Rethinking caste-Why we can`t be so one-dimensional

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Sociologist Ashis Nandy’s comments about caste and corruption at the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) kicked up a storm. Politicians who get votes on the basis of caste took umbrage. This is as opportune a time as any to look at the broader issue of caste discrimination that existed between the forward and backward classes. The question is: how could Indian civilisation have survived 5,000 years if discrimination was the only element of caste?

Let’s look at some historical truths with respect to caste.

Noted Gandhian Dharampal went through British and Indian archives to reproduce reports of surveys undertaken by the British in Bengal, Punjab and Madras Presidency (1800-1830). According to the collectors’ reports reviewed by Governor Sir Thomas Munro on 10 March 1826, of the 30,211 male school students in Madras Presidency, 20 percent were Brahmins and Chettris, 9 percent were Vaishyas, 50 percent were Shudras, and 6 percent were Muslims. Others constituted 15 percent.

Madras Presidency then consisted of areas that fall in modern day Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Orissa, Kerala and Karnataka. Another report by J Dent, Secretary, Fort George, dated 12 February 1825, stated that out of 1,88,680 scholars in all collectorates of Madras Presidency, Brahmins were 23 percent, while Shudras constituted 45 percent. (Indigenous Education in the 18th Century). (Read the excerpts here)

These percentages indicate that Shudras comprised the majority of students and scholars. Then, why do the other backward classes (OBCs) find themselves in the situation they are in today?

Before British rule, educational institutions were traditionally funded by contributions from the community and the state. About one-third of the total revenue (from agriculture and sea ports) was assigned for the requirements of social and cultural infrastructure (including education). This system stayed mainly intact through the earlier political turmoil. The British, however, increased the quantum of land revenue and adversely changed the terms of payment for the community. They centralised the collection of revenue, leaving hardly any revenue to pay for social and cultural infrastructure.

Further, the incomes and wealth of the manufacturing classes (small scale enterprises) were greatly diminished by the introduction of European goods. Craftsmen, especially those engaged in the making of cloth, manufacture and mining of metals, and construction work were, through fiscal and other devices, reduced to a state of penury.

Sapped for funds, educational institutions and manufacturing classes became history, leading to grave consequences. One, it obliterated literacy and knowledge amongst the Indian people. Two, it destroyed the Indian social balance in which, traditionally, persons from all sections of society (barring, perhaps, the untouchables) appear to have received a significant degree of schooling. Three, this destruction, along with economic plunder, led to a great deterioration in the status, socio-economic conditions and personal dignity of those now known as the scheduled castes; and to a lesser degree, those among the vast peasant majority grouped under the term ‘backward castes’.

From about the end of the 19th century, attempts were made to reverse the results of British policy. This led to what are now known as backward caste movements. The manner in which their objectives were presented, however, seems to suggest that the ‘backward’ status they are struggling against is some ancient phenomenon. In reality, however, their cultural and economic backwardness (as distinct from their ritualistic status on specific occasions) is probably a post-1800 phenomenon. What basically all such movements were attempting to achieve is the restoration of the position, status, and rights of these peoples prior to 1800.

Dharampal wrote in Rediscovering India: “For the British, as perhaps for some others before them, caste has been a great obstacle, in fact, an unmitigated evil, not because the British believed in castelessness or subscribed to a non-hierarchical system, but because it stood in the way of their breaking Indian society, hindered the process of atomisation, and made the task of conquest and governance more difficult.”

The interest in caste peaked around 1891 when the census came out with what was termed as Index of Castes. The word ‘caste’ is of Spanish origin and fails to capture the meaning of the Indian term “jati,” which more properly translates as “community.” Jati in traditional India promoted and preserved diversity and multiculturalism by allotting every jati a particular space and role in society so that no jati would be appropriated or dominated by another. Moreover, the jati system was integral to the survival of the Indian nation.

So, the widespread notion that discrimination in opportunities existed for millennia is a dangerous misconception that clouds our policies and threatens the real progress of the backward castes. I recently visited the homes of Adivasi craftsmen in Bastar and faced no animosity inspite of being a so-called “upper caste Hindu’. For centuries together, they have been making outstanding products in terracotta, cast metal, wrought iron, etc. (See images here)

Caste-based politics has made people more aware of, and narrowly identified by, caste, instead of focusing on true social and economic integration.

Do Hindus scriptures sanction caste?
Chapter IV, verse 13 of The Bhagavad Gita reads: “The fourfold-caste has been created by Me according to the differentiation of Guna and Karma, though I am author thereof, know Me as non-doer and immutable”. Krishna tells Arjuna, depending upon a person’s Guna (aptitude) and Karma (actions), there are four Varnas (castes). As per this shloka, a person’s Varna is determined by his Guna and Karma, and not by his birth.

