It is cleaning season in India. Country’s prime minister has gone to town with a broom. He started the campaign to clean India by sweeping a Dalit neighbourhood of erstwhile untouchables, seemingly breaking many caste barriers. There are very few public defenders of caste system nowadays. After the affirmative action for lower castes in educational institutions and government jobs has begun to show some results, upper caste men and women, whose ancestors only three generations ago fought tooth and nail to not yield even an inch of their caste privileges, now cry and organise under the slogan of equality. Are we witnessing the spectacle of caste being swept away into the dustbin of history?
Reality of India is too complex for this simple hope. If caste appears to be disregarded, or flouted, in some domains, its prejudices and violence are flourishing in others. The day country’s news channels were busy showing the prime minister sweeping a Dalit bastee in the heart of the Capital, a young woman of Madurai in Tamil Nadu was burnt alive by her family for marrying a Dalit. She could have been from anywhere in the country, from Haryana in the North to Maharashtra in the West, or Bihar in the East, to have met a similar fate; if not murder, certainly social ostracism. In all villages, where majority of Indians live, habitation areas are divided along caste lines; upper and dominant castes occupy the most secure central areas with easiest access to public utilities like road, school, and panchayat ghar; and Dalits live on the outskirts.
In cities, too, where caste markers are less visible, caste networks are the most effective resource the poor fall back upon while searching for job and habitation, Here too Dalits occupy the most low paying jobs and occupy most vulnerable habitations. Come election time, the caste distribution of any constituency is the primary data for electoral calculations of every major political party. Caste distinctions have strong correlation with differences in income, education, and access to most-sought-after jobs. Caste remains a major determinant of personal life experiences. It stamps marriage and friendship of Indians, from a landless agricultural labourer to high professionals integrated into global economy.
Yet, when one looks at the self-articulation of influential Indians about their country, caste is one social reality rarely discussed. The vision of the great future that country’s prime minister painted for his fawning NRI audience at the Madison Square in New York had not a single reference to caste. Country’s popular media, soap operas, films rarely refer to caste, in striking contrast to religion which is almost always carried on the sleeve.
Why these two contrasting features of caste, its overwhelming presence in social reality, while simultaneous absence in dominant discourses? In fact, the absence of caste in India’s dominant imaginings is not really an absence, a silence resulting from ignorance, lack of familiarity or interest. This absence is a symptom of a carefully crafted sub-text about caste, that serves the interests of a certain type of caste hegemony.
Take the Swachh Bharat campaign, a five year campaign to make India clean. If the campaign is successful, it will certainly make life better for every Indian, irrespective of caste, creed or religion. What better proof can there be of the universal concerns of the Indian state, or the currently ruling Bhartiya Janta Party, for the welfare of all? The inaugural ‘event’ of the campaign saw country’s prime minister sweeping a Balmiki basti on October 2. But, why a Dalit basti? Are these the dirtiest of the places in the country? Decades before Modi went for his sweeping errand in the said bastee, Gandhi had lived there for a few days. Country’s media and chatterati only saw association with Gandhi on October 2, and his emphasis on cleanliness. But Gandhi had started his struggles with cleanliness by cleaning the community latrine at his Tolstoy Farm in South Africa, which did involve breaking some serious caste taboos. This was much before he started the practice of living in Dalit bastees for a few days at a stretch, mainly after his conflict with Ambedkar over separate electorates for the then untouchable castes.
Gandhi also chastised caste Hindus, even declared the Bihar earthquake as a divine punishment for the sin of untouchability. He was rightly criticised by Tagore for spreading gross irrationality and superstitions. However, he at least had the moral courage. The current breed of leaders of the ‘Hindus’ is obviously of a different kind. Our prime minister is a proud Hindu, he would surely know that surroundings of Hindu temples, or places of pilgrimages like Banaras, are among the filthiest in the country. Why not start a campaign of cleanliness from there? No secularist would have criticised him for exhorting his co-religionists to keep their places of worship clean. Yet, only a Dalit basti is seen fit for starting the national cleanliness campaign! Why? Because in the caste ridden popular consciousness of India, both dirt and broom are associated with Dalits, the Valmiki caste in northern India, and other similar Dalit castes in other parts of the country.
