Caste Question In India: As I understand It


What follows is not meant to be an academic analysis of caste and its operation in India. Such an analysis has been done time again by experts who have studied the operation of caste in India in great depth and are thus qualified to engage in a worthwhile discussion in the matter. What follows is, thus, my personal understanding of caste in India from the vantage point of belonging to a well-off Hindu Brahmin family. Why I felt the need to put across my point of view on this issue and even if I did, why anyone should bother about the same, are both important and very relevant questions which need to be answered. To answer the first part of the question, I felt like putting across my point of view on the caste question in the public domain because this issue (like many others) has and continues to trouble me immensely. This discomfort led me to read more on the subject and even a minimal study on the question would necessitate one to read about Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi’s views on the subject. The exposure to these views coupled with the current status of different castes, decades after these two stalwarts had debated the issue intensely, pushed me to look at this question in the current context. The second part of the question is a bit more complex. Why should anyone bother to read anyone’s personal views on any subject? There are two arguments that I can give to convince people to even attempt to read what follows. The first is that I think it is important that the voice of ‘non-experts’ is given due space and credence, for it can immensely contribute in enriching the understanding and debate on any issue, and also because it should be of utmost importance to the experts to know and understand the doubts and questions that a common person might be grappling with, while forming an understanding of an issue. This will help both the non-experts and the experts, the former in at least getting across their understanding, doubts and questions and hoping to get at least some of these redressed, and the latter in further refining their knowledge and ensuring that their expertise does-not remain a mere academic exercise, and reaches the masses. However, as a note of caution, I should mention here that while propounding any such views, it is the duty of both the expert and the non-expert alike, to back the views propounded with reason, and not indulge in mere rhetoric. The second reason that I want to give in order to convince people to give a hearing to my views is the social background that I come from. My writing below follows from a complete understanding and acknowledgement of my privileged social background and the knowledge that anything I put forward on the question of caste will always lack the authoritative voice and backing of personal experience. However, this lack of the authoritative dimension of personal experience is not something that I ever had any control on, and hence, I refuse to surrender my right of voicing an opinion on this subject for this reason alone, or for my opinion to be delegitimized on this sole account.

Caste, as I understand it, is a hierarchic division of society on the sole basis of birth. One is thus, born into a caste by sheer accident and is ordained to bear the name of that caste, for good or bad, throughout one’s life. It can be argued that primarily the Hindu religion is the progenitor of the caste system, and has legitimized the same, so a conversion to any other religion would nullify one’s caste identity. However, in practice, this theory has not quite worked, firstly, because the caste label is so deeply entrenched in our society that it refuses to go away by any act of voluntary or involuntary renunciation of a religion and secondly, because almost all the religions have somehow managed to legitimize and adopt the institution of caste, as if it was a very emancipatory and progressive institution and hence required emulation. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s rejection of the Hindu religion and conversion to Buddhism was an act of rejection of the ghastly principles on which the abominable caste system is based, yet it is doubtful if merely this act could have granted him a freedom from his caste label (if we assume that it did) and the indignities coupled with the same, if he had not been the authority that he was. The voice and the social standing that he acquired resulted from the education he pursued and from the intellectual ability that he developed, in the face of all adversities that he was subjected to by virtue of being born into an untouchable caste. That he (and some others) could acquire this social standing despite all odds is many a times used as an argument for maintaining the illusion of merit. It is argued that if one, or a few, individual(s) can succeed despite odds, what is the hindrance in others doing the same? The hindrance, it seems, is not one but many. First and foremost, it is a lame argument in justification of a totally irrational system that guarantees certain privileges to some solely based on their birth, and vehemently denies them to certain others for the same reason. Secondly, the sheer grit and determination of one can surely be lauded and celebrated, however, it cannot be used as a constant reminder for the others of their worthlessness, for the sole reason, that it is not so. One individual’s success or failure is the culmination of a multitude of factors that form a part of that individual’s struggle. Other individuals have to tread their own individual paths. The law of justice would say that the state and the society should ensure that this path has equal obstacles, if their presence is necessary, for every individual, no more and no less, for any reason whatsoever. If this is not the case, and all the obstacles of all the paths are combined together and put on one path, and if still the individual on that path is able to cross all those and achieve success, it is not a legitimization of this inherently unjust system, but only an ode to that individual’s perseverance.

