How to End the Evil of Casteism

Caste Conflicts and Caste Politics in India

Saral Sarkar

Currently, we—progre ssive and leftist Indians—are appalled at the atrocities that are being committed against Dalits, Muslims and Christians. We are worried over the dominance of caste and communal considerations in Indian politics, over the fact that caste and communal conflicts are replacing class conflict and pushing socialist and progressive politics to the background. Today, the caste system not only continues to exist in the private life-praxis of Hindus, but also dominates the socio-political structure of India—think only of the caste-based parties and reservations of jobs. It even continues to exist in the way of thinking of the majority of Hindu Indians.

In this short essay I shall only try to identify the basic factors that explain how in modern India the situation described above could come about in spite of the entry of modern education, Western type development, and successful practice of one-person-one-vote democracy for the last seven decades. In doing so, I shall focus mainly on the caste problematic. It would hopefully also help the reader understand why it has been so difficult for the past and present-day anti-caste reform movements to succeed.

Division of a society in castes (as distinct from classes) is not altogether unique to Indian Hindus. The system exists in some form or other in sub-Saharan Western African countries (Senegal e.g.), it existed in Spanish and Portuguese colonial societies in South America (sociedad de castas). Caste divisions de facto exist among Indian Muslims and Indian Christians. Among the former, there are said to be 3 castes: Ashrafs (nobles), middle caste Muslims called Ajlafs, and the lowest, the Arzals, are equivalents of the Hindu untouchables. Among the latter, there are some who identify themselves as "Brahmin Christians" and some whom others identify as Dalit Christians. This makes me think that there must be some general cause(s) for the origin of the caste system and its continuity up to our times.

All presently living humans belong to the same species, and despite several genetic variations, throughout their social evolution, their basic behavioural characteristics remained for the greater part similar. Although, being social animals, we need to and want to feel belonging to a group (a family or a larger community), and although for almost every person one's group identity is very important for both material-economic security and psychological stability, there is a very common characteristic among humans, namely the desire to stand out from and above the other members of the group—through wealth, power, prestige or achievements—and feel proud about it.

Such identity groups can be large or small, and identities can be based on citizenship of a state (e.g. being Indian), a sub-nationality (e.g. being Maharashtrian), a language (e.g. being Bengali), a region within a state (e.g. being South Indian), a continent or part of it (e.g. being European, East Asian), a religion (e.g. being Muslim), a sect (e.g. being Vaishnavite), a city (e.g. being Hyderabadi or Calcuttan). And it can also be a caste or caste-group within the larger religious identity group, viz. Hindus (e.g. being Brahmin, or, in Bengal, Vaidya). Smaller identity groups within a larger one (e.g. expatriate Indians in the US or UK) may also desire to stand out and feel proud about it, e.g. when such Indians hold high positions in the host countries.

Among Hindus, one way of standing out has been to make it known that one is not just a Hindu, but a Brahmin (or a Kshatriya). Kulin Brahmin, Deshasth or Chitpavan Brahmin are identities that enable (have enabled in the past) a person bearing this "stamp" to stand out even among Brahmins, among whom the Mandal Commission (MC, for short) has also identified some OBC Brahmins. Among Indian Christians, one can stand out by making it known that one is not just a Christian, but a Brahmin Christian.

In other societies and in other contexts, one may stand out through a title that one gets bestowed upon by the monarch or the president of a state: Lord, Sir, Raja, Padmabhusan, Padma-shree etc., In Europe, titles denoting nobility are often hereditary, making them comparable to our Brahmin family names. In academic contexts, one can stand out through a title such as Doctor and Professor. One can also stand out through and be proud of being able to claim to be a descendant of a once-rich or highly educated family or of a family famous for its accomplishments or contributions to the community or the nation.

Recently, a strange manifestation of this desire came to the fore when the Mahars of Maharashtra (a Dalit caste-group) wanted to celebrate the 200th anniversary of "their victory" (albeit as mercenaries of the British) over the much larger army of the Peshwas in the battle of Koregaon. The point in this celebration has always been to highlight the valour of the Mahars as soldiers.

Economic and political Factors
Some additional identities (e.g. Brahmin among Hindus) bring not only social prestige, for which all humans have a weakness, but also very often, as we all know, directly or indirectly, concrete material-economic advantages and privileges. This alone is enough to explain why people who have somehow come to possess such additional "higher" identities mostly also want to preserve and flaunt them.

