March 01, 2010
The Blight of Hindustan
An egalitarian ethos is not a prominent feature of Indian civilization. The Indians have long held it to be self-evident that all men are created unequal. The anthropologist Louis Dumont considered hierarchy to be so central to the Indian identity, whether in the family, the workplace, or the community, that he went as far as calling the Indians homo hierarchicus. Indeed, a host of hierarchical relationships—framed by traditional norms of deference, authority, and obligation—shape most Indians throughout their lives. In the Indian social realm, the primary institution of hierarchy is caste, or jati, of which thousands exist today. But where does caste, a blight of modern India, come from?
The Origins of Caste
How the institution of caste took root and spread is still a hotly debated question among scholars, but its story begins c. 1500 BCE with the arrival of the Indo-Aryans into what is now Pakistan. Data from disciplines like linguistics, philology, and archaeology strongly suggests that these bands of nomadic pastoralists came from further west. Upon arrival, they encountered long settled rural communities, which were perhaps divided into subgroups based on occupation, much like guilds—in the sense that the subgroups were not hierarchical, hereditary, or endogamous. The Indo-Aryans, whose culture became dominant, introduced into the region their social pyramid with three classes, or varnas: the Brahmins (priests and teachers), the Kshtriyas (warriors and rulers), and the Vaishyas (traders and merchants). They added a fourth varna after their arrival: the Shudras (laborers and artisans). All four varnas appear in the earliest known Indo-Aryan text, the Rig Veda, and were no doubt a feature of the emerging Vedic society.
As the settled indigenous communities became part of the early Vedic society, they also adopted its principle of hierarchy, turning their own occupational subgroups into castes, or jatis. The principle of hierarchy, proposed Dumont, had to do with ritual ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ that members of each occupational subgroup were assigned at birth. The highest ‘purity’ points went to those with religious, intellectual, and administrative pursuits, the lowest to workers associated with dead bodies, human waste, tanneries, butchery, street cleaning, and such—most of these were in fact deemed too low to be part of the varna system at all, i.e., they were considered outcastes. Stated differently, ‘purity’ became a means of codifying social power relations using Brahminical ‘knowledge’.
As this new social order spread in the first millennium BCE, it encountered more settled peoples as well as forest dwelling clans. Whether by force, persuasion, or mutual advantage, more groups were brought into its fold. They too found themselves plugged into its hierarchy, perhaps loosely at first, and gradually gave up their more egalitarian ways. In doing so, they used the same principle of relative ‘purity’ to make jati and varna decisions for various units within their own societies, and by extension, to divide power and resources. To sweeten the deal, the Vedic social order became flexible enough to absorb indigenous gods into its ever-growing pantheon—including perhaps even gods like Shiva and Krishna—giving rise to a syncretic religious culture. In some cases, a whole endogamous tribe could become one jati, often regarded as outcastes. The Laws of Manu, written about 2,000 years ago, mentions many such communities: the Medas, Andhras, Chunchus, and Madgus who live off ‘the slaughter of wild animals’, the Pukkasas by ‘catching and killing [animals] in holes’, etc.
Many modern thinkers, including Tagore, have argued that while not at all perfect, this was back then a practical way of bringing together highly diverse peoples, through which ‘men of different colors and creeds, different physical features and mental attitudes settled together side by side.’ By assigning religious, political, and economic power to three different classes—the Brahmins, the Kshtriyas, and the Vaishyas—the system prevented their concentration in a single dominant racial or ethnic group, thereby creating a basis for cooperation and avoiding far greater friction, open slavery, and even genocidal wars.
