India's Undying Caste System


Ambedkar et al

Posted on 1-May-2016

     In the middle of April this year the 125th birth anniversary of Bhimrao Ramoji Ambedkar, now called by the semi-sanctified name of Babasaheb Ambedkar, was celebrated with a great deal of publicity. India's prime minister took the lead. Other political leaders did what they could to catch some of the light that was shone on Ambedkar. Ever since his death in 1956, he has gained in stature from being the best known voice of the lowest ranking castes of India to that of an icon, a member of India's national political pantheon. Everyone who wants to be considered liberal, broadminded, and one concerned with justice and equality pays public homage to him. So much has been written and said about him, especially in the last few weeks, that it would be foolish to try to add anything here. Only one quick point needs be made. Best known and remembered for his long campaign for justice for the social groups he called dalit--people outside the fourfold Hindu varna system who by being reduced over the ages to performing some of the dirtiest and the most demeaning tasks were themselves treated like the polluting substances they were supposed to handle, Ambedkar grew into a critic of the caste-based Hindu social structure itself, arguing that the only way to establish the values of equality, fraternity and social justice in India was to destroy the caste system itself.  Believing that the Buddha had been opposed to the caste system, he with a number of his followers converted to Buddhism a few months before the end of his life.

     Indian literature about the Hindu caste system and its iniquities, about the treatment of the dalits, about the work needed to be done to remove discriminations against dalits or other depressed groups is voluminous. In this literature, one strand is about the opposition to the caste system through the ages. Many name Gautama, the Buddha as the original opponent of the caste system. Kabir and Nanak, the poets of the Bhakti movement, many of whom such as Ravidas and Tukaram were themselves lower caste people are all described as campaigners against the caste system. Closer to our own times, the three most prominent names are those of Jotiba Phule, Periyar Ramaswami Naicker and Ambedkar. While the assault of the earlier social reformers on the caste system was indirect in the sense that they discarded Brahmanical ritual and beliefs and their followings cut across caste barriers, the last three actually wrote and spoke about the evils of the system. Gandhi's concern with the evils of the caste system did not go beyond the fight against the practice of untouchability. If narratives about the caste system and its mechanisms are old, so are the narratives about opposition to the system. One effect of these campaigns is that the practice of untouchability has been delegitimised even though it has not been eradicated. Another is that among modern educated elites of India, defence of the caste system is no longer respectable. In some contexts even discussions of caste became a source of embarrassment--independent India stopped counting people by their caste in the decennial censuses from 1951. When it was decided to take a castewise census in 2011, many people objected saying the move would aggravate social fissures.

      Ambedkar, through his advocacy of justice for dalits, secured a reservation of 15% seats in India's parliament and in state legislatures and a similar entry level reservation in government jobs for dalits when India adopted its republican constitution. Initially intended for a ten year period, these reservations have continued. Other affirmative action programmes in favour of dalits such as entry level reservations in educational institutions and financial help to dalit students have followed. Though from time to time questions are raised about the desirability of continuing these programmes in their present form--the most valid criticism of these programmes is that they have benefited only a small proportion of the dalit population the vast majority of whom continue to face discrimination, maltreatment, and other disabilities and violence at the hand of upper castes, at least at present it looks certain that these programmes will continue. There are two clear benefits that have accrued from these affirmative action programmes: there has come up a dalit middle class, howsoever small, and, secondly, dalits as a whole have gained a voice. At times that voice tends to get used for wrong causes. For example any attempt to discipline a dalit employee or to sanction him for incompetence can as likely as not be put down to anti-dalit prejudice. Because the dalit has gained that voice politicians in their anxiety to win his support can and do at times make some entirely unjustifiable proposals without any regard to even minimal considerations of meritocracy--one such proposal that has from time to time been made is that in government departments there should be reservations not only at the entry level but also at every higher level of promotion. Such aberrations apart, if in modern day India the dalit's voice cannot be ignored, that is largely due to Ambedkar's exertions.

