Rediscovering India by Dharampal

Caste made into Evil         

Friends this chapter gives you of the benefits of the caste system, why British demonized caste, how they made caste followers into water tight compartments, backward caste socio-economic backwardness is post 1800, use of the term Backwardness to demoralize Indian people & their culture.

The concept of what is termed “backwardness” is usually applied both in the cultural and economic sense. With regard to the cultural, caste seems to be the major symbol of Indian backwardness. But how have we arrived at such a conclusion? Like villages, castes have been invariable constituents of Indian society throughout known history. It is true that according to the Manusmriti, etc., society in India was at a certain stage divided into four varnas, i.e., the Brahmins, kshatriyas, vaisyas, and sudras. According to his same tradition misalliance amongst these four varnas led in the course of time to the formation of numerous castes. Further, those persons from amongst the four varnas who for various unpardonable offences were excommunicated from the varnas, along with their progeny, were classed as antyajya (i.e., the chandals, pariahs, etc.).

Yet, according to their traditions, especially traditions which particular castes or tribes subscribe to, each such caste had a uniquely divine origin. According to anthropological theory, castes have largely grown out of earlier tribal groups and in course of time though not fully integrated in the larger body politic have yet accepted its norms and belief structure. In recent centuries to these castes and tribes have been added yet other newly formed groups by the religious conversion of some of the Indian people to the religions of Islam and Christianity. Besides there has been a sprinkling of people from other areas who at one time or another have migrated into India, and while keeping to their own customs have made India their home.

But while castes and tribes have always existed in India and continue to exist today, never before in history do they seem to have posed a major problem. Historically they have existed side by side, they have interacted amongst themselves, groups of them have even had ritual or real fights with each other as the Right-hand and Left-hand caste groupings had in southern India till the beginning of the nineteenth century. Contrary to accepted assumptions, and perhaps to Manusmritic law, at least when the British began to conquer India, the majority of the rajas in different parts of India had also been from amongst such castes which have been placed in the sudra varna. Incidentally, it may be worth noting that those included amongst the Brahmin, kshtriya, and vaisya varnas, at least in recent times, have together constituted only a small minority (12 per cent to 15 per cent) of the Hindus.

It is possible that the existence of separate castes and tribes have historically been responsible for the relative weakness of Indian polity. Yet it can, perhaps also be argued that the existence of caste has added to the tenacity of Indian society, to its capacity to survive and after lying low to be able to stand up again. Under what circumstances and what arrangements castes (and for that matter tribes) are divisive of Indian society or a factor leading to its cohesion are questions which still have no conclusive answer. In fact, the questions perhaps have not even been posed. 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 non-hierarchical system but because it stood in the way of their breaking Indian society, hindered the process of atomization, and made the task of conquest and governance more difficult. The present fury and the theoretical formulations against the organization of Indian society into castes, whatever the justification or otherwise of caste today, thus begins with British rule.

Simultaneous to the stigmatizing of caste as an evil, the requirements of conquest, and perhaps also a similarity in classification, attracted the British to the Manusmriti and gave scholarly and legal support to some of its provisions, including those relating to the varnas. A major result of it was to provide validity and traditional sanction to the virtual dispossession of an overwhelming proportion of the Indian people from property or occupancy rights in hand and taking away their rights in the management of innumerable cultural and religious institutions which they had hitherto managed. Further, it also led to the erosion of the flexibility of customs which existed amongst most of the castes, and made them feel degraded to the extent they deviated from brahamanical practice. The listing of the castes in a rigid hierarchical order was another result of this latter approach. The earlier relationship and balance amongst the castes was thus wholly disrupted.

About a century later, i.e., from about the end of the nineteenth century, various factors began to attempt a reversal of what had resulted from previous British policy. In time, this has led to what today are known as backward caste movements. The manner in which their objectives are presented however, seem to suggest as if the ‘backward’ status they are struggling against is some ancient phenomenon. In reality their cultural and economic backwardness (as distinct from their ritualistic status on specific occasions) is post – 1800, and what basically all such movements are attempting to achieve is to restore back the position, status, and rights they had prior to 1800.

While the people of India may have historically suffered from many ills, especially from foreign invasions and the plunder, desecration of religious and cultural places, and political subjection of many areas that such aggression at times led to, they at no time seem to have felt that they in any sense were a lesser people or in modern idiom were suffering from backwardness. This was but named. For it is seldom that individuals groups and communities use the term “backwardness” to describe their own state. It may be that they lead a hard and harsh existence, as the people of Europe have led till recent times because of environment and historical causes. For various other reasons a society, or segments of it may at times begin to suffer from marked impoverishment, or be even reduced to a state of pauperization. But such conditions by themselves do not make such sufferers feel that their state is what is called “backwardness”.

Backwardness like the term “barbarians” is an imagery which one applies to others, to aliens who prove weaker and who do not subscribe to one’s own cultural norms. To morally justify the conquest, or subjection, or annihilation of others, recourse is then taken to terms like “backwardness”, and when the people so termed, themselves begin mentally to subscribe to such imagery it implies that the process of subjugation of such people has been completed and that they have lost dignity in their own eyes. While there can be some controversy about the prosperity or poverty of the Indian people, or any segments of them during the sixteen, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, the term backwardness does not in any sense apply to them then.

Rather, it was the newly arrived Europeans in India who felt that the Indians applied such an appellation to them (the Europeans) for their manners and greed which were considered barbaric and uncouth, about the color of their skin which was thought to be diseased, or even the system of dowry which is said to have originated in eighteenth century England, but to have been looked askance in eighteenth century India. By the end of the eighteenth century when large parts of India had effectively been conquered and subdued the tide obviously changed and instead the term “backwardness” or images of similar nature began to be deliberately and extensively applied to Indian society.

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