It is also easy to understand the resentment of those who neither like the caste identity that others gave their forefathers, nor possess any additional higher identity, nor, for whatever reason, have a chance to attain some. For example, the resentment of Dalits, who, despite India's progressive constitution and despite much progress in political consciousness that has been made, are, in many regions of the country and in many sections of the population, still looked down upon and often suffer violent oppression both individually and as a group. And all this in addition to the fact that they generally cannot, because of birth in poor and uneducated families, make equal use of the chances offered by the Indian economy and education system.

The desire to stand out or to become rich and powerful or just to leave poverty behind is present in most humans, also among poor Dalit/OBC individuals and groups. Even before independence and particularly since then, the goal of Dalit and anti-caste movements have not been limited to just making untouchability and other sorts of caste-related discrimination vanish. Since then, average young Dalits, just like all young people, have been cherishing higher desires and ambitions. Often these are exorbitant and unrealistic, mere dreams. But they are there.

I can give two examples from documentary film reportages: (1) A ten years old girl with proven high intelligence, whose poor working class parents from a Mumbai slum could send her only to the lowest quality primary school, was asked what she would like to become. She answered: astronaut. (2) A school boy from a similar background, replied to a similar question, he would like to be Bill Gates of India. Why shouldn't they cherish such dreams? Why shouldn't the government give them a chance? Why shouldn't society allow it to happen? After all, "miracles" do sometimes take place!

So Dalit and anti-caste movements always conflated in their goal what actually are two different things—(a) fighting against the discriminatory and oppressive caste system as such and (b) economic and educational advancement of the poor, which generally should be the task of any modern nation state. Thus the Satyashodhak Samaj (Truth-Seekers' Society), founded in 1873 by Jyotirao Phule, pursued the goal to liberate the less privileged in society—such as women, Shudra, and Dalit—from exploitation and oppression, for which process education was thought to be of great importance. Under its later leaders, economic goals played a stronger part in the activities of the Samaj. In 1902, Shahu Maharaj, who was the ruler of the princely state of Kolhapur (Western India), reserved 50 percent of his state's civil service jobs for all communities other than Brahmins, Prabhus and Parsis. This movement was later, not unreasonably, termed the Anti-Brahman Movement.

Also in the report of the Mandal Commission (1979-83), which was mandated to "identify the socially or educationally backward classes" (popularly known as OBCs=other backward classes) of India, it is argued:
"It may appear the upliftment of Other Backward Classes is part of the larger national problem of removal of mass poverty. This is only partially correct. The deprivation of OBCs is a very special case of the larger national issue: here the basic question is that of social and educational backwardness, and poverty is only a direct consequence of these two crippling caste-based handicaps. As these handicaps are embedded in our social structure, their removal will require far-reaching structural changes. No less important will be changes in the perception of the problems of OBCs by the ruling classes of the country."

Durability of the Caste System
Because for a human's material-economic security and mental health the feeling of belonging to an identity group (next only to a family) is important, one is obliged and expected to adhere to the rules, rituals, mores, ethical norms (e.g. of solidarity) and traditions of one's identity group(s). This is comparable to the fact that for belonging to and remaining in a professional group—e.g. engineers, doctors, lawyers etc.—one has to follow its written and unwritten code of conduct.

Now because, in Hindu society, caste has in the past been the most important among a person's identities, it is no surprise that it still plays an important role in most caste Hindu's private sphere—in daily rituals, in eating and drinking norms, in marriage, socialising etc. In backward rural areas, even matters of the private sphere of Hindus—such as (inter-caste) love affairs and marriage, a Dalit eating in an eatery or drinking water from a well or worshipping in a temple—often become a matter of the public sphere of the village. And in the larger economic and political spheres, generally speaking, decisions on personnel matters such as appointments and promotions are still to a large extent influenced by one's caste.

I can give two examples: In my extended family circle, a young (Kayastha) woman fell in love and married a Brahmin man. They were both communists, the young man even a member of the party. When their son became 12 years old, I got an invitation to his sacred thread ceremony. I was surprised. I could not imagine they would do this. Accosted by me, the man said, he could not offend his family. It is only them he can rely upon if he would someday need help. His wife said she could not oppose the wish of her husband. That was in the 1950s. The other example is from the 1970s. A highly educated leftist male friend of mine, a man from a rich Kamma family of Hyderabad, married and took a dowry. When his political friends criticised him, he said apologetically: what could he have done? It was his family that found a suitable bride and arranged the traditional style marriage for him; and, after all, it was thanks to his father's connections that he had got a lecturer's job. These were both microeconomic and micro-political decisions.

