Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire which prevents the Hindus from commingling and which has, therefore, to be pulled down. Caste is a notion, it is a state of the mind. The destruction of Caste does not therefore mean the destruction of a physical barrier. It means a notional change.
– B R Ambedkar
|All Illustrations by Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam / (C) Navayana Publishing|
B R Ambedkar was at his lacerating best in 1936. That was a time when, in Lahore, a breakaway faction of the reformist Arya Samaj, known as the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal (Forum for the Annihilation of Caste), advocated inter-dining and intermarriage as measures to destroy caste. Membership, on paying two rupees as annual subscription, was meant for “Hindus” who took “a vow to marry himself or his sons and daughters out of his caste”. The radical bluster of this forum, led by savarna, upper-caste Hindus, stood exposed when they refused to let Ambedkar express his views, despite having invited him to deliver the presidential address of the Mandal’s annual conference in May 1936. In his undelivered speech, entitled Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar argued, “Hindus observe caste not because they are inhuman or wrong-headed. They observe caste because they are deeply religious.” This train of logic made him tell the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal, “The enemy you must grapple with is not the people who observe caste, but the Shastras which teach them this religion of caste.” On reading Annihilation of Caste, ‘Mahatma’ Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi made a forceful defence of the fourfold chaturvarnya system. In response, an irate Ambedkar did not mince words about how, in his view, caste could really be annihilated: “You have got to apply the dynamite to the Vedas and the Shastras, which deny any part to reason; to the Vedas and Shastras, which deny any part to morality. You must destroy the religion of the Shrutis and the Smritis. Nothing else will avail.” But at least during the heady 1930s, there was the pretence of concern over caste and the issues that plagued Hindu society across the Subcontinent. Though Ambedkar ridiculed the pusillanimous efforts of the ‘social reform’ school (initially Brahmin-led efforts of the Arya Samaj, and then represented by a section of the Indian National Congress), these elements did constitute a body with whom a radical like him could joust. An institution such as caste has displayed enormous resilience, surviving multiple challenges and reinventing itself according to the times. Yet its origins and survival remain a riddle. Asked to reflect on the future of caste, Ravikumar, a writer and public intellectual from Tamil Nadu, recently said, “In the case of caste, no two people agree on when exactly it was born. In spite of the rigorous research that has gone into it, everybody is unsure about where this miraculous birth took place. Since origin and history cannot be pushed aside, it is crucial that a birth certificate for caste be obtained as soon as possible, for us to predict its future.” That is a smart response, but still leaves in our hands the gooey mess of caste. Any talk of the future of caste seems ‘offensive’ to many; they see it as a matter of the ‘present’. Well, it has been so for a few millennia now, and it looks like caste is far from dying. It is like snot: We have just learned to live with it.
The rule of exceptions
One can rationally understand how and why class inequalities exist and function; and across the globe, there have been strategies evolved to fight class. We still have unions that seek to protect class interests, though these have disappeared and/or become obsolete under the onslaught of neoliberalism. Even if the ideal communist society is a utopia, the will to achieve it has always existed – and has excited those involved in the struggle for one. It is an ideal that is realisable. So too with gender, as successful battles have been fought in fighting inequalities and discrimination based on sex. Likewise, racism has been tackled in many ways, though it does persist. Even when the fight against racism and sexism were in their nascent stages, futures that transcended the boundaries of race and sex were imagined by science-fiction and fantasy writers in the West. The political struggle against discrimination on the basis of race and sex was matched by the literary imagination. Way back in 1873, Maharashtrian revolutionary Jotirao Phule acknowledged this when he dedicated – even at the risk of overreaching – his trenchant critique of the origins of caste, Gulamgiri (Slavery) “to the good people of the United States as a token of admiration for their sublime, disinterested and self-sacrificing devotion in the cause of Negro Slavery.” The fact is, in Southasia, the challenge to speculate on a future of caste has not thrown up imaginative responses. For the ideology of caste, there seems to be no end in sight. For a system that defies both reason and morality, it looks quite unshakeable. Clearly, over centuries, there has been an accretion of new jatis; indeed, the scope for the infinite spawning of jatis had been written into the scriptures that govern the ideology of caste. Though varna-samkara, the mixing of castes, is theoretically prohibited, scriptures like the Manusmriti offer several caveats anticipating transgressions. Indeed, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, estimated to be written in 150 AD, offers an even more exhaustive labelling and classification of jatis that are products of varna-samkara. Is it not just British administrators – as some postcolonial scholars would have us believe – who devised lists and schedules of castes: This was simply an old Brahminical habit that colonialism adopted. From the very beginning, the authors of the caste system envisioned the scope for endless reproduction of castes, and the creation of new castes, by writing into the system of rules a set of exceptions that only reinforce the rules. We may have as many intercaste marriages as we wish, but caste will not die. On the contrary, new castes will emerge. As they have. Speaking in New Delhi recently, the Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who has been attempting to come to terms with the befuddling ideology of caste, said that such a system can be sustained “only by a complex panoply of tricks, displacements and compromises whose basic formula is that of universality with exceptions: in principle yes, but … The Laws of Manu demonstrates a breath-taking ingenuity in accomplishing this task.” Zizek believes that the true regulating power of the law
does not reside in its direct prohibitions, in the division of our acts into permitted and prohibited, but in regulating the very violations of prohibitions: the law silently accepts that the basic prohibitions are violated (or even discreetly solicits us to violate them), and then, it tells us how to reconcile the violation with the law by way of violating the prohibition in a regulated way.