Over time the institution of caste grew rigid and restrictive, becoming, as BR Ambedkar said, not a division of labor but a division of laborers. Social mobility got severely curtailed and the upper castes conveniently linked one’s place in the hierarchy to karma and destiny; even their epics and mythologies helped perpetuate the new social order (though it would be foolish to read them as doing nothing more, or to not contain contradictory views). The Ramayana contains strong expressions of hierarchy, the Bhagavad Gita extols the sanctity of caste, and The Laws of Manu attempts to codify its operation, declaring a crime against a Brahmin much worse than one committed against a low caste person. The caste system eventually took on beliefs and social practices that have trampled on some of the most basic tenets of human dignity and inflicted untold misery, humiliation, and injustice on too many for too long. Its victims include the Dalits (‘the oppressed’)—formerly ‘untouchables’—numbering one out of six Indians. Injury and prejudice are in fact so integral to the functioning of the caste system—doesn’t the absolute ‘purity’ of one caste require the absolute ‘impurity’ of another, and all that this entails?—that it’s hard to imagine what a plausible defense of it by an insider or a cultural pluralist might look like.
The caste system also worsened the plight of women beyond the inequities inherent in all patriarchies. The desire to preserve upper caste ‘purity’ created anxieties over miscegeny, including an extra horror of and penalties for hypogamy, where an upper caste woman marries a lower caste man. This demanded more stringent control over female sexuality, which in turn encouraged the custom of female child marriage. ‘Women’s cooperation in the system was secured by various means: ideology, economic dependency on the male head of the family, class privileges and veneration bestowed upon conforming and dependent women of the upper classes, and, finally, the use of force when required.’ 
The Anatomy of Caste
Castes are not a feature of Hindu society alone. A de-facto caste hierarchy also exists among the Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs of India. While caste is today most visibly associated with India, forms of it have either existed or still exist elsewhere, including in Japan, Korea, Europe, Hawaii, Arabia, and Africa, some with strikingly parallel notions of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’. In The Indians, Sudhir and Katharina Kakar point out that psychological training to associate ‘purity’ with clean and ‘pollution’ with dirty begins early on in Indian households:
For the upper-caste child, a dalit is a member of a group that is permanently and irrevocably dirty. The child’s knowledge is not anthropological or religious-textual but a knowledge-feeling that is pre-verbal and has, so to speak, entered the child’s very bones. Many a time while growing up, the child has sensed the sudden kinesthetic tension in the body of his mother, father, aunt, uncle, when a dalit has come too near. He has registered their expressions of disgust, unconsciously mimicking them in his own face and body at any threatened contact with an untouchable. Given the child’s propensity to place himself at the center of all experience, he effortlessly links the family’s disapproval and revulsion toward the untouchable to those times when he has been an ‘untouchable’ himself, that is, the times ... above all, when he has been filthily, gloriously dirty.
Regarding others as impure and dirty, and therefore subhuman, is also commonplace outside the context of caste. It is a universal trick designed to withhold empathy from and to dominate antagonistic groups, especially during ethnic conflicts. As the Kakars write,
‘Dirty nigger’ and ‘dirty Jew’ are well-known epithets in the United States. The Chinese regard Tibetans as unwashed and perpetually stinking of yak butter, while Jewish children in Israel are brought up to regard Arabs as dirty. In the Rwandan radio broadcasts inciting the Hutus to massacre the Tutsis, the latter were consistently called rats and cockroaches, creatures associated with dirt and underground sewers, vermin that needed to be exterminated.’
Many historians have criticized Dumont’s pioneering analysis of Indian caste, accusing him of overstating the power of the Brahmins and of the ‘purity’ principle in shaping caste, which implies that Indian society was static, homogeneous, and integrated rather than what it has been: dynamic, notoriously diverse, and fragmented. They claim that norms, inter-caste relations, and social practices were always fluid, with the Brahmin not the only reference point. Today’s caste system, they argue, was heavily shaped by the social, administrative, and economic changes that began in early colonial times—until then, a lot of Indians ‘were still comparatively untouched by the norms of jati and varna as we now understand them.’  Census classifications and differential state policies also hardened caste identities in modern times. Further, social mobility has existed all along—a lower caste group could change its way of life and move up within a generation or two, a process called sanskritization.
