The idea of caste is like a skin disease. It may go completely, but the scars shall remain because it's a social affliction and a deep-seated thought. Law can ostensibly remove the blatant discrimination caused by the caste system, but it cannot expunge the very idea or thought that someone is superior or inferior in a social set-up. That sense of egalitarianism must come from within and will take a few more centuries for Indians and the whole of humanity to entertain and understand the universal concept of human equality.
– Dr BR Ambedkar
“Law can decriminalise a practice but it cannot necessarily de-stigmatise it.”
– Latin law proverb
Jaati jo kabhi nahin jaati (Jaati, caste, is something that never goes completely)
– Old Marathi saying
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat said last week that concepts like varna and jaati (caste) should be discarded. Though the realisation and condemnation of this inveterate social malady has dawned a trifle late, it is never too late when the intentions are genuine.
Caste hierarchy is a dirty secret of this country which has not affected only Hinduism, but all faiths and social groups in India have been living in the penumbra of casteism for thousands of years. Mr Bhagwat has also accepted that we must admit that our ancestors made mistakes, nay blunders, and Puraanmityev na sadhu sarvam (old is not necessarily good and ideal). All religions in South Asia have vestiges and remnants of the caste pyramid (a phrase coined by the anthropologist Irawati Karve). To put it succinctly, we are all CAST in a CASTE structure.
The obnoxious varna vyavastha of the Manusmriti compartmentalised all societies, religions, groups and sub-groups in India on the lines of varna and jaati. For example, Muslim society divides itself into two categories – the descendants of Arab and other invading groups (also called ‘Ashraf’) and local converts (known as ‘Ajlaf’). Though the Qur’an does not mandate the creation of such groups, these terminologies emerged when Islamic invaders from the West attacked and conquered portions of the Indian subcontinent and converted local Hindus at the tip of the sword.
Apart from this divide, there exists a Hindu varna system among the Ajlaf category of Muslims, which is based on the caste they/their family belonged to before converting to Islam (e.g. Muslim Rajputs / Kayamkhani Muslims from Kayam Singh Rajput, who embraced Islam with his entire clan) or Panini Muslims (descendants of the great Sanskrit grammarian who are Brahminical Muslims! What a contrast!). And aren't Sikhism and Christianity in the subcontinent sullied and maimed by the reprehensible caste system of Hinduism?
Remember, when Charanjit Singh Channi became Chief Minister of Punjab in September 2021, all newspapers, in local languages as well as in English, boldly mentioned that he was a Dalit, the first Dalit CM of Punjab, to be precise! The 'learned' editors and owners of these publications should be castigated for highlighting someone's caste, that too of a chief minister.
You may be aware that theoretically and ostensibly, Sikhism is an egalitarian society and faith. Many readers, even educated ones, wondered whether a caste hierarchy exists in Sikhism. It does. Even gurdwaras are different for Sikhs of the upper and lower castes. One of my friends recently saw this in East Africa when he went to a gurdwara and was told it was meant for low-caste Sikhs. He was surprised. Despite being a Sikh, he wasn't very clear about this caste pyramid existing in his faith.
When a few years ago, a Dalit became the Chief Justice of India, all newspapers projected him as the first Dalit Chief Justice of the country. His individuality and personal genius were buried under the avalanche of his caste and background.
Current President Droupadi Murmu's humble caste/origin is a rallying point to earn some brownie points. And all this is happening in 21st century India, believed to be home to the most iPhone users in the world! Here, in a place like Pune, people ask my caste because I have a rather perplexing surname. I generally don't use my surname, but I'm forced to do so in India, especially in Poona, Oxford of the East. There are CKPs, 96 gotras, Marathas, and whatnots!
We all seem to be living with labels of different sorts, caste being the most prominent. People are divided and subdivided into castes and sub-castes, turning a person into something like a multi-layered onion. The disparaging Eklavya syndrome (Eklavya was denied training by Guru Dronacharya because he belonged to a lower denomination) will go on for a few more years.
Christianity also has this caste malady quite blatantly. Visit Ahmednagar, 120km from Poona. Most of the Protestant Christians of Ahmednagar are called Dalit Christians. Go to Goa and the original Portuguese Christians call Goan (Catholic) Christians 'Christians smelling of fish' (Moikara Moiza in Portuguese) because the ancestors of most of the (forcibly) converted Christians in Goa were fisherfolk. They are not 'original' Christians to the 'real' Christians of Europe and South America.
Most of the Muslims, Christians and Sikhs of the subcontinent are converts; converts from Hinduism who wanted to get rid of the caste-based identity, history and past. Unfortunately, and ironically, they perpetuated and percolated what they wanted to leave behind. There is a saying in English, 'Can a leopard change its spots'? Caste has lingered and lived on despite those ill-fated people embracing a new faith. The roots never go. They just change their forms and remain entrenched in our collective psyche.
And when it comes to roots, what do Indian surnames suggest? Doesn't your surname drop a loud hint as to the caste you belong to? It’s time to eradicate the whole structure of surnames and middle names, and carry a caste-neutral existence — if that is not too utopian for these discriminatory times.
The writer is a regular contributor to the world’s premier publications and portals in several languages