The idea of corrupting the system of caste through genial viruses like intermarriage and inter-dining is defeated even before organisations like the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal in Lahore or the Periyar E V Ramasamy-led Self-Respect Movement in Tamil Nadu offered these as counters. After all, the very system we are dealing with is a gigantic virus, which is why Ambedkar spoke of the need to “dynamite” the Brahminical religion that upholds caste. Yet his subsequent recourse to Buddhism, stripped of all the metaphysical baggage it had acquired over centuries, has not exactly led even Dalits into a caste-free utopia. A whole generation of Dalit Buddhists has relapsed into popular Hinduism, as studies have shown. Further, new communities are always being enlisted as castes. According to historian D D Kosambi, at the instance of Kautilya, the Brahmins were designated with the task of creating castes among tribes that rebelled against the Mauryan Empire – despite the fact that the Mauryans were themselves believed to be of tribal/Shudra origins. In her recent essay on Maoists in Dandakaranya, writer Arundhati Roy notes that, as part of the Hindutva drive, In north Bastar, Baba Bihari Das had started an aggressive drive to ‘bring tribals back into the Hindu fold’, which involved a campaign to denigrate tribal culture, induce self-hatred, and introduce Hinduism’s great gift – caste. The first converts, the village chiefs and big landlords – people like Mahendra Karma, founder of the Salwa Judum – were conferred the status of Dwij, twice-born, Brahmins. Those who refuse to convert are also casted, by being declared katwas (untouchables). In Kandhamal, Orissa, after three decades of indoctrination, the Hindutva forces incited the Hinduised Adivasis, the Kandhas, to attack the Pana Dalit Christians for a full year leading up to December 2009. It is the same old script of the shrewd Kautilya that is being enacted today. It is caste that gives Brahminism – what we call ‘Hinduism’ today – its sanatan (eternal) status. Yet if caste seems indestructible, self-regenerating, everlasting as well as ever-changing, what, then, is its future? The caste system is no longer simply linked to occupation, though this linkage has not altogether disappeared. There has, of course, never been rigidity written into this system; rather, it has proved itself to be enormously flexible, a characteristic that has helped it to adjust, make compromises, survive and thrive. To illustrate, according to social historians, the Jats who are today demanding Other Backward Class (OBC) status in India were, until the eighth century, regarded as a chandala, untouchable, jati in the Sindh and Punjab regions. By the 11th century they had attained Shudra status; after the Jat rebellion of the 17th century, a segment of the Jats aspiring to be zamindars sought Rajput (Kshatriya) status. Historian Irfan Habib sees this as an instance of erstwhile victims of the caste system turning into its votaries. We also find that many Dalit communities that announce their arrival on the stage of modernity seek to present us with imagined histories of a glorious past, when they actually belonged to a higher caste and became subsequently ‘fallen’. For instance, as chronicler of the Dalit movement Bhagwan Das points out, thanks to indoctrination by the Arya Samaj since the 19th century, the Lalbeg community, spread across undivided Punjab, was rechristened as Valmikis. The story that they were originally Brahmins and their ancestor was the writer of the Ramayana has found acceptance among the Valmikis, who no longer call themselves Lalbeg – a name that, according to Das, had Buddhist origins. In Tamil Nadu, the Pallars (Dalits) say they are Devendra Kula Vellalars, tracing their ancestry to the Vedic god Indra.
