Caste system of India, religion, and development are the three main pillars of modern-day Indian politics. While the word “development” traces its relevance to the early 2010s, the other two have been the dominant themes since 1947. Out of them, Caste is a clear winner.
The term is used left, right and centre, by the people on the left, right and centre of the political spectrum. It has become an integral part of Indian society. So much so that it is now defining the saleability of established news portals.
Indian Express sees Caste at the Airport Terminal
Recently, Delhi Airport’s T3 terminal was in the news for its comparison with a bus stand. While Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Sindhia himself decided to visit the scene, Indian Express found a caste angle. According to author Yashee, people should stop complaining about the mess. The reason? Yashee believes (without any empirical evidence) that caste privilege is hurting people at T3.
Yashee seems to suggest that it is only people of the “Savarna” category who are facing this problem. She reasons that dominant castes are habituated to paying bribes in order to protect themselves from the hustle and bustle of airports. Since this is not readily available to them in modern times, they obviously feel irked. In her analysis, jumping signals and cutting queues are part of the pattern.
To be blunt, the article lacks substantive evidence and appeals to emotions rather than reason. Unfortunately, this is how the narrative around Caste system of India has taken shape over the last few centuries.
Hierarchical concept of Western society
The nomenclature of Indian varna vyavastha as a caste can be traced back to a famous biblical verse. Matthew 25:29 says, “For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.” The verse reeks of an unequal economic and social system. It is only recently that the west has started to shout from the rooftop about inequality. Until consumerism became the dominant religion of the west (a few decades ago), inequality was a Biblically sanctioned way of arranging society.
Even when they started their voyages for colonisation, the majority of western society was based on that prescription. It had a clearly defined hierarchy. In a way, it was good for the dominant group in the geography. A clear and distinct order based on race helped them identify their brethren and enemies. In other words, they had their own caste system. Even ‘caste’ is a derivation of a Spanish word called “casta.”
When Europeans landed in India, they were both mesmerised and confused about the geography. The Indian landmass (Akhand Bharat) was definitely the biggest geographical bloc that they wanted to capture. Military takeover was never an option due to the sheer enormity and diversity of minor and major kingdoms in India. Fortunately for them, Islamic imposition had taken shape in India. Between 1498 AD and 1700 AD, they tried to make sense of India and its diversity. The problem with that was that they did not change their lens, as they were looking for a way to classify Indians along the lines of their own society.
The British started to assert control in the 19th century
On the eve of 1800 AD, statistics as a subject and an aid to the government had taken shape. The Statistical Society recommended that Britishers ask people about their religious tilt. In one of the letters to British officials, it wrote, “An accurate knowledge of the religious persuasions of its people is requisite for every state. The ascertainment of it we see to be neglected by few claiming a high rank in civilization, and England ought assuredly not to be of that number.”
Around the same time, the British were solidifying their hold on the Indians through military conquests and subsidiary alliances. The next step was convincing the locals to become loyal to the British. It was an uphill task as they had just started to enjoy their freedom from the Jiziya tax and other forms of Islamic repression. This is where data gathering regarding religious tilt coupled with race science can confuse Indians.
In his book “Breaking India,” Dr. Rajiv Malhotra reveals that the “Aryan vs. Non-Aryan” narrative was given to divide existing Indian societies. The educated and warrior varnas of Indian society were shown as Aryan invaders who came to India and subjugated the interests and lifestyles of non-Aryans. The non-Aryan category was reserved for people other than those belonging to the above categories. These include 100s of Jatis and Adivasis, among others.
Indian stories were killed
It suited their comfort zone as well. Their division of Indian society was in line with Darwin’s theory of evolution. They could portray one group as less evolved while other as more. That seems to have become the scientific basis of the evangelical idea of converting less evolved people for a few rice bags.
Consequently, vilifying Indian texts exposing the hollowness of their claim was taken to gargantuan proportions. Ramayan, Mahabharat, the Vedas, Puranas, Upanishads, and a plethora of rich Indian literature were termed archaic, non-scientific, and mythological stories. Within a span of 30 years, Lord Macaulay effectively killed the reminiscence of Gurukul tradition in India and overhauled the education system by Englishising it.
A general without knowledge of their own traditions was now ready. It was time for the British to hit their children with their racial propaganda material. Macaulay’s legacy was carried forward and given a sharp edge by Herbert Hope Risley. He had developed a Nasal index to classify people into different races. The word metamorphosed into and eventually was assimilated within the framework of ‘caste.’
