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Caste politics

 “In present-day understanding of caste system, the element of caste is   predominant and   the element of system is suppressed considerably.”

Introduction

Very Sensitive issue – Entry of caste into national politics has turned it into a very sensitive issue –  both defended and opposed, mostly criticized vehemently by politicians, intellectuals, activists or reformers from other faiths. Critics  regard caste system as problematic and complicated. It has become a fashion in certain quarters to criticize caste system. So much and so that the word ‘Caste’ itself has become a derogatory word in present political scenario. In recent past, entry of caste -politics has become a complicated and problematic issue, which is hampering the government’s efforts to provide a good governance to the nation and work for its sustainable development.

Caste system as problematic and complicated? – Indian society is being portrayed as a ‘caste-ridden society’ and caste for all the miseries of submerged sections of society – from illiteracy to creating disparities of power, wealth and culture, escalation of violence, crimes and corruption. It is blamed for  pushing the nation towards disintegration, discrimination and exploitation of weaker, unprivileged sections of society to forcing destitution on vast number of people.

No caste-politics earlier – There was not so much heart-burning because of caste earlier. Venom against caste in some quarters does not lie in distant past, but only about 150 years back. It got escalated during British Imperial rule in India. The roots of present socio-political and economic ills and deprivation of masses on large scale lie not so much in caste system as mainly on the issues like poverty, illiteracy, population-explosion, or mass-unemployment etc.

Is creation of a casteless society possible? – Common men are reluctant to replace or abandon caste-system – an institution of proven value on trial and error basis. So far the supporters of “caste-less society” have not been able to suggest a better alternative scheme, or not thought of new creating new support systems and norms needed to substitute caste-system. People in general are not willing to experiment a new system of casteless society. They are not sure about the effectiveness of caste-less society. They think, substituting present caste-ridden Indian society with a caste-less society is no solution for empowering weaker sections of society or removing its adverse effects caste-politics. Therefore, creation of casteless society remains a distant dream.

Majority wishes for rational reforms in the already existing system – Generally common men feels that ‘Politicization of caste’ needs to be arrested at its earliest. They wish to make improvements in the tried and tested old system by removing deformities developed into it with time. A change is good for the growth of a society. But changes must be based on constant interpretation of past experiences and opinions, present requirements and existing ground realities of the place and future prospects.

Caste as a recipe for creating vote-banks – Entry of ‘caste’ into politics has led to unchecked growth of caste-ism. For politicians, it is a recipe for creating vote-banks. Unfortunately, those very people, who criticize caste-system vehemently, them-selves cling to their own caste-identity very strongly.  For others, it is the base to enjoy special privileges/benefits of affirmative action programs initiated and implemented by the Government of India. Elite section amongst so-called lower castes protects its turf under the banner of backward castes. The interest of all lies in keeping the majority of people ignorant, insecure and out of mainstream, so that they can be lured easily by making appeasement, protectionist false promises to further their sectional interests. And here lies the crux of present day’s caste-ist politics.

Had caste system become obsolete  – Even today, caste-system has not become obsolete despite all the weaknesses developed into the system and all the attacks on it from time to time. It has survived the vicissitudes of time and saved itself so far by erosion from within or assault from outside. Had it become obsolete, it would have given place to other systems. Indian social structure based on caste still presents one of the oldest social institution. It presents a continuous and uninterrupted living culture still existing in the whole world.

Allover the world, many systems, institutions, structures, principles, and cultures have been developed from time to time, which created a wave sweeping the entire world with it for some time. But soon, they became obsolete and were replaced by anti-waves which replaced them and wiped off the previous influence. But caste system, on which Indian social structure is based, has proved to be an exception. After each assault, it re-emerged with greater force.

‘Caste’ earned a bad name during Imperial rule in India –  Philosophers, writers and intelligentsia of Western world propagate theories of racial superiority and thereby, justified the domination of white races over dark races of the globe. Historians like Mill, Wilson, and Ward vehemently denounced the culture, character and social structure of the native people.

Western sociologists from Max Weber to Louis Dumont, discredited Hindu religion as well, because it gave birth to caste-system.  Showing his occidental irritation, Kitts criticized caste-system, as lacking all rational arrangements. Many British thinkers held caste system responsible for all social evils and practices, feudal attitude, backward thinking, belief in dogmas and superstitions sustained by a unique set of rituals, beliefs and whimsical concept of purity and pollution.

They made caste appear as one of the greatest scourges of the country, which doomed large classes of men, to mental and physical degradation and kept them away from education, prosperity and honour. According to them, Caste system had created an iniquitous society, exploitative and oppressive by nature, which fostered caste-conflicts and caste rivalries.

Ward alleged Not only is the caste contrary to every principle of justice and polity, it is repugnant to every feeling of benevolence.  The social circle is almost invariably, composed of persons of the same caste, to the careful exclusion of others.  It aims one class of men against another; it gives rise to greatest degree of pride and apathy.  It forms a sufficient excuse for not doing an act of benevolence towards another, that he is not of the same caste, Ney, a man dying with thirst will not accept a cooling drought of water from the hands or the cup of a person of a lower caste.  The Caste was made the excuse for the selfishness, covetousness, indolence and apathy of the individual.

