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Casteist India cannot be modern

Prempal Sharma argues that annihilation of caste calls for comprehensive efforts and goes on to dwell on the roles of the various groups striving to build an egalitarian society

Caste has only been changing its form in India society. No process for becoming a casteless society is visible anywhere. One can be modern or postmodern but not casteless! This is a tragedy of momentous proportions. What can be the project for freedom from caste? How should a writer or a social activist struggle against caste? This is the focus of FORWARD Press’ series titled ‘Project for deliverance’ from the stigma of caste. Here, Prempal Sharma shares his views – Editor                                                         

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Ramdas Athawale dedicate student Ambedkar’s home in London to the nation

Is there anything in this world that a modern nation-state cannot do? Didn’t it succeed in abolishing slavery? Mind you, slavery was not limited to transporting African Negro slaves to Surinam, Mauritius, America, Australia and New Zealand. Earlier, the poor in England and in other parts of Europe were enslaved by their compatriots. Slavery was a part and parcel of colonialism and probably was a need of the world then. Then voices of protest rose, not only in the United States but also in the rest of world, and slavery was done away with. It was declared illegal. But equality still remains a dream. No country in the world can claim that it had managed to build a perfectly egalitarian society, though Indian society is admittedly more unequal than most others.

The French Revolution brought with it a new message – a new philosophy of equality, freedom of expression and brotherhood. But did Europe accept this new idea immediately? Wars and violent conflicts continued for decades but ultimately equality was ushered in. It was equality that made Europe prosperous. It was equality that led to the emergence of new philosophies, to unimaginable advances in science and technology. If we are proud of the 20th and the 21st centuries, one of the key reasons is that we have been able to bring about substantive equality in the world we live in.

Europe dilly-dallied for a long time in granting “men’s rights” to women. In most of the European nations, women have got voting rights only in the last 100 years and that too after long-drawn, bitter protests and movements. Though it may be news to you, the Indian freedom movement was for gender equality from the very outset, even if only theoretically. That was much before gender equality became acceptable in England and Europe. But today, women are more liberated in other parts of the world, with the exception of Islamic countries, than in India. Our progress is in the direction of achieving that ideal is excruciatingly slow. But hope is still alive.

 Positive role of British imperialism

It was the British Empire that introduced India to the ideal of equality and opened its doors to modern knowledge. The British taught us the philosophy of equality, gave us the gift of science and showed us the merits of logical thinking. Even at the risk of unpopularity, the British made laws to end the cruelties of Indian society and made us civilized. Is there anyone who will not shudder to recall the horrors of the Sati system? What was so great about this system? It was a classic example of how the opiate of religion and misplaced notions of greatness make a society cruel and extremely insensitive. What did the Hindu religion, with its Manusmriti, Puranas, Vedas and Upnishads, and the Muslim rulers of the country do to end this barbaric practice? Can we become a great culture and great civilization merely by building Taj Mahal and Jama Masjid? Sati and purdah systems, thuggee, child marriage, proscription of widow marriage – all this was the outcome of the unholy alliance between the two religions and our successive rulers. The British did all that was possible for them to do while ensuring that the jewel in the crown of the British Empire was not lost. That was probably why they did not even try to tinker with the caste system.

But it was during the British rule that the voices against the most debilitating disease of Hindu society – the caste system – became louder. Though the Bhakti saints like Kabir, Nanak and Raidas did speak out against caste, theirs was more of a cry in the wilderness. Raja Ram Mohan Roy made a hesitant beginning but the real opposition to the system began with Jotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule. Why? That was because they had suffered under the caste system, and then they were exposed to the atmosphere in Christian missionary schools. The two experiences were enough to open their eyes. They began questioning the inequality between man and man and between men and women sanctioned by religion because they were acquainted with the British idea of equality. It was his visit to England around 1870 that opened the eyes of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who is credited with introducing Muslims to modern education. He juxtaposed the progress and peace of the British against the ignorance, illiteracy and blind religious beliefs of his community. He praised the British profusely and established Aligarh University. However, he was not as strong a protagonist of women’s education as the Phules were.

