The die is not cast(e)


India’s caste system has and continues to be a subject of many debates. In the end, it comes down to this – Is the caste system dead in India, or is it flourishing? G. Venkatesh talks to a cross-section of his peers to piece together some realities.

This piece is inspired by two events. One, the dalit uprising which brought Mumbai to a halt recently.Two, the 60th anniversary celebration of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour (OLPS) High School, Chembur – this author’s alma mater. The first is the reason for the choice of the theme of this article – caste system in India. The second has led yours sincerely to reach out to his former classmates – convent-educated, city-bred, progressive 46-year-olds, who passed out of OLPS in 1987. Yours sincerely has availed of the freedom of expression in a democracy to compile diverse-yet-similar opinions and viewpoints through a WhatsApp group chat from people who have seen and observed, heard and listened, thought and introspected, and finally decided. No half-baked spontaneous outbursts, but well-formed ones which have stood and will stand the test of time. The motivation is not to challenge readers or question beliefs, overturn traditions or hurt sensitivities. It is more a ‘question-raising’, a buffet of comments from which readers can pick and choose, what and how much they want, or simply decide to walk away without tasting anything. Alongwith the freedom of expression, comes the freedom of agreement and disagreement.

In God’s image?
Let me begin with an excerpt from a published article of mine, in the journal Problemy Ekorozwoju (Problems of Sustainable Development, in Polish). “According to the Manusmriti, ‘But for the sake of the prosperity of the worlds, He caused the Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Shudra to proceed from his mouth, arms, thighs and feet. He refers to the Infinite God… and of course, you will all agree that what originates from His feet is as precious as what originates from His mouth, thighs and shoulders! So, how can one say that one caste is superior to the others?’” (Venkatesh, 2017) And if we also believe that God created Man in his own image, it follows indisputably that each and every one of us, is an admixture of the four castes we have created in society! This spiritual awareness is indispensable for sustainable development in the post-modern era, when every one of us is looked upon to make diverse contributions to the upkeep of social welfare, economic growth and environmental conservation. At once, all the professions one can think of come to mind! Even if it is true that the caste system was, at its inception, developed for the division of labour, interpreting the Manusmriti differently in the 21st century will enable one to understand that nothing is the preserve of any privileged section of society anymore, nor should any group of people be barred from taking up professions of their choice on the basis of outdated caste-based discrimination.

With that backdrop, let us move on to dwell on what the respondents had to say. They have been identified by their first names here. Saikat reminded me that the caste system is alive and kicking in rural India and that I should focus there for my survey, in order to get antipodal viewpoints for this piece. Of course, when the potential respondents are delimited by the aforesaid criterion, one misses out on the diametrically-opposite points of view, which make any ‘talk-show’ on TV for instance, extremely interesting. City-bred, convent-educated 46-year-olds obviously will concur with each other that the caste system is a blot which needs to be bleached out of society. This though is a generalisation, and unless one investigates far and wide, one can never be sure of even this.

While Arjun from the USA agrees with Saikat, Danny and Anil – both Christians – chip in to tell me that the caste system is not the sole preserve of Hinduism. Anil points out that the term ‘Bhamun Christians’ (Brahmin Christians) was often bandied about by Christians who knew that their ancestors – several generations ago – who were converted to Christianity had been upper-caste Hindus. Danny concurs by observing that it is prevalent in some parts of rural Goa even now, where ‘Bhamun Christians’ do not get married to ‘non-Bhamun Christians’. This harks back to Saikat’s observation that it is alive and kicking in rural India. Danny tells me that the European powers which colonised India – the Portuguese and the British – excelled in ‘Divide and Rule’ and the caste system which was prevalent became a weapon in their hands, which they wielded very dexterously to subjugate us.

Interestingly, he refers to the ‘God made man in his own image’ allusion which appears earlier in this article, albeit in a different way, by saying that he understands the importance of a diverse range of qualities for a human being. Both Danny and Claude were ‘introduced’ to the caste system so to say, when they heard from their friends (who were upper-caste Brahmins) in the late 1980s, that despite scoring very high marks in the XII standard, they struggled to secure admission on merit to good engineering colleges of their respective choices, thanks to the reservation policy.

This author often wanted to believe that the caste system came about for better division of labour in society, but Anil reminds me that it was created by privileged groups of people in society in order to hold on to their privileges and dominate the ones who were categorised as ‘lower castes’. He also does not seen any reason to reinterpret the quotation from the Manusmriti which appeared in an earlier paragraph, as he believes that the frame of reference was created so that the collective conscience could be satisfied, theoretically. Very convincing indeed. Asked if the top-down hierarchy of the castes could be redesigned as a left-to-right random ordering of co-existing groups of people in Indian society, he wonders why the concept itself cannot be expunged for good. Another classmate, Deep, is of the view that casteism in all religions, not explicitly at times, but it can be seen if one closely observes how people in society behave vis-à-vis other co-religionists. Here, Girish wishes to differentiate between ‘upper-class mentality’ and ‘upper-caste mentality’.

The topic of reservation triggers an interesting discussion among the group members. Deep believes that as long as the policy of reservation persists in India, people will automatically be reminded of the caste divide, whether they believe in it or not. However, Rajesh points out that the said policy is a fledgling compared to the caste system which has prevailed for centuries. The policy was implemented to right some of the wrongs and create a level-playing field for the oppressed classes. However, even though the intention was pure, it failed to yield the intended outcome. Governance, Ramdas observes, has declined since the 1960s, with the focus having been directed just to a small basket of wrongs to be righted. The wood has been missed for the trees.

When asked if the caste system has held India back all along, Anil uses examples of Shambuk from the Ramayana and Ekalavya from the Mahabharatha to reinforce his observation that caste has often been used to restrict development of knowledge in art, philosophy and warfare, for example. Social consciousness, he avers, must break through the silos of outdated value-systems, making choices free for everyone in society. May the best man win. May the most eligible take away the trophy. Reservations must be like the starter motors in automobiles. They must be taken away once the automobile is in motion – in other words, once a single generation of people from the oppressed classes has reaped the benefits, one would expect that generation to pass on the benefits to their wards who could then compete fairly with the so-called ‘upper castes’. But that is what ails India. We do not know what and when to do and what and when to undo.

The die though is not cast. The generations to come – even the ones in India’s villages – which will be exposed more and more to modernity, will not want to waste time abiding by the caste system. As Anil pointed out, social consciousness will prevail. If India, with its manpower and skillsets, has to steal a march over other developing countries, this is a sine qua non. Period.

(Acknowledgements: Thanks to all my friends from school who shared their viewpoints with me on WhatsApp. This piece is dedicated to my alma mater – Our Lady of Perpetual Succour High School, Chembur, Mumbai, which turned 60 recently. The author and the respondents passed out of it when it was 30 years old.)

G. Venkatesh

G. Venkatesh is Associate Professor, Department of Engineering and Chemical Sciences, Faculty of Health, Science and Technology, Karlstad University, Sweden. He is also a freelance writer for several magazines around the world.