Monday, March 01, 2010
The Blight of Hindustan
By Namit Arora
An egalitarian ethos hasn’t been a prominent feature of Indian civilization for at least a thousand years, when Buddhism began losing ground in South Asia. The dominant Hindu sensibility has long held that all men are created unequal, constituting not one but many moral communities, and possess varying natural rights and obligations. 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 (‘color’): 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 divisions appear in the earliest known Indo-Aryan text, the Rig Veda (but not the word ‘varna’), and were no doubt a feature of the emerging Vedic society. ‘According to the Mahabharata, the "colors" associated with the four [varnas] were white, red, yellow and black; they sound more like symbolic shades meted out by those category-conscious brahmanical minds than skin pigments.’
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 main organizing principle of this 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 Brahmanical ‘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. New dietary regimes would get associated with each new jati. For instance, beef and alcohol would become taboo for those accorded a higher caste. 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.’ In Discovery of India, Nehru, too, struck a note of apologia: ‘Thus at a time when it was customary for the conquerors to exterminate or enslave the conquered races, caste enabled a more peaceful solution which fitted in with the growing specialization of functions.’ He saw caste as ‘necessary and desirable in its early forms, and meant to develop individuality and freedom’. Such thinkers argued that 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. Historian John Keay, while calling this new social order ‘systematised oppression’, added that ‘it should also be seen as an ingenious schema for harnessing the loyalties of a more numerous and possibly more skilled indigenous population.’
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. Any mixing of castes via intermarriage came to be frowned upon and often harshly punished. 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 this social order (though it would be simplistic 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. Among its worst victims are 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.
How old is untouchability? Historians report a few instances of it in pre-Gupta times, some as early as 400 BCE when Panini mentions it. From around the same time, one of the Jataka Tales—which contain stories about the Buddha’s past lives—mentions the Chandala, whose mere sight sully a merchant’s daughters and a priest. The Laws of Manu also advises that the impure Chandala must live outside the village and must not look at Brahmins when the latter are eating. If a Brahmin happens to touch a Chandala, he must bathe to regain purity. But untouchability became a socially significant phenomenon only in the early medieval period, shortly after Buddhism had peaked in the Subcontinent. In the 11th century, the Persian traveler Al-Beruni saw many groups of ‘degraded outcastes’ who lived outside upper caste villages and were ‘occupied with dirty work’.
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 and restricted widow remarriage. As historian Uma Chakravarti has written, ‘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. Moreover, while caste is today most visibly associated with India, forms of it have either existed or still exist elsewhere, including in Japan (with an outcaste group, the Burakumin), Korea, Europe, Hawaii, Arabia, and Africa, some with strikingly parallel notions of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’. Dumont however pointed out that despite the presence of caste-like forms in these societies, they lacked a proper caste system, which ensures that no member of the society is beyond its classification, as in the Indian Subcontinent.
Prejudice invariably feeds upon culturally constructed ideas of human difference, including of caste, race, gender, beauty, reason, civilization, and so on. 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 caste, accusing him of overstating the power of the Brahmins and of the ‘purity’ principle in shaping caste. They claim that norms, inter-caste relations, and social practices were more fluid and diverse than Dumont’s schema suggests, with the Brahmin not the only reference point (royalty could be more powerful, for instance, but this led scholar Gail Omvedt to raise an important question: did the secular power tussles between the royals and the Brahmins resist the ideological frame of Brahmanism itself? If not, the point about royal power may be a red herring). Today’s caste system, these historians 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. In Castes of Mind, Nicholas B. Dirks accused Dumont of treating ‘the political and economic aspects of caste as relatively secondary and isolated.’ Dirks argued that from the late 19th century, British ethnography and resulting knowledge became a potent evolutionary force on caste—via hierarchical ranking of castes using ‘racial-types’ and anthropometry as factors among others, criminalization of entire castes, instituting caste-based regiments and the concept of ‘martial races’ in the army, ‘implementation of legal codes that made the provisions of law applicable on caste lines,’ and more. According to Dirks, ‘Caste emerged, stronger than ever, from the legacy of Orientalist forms of knowledge.’