Now that this ghastly inhumane and unjust system is the basic infrastructure on which our societal structure is standing, what is it that can be done to change the situation? Dr. Ambedkar, as I understand, would argue in favor of uprooting the entire structure and rebuilding it on more egalitarian terms, whereas Mahatma Gandhi would argue for reforming it and fixing the cracks that have emerged with time and faulty execution of a project that was otherwise intended to be a pretty strong structure. In line with his thought process, Dr. Ambedkar denounced the Hindu shastras, renounced the Hindu religion and argued for separate electorates for the untouchables. Mahatma Gandhi, in line with his thought process, denounced untouchability and called for its abolition but upheld the Hindu religion and shastras, as also the Varnashramdharma, which he differentiated from the caste system. (It has been argued by some that he changed his belief in varnashramdharma also at a later stage, but I could not find any conclusive proof of the same). According to Gandhi, the Hindu shastras talk of varnas and not castes. There were, according to him, four varnas, which were meant for the purpose of hereditary division of labour, and this system, was as such desirable for maintenance of a stable society. The work prescribed for each varna, according to him, was equally respectable and a Brahmin’s work was no more or no less worthy and respectful than that of a Shudra. The argument for a pre-ordained hereditary division of labour, even if not hierarchical in nature, cannot be justified to any reasonable extent. Every individual has a different aptitude and inclination and should have the complete freedom of choosing the work through which one wishes to earn a living. Secondly, equating the work hereditarily prescribed for Brahmins, with that hereditarily prescribed for Shudras and calling them equally respectable can at best be considered as an individual opinion, and not a statement of fact. The facts are entirely to the contrary, and speak for themselves. I, for one, if I was born into a Shudra family, would never be convinced into cleaning and doing such menial jobs to earn my living, by the argument that this job was equally respectable as reading, writing, teaching, trading etc. Neither am I convinced with this argument now, having being born into a Brahmin family. Thirdly, whatever the correct interpretation of the shastras, the fact is that these have been used to propagate and justify the caste system since time immemorial, and people with contrary interpretations have always been outnumbered. I am no authority on Hindu shastras. Though I wish to read them first hand and form my own opinion, I haven’t been able to do so as yet. I also don’t know if denouncing the shastras would mean an end to the caste system, or any improvement in the social status of those who still suffer the injustices of this system. One thing, though, is aptly clear to me. Even those who have left the fold of the Hindu religion are no better off than they were before. They continue to suffer the same indignities as they used to earlier.

Could separate electorates for 10 years as desired by Dr. Ambedkar, have led to real emancipation of the untouchables? With the benefit of hindsight, I feel it would have further solidified the caste system, and segregated and isolated them forever. The higher castes would have found out a way to keep them perpetually as a separate category of people, not worth mingling with the rest of the society. Would this have been desirable? Would they have had the political strength at least, so that they could improve their social and economic standing? For them, may be yes. But for the society as a whole? I am not so sure. Are we happy to perpetually live with this unjust, hierarchical and abominable mind-set forever? At least I am not. I am not prepared to live in a society that treats some of its members as lesser human beings, by the sole virtue of their having been born in a particular home, which was anyway never of their own choosing. Dr. Ambedkar was pessimistic about the situation ever changing, Mahatma Gandhi could not convince the higher castes of treating the lower ones as their equal human beings; as a common individual, should I harbor any hope of truth and realization dawning upon the many, any time soon?

Nivedita Dwivedi is pursuing MA in Elementary Education from Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

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