Quietude around caste

15Apr14

 

It is another election season, and we have the explosion of caste analysis in the media. Everything is about caste permutation and combination, caste vote banks, etc. Many “progressive-minded” Indians think that caste politics is the bane of India. If it were not for the politicians who are stoking the fire of caste, India would be tearing ahead to be a part of the developed world, à la China.

Sample the speculation before the release of the Congress Party manifesto that it would have reservation for the oppressed castes in the private sector. From the fearful prognosis, it seemed that a tsunami of soul-numbing “quotas” was going to be unleashed which would gobble up an otherwise meritorious India, and which would leave nothing but an economic Stone Age in its wake!

But what is farcical and dangerous in this analysis is the failure to recognise the biggest elephant in the room: caste, possibly one of the most abhorrent mechanisms devised by human beings to oppress other human beings. The greatest tragedy of India is the shocking silence about caste. Caste in India is like air, it is what you breathe but yet you cannot “see” it — an oppressive system that is not even recognised as generating oppression.

Whenever the issue of caste is raised, it is alleged that it is a nefarious design to divide an otherwise united Hindu community, and a problem that is internal to it. But this argument is itself a key tool in producing silences around caste. How is it a “Hindu problem” when Islam, Christianity and Sikhism in India are equally bedevilled by the monster of caste? What makes an “upper caste” Kerala Syrian Christian or a Goan Catholic revel in their supposed Brahmin origins, the ashraf Muslims to refuse to interact with, or marry a pasmanda Muslim, and caste divisions within Sikhs erupt in violence even outside the shores of India?

The irony of spewing venom on caste politics is that it is mainly politics that has delivered some limited empowerment and mobility to the oppressed castes, through reservations in Parliament, Assemblies, and in government jobs and public education. Dalit political struggles and the oppressor’s need to acknowledge the power of the oppressed in an electoral democracy, even if only symbolically, have given India a President, a Speaker of Parliament, and a Chief Justice from the Dalit communities.

But there is a mammoth and unbridgeable gap between caste in the political sphere, and caste in the cultural sphere and the private economic sector. There is some visibility in the former, which attracts derision (think Ms. Mayawati), and a deafening silence in the latter which leads to erasure. Of course, the latter is not legally mandated to accommodate the oppressed.

It is derision that leads Chetan Bhagat, the voice of the Indian youth, to ask: “When we choose a mobile network, do we check whether Airtel or Vodafone belong to a particular caste? No, we simply choose the provider based on the best value or service. Then why do we vote for somebody simply because he belongs to the same caste as us?” It is absolutely true that we do not necessarily check the caste of an MNC owner, but Mr. Bhagat does not go onto ask: if caste is irrelevant, then why is it often the only thing that matters in marriage, the crucial ritual in the reproduction of society?

It is silence that leads Mr. Ravi Shastri to respond to the question of a domination of cricket in India till recently by Brahmin players with the answer: “it’s a coincidence” and players are picked not because “they are Brahmins but because they’re Indians.”

American parallel

Is it also a coincidence that Dalits and other marginalised castes are equally and shockingly absent in other most lucrative and prominent sections of the society, the corporate sector, Bollywood, television, etc.? In a Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) survey of 315 important decision-makers in 37 Delhi-based publications and television channels, not one was found to be a Dalit or Adivasi, and only four per cent of them were Other Backward Classes. And capitalism is not casteless as Mr. Bhagat thinks. India’s 65 billionaires are emphatically savarna, and many come from just one caste! Where are the Muhammad Alis, Michael Jordans, Tiger Woods, Carl Lewis, Michael Jacksons, Oprah Winfreys, Denzel Washingtons and Serena Williams (the list is endless) of the Dalits? The African-Americans have similar histories of slavery and oppression as the Dalits, and even if their general condition is vastly inferior to the white population, American society has provided the conditions for the emergence of black icons who are celebrated..

 

Source: The Hindu

(Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University, Canada. E-mail: nmannathukkaren@dal.ca)

 



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