The emergence of caste as a political tool in modern times is therefore an anomaly… in transition
By Baljinder Sharma
It is the privilege of citizens in free societies to assert their individual as well as group identities including those that contain elements of religious, ethnic or casteist nature. In that sense, certain ostensibly casteist claims made at a gathering, a few days ago, which have been subject of much media attention should be received with little surprise…leave aside any public outrage. Aren’t such claims routinely made in private gatherings? Aren’t democracies actually constituted to allow such ambitions to prevail as long as these are achieved through the process of ballot box? Whether the outcomes so achieved, are indeed the ones that we desire most – is a prerogative of the society to assess… democracies also do make it possible for the good of the whole society to be served through secular and more meritocratic means.
Amongst Hindus, caste has served both as a uniting as well as dividing factor despite its uncertain and controversial religious origins. Interpreted in different and generally divisive ways it has become an object of frequent abuse at vested hands.
Yet, the idea of caste itself is intuitively simple if seen as an economic rather than a religious construct. Its roots lie in occupational guilds that promoted specialization of work – leading to greater efficiency in social and economic life. In the morning and on a daily basis a Brahmin went to work to teach his students and indulge in religious exercise, the Vaish picked his plough to head out to farm his land and the Shudra cobbler laid his tools in the market place to a day of mending peoples’ shoes… in the confidence that a group of Kshatriyas stood out there providing security for the benefit of the entire community.
Each caste, under this system, had equality of status and profited from a relative certainty of lifelong occupation. Governance was shared — making power-seeking irrelevant and domination impossible for any particular caste. Hierarchy in social status was earned and not imposed…usually on the basis of service to the community. Ordering society according to merit and quality or work did not come from the ‘Laws of Manu’ or the ‘Vedas’ as is historically proclaimed but from the implicit submission of the society to a set of common values and shared understanding of what was good and what was less so.
In fact, it was the system of work specialization that passed on to generations and eventually became hereditary that contributed to India’s unsurpassed economic success and general prosperity until the eighteenth century. The added fact that caste-conflicts were rare in the society only confirms that the system worked for the good of everyone and therefore remained unchallenged and universally accepted.
Over time intermediate castes grew to bridge the occupational differences between the four major ones. These castes were often composed of renegade break-away groups who ventured into newer professions and business activities but earned their way back into the mainstream society — under new caste categories.
The question that caste structures were discriminatory and divisive can only be answered with another question – how many lawyers invite their barbers for drinks on Friday evenings, even today. It was a purely utilitarian instinct that prompted castes to avoid interaction and inter-mingling including relationship by marriage to other caste groups so that ‘specific skills and business networks’ could be retained within their extended families and members of existing groups.
Under the British colonial policy of divide-and-rule that promoted so-called high caste individuals in position of influence and power, to rule upon their fellowmen, the first wave of rebellion originated from these very castes they patronized. The Congress Party leadership predominantly came from a Brahmin caucus led by brilliant modernist and immensely popular Jawaharlal Nehru. His contribution to the Indian freedom movement and its successful transformation as a resolutely secular independent state is legendary.
Few leaders could ever match his charisma, his profound intellect and natural statesmanship. Yet he was never a Brahmin leader. His popularity and support amongst the self proclaimed lower and middle castes has remained unmatched. In accepting Nehru and several high caste political leaders as their legitimate representatives under democratic government, the Hindus have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to transcend caste boundaries and underlined their irrelevance in matters of common interest.
The emergence of caste as a foundation of all political activity amongst the Hindus, therefore, is a relatively recent development and only confirms its gradual transformation from economic to political device. Hindu religion may be a mute bystander to this social occurrence but caste associations will never be able to usurp its role and uniting influence.
One might wonder if the modern political idea of majority rule under a universal suffrage actually created possibilities of caste conflict – that hitherto never existed. Has democratic politics subjected caste to a different kind of purpose – from its practical utility as an occupational convenience to its Machiavellian usefulness as an instrument of political power?
In 1911 the British Census Commissioner in India, Sir Herbert Risley reported that categorizing thousands of castes amongst the Hindus as high, middle or low was becoming virtually impossible as each caste claimed an equal status…while not disagreeing with the higher status of others. This was a surprising revelation. For the British and outside world, caste categories were written in stone and were therefore easy to identify and record. What they instead encountered was a mesh of inter-related castes simply impossible to slot unless an infinite number of caste categories were created or such synthetic categories abolished in entirety. Ask someone to enumerate the exact number of castes amongst Hindus and he is likely to relive Sir Risley’s pain. Yet many endeavor to do so incessantly.
If caste categories were actually recorded in the ‘Vedas’ or in the ‘Book of Manu’ as is religiously believed, it would take nothing more than the flip of a few pages to arrive at an answer. The fact that no answer exists is enough to repudiate all religious and mythical claims on caste. Yet this is not exactly the answer many wish to hear. There are political compulsions to enumerate and record caste, however imperfectly and propagate its use if only at the cost of creating an artificial divide.
The challenge, custodians and exploiters of a distorted caste system face is exactly this. Over time caste categories dissolve or mutate or simply disappear. In the short term these serve as nothing more than bundles of influence created to trade on the social marketplace. To see caste in the historical context as a benign and useful human organization would be recovering a truth that few would want to accept. Caste exploitation, after all, can be hugely rewarding for some, at least in the short term.
Over centuries of its existence, Hinduism has come to embody a fiercely secular way-of-life which has shown tremendous capacity to embrace the right and useful and reject the wrong and destructive — almost without having to prepare for it religiously or requiring reference to its saintly texts.
The emergence of caste as a political tool in modern times is therefore an anomaly… in transition… and is likely to be rejected as its pernicious impact on individual life and in society becomes evident to the common eye.
* Published in print edition on 9 September 2010
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