The prime minister of the country cleaning a Dalit basti also follows the long tradition of politically dominant groups in India treating Dalits condescendingly. Gandhi had started that tradition by christening untouchables as Harijans, a term much despised by Dalit activists. If a politician is not willing to target the real scourge of Dalits, the caste system, then the best s/he can do is to proclaim how worthy their condition is. Gandhi declared them ‘God’s people’; Modi in one of his rare writings has declared cleaning others’ filth a deeply ‘spiritual’ experience. Modi’s jaunt also fit like a glove with the strategy of his mentor organisation.
The RSS, forever making stories to target Muslims, has come up with a new theory for the condition of Dalit castes in Hindu society. For it, pretty much like the second rate position of women among Hindus, the social deprivation of untouchables came about due to invasion of the country by the outsiders. RSS’s is a concerted plan to bring dalit caste voters under its Hindutva fold, so that a solid electoral majority of all the so-called Hindus can be created. Gandhi too had tried the same through his campaigns against untouchability, though with less falsehood and more sincerity.
While the dominant political forces in the country have been trying to incorporate Dalit castes within their programmes, their poverty and oppression have continued. Sixty four years after country was declared a republic, legally bound to protect the liberty and ensure the quality of all, the Valmikis in the heart of national capital are still living in a separate neighbourhood. Generations have come and gone, yet the overwhelming majority of them still clean city’s filth. Many of them are employed by the government. But none of the governments have thought of providing them with mixed housing where their neighbours could be teachers, or clerks of other castes.
Why this segregation? Why decades after government jobs were opened to all, irrespective of caste, one class of profession, that of cleaning public places, has been one hundred percent occupied by the men and women of only specific Dalit castes?
Caste question though, is not only a question of Dalit oppression and exclusion, even while the latter are the most glaring examples of its inhumanity and barbarity. As Dr Ambedkar shows in “Annihilation of Caste”, arguably the most important social analysis of India coming to us from the recent past, the caste system makes Hindu society uniquely incapable of freedom, liberty, equality and fraternity. Written in 1936, Annihilation of Caste is not about specific conditions of the then untouchable castes, as are many of Ambedkar’s other writings. It squarely addresses itself to caste ‘Hindus’. Its identification of weaknesses of ‘Hindu’ society is actually weaknesses of the society in India that continue to the present. Caste is a system of privilege and hierarchy.
While in most societies that are unequal, privilege and hierarchy are largely a secular affair, caste projects these to a sacred plane and justifies them through religion. It considers as polluting the useful work of those living through the sweat of their brow. It elevates the chanting of Sanskrit mumbo jumbo, and the use of violence to rule over others, as sacred karma duties, while the immensely useful occupations like growing food, or cleaning the public places, including taking care of dead animals, without which society cannot survive, as Karmic punishments for bad deeds in past births.
Further, as Ambedkar notes, it justifies not only a hierarchical division of labour, but actually is a system of division of labourers. The caste division of humans, inspired and sanctioned by religion, and stamped from birth, gets so deeply ingrained in the self conception of its human subjects, that they come to view members of other castes in exclusive terms. So much so, that according to him even a Hindu society cannot be said to exist in the usual sense of the word. “Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has destroyed the public charity. Caste has made public opinion impossible.” By prohibiting Shudras, the majority of Hindus, from learning, bearing arms and owning wealth, caste disempowered them to challenge the supremacy of upper castes.
Looking at the European history for comparison, he notes, “(b)ut in Europe the strong have never contrived to make the weak helpless against exploitation so shamelessly as was the case in India among Hindus. Social war has been raging between the strong and the weak far more violently in Europe than it has ever been in India. Yet, the weak in Europe has had in his freedom of military service his physical weapon, in suffering his political weapon and in education his moral weapon (emphasis in the original).’ These ‘weapons were, however, denied to the masses in India by Chaturvaranya.”
