The value of a human life is intrinsically linked to the need for autonomy and an existence with decency, self-respect, and liberties. These pillars are very important to social survival and collective growth. As human life prospers in a society, it is important to share solidarity and fraternity with the constructive factors that enable emancipation. In India’s context, one particular force that continues to determine society’s attitude towards individuals, in both seen and unseen ways, is caste (jati/varna).
In texts like Manusmriti or the Vedas of Hinduism, jati is determined by birth. It’s almost like a ‘social contract’ system that is enforced on social groups without their consent. It is religiously sanctioned with an intent to control and sustain ‘social fascism’, which eventually leads to a systematic generation of varna in the community. Varna is a caste-based occupation. Holistically, this socialisation led to graded inequity. The mutual relationship of both has left very little scope for communitarian osmosis and internal mobilization. Shankaracharya of Puri, in a condescending tone, mocked the ignorance of elite Indians by confirming that “varna is decided by birth which is the same as jati.” He continues to say that “many people say that they believe only in varna, not jati. These people don’t even know the first chapter of Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text, verse 1.42”
Those that belong to a lower caste (Dalit/Bahujan) do not possess the scope to perform the ‘brahminical’ duties, since the religion of Hinduism has prescribed the allocation of ‘duties’ on the basis of ‘birth’, too. For example: Skinning dead cow/cattle is performed by the Dalit clan, and a Dalit can’t practice as a temple priest. Caste-ism as a ‘social tyranny’ is responsible for the systematic exploitation of lower caste clans and their liberties. Even the steps taken to interlink the caste-based duties do not promote social sustainability because of the ‘tokenist’ politics.
Caste-ism manifests as ‘social’ statism; the doctrine that oppression is a ‘legitimate’ force. While it is the community itself enforcing these rules, rather than the state enforcing them from above, the result is no less totalitarian. The Indian society experiences casteism in the space of micro- and meso- spheres. It is as religious as it is cultural. Remember the ‘breast tax’ system? ‘Mulakkaram’ was a tax imposed on the lower caste and untouchable Dalit women by the Kingdom of Tranvancore (in present-day Kerala state of India) if they wanted to cover their breasts in public, until 1924. Tax collectors (upper-caste Hindu men) would visit every house to collect the Breast Tax from any lower caste women who passed the age of puberty. The tax was evaluated by the tax collectors depending on the size of their breasts.
A short anatomy
The privileged caste – which has benefited a lot from caste capitalism – projects a different and defensive version of the caste system, whereas the unprivileged ones continue to labor at caste-based occupations like manual scavenging and crematorium activities. As Satish Deshpande, a sociologist, stated, “By transforming their caste capital into modern capital, upper castes can now claim to be casteless and accuse the lower castes of being illegitimate purveyors of caste.”
Caste, as a kind of social authoritarianism, is also responsible for caste-violence and gender-violence. The recent NCRB data of 2019 ratiocinated that women from lower castes (Dalit and Adivasi groups) suffer more violence and unfortunate incidents. This clearly indicates the intersection of rape and caste too. The incentives behind such aggressive violence against the Dalit or Adivasi groups stem from the religious attitude and misogyny that sustains the social hierarchy (graded inequity) called caste-ism. A report (2019) by American Civil Society Research found that 40% of the social media content on popular platforms like facebook, twitter, etc are filled with casteist slurs (especially intended at individuals of lower castes). This is another example of how casteism has vehemently enabled bigotry and generated a culture of oppression, submission, obedience, and patriarchy.
It’s the 21st century and the idea of ‘reservation’ (representation) looks oppressive and exploitative to the privileged caste. The ones who sustained social hegemony on the basis of caste for the past 3000 years are always rattled at the idea of a Dalit/Bahujan enjoying the benefits of ‘affirmative action’. In the political sphere or in the education sector, the proportion of jobs filled by lower caste people is still smaller than it should be. This whole pie is still brahmanical and, to add to the woes, the Modi government is wanting to diminish the size of ‘Dalit’ representation through its neoliberal capitalist policies.
Hinduism as such is not a religion. Many westerners, out of their conscious ignorance, assume that “Hinduism is a way of life” and they’re all mesmerized with marketing done by Yoga activists. But little does everyone know, Hinduism is nothing but an aggregation of castes. In fact, Yoga, as founded by Patanjali under the Shunga empire (the dynasty that was violently intolerant of the Buddhist monks) enabled the so-called spiritual exercise (Yoga) only for the privileged caste. Today, yoga is a choice, except for the fact that the current government in India headed by Narendra Modi has made it compulsory for the public schools. This encouraged certain private schools to also join this ‘bandwagon effect’.
The census data of 2011 presents a grim and bitter picture too. The cases of exogamy (inter-caste marriage) are not more than 6%, amidst India’s population of 1.3 billion. This continues to haunt the hope of socialization and mobility in some form or another. Caste also determines marital choices. In a report (2018) by Lok Foundation and Oxford University, urbanite Indians still marry the way their casteist grandparents did. The number is staggering because only 3% preferred inter-caste marriage. Inter-caste marriage (exogamy) is assumed to be a radical step towards deletion of caste feelings or caste privileges, but there’s no scientific evidence that can prove that it may cause annihilation of casteism in the society. Since casteism has become intersectional towards the sphere of gender, food diet and other standards of living, it will take a good Thanos to destroy the caste system by snapping the finger!