However, there were some liberal British thinkers at that period also, who thought that criticism of caste system was over-drawn. Shore, the Governor-general, from 1792 to 1797, appointed by the court of directors governor-general of India in succession to Cornwallis regarded caste-system as a civil and religious distinction.  To him, its influence was so extensive, so minute and so intricate, as almost to defy generalization.  To a certain extent, its influence may have had the injurious effects described, but infinitely less than was usually supposed and that too were wearing away. (Hon’ble Fredrick John Shore, Indian Affairs,  pp 474.479)

It was also noticed during that period itself that many social groups lagged in the matter of modern education and employment in the government, Its process started long ago, since the business and administration of a large portion of India was being carried on in an alien language, first in Urdu and from 1844 onwards in English). Some had accepted that it was not so much, the social apathy, which kept the lower strata away from prosperity as, their ignorance, poverty, illiteracy and necessity to earn their livelihood right from an early age.

Ideological attack on Hindu social structure – The charges, which British ruler levied on caste system were not wholly correct. They perceived caste system as:

  • Highly Stratified System British vehemently criticized caste system for its being highly stratified, which divided the population into innumerable social groups, having distinct and diverse thinking and way of living styles. However, the British thinkers could not appreciate the role of caste system in integrating different tribes, groups and communities together under one system for centuries.  Instead of adopting the policy to convert the new groups in Hindu religion and thrusting on them its own values, thoughts, processes, superstructures and practices, Hindu religion, through caste system, presented an unique example in the world history – including all the incoming groups under one umbrella. They were not only welcomed and accommodated in Indian society but lived on their own terms.  It legitimized their beliefs, behavior patterns and life styles with freedom to evolve and change according to their internal rhythm.
  • Discriminatory System Caste system was criticized for its being prejudiced, high handedness or rude behavior of caste Hindus towards the lower strata of society. It was not very difficult for the British to find out a few examples for showing discrimination within a large country like India.

It is an anomaly that British, who themselves played discriminatory practices by keeping their railway compartments, waiting rooms, parks, clubs, hotels, places of other entertainment and residences segregated, criticized caste system as being discriminatory.

  • Criticized because of ranking of social groups based on concept of pure and impure – Gradation of professions and the position of social groups involved into various occupations depended on its being clean or unclean/pure or impure. Accordingly only learned Brahmins involved in intellectual pursuits, commanded the respect of the society and were were given the highest place in the society. Their stronghold was the centers of learning. Shudras engaged in menial jobs under the supervision of other three Varnas or associated with unclean occupations were placed at the bottom.  Brahmin groups associated with unclean jobs (like Maha-brahmins performing last rites), were also treated, more or less like Shudras.

Many studies have shown that in many parts of the country, like Punjab, Gujarat, and Marathi speaking areas of western India, tribal MP. Orissa, Bengal etc. people other than Brahmins held superior status. Iqbal Narain and PC Mathur inform that in Rajasthan, Rajputs and Kshatriyas given the highest rank because of their valor and military skills..In large part of peninsular Gujarat, according to Ghanshyam Shah Biswas, Banias had overshadowed Brahmins in economic and political areas for several centuries.  Maharashtra, Jayant Lele says, Brahmins were far behind the Maratha – Patils (village headman) and Maratha Deshmukhs (regional administrators).

In Orissa, Brahmin influence remained confined to small areas around the royal palaces.  Here too, warrior kings of Shudra and tribal origin sought Brahmins help to acquire Kshatriyas status.  Bengal was among the last areas to come into contact with Brahminical Hinduism.  It was only during the reign of Sen Guptas, that Kanyakubja Brahmins from Varanasi were invited to settle in Bengal. Brahmins never acquired status of dominant group there and remained just yet another Jati.

In Punjab, it was Jats, that were politically and economically dominant groups, says Prakash Tandon. Thakurs held prominent status in the eastern region of present day U.P. The Aine-Akbari informs that in the year 1600 AD, Thakur Zamindars paid more than two third of the total revenue in the middle Doab, Awadh and eastern parts of UP, Rohailkhand and Doab were controlled by Jat Chief-tons and later by Muslim Zamindars.  In Bihar, around Darbhanga region, Maithili Brahmins held political control, though they also continued their traditional occupations as priests and scholars of Sanskrit.

In fact, relations between various castes were expressed in terms of the idea of hygiene, cleanliness and purity.[ Srinivas, MN,  Social Change in Modren India,] Caste Hindus were very particular about eating dressed food, because it became stale very quickly. Undressed food or fruits were regarded pure, whatever hands it came from.

