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Social and political Values and Systems in India.

United Nation Human Resource Council and untouchability

Question arises why UNHRC is targeting to eliminate only caste-discrimination as human rights violation, why not any kind of discrimination based on work and descent, whether it is due to caste, class or race? Is it not an attempt of Western powers to interfere in internal matters of a free society and impose upon India their own thoughts, processes, superstructures and practices?

Western world considers the practices and values of caste system problematic, complicated, discriminatory and exploitative causing exploitation of weaker and lower strata of society, disparities of power, wealth and culture, ultimately to disintegration of the society. UN recognizes religion, race, language and gender as main causes of inequality in the world. Therefore, UNHRC must interfere. And behind the scene are the Dalit Activists.

Some Dalit activists supported by the better-off Dalits, benefited so far from job quota have become popular leaders and spokesmen of their community. Dalit activists suggest that India’s caste based discrimination is racism by another name. Both are responsible for discrimination on the basis of one’s birth. More than 200 million people from this community suffer from caste discrimination. They are treated as lesser human beings. Since 2001, these activists have been pushing the cause internationally arguing that Indian Dalits are like blacks in US till 1950. They faced problems in workplace, at school and in temples. They face violence, rape and other hate crimes everyday. Staunch supporters of Human Rights, some Scandinavian countris, Church organisations around the world and Lutheran World Federation express their solidarity with Dalits. They want UN to include caste too in this category. They also want caste to be placed before the British and EU parliaments. They insist that “It needs global alliance and global involvement to put pressure on the government to address the problem of Dalit marginalization.”i.

In 2001, India succeeded in keeping caste out of the resolution adopted by Durban conference on racism, the issue has again re-emerged in a different guise. In 2005, some Dalit leaders belonging to All India Confederation have sought USA and UN intervention on the issue of untouchability and sought equality and justice for 200 million victims of injustice of the caste system, because those in power in India are simply not responding. At the behest of the Republican Congressman from New Jersey, Chris Smith, the US Congress had held a hearing on 6.10. 05 on the subject “ India’s unfinished agenda: equality and justice for 200 million victims of the caste system.”

In order to address the problem of untouchability in India, a resolution was proposed to be tabled in US Congress in November, 2005, is prepared by the US House Committee on International Relations and US human rights committee. “Despite the Indian government’s extensive affirmative action policies, which aim to open government service and education to Dalits and tribes, most have been left behind by India’s increasing prosperity…. Much much more remains to be done.” The resolution says, “It is in the interest of US to address the problem of the treatment of groups outside the caste system… in the republic of India in order to better meet our mutual economic and security goals….”

Now in 2009, once again the issue has emerged. “UN set to treat caste as human rights”. The ongoing session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva looks set to recognize caste-based discrimination as human rights violation. It says worldwide 200m face caste bias. UNHRC has published principles and guidelines four months ago for ‘effective elimination of discrimination based on work and descent’ – the UN terminology for caste inequities. It has mooted an idea to evolve regional and international mechanism, the “UN and its organs” to complement national efforts to combat caste discrimination. Adding to it Sweden, the president of EU, said “ Caste-based discrimination and other forms of discrimination based on work and descent is an important priority for EU.” It cited caste as one of the grounds on which more than 200 million people in the world suffer caste bias. “This type of discrimination is associated with the notion of purity and pollution and practices of untouchability, and is deeply rooted in societies and cultures where this discrimination is practiced.” ii)

So far the government of India, intelligentsia and reformers have taken many measures to remove untouchability. At present, untouchability is almost non-existent in Metros or urban areas. In rural areas, it is gradually being removed. Still now and then Dalit leaders and their supporters raise up the issue and portray the scenario in such a way that it flares up the emotions of people. They do not even hesitate to distort the past and work on the prejudices of people to their own advantage.

Because of its complete localization and unfamiliarity with the rest of world, it is very difficult for the Western World to understand and appreciate the role of caste system in totality. They are mystified by the amazing pluralities and unique social structure, because of its being an indigenous system, conceptualized, developed and practiced exclusively in India. In their understanding of caste system, the element of caste is predominant and the element of system is less.

Caste system has been evolved as a natural response to many small and primitive groups of people, who were forced to come to terms, with a more advanced economic and social system. ‘Caste’ provided an unique mechanism, by which different ethnic groups and communities like Negritos, Proto-australoids, Mangoloids, Negritos, Proto-australoids, Mangoloids, Alphinoids, Dinarics, Armenoids and Nordics, numerous discrete tribes and all sorts of groups and associations arising for political, sectarian or other reasons could be internalized within the whole. The job of assimilation of different tribal, local and immigrant groups was done cordially, at different points of time by assigning each new group a separate caste status, without disturbing the existing social order. All the incoming groups have been given freedom to change according to their internal rhythm. It did not prevent any new group from preserving its specialties and indigenous culture and gave each one opportunities to develop within its own parameters. It had created a plural society, which remained stable, even while offering a place in the society, in which any community, Be it racial, social, occupational, or religious, can be fitted as a cooperating part of the social whole.iii Caste is the development of thousands of years of the association of many racial and other groups in a single cultural system.iv

Caste system acted as a major force, through which Hindus retained their cultural identity, while living under an alien political order, whether it was Mughal, Portuguese or British. It was the major force for the failure of Islam, Christianity and other religions to make headway in India even after mass conversion.

