It is better [to discharge] one’s own duty incompletely than completely that of another; for he who lives according to the law of another [caste] is instantly excluded from his own,” mandates Manu. “A man of low caste who through covetousness lives by the occupations of a higher one, the king shall deprive of his property and banish [him],” Manu adds. “By [selling] flesh, salt and lac [resin], a Brahmin at once becomes an outcast; by selling milk he becomes [equal to] a Shudra in three days/But, by willingly selling in this world other [forbidden] commodities, a Brahmin assumes after seven nights the character of a Vaishya,” Manu warns.
India’s caste order is structured on the twin principals of occupational and blood ‘purity’. If one were to carry a copy of the Manusmriti, and then to pay a visit to traditional Indian society, one would find the Manusmriti to be the script while the traditional society is the film. Recall 25 December 1927, and decode the importance of Manusmriti Dahan Divas, the day when B R Ambedkar symbolically burnt the Manusmriti, celebrated every year by Dalits. A thorough liberal, Ambedkar listened with respect even to his adversaries; he would ban no thought or idea, even those he might not have liked. Yet while he critiqued, rejected and condemned all Hindu scriptures, he burned the Manusmriti alone – as caste’s constitution, which accords divine sanction to occupation and blood purity.
Yet post-1990, India’s caste order has slowly been losing one of its pillars, that of occupational purity. Seemingly by accident, bullocks have disappeared from much of northwestern India. To the ‘twice born’, touching the handle of the plough was long no less than religious blasphemy, let alone tilling land using bullock-drawn ploughs. As such, it was the Dalits who worked the land of twice-born landlords, and thus it was the bullock that was the key instrument in tying Dalits to the caste Hindus. Now, with the near-complete disappearance of these animals, the main instrument of bondage too has disappeared. Just to showcase how caste is losing its foundation of occupational purity, even feudal Thakurs are now reconciled to tilling Dalits’ land for wages – driving tractors themselves.
There have been several important catalysts since 1990, which have triggered a social revolution that seems to have gone largely unnoticed by most ‘thought leaders’. A host of caste-neutral occupations have and continue to come into being, while many other occupations are becoming increasingly caste-neutral. Harvesting wheat and paddy through the use of large harvesting machines, for instance, is now a caste-neutral occupation; as noted, the twice-born thus have no hesitation working for Dalit land owners for wages. In small towns and tiny roadside bazaars across India, twice-born women are opening beauty parlours where, as a matter of course, nearly all women, including Dalits, go before their weddings. But just a few decades back, almost none could imagine a Thakur or Brahmin woman giving a massage to a Dalit.
In shopping malls, hotels and corporate hospitals, sweepers are now designated as ‘housekeeping staff’. With new cleaning kits, they now have uniforms to wear and shoes to sport; with caps on their heads, they look more like paramedical staff than the sweepers of old. And with these changes, much of the caste stigma is fading, as even non-Dalits are taking up such jobs. A University of Pennsylvania research team recently surveyed three shopping malls around Delhi, and found more than 60 percent the housekeeping staff were non-Dalit – in which the twice-born accounted for more than 38 percent, the same as Dalits.
The new economic order has made the Indian psyche far more consumer-oriented than it used to be, with significant implications for caste. Whereas earlier, even a poor Brahmin would claim supremacy over a Dalit due to the supremacy of his or her social marker, now ‘material’ markers are replacing the old social ones as indicators of well-being. In the market-driven consumer economy, the Brahmin must possess a combination of material goods – a television, mobile phone, refrigerator or two-wheeler, for instance – in order to claim status in the neighbourhood. The ‘Brahmin’ marker is no longer enough. In fact, for a Brahmin or even a Thakur, the caste indicator has at times come to be even an embarrassment, leading many to hide their caste when, for instance, driving a cycle-rickshaw.
In the market-driven culture, rank can be negotiated, unlike those fixed by birth. Those twice-born who continued to live in accordance with their social indicators were suddenly faced with a thoroughly confusing situation when, for instance, a Dalit in the village bought a television. Not used to hard labour, the twice-born youths are now reconciled to taking up occupations once described as the meanest and most polluting – those reserved for Dalits. Caste evolved in a rural set-up, after all, and sustained itself in agrarianism. But now, India is fast becoming increasingly urban. According to a Planning Commission estimate, by 2050, some 55 percent of the Indian population will be considered urban – and the caste order simply cannot operate with the same strength in urban India as it did in the rural areas.
A combination of several factors – globalisation, capitalism, consumerism, mechanisation, industrialisation and urbanisation – will thus make the caste order obsolete in public life. India may not become caste free in the foreseeable future, but India will become caste-neutral before 2050.
~ Chandra Bhan Prasad, self-trained anthropologist and social psychologist, is author of Dalit Phobia: Why do they hate us? More of his writings are at www.chandrabhanprasad.com
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
From our archive:
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Fatima Chowdury relates the story of Calcutta's Indian Chinese community through the lens of political and economic upheavals in Southasia and China (May 2009).
Simon Long notes the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship for the rest of Southasia (September 2006).
J.N Dixit ruminates on the strategic concerns of the 'Middle Kingdom' in the wake of India's 1998 nuclear tests (June 1998).