Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Evolution of Caste and its Modern Meaning

The West remains obsessed by the caste system,” commented French writer François Gautier. But what provokes such intense interest in the Indian caste system? Surely other cultures are the subjects of their own hierarchical systems, yet the caste system is seen differently. Perhaps the ancient scriptural roots peak the interest of some, or the manner in which caste still affects daily ritual and interaction entices others. Either way, it is important to demystify caste of the exoticism which it has suffered – exoticism primarily by the West. Therefore, this third module studies caste through concrete anthropological, historical, and political scopes. Thereby, the impact of caste as individuals proceed through various stages of their lives becomes apparent. From ritual rites such as birth and marriage, to perfunctory actions of eating, to the democratic process of elections and alliance-building, caste rests in the back of everyone's minds. Furthermore, the salience of caste in such diverse facets of life and society leads to gaps in equality and opportunity. How do the discriminated reposition themselves to gain equality? How do they form an identity and demand opportunity? All of the above questions narrate a story of ancient notions of identity within a society in conflict with modern notions of individual freedom and equality.

The content of this module focuses on two separate themes. The first theme is of the definition of caste itself and its evolution throughout the Subcontinent's era of colonization into the modern period. In understanding the definition of caste, one can imagine caste relations as a pairing of interactions between the 'pure' and the 'polluted'. Furthermore, society propagates caste through notions of food possessing the same characteristics, such that consumption of meat and alcohol is frowned upon by “the pure.” Other interactions such as the ritual relationships between a king and a priest demonstrate the complementary roles which different castes play (Fuller 482). This anthropological view is one of inter-caste interdependence for the smooth function of society. The four varnas of Hindu scripture then underwent a change under British colonialism as caste was chosen by the British bureaucracy as the main means for categorizing the people (Bhatia “Understanding”). As Fuller confirms, “The traditional Indian village with its traditional caste system was, in large part, a project of the British Raj” (Fuller 480). Another important term in discourse over caste is the term jati – a term more prevalent in the vernacular, quotidian references to caste as kinship and community. Through jati is how most Hindus experience the caste system – be it at times of marriage or any other auspicious event based on kinship networks. Many jatis are also regionally based and therefore tie people into an even closely knit network. Jati, based on a more specific qualification than varna, may indicate one's profession, and thus the conditions in which one will spend his or her life (Fuller 477). Therefore, one may interpret caste as distantly or intimately as one desires. And in today's Republic, although casteism is illegal, it most definitely is not ignored; neither the people nor the politicians are caste-blind.

This discussion then transitions into the modern response to the caste system by low-caste Dalits who seek to effect change. Do they see themselves as part of the system or as outliers? What accommodations do they ask as citizens of the Republic? And in what ways do caste status and class status overlap – are they interchangeable? As Mridu Rai explains, “The State in India does not recognize caste, and yet the history of India shows that caste, far from fading away, has returned to the fold of politics today.” This statement further enforces the idea of caste as a network, a means to connecting with individuals of a similar background. And in the case of politics, one elects into office individuals with similar lineage, experiences, goals, and ideals. As Indian politician V.N. Gadgil remarked, “In India you do not cast your vote, you vote your caste.” And thus, this caste politics gives birth to jargon such as “Scheduled Castes,” “Scheduled Tribes,” and “Other Backwards Classes.” Each are groups of traditionally underprivileged communities which are now awarded a form of affirmative action – reservations in public education and employment – to lessen the gap created by centuries of discrimination (Guha 600). By 1995, two million Dalits were admitted into work, though they remained economically “impoverished” (Guha 606). Along with admittance into public employment and education, many Dalits also found themselves in the highest rungs of the political sphere. Mayawati, serving her fourth term as Chief Minister of India's most populous state, is also head of the Bahujan Samaj Party – representing a Dalit constituency (Guha 607). Despite the success of a few from underprivileged communities, the vast majority of lower caste individuals face many hurdles in finding success or even an opportunity to prove themselves.

Although I was aware of caste before this module, my understanding was mostly restricted to my own caste and the caste of my family friends. My understanding of caste sincerely lacked exposure to the lifestyles and practices of lower caste individuals, especially the Dalits. Reading the two poems and the short story “Untold Hitlers” provided me with insight into this section of society. Firstly, Omprakash Valmiki's poetry reveals a frustrated, angry attitude toward being outcast for centuries – left with only “leavings to eat” and “hand-me-downs to wear” (Valmiki). Secondly, the short story “Untold Hitlers” exposed me to the fact of transient castes which are not fixed. These classes move up or down the hierarchy as they acquire wealth, popularity, or land. “Untold Hitlers” is a story of land-workers from the village who have succeeded a land-owning zamindar in post-Independence India. They travel to the city where they wish to purchase a tractor. The business owner offers with a hint of nostalgia, “There used to be just one thakur who ruled over the area, but now you big peasants have become the new thakurs” (Detha). This concept of post-Independence mobility suggests change for some newly lang-owning castes, yet the system remained in place. And as the story suggests, even the most underprivileged person can find someone beneath him to violate.

Alongside my new knowledge of the conditions of Dalits as well as the mobility which some castes enjoyed, some interesting questions were discussed in class. First, were non-Hindus (namely Muslims and Christians) outside the influence of the caste system? And second, how do caste and class reflect on one another? Both these questions reflect the nature of caste as a pervasive culture phenomenon, not one isolated within the Hindu community. Although both Christianity and Islam in theory professed equality, there existed Dalit-like groups in both communities (Fuller 490-491). This widespread presence of societal hierarchy and a clear out-group suggests that scripture is not the only force pushing for caste, but that caste differences often inherently result in class differences.

Returning to Gautier's comment, the West might in fact be obsessed about caste when dealing with India – and perhaps even rightly so. At each point of India's history, factors seem to increase collective consciousness of caste rather than debilitate it. Be it in scripture, colonialism, or modern politics, people desperately seek a way to identify themselves and organize themselves. They try to build a story of lineage. Unfortunately, the caste system only accords this power to those at the top. Yet, the underprivileged also seek to build their narrative, too. As the Dalit protagonist of the 2011movie Aarakshan sings to his country, “Ek chance to de de merii jaan / tum phir uRaan dekhnaa” (Give me one chance, my love / And watch me take flight).