People in Caste-Mind in India

Bhaskar Majumder

If one delinks caste as a birth category from casteism where caste card is played, then one has to re-think. If one says caste exists in our society and not casteism, then also one has to re-think. In abstraction, caste may exist independent of casteism, but that is in perception only. So far, in India’s cultural history, caste and casteism went parallel. The economy or the polity might have used the caste card in the way it suited the people who organized the economy or who guided the polity.

The major domain where caste is manifested in India is marriage that occupies a major space of culture. Marriage is arranged by people other than those to get married if it is not ‘love marriage’. In arranged marriages, in most of the cases, caste plays a vital role, may be for cultural replica but it plays a vital role. The family honour is perceived at peril if an adult girl of a high caste family decides to marry an adult boy of a low (read, Dalit) caste. The life of the marriageable girl may be miserable at the least and at death-risk at the end even at the hands of her own parents if the girl marries one against the consent of her parents– what is known as ‘honour killing’. It is not clear whose honour it is, after all.

Caste is all pervasive by regions and spheres of activities, some of those are identified as economic activities. What economists often ignore is caste division of labour that simply shows particular caste households engaged in some particular types of works that others decline to get engaged in. For example, the bamboo works to prepare baskets in many regions of the Hindi heartland, or elsewhere. Cultivation-carrying-converting bamboos are tagged with soul-departed human bodies and hence landowners of upper caste may decline to cultivate-carry-convert bamboos. The economic vacuum is left to the landless low caste workers. Or, for example, cultivation of mushroom that pronounces in Hindi ‘some meat’ that prohibits the high caste households in Uttar Pradesh to cultivate mushroom. Thus, culture also determines economics.

Region-specific practices related to castes may show region A emancipated from most of the caste-led diktats while region B practicing it with same vigour relative to, say, one century back. Time is relevant for time carries with it the desire for emancipation from the vices that cocooned mankind for centuries. The domains and manifestations of the diktats may differ, however, spatially. In spite of visionaries and renaissance that unshackled human mind, it will be too hectic to pronounce abolition of caste-led diktats, from the regions imagined as more advanced relative to the less advanced. Let me explain.

In case people rooted in region A got emancipated from the caste diktats, there may be forces in the polity that will reproduce caste/casteism. How? The answer lies in the economy. Suppose, region (represented by the state) A declines to be a caste-conformist while region B welcomes caste to play a determinant/decisive role. By Gresham’s law (in the economy), region B will derive the benefits from the game. Suppose, intra-A, one section (X) plays caste card and the other section (Y) does not play it: the resultant will be in favour of X. Why? The answer lies in history and culture, the latter embedded in innocence-faith of the people. In epic Mahabharata, Judhisthir played the game (of chess) not once but twice whose innocence had devastating consequence for both participants and non-participants!

The question is not de jure like should one play caste card or should not one. The problem is, the card is played. If A does not like it, B will play it. So either A sits idle, or allows entry of C to play it. In a 2x2 game, the model is clear. But in a 3x3 game, or in a 2x2 game with C seen as a potential player, the game is often unpredictable. The 2x2 game reflects a victor-vanquished consequence per game of a particular duration as decided by the rule of the game. Even the games in India’s mythology had their rules, obeyed or violated. C makes the game difficult for it can be a combination of AC, BC, or strategically AB if each of A and B starts assessing C as a potential threat to each of A and B.

Coming back to caste determinacy in this context will throw light on how it pays its role. Religion could be the other major determinant; but excepting some regions in India, it plays a minor role. Demographic Quantity Theory works here – if the caste card is played by 80.0 per cent of India’s population, then rest 20.0 per cent may be left outside the game based on the assumption that the rest 20.0 per cent remains a residue and not a determinant in polity, disseminated public rituals etc.

The central point is, caste is in the mind of the innocent people in India, often invisibly, often intra-family and hence, often untraceable. These innocent people provide the pedestal for the operations of the few enlightened (sic) at the top. Also, there is denial of this factor among the degree-attained educated people. Had the issue been in the public domain with all its wings visible, it could have been dealt with in detail. The problem is, it is more concealed than revealed other than when ‘family honour’ is in danger as perceived by the caste-practitioners and when there is assassination of the love-birds to save ‘family honour’ and not assassination of casteism, as many pretend not to know, for example in marriages in many regions in India.

Though hardly understood by the majority, philosophy-purity is associated with caste and has brought about ideas that are not always on the warranted path. It is likely that the people who suffered historical injustice continue to imagine that the same injustice is practiced even in 21st century. There was a practice of keeping Dasa (servant) in upper caste families in India though there was no formal slavery (the ‘Puratan Bhritya’ by Ravindranath Tagore may exemplify this). India continues to experience psychological ‘Dasobhavo’ (mentally downtrodden or mental slaves) that cannot abolish slavery for what is non-existent historically could not be abolished. However, historical record shows that the British abolished slavery in India through Act in 1843 (pl. rectify me if I quote wrong) that did not exist!

What is needed is development of scientific outlook where human values get the driver’s seat and not century-old concept of purity. Obviously, purity is welcome but not at the cost of the human beings perceived as impure. There are manifestations of physical purity that is not necessarily converted into cultural purity, but hardly there are manifestations of absence of cultural purity.

Let me conclude with a joke. I was travelling in a train compartment meant for the economic-political elite a few months back when my co-passenger was asked about food he would like to be served. He replied, ‘pure vegetarian’. My turn came and I answered, ‘pure non-vegetarian’. The travel time that followed was marked by silence!       

Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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Jul 25, 2019

Bhaskar Majumder

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