      India's republican constitution adopted in January 1950 outlawed all discrimination on the basis of caste, creed or gender. In polite society people started not to talk about caste and in many circles it became impermissible to ask what the other person's caste was. India's elites seemed to think that if they pretended that caste did not exist, the phenomenon of caste and the hierarchical arrangement of castes would disappear. This did not happen. By the end of the decade of the 1960's different other caste groups, lower in social status than the upper castes but higher than the dalits started asserting their political rights and, in some cases won political power through elections: they saw in political power a way out of their low social standing in the caste hierarchy. These assertions eventually culminated in adoption of programmes of reservation in government jobs and in educational institutions for what are called other backward castes. There has come about a tendency to assert different caste identities both in the context of demands for jobs and educational opportunities and outside it. Some manifestations appear comic but are for that reason not to be laughed off. As the dominant caste group in the locality I live in used to be gujars--they have adopted Agrasen, a king of the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty that rose to power in western India and ruled in much of northern India between the 8th and the 11th centuries, eventually conquering Kannauj, as their ancestral hero--it was not uncommon to see the word Gujar/Gurjar painted on rear windows of cars but recently I came across a car with the word Kshatriya painted on its rear window. Strength of feelings of caste solidarity has for years forced India's political parties to look at the demography of caste in electoral districts when they devise their election campaigns. When, after elections governments are formed, the heads of government make great effort to equitably distribute ministerial or other important political offices among members of different castes. In modern India, electoral democracy and caste identity have come to a certain to mutually reinforce each other.

     Modern city life has of necessity blunted some of the sharp edges of the caste system. It is difficult if not impossible for people working in an office or in a mill to follow caste rules of commensality--one of the two supporting pillars of the Indian caste system--at work place or even at social gatherings among co-workers. Likewise rules about untouchability cannot be enforced in trains, buses or even shops. When people buy something as simple as an ice cream or a cup of tea or any of the numerous kinds of street food sold in an Indian town they do not first try and find out if the vendor is an untouchable; perhaps they cannot even if they want to. In contrast, the other pillar of the Indian caste system, that is rules about endogamy and exogamy, continues to be strong. A look at the matrimonial advertisements in newspapers or on the internet should quickly demonstrate this. The overwhelming number of Indian marriages take place according to caste rules--this can be statistically established. In recent times there have been a number of  specially vicious examples of the way the rules of endogamy and exogamy can be applied: there have been cases where young people of different castes marrying or young people of the same gotra--a gotra in most communities is exogamous--have been ordered to be executed by caste elders. At least it can be said that the Hindu caste system is openly inegalitarian. Christianity, Islam and Sikhism are in principle egalitarian and in principle there is no discrimination among people practising these religions. Yet none of them has remained unaffected by the Indian caste system. There has been a growing clamour for the same kind of affirmative action to help dalit Christians as is available to Hindu dalits. Among Indian Muslims, the Ashraf--the Shaikhs, the Syeds and the Pathans-- are hardly less condescending or less discriminatory towards momins, kasais or other lower class Muslims than Brahmins towards lower caste Hindus. Like Hindu castes different Muslim groups also function as endogamous caste groups. In some rural communities the Ashraf and the lower caste Muslims have separate mosques. In Sikh gurudwaras caste simply does not exist. No one who visits a Sikh gurudwara is ever asked any question about his caste or religion, not even when he or she sits with everyone else to eat at their langar (community meals offered to any visitor who wishes to take them). But a jat or khatri sikh has the same kind of attitude towards majhabis (lower caste sikhs) as any upper caste Hindu has towards lower castes. And all this is part of the pervasive social reality of modern India.

     For those who find the caste system oppressive, inegalitarian and dehumanising and who would wish it dismantled, it is an unpeasant reality that in spite of the long line of people mentioned above who for the last two thousand five hundred years have worked against the Hindu/Indian caste system the system has not only survived and persisted but continues to flourish. In the present political atmosphere when so many have turned defenders of what are claimed to be Hindu traditions and Hindu values, defenders of the Hindu caste system can also unabashedly argue in its favour. Ambedkar's final cry for the abolition of the caste system will likely be buried under this latter day sanctification of the man by people whose ideas and policies he opposed when he was alive. Not many religious teachers and social reformers actually succeed in the long run. The Buddha for all the power of his ideas did not succeed in creating a more compassionate and peaceful world--it is ironical that theravada monks in Mynmar or Srilanka should turn violent or become political activists or that a Buddhist society like Myanmar should terrorise the hapless Rohingyas. Jesus of Nazareth's followers in Europe were quick to forget his teachings about love and charity and became as bloodthirsty, violent and oppressive as human beings anywhere. Marx and Lenin failed to create the egalitarian utopia they set out to establish. Gandhi has been nearly apotheosised, declared an apostle of non-violence and the Father of the Indian Nation, but some of his thoughts about dignity of labour or about the environment have simply been buried and who in any case cares about non-violence in an atmosphere in which the avowed concern is with the creation of a muscular Hindu nation and when some attempts are being made to give a place of honour to Gandhi's assassin? Ambedkar failed to dent the Hindu caste system, but he gave India's dalits a voice. A half success. 


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Also on this site:               Introduction to The Waste Sad Time             The Waste Sad Time






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