It would be near impossible for anyone to deny the existence of caste in Indian history. However at present, many people find discussions on caste useless at best and maliciously divisive at worst. It would not be hard to find, even amongst the most educated of university students, to find people who believe that “caste is in the past”
This belief is naïve at best. Many caste-analysis studies reflect that machinations of older prescriptions of caste still plague India’s socio-economic structure. At the risk of bombarding one with statistics, here are some important figures:
-63% of teachers in higher education in India are Upper Caste Hindus, although they constitute only 26% of the population.
- 88% of the Union Cabinet is occupied by Upper-middle Class/Caste Hindus.
- It is twice as likely for a white collar employee to hail from an Upper Caste background.
One of the most common beliefs among the upper-middle class/castes of India seems to be that caste in India is no longer relevant. The thought process seems to work somewhat on the following lines,
“Dalits had been oppressed for thousands of years under the caste system. But since Independence and the ban on Untouchability, Dalit oppression has nearly ended. Additionally, reservation of seats has allowed them to unfairly gain access to education and employment.”
The elite’s views on caste in post-independence India, largely skirt the systemic hindrances faced by the backward castes. There is no doubt that untouchability is an important issue, however, it’s direct manifestations have since independence become intangible and embedded in our socio-economic structures. This is a bigger problem as an inability to conceive discrimination leads to misdirected policy responses, or worse still, apathy. Furthermore, it reduces a plethora of complex caste issues to debates about the success/failure of reservation. To expand our view on this attitude, it will be helpful for us now to explore a rather well-known conflict between two very important historic figures – MK Gandhi and Dr. BR Ambedkar.
Gandhi and Ambedkar are both revered political figures, although revered in different circles in different ways. The fact that Gandhi amassed global admiration that Ambedkar never could is undeniable. However, the global conception of Gandhi often ignores his attitudes towards caste.
Here are some excerpts from Gandhi’s writings in Gujarati,
“Caste is another name for control. Caste puts a limit on enjoyment. Caste does not allow a person to transgress caste limits in pursuit of his enjoyment. That is the meaning of such caste restrictions as inter-dining and inter-marriage… These being my views I am opposed to all those who are out to destroy the Caste System.”
“I believe that if Hindu society has been able to stand, it is because it is founded on the caste system. To destroy caste … means Hindus must give up the concept of hereditary occupation which is the soul of caste…Hereditary principle is an eternal principle, to change it is to create disorder. I have no use for a Brahmin if I cannot call him a Brahmin for my life. It will be chaos if everyday a Brahmin is changed into a Shudra and a Shudra is changed into a Brahmin.”
It is important to know that Gandhi came from the Vaishya Varna’s Baniya (trader) caste. It is surprising to many individuals that Gandhi, the person who campaigned heavily for the ban on untouchability would hold such views regarding caste. This is where we need to make a distinction between caste as a systemic problem with manifold ramifications and untouchability as one of its symptoms. Dr. Ambedkar, himself a Dalit, campaigned for the destruction of the caste system in all its forms– one of which is untouchability. Gandhi, however, aimed to eradicate untouchability alone, the extreme behavioral manifestation of caste, and not caste itself, which was the underlying socio-ideological basis of stratification.
The conflict between Ambedkar and Gandhi was a heated one, to say the least. Ambedkar, in an interview in 1955 to BBC radio said,
“A comparative study of Gandhi’s Gujarati and English writings will reveal how Mr. Gandhi was deceiving people.”
Ambedkar’s conflict with Gandhi during the Round Table Conferences is more or less ignored in popular discussions. Invited to the Roundtable Conference (1931), Ambedkar campaigned for separate electorates for what were then known as the depressed classes. Since these depressed classes were socially oppressed, economically weak, geographically marginalized and often lived on the outskirts of villages and/or cities, it was difficult for them to collectivize and form a sizeable group that could demand representation in a Hindu majority nation with a Brahmin stronghold on the body politic.
