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Each in their place


Major and minor: Father and son keep up appearances while waiting for a taxi to school in Calcutta, India. Photo:

Chris Stowers / Panos Pictures / www.panos.co.uk

If you live with something long enough, it ceases to shock you. That’s caste in India. I rant and I rage at the injustice of it, the sheer cruelty of it. But I’m not shocked by it.

Class in Britain, on the other hand, shocks me. Recently I listened in amazement to a man who told me proudly that his family had been tenants for several hundred years on some Duke’s decrepit estate. To me, this sounded suspiciously like the feudal system of the Middle Ages, not Britain in 2003.

Feudal landholdings were outlawed, at least in theory, by the Indian Constitution some 50 years ago which decreed that if one farms a piece of land for 13 years one earns the automatic right to own it.

So why would a 21st-century Brit accept that a man whose ancestor, by virtue of being born on the wrong side of some royal blanket, would be his Lord and Master 200 years down the line? Because class in Britain is alive and well and accepted as inevitable.

It takes time for the outsider to understand the British class system. In India, the modern class system borrows liberally from the British; we learnt our lessons well, taking over from where the colonial masters left off. So in India we have both traditional caste and modern class well and truly in place and even the most liberated people flaunt it – albeit discreetly – when it suits them, to prove a point: to tell you who they are.

A brief history of caste
Perhaps the only class-free society in India was that of the indigenous or adivasi people who still today manage to practise equality with a wisdom that is truly humbling. Yet this lack of acquisitiveness, this disregard for hoarding, has earned indigenous communities sobriquets like ‘uncivilized’ or ‘primitive’.

Then came caste, a system devised by Machiavellian minds to keep an entire sub-group in bondage forever. Caste was invented by the Hindu Brahmin or priestly group some 2,000 years ago. They took what were essentially divisions of labour and dictated that everyone had a predestined, preordained station in life. To ensure that this diktat was obeyed, they created an elaborate religious system which insisted that your birth in this life was directly related to your sins or good deeds in the last one. Hence everyone had to accept this rigid system which controlled society and totally prohibited social mobility.

Knowledge was closely controlled by the Brahmins. Disobedience could mean death or worse. For example Manu, the Hindu lawgiver who codified a great deal of caste-dictated social behaviour into rigid laws, decreed that ‘a Dalit (person below or outside the caste system) who listened to the chanting of the Vedas (holy texts) should have molten lead poured into his ears’.

The system benefited the upper castes who had what amounted to slave labour for centuries. Even Muslims, Sikhs and Christians in India have internalized this system. They cling to the castes they were born into and, though less rigid about the polluting effect of the lower castes, tend to keep to their caste sub-groups when it comes to arranging marriages.

Caste thus became a system set in stone. The Muslim Mughal Empire that conquered and ruled India in the 16th and 17th centuries was feudal, and the people who converted to Islam from the upper Hindu castes thus became part of the feudal élite. However, there was a certain amount of upward mobility for anyone who caught the Mughal Emperor’s eye.

Enter class
Then in the 18th century came the British. In the 1830s Lord Macaulay introduced English as the language of education in India to provide the empire with the clerks and administrators it needed. He certainly succeeded in creating a cadre of ‘brown sahibs’, Indians who sought to emulate British dress, customs and language. Upward mobility was linked to the way you spoke and wrote English. Today, getting a decent job without a good grasp of English is still almost impossible in India.

Needless to say, almost all those who made it to the upper classes were of upper-caste origins because very few of the lower castes received the privileged education available in the best schools. The exception to this may be Christians in India who received a better education in missionary schools than others from similar economic or social backgrounds. Among Christians, those who converted from Brahmins kept their caste customs – the missionaries did not tamper with this. Thus Syrian Christians in Kerala, converted in the first century AD from the Brahmin community, are a powerful landed gentry who had few scruples about owning bonded labourers. In Goa and Mangalore too, surnames identify the rung in the Hindu hierarchy from which people were converted. The Protestants, with an inherent sense of equality born of their struggle with the Catholic hierarchy, were somewhat better than the Catholics at treating all their converts as one.

Drumming up support: India’s 160 million Dalits are getting it from as far afield as South Africa and the US.

Paul Weinberg / Panos Pictures / www.panos.co.uk

However, even the advantage of a relatively better education does not put a child in the same league as her classmate from a privileged class or caste background. Having illiterate or semi-educated parents is one drawback. The conversation at the dinner table is rarely intellectually stimulating. That little extra push needed to get the right library book to take the child one step ahead is missing. And so all but the rare genius who would forge ahead anyway, or the child who has a caring teacher or mentor, fall by the wayside. The upper-class boy has the money and backing to become an engineer or doctor. The lower-caste boy may become a supervisor in the factory, a step ahead of his slum-dweller playmates. The girl may become a nurse, better than her mother who washed dishes, but never a doctor. Getting to the top of the economic ladder is a rare achievement for the average lower-caste or -class child.

