By Abhinaya Ramesh
24 March, 2007
UN/HDR 2004: ‘Final Draft [Regional Paper] Caste, Ethnicity and Exclusion in South Asia: The Role of Affirmative Action Policies in Building Inclusive Societies” D.L.Sheth.
This report is on subjugating practices of south Asia as a region, its focus is on India. It has ten tables on violence against dalits and dalit women but surprisingly does not have any illustration/reference to those tables. And it speaks about many other things and not the explanation or description of the events related to the violence. If reader does not read the report till the end then s/he will not get the knowledge that this also contains information on violence against dalits.
Author’s contribution here is more of a study done by the higher castes (privileged) on ‘caste issues in India’. Approach of study is more of explaining and narrating the way it is. No painstaking efforts are made in these and many such studies to understand the governing mechanisms and reasons for perpetuation of inhuman caste system. Nor is any attempt made to find out the reason as to why caste system is so painful to the victim and how to resolve it. Or at least cope up with the oppressive situation. On the contrary such reports have always remained the space for most of the higher castes researchers/academics to show to the world that how this system of caste is so unique and advanced form of stratification in the ancient times. Probably its compartmentalisation, the division of groups in hierarchical closed compartments, is fascinating to these city-dweller researchers. Considering or portraying caste as a part of ‘rich cultural heritage’ hides from reader the possibility of asking the queries that why such systems have been created at the first place. The system has tormented majority people (all women-even the Brahmin women, all lower castes, tribes etc.) in India and disabled the whole country because caste based inequalities reflect in every aspects of the Indian society. Whether it is corruption in day to day life on the basis of caste based favours or selection in the creative opportunities like sports, arts, music led and influenced by such sectarian power politics under the guise of ‘third world’s biggest democracy’. And as a result India is gaining failure in return.
On page 2 the report continues with the same approach that, ‘Caste is the most intensively and widely studied South Asian institution and there is no need to reiterate the established wisdom here,’ (2004:02). Such a statement exhibits hidden intention that ‘not to celebrate research on such categories, as we have done enough for them’. This ‘othering’ attitude is present right from the beginning of the study on castes in India. The further formulation is that ‘they’ (dalits) are not ready to change; in other words, this is not the problem of the majority but of dalits. Now they have to change. This is the angle of majority of studies on caste system contributed by Indian academics, which are drawn largely from their higher castes background. When the whole economy of India is flourished/flourishing because of the unpaid/underpaid labour of dalits and labouring class of India (80%population of unorganised sector comprised of dalits/adivasis). Instead of recognising the contribution of dalits in development process of India they have been used and given secondary citizenship for centuries.
The next paragraph the report says, “Evolved over centuries, caste sustained communitarian identities of innumerable groups ethnically, culturally and socially distinct from each other and at the same time, held these communities together in a vast network of local hierarchies. Communities in different local hierarchies were arranged, normatively uniformly, in an ascriptively unequal macro-system of graded exclusion, which was politically, economically and epistemically dominated by a few, select communities through ages. The graded structure of exclusion was never a permanently fixed arrangement, and a fairly frequent upward and downward movement of communities took place within and across local hierarchies” (2004:03). Since this report is made available to the UN as a gist of the caste system in India; reader though gets the glance of caste system through the report, it does not allow much scrutiny. Hence such report writing provides academic space for the author to give wrong and deceptive understanding about caste to the international community. And at the same time by providing some description of developmental provisions (without analysing of its implementation) the author tries to show the soft corner to the victims of caste system and gains a name as an impartial student of the system in the minds of readers.
It has an agenda that to prove to the world that caste system is not ‘created abruptly but evolved’, (in such statements he tries to say that without its need how can it evolve and survived for ages, a simple logic to convince the reader) that it is the wisdom of the ancestors; valued for creating such inhuman system and he further reiterates that ‘they [the caste groups] were different but together in vast network’. He initiates by saying that they were ‘distinct’ (dictionary meaning of the word distinct is different) and later says that, ‘exclusion was not a permanent fixed arrangement…and fairly frequent upward and downward movement of communities took place within and across local hierarchies’, caste is not at all a fluid category. If the caste system was an open formation, why there were no conversions to Hinduism. If a non-Hindu wanted to convert to Hindu religion then in which caste s/he will convert. And why did lower caste Hindus convert to different religions such as Christianity, Islam or Buddhism, if movement from one caste to other was possible. Because once you are born in that caste in Hindu religion then it is not possible voluntarily to change the caste and there is no ladder to acquire the higher caste. This becomes possible in class. So author’s interpretation of castes is not correct.