A complementary view, articulated by scholar-activist Anand Teltumbde, is that British judicial and administrative practices, seemingly based on equality before the law, ‘undermined the importance of caste.’ The institutions of the British Raj, which seeded modernity in India, created ‘an enabling environment’ for the ‘emerging anticaste ethos’, ‘opened opportunities for economic betterment, particularly for the untouchables, and allowed both untouchables and shudras access to modern education.’ It was only later, Teltumbde holds, that certain dubious ‘modernist policies’ of the Indian State and a harsher capitalism, while erasing ‘certain caste divisions’, gave rise to new political and economic contestations—especially between a newly ascendant shudra class of peasant landowners and landless Dalits in rural India. This ‘reinforced caste and accentuated its viciousness as never before.’ For both Dirks and Teltumbde, then, caste has been far more intricate, malleable, and hydra-headed than in Dumont’s portrait.
Other critics who see Dumont’s view of caste as monolithic argue that to a certain extent, 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 that has been called ‘Sanskritization’. The sociologist M. N. Srinivas has defined it as a process through which ‘a low or middle Hindu caste, or tribal or other group, changes its customs, ritual ideology, and way of life in the direction of a high and frequently twice-born caste.’ Within a generation or two, a caste could ‘rise to a higher position in the hierarchy by adopting vegetarianism and teetotalism, and by Sanskritizing its ritual and pantheon. In short, it took over, as far as possible, the customs, rites, and beliefs of the Brahmins, and adoption of the Brahminic way of life.’ However, it is also easy to overstate the actual incidence of Sanskritization, for it was resisted by the gatekeepers of tradition and remained the exception rather than the rule, more an aspirational idea in the lower rungs of the hierarchy.
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, despite its shortcomings, still remains indispensable, an essential starting point for understanding caste.
The Persistence of Caste
In the last 2,500 years, many Indians have rejected and attacked the caste system—for instance, the Jains, the Buddhists, and the Carvakas in ancient times; Basava and Bhakti thinkers and poets like Namdev, Janabai, Ravidas, Kabir, and Tukaram in the medieval period; Phule, Iyothee Thass, Ambedkar, and Periyar in the colonial era. But the caste system 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, perhaps the sharpest critique of the caste system in modern times.
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 casteism. Gandhi, Lajpat Rai, Tagore, and Bose condemned the practice of untouchability while calling it not as bad as slavery in America. 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 history of slavery, 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’. In juridical terms, ownership of a person, he conceded, made slavery worse than untouchability. But in practice, the slave, being property with value, gave the master an incentive to take ‘care of the health and well being of the slave’. Whereas, ‘No one is responsible for the feeding, housing and clothing of the untouchable.’ Furthermore, ‘slavery was never obligatory’, it only ‘permitted’ one to hold another as slave. ‘But untouchability is obliged,’ he wrote. A Hindu ‘is "enjoined" to hold another as untouchable’, a ‘compulsion [that the Hindu] cannot escape’. In one of his many debates with Gandhi, Ambedkar forcefully pointed out that ‘the outcaste is a byproduct of the caste system. There will be outcastes as long as there are castes. Nothing can emancipate the outcaste except the destruction of the caste system.’ Many have asked the questions that Ambedkar begins with in this passage from The Annihilation of Caste:
Why have the mass of people tolerated the social evils to which they have been subjected? There have been social revolutions in other countries of the world. Why have there not been social revolutions in India, is a question which has incessantly troubled me. There is only one answer which I can give, and it is that the lower classes of Hindus have been completely disabled for direct action on account of this wretched Caste System. They could not bear arms, and without arms they could not rebel. They were all ploughmen—or rather, condemned to be ploughmen—and they never were allowed to convert their ploughshares into swords. They had no bayonets, and therefore everyone who chose, could and did sit upon them. On account of the Caste System, they could receive no education. They could not think out or know the way to their salvation. They were condemned to be lowly; and not knowing the way of escape, and not having the means of escape, they became reconciled to eternal servitude, which they accepted as their inescapable fate. ...The existence of Caste and Caste Consciousness [also] prevented solidarity [between the oppressed castes].
