Can we erad­i­cate our caste tem­plates?

They re­side in our minds, un­changed over the ages

Governance Now - - OPINION - SB Easwaran

When Hima Das won gold in the 400 me­tres sprint at the iaaf World u-20 cham­pi­onship in Tam­pere, in­di­ans demon­strated once again what’s on their minds the most – caste. on her day of glory, the top google prompt for her name was “Hima Das caste”. The same had hap­pened with wrestler sak­shi Ma­lik and bad­minton player PV sindhu on the days they won their olympic medals. Peo­ple seemed hardly in­ter­ested in what might di­rectly con­trib­ute to th­ese sportspersons’ prow­ess, such as their height. or how Das’s tim­ing com­pares with the world record. and the most searches about their caste, not sur­pris­ingly, came from the re­gions to which they be­longed: as­sam and Ben­gal for Das, Haryana, Delhi and ra­jasthan for Ma­lik, and andhra Pradesh and Te­lan­gana for sindhu.

We might think such pruri­ent cu­rios­ity about caste is shock­ing, but as in­di­ans, we all know there is noth­ing sur­pris­ing. caste is a com­plex sub-con­ti­nen­tal phe­nom­e­non, and it can be ex­as­per­at­ing to ex­plain it to a west­erner. For there are castes within castes, sub-castes within sub-castes, and even among the savar­nas, there are re­gional and lin­guis­tic di­vi­sions and sub-di­vi­sions. add to that the long and ap­palling his­tory of the op­pres­sion of dal­its, which con­tin­ues to this day, fed by a re­ac­tionary ag­gres­sion against the quota ben­e­fits cre­ated by law for their em­pow­er­ment, and we have a sit­u­a­tion in which any de­bate is fraught and any ar­gu­ment open to ac­cu­sa­tions of bias. While caste and con­scious­ness of caste is a fact of life in in­dia, there can be no ac­cept­ing it in the way we can ac­cept re­gional or lin­guis­tic pride. it isn’t as if casteism in In­dia is con­fined to Hin­duism; casteism is known to op­er­ate even in other re­li­gions on the ba­sis of which Hindu caste a fam­ily be­longed to be­fore it con­verted, even if that may have hap­pened gen­er­a­tions ago.

reser­va­tion in pro­fes­sional and other cour­ses and job quo­tas have not helped im­prove the lot of the ‘ground down’ dal­its. in schools and col­leges, they find them­selves un­able to cope, iso­lated and some­times ig­nored. stud­ies have shown that as first-time job ap­pli­cants, they lack con­fi­dence right from the be­gin­ning for rea­sons rang­ing from how they look or dress to their in­abil­ity to speak english. While they do have a pres­ence in gov­ern­ment jobs, it’s not too of­ten that they rise to the top ech­e­lons. in the pri­vate or cor­po­rate sec­tor, they hardly have a pres­ence. even in the me­dia, they are rarely seen in mid­dle- or high-level po­si­tions.

clearly, bi­ases have been at work that have pre­vented them from even get­ting an ed­u­ca­tion that turns them into con­fi­dent pro­fes­sion­als.

Dr Br ambed­kar put it this way: “Turn in any di­rec­tion you like, caste is the mon­ster that crosses your path. You can­not have po­lit­i­cal re­form, you can­not have eco­nomic re­form, un­less you kill this mon­ster.” For casteism to fade away, caste con­scious­ness must fade away. This is un­likely to hap­pen soon. For what have we re­ally done to nudge peo­ple to un-think caste? on the con­trary, at ev­ery street cor­ner we can find caste-based or­gan­i­sa­tions, mat­ri­mo­nial ads are mi­cro-clas­si­fied on the ba­sis of re­gion, lan­guage, and caste, and we have po­lit­i­cal par­ties named af­ter high so­cial­ist ideals but in fact pre­dom­i­nantly rep­re­sent­ing a caste.

so how does one slay the mon­ster, es­pe­cially one that has thrived more than 70 years af­ter in­de­pen­dence, in a coun­try that prom­ises, at least in the­ory, equal op­por­tu­ni­ties for all? in his fa­mous un­de­liv­ered speech on the an­ni­hi­la­tion of caste, ambed­kar – while aver­ring that he was go­ing to have noth­ing do with Hin­duism – said that end­ing the en­dogamy that per­pet­u­ates caste would be the only way for caste to die out.

in fact, it is the only way in which casteism will even­tu­ally die out, if at all – through a re­turn to ex­ogamy, which pre­vailed for ages be­fore a con­sol­i­da­tion of caste iden­ti­ties through pro­scrip­tion of mar­riage out­side one’s caste. The claims to caste pu­rity – sci­en­tif­i­cally im­prob­a­ble, given the mil­len­nia of in­ter­min­gling of peo­ples be­fore caste con­sol­i­dated it­self – are un­founded. While there is a sci­en­tific case for in­ter-caste mar­riages – hy­brid vigour – it is not an idea that has caught on in in­dia. Prob­a­bly it never will. even in ed­u­cated, cos­mopoli­tan groups, the in­ter-caste mar­riages are usu­ally among savar­nas.

