India's silent prejudice
Caste permeates Indian society, even today. But its influence most
often lurks beneath the surface
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 29 December 2009 15.00 GMT
Since I have been writing about Hinduism for Comment is free, I have
been inundated with comments asking about the caste system – some
people have been curious, others have just about fallen short of
demanding my blood.
I am – pardon the refrain – no expert on religion, but I thought I
would put down some of my thoughts on the caste system, and how it has
affected my life.
It may surprise some to learn that I actually don't remember hearing
any open caste-ist statement until I was in my early twenties. I was
visiting a distant, elderly relative, and we were chatting comfortably
of this and that, when he leaned forward and said: "You know, the dean
of students at Anna University [in Chennai] doesn't wear a poonal?" He
was referring to the sacred thread worn across the body by Brahmins,
the highest denomination in the Hindu caste system.
At first, I was a bit befuddled by the gentleman's apparent interest
in what the dean of students at the engineering institute chose to
wear under his shirt (I almost said, maybe he finds it itchy?) but I
realised soon enough that he was saying that the said official was a
non-Brahmin, and he clearly disapproved.
I was quite taken aback by his comment, and I was telling a distant
aunt of mine that I was surprised at this caste-prejudice, and she
responded: "Oh, Iyengars are all like that," referring in turn to my
relative's denomination. I don't think she saw the irony. Generally
speaking, this is how the caste system works in practice in urban
India. On the surface, it does not necessarily seem to exist, but it
always lurks beneath the skin.
You can spend your whole life being unaware, until it's time to get
married, when it suddenly assumes importance. The more conservative
families would just lay down the law in this respect, and the more
liberal ones would say something along the lines of, "I don't mind any
caste, but I think you would have a better married life if you chose
someone of a similar cultural background … "
In terms of education, the government-imposed quota system for lower
castes means it is quite hard for higher castes to get a university
seat, and in terms of employment, many companies are suspiciously full
of people from a particular caste or denomination.
From what I gather, the caste system originated in the concept of
division of labour – people were divided into priests, warriors,
merchants and the serving class. But this simplified division does no
justice to the complexity and the hundreds of subdivisions within
those. I am a Brahmin myself, and we are subdivided into Iyers,
worshippers of Shiva, and Iyengars, worshippers of Vishnu. Within
other castes, there are hundreds of subdivisions, and the protagonist
of Mulk Raj Anand's pioneering novel The Untouchable, refers to the
lowest of the low in the caste of Dalits – the toilet cleaners.
The sad thing about caste in India is that it transfers across
religions. One of my professors once told us a story – the rector of
the institution had organised a trip for students to the villages in
order for the kids to "observe the caste system". This professor
immediately asked the rector, "Why not just ask them to observe the
church congregation this evening, Father?"
And even amongst the most liberal families, it does play an important
part in your upbringing if nothing else. Many Indians I meet here in
the UK, for example, are Brahmins like myself; they are often well
educated, either making good money as engineers or pots of money as
bankers and lawyers. Hence the general perception that Indians are
vegetarians: it is actually only my members of my caste – originally
priests – that are supposed to be vegetarian. But in discussing my own
experience of caste, I am leaving out a vast majority – more than 60%
of India's population is in rural areas, where the caste system is
much stronger. I once visited a farm owned by my school, which had
appointed a Harijan to take care of the property. There was much
consternation in the village because a Harijan had been allowed to set
foot inside a farmhouse. Petty acts of retribution followed, such as
the stealing of the water pump that irrigated the fields. It can get
much, much worse.
In fact, the more I read about it, the more depressing it gets. But
there are positives.
Unlike some other countries where violation of human rights is part of
the constitution, there is official recognition in India of the need
for change. We can argue the merits and demerits of positive
discrimination, but the fact is that 69% of university seats are
allocated for disadvantaged castes.
When will we see a caste free society? Probably never. But can it
possibly change for the better?
It is changing already. India is a country in flux – two years ago, I
could never have imagined that the ludicrous law banning homosexuality
would ever be lifted, and yet that process has started.
What the country will look like a decade on is anybody's guess.
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