Violence ordained
Though they frequently intersect, caste and class are different. Mobility within the class system is always a possibility. The British aristocracy have kept their ancestral homes going by marrying money, even if they do look down their aristocratic noses at Kelloggs fortunes and the like.

Not so with the caste system. In India, the few Dalits who make it to the top are nevertheless often humiliated. Take the story of an upper-caste judge whose predecessor happened to be a Dalit. Before assuming office, he ordered the judicial chamber and seat to be purified by ritual washing with ‘sacred’ cow dung water to cleanse it of the polluting Dalit presence. A Dalit former District Collector told me of the insults he routinely had to endure. A Collector is monarch of the district he surveys, the supreme civil service authority there, yet the lowliest Brahmin clerk would feel it was his right to snub him in little ways known throughout history to little minds. If the highest luminaries of the judiciary and the executive can be treated so, you can imagine the fate of the poor Dalit in her village in remote rural India.

The evil religious sanction accorded to caste makes the perpetrators of caste violence feel they are ordained by the gods to have the lower castes serve them. So it is their duty to punish anyone who dares to defy them. The Dalits are told they are destined to be serfs because of karma, because in the cosmic order they are paying for their past sins and misdeeds.

Every single day in some part of India Dalits are killed merely because they tried to assert their rights. Dalits who dare to ‘get above’ their pre-ordained station in life are routinely beaten up, their women raped, publicly humiliated by stripping, forced to eat excreta or drink urine. Often entire families are killed. Death by burning appears to be a favoured Indian sport and the upper-caste culprits almost always get away scot-free.

Just to give a sense of the scale: over 100,000 cases of rape, murder, arson and other atrocities against Dalits are reported in India each year, according to Human Rights Watch. Given that Dalits are both reluctant and unable – due to lack of police co-operation – to report crimes against themselves, the actual number of abuses is presumably much higher.1

Police ignore, condone or encourage violence by private individuals directed against Dalits. In June 2000, police turned their backs and left a Dalit village in India’s Bihar state as an upper-caste mob entered it and slaughtered 34 lower-caste men, women and children.2

Dalit action
Caste killings and atrocities often drive us to deep despair, yet the fight for the civil rights of India’s 160 million Dalits goes on, a fight that we are destined to win, however long and terrible the struggle.

Mahatma Gandhi started the campaign for awareness about Dalit rights, but it was an appeal to the upper castes to treat Dalits better. Today this is seen as patronizing. Since the 1960s Dalit groups, drawing inspiration from their leader Ambedkar and the US Black Panther movement, have mounted a more assertive, aggressive campaign to take their rightful place in society. This process – resulting in education, better jobs and a better economic scenario – infuriated the upper castes in most villages.

India introduced ‘reservations’ or a quota system designed to help Dalit students. However, though it is fashionable for India’s élites to bemoan the fate of their talented offspring whose ‘merit’ is ignored in favour of less talented ‘quota’ kids, corruption, apathy and deliberate sabotaging of the reservation system have ensured that thousands of educational seats and posts remain unfilled. Studies and statistics reveal that all the top jobs in the civil service and all top government posts are filled by the upper castes, mostly Brahmins.

But Dalit activism is growing and gaining international attention. In 2001 some 160 Dalit activists attended the World Conference Against Racism held in Durban and the shameful plight of the world’s 240 million Dalits was thrust into the spotlight – in spite of protests from the Indian Government that the issue had nothing to do with race.

A campaign launched throughout India in 2001 achieved many small but highly significant victories. In several places centuries-old taboos were broken. Being allowed to drink tea at the same stall as anyone else may seem a small thing, but for the Dalit woman or man in question this breaking of the untouchability code is as history-shattering as Rosa Parks’ refusal to sit where she was told.3

And there are existing beacons of hope for change. The southern state of Kerala used to have the most vicious caste system in India, but for several decades it has been one of India’s most egalitarian, thanks to a combination of education, good governance and people’s movements that released Dalits there from the worst excesses of the caste system. West Bengal too is free from caste-based atrocities, thanks mainly to a long tradition of leftwing local government.

As the Dalit movement grows in power and consciousness, I can see the caste system becoming weaker. I can see the law at last punishing those who kill, abuse or oppress Dalits.

Class is another matter, though. Class evolved through the possession of wealth and property. The rich were the upper class and the poor were their servants. It is less threatening because it is less extreme. So it does not evoke the same anger and sense of oppression that the worst-case caste scenarios do. With the waning of communism and socialism, the sense that economic equality was a human right has become history, a concept ridiculed and thrown into the dustbin of the 20th century.

I do not see, in the near future, a New World Order where there is even a semblance of economic justice for the poor, for those of the supposedly lower classes. So I do not see the class system disappearing. I hope I may be proved wrong.

Mari Marcel Thekaekara is a writer and journalist based in Tamil Nadu. She has written extensively on caste issues, including a book, Endless Filth, about Dalit women who clean toilets.

New Internationalist issue 364 magazine cover This article is from the February 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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