  • Position of Shudras – Critics allege that caste system has kept Shudras at bay. In Varna Vyavastha untouchables, though given a lower status, were very much an integral part of the society.  They performed essential social and economic tasks at community functions and in agriculture.  As far as Shudras causing pollution was concerned, Shore said that despite British being so powerful and the ruling community, the British were regarded at par with the lowest natives in point of caste. Yet a Brahmin in the service of Englishmen never hesitated in doing his duties. Certainly the lower castes are more tenacious on the subject of their caste than the higher.  A low caste man, if asked for a drop of water from his pot will often refuse, A Rajput or a Brahmin will not only consent, but will show his respect by offering it decently. [ Shore, Ibid. Pp 567-477] It was also alleged that laws of punishment were mild for caste Hindus, but severe and horrible for Shudras.[Ward, cited in Shore, p 66.] Shore said that it was impossible to say laws never were stringent for lower castes. Probably it might have occurred very seldom by a very bigoted prince or a bigoted Brahmin.  The horrible punishment to lower class did not exist, in general, during his times, nor had they been, perhaps for centuries, held in any more estimation, terror or respect, practically than bull or anathema issued by Pope Gregory the Seventh in England.
  • Disregard for menial work – It was alleged that giving Shudras, engaged in menial jobs, the lowest place in social hierarchy showed disregard of Hindus for menial work.  However, it is said that it was not the caste system, but the industrial revolution, which taught humanity to hate or escape from menial work.  The creation of new white collared jobs by British developed the attitude to discredit manual work.  The more a person withdrew from physical labor, the more civilized and qualified he was regarded by modern society.  Such an attitude lured all the sections of society to leave their traditional occupations and join white collared jobs in organised sectors, irrespective of their background, aptitude, skill and knowledge.
  • No choice in the matter of occupation – It is alleged that caste system forced people to do their traditional jobs only. It gave no choice. It served the interests of haves and enhanced the agonies of have-nots. Along with it, it killed initiative, creativity, innovation and caused unconscious avoidance of new activities. It prevented them from taking any risk.

The other side of the coin was that compulsion to do traditional jobs kept everyone engaged, made them contribute something to the society and saved them from any confusion in matter of job or being guided by whims and fancies in this matter. Professor Shah says, Caste system has a long range and permanent plan embracing every class of society. If applied to every individual, regardless of age and other conditions, no one could be unemployed. Nor could have one worked inappropriate to one’s ability, training, environment, aptitude and attainment, nor could any work be inadequately remunerated. [  Shah TK, Ancient Foundation of Economics, p 3, Times of India, dated 10.4.94.]

It is quite natural and convenient for a people to opt for traditional do a job, about which he knows, the knowledge of which, he acquires in a natural way. Then, it was the trend during ancient and medieval societies all-over the world. In England also it was not uncommon for a clergyman, a lawyer or soldier to educate and train his sons for his own profession. So was it in India. [Shore Fredrick John Notes on India Affairs Vol II P. 473] In Europe, under guild system, occupations not only hereditary, but also allowed to be followed by specific classes.  It was the industrial revolution, which had changed the world of employment in those countries as well.

  • Prevented upward mobility – Allegation that, caste system intentionally prevented upward mobility of lower strata of society is not wholly correct. In Western countries, thinkers regard that wealth rather than birth makes social mobility easier and faster, but they forget that wealth is also acquired through birth. And that is the reason why in West as well, there was a sharp distinction between nobility and common man.

This allegation is not fully correct. History is the proof that in ancient and medieval India, doors to rise to the highest rank or wealth, in the scale of society, were always open to the deserving persons belonging to any caste. Person belonging to the lowest rank could attain even sovereignty in India. Maratha Rajahs, most of whom were low caste, fought their way to their respective thrones against Mohammedan and commanded respect of all Indians much before the British assumed power in India.[ Shore Fredrick John-Notes on Indian Affairs Vol.II PP474-476-a rare book]

Shore had observed that there was considerable latitude in matter of work in India.  Among many castes, it was constantly found that one brother pursuing hereditary vocation and another entering army or farming. HT Colebrooke, one of the early Sanskrit Scholars says, It may be received as a general maxim that occupation appointed for each tribe is entitled merely to a preference. Every profession, with few exceptions, was open to every description of persons and the discouragement arising from religious prejudices is not greater than what exists in Great Britain from the effects of Municipal and Corporate laws. [  Indian Express, dated 18.9.90, p 8.]

Through sophisticated ways and means, the British imperialists created differences between different social groups and communities. They developed a complex in Indian minds about their heritage and its social structure, values and systems. Modern education highlighted the weaknesses, rigidity and harshness of caste system towards weaker sections of the society.

  • Modern education had not only attracted the attention of the people towards social evils, but also highlighted weaknesses, rigidity, distortions developed into the system during centuries of alien rule and harshness of caste system towards weaker sections of the society. They carefully avoided telling the whole truth or strong points of Indian culture.            It disassociated many Indian educated people from their traditional way of learning, classical roots and knowledge. With it, faded Indian values, philosophies and traditions. It loosened the bonds of unity within a social group. It divided the Indian people. It loosened the bonds of caste system and encouraged educated youth to disobey the elders of their groups. A group of Indian intelligentsia started feeling the caste system to be indefensible.

How and when the term ‘caste’ came into existence? – One of the reason for the term ‘Caste’ earning a bad name is that it itself is an alien word, first used by British rulers. After consolidating its power, and firmly establishing themselves, the rulers used the term caste for different social groups existing in India, earlier known as “Jaatis’ under ‘Varna Vyavastha’.

