The nature of caste in Punjab state is different from the rest of the India. For historical reasons, Punjab does not have ‘untouchability’ in the way that it was practiced in South India. Many put this down to the influence of Sikhism, an ostensibly egalitarian religion that in principle does not acknowledge caste boundaries. Centuries ago, invaders also contributed to breaking down the rigidity of the caste structure in this area, changing the character of the economy by putting artisans at the centre, and thus making untouchability impractical. This does not mean, of course, that caste is non-existent in Punjab; indeed, caste and casteism are both still integral part of Punjabi society. Now, however, it works on far finer levels.
Urbanisation, decreased dependence on the ‘upper’ castes, and detachment from caste associated with traditional professions – these have all contributed to further eroding the crudity of the caste system Punjab. Migration to other, developed countries has also been a significant contribution in this. Interestingly, the mental erosion of both the crudity and rigidity of caste are taking place simultaneously: ethnic identities have become stronger, and casteism has become increasingly invisible. More people, from more communities, today feel proud to show off their caste. Earlier, those from the ‘upper’ castes would display caste-related stickers on their vehicles (‘Proud to be Jat’, for instance); today, such stickers are likewise displayed by the ‘lower’ castes as well (‘Proud to be Chamar’). Likewise, songs about caste pride are no longer confined to the upper castes.
Yet at the same time, under the new economic policies of liberalisation, globalisation and privatisation, more people are being denied education and employment. Furthermore, democratic institutions, public welfare structures and organisations seeking social transformation are all eroding. Political parties have changed their agendas, as many are more interested in grabbing or retaining power rather than in delivering according to constitutional promises. Nehruvian socialism was directed towards social egalitarianism and transformation of the society, but it became history before it made a substantial impact. Likewise, the movement of Kanshi Ram, seeking social transformation, has been reduced to power-seeking political assertions under the leadership of Mayawati. Her social engineering is not directed towards social transformation, but rather towards consolidating caste for political gains.
In an atmosphere of multiple insecurities, people are looking for shelter and entering into narrow, illusionary shells – including caste, in which people seek solace and solidarity. Likewise, more and more people are actively participating in evolving the rituals of gotras, or sub-castes. These are signs of an insecure society, which does not provide ample opportunities to marginalised or downtrodden people.
In contemporary Indian society, the features of casteism have indeed changed. Caste discrimination is subtle, while caste assertion is loud. Exploitation used to be a major feature of traditional casteism, as the lower castes were dependent on the upper castes, including for fuel, fodder and fields. Today, however, the economic structure and production relations have changed. With legal provisions in place, casteism has thus become increasingly subtle – such that, nowadays, it cannot be reduced merely to discussions of exploitation, but instead has become a subject of mental torture. Social relations have become fragile, so alienation is increasing. People purchase technological gadgets or subscribe to English-language newspapers not in order to meet their needs, but rather to make their neighbours envious. The cutthroat competition of the open market makes society ruthless – and this ruthlessness is further solidifying caste.
Particularly important in breaking the clutches of casteism is promoting intercaste marriage. In Punjab, many such unions have taken place over the past two decades, though opposition to these remains in the form of honour killings and violence – even Punjabis that have settled in developed countries continue to indulge in such barbarism. Yet the collective progeny of intercaste marriages is growing, and the social response to their match-seeking proposals will ultimately decide the acceptability of these marriages.
At the same time, intercaste marriage alone is not sufficient to eliminate caste. Pro-people change in economic policies and social-transformation-seeking movements can make caste less important in everyday life, but reservation policies and representation in power will not eliminate caste. Instead, these policies are solidifying the caste system, as it has become an essential requirement to rise in power. As such, as long as democratic movements are weak and profit-oriented policies are in place, the outright elimination of caste is a mere utopia. (As told to Daljit Ami)
~ Desraj Kali is a writer based in Jalandhar, currently at work on a trilogy.