Notably, Marxist historians like Irfan Habib have argued that ‘purity’ was a rationalization for class interests and existing social exploitation,  and further, that the material impact of colonialism and capitalism is what turned caste into the potent force that it became in modern India. Caste endogamy and heredity were shaped, too, by its function as a provider of community and a means of preserving specialized artisan skills and knowledge; Habib argues that thrusting lowly status on some castes, such as iron smiths, carpenters, and weavers, can easily be explained by the primary desire to keep their wages low, and their low ‘purity’ score may have arisen out of this desire. Others note that Dumont conveniently ignored the individualistic and egalitarian aspects of Indian life that have coexisted all along. But Dumont’s theory, though badly dented, still remains indispensable.
The Persistence of Caste
Over the ages, many Indians have rejected the caste system—the Jains, the Buddhists, the Carvakas, Basava, many Bhakti mystics, Phule, Ambedkar, Periyar—but it has survived them all. Others, such as Gandhi, Vivekananda, and Ram Mohan Roy, did not reject it but advocated major reform. Gandhi, in particular, naively defended the idea of caste itself, imagining it could be made free of discrimination through education and ‘upliftment’, clashing bitterly with Ambedkar, an ‘untouchable’ who wrote The Annihilation of Caste. Under British rule in the early 20th century, most Indian nationalists loudly debated the problem of caste and what to do about it, including the debate on what was worse: Western racism or Indian caste. Gandhi, Lajpat Rai, Tagore, and Bose condemned the practice of untouchability while calling it better than Western racism. This came out especially in response to the question posed in 1929 by an American journalist: ‘Is the plight of the untouchable as hard as that of the Negro in America?’ No, argued most Indian leaders, citing the dehumanizing Jim Crow laws and the lynch mobs to make their case, but their stance was also shaped by their desire to deflate ‘superior’ westerners all too convinced of the white man’s burden. Ambedkar however argued the reverse, invoking not the de jure but the de facto position of the ‘untouchables’. 
The Indian constitution outlawed caste discrimination sixty years ago, and affirmative action has had a salutary impact in recent decades. However, in this deeply conservative country, passing legislation is one thing, enforcing the laws and changing minds is quite another. Caste still has a tenacious hold on too many Indians who, in the words of the Marathi poet Govindaraj, ‘bow their heads to the kicks from above and who simultaneously give a kick below, never thinking to resist the one or refrain from the other.’ Discrimination in housing, marriage, and employment is commonplace. Especially outside the major cities, caste-based oppression is still rife, ranging from psychological abuse to bonded labor to rapes and murders that frequently go unpunished.
The trends however look promising. In recent decades, those on the lowest rungs of the social pyramid have been politicized and have made their presence felt in the Indian democracy, even commanding high political offices. Some have chosen the path of militant resistance, many have converted to other religions, others are navigating new avenues of social mobility offered by the modern economy, and a few have even chosen art and literature to tell their own stories, bearing witness to their slice of life in India. Intellectuals like Kancha Ilaiah, author of ‘Why I Am Not a Hindu’, are contesting the dominant historical, cultural, and religious narratives of India. More than ever, the Dalits now understand that ‘Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.’
1. Romila Thapar, The Penguin History of Early India, pp 62-68.
2. Rabindranath Tagore, Selected Essays, Rupa; From essay titled Race Conflict, p 343.
3. Uma Chakravarti, Beyond the Kings and Brahmanas of ‘Ancient’ India, Tulika Books, 2006; from the chapter titled Conceptualizing Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India, p 140.
4. Susan Bayly, Caste, Society and Politics in India: from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age, Cambridge, p 25.
5. Irfan Habib, Essays in Indian History: Towards a Marxist perception, Tulika Books, 1995.
6. Slate, Nico, Race, Caste, and Nation: Indian Nationalists and the American Negro, 1893-1947, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association, Oct 12, 2006
7. Sudhir and Katharina Kakar, The Indians: Portrait of a People, Penguin Viking, 2007, p 27.
8. Quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.
More writing by Namit Arora?
Posted by Namit Arora at 12:35 AM | Permalink