Ambedkar with his teachers and friends at the London School of Economics; Ambedkar was heavily influenced by the social equality he experienced in the West

Could Ambedkar have become Bharat Ratna had he not studied in America and England and was not impressed by the social equality in the two countries? All the great leaders of the freedom movement – Gandhi, Nehru, Dadabhai Naoroji, Subhash Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh – learnt the lessons in democracy in Europe, America and Russia. Today’s India is the shared legacy of all these leaders.

But why did the cancer of caste system continued to spread? Why did a writer have to declare himself dead in Tamil Nadu? Why are atrocities against Dalits not abating? Why, even in 2016, a savarna of Maharashtra does not allow a Dalit labourer to draw water from his well? Why has the abominable practice of manual scavenging not become history?

All of us have to take the responsibility for this state of affairs. None of us can say that he is not guilty. Governments, the priestly class, the intellectuals, Dalit bureaucrats and political parties – everyone is guilty.

Nehru’s folly

Everything was fine till Gandhiji was around. Ambedkar was given a place in the Cabinet. Nehru wanted freedom from both Jinnah and Ambedkar but he could not dare ignore Gandhiji. But after the assassination of Gandhi, the Congress sunk deeper and deeper into the morass of power games. Under the leadership of Nehru, the party used the time-tested formula of consolidating and retaining power – divide and rule. Vote-bank politics and mob rule followed. The ideals and dreams of the freedom movement were forgotten. First, Ambedkar was ousted, then Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Kriplani, Lohia and Jaiprakash. The Congress had devised a sure-fire formula to perpetuate its rule – sing paeans to Congress’ contribution to winning freedom, keep Muslims terror-stricken, keep attacking Hindu communal elements, give crutches of reservation to Tribals and Dalits, and support Brahmins on the sly. Who cares about social equality, social change and socialism? They were only masks. How successful this formula was is evident by the fact that the Congress continues to be under the thumb of the same family for the past 70 years. Other parties too proved birds of the same feather.

Our democracy has to rise above the numbers game. Numbers can build democracy; they can also ruin it. Don’t forget Hitler and Stalin. The present-day democracy is strengthening caste and weakening the nation. Democracy is not about recruiting members of this or that religion or this or that caste into your camp. Do all states have a proportional representation in the government ruling from Delhi? Do Gujarat, Karnataka and Nagaland have the same clout as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh or Delhi? The bigger question pertains to the women. They form half of the population but even in the next 100 years, there is no possibility of them getting that much share in power. The reservation-supporters should stop blowing the trumpet of numbers and should start talking about positive steps for the development of the entire society.

When the Constitution has clear provisions against untouchability and the Directive Principles of State Policy too lend strength to these provisions, why does casteism continue to flourish in the country? When it is a crime to use caste-specific names, why do they continue to be the part of government records as surnames of government employees and of school and college students? Is our penal system such that thieves and the police both can do their jobs with equal freedom? According to Professor Imtiaz Ahmed, “Constitutionally, we are secular and casteless but our society is neither.” Despite the preponderance of Backward political leadership in Tamil Nadu, casteism is as rampant in that state as anywhere else. The situation is no different in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Only scientific consciousness can effectively neutralize Brahmanical values.

It will be wrong to blame only the Nehru family for grabbing power using the divide-and-rule formula. Almost all political parties, including the regional ones, are doing it. They know that a deep, organized and visible caste identity will help them win power. Lohia and some others launched a movement to drop surnames but they too soon jumped on the Nehru bandwagon. This formula is so potent that V.P. Singh, after revolting against the Congress leadership, used it to emerge as a messiah by implementing the Mandal Commission Report. Arjun Singh, Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna, Lalu Prasad, Mulayam, Mayawati – all used it. The present Modi Sarkar has also come to power using the same formula, though it has managed to create an impression that it is for fundamental social change.

