Anywhere in the world you go, if you identify yourself as Indian, chances are someone will ask you questions about the caste system and you will find yourself being apologetic or defensive.
And there is reason to be embarrassed about it considering that many Indians, on the basis of caste, demonstrate unbelievable levels of inhumanity such as denying people water, education, the dignity of touch and the permission to marry the person they love.
Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik
We cannot wish caste away. Defined by birth, it stretches across religious lines. People may convert to other religions but they carry their caste with them. We can declare it illegal, create political parties that fight it, and positive discrimination reservation policies to counter it, but it continues to persist in its brutal forms, even thrive, education and media notwithstanding.
British scholars in the 19th century claimed that the caste system is based on the ‘chatur-varna’ concept of the Vedas, composed 4,000 years ago. But recent genetic studies reveal that communities known as jatis began genetically isolating themselves less than 2,000 years ago when they stopped giving daughters away to members of other castes. The practice may have its roots in professional guilds that wanted to secure its trade secrets. The Manu Smriti, written around this time, reported and consolidated it as a cultural norm; it did not prescribe it as many assume. Unlike Christianity and Islam — the benchmarks of religions around the world — Hinduism never has been rule-based or prescriptive.
How, then, does a system establish itself without any ‘authority’ enforcing it? This has been very confounding to scholars who fail to make sense of a system that is self-reinforcing. People cling to caste not because it grants privileges or creates inequality on the basis of resources but because it offers identity, hence status, that is independent of wealth, power or education. It tells me who I am. And that matters to every human being.
Humans — not just Hindus — seek identity. And we create identities through communities. To do so, communities need to make themselves exclusive. Sooner or later, hierarchies appear between communities based on economics, politics and beliefs. This results in conflicts as, for example, between the Catholics and the Protestants in Ireland, the Shias and the Sunnis in Iraq, the Turks and the Kurds in Turkey, the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, the Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi Jews in Israel.
What is unique (and sinister) about the caste system is that hierarchy is further established by the notion of ritual purity. Some castes are considered more impure than others on the basis of the professions their ancestors followed. It led to vast groups of people being deemed ‘intrinsically polluted’ and so they were excluded from the village well.
The passport and visa system of modern nation states is a rational way of creating caste. It grants people identity and resources and a justifiable excuse for untouchability. When visas are denied for bizarre reasons, it represents a tiny fraction of the helplessness Dalits of India face every moment of their lives. There are two differences, of course. First, an authority can grant or revoke passport but not caste. Second, to change passport, you have to give up your country but to change caste, you have to be reborn.
The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.