Caste continues to explain many facets of India in the twenty-first century. For instance, why is India one of the filthiest of the countries in the world, a fact of some embarrassment to its rulers in a globalising world? Its poverty is not the chief reason. Many poorer countries are cleaner. The rich in India are not only profligate generators of garbage like the rich everywhere, what distinguishes them is the carelessness with which they throw their garbage all around. Within India itself southern states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu are cleaner than richer states like Punjab and Haryana.
A major part of the reason lies with the caste system which made certain untouchable castes only responsible for public cleanliness. The ones on whom fell the job of keeping public places clean were the most oppressed, they could never command others to not litter. On the other hand, precisely because of caste, the cleanliness of public spaces never became a public concern for everyone. Further, the Brahmanical notions of pollution create irrational antipathy towards natural human excretions. Indians will spit, shit and pee everywhere, rather than follow simple rules and precautions to manage their bodily wastes. Rich rural households in India are known to spend on fancy consumer gadgets, rather than have a functional toilet at home.
Or, take another example. Why is India’s youth so given to follow parental and social diktats in matters as personal as love, marriage, field of study and profession? Why this utter lack of liberty, and fear of freedom? At root lies the social control and moral world of caste. Individual initiatives, even asking questions like Arjuna (Is the killing of kith and kin worthwhile for gaining a kingdom?) are declared subservient to Karmic duties enjoined by caste. Humans are but cogs in the Karmic wheel. Behind such fatalism, seen as lofty spiritualism by a number of Hindu upper caste thinkers and leaders, lies the fear of change and valorisation of tradition and orthodoxy. Hindu caste endogamy is permised upon strict control over female sexuality. Women are not only the means to maintain caste purity, but as caste subjects they also become its votaries.
An incident narrated by Prof Uma Chakravarty is revealing. Intense agitations by upper castes erupted in early nineties after VP Singh government extended reservations in government jobs to the so-called other backward castes. Among the agitators were a group of young women, city bred and university educated with placards declaring their opposition to reservations because it robbed them of qualified husbands. Class conscious, upper caste educated women just could not countenance the possibility that if there were going to be fewer upper caste men in the elite government services, they might as well marry government officers from backward castes. Hindu caste system produces dutiful, even if resentful, sons and daughters, who are too afraid to love freely. It creates followers and upholders of tradition, who are too scared to stand up for their rights as adult citizens, or raise their voice against violation of others’ rights.
The working of caste in India now is much different from Dr Ambedkar’s days. Caste segregation is still present, but caste aggregates have become much larger than localised jatis of earlier times. The upper three castes have largely moved into urban areas, where caste boundaries have further weakened among them. In politics, culture, professional lives, even in marriages to some extent, they are beginning to form largely homogeneous groups at the regional level. But as a group, they maintain their distinction from the rest of the Hindus. In many places in rural India, sections of the landowning erstwhile Shudra castes have emerged as the dominant caste. They in fact are now the biggest perpetrators of violence against dalit castes. Political mobilization has been most successful among the backward castes, and many of their leaders and parties have gained access to state power.
The majority of backward castes remain poor, and socially and culturally backward. As Prof Ashwani Deshpande’s research shows, the gap in education, employment, income, etc. between the three upper castes and backward castes has practically remained the same over many decades. A small section among Dalits, around 10 per cent, has gained access to higher education and state employment through affirmative action of the state. However, against Dr Ambedkar’s expectations this section has failed to lead Dalits to a better life. Key responsibility though lies with the failure of Indian state to provide universal elementary education and basic health. So that the poor, a major section among whom are dalits, keep languishing in a life of illiteracy and poverty.
Nevertheless, a perception has grown that particular castes among Dalits have monopolised the benefit of job reservations, and calls have started coming for reservations within reservations. More worryingly, even the Dalits who have benefited from affirmative action often fail to stand against oppression of their caste brethren. Prof Anand Teltumbde has shown how many state functionaries who dealt with the Khairlanji murder and rape of dalit women were themselves dalits, yet they failed to initiate proper legal action against perpetrators of the crime.