That is also the case in election times. In large parts of India, among caste-conscious Hindus, voting and campaigning for a candidate from the same caste or the same larger caste-identity group (e.g. Dalits, OBCs) as the one to which the person belongs, is not only seen as one of the latter's social obligations that overrides other considerations. It may also, in case this candidate wins, brings material benefits to her or her caste group. In this respect, it is not much different in other kinds of identity groups—e.g. religious, ethnic or language identity groups. In particular cases of candidates, it may be a justifiable or unjustifiable, a good or bad choice, and exceptions are always there. At the provincial level, there is also a big exception, namely West Bengal. But even here, if we look back to pre-partition Bengal, we see that Bengali Dalits (in those days called Namashudras) did pursue caste politics.1 The point here is only that this is largely how Indian politics functions.

The points made till now explain why the caste system still remains entrenched in the conscious and subconscious thinking of Hindus and resists all reforms and efforts to eradicate it. They are also the reasons behind the rise of parties that are based on caste, religion, language, ethnicity, province or region (e.g. Samajwady Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Jamat-e-Islami parties, Shiv Sena, Telegu Desham Party etc.). The secular all-India parties (Congress and the ideology-based communist parties) are losing ground. The ruling all-India communal party, the BJP, is successful, because its communal base, the Hindus, constitute the 80% majority of India's population.

There are also macro-economic and macro-political factors that partly explain the continued strength of the caste system. The Mandal Commission (in the following, MC for short) argued for reservations for OBCs, inter alia, in the following words:
"Assuming that a child from an advanced class family and that of a backward class family had the same intelligence at the time of their birth, it is obvious that owing to vast differences in social, cultural and environmental factors, the former will beat the latter by lengths in any competitive field. Even if an advanced class child's intelligence quotient was much lower compared to the child of backward class, chances are that the former will still beat the latter in any competition where selection is made on the basis of 'merit'."

This is a sound argument. Note, however, the key words in it, namely "competition" and "competitive field". These relate MC's argument more to the prevailing economic system than to the caste system. For people fighting for social justice, the only call that logically follows from this is: abolish the capitalist competitive system. The mandate of the MC was, however, only to "identify the socially or educationallybackward classes (OBCs)" and to make recommendations for their "upliftment", not to make recommendations for annihilating caste.

To what extent the recommended reservations contributed toward uplifting the OBCs in general is difficult to answer. Many criticisms have been expressed against these. The sharpest and the most convincing among all has been made by Justice Iyer even before the MC was appointed (1975):
"The danger of 'reservation', …., is three-fold. Its benefits, by and large, are snatched away by the top creamy layer of the 'backward' castes or classes, thus keeping the weakest among the weak always weak and leaving the fortunate layers to consume the whole cake".

What we know for sure, however, is that they did not contribute anything toward annihilating caste. What is worse, today, those who really want to annihilate caste face a great structural difficulty: Thanks to the reservations, belonging to a lower or backward caste has become an advantage in the job market and in the matter of getting a scholarship or a place in higher and better institutions of learning. For this reason, the formerly underprivileged majority of the citizenry of India, i.e. members of SCs, STs, and OBCs taken together, themselves have no interest any more in annihilating caste. In truth, they have now strong economic interest in perpetuating the caste system, so that their children and grandchildren too may enjoy these advantages even if and when their families have risen to the "creamy lair". All they want and demand is more compensation for their "unfortunate" birth in a Dalit or OBC family. This is why we saw some time ago that the Jaths, from whose ranks India even got a Prime Minister, and the Patidars staged huge, powerful, and even destructive demonstrations demanding reservations for their youth too. For the same reason, even many Muslim politicians are nowadays eager to define Muslims as a backward class.

Implementation of the MC recommendations divided Indian society into two fighting groups: the beneficiaries(i.e. Dalits and OBCs) on the one side and the excluded rest(the upper castes, Muslims etc.) on the other. Soon after the acceptance and implementation (1990 onwards)of the MC recommendations, upper-caste young people, who henceforth imagined themselves to be the victims of the caste-based reservation system, started a protest campaign that included violent demonstrations, self-immolations etc.