They made a sincere effort to know about the people, whom they wanted to rule and chalk out strategies for the colonial governance. Throughout second half of the Nineteenth Century, British anthropologists worked very hard to collect data and to catalogue various social groups and tribes. For the first time, the data so collected drew the attention of the rulers, intelligentsia and public to the diversity of Indian society and multiplicity of social groups, sub-groups and sub-sub groups throughout India. Later on to perpetuate their rule longer in India, British exploited the gathered information, used material relating to social, demographic, linguistics, religious and cultural diversities of India for ‘divide and rule’ purpose very diplomatically.

The first volume of Man in 1901 (the Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute) noted that the entire framework of native life in India is made up of groups of many social groups and numerous tribes. The status of each group in Hindu society and conduct of its individuals were, largely, determined by the rules of that particular group, to which he/she belonged.

Stratification of a society, a natural phenomenon 

Individuals differ from each other in natural endowments, intelligence, aptitudes, attitudes, skills, personal needs and other innate characteristics. Such differences are apt to give rise to the formations of different social groups and systems. In every society a number of groups emerge out of its functional necessity. Each society devises its own principles for stratification, for coordinated functioning of all parts together, for keeping its whole system fit and functional as well as for taking care of the interests of its people as a whole. Its basis may differ from place to place. It may be on basis of class, caste, religion, region, language or occupation.  ‘Class’ is the the basis of stratification in the Western Societies and Caste in India.

  •  Ranking of different classes in Western societies –  Usually factors like possession of wealth, occupation, education and qualifications, income, ownership of land, property etc. determines the status of individuals within a Western society. Hierarchical distinctions and status of different individuals within a society depend on their being powerful and powerless. Usually individuals belonging to upper class asserts more power and subordinate classes less power. Factors determining higher class status depend on their costume and grooming, mannerism, cultural refinement and political standing vis-à-vis church/temples/ mosques, government, and/or social clubs. Also use of honorary titles, reputation of honor or disgrace, language, race determine the degrees ofindividuals’ class status.
  • Caste’ as basis India – Caste system is an indigenous system, conceptualized, developed and practiced exclusively in India, it is difficult for Westerners and non-Indians to understand what ‘caste system’ is and what caste means to a common man. In India, stratification is done on the basis of caste system, it gives Indian society a distinguished identity, a solid social structure with a system of thought, way of life, and sense of direction. It is –

Inclusive by nature – In India, stratification begins with a social group, called caste. Caste-system is different from class on some points. It is not concerned with persons individually, but includes all persons belonging to a social group.

A natural social institution – For a common man in India Caste is a natural, valid and inevitable part of Indian society.  An individual is a natural member of Family and of extended family.  Caste is second only to the family.  Its members are bonded by same language, customs, thinking and way of living and occupation. Rules of endogamy, ritual purity, interdependence, specialization and hierarchical order of social units are its important traits.

Separates wealth from status – Caste-system separates wealth from status, power from authority and knowledge from temptations of worldly comforts. All individuals within a caste group – irrespective of their financial position – are equal having similar rank, rights and duties. Its constituent members are supposed to be independent, yet their roles complementary.

Ranking – According to caste-system, the ranking of different castes in Hindu society depend on the nature and social relevance of their work, contribution of their work for social subsistence, efforts required to perform their duties and amount of self restraint/self discipline, they exercise, their relative purity, morality, knowledge and spiritual standards. Considerations of self-discipline, hygiene and cleanliness on the basis of climatic conditions of the region are also given importance, while ranking different castes.

Covers entire social fabric of India – Caste system covers almost the entire social fabric of India.  It has influenced other sects. Muslims or Christians, Sikhs or Buddhist could not remain immune from its its influence and has absorbed many of the systems and practices of caste-system.

Closer relations – A person’s relations with members of his caste are closer than with those, belonging to other castes. Internalized caste norms define an individual role in the society. It makes one feel good and loved, when he lives up to these norms, and anxious and guilty, when he transgresses them.

Historical backgroundThere was no caste-politics in ancient India. It all started during British rule in India. Earlier to that cast-system had created –