The combination of caste with capitalism and liberal state institutional structures has played a dangerous game with the people of India. New idioms have been added to caste prejudices, and new fissures have emerged. Even while de-ritualised and secularised, caste remains a system of discrimination and prejudice. Capitalism and modern state institutions are formally caste blind. However in India, the social network of privileged castes has ensured that these castes remain at the top of all power structures, whether state, economy, or culture. Despite the formal trappings of democracy, Indian state has failed to create a universal framework for citizenship rights.
Popular culture does not espouse freedom, and dignity of a person; it remains trapped in regurgitating traditional relationships and motifs. It may not be openly casteist. However, all main and ‘good’ characters in films, TV soaps, and even in literature, live upper caste lives and aspirations, and carry upper caste surnames. While the upper castes in power have failed in creating a society of equals, they also do not accept as equal successful men and women of other castes. Dalit students and government servants continue to face harassment. Upper castes resent the success of Dalits and OBCs in politics. They do not mind a Modi, or a Ramdev from backward castes, who speak in their language and do not challenge their caste supremacy, but Ms Mayawati, who openly asserts her identity and politics as different from upper castes, is an anathema.
On the other hand, the politics and mobilisations of oppressed castes are increasingly taking the form of sectarian identity politics. These too tend to project only narrow sectional demands, creating further fissures, rather than the unity of all oppressed. Caste in its current form continues to be an impediment to liberty, equality and fraternity, as it is was in Ambedkar’s time, and Indian society appears as oblivious to this anti-democratic thrust of caste now, as it was then.
The failure to deal adequately with caste by the non-communal political forces in India is an important reason for the rise of rightwing Hindutva politics, which is leading country to another abyss. The dangerous mix of a hidden caste prejudice and hatred for minorities will rob Indians of little democracy they have. Even though the rise of Mr Modi has many incidental causes, like the corruption, incompetence and venality of the Congress led UPA, in caste terms it represents a reorientation of upper caste hegemony. It is an attempt to push caste under the dirty rug of a great ‘Hindu’ tradition, the same tradition which actually de-humanised and oppressed majority of Indians.
While the politics of Hidutva right is directly opposite to the vision of Dr Ambedkar, the opportunism of narrow identity politics is so shameless that many Dalit leaders with some base among specific Dalit castes, Paswan, Udit Raj, etc., have joined the Hindutva band wagon. The recent shift to the Hindutva right wing, however should not be seen only as a result of a conspiracy, or opportunism of few individuals. It is a logical growth of the neo-liberal political economy and related ideological trends. Neo-liberalism valourises private greed, narrows the perception of the self, and delegitimises public rationality. The neo-liberal era in India has seen an explosion of pop religiosity of babas and sects, and repackaging of tradition for consumption. Internal reform of religion has taken a back seat.
How does one criticise what is taken ‘freely’ as a consumer product? Even sections of the oppressed castes are seen partaking in the miasma of excessive religiosity, with their own babas, and new sects around old deities. It is this development, the devaluation of public rationality and explosion of religiosity and superstitions, which the Hindutva right has exploited politically. Its politics is a classic Fascist project of building a ‘majority’ through violence and hatred against targeted minorities. This is a new development which struggles against casteism have to contend with. However, the precipitating causes should not be lost sight of. Annihilation of caste can not come about without challenging neo-liberalism.
The project of democracy in India, of forming an association of free citizens who have gotten rid of caste and all other forms of oppression, the one for which Dr Ambedkar fought tirelessly, is dangerously cornered. At their core, all emancipatory projects are exercises in public rationality. They unearth structural reasons for oppression, suggest practical strategies to fight the latter, and project a feasible vision of a future without oppression. They succeed when they are able to make such reasons, strategies and vision the common sense of the oppressed. Unity of all of the oppressed is a logical goal of this general form of emancipatory projects. Struggles against caste cannot escape this general form. Vision of a caste-less India would not succeed if not related to democratic aspirations of all of the oppressed. It should assert the citizenship rights of all against an authoritarian state. It should create a humanist and secular popular culture that honours personal freedoms and liberties of everyone, irrespective of gender, caste, religion, ethnicity or nationality.
*Activist, New Socialist Initiative. Text of concept note for public meeting, Can Caste Be Swept Away? on October 15, 2015, Seminar Room, Department of sociology, Delhi School of economics, Delhi University