When he describes the hierarchised structure of the caste system he did not fail to glorify the roles of few communities. Such as ‘the dvijas or the twice born, which among themselves held virtual monopoly of different types of power (intellectual, political and economic) and a vast sector of the numerous other communities ascriptively expected to engage directly in production and service related activities (the sudras).’ (2004:04). The Brahmin, Dwijas who are called as twice born like a bird. The way bird takes two births first in egg and then coming out of the eggshell, Brahmin also first takes birth and then he goes for the ceremony as ‘Munja’ in which he is considered to be the Brahmin in Hindu religion.(off course if he does not perform this ceremony does not mean his status will not remain as a Brahmin but to maintain the difference and so is the distance with rest, this ceremony is performed, and their women are not allowed to perform such ceremony), Which does not have any logic behind it. The role of Brahmin is glorified as of having power of intellectual, political and in the field of economic. What knowledge Brahmins have produced should be an empirical enquiry because in India the Brahmins appropriate the knowledge of the local people as their knowledge; and as far as political power is concerned, they were never in the power of holding any sovereign authority; they were the people who were close to the sovereign as a priest for priestly duties. Thus they were being close to the throne, and not the independent power as sovereign (The only example of power that they had was in the form of Peshwas in state of Maharashtra. The history shows that it did not last for more than fifty years, which too was constantly plagued by conspiracy within the family known in the history as ‘Bhaubandki’ which means tussle for power amongst the brothers and uncles to the extent of threatening each other.) In this period, except wasting money and resources on prayers for the god (which is the basic profession of the Brahmins as a priest) and giving ‘Bhojana’ (fists) to Brahmins, the rulers did not achieve any other progress.) This is also the period in which the state currency was acquired by the rulers by selling the lower castes girls in brothel and such other places (Gavli: 1981a, Fukazawa: 1991 Chakravarti: 1998, In Sharmila Rege: 2002).
As regard to the economic power, the Brahmins never had independent economic power. They were surviving on the resources given by the kings in honour of being Brahmins. Of course they enjoyed amassed wealth and booty from the kings for their religious service to the kings. Moreover, Brahmins were not the cultivating community and never had any land ownership; they acquired land out of gift as a Brahmin which was never cultivated by them. And since they were not the cultivating community they never knew the knowledge of cultivation. According to Kancha Illiah (1996), they are/were the beneficiaries of ‘dana’ (countless material resources were given as a gift in the Hindu religion to the Brahmin, he did not do any physical efforts to acquire such wealth which society acquired by unpaid labour of dalits and some such communities) economy. Their work was primarily to recite the sermons and activities related to the religion; performing prayers etc. When the rigidity is the basic drawback of the system and perhaps that is the cause of the subjugation of some of the sections in a graded way; author misconceived the idea of change in the statuses of the people especially when he attributes that, “historically there have been continuous countervailing movements to caste, which periodically resulted in several groups moving out of their born-in statuses and getting into new statuses.
In the past the movements like Jainism, Buddhism, Tantrism and Bhakti caused such reshuffling of groups across statuses, in the ongoing hierarchal system. Yet, despite formidable ideological challenges and some structural impacts they made on it, by and large, traditionally dominating groups retained power in the system, usually by redefining, often relaxing the rules which maintained ritual distances and prevented choices.” These countervailing movements did not want to do any change within the Hindu philosophy of the rigid caste system they went away from the Hindu religion/philosophy and formulated different logical way of life. This is nothing but different religion which does not have anything to do with Hindu religion. They were the opposing rational forces to Hindu religion that criticised the iniquitous aspects of the Hindu religion. That cannot be said that the Hindu religion can have, “groups moving out of their born-in statuses and getting into new statuses” within the Hindu religion. An absolutely wrong and baseless idea author gives about Hindu religion. This kind of flexibility is not possible in Hindu religion otherwise all non brahmin would have become brahmin to acquire benefits of the caste system. But there is no single incidence towards that direction in the history of India. Nor it will occur in fututre. The impression he gives that caste is a fluid category.
He makes such flowery picture and tries to see the goodness of the caste, he says, “The graded structure of exclusion also linked communities to each other in such a manner that caste could also be seen as a graded structure of inclusion in which power percolated to every community irrespective of its location in the hierarchy. This caused each community experience a sense of social salience in the system” which/ whose inclusion he is mentioning; the inclusion of one caste with another on equal basis or inclusion within the same caste because other castes create such a strong barriers that you are not understood just because you are not from the same caste and these ties are very much tighten with everyday survival (marriage, ceremonies). And one does not know which power he is talking about. This appears to be a typically superficial understanding of the caste system… Almost 10 tables are their on the brutal violence on Dalits. The question is what is the intention of giving tables of violence without clarifying it. At one place he has given yearly record with the elaborate information on violence against dalit. But it is surprise he nowhere mentions or refers anything about the violence. And this should have become the answer to his own misunderstanding that if the caste system is that good then why dalits will have to face so many cases of brutal violence. But turning blind eye towards the brutality inflicted on the dalits by the upper caste is the century old politics of Indian caste system. This is reflected more when they did/do the human sacrifices of dalits for bringing good omen in their fututre life. With this I wish to suggest to the UN related researches that unless sufficient scrutiny is not done by the respective authorities such reports should not be published because they are intentionally crammed with deceived information to create the confusion and further delay in the justice to the relevant communities.
*Abhinaya Ramesh, Research Scholar, Lancaster University, UK.
Rege S.:2002. Conceptualising Popular Culture ‘Lavani’ and ‘Powada’ in Maharashtra EPW Special Article.