In Homo Hierarchicus, Dumont wrote that ‘untouchability will not truly disappear until the purity of the Brahmin is itself radically devalued’. This devaluation remains a work in progress. Or, as Gopal Guru has noted, although Indians have embraced ‘one person, one vote’, they are nowhere close to embracing the larger ideal of democracy: ‘one person, one value’ (that is, equal value at birth, irrespective of caste, class, gender, and more). Hierarchy 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.’ Omprakash Valmiki wrote in Joothan that not just among the ‘upper castes’, even Dalit social activists in Maharashtra’s Dalit bastis in the 1970s, ‘although they talked outwardly of forgetting the differences between Mahars, Mangs, Chamars and Mehtars, [they were internally] caught in the clutches of these beliefs.’ As a witness to this reality, Valmiki’s ‘heart would break. One could clearly perceive the hesitation of the [mostly Mahar] activists when they entered the Mehtar bastis’, which in turn made the Mehtars ‘suspicious of the Dalit leadership.’
The Indian constitution of 1950, in Articles 15-17, outlawed untouchability and other forms of caste-based discrimination, proclaimed equality of opportunity in public employment, and asserted the right of the State to make special provisions ‘for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.’ From the start, the State reserved 22.5% of seats in public sector jobs, higher education, and central and state legislatures for SC/ST communities, and would later extend caste-based reservations in jobs and education to additional communities. In 1955, the Parliament also enacted The Untouchability (Offenses) Act, later called the Protection of Civil Rights Act. Given its weaknesses, it was supplanted in 1989 by a stronger hate crime legislation called the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
However, in this deeply conservative country, passing legislation is one thing, enforcing the laws and changing minds is quite another. Discrimination in housing, marriage, and employment is commonplace, even in the modern sectors of the economy. Especially outside the major cities, caste-based violence is still rife, ranging from bonded labor to rapes and murders that frequently go unpunished, not the least because casteism also abounds in the institutions of State that deal with crime and punishment. Even the Prevention of Atrocities Act, writes Teltumbde, is ‘oblivious of village dynamics’ in some ways, for instance, against realities like collective punishment to members of a caste, ‘social and economic boycott and blackmail’. In recent decades, he writes, changes in the political economy of rural India have given the landowning castes ‘unprecedented wealth but failed to empower dalits to a comparable degree, thereby accentuating between the two groups the power asymmetry that is the prime mover behind atrocities.’ He attributes the post-1960s upsurge of caste violence in rural India to three factors: (1) the rise of a large, new class of shudra oppressors who’ve now ‘assumed the brahminical baton’ (2) ‘the relative progress’ and ‘assertiveness’ of Dalits, and (3) moral corruption, including Brahminism, in ‘the lowest rungs of the police and the bureaucracy’ that mediate ‘between the state and society’ (rungs that typically also include Dalits but who, barring exceptions, often learn to mimic the dominant institutional attitudes and norms rather than defy them at great risk to themselves). Unfortunately, Brahmanism also pervades the higher echelons of State administration, ensuring that this systemic problem doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s true that ‘society perpetrates atrocities against dalits,’ adds Teltumbde. ‘But when dalits approach the police with grievances against such a society, they invariably encounter an equally repugnant and hostile force.’ State governments have often used violence to repress even Dalit protest marches and calls for justice following gruesome incidents, as in Khairlanji, Maharashtra.