Ambedkar realized that there existed a need to guarantee a political safeguard. This safeguard, Ambedkar opined, should take the form of a separate electorate system. The system allowed people from the depressed classes to become the sole electors for the person representing their seat. Therefore, in each constituency with a sizeable depressed class’s population, two candidates would be elected, one by the members of the general category and the other by those of the depressed classes. This was an extension of the separate electorates offered to Muslims under the Morley-Minto Reforms of 1909 by the British.
At the Second Round Table conference, Gandhi was the representative of the Indian National Congress, and he was opposed to the idea of separate electorates. His response was to go on an indefinite hunger strike to express his disagreement. When Gandhi announced that he is on a fast unto death, there was significant national conversation about the issue. Gandhi’s political stature at the time, coupled with the support of bigwigs in the Congress, meant that a compromise was arrived at in the Poona Pact of 1932. The Pact led to an agreement to give reserved seats to certain constituencies, where only candidates from the backward castes would contest elections, while the entire electorate (general or otherwise) would vote to choose from among them. Such constituencies are still in existence in India today. Furthermore, with the coming of the Constitution, the principle of reservation was also expanded to admissions in educational institutions, government jobs, etc.
Returning to our discussion regarding the present day Indian elite, one can see the traces of Gandhi’s attitude of limiting his crusade against untouchability alone. Most elites seem to believe that untouchability magically liberated all Dalits from the thousands of years old caste system overnight and a level playing field, devoid of any caste barriers, was established. That the elite would have such a myopic view regarding caste is what leads many scholars and activists to believe that Ambedkar’s writings need to be popularized in the mainstream.
Near Past and Near Future
Independent India has struggled with numerous caste issues over the years, each issue needing a whole article in and on itself. Caste, too, has mutated into numerous, if not infinite, forms that often escape the common eye. One such example would be how Reservation has worked for the depressed classes. On one hand, it has allowed many people from these depressed communities to gain access to education, leading to the rise of a considerably better-off middle class among these depressed castes, and on the other hand it has also alienated much of the middle and upper classes from the issue of caste justice. The provision of Reservation has led to a near-unanimous belief among the elite people from the depressed classes are availing opportunities that the former don’t need and/or deserve. Peak outrage was seen after the Mandal Commission’ recommendation, for the reservation of seats for OBCs in public services, was implemented, in 1990. Self-immolating students from upper-middle castes became symbolic of the upper-middle class/caste rage at reservation.
As Guha has pointed out in his book ‘India after Gandhi’, caste complexities apart from ‘elites protest caste reservation’ surrounded the anti-Mandal Commission protest. South India, which is believed to have a more prevalent presence of caste, actually saw relatively fewer anti-reservation outburst. Guha attributes this fact to the presence of a strong industrial sector in the South, which can absorb the educated youth hence reducing their dependence on government jobs. In North India, however, there was much dependence on government jobs and hence it witnessed a more egregious eruption of protests.
However, one would be amiss to judge that Caste and social standing works uniformly everywhere. Writers like MN Srinivas have pointed out how due to factors like land-ownership, Sanskritisation (emulation of higher-caste practices by lower castes for social mobility) and local economic networks, numerous local caste traditions and hierarchies have emerged – some in such a shape that better off Kshatriyas/Vaishyas would refuse to accept food cooked by poor Brahmins. The Great Tradition, as Srinivas calls it, of the simple Varna hierarchy is often changed and modified in local Little Traditions.
So, if in case of the anti-Mandal Commission recommendations caste complexities suddenly erupted in response to a government decision, the process of Sanskritisation depicts a more gradual change in local caste complexities.
Caste is as complex as any form of social organization can be and, in a diverse post-colonial India in a globalized world, it continues to grow ever more complicated. I can only encourage the readers to research further on this issue and, hopefully, work for the same as well.
About The Author
Rahul Chaudhary is a literature student at Hansraj College. He is interested in social work and has worked with multiple NGOs and organizations. Having written for online portals, magazines, blogs and more he is well experienced with handling content. His tenacious interest in social issues and art has allowed him to work with organizations like the World Comics Network, Project FUEL and many other education-awareness projects. Still working for various journals and awareness initiatives, he continues to write on issues close to his heart as he explores the world beyond his comfort zone.
Header Graphic Source: The Quint