Thursday, April 15, 2010

[ZESTCaste] The caste train April 2010 (Gail Omvedt)

The caste train  April 2010
By: Gail Omvedt

Waiting for an India when caste names will have lost their meaning.

Those who deny that caste is really much of a 'problem' should look at
the case of Chitralekha. She is a Dalit (Pulaya caste) woman in
Payannur in Kerala, married to an Other Backward Caste man. In 2003,
she decided to take up the profession of autorickshaw driving (as her
husband does), since the nursing course she was in training for
required night work, which would have impeded on her ability to care
for her children. Since then, she has been constantly harassed by the
'caste Hindus' who dominate the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
autorickshaw union. Her autorickshaw was torched; then a new one was
also ruined by having salt poured into its gas tank. Finally, she
herself was beaten by a mob working with the police. When we talked to
the aggressive members of the union in the local CPM office, they
refused to even recognise Chitralekha's marriage, calling her a "woman
who lives outside the tracks". After all, she and husband, Sheeshkant,
had committed what the 'sacred books' call varna-samkara, mixture of

Outside the tracks? The tracks are those that bear the
still-very-alive caste system in India. The train that runs on those
tracks is a gloomy one, driven by the power of the Vedas, the
Manusmriti, even the Gita. At its head is the Brahmin engine, followed
by other of the sacred 'twice-born'. Behind, without much power to
influence its running, swung along by the wily engine, are the Shudra
carriages – divided from one another for, as B R Ambedkar noted,
"Caste is not a division of labour, it is a division of labourers."
Different Shudra jatis are not supposed to intermarry or 'inter-dine',
and even today violations of these codes evoke penalties in many of
India's villages. The caboose is that of the Dalits, tagging along at
the end. Running at the side, perhaps, can be said to be the Adivasis,
the marginalised, with Brahmin hands reaching out to drag them along
with the train. And sitting in every carriage, often with curtains
around them, with inferior food and sleeping space and clothing, are
the women of each caste.

Today, there are those who not only want to get off the train, but to
derail it completely. Perhaps the victory appears distant; yet the
inequality and turmoil in modern-day India are unprecedented. Indians
bring caste along with them wherever they go in the world, and the
debates and conflicts have continued in England, the US, the Gulf and
elsewhere. In the first two, the tradition of civil rights has added
support to the battle against the caste train.

Just recently, in a victory for the 'subalterns', the British
Parliament, which considers racism a crime, voted to treat caste as
part of race. It had been a long struggle – with a group called the
Hindu Council UK lobbying, though a wordy report, that caste was
really not a problem, that it had originally been equalitarian, that
calling Shudras "as the legs" (which the Rig Veda does) had to be read
in the context of legs being part of the body and essential to it; and
that, anyway, caste was dying. In short, the Council rehashed all of
the tired old arguments, which can also be found today on countless
'Hindu' websites. But in the end, the arguments of justice triumphed
in England. Of course, caste and untouchability are outlawed in India,
too. The difference is that countries such as Britain enforce their

We want to derail the train, tear up the tracks. There are still
Gandhians today who argue that 'caste', with its supposed virtues of
solidarity, can be maintained without the hierarchy and oppression.
This is impossible. What would a caste-free India look like? Enough
intermarriage, for one thing, so that everyone would have to admit
that they come from many 'caste' backgrounds. There would be openings
everywhere according to talent, not the supposed 'merit' type that
belong to those with millennia of superior backgrounds. There would be
no identifiable 'caste quarters' in villages. Perhaps names might
remain – after all, the US and England have Smiths, Carpenters,
Potters – but in India, as there, no one would remember that they mean

Gail Omvedt is Dr Ambedkar Chair for Social Change and Development at
the Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi.


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