For every Hindu, caste appears as a natural and inevitable unit of society. An individual is a natural member of a family, which is a unit of an extended family, extended family of Kula, Kula of a tribe (Vish) – and a tribe of a Jana of Jati (Caste). Family, extended family, Kula, Caste and religion are the fundamental social institutions for them. All the members of a caste shares moments of joy and sorrow with each other. Caste is second only to the family in widening a person’s social radius and in getting importance in his/her private and occupational life. A person’s relation with members of his caste are closer than with those, belonging to other castes. Caste values, beliefs, prejudices, injunctions as well as distortions of reality were the indivisible part of a person’s psyche and conscience. Internalized caste norms defined an individual role in the society. It made one feel good and loved, when he lived up to these norms, and anxious and guilty, when he transgressed them.

Caste has provided an individual with social security and stability. Each caste group maintains its own rules, regulations, customs, way of life and controls the conduct of its members. It encourages self-discipline, conscious, self-control, self-direction. Earlier, instead of government, elders (having sense of belonging, not a desire to exercise authority) took care of maintaining discipline within the caste and helped the members, who were weak and helpless.

The key, to understand the caste system, is not in seeing it as a framework of hierarchical layers of social order, each fitting neatly below the other, but as a series of vertical parallels. Each caste is an independent entity, with its own hierarchy, based either on a tribal identity or an occupational identity. During pre-British period, there was not much disparity between different castes or between urban and rural people. The concepts of forward castes or backward castes, disparities between different sections of society and exploitation of the weak were almost non-existent before the rule of British Empire.

Caste system took on different shades and meaning with the changing times and places. Its character was altogether different than it is today. Though there is a marked influence of West on it at present, but it is still different in many ways. In Western societies, wealth had always been associated with power, authority and social status. India was never a materialistic society. It has separated wealth from status, power from authority, pursuit and achievement in knowledge from temptations of worldly comforts. It ranks different social groups according to their relevance and contribution to the society.

It shows a high regard for knowledge, wisdom, virtues, characters and will power. Earlier the ranking of different castes was dependent on their relative purity, morality, knowledge and spiritual standards. Considerations of self-discipline, hygiene and cleanliness on the basis of climatic conditions of the region were given importance. Brahmins, occupying the highest place in the society, were put under maximum restrictions and were denied accumulation of wealth. They were directed to lead a simple life, devoted to the spiritual and intellectual pursuits.

Though the caste system believed in segmental ranking of different caste groups, it placed all the individuals, within a caste group – rich or poor – on the same footing. All members of a caste had similar rights and duties, similar thinking process, similar customs, language, food habits, domestic routine, and style of dress. All members of a caste had similar rights and duties, similar thinking process, similar customs, language, food habits, domestic routine, and style of dress.

The whole system was so conceived by the genius sages that there was hardly any room for any one to consider itself, as being placed in greater or lesser disadvantageous position with reference to another. The higher the caste within a Varna, the purer it was considered, and greater were the self-restrictions on its behavior through rituals.

Local semi-autonomous nature of Caste system made during pre-British period, made close interaction and cooperation between different castes, a reality. It was practically impossible for any caste to provide everything by itself. It had to depend on others for the fulfillment of various needs. All the activities of urban or rural areas were confined within a small area, having very little links with the outside world because of the slower means of transport. Local societies used to be self-sufficient mutually `supporting and caring for each other. All castes were bound together by economic and social ties and had a strong bond of mutual dependence. Untouchables were also assigned important social-religious duties such as Non-Brahmins or Harijans served as priests of temples of goddesses like Sita or Kali, where all castes made offerings. Inter-dependence in social life and self-reliance in personal life were the intrinsic features of caste system. People of all castes enjoyed a large measure of freedom in respect of their internal customs, rituals and life styles.

Caste system is based on the principle of division of labor. All the functions needed for the maintenance and growth of the society have been assigned different activities to different groups according to its natural endowment, qualities and aptitudes.v Each and every caste serves the community having a feeling that they, too, are contributing something to the society. Clear-cut definition of rights and duties for each caste, based on its traditional occupation, develops clear vision of one’s responsibilities. This separation of rights and duties combined with the principle of inter dependence provided its own system of checks and balances over arbitrary use of one’s authority. There is an automatic decentralization of authority in the system.

In pre-British period, there was neither rivalry or bitterness for pelf, power or position and nor much disparity between different forward or lower castes. The tropical climate of the country compelled the people to the distribution of surplus. There was hardly any question of all India tyranny of any single caste group. Laws remained unmodified and flexible with the capacity to adapt to local customs and situations. People in power and position cared for the lower castes in order to acquire and retain local followers. The system made upper castes generous in matters of food, drinks and loans, when

Weakening of caste system, in modern times, has led the nation to a situation, where all communities are facing hardship, because of centralization of control systems. Along with it, total aversion of youth from their traditional occupation has rendered millions of them unemployed or underemployed, thus wasting their time, energy and efforts. This they could have utilized for constructive purposes.

The caste system, on the whole, functioned quite well till its politicization began. Pr. Shah says, The scheme of life practiced in India for more than 2000 years showed a comprehensive and coordinated planning, which has yet to be correspondingly conceived of or similarly attained in any other part of the world.vii

Caste system does not owe its exaltation to any outside force. It had the capacity to look inwardly and correct that by itself. Rise of Buddhism in Ancient India, of Bhakti movement in mediaeval India and Reform Movement of 19th and first half of the 20th centuries are examples of it.


i TOI,N.Delhi,p1&12,7.10.2005

ii TOI,28.9.09, PP 1 &11

iii Hutton, Caste in India:Its Nature, Functions and Origin, p 101.

iv Basham, Wonder That Was India, p 151.

v Bhagwat Gita, XVIII 41.

vi Sriniwas MN, Times of India, Dated September 9, 1990, p 6.

vii Times of India, dated April 10, 1994, p3.

October 2, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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