  • An atmosphere of co-existence and harmony – It is a historical fact that caste-system had created an atmosphere of co-existence and harmony, coherence, stability, continuity and led to all round growth of the Indian society. Generation after generation people belonging different castes and communities lived together despite numerous foreign invasions, centuries of foreign rule, migrations and assimilation of various groups having diverse languages and practices. It provided unity of culture, which bound together all people of Indian peninsula from one end to the other, thus making unity in diversity a reality.
  • Concepts of forward castes or backward castes non-existent – 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 No caste politics weak were almost non-existent earlier. The tropical climate of the country compelled the people to the distribution of surplus, as it was difficult to store anything for long.
  • Stress on self-restraint and self-discipline – Every caste was supposed to lead a self restraint and self disciplined life in all respect, be it in the matter of daily routine, occupation or inter caste relationship. 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. The higher the caste within a Varna, the purer it was considered, and greater was the self-restrictions on its behavior through rituals. The system of each caste having a specific position in the society and a specific work to do with its rights and duties boosted the morale of the people and promoted social equilibrium and solidarity.
  • Inter-dependence because of its local character – Local character and semi-autonomous nature of caste system made close interaction and cooperation between different castes a reality. All the activities of urban or rural areas were confined within a small local area, having very little links with the outside world because of slower means of transport. Only merchants visited different distant places. The local societies used to be self-sufficient mutually `supporting and caring” for each other.
  • No caste took an all India character – No caste took an all India character. There was no nationwide hierarchy of castes. However, in a local area, the relative standing of castes was more or less fixed. All local castes, whether high or low, living in an area mutually depended and supported for fulfilling different kind of needs and cared for each other. All people living in a village or city, were bound together by economic and social ties and had a strong bond of mutual dependence. Rituals required the participation of all castes.
  • Interdependence in social life and self-reliance in personal life – Interdependence in social life and self-reliance in personal life were the intrinsic features of caste system making each local area self-sufficient and capable to fulfill all the needs of its people. People living in a local area shared moments of joy and sorrow with each other. All castes including untouchables were assigned important social duties. Harijan women helped all castes at time of child-birth. Harijan males beat drums in front of Hindu’s houses or in front of a procession on important occasions/ceremonies. Village barber spread news, arranged marriages and served food during celebrations. Occasionally non-Brahmins or Harijans served as priests of temples of goddesses like Sita or Kali, where all castes made offerings. The key, to understand the caste system, was 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 was an independent entity, with its own hierarchy, based either on a tribal identity or an occupational identity. All the castes were independent, yet their roles complementary.
  • Automatic checks and balances – Decentralized self-regulated systems managed various activities in social, intellectual, political, and economic life and controlled its malfunctioning or dis-functioning. There was hardly any question of all India tyranny of any caste group. There was not a single group identifiable as very strong-dominating all the others, or as an enemy to defeat. 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 required.
  • Control over arbitrariness of any social group – The plurality of society provided automatic checks and balances and controlled the arbitrariness or unbalanced growth of power of any group. Till medieval period, Indian peasantry in UP, Bihar and MP were armed and put pressure on Kshatriyas. In fact, non-Kshatriya peasant provided leadership of most armed bands, which were numerically predominant and economically and politically strong at the village level. The monopoly of powerful peasant was a reality of the rural life of Medieval India. The Brahmin strongholds were the centers of learning. The floating population, consisting groups like Gujjars, Bhattis, Rajput rangers, who remained outside caste system, were so strong, that they terrorized settled agriculturists for centuries. Forests, which competed with arable land in size and importance, till the 18th century, gave shelter and food to large sections of society and served as havens for those in search of escape from society. Thus, from time to time, and place to place, different castes rose and fell in their social order, some died out and new ones were formed.
  • More stress on duties – The system clearly specifies duties, privileges and restrictions of each role separately and managed relationship with others. It encourages self-discipline, self-control and self-direction. Sprees on one’s responsibilities/duties rather than on rights, combined with principle of inter- dependence provides its own system of checks and balances over arbitrary use of one’s authority and leads to automatic decentralization of authority.
  • Flexibility and adaptability – Caste system took different shades and meaning with the changing times and places. Once changed, it never returned to its original form. Its adaptability and absorptive nature has pronged its life. The system evolved its structures and systems leisurely and kept on coping with the slow changes, time brought in. Its character during Indus Valley Civilization was altogether different from what exists today. It is still in a transient phase. It is different in context of village, locality, region or religion.
  • High level of intelligence and specialization – The Caste system served as a spawning bed for social and technical skills. By its very nature, it encouraged the development and preservation of local skills. There was a tendency to bring in the most diversified skills to high level of excellence. It was encouraged with religious and semi-religious sanctions. Assignment of different functions to different communities led to the transfer of knowledge and expertise, from one generation to another, through inheritance and evolved an atmosphere, where a high level of Specialization and wisdom in different areas of activities could be achieved. 
  • Natural training without investment – The Caste system transmitted the tricks of a trade, hidden intricacies, solutions of their occupational problems, intelligence, abilities, experiences, values and skills from one generation to another in a natural way. They learned it while growing up, informally from their elders. It gave them confidence and saved them from confusion or unhealthy competition. Being in constant contact with the family occupation, it was natural for the people to learn maximum about their traditional occupations.
  • Acted as a shield – During medieval India, caste system was a major force for failure of Islam, Christianity and other religions to make headway even after mass conversion. Though many evil practices developed in the system during this period, but it acted as a shield for Hindus to retain their cultural identity, while living under alien rule, whether it was of Mughals, Portuguese or British.

 Caste-system worked so well and efficiently in ancient India that when the world was passing through Dark Age, India was full of light. First few centuries are recognized as the golden period of Indian history. Caste system had wisely organized all activities of society properly. The first few centuries are recognized as the golden period of Indian history. During this period, arts, commerce, crafts, philosophy and knowledge flourished magnificently. Its people reached a high level of intelligence having specialization in different areas. Many travelers visiting India, from alien lands at different points of time, confirmed that India possessed huge wealth, knowledge, and quality of life. It was a cheerful land. Each person found a niche in the social system. Its people reached a high level of intelligence having specialization in different areas. It was a cheerful land.