Codifying Indians in their own narrative
In India, Varna and Jati are two similar concepts. The word “varna” is a universal concept for classifying people on the basis of their occupation. On the other hand, the word “Jati” mainly refers to communities. It is a localised way of ensuring social rhythm, while Varna is a universal concept. Both these concepts never had any connection with race, ethnicity, or genes.
Not for Risley though. He was tasked with giving a racially divisive angle to Census data collected by the British since 1872 AD. Between 1873 and 1901, Risley had done a thorough ethnographic study of Indian society. In 1891, he published a paper called The Study of Ethnology in India and a book called The Tribes and Castes of Bengal. The book was based on his six-year-long Ethnographic Survey of Bengal between 1885 and 1891.
In 1899, he was appointed as Census Commissioner of India. Risley made a poor mashup of existing Indian social systems and put them into Europeans’ own category, the caste system. The fact is that when he was gathering ethnographic data, people were not ready to accept his classification. Risley himself noted this fact in his comments about the Census Report of 1901 AD. It was Risley who told them their caste (his own invention) and got them registered in the census. The dissenting Jatis and Varnas had to accept the formulation in successive censuses as whatever benefits they would get were based on the same categorization.
Things did not change after independence
Caste system of India became an indistinguishable feature of every policy document in British India. Unfortunately, it did not change even after we attained political independence from them. The Constituent Assembly did put little effort into omitting this term and its negative connotation from public memory. The founding fathers and mothers of our polity tried to emphasise the word “class” of people rather than “caste.” However, the reservation provision ensured that the omission of words remained an elusive dream.
The word “class” quickly transmuted into “caste.” Soon, it took over politics. From politics, it took over academia, and from academia, it came back with legitimised authority to the masses. Over a period of time, a political economy has built around the word “caste.”
During the 1950s, talking about the removal of untouchability and other forms of discrimination became an unavoidable goal of people at the top echelons of policy-making. This is where Marxism creeped in. Since Nehru was an avid fan of the Soviet system of running politics, the concept of oppressed vs. oppressive became a compulsory topic.
In India, this narrative was not limited to the economic domain. It infiltrated the social system as well. Universities like JNU and other liberal Arts centred ones made it almost compulsory to talk about it. The more someone would talk about Caste system of India, higher would be his chances of succeeding in academia.
That is how students of Indian universities started to gain prominence all over the world. Apart from their obvious talent and genetic hard work, their openness to engage in debates about the drawbacks of their country attracted the IVY League. The Ivy League has always found Marxism fascinating, so much so that Alexander Solzhenitsyn was humiliated at Harvard for exposing Marxism and Leninism.
The introduction of satellite media worsened it
Exposure to Marxism’s hollowness did not have any impact in India. Governments of the day kept imposing socialism, academics kept getting more foreign funds in the name of eliminating caste discrimination, and Chancellors, college professors, top students, and bureaucrats kept getting richer by lecturing on the elimination of poverty caused by caste discrimination. Fuel to the fire was added by the Mandal Commission report and 1991 liberalisation.
LPG reforms opened the floodgates for satellite and commercial television to operate in India. The only problem was that of profit. For profit, television rating points for idiot boxes and the scalability of newspapers’ publications are prerequisites. Cricket and some TV serials were there, but these things are never permanent milking cows. Politics is, and if politics is there, division in society is, too.
Society of the 90s was highly divided along oppressor-oppressed lines. These media companies started to suck money out of negativity. They decided to side with the politically correct narrative of being on the supposedly “oppressed” side.
The reason behind it was simple. Those labelled as oppressors were in the minority, while the opposing party was in the majority. In the case of any censorship demand, the government would always side with the popular majority.
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Caste system of India – It’s all about power
That is how local issues ended up becoming national ones. For instance, if one person kills another, news portals start to look at their individual caste identities. In case the slain’s identity is that of the oppressed, it would be termed as suppression of the voice of that identity group. It did not, and even today, it does not matter that the incident may have happened due to personal acrimony.
Slowly but steadily, these narratives moved from newspaper columns to news rooms. From newsrooms, it moved to TV serials and cinemas, and ultimately, cinema rockstars ended up becoming experts on Caste system of India and other immutable characteristics of Indians.
The news columnists who find a caste angle in every trivial issue are products of propaganda spread by previous generations. They have seen how talking about caste gives them power. They have also seen how their seniors do not care about its impact on society. They have no qualms about toeing the same line as the will of power.
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