Can we have a Casteless Society in India?

Renuka Khandekar, in an op-ed piece on March 31st, said that she loathed several things that David Frawley, the American Vedantist said in an interview published in the Indian Express on March 12th. She comments on a variety of issues pertaining to Hinduism - Caste, the Status of Women, the Nature of Hindu Society and so on. Similar to Khandekar’s essay is one by Amberish Diwanji on Rediff.Net (April 27th, 2000) with the catchy title “Caste-off!”. Diwanji’s essay, however, is merely a rant unlike the more careful enquiry by Khandekar. He claims for example that “If there is one area historians are wont to skip, it is mentioning the negative role of caste. Given that most of our past and present historians are from the so-called upper castes, there is a natural inclination to avoid mentioning how casteism ensured India’s perennial defeats, why when Europe began its Renaissance and Reformation leading to its pre-eminence, India with all its advantages continued to languish”. Diwanji, who writes from Delhi, seems to be completely unaware that for the last fifty years at least, the “Eminent” historians who have written about India have been from the Left/secular brigade at the Jawaharlal Nehru University who have minced few words in castigating caste. However, in this essay I will focus on just one of Khandekar’s comments to point out how such declamations on caste are nothing but “Feel Good” rhetorical flourishes and that to minimize the influence of caste there are some obvious strategies and programs the country needs to adopt.

Khandekar says that it is shameful we do not have a “Casteless Brotherhood” (sic) like every other major faith has. It is a suspect statement, but let us take it at face value. She goes on to say that “If Turks broke our temples, we made millions wretched for over two thousand years. Why not live up to the ideals of the Constituent Assembly, root out our ancient evils and bring fresh luster to our good points?”. However, we get no clue as to how she will or can make sure that we live up to those constitutional ideals.

Blaming all of India’s ills on the caste system is like crediting only Whites for all the power and strength of the United States. As long as the energies of social and political commentators in India are focused on berating Hinduism for the caste structure then little progress can be made in the lives of the poor and downtrodden in India and in actually weakening the influence of caste.

Caste is a social formation that can be traced to the thirteenth verse in the Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda. This is the most controversial verse and any interpretation of it is fraught with political implications. The simple and literal translation of the verse would be thus:

“From his mouth came forth men of learning; From his arms were warriors made; From his thighs came the merchants (traders); and his feet gave birth to servants”.

Is this ordained by God or Brahman (Cosmic Soul) or does this verse reflect the societal system prevalent in the past? Any speculation on this matter is best left to individuals. We all decide for ourselves on matters of faith. To rely on experts to tell us about something that was written two thousand, or five thousand, or ten thousand years ago merely prolongs the debate and to no useful purpose. The fact and the reality now is that we do have a caste system in India and that system still plays an oppressive role, especially in the villages and small towns of India. The system served certain purposes in the past, does so today (including enabling large numbers to take advantage of “reservations” based on their caste status) and most probably will have its role to play in the future.

Discrimination is a way of life and a way of the human mind (We both generalize and we particularize. We note differences and we ignore differences). But how do we make sure that discrimination is not used to oppress others? The call for a “Casteless Brotherhood” sounds politically and morally correct, but cannot simply be implemented by law or edict. The Constitution of India makes it punishable to discriminate based on caste. It does not abolish caste. It cannot. Just like you cannot excise certain passages from the Bible or the Koranwhich calls for the murder and elimination of certain kinds of people you cannot excise the thirteenth verse of the Purusha Sukta from the Rig Veda. Nor can we imprison people who firmly believe that the Purusha Sukta, for all times, lays down the nature of different kinds of groups. So, how can we pragmatically and realistically deal with the “problem” of caste?

Reservations for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, which were to be for a period of ten years, have now been expanded and continued for more than fifty years and more than 3, 000 “Other Backward Castes” have been added to the ever growing list of the “Oppressed” in India. This expansion of the scope and longevity of reservations, instead of alleviating the ills of the caste system, has both legitimized and strengthened the caste system. The call for a “Casteless Brotherhood” therefore will be opposed now not by Brahmins but by the rest of the caste groupings. Caste is now a passport to certain privileges, just like it has been in the past, but with an interesting twist: the “Oppressed” now enjoy those privileges and the “Oppressors” have lost them. Justice has now prevailed, some have proclaimed and they insist that we should continue this particular practice of reserving jobs in government services and seats in educational institutions for however long it takes to “Level the Playing Field”. I hope the likes of Renuka Khandekar will note the irony: to remove the oppressive nature of the caste system people are not only reinforcing caste distinctions but they want such reinforcement for an unstated period of time!

Can we deal with the problems of caste in any other manner? There is no doubt in my mind that economic upliftment and educational opportunities would minimize if not eliminate discrimination based on caste. That means we should make primary and secondary education a national priority. Without basic education the opportunities to earn a living, to move out of oppressive rural settings, to vote intelligently and to make effective political and life choices (including having a small family) are minimal if not nil. However, we don’t hear from our “Progressive” or “Dalit” politicians on this matter, do we? They are just keen on demanding their tithe in the form of reservations for jobs in government departments and in colleges that dole out useless degrees for use as “Passports” to those government jobs that drain the economy and society of much needed resources, which in turn makes the government spend less on primary and secondary education. Show me another such powerful vicious cycle and I will show you another stagnant society. And why, you ask, are these politicians not keen on demanding the monies for primary and secondary education? It is a very simple answer: the more educated the people, the more careful and considered their voting choices. With the vote banks gone or shrinking, how can these feudal lords exercise power and control?

So, let us not waste time and energy churning out the same old theses and arguments about the oppressive nature of the caste system and of its two thousand or four thousand or six thousand year-old heritage. Those who do so are interested less in liberating the downtrodden than in exacting revenge. Vengeance against history and against large groups of people, however, cannot be pursued without paying a very heavy price and without any surety about the exact outcome.

The Union government subsidizes higher education to the tune of Rs 200 billion a year. Varsity tuition fees in India are the lowest in the world averaging about Rs 30 a month! Surely, the middle class, which mostly gains through this subsidy, wouldn’t mind if the government halved this subsidy, or even gotten completely rid of it, would they? After all, there are many private and individual efforts to streamline education and the cutting of these subsidies would have forced the education establishment to come to grips with the complexities of funding higher education. These Rs 200 billion can then be channeled into primary and secondary education.

Now, let us say there are 100 million children in India of primary and secondary school going age. That means on an average the government could spend Rs 2000 extra on each child for his or her education! I have taken the example of cutting subsidies for higher education, but one can as well look elsewhere in the Union budget for resources. Pruning the Central Government workforce by a million (the Central Government has on its payroll four million employees) would generate all the money, I bet, for providing Indian children the most effective primary and secondary school education. Now, add to those savings with what twenty-five state governments can contribute by cutting their bureaucracies to size. Why are we not doing it? Why don’t our “fancy” academics and media pundits not write about these matters? You see, how the status quo is maintained in India and who collude in maintaining that very unhappy status quo. These pundits and polemicists are not really interested in the development of the country and in seeing it become a healthy nation. They are mostly interested in pandering to their constituencies and in keeping conflict alive. That said, can we now expect the likes of Ms Khandekar to focus on the realistic and the practical and not to worry so much on communicating to the world their views on caste, the status of women, minorities and the right of Deepa Mehta to shoot Water in Varanasi?

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