The other big idea that could work to­wards erad­i­cat­ing caste is to end the as­so­ci­a­tion of caste with oc­cu­pa­tion. But like in­ter-caste mar­riage among savar­nas, this is hap­pen­ing only among cer­tain pro­fes­sions. no one thinks, for ex­am­ple, about a sur­geon be­ing, let us say, a veg­e­tar­ian Brah­min, who should, by ac­cepted norms, flinch at cut­ting open hu­man flesh. Or a ca­daver, if he’s a foren­sic ex­pert. nor for that mat­ter does any­one ask ques­tions about a Pa­tel or a Vaishya doc­tor, lawyer or teacher.

Where it would re­ally mat­ter, per­haps, is in the two oc­cu­pa­tions at the op­po­site ends of the spec­trum: priest­hood and scav­eng­ing. as far as the first goes, be­gin­nings have been made in south in­dia. Tamil nadu, un­der a DMK gov­ern­ment, de­cided that non­brah­mins, in­clud­ing dal­its, would be trained to per­form priestly func­tions and be open for se­lec­tion as priests at the ma­jor tem­ples. How­ever, the supreme court ruled, three years ago, that tem­ples would be al­lowed to fol­low their own aga­mas, or cus­toms, in the mat­ter of se­lect­ing their priests. in Ker­ala though, the Devas­wom Board, which gov­erns tem­ple ap­point­ments, last year rec­om­mended the ap­point­ment of 36 non-brah­mins, among them a hand­ful of dal­its, as priests. There were whim­pers of protest – that one of the priests so ap­pointed was ne­glect­ing his du­ties – but th­ese died out soon. a pro­gres­sive step has in­deed been taken and it’s worth re­peat­ing in other states though storms of protest can be an­tic­i­pated.

now for scav­eng­ing. in 2016, an ngo in ahmed­abad stirred up things with a job ad for the post of sweeper, say­ing pref­er­ence would be given to can­di­dates from the Brah­min, Ksha­triya, Vaniya, Pa­tel, Jain, saiyad, Pathan, syr­ian chris­tian, and Parsi com­mu­ni­ties. This is the sort of provo­ca­tion so­ci­ety needs from time to time to change age-old modes of think­ing. While it is un­likely that any­one from those com­mu­ni­ties would have ap­plied any­way, given in­dia’s ugly re­al­ity of caste, the re­ac­tion was pre­dictable. Protests were held by at least one Mus­lim group and groups rep­re­sent­ing many Hindu castes. The NGO’S of­fice was gheraoed and van­dalised.

It was taken as an af­front that it could even be sug­gested that up­per caste Hin­dus (and Mus­lims groups who claim to be di­rect de­scen­dants of the Prophet) might ever con­sider tak­ing up the job of a sweeper. no mat­ter that this was in gu­jarat, land of the Ma­hatma, who, though a Vaishya born, would clean out the toi­lets in his ashrams and en­cour­age other up­per-caste res­i­dents to do the same. For the caste taboo around clean­ing up to end, along with the ex­ploita­tion that goes with it, ac­tivists such as Magsaysay award win­ner Bezwada Wil­son have sug­gested that th­ese ac­tiv­i­ties be fully mech­a­nised. a be­gin­ning could be made to end man­ual scav­eng­ing and the prac­tice of send­ing men down into sew­ers to un­block them. it should be the gov­ern­ment’s pri­or­ity to find funds for the mech­a­ni­sa­tion of th­ese pro­cesses, maybe as an im­por­tant com­po­nent of the swachh Bharat mis­sion.

The trou­ble, how­ever, with provoca­tive mea­sures like hav­ing dalit priests or seek­ing high-caste sweep­ers is that in the ab­sence of an even-handed ap­pli­ca­tion to all re­li­gions, they will be seen as a hereti­cal at­tack on Hin­duism alone. For seg­re­ga­tion of a kind is also prac­tised in churches, gu­rud­waras, and mosques too. Vote-bank and ap­pease­ment pol­i­tics have gen­er­ally meant an at­ti­tude of “leave them alone”. and so there has been no real re­form.

Coda: The cross-de­part­men­tal co-or­di­na­tor of the swachh Bharat mis­sion, a for­mer IAS of­fi­cer, has of­ten worked to break the scav­eng­ing taboo, hold­ing up ma­nure made from cesspits say­ing, “This is gold!” When Gov­er­nance Now pro­filed him, he told us of a vil­lage near Waran­gal where he lifted ma­nure from dried cesspits to set an ex­am­ple. in that south in­dian vil­lage, his name and sur­name would have given away his caste. Maybe not to all in­di­ans. cu­ri­ous to know who he is? Do google for his name. But not for his caste, please.n

two peo­ple from dif­fer­ent re­li­gions or castes should be able to live as a cou­ple the same way two fans of dif­fer­ent foot­ball teams are able to. that will be the test of real progress.

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