For a nation like India, which is heterogenous, casteism is disowning the principles and maxims of secularism and fraternity. Caste causes homogeneity and it stimulates the ‘consciousness of kind’. Nevertheless, surname matters more than name. If caste-ism is assumed to be merely an expression of ‘freedom of association’ by some paleolibertarians and “anarcho”-capitalists in the Indian political sphere, then would they care to explain how individuals of lower caste are lynched, murdered, and ostracised for drinking water from public tank, sitting on a chair, riding a horse, flaunting a moustache, expressing views, etc?
The monster that exists!
Recently, it has been observed that upper-caste Hindus have also exported casteism abroad. The case of the US is exemplary. This Tuesday (11th of May 2021), several workers of BAPS (Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha) filed a lawsuit in New Jersey. A news report in Forbes magazine highlighted that the suit claims over 200 workers were recruited in India under false pretences, given religious visas, and often forced to spend more than 12 hours a day (about 80 hours+ a week) doing masonry work on a BAPS-affiliated temple in Robbinsville, New Jersey. It has also been reported that the workers’ passports were allegedly confiscated shortly after they arrived in the US, and they were forced to live in a spartan, fenced-in, and tightly monitored compound and prohibited from leaving temple grounds unsupervised. Most of these workers belonged to the Dalit community and were rudely underpaid. The FBI is investigating the case, currently.
The same casteist issues were reported back in July 2020, when California regulators sued CISCO systems for tolerating caste-based discriminatory work culture in its premises. It was found that two upper-caste Hindus employed in this international organization were being unfair to a co-worker who belonged to Dalit community. The episode violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people—including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball’s Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others—she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics.
The need for Phule-Ambedkar methodology
Dr Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution, was a staunch advocate of anti-casteism in his period. He was of the view that ‘caste is not just a division of labour, but also division of laborers.’ He has excellently authored books such as: Caste in India (1917), Annihilation of Caste (1936), Who were the untouchables? (1946), and The Untouchables (1948), which ought to be read by everyone from the ‘school’ level onwards to have casteism smashed and disowned. Better late than never. He led revolutionary movements like Mahad Satyagraha (1927) to raise critical consciousness of individuals of the lower castes. Mahad Satyagraha was a non-violent resistance movement launched by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. Dalit community was stopped from drinking water from the public tank. (In August 1923, Bombay Legislative Council passed a resolution that people from the depressed classes should be allowed to use places which were built and maintained by the government. In January 1924, Mahad which was part of the Bombay Province passed the resolution in its municipal council to enforce the act. But it failed to implement because of the protest from the casteist Hindus.)
After drinking water from the public tank, Dr Ambedkar also made a statement addressing the Dalit women during the Satyagraha. He asked them to abandon all old customs that provided recognizable markers of untouchability and asked them to wear saris like high caste women. Before that time, the Dalit women were not allowed to drape saris completely. Immediately after Ambedkar’s speech at Mahad, the dalit women readily decided to drape their saris like the higher caste women.
As per the Hindu text, Dr Ambedkar belonged to ‘untouchable’ caste. He is also known for debunking ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi, the father of modern India, for his support of the caste system or justification of caste-based manual scavenging. When Dr Ambedkar called for separate electorates for Dalits (untouchables), Gandhi underwent ‘fast unto death’ and indirectly blackmailed Dr Ambedkar through this for keeping lower castes politically intact in the hierarchy of Hinduism. Refer to the Poona Pact (1930).
Jyotirao Phule, a reformer born in a lower caste, authored a book, Slavery (1873), highlighting the anthropological origin of casteism. He educated his wife Savitribai and opened school for girls and untouchables, for which he was shunned, attacked and ostracised. Education as a tool was intended for the privileged caste, although it kept its own women as well as Dalit clan off from this fold.
To ratiocinate, casteism continues to degrade the lives and liberties of oppressed caste (dalit/bahujan). The ‘veil of ignorance’ worn by the caste oppressor is least likely to admit its own privilege and admit caste exploitation. It is not possible to bring about internal changes in the system maintained by caste structure because it is socially genetic. To add to the woes, caste sensitisation is absent in the schooling system. Due to abstention of caste sensitisation in the schools or in corporate training mode, casteist individuals enable bigotry in meso forms.
Dr Ambedkar, a polymath, born in ‘untouchable caste’ figured out in the early 1950s that the only panacea to destroy the system of casteism is to seek liberation outside the property of Hinduism. He, like anti-caste activist Iyothee Thass, concluded that it is not possible to reform Hinduism even by becoming a ‘cultural suicide bomber’ and thus he commenced the ‘Navayana Buddhism’ sect as an alternative to social oppression. “Educate, Organise, Agitate” was his vision that continues to inspire many social movements in Indian polity, although at a gradual pace.