Derailment of Caste as a system after the downfall of Hindu Raj – Many deformities and social evils have been developed into caste system after the downfall of Hindu Raj and old Hindus values. Continuous invasions of Turks, Afghans and Mughals during medieval period, when most of the Muslim rulers and Priests humiliated and annihilated the value system of Hindus, destroyed their places of worship and made them victim of all kinds of excesses -like conversion of Hindus into Islam, willingly or forcibly, imposition of Zaziya on Hindus etc.

It was difficult for Hindus to preserve their identity and indigenous culture during medieval period. The conscious efforts by them to preserve their values and honour, made the caste rules and rituals stricter and more rigidly applied than before. (Basham, Ibid pp 181-82). Many social evils like Sati Pratha; Dowry, Purdah system etc. took birth. Religious fundamentalism was born. Hindu and Muslim priests, alike, arbitrarily distorted and misinterpreted the tenets of their respective religions. It led to the process of stiffening/ hardening/ crystallizing of the caste system. Besides, the feudalistic attitude, extravagance and luxurious life style of Mughal rulers and those at the helm of authority, increased the disparity between the rulers and the ruled.

Start of Caste politics during British Rule – British rulers had a double mission in India, one destructive, the other regenerating; the annihilation of the old Asiatic Society and laying the material foundation of Western Society in Asia. The regenerating character was concerned with social transformation through modern education, English language as a medium of learning and official language, modernization in economic sphere, political unification of the country and laying foundations for many democratic institutions. The reactionary and destructive character was seen in the economic and social sphere. The growth of casteism had a close connection with these developments.

Caste-politics and communalism fanned by British rulers for political reasons – British rulers purposely-(especially to divide Hindu population) launched an ideological attack on Indian social structure and its caste system . They portrayed caste-system as “highly stratified” dividing its people into vast number of groups having distinct and diverse thinking and life-styles. They called it “discriminatory,” “iniquitous,” “exploitative,” “oppressive” “barbarous,” and “uncivilized” system. They held caste system responsible for evil social practices, feudalistic attitude, backward thinking, belief in dogmas and superstitions sustained by a unique set of rituals, and whimsical concept of purity and pollution. They blamed caste-system for evil social practices, feudalistic attitude, backward thinking, belief in dogmas and superstitions sustained by a unique set of rituals, and whimsical concept of purity and pollution as well as spreading  prejudice, high handedness and rude behavior of caste Hindus towards the lower strata of society.

Growth of Caste-Politics – British rulers made caste and community as tools to make Indians fight amongst themselves. They adopted the path of ‘divide and rule’. Initially they recognized officially political formations of different sections of society on basis of race, religion, caste, creed, or place. Then they adopted policies, which gave a boost to caste-ist tendencies. They re-classified the castes from Brahmins (Learners), Khhatrias (Warriors), Vaishyas (Business men)and Shudras (workers under the guidance of above three groups) to Upper castes, backward castes, Scheduled castes, Scheduled Tribes and minorities and politicized it according to their administrative convenience. British rulers showed to the Leaders of independent India the way how to ignite/enflame caste rivalries.

The way the following policies were implemented, had led to the entry and growth of caste-politics during 19th and 20th centuries were –

  • Modern education – Modern education disassociated Indians from their traditional way of learning, classical roots and knowledge. With it faded Indian values, philosophies and traditions. Tough competition between different sections of society to get hold on modern occupations, led to inter-caste rivalries, social tensions and group conflicts among Indians.
  • Modern means of transport – The modern means of transport and communications destroyed the local character of society. Modern means of transport had sharply restricted the hold of caste-elders over its members and replaced the traditional pattern of checks and balances and leadership by voluntary associations, social reformers and political leaders. Caste organizations emerged and entered into region-wise caste alliances.
  • Industrialization – Industrialization has led to urbanization and change in occupational pattern in India. The British discouraged local genius, cottage industries and fine arts. Many traditional occupations became obsolete, or less paying or were regarded more hazardous and more time consuming. The British apathy towards indigenous skills, knowledge and occupations had scattered efforts, sense of direction and manufacturing skills of millions of artisans, craftsman, weavers etc. Millions of people were pushed backwards in a very subtle manner and loosened the sanctity of caste rules and caste consciousness in matters of occupation.                                          Very few of them could join modern occupations. Majority belonging to different castes could neither enter modern sector, nor could stick to their traditional occupations considering menial work derogatory and lost their creativity, sense of achievement and pride. Such people added the numbers of poor agricultural laborers, industrial workers or marginal labors or unemployed. Outcome of such a development has been casualty of workers first, afterwards their work style, commitment, motivation and culture.It led to the decay of village industries as the competition was directly with the cheap machine goods.
  • Introduction of Electoral politics –  The introduction of electoral politics, in the beginning of the 20th century gave rise to “Power in numbers”. It gave political leverage to the non-Brahmin castes on account of their numerical strength. It started cut-throat competition for scarce positions of power and prestige under British Raj.                                                                                           Granting of separate Muslim Electorate by Minto Morley Reforms Minto-Morley Reforms, known as Government of India Act of 1909, brought the idea of communal electorate to the forefront in the minds of all the castes and communities, which led successfully to divide Hindu population also into two uncompromising groups, viz. `We” Non-Brahmins vs. `They” Brahmins and caste Hindus.
  • ‘Policy of Reservations’ – Muslims and Non-Brahmin castes resented dominance of Brahmins in education and administration. To restrict Brahmin’s entry in Government jobs and make it available to non-Brahmins communities, British rulers started practice of “Preferences” by giving them financial assistance and preferences in education and Government employment at local and provincial level. It served double purpose for them – getting credit for amelioration and protection of downtrodden and keeping natives busy in their in-fights.                                                           Privileges bestowed on ‘preferential-basis’ by the rulers – British rulers devised a novel method to distribute and balance the domination of Brahmins in education and employment on ‘preferential-basis’. The patronage of British rulers to non-Brahmin castes and Muslims led them to emerge as powerful pressure groups. The powerful voice of Non Brahmin leaders made government to pursue the principle of special attention on the basis of caste. It was strongly established in the South at provincial level, which ultimately gave birth to the policy of reservation. 1905 to 1940 was the period, when idea of Reservation/positive discrimination was conceived, experimented and established firmly. It opened up various channels of confrontation.                                            Communal Award, Poona pact of 1932 – Communal Award of 1932 created a permanent split in Hindu Society and perpetuated casteism further. It made impossible the assimilation of different castes under one fold. Dr. Rajendra Prasad said, ‘the principle of dividing population into communal groups, which had been adopted in the Minto Morley reforms had been considerably extended, even beyond what had been done by Montagu Chelmsford Reforms… The electorate in 1919 was broken up into 10 parts, now it is fragmented into seventeen unequal bits… Hindu community was further weakened by giving separate representation to Scheduled castes. Division on the basis of religion, occupation and service were made. Every possible cross division was introduced by the British. The Communal Award strengthened the roots of casteism in politics.

