Caste System Still Alive and Kicking

I just came across this interesting blog post on the Harvard International Review. The writer, Jason Lakin, discusses some recent caste uprisings in New Delhi. It appears that a caste called the Gujjars has been squatting on the New Delhi-Mumbai railway, disrupting train services, to bring attention to their cause. A serious irony comes into play when we look into what the Gujjars want. Lakin writes:

The Gujjars are classified as “backwards,” or what are poetically known as OBCs (“other backward castes”). This doesn’t give them as many job opportunities as being classified as “scheduled tribes” (ST) would, so they have been demanding a reclassification. Curiously, the Gujjars are actually demanding that they move down the traditional caste hierarchy in order to be able to access better opportunities. Other low caste groups don’t want their categories to get too crowded, so they have resisted. The state government doesn’t like the idea of having to provide benefits to a group that never had them, so they have resisted. The result has been bloody conflict in the streets.

The caste system is an incredibly complex vast social network of kinships and identities based on employment. I lived with a very low caste called the Jagas in a village in Rajasthan for a month. I am not sure if they were classified OBC or ST. The villagers would ask me what caste I am. I would usually say that we do not have caste in America, but we have something called class, which is not that much different. As I traveled around with one of the Jaga members, we would meet other Jagas and they would open their home to us. I realized that the caste acts as a support system for their members all over that local area. Towards the end of my time there I would tell Jagas that I was also a Jaga and they loved it.

Lakin ends his post by stating that:

India is a fast-changing economy and society, but the salience of caste has not necessarily decreased in recent years. In some ways and in some places, it seems to have actually increased. This is in part because of the overaweing presence of the state in India today, even after liberalization. It is in part because economic growth does not necessarily lead to the elimination of traditional identities, as modernization theory predicted, or as the conventional wisdom suggests. While Delhi itself may not be the most caste-centric place in India, peripheral caste-based conflict can easily permeate city limits, as it did last week, reminding the country’s elite that “modern” India is not suddenly unmoored from the past.

The United States has recently begun to eye India as a key strategic partner and a counter-weight to China. If India and the United States are going to work together, both countries need to understand something about the domestic political pressures facing elites when they sit down to bargain internationally. Most Americans don’t have a clue how the caste system works in India. It’s not too late to start reading up.

Lakin has good insights. His statement that economic growth does not eliminate traditional identities is interesting. However, I have a feeling that these castes have experienced very little of the economic growth in India. I still see enormous inequalities in India and a huge percentage of the population is still incredibly poor. Something that just occurred to me is the comparison of the caste to the labor union. There might be something to this.

One Response to “Caste System Still Alive and Kicking”

  1. Nonymouse Says:

    Jakob De Roover –

    Recently, the European Parliament hosted a meeting on “caste
    discrimination in South Asia”. At the meeting, participants stated
    that “India is being ruled by castes not by laws” and that they
    demanded justice, because there “is one incredible India and one
    untouchable India”. The EU was urged to come out with a policy
    statement on the subject. One member of parliament, referring to the
    caste system, said that “this barbarism has to end”.

    This is not the first time. The US also has networks and
    lobbies working for the plight of the downtrodden in India. However,
    before the EU or the US decide to publish policy statements on caste
    discrimination in India, they would do well to reflect on some simple
    facts.

    First, the dominant conception of the caste system has emerged from
    the accounts by Christian missionaries, travelers and colonial
    administrators. Rather than being neutral, these accounts were shaped
    by a Christian framework. That is, the religion of the western
    visitors to India had informed them beforehand that they would find
    false religion and devil worship there, and that false religion
    always manifested itself in social evils. Especially the Protestants
    rebuked the “evil priests” of Hinduism for imposing the laws of caste
    in the name of religion. They told the Indians that conversion to
    Protestantism was a conversion to equality. Thus, Indian souls were
    to be saved from damnation and caste discrimination.

    Second, this Christian account of “the Hindu religion” and its “caste
    system” informed colonial policies in British India. Building on the
    theological framework, scholars now wrote “scientific” treatises on
    Hindu superstition and caste discrimination. The Christian mission
    found its secular counterpart in the idea of the civilizing mission,
    which told the West that it had to rescue the natives from the
    clutches of superstition and caste. One no longer promoted religious
    conversion, but the colonial educational system harped on “the
    horrors of Hindu society”.

    Third, the colonial educational project had a deep impact on the
    Indian intelligentsia. Hindu reform and anti caste movements came
    into being, which reproduced the Protestant accounts of Hinduism and
    caste as true descriptions of India. Their advocates did not adopt
    these descriptions as passive recipients, but actively deployed them
    to pursue socio-economic and political interests. Political parties
    and caste associations were created to safeguard the interests of
    the “lower castes”. The elites of these groups united in associations
    and received financial and moral support from the missionaries and
    other progressive colonials.

    Fourth, the “Dalit” movement of today is the product of these
    colonial movements. The notion of “Dalits” makes sense only within
    the colonial account of India, which had postulated the existence of
    one single group of “outcastes” or “untouchables” that was supposedly
    exploited by the upper castes. In reality, it concerns a variety of
    caste groups, with no criteria to unite them besides the claim that
    they are all “downtrodden”. Indeed, many of these groups are poor and
    discriminated against by other caste groups. However, their socio-
    economic interests have been hijacked by some of their western-
    educated elite members. In the name of the downtrodden, these elites
    establish NGOs and then travel from conference to conference and
    country to country in order to reveal the plight of the “Dalits” to
    eager western audiences.

    Fifth, when present-day westerners rebuke Indian society for
    the “barbarism” of caste discrimination, they are reproducing the old
    stanzas of the civilizing mission. Such a stance of superiority
    perhaps worked in the context of colonialism. But today, at a time
    when Indians buy some of the European industrial giants and give
    financial injections to save the Hollywood film industry from
    bankruptcy, it is ill-advised to continue this type of civilizational
    propaganda.

    In fact, such propaganda derives its plausibility from a series of
    assumptions that no one would be willing to defend explicitly. It
    attributes all socio-economic wrongs of the Indian society to its
    structure and civilization. The implication is that there is only one
    way to get rid of socio-economic wrongs here: one has to eradicate
    both the social structure and the Hindu civilization. It is as though
    one would blame the racism, binge-drinking, pedophilia, poverty,
    homelessness and domestic violence in the contemporary West on its
    age-old social and civilizational structure.

    The times have changed. As westerners, we need to reflect on our deep-
    rooted sense of superiority and how this informs our moralizing
    discourse on human rights in other parts of the world. To appreciate
    the impression we give to Indians with our statements on caste
    discrimination, just imagine a possible world in which the Indian
    government regularly castigates the US for its racism against African-
    Americans and the disproportionate death penalties, and the EU for
    the treatment of South Asians in England, Turks in Germany, women in
    Romania, the Basque movement in Spain, gypsies in Italy,… Just
    imagine Indian members of parliament consistently blaming the very
    structure of western societies as the cause of all these wrongs.

    The West needs to wake up fast. The time of colonialism is over. If
    we do not change our attitudes, the irritation towards Europe and
    America will grow in countries like India and China. So will the
    unwillingness to collaborate with the EU and the US. In the fast-
    changing world of the early twenty-first century, neither Europe nor
    America can afford this.

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