Further, Chapter XIV specifies three Gunas – viz. satva (purity), rajas (passion and attachment) and tamas (ignorance). These three Gunas are present in every human in different proportions, and determine the Varna of every person. Accordingly, depending on one’s Guna and Karma, every individual is free to select his own Varna. Consequently, if their Gunas and Karmas are different, even members of the same family can belong to different Varnas.

Notwithstanding the differences in Guna and Karma of different individuals, the Vedas treat the entire humanity with the same respect and do not sanction any birth-based caste system.

Even Manu Smriti (X: 65) says: As the son of a Shudra can attain the rank of a Brahmin, the son of a Brahmin can attain the rank of a Shudra. Even so with him who is born of a Vaishya or a Kshatriya.

The above verse is a clear indication of the vocational nature of the caste system as against the hereditary caste system. (However, this version is often contested by other scholars, but the point is even in the much-reviled Manu Smriti there are verses that indicate that one can change one’s Varna).

In fact, a large number of ancient Hindu rishis belonged to the lower castes. Valmiki, author of the Ramayana, was a low-caste robber. Vyasa, author of the Mahabharata, was the son of Satyawati, the daughter of a fisherman and a wandering sage. Lord Krishna was a Yadav (cowherd).

Here are other views on caste:

Swami Vivekananda said: “Caste is an imperfect institution no doubt. But if it had not been for caste, you would have had no Sanskrit books to study. This caste made walls, around which all sorts of invasions rolled and surged but found it impossible to break through.”

Well known author Gurcharan Das recently said: “My own politically incorrect answer is that we had in India the good fortune of having merchant castes, trading communities. If you institute economic reforms in a society where people know how to conserve capital… If you have communities in whose DNA is that… it is a genetic advantage.”

Firstpost columnist Aakar Patel recently wrote that the current situation in Pakistan is because of an imbalance in caste. The situation arose because there is no mercantile caste in Punjab after the Khatri-Arora combine migrated to India in 1947. (Pakistan and the art of trading castes)

Note that the nomenclature used to describe backward classes and especially the untouchables were always changing. In the 1890s, they were called the Depressed Classes. But the term was later used to mean only today’s SC/STs. In the early 1930s, Gandhi named them Harijans. The Government of India Act 1935 introduced the words Scheduled Castes for the first time. Since the 1990s, the word Dalit has come into prominence.

There is no doubt that the Varna system has radically degenerated over the years. Having said that, the clamour to be declared an SC, ST or OBC has accentuated after independence, when caste-based reservations became a passport to education and jobs. The Gurjar agitation in Rajasthan to be declared a Scheduled Tribe is a case in point.

Left and secular intellectuals keep on criticising Hindus for the caste system but they don’t realise the caste has been appropriated by Muslims and even Christians too – despite the fact that Islam and Christianity did not formally support caste.

Dr BR Ambedkar wrote: “Indian Muslims themselves recognise two main social divisions, (1) Ashraf or Sharaf and (2) Ajlaf. Ashraf means ‘noble’ and includes all undoubted descendants of foreigners and converts from high caste Hindus. All other Mahomedans, including the occupational groups, and all converts of lower ranks, are known by the contemptuous terms, ‘Ajlaf’, ‘wretches’ or ‘mean people’: they are also called Kamina or Itar, ‘base’ or Rasil, a corruption of Rizal, ‘worthless’. In some places, a third class, called Arzal, or ‘lowest of all,’ is added. With them no other Mahomedan would associate, and they are forbidden to enter the mosque or to use the public burial ground.”

Dr Ambedkar added: “The existence of these evils among the Muslims is distressing enough. But far more distressing is the fact that there is no organised movement of social reform among the Musalmans of India on a scale sufficient to bring about their eradication. The Hindus have their social evils. But there is this relieving feature about them – namely, that some of them are conscious of their existence and a few of them are actively agitating for their removal. The Muslims, on the other hand, do not realise that they are evils and consequently do not agitate for their removal.”

Caste may be recoiling on Hindus, but we find no mention about the damage it is doing to Muslims or other communities.

The author is a National Affairs Analyst and Founder


Note: A part of the article was earlier written for the Hindustan Times, Mumbai, in 2007.

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Also read –
1. When Caste was not a bad word by sanjeev nayyar
2. Indigenous Education in the 18th century by Dharampalji –
3. Vedas on Caste by sanjay rao
4. Sri Aurobindo’s views on Caste briefly expressed in September 1907
5. Caste made into Evil by Dharampalji from the book Rediscovering India
6. Impact of Census 1881 by Dharampalji
7. Understanding caste a chakkar by ram lingam
8. Religion not caste behind reservations by radha rajan