‘Census operations’ – Through Census operations, British rulers divided Indian social structure in a fundamental way and gave rigidity to social stratification and hierarchical ranking.

  • The older four Varnas, embracing numerous castes and sub-castes within its fold were divided into five new unbridgeable compartments – Backward caste, forward caste (caste Hindus), untouchables or scheduled caste, scheduled tribes and minority. Through legal process, each one got a new separate and distinct identity. The new way of classifying the Indian society instigated caste consciousness, caste animosities and made caste a tool in political, religious and cultural battles that Hindus fought amongst themselves from now onwards without any sign of relief even as of today.
  • Destroyed the flexibility of caste system – Census operations are responsible for destroying the flexibility of caste system and giving rigidity to social stratification and hierarchical ranking. Caste was a flexible and fluid unit of Indian society. Census operations codified the castes and standardized the system by placing all the jatis into four Varnas or in the categories of outcastes and aborigines. Census operations, led to an all-round hardening of social-system and to frantic effort by each group-for upward mobility. It led to caste-ism in politics.
  • Pigeonholed everyone by caste and community – Middleton, a Census Superintendent remarked, “We pigeonholed everyone by caste and community. We deplore its effect on social and economic problems. But we are largely responsible for the system…Our land records and official documents have added iron-bonds to the old rigidity of caste…. The government’s act for labels and pigeon-holes had led to a crystallization of the caste system, which, except amongst the aristocratic caste, was really very fluid under indigenous rule.”
  • Census enumeration far from neutral – The process of Census enumeration was far from neutral. The British retained the distinctions between different sub-castes, relevant to them for organizing labor and homogenized all those sub-castes, for which they had no use, therefore, no interest. All the floating population like Gujjars, Bhattis, Ranger Rajputs, who remained out-side caste system were fused into one. The Census operation kept Brahmins, whom, the British administrators, Christian Missionaries and Orientalists, pinpointed as the potential threat to the British, at periphery and, instigated other castes against them.
  • Venom against caste-system and the Brahmin community – The leaders of the downtrodden like Mahatma Phule, Baba Saheb Ambedkar or Gopal Ganesh taught the lower castes to get united. They instilled deeply in the minds of millions of unlettered Hindus, venom against caste-system and the Brahmin community. Caste system, to them, was responsible for treating them as lesser human beings; engaging them in forced labour, unsavory jobs imposing many restrictions on them; preventing them from joining the mainstream of the society; and the subjugation of lower castes with the help of religion.
  • Suggestion to exclude Untouchables from Hindu-fold – The suggestion of Census Commissioner to exclude untouchables from Hindu fold in the coming 1911 census immediately increased the importance of untouchables in political circle, in social circle, and in their own eyes too. Around 1909, the non-Brahmin Community, which resented the Brahmins hold in modern occupations, was divided into two Backwards and untouchables. For the first time, the lowest layer of Hindu Community was conceptualized under the name of untouchability in the political circles.
  • The leaders vehemently criticized its hierarchical structure based on caste, and regarded untouchability as an inevitable concomitant of caste system. Dr. Ambedkar made it abundantly clear that, it was through political power that untouchables were to find their solution, not through acceptance by Hindus. Eradication of caste system became the major plank of ‘backward’ castes and ‘untouchable’ castes.