The broad trends, fortunately, are not without hope. 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. Poverty and illiteracy among them, though still significantly higher than average, have declined. A few Dalits have chosen the path of militant resistance, some of principled activism, many of conversion to a different religion, others are navigating new avenues of social mobility offered by the modern economy, at times through reservations in public jobs and education. A few have even chosen art and literature to tell their own stories, bearing witness to their slice of life in India. Dalit literature, explains author Sharankumar Limbale, is ‘writing about Dalits by Dalit writers with a Dalit consciousness’. It has added ‘to Indian literature fresh experiences, a new sensitivity and vocabulary, a different protagonist, an alternate vision, and a new chemistry of suffering and revolt.’. To novelist, feminist, and politician, P. Sivakami, Dalit literature is the ‘rebellious expression of a new awakening among educated Dalits.’ Dalit creativity, wrote the scholar DR Nagaraj (1954-1998), ‘is marked by specific forms of contestation; it challenges the hegemonic modes of segregation [of works into, say, folk and classical, and other ‘hierarchized opposites’]. It also celebrates the capacity of the human mind to uphold the essential spiritual dignity of being.’ A new breed of scholars is contesting the dominant historical, cultural, and religious narratives of India, including those forged in recent centuries by a convenient collusion of the power and knowledge of Europeans and Brahmins. These scholars include Ambedkar in his large and lucid body of work, Kancha Ilaiah, author of Why I Am Not a Hindu, DR Nagaraj, author of The Flaming Feet and Other Essays, Gail Omvedt, author of Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals, Anand Teltumbde, author of The Persistence of Caste, and many others. More than ever, the Dalits now understand that ‘Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.’
- John Keay, India: A History, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000, p 54.
- Romila Thapar, The Penguin History of Early India, pp 62-68.
- Rabindranath Tagore, Selected Essays, Rupa; From essay titled Race Conflict, p 343.
- R.S. Sharma, Rethinking India’s Past, p 7.
- In The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables, BR Ambedkar analyzed various historical and religious texts and concluded: “We can, therefore, say with some confidence that Untouchability was born some time about 400 A.D.”
- 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.
- Susan Bayly, Caste, Society and Politics in India: from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age, Cambridge, p 25.
- Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind, Permanent Black, 2001, pp. 58, 45, 41.
- Anand Teltumbde, The Persistence of Caste, Zed Books, 2010, pp. 20-22, 31, 48, 50.
- Irfan Habib, Essays in Indian History: Towards a Marxist perception, Tulika Books, 1995.
- 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
- Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus, p. 54.
- Gopal Guru, "Dalit critique of Liberal Democracy", YouTube, Mar 1, 2012.
- Sudhir and Katharina Kakar, The Indians: Portrait of a People, Penguin Viking, 2007, p 27.
- Anand Teltumbde, in The Persistence of Caste, also argues, less than persuasively I think, that the rise in atrocities against Dalits is significantly caused by neoliberal globalization that began in the 1990s. It’s less than persuasive because the impact of neoliberal globalization has been strongest in urban India and relatively weak in rural India, the site of most atrocities.
- In his memoir, An Untouchable in the I.A.S., Balwant Singh documented this sort of social reality in the administrative ranks in the 1960s but which no doubt continues; reported by Gyanendra Pandey in A History of Prejudice (p. 69). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition. Balwant Singh wrote, “For officers from the low castes things were… complicated. They were acceptable if they accepted the prevailing… social norms.” Pandey adds, “Balwant Singh might have made the point more strongly still, for it is probably fair to say that such officers were tolerated if they accepted upper-caste ways and attitudes and yet [were] never fully accepted as social peers. Low-caste officers suffered from much social indignity and humiliation. Expressions of grievance on their part were commonly met with the response that these were ‘trivial,’ ‘inconsequential’ matters.”
- Sharankumar Limbale, “Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature”, Orient Longman, 2004, p19, 37. The Marathi original of 1996 was translated into English by Alok Mukherjee.
- P. Sivakami, Tamil Dalit Literature - Some Riddles, Cross / Cultures, No. 145, Jan 1, 2012.
- Nagaraj, D.R. (2013-05-15). The Flaming Feet and Other Essays: The Dalit Movement in India (Kindle Locations 2791-2793). Permanent Black. Kindle Edition.
- Quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.
More writing by Namit Arora?
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