas and work in a collaborative fashion for the well-being of all.

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