                                                                         After Independence

The seeds of ‘divide and rule’, sown by British imperial rulers, have blossomed in full in Independent India. Casteism, corruption, criminalization etc. are some of the direct consequences of political expediency and opportunism. Present-day politics encourages sectional forces, which are vocal and demand enough space for themselves in job-market and higher education aggressively. There is no respite from casteism.

Modernization, industrialization and urbanization, liberalization  and  Globalization have lessened the rigidities of caste in social arena. But its growing influence in national politics has created many problems. Focus of people on pursuit of money and materialistic pleasures and erosion of basic moral and human values has led to alarming disparities of power, wealth and culture amongst different sections of society. There is complete centralization of control systems in the hands of a few Individuals and groups with political, money or muscle power, who control destiny of millions and have say in almost every walk of national life. Casteism, communalism, rigid attitude, in-discipline, violence, corruption, and chase of materialism based on ruthless competition have weakened the social fabric beyond repair.

Attempts for social changes make a virtue of narrow loyalties of caste and religion, generating sub-cultures like favoritism, lure for easy money, nepotism and, in-discipline in the society. Caste and communal conflicts are increasing. There are sectarian and regional imbalances generating social and psychological tensions. The work culture has been degenerated.

Under-currents of caste politics have made the task of governance difficult, making the governance of the nation difficult and ineffective. The administration has become incompetent to solve the burning national issues. It has turned the vision of national development into an empty dream.

Caste more liberal in social sphere – In modern India, spread of literacy and growing awareness among masses has already brought to an end slowly but steadily many of the discriminatory practices and deformities developed in Caste system, while living under alien rule. It has become more liberal and less restrictive in social life of the people. Castes no longer enjoy legal or religious sanctions.

Castes Less restrictive – Expulsion from castes means little, while earlier it meant complete social ostracism. Old style of authority and power exercised by caste-elders has already diminished except for a few rural areas especially in Haryana and Rajasthan. Restrictions or interactions between different castes arising due to considerations for purity and pollution are fading away from public life even from rural areas. Traditional barriers on marriage, hereditary occupations and commonality are loosing its importance.

Poor governance – There is no respite to a large number of people. Even now, after 70 years of Independence, millions of people suffer from poverty, disparity, discrimination and deprivation. They are still exploited mercilessly by strong men of society. Why?

It is not the caste-system, but the bad politics and poor governance, which is responsible. Modern India is sharply divided into two – “haves” and “have-nots”. The most important factors responsible for disparities are vote-bank politics, irrational and corrupt ways of pursuing the paternal policies and government’s failure to address real issues at central and State levels.

‘Caste’, the most powerful tool for creation of  vote-banks –  ‘Caste’ has become a bye-word for Indian politicians. For the present-day political leaders caste is the easiest and most powerful tool to sway public opinion emotionally and to create a larger vote bank for them. It may be called ossification of caste-system fallen into the hands of power brokers and vote guzzlers.

Emergence of political identities – For political and governance purposes, modern Indian society has been stratified in most insensitive manner. For grabbing the political power, caste politics has  divided Indian people into the following unbridgeable groups – Upper castes, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled tribes, Other Backward Class and Minorities. Every time, before elections, groups formed on the basis of caste and community make fake promises to pursue sectional interests shamelessly.

Narrow loyalties of caste and religion  – Narrow loyalties of caste and religion are encouraged in political arena. It has generated sub-cultures like caste-ism, favoritism, and lure for easy money, nepotism, parochialism, communalism, regionalism etc. Bigoted sentiments and irresponsible comments are spreading in-discipline in the society. The rising aspirations and demands of people, with the spread of education and awareness, has created added problem for the government.

Under-currents of caste politics – Under-currents of caste politics have made the government incapable to solve the burning national issues. It has made to maintain law and order difficult. Inter-caste and intra-caste, inter-community and intra-community and inter-tribal and intra-tribal conflicts are increasing day by day in order to get more space in the corridors of power.

Real issues pushed into the background – Real issues like mass-scale illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, inflation, deteriorated law and order situation, increasing violence or general coarsening of moral fiber of the Indian society etc. are pushed into the background. the voice of upright and honest people belonging to middle class is being continuously throttled mercilessly. They are being punished for following sincerely family-planning norms, which has decreased their numbers. In present day vote-bank politics based on game of numbers, it is very easy now for the pursuers of political power to sideline them.

 Winding up

Empowerment of masses depends on inculcation of knowledge and awareness through ‘education for all’. Usually Power rests with those having either knowledge or physical strength or wealth. Knowledge brings in both force and wealth. Instead of putting blame on caste-system, it would be more desirable to make arrangements for sound system of education for empowering the submerged sections of society.

Despite all the undesirable developments taken place in the system, caste system is still quite popular amongst Indian masses. Not only Hindus, but other sects living in India, with all their egalitarian faith, whether foreign or indigenous, like Muslims and Christians, Sikhs or Buddhist, have not remained immune from its caste system. They have also absorbed many of its practices and systems.

Change one must. Past should not be idolized. Any system, which in light of modern times appears to be ineffective or inefficient should be replaced by a better one. But it will be suicidal to sacrifice something to an increasing passion for change. Changes must be based on constant interpretation of past experiences and opinions.

 

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