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The echoing silence of caste

Whenever the caste issue 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. How is it a ‘Hindu problem’ when Islam, Christianity and Sikhism in India are equally bedevilled by it?
What then did you expect when you unbound the gag that had muted those black mouths? That they would chant your praises? Did you think that when those heads that our fathers had forcibly bowed down to the ground were raised again, you would find adoration in their eyes?
Jean-Paul Sartre

Naran and Kuttan (not real names) were my childhood playmates. While I went on to study in a university, they struggled to complete school education, and became a daily wage labourer and a Class IV government employee respectively. Their parents and grandparents were landless agricultural labourers. Their great-grandparents were bought by friends of my forefathers, and then relocated to our family. Yes, bought.
When agrestic slavery was prevalent in Kerala until the late 19th century, you could buy and sell human beings like cattle, flog them like cattle to work your fields, and keep them as property along with the land you owned. And even as slavery was formally abolished, the violations of their bodies and lives continued for many more decades. But we do have to qualify human beings here — the slaves were overwhelmingly Dalits.
Quietude around caste
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 across race barriers.
On the other hand, we think it is just a coincidence that a Dalit population numbering 20 crore (as large as the population of Brazil!) has hardly “produced” any national cultural icons in the non-political sphere without realising the colossal scale of our participation in denying them the opportunities, and the complicity in silencing their icons. It is considered as “tasteless” and “insulting” to even ask questions about representation of the marginalised castes in films, music, art, sport, television, etc because there could not be a greater affront to our identity of being an “Indian” first, and also to the idea of “merit.”
Cultural sphere and private sector
The recoiling in horror while even debating about affirmative action for the marginalised in the private sector is based on a gross ignorance of facts and histories elsewhere. What could be a better demonstration of the fostering of diversity, by representing the oppressed sections, than the quota system (even with its flaws) in South African cricket, a commercial capitalist venture (and now extended to all South African sports teams)? Is South Africa not the number one Test team in the world? And have not two of its “quota” players, Hashim Amla (of Gujarati Muslim origin) and Vernon Philander, been the number one ranked players in the world?
In India as well, the recognition of the vibrant struggles for empowerment of the oppressed castes has to expand beyond political confines to the cultural sphere and the private sector. But the annihilation of caste is hardly on the agenda as savarna India, especially the youth, rush to embrace neoliberal capitalist development (now in a heady mix with Hindutva lite) in which concepts like caste-based reservation are anathema. This is when 21st century India also explodes everyday, away from the media glare, in violence, punishing the Dalits for daring to love, for daring to wear footwear, and for daring to ride a scooter.
All the moral outrage that is directed against reservations should be targeted at dismantling the caste system. Then, we would not be holding on to a vacuous notion of merit which means keeping nearly 80 per cent of the population’s talents from flourishing. What is simply not understood is that discrimination does not always mean a deliberate picking of an “upper caste” over a “lower caste,” as Mr. Shastri argues, but a systematic exclusion which results from unequal starting points leading to a grossly unequal competition.
Naran, Kuttan and I are not equals for they do not enjoy the same material and symbolic capital of caste accumulated over centuries that I do. I cannot assuage my guilt by taking refuge in the fact that their children are brilliant students, for they are still in government schools, long abandoned by the elite and the privileged. And there are hundreds of other roadblocks that will haunt them at every step that my children will not face. Destroying caste is not “uplifting” the oppressed castes; it is about liberating ourselves from the labyrinth of caste — not by remaining silent about it, but by shamefully acknowledging the layers of historical privilege that have sedimented every pore of our existence.


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