Caste Consciousness

‘This is a Village’

Krishna Kumar

Several years ago, I witnessed a key moment in a rural primary school in Allahabad district of Uttar Pradesh. It was defining in that it revealed how casual educational planning in India is in the pursuit of long-term social aims. I was in a Class V room, sitting at the back and watching an old, experienced teacher and the children. The class strength was at least 50. It was a cold morning and many of them had neither shoes nor socks. I knew that while the government distributes a free uniform to school children, shoes are not a part of it. And in any case, socks are a complicated matter. Somehow, planners have never accepted socks to be a basic need for children.

The lesson that morning was a poem. It was a patriotic piece of verse with plenty of scope for explaining difficult words and their spelling. That is what the teacher was doing when he noticed that someone was standing at the door and holding a piece of paper. The teacher went over and looked at the paper. Then he turned towards the class and said, "All the SC [Scheduled Caste] children, stand up." Ten to 12 children stood up. The teacher told them, "Go to office. Your scholarship has come." They left and the lesson continued.

As far as the teacher was concerned, there was nothing unusual in calling some of his students as "SC children". Highlighting their caste background was part of a routine necessity. It was official work—that's all. What about the rest of the children? When I put forth this question to the teacher during the half-day break, he smiled and said, 'They are general." That did not answer my question, so I repeated it. He said, "This is a village. Everyone knows everybody's caste here." And then he added 'This is not a city where no one worries about caste."

A recent visit to Allahabad revived the memory of the incident, the teacher and what he had said. This time I had some work in the university. On the way from the station to the guest house, my host updated me with some news, told me that the process of filling up the hundreds of vacant teaching posts had again stopped because the vice-chancellor had resigned. Many key departments were functioning with less than a third of their sanctioned staff strength. This was a familiar story—a sort of national dirge. But something else my host said that morning reminded me of my visit to the village school in Allahabad district. He said that the university functions under the pressure of three main lobbies: the Brahmin group, the Thakur group and the Kayastha group. They actively compete for influence over every major decision, and, most avidly, over the process of selection for new appointments. After all their future depends on continuous recruitment and proof of success in keeping up their pressure.

If there is one city in north India where one might expect caste consciousness to have diminished as a result of modernisation, it would be Allahabad. There are several historical reasons. To begin with, the university located at Allahabad is among the oldest in India, and it was not merely an examining university. Set up in 1887, it had existed earlier as the Muir Central College. With special patronage given by the British to several modern institutions in Allahabad, the university progressed rapidly and it became, in popular perception, the "Oxford of the East". As the historian, Christopher Bayly, who passed away recently, has pointed out, the town area of Allahabad had a higher proportion of literates in English than any other town west of Calcutta. With the establishment of the Indian Press 1884, Allahabad became a major centre of publishing and literary activity in Hindi.

The Indian Press launched Saraswati in 1900, a monthly magazine that became Hindi's foremost platform for social and literary debates. As the new century progressed, other journals were born, such as Premchand's Hans and Mahadevi Varma's Chand. Remarkably different in their concerns and discourses, these, and other magazines, deepened the reach of modern ideas in every sphere of social life. The university flourished in the middle of a vast amount of dynamic, intellectual, literary and political activity.

Resurgence of caste
While the decline of Allahabad University has a wider, systemic context, the rise of strong caste-based groups inside is a more specific phenomenon, demonstrating the resilience of the caste system and its identity-giving role. The popular assumption that urban modernity will weaken the power of caste was apparently based on a narrow view of the many functions it serves. Caste continues to be a major social force governing matrimony, socialisation of children, social status, and, in many cases, occupation. Political measures such as universal franchise and reservation were expected to make caste hierarchy irrelevant. Perhaps that did happen, but only to a limited extent and not in every region. Modern living, travel and communication were also supposed to usher in a social order where the individual could practise and enjoy the freedom of choice in all matters. When we look at the growth and number of caste and sub-caste communities that inhabit the Internet, we realise how innocent our great expectations from modernity were.

Caste mobilisation on the Internet reminds us of the desperate search for identity that Indians continue to make, tapping every possible resource—from nation and religion to caste and sub-caste. Apparently, virtual localism provides the same kind of solace in a globalised environment that a visit during the holidays to one's native village provided to earlier generations. It can also be seen as solace for the physical loss of the village where one's grandparents once used to live or perhaps are still living.

Urban-rural polarity
Despite this pervasive and vigorous presence of caste in the globalised world of Indian modernity, the belief that caste consciousness is mainly a rural phenomenon persists. "Urban" and "rural" continue to be treated as contracting categories, not merely in popular parlance but also as terms of reference for public policy. The growth of education seems to have strengthened the view that caste—as a system of values and beliefs—now prevails mainly in villages. This stereotyped perception privileges the urban over the rural, making the former a symbol of progress, and the latter a symbol of stagnation. This simplistic division has distorted public policy and distribution of financial outlays. Towns and cities claim a disproportionately larger share of attention and money. They represent the future of the nation. On the other hand, villages are believed to represent the past. Occasionally treated as objects of reverence and concern, they receive mainly subsistence or, at times, compensatory grants from public funds.

Whether it is caste or any other marker of continuity, the ideology of associating it with rural life is highly problematic. This ideology has imparted an ominous ring to the term "rural development". As practised today, rural development means pushing the village to copy the town. This vision has no other image of the future to offer to a village except to become urban-like. This kind of mono-modernism is doomed to fail as indeed it already has. The persistence of caste and its resurgence in modernised spaces proves that policies based on rural-urban polarity are mistaken. Such policies are likely to exacerbate the wider crisis that we can witness across towns and villages in various forms, both in the natural and the social environment. It is a false belief that caste-based identities are a rural preserve. It would be equally erroneous to think that gender bias is found mainly in villages. Such ideas are remarkably popular among those responsible for shaping and implementing state policies, such as civil servants and teachers.

If the only future we can see for villages is to turn them into towns, it would be no future worth aspiring for, considering the shape our towns are already in. The late Raymond Williams, a historian of culture, had pointed out that the country and the city are not two rival states of human reality, but rather a continuum with many intermediate forms and overlaps. By essentialising the village, we merely display the limitations of our capacity to acknowledge a general crisis that the agenda of modernity faces.

Vol. 48, No. 1, July 12 - 18, 2015