The equalisation mirage
Since the time of colonial modernity, the oppressed castes have demanded a fair share in the power structures, and devised various strategies by which to counter the forces that have sought to keep them down. Such a thrust – aided by a constitution and a democracy modified or written by Ambedkar to respond to the specificities of a caste-ridden society – has resulted in the limited social and political empowerment of several erstwhile Shudra castes and Dalits. Given that caste is here for good, the issue before every caste seems to be how to make the best use of this identity. The process underway in large swathes of the Subcontinent is not an effort to undermine caste, but rather the assertion of each jati’s identity to stake claim to a share in power. What is indeed unspooling is the impetus towards what some activists have called ‘equalisation of castes’, not their annihilation. In such a context, the simplistic demand for the annihilation of caste and the effort to project everyone as equal can be read as a Brahminical ploy to ensure that the inherited material and intellectual privileges of the elite are maintained. Such an artificial annihilation of caste would mean the marginalised castes forego their group identity, and will themselves into a liberal-democratic universe in which only individuals matter. In such a world, the Brahminical castes will project themselves as individuals with merit, and keep the Dalits and other marginalised groups out – as they have always done. Such an effort at erasing caste will only result in the annihilation of the oppressed castes.
This is the caste struggle that is ongoing today in India. In the kind of first-past-the-post parliamentary democracy practiced in the country, this has meant the consolidation of jati identities where each caste seeks a share in the political structures. When Lalu Yadav is chief minister of Bihar, the Yadavs benefit; when Nitish Kumar takes over, it is the Kurmis’ turn; the Pattali Makkal Katchi in Tamil Nadu almost exclusively represents the Vanniyar caste’s interests. Tamil Nadu has also seen the debut of the Kongunadu Munnetra Peravai, a party that brazenly represents the voice of the land-owning Gounder community. They contested 12 Lok Sabha seats in the 2009 parliamentary election. The logic of such democratic sharing can also ensure that Dalits fight among themselves for the meagre spoils of the system, as can be seen it the case of the Madigas and the Malas of Andhra Pradesh fighting over sub-categorisation of quotas. This is a struggle that has led to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar creating the category of Maha Dalit in Bihar, to ostensibly ameliorate internal inequalities with the Dalit castes. What we see unfolding is democracy and modernity joining hands to further fragment jati identities, and thus rule out the possibility of solidarity across oppressed castes. We may even hazard the conclusion that parliamentary democracy is best suited to perpetuate castes and facilitate caste mobility. India is often projected – and celebrated – as one of the unique examples of the sustained success of democracy; the secret of this success is that such a political system can peacefully coexist with caste. In fact, caste and democracy – much to posthumous Ambedkarite consternation – have nurtured and sustained each other. In Uttar Pradesh, we see someone such as Mayawati build a majestic alliance of castes that ought to be theoretically, and even principally, opposed to each other. In the personal realm, the Dalits and Brahmins may not have roti-beti ka vyavhaar (inter-dining and intermarriage), but they are willing to come together to share political power. But can there, really, be equalisation of castes? The principle behind reservation is exactly this: to ensure opportunities to hitherto-oppressed communities and, in the long term, ensure educational and economic parity with other castes that have enjoyed the privilege of birth. The logic that governs the ‘equalisation of castes’ theory is that if enforced poverty and lack of education can be addressed, castes can be placed on an equal footing. However, since the very basis of caste is graded inequality and hierarchy – the preservation of notions of high and low – then ‘equalisation of castes’ is a contradiction of terms. The policy of mandatory reservation thus cuts both ways – facilitating social mobility for subaltern communities but also ensuring that they are trapped in the identity. This is demonstrated by the fact that despite the Bahujan Samaj Party’s huge success and celebrated coalitions of jatis, Mayawati cannot ensure the victory of Dalits from non-reserved constituencies. Reservation, while absolutely necessary for oppressed castes, has also not dented caste consciousness. What the future holds, then, is the heightened assertion of caste as identity. To be anti-caste can be a privileged, individualised position. Those who have the resources can delude themselves into believing that they can ‘exit’ caste, but that hardly amounts to the annihilation of caste as a system. Freedom from caste can, at best, be an idiosyncratic, personal manifesto. We can, indeed, each of us, script and imagine such a future and retain a fragment of personal sanity – if we can afford it. But there can be no alternative to the larger battle of the caste underclass to fight discrimination.
~ S Anand is a contributing editor to this magazine.