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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Face it, India is all about caste

In recent times the world has witnessed a lot of crying over spilt milk. Germany has apologized to the Jews for the Holocaust; Japan has said sorry to the US for Pearl Harbour; the Pope has publicly taken the burden of his errant clergy on himself and bowed his head in shame; the federal government of Australia has apologized to its aborigines for wilfully killing so many of them; Russia has apologized to Poland for Stalin's massacre of its non-Communist leadership in 1939; and 13 years ago, the Queen apologized for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

Compared to these grave wrongs of history, the abuse showered on long-forgotten British civil servants by the cheerleaders of Indian nationalism seems a case of petty theft. For six decades, generations of Indians have been taught to believe that the colonial rulers saw India through the lens of ignorance and prejudice. Sir Valentine Chirol, a distinguished journalist who was prolific on 'Indian problems' epitomized the type of Englishman Indians loved to despise. Writing in 1926, Chirol observed that "Hinduism could not build up a nation because the one vital structure which it did build up was the negation of everything that constitutes a nation."

The "vital structure" that Chirol alluded to was caste. National allegiance, he felt, "was secondary to the loyalty each (Hindu) owed to his caste since his caste was his karma, determining much more than his present life, namely, all his lives still to come."

Chirol mirrored the colonial perception of India as a land obsessed by caste and unable to rise above it. Since the foreign rulers never aimed at being social reformers, they attempted to accommodate this caste obsession in public policy. They documented caste in all its bewildering complexities in the Gazetteers and, most important, attempted to quantify caste allegiances in the Census operations from 1881. As Census Commissioner for the 1911 Census, Sir Herbert Risley went one better. It wasn't enough merely to record the caste preferences of individuals. To make life easier for policy makers, the Census had also to identify "social precedence as recognized by native public opinion." In other words, the administration had to locate a caste in the ritual and social hierarchy and determine which caste was high, intermediate or low.

Risley's attempt to define caste precedence triggered an upsurge in civil society. Caste groups mobilized to redefine their varna status, undertake changes in ritual practices and even press for changes in caste names. India experienced a bizarre ferment with caste leaders pressing for vegetarianism, restrictions on widow remarriage and changes in the rituals governing marriage and mourning. The Census led to a government-induced process of what MN Srinivas was later to call 'Sanskritization' — social changes premised on the belief that Brahmins were role models.

For nationalist historians, Risley was a villain promoting 'false consciousness' and furthering a divide-and-rule approach to undermine national unity. The Census was perceived, not merely as a quantitative exercise, but a divisive game which, in the process, reduced Indian society to a hideous caricature. Even though Mahatma Gandhi felt compelled to accommodate the 'depressed classes' through the Poona Pact, the conventional Congress view was that caste, like religion, was purely a social institution that had no place in public life and political decision-making. There would be some compensatory discrimination in favour of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes but that's where the encroachment of caste would end. In line with this thinking, the first post-Independence Census in 1951 dropped the enumeration of caste altogether.

So strong was this nationalist consensus that when the first Backward Classes Commission was appointed in 1954, reputed Gandhian and anthropologist Nirmal Kumar Bose proclaimed "the desire and will of the Indian nation to do away with the hierarchy of caste…and prepare the ground for full social equality." Indeed, when the Backward Classes Commission identified 2,399 non-SC and non-ST communities as 'backward', the report was fiercely contested by Congress.

In five decades, politics has come full circle.  Last week, the Cabinet deliberated on the wisdom of reviving the enumeration of caste in the Census. There was no unanimity but the government finally conceded that was little point persisting with the old nationalist consensus. Already politicized by democracy, caste has become the basis of the government's elaborate redistributive programmes. Sixty years of experiments with modernity have proved to be mere ripples on the surface; the depths of India's 'vital structure' have been unmoved.

India owes an unqualified apology to the British Raj for suggesting that its officials didn't understand India and, indeed, vilified it. It's our nationalist modernizers who have been defeated by the 'real' India. The future appears to belong to the khap panchayats. Chirol was right and we may as well acknowledge it.


Sunday Times of India, May 9, 2010


mihir said...

Totally agree...

mukesh said...

Its government, who deliberately nurtured, promoted, expanded, further developed and embedded castiesm more strongly in indian society and now though census final official acknowledgment will be furnished to let all political parties benefit from never ending fragmentation of nation on caste basis. If castism is so good, i dont know why we were against it. It will be interesting to find tribal in multistory urban locality and backwardness tag will be decided by caste no matter how economic well off u are. Dream of vivekanand , mahatma gandhi to establish equality in hindu society will remain dream forever.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully said.