Nehru supported Ambedkar’s idea of a Hindu Code Bill

Nehru ruled the country for 17 long years – from 1947 to 1964. The likes of Phule, Ambedkar, Justice Party, Gandhiji and other politicians and social reformers had already done the groundwork for social change. Nehru enjoyed the complete backing of his party; he was widely respected and he had all the Constitutional provisions that he needed. But he too did not work for comprehensive social change. It could have been possible had Nehru, like Gandhi, had kept away from the greed for power. What Independence brought was simply the replacement of white rulers with brown sahibs. The wave of social change that had been created by Ambedkar was reduced to the lollipop of reservations – so much so that it became the be-all and end-all of the politics of change.

The Hindu Code Bill is bigger than reservations as far as Ambedkar’s contributions to the campaign for bringing about social change is concerned. Caste-based discrimination is bad, gender discrimination is worse. Nehru supported Ambedkar. When the constituent assembly did not pass the bill, Ambedkar resigned from the Cabinet. However, Nehru took it up again and had most of its provisions passed in the form of three separate bills. The entire Hindu community is indebted to the duo for it. At least one citadel of inequality was demolished.

But then the crooked face of politics of vote emerged. Hindu Code Bill was fine but why not a similar bill for Muslims? Ambedkar had said that a similar statute would be enacted to protect the interests of Muslim women, too. If Ambedkar had not have passed away, he would not have kept mum on this issue. His concept of equality was not as superficial as that of Nehru. A person who quit politics, who quit his religion for the sake of his commitment, would not have allowed the injustice with Muslim women to continue. Muslim men want themselves to be governed by the Indian Constitution and their women, by the Shariat. When there are same laws for all citizens the world over, why are Indian Muslim women being deprived of equality? Nehru wanted to retain power and displeasing Muslims was not something he could afford. As for savarna Hindus, to stem the growing resentment among them, he chose not to disturb the caste (varna) structure. Let the sleeping dogs lie.

The moot question is whether we continue to look to Phules, Shahuji Maharajs, Ambedkars, Gandhis, Nehrus and Kanshi Rams for changing our society. Will we do nothing ourselves to build a casteless society? If we don’t, won’t we be equally culpable? The priestly Brahmin class of the Hindus is the permanent beneficiary of the caste system. They will never want to end it. They are not happy with reservations but the abolition of caste system is something they would never like to happen.

But are our rulers a bunch of cowering cowards? Did the same priestly class not oppose Sati system and widow remarriage? And didn’t they eventually fall in line? If the intentions of the rulers are clear and honest, they can change things, no matter how strong the resistance is.

 Social justice loses it way

The new patrons of caste system are the political messiahs of social justice. And why not? After all, it is caste that has brought them to power. Their coming to power is a golden chapter of Indian democracy. After thousands of years, for the first time, they’ve tasted equality and they’ve won an identity and the right to rule. This could never have happened but for the Renaissance in Europe, the French Revolution, and British rule in India. But is democracy about opposing an individual, a class or a caste? Is democracy about waving the flag of one’s caste or religion? Decidedly not. In fact, to think on these lines is insulting democracy.

Tina Dabi (right) with her mother. Tina, a Dalit, topped the 2016 Union Civil Services Examination

Why did these flag-bearers of social justice never talk about equality of Muslim women? Can you deprive such a large chunk of population of its rights in the name of freedom of religion? The pandits and priests might have kept quiet on this issue fearing that if they talked of reforming Muslims, they would be forced to reform themselves first. So, let the Muslims be. Let us protect each other’s foolishnesses and cruelties. But what of the social-justice brigade? Aren’t the Muslims as backward and illiterate as – if not more so than – SCs? Thanks to the Mandal Commission, a tiny section of Muslims has got some crumbs. But why are the flag-bearers of social justice keeping mum on the need for reforms among the Muslims? What does their silence show? The protagonists of reservations and social justice should demand a Muslim Code Bill along the lines of the Hindu Code Bill and also legislation to ensure that Muslims too get the benefits of reservations. Are they concerned about inequality only among the Hindus?