Perspectives and Conclusions
Today, macroeconomic trends do not indicate that the competitive field, that the MC mentioned as an argument, would soon become any less competitive. Indeed, the opposite is likely to happen, what with continuously growing population (at the rate of 16 million a year) and number of college graduates, and with expanding mechanisation, automation and digitalisation. Moreover, the basic ecological and resource-related limits to growth are already having their feared impacts. These problems must be addressed very soon. If, however, in the meantime, also the present-day policies of reservation remain in place, the resulting upliftment of some poor Dalits and OBCs, that we would welcome so much, would come at the price of ever more caste hatred and conflicts—especially if we consider the growing belligerence of both caste groups. Such conflicts are not class conflicts. Also in future, they would not be directed against capitalism. There is nothing positive about fighting for one's own caste interest.

This short essay is not suitable for making detailed alternative recommendations. But a few half-baked ideas can be presented: (a) Against the background of facts mentioned in the previous paragraph, it is obvious that at least population growth must be stopped, if not also the growth of labour-saving technologies. (b) For uplifting the educational level of economically poor classes, the state and society should create and reserve for them more scholarships (i.e. only financial aid). These should also be available to children and youth of poor families among the upper castes and not to those of well-off families among the lower castes and OBCs. Let the state also pay for all sorts of extra coaching for such youth. (c) Government jobs and university places for students must be given only on the basis of merit. It is not a small matter. It harms the people as a whole, if unqualified and incompetent people are appointed in responsible positions as doctors, engineers, administrators, military commanders etc.

The caste system is a social evil that defies laws and constitutional provisions. As we have seen, even conversion to another religion—to Islam in the past, then to Christianity, and more recently to Buddhism—did not help.The law-and-order authorities must do their duties, but the system can only be made to wither away by a strong social movement and a cultural revolution, in which enlightened members of the upper castes should play a leading role.

It is my hunch that in ancient times, the economic-material basis of the caste system has been that dirty, hard and menial work with poor rewards were naturally detested and unwanted.2 They were therefore easily inherited by the children from the parents. The brutality of the Hindu caste system consisted in the fact that the ruling and/or powerful elites compelled the children of e.g. methors (removing excrements), chamars (tanners), chandals (cremating corpses) etc. to inherit such jobs by declaring them to be ritually dirty and the workers ritually untouchable for finer people. Refinements, rationali-sations and sanctification of the system in the ancient canonical texts (Manusmriti et. al) came later.(d) It is therefore not enough for enlightened upper caste Indians to avow their rejection of this system. They must do more, e.g., following Gandhiji's example, not only to clean their WCs at home, which is not a dirty work anymore, but also a public latrine in their own town—even if only for a day or two per month. I remember a scene in Attenborough's film on Gandhiji, where the latter insisted that his wife must also clean the latrine of the Ashram. (e) Or, to give another example, let us make it impossible to guess a person's caste (and, why not, religion) from his family name. Thus Dilip Chakrabarty's son could be named David Bagh or Indra Manda). There is no need for me to invent more possible actions and demands. If they have the will, upper caste activists can do it themselves. (f) In the recent past, some actions of some Dalit activists were provocative, hence counterproductive, e.g. celebrating the 200th anniversary of "the Mahars' victory" mentioned above. Or, was anything gained, when some Adivasis lodged a court case trying to prevent a Durga-Puja celebration, a tradition that Bengalis love so much?3 It is better to think of constructive actions.

Notes and References
Almost all data used here including data and quotes from the Mandal Commission Report can be found in the internet.
1.      "Caste vs Religion—Why Caste Politics Failed in Bengal" Ayan Guha 0Politics%20Failed%20in%20Bengal. html
2.      For general knowledge on references to the caste system in ancient texts I can recommend the following articles: "Caste is the Cruelest Exclusion" By Gail Omvedt
"Doctoring History For Political Goals: Origin of Caste System in India" By Ram Puniyani, 04 November, 2014 041114.htm
3.      "Adivasis Dance Today: The First Ever FIR Filed Against Durga Puja"

Autumn Number 2018
Vol. 51, No.14 - 17, Oct 7 - Nov 3, 2018