Suseel said...

Your perspective of caste in present day Indian society overlooks its underlying entwining to reservations. Since reservations seem to be here to stay for centuries to come, they might as well be based on good data - which is based on castes. If I needed a basis to base affirmative action based on some data, I'd prefer it be 2010 data than 1931 with a thousand updates. In India, we vote according to caste, so I reckon we might have good understanding of our chances of winning when we go that route next time.

Shashank Singh Deo said...

Two points - 1. Not referring to caste or giving it importance is not necessarily modern India and 2. Upper 'caste' is not necessarily upper 'class' and if it does exist, the fault lies in the implementation process and the politicians.
Therefore, referring to caste is only believing in the age old systems, the building blocks of what India is today. India would not have achieved solely relying on modern beliefs. If I follow my cultural tradition, it does not make me non-modern and I would not like anyone to tell me how I need to behave with my family, friends and society. This however, does not take away the evils of implementation of the caste system like untouchability,etc, which should be condemned and eliminated; other than this I do not find anything objectionable in the caste system.
Also, upper class today have been predominantly with upper castes. If even after 60 years of independence, 20 years of reservation and 50 years of reserving parliamentary seats for SC/ST/OBC, upper castes should not be held responsible for the current state of affairs.
We can continue to provide reservations, uplift (presumably) in the next 100 years and then fight the next set of lower classes which will be the current upper castes or face a caste war.
I sometimes fail to realize, whether India can actually be a pat of the developed world. we are living ina fool's paradise. Each time I feel proud of this great country, take pride in the rich cultural heritage, take pride in the peoples capabilities, and then we bluff ourselves as modern - if we dont mention caste, dont talk about religion, talk about equality.

mukesh said...

Sashank rightly said, there is nothing wrong in caste system if it work as mentioned in geeta. your caste is the profession that u practice and your karma will decide, which varna you will be counted in. your birth in brahmin family will alone will not make you brahmin as mentioned in chandogya but your nature of work and your behavior will be assessed. it can be termed as classification of labour. four varna division of society was very good idea as long as it function properly. person born in sudra (servic class) could rise upto brahmin (intelligentia) and brahmin had option to be kshatriya. there are many example, valmiki considered brahmin to Ram, dronacharya, parshuram were warrior though born in brahmin, ravan, a brahmin putra can not be considered anything but devil. vishwamitra, a born kshatriya is considered brahmin and even penned gayatri mantra recited by all hindu. Krishna, a yaduvanshi, same to lalu yadav and mulayam never considered himself OBC, his word Geeta dont need higher class acknowledgement. Satyakam Jabala a illegitimate son of tribal women was initiated to be a vedic scholar by gautam rishi.
but what govt of india is doing is making caste tag permanent to person no matter how he behave and what he do. people living in ssouth delhi bunglow will be counted in tribal, eating into rights of true tribal. we fail to bring development to millon of poor tribal because benefit meant for them was eaten away by pseudo tribal, SC, ST, living in urban jungle, far from actual forest. there was a IAS/IPS officer,later become CM too and he is tribal. the meaning of this english word is totally usless to tell. there is race to get backword tag, w can see gujjar movement, they are ready to die to be counted among backword. what kind of politics it is, we see only votes and not the real cause. suffering are those real tribal, Deprived class and brahmin too among them so dont categories poverty.
make sure none living in certain area of city/with minimum education and economic wealth,politician, beurocrat, buisnessman is counted among Backword/ tribal, casue they will be the one responsible for india remaining underdevelopment forver.

cbcnn_Pilid said...


Well said and the Supreme Court just endorsed it. Did you see yesterday's shocking judgment of the Supreme Court where it justified not excluding the creamy layer where quotas for political bodies are concerned? My post is here on that; the judgment is available on Judis (see para 33 for its shocking justification).

Nachiketh said...

Sorry Mr Dasgupta. India is not all about caste. Caste factor is non existent when it comes to the day to day life of an indian. It comes into existence only during elections. Caste exists in India only because politicians still keep it alive.

Anonymous said...

You talk to much and idiotic and anti people crap.
i think it will be good for you to think before you talk garbage. also i don't like your tone in tv interviews.

Internet Hindu said...

It would be illuminating to check out how many caste based groups there are on Facebook and Orkut.

Lori said...

Hi Swapan, I would like to pass on to you & your readers the following article/link: 'Caste, Calendar and Cosmos - their interconnection and relevance for contemporary society' by Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet. It is very illuminating on the subject of caste.

Warm Regards,
Lori Tompkins