If one member of society is weak, can he be expected to compete with others? Why are the Dalits bent upon proving that only they are deprived and exploited? Why don’t they ever worry about those who are worse off? Only if they do so will we be able to build a real democracy in the country. The Muslims should also come forward and raise their voice. They want reservations, they want international norms for protection of minorities to be applied to them, they want equality as envisaged by the Indian Constitution but just talk of reforming the Shariat, and they go into a tizzy. Ambedkar had said, “At least the Hindu religion gives its followers the freedom to talk about its evils; Muslims do not even have that right.” The experience in India has been no different in this respect. This is also one reason for social inequalities.

If Muslims, Christians and Parsis are not included among the Bahujans, that also raises some pertinent questions. Besides the savarna Hindus, the nouveau riche, the Dalit politicians and bureaucrats are also aiding in the perpetuation of the caste system. The section that enjoys reservations does not want the inclusion of Muslims among its ranks and whenever any deprived community demands reservations, it flies off the handle – just as pandits and mullahs do when anyone talks of reforming the Varnashram system or Shariat. From Kanyakumari to Ghaziabad, from Ghazipur to Saharsa – casteism is rampant in the rural area everywhere. The situation is somewhat better in urban centres. There is no doubt that urbanization, modern education, logical thinking and scientific reasoning will lead to caste becoming irrelevant. But this is a very slow process. Looking at the pace of change over the last 70 years, one can easily conclude that it will take several decades for any real change to become visible. Obviously, we need to increase the pace of change.

The Dalit bureaucrats occupying top posts are as status quoist as conservative Brahmins. Reservation is perfectly valid but their benefits should reach the sections that are deprived of it till now. What is the problem in extending its reach to the deprived of your own community? Well-known sociologist and member of the Backward Classes Commission Dhirubhai Seth insists that reservations should continue but those who have been its beneficiaries once should be kept out of its ambit so that the others can get a chance. The Supreme Court has also said the same thing on many occasions but the caste-patronizing politics is averse to any change. It seems the politicians want things to remain as they are. Don’t the conditions prevalent today remind us of the 18th century – just before the advent of British rule in India?

Education can play a key role in eliminating casteism. But education should be such that it produces young men and women equipped with logical thinking and scientific reasoning. Every person should contribute his might to this endeavour – whether he is a politician, minister, parent, teacher, principal, writer, scientist, journalist, mullah or pandit. Religion has to do its part. The first prime minister was undoubtedly a man with a scientific vision. But he could not change society. We can blame him, but shouldn’t we also accept at least a part of the blame? When will we continue to hold the Manusmriti, British rule or Muslim rule responsible for our woes? Venting anger on the Congress will serve no purpose. Limiting the discourse on caste to reservations or to grabbing power is criminal. We need to understand the dreams and aspirations of the new generation.

Let us look at how Europe, America and Australia changed. Galileo, Darwin’s theory of Evolution, Gregor Mendel, Marx, Freud, George Orwell, D.H. Lawrence, Kipling, Tolstoy, Jane Austin, Einstein, Watson and Crick, Miller – all played a role in the making of the modern West. We need to learn from them.

Can the India in which caste is overwhelmingly important call itself modern? In the 2016 Civil Services Exam, Tina Dabi topped the list of successful candidates. Her success sent out many messages. She demonstrated that daughters could also do whatever sons could. They only need equality and the freedom to study and grow. When questioned about her Dalit background, her reply was a resounding slap on the cheeks of casteists. She said, “I will not work for my caste but for my society and my country.”

Tina’s voice can become the voice of the new India – a brand-new identity of a brand-new India – provided we all first purge ourselves of notions of caste and then try to free society, the system and the power structure from it. Let us write like Premchand, Jagdish Chand, Swadesh Deepak, Omprakash Valmiki and Sanjeev. Let us make films like Fandry and Chauranga and let us, like Narendra Dabholkar, fight against frog-in-the-well syndrome. Modern knowledge, technology, consciousness and globalization – all are there to help us. Where will the demons of casteism escape to?

About The Author

Prempal Sharma

An ardent advocate of the common school system and primary education in the mother tongue, Prempal Sharma has authored over 15 books, including collections of stories and books on discourse on education and society

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