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Friday, Oct 16, 2020 11:30 [IST]

Last Update: Friday, Oct 16, 2020 05:56 [IST]

A Nation in love with the Caste System

Divided By Surname

(Part One)
Shashi Tharoor has become India’s popstar author and politician who has glorified a bombastic version of the English language in India. His prominence went to the next level after his Oxford Union debate. He used the English language in England’s most famous debate to lacerate British colonialism by his brilliant argumentation laced with the rarest of indubitable facts and figures.  Later his speech was modified into a book – An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India. It is a masterclass for sure but I have a few objections.
In his passionate attack on the British colonialists, he argues that the caste system in the Indian subcontinent was not as divisive and harmful before the colonialists “helped solidify and perpetuate the inequities of the caste system in India”. He romanticizes the pre-British India where “caste had not been a particularly stable social structure”. This is one of his weakest arguments which, among other things, exculpates the contemporary campaigners of the caste system. Holding the British responsible for scaling up the caste system in India diverts national frustration and anger to foreigners while the desi custodians and merchandisers of the caste system will, not only go scot free, but will get ample socio-cultural manure to flourish.  Sadly, this is happening on an ongoing basis. India must generously concede that the caste system had always been an exceedingly and awfully dehumanizing practice which crippled Indian civilizational growth in remarkably subtle ways. There are, quite possibly, very few other instances of human wisdom, knowledge, capacities and dignity being so thoroughly misused and wasted. Mahatma Gandhi realized that untouchability was a greater enemy than colonialism itself and appealed to his supporters to eliminate it before aspiring to independence. Ramachandra Guha, arguably the boldest historian of India says, “If you compare the Indian civilization with European or African civilizations, we historically perfected discrimination, stratification and hierarchy much more rigorously and systematically. There is no equivalent of the caste system anywhere”.  The ugliness of this inglorious system was never milder in the past. Its heinousness is as old as its antiquity. Manusmriti, the most perniciously racist book ever conceived by the human mind was written in 2nd century BC. The book mirrors the civilizational inheritance, cultural technologies, social formation and religious wisdom that existed hundreds and hundreds of years before white racists landed on Indian shores.
I argue that the caste system in India is only going to worsen and here are my five reasons.
First, the religious underpinning of the caste system is the strongest reason why the Indian caste system will never leave Indian life. The exclusive privilege of priesthood, bestowed upon the highest Brahmanical sect, has deeply divided humanity at its core. As preposterous as it may seem, India didn’t bother to intervene until five years ago. Only in 2015 did the Supreme Court hold that caste and birth must never be considered a determining factor in the induction of priests in temples. Whether anyone is actually giving any heed to this court order is another issue. Religion is highly sacrosanct in a deeply religious country like India and it is therefore no wonder that Indian rationality hasn’t outgrown some religious delusions. That Indian purity and impurity is based on caste is an amicably accepted religious reality.
Curiously, Indian Buddhists and Christians are intensely caste conscious. Buddha’s renunciation of Hinduism was triggered by his skepticism and rejection of the authority of the Veda and caste system and yet his followers are happily hanging onto it. Sikkim Buddhism is one stark example. Caste is the single most important factor when it comes to doing rituals and choosing life partners. Many Christians as well are suffering from the ills of casteism indelibly ingrained in their racial genes while at the same time professing faith in Christ who taught that all humans are created equal in the image of God.
Secondly, cultural constructs necessitate the persistence of the caste system. An IIT professor, in a casual chat, told me that new generation students are open to having a romantic relationship with any caste but the vast majority will ultimately abandon that relationship to marry the person of their parents’ choice (read ‘same caste partner’). This trend is prevalent in non-Hindu Indian families as well. If that is the case in an elitist university, the situation in other universities can easily be construed. The dowry system is just as pervasive and rigorously practiced across the religious spectrum of the Indian population. Ironically, the most educated men fetch the highest dowry. Call it a ‘gift’ or whatever - the driving force is the greed for dowry.
Our social mindset, political ploys and the administrative structure are the last three points which enable and advance the caste simple but they need a much large space than the few lines the word limit of this article provides. We can continue to ponder and discuss the issue. In my future articles, I will discuss why India, as a nation, loves the caste system.
(To be continued)

“The religious underpinning of the caste system is the strongest reason why the Indian caste system will never leave Indian life.”

Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi