A new nar­ra­tive on caste

The fight against the caste sys­tem must be about con­trol over nat­u­ral re­sources, not pro­fes­sions of marginalised groups


The fight against the caste sys­tem must re­volve around con­trol over nat­u­ral re­sources

IN­DIA'S MOST re­gres­sive, and rig­or­ously prac­tised so­cial sys­tem—caste hi­er­ar­chy—is back in the na­tional spot­light. To re­cap the cur­rent de­bate, cow pro­tec­tion groups are vi­o­lently tar­get­ing cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties who tra­di­tion­ally deal with cat­tle car­casses for var­i­ous eco­nomic pur­poses. There is noth­ing new in such be­hav­iour as the al­most ge­netic in­gres­sion of the caste sys­tem has em­pow­ered up­per castes to adopt such meth­ods and still get away with­out any scru­tiny. But this time, such at­tacks have pro­voked or­gan­ised an­guish. There are re­ports of these com­mu­ni­ties re­fus­ing to dis­pose of an­i­mal car­casses and the is­sue has be­come a na­tional out­cry de­mand­ing ba­sic hu­man dig­nity and equal­ity as guar­an­teed by the con­sti­tu­tion.

While it is in­evitable that ev­ery­thing will even­tu­ally be­come po­lit­i­cal in a democ­racy, we shouldn’t al­low a sen­si­tive is­sue to be de­bated with­out any his­toric and log­i­cal sense just for the sake of po­lit­i­cal ac­knowl­edge­ment. But why do we dis­cuss and po­larise on caste only on the ba­sis of iden­tity? By ap­proach­ing this is­sue from the above per­spec­tive, we per­pet­u­ate the so­cial sys­tem that ide­ally shouldn’t have ex­isted in a civilised coun­try. All af­fir­ma­tive ac­tions for these so­cially marginalised com­mu­ni­ties have been based on the caste they in­herit at birth. These ac­tions have helped the com­mu­ni­ties to ac­cess ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties like ed­u­ca­tion. But then, why do they still suf­fer such in­hu­man be­hav­iour? Al­ready forced to do jobs like pro­cess­ing an­i­mal car­casses, why are they be­ing tar­geted now? And why are there more pro­nounced protests from them now against caste?

A few years ago, when the Gram Sabha (vil­lage coun­cil) was be­ing dis­cussed as the key ru­ral de­ci­sion-mak­ing body, the caste as­pect played a key, al­beit covert, role. Pan­chay­ats are now big play­ers in lo­cal de­vel­op­ment. The Pan­chayat’s elected head— the sarpanch — has be­come a power cen­tre, and thus, a sym­bol of dis­crim­ina- tion. At that point of time, the de­bate was that a sarpanch al­ways favoured the caste he or she be­longed to. In most vil­lages, a sarpanch be­longs to an up­per caste. This marginalises the al­ready-marginalised caste. How can this prob­lem be fixed? At many vil­lage-level meet­ings that I at­tended as part of my re­portage, the so­lu­tion was al­ways proac­tive: make the vil­lage coun­cil con­sist­ing of all vot­ers as the nodal de­ci­sion-mak­ing body. So, in gen­eral vil­lage meet­ings, an elected sarpanch’s caste pref­er­ence would get di­luted by the over­whelm­ing de­bate over the de­vel­op­ment needs of all vil­lage res­i­dents. More­over, marginalised groups would get or­gan­ised due to this. In many vil­lages, the emer­gence of a pow­er­ful vil­lage coun­cil has nul­li­fied caste-based de­ci­sions on de­vel­op­ment projects. For ex­am­ple, wa­ter sup­ply points are usu­ally se­lected near up­per caste ar­eas. But where vil­lage coun­cils are proac­tive, there is a need-based al­lo­ca­tion of such as­sets.

This is where the caste de­bate must fac­tor in such his­toric alien­ation from the ba­sic de­vel­op­ment process. So­cial sci­en­tist Goldy M Ge­orge re­cently re­searched the role of alien­ation—of marginalised groups from nat­u­ral re­sources—in per­pet­u­at­ing caste. His ar­gu­ment is that the fight to con­trol nat­u­ral re­sources has led to a sit­u­a­tion where the orig­i­nal own­ers were be­ing kept away from them by keep­ing caste alive. Caste is to be un­der­stood in two parts—the ma­te­rial and ide­o­log­i­cal-cul­tural-spir­i­tual one. “Caste’s ma­te­rial base sys­tem­at­i­cally took away the con­trol over prop­erty, op­er­a­tionalised divi­sion of labour, in­come dis­tri­bu­tion and sur­plus ap­pro­pri­a­tion. In the sec­ond part, geo-cen­tric cul­ture, his­tory, and spir­i­tu­al­ity was re­placed with an alien sys­tem that sub­jected in­dige­nous peo­ple to in­hu­man sup­pres­sion due to their jati,” he ar­gues.

This is the point that needs to be de­bated more now in con­text of the in­creas­ing at­tacks on marginalised groups. We need to bring the axis of nat­u­ral re­sources back into our so­cial de­bates.

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