Indians' caste fixation

Thinking aloud

Singaporean leaders like Lee Kuan Yew and foreign minister George Yeo worry that new settlers from India are introducing caste distinctions to Indians who have been settled on the island for nearly 200 years. But Indians know that Singapore seemed tranquil mainly because there wasn’t enough caste variety to cause friction.

While you can take an Indian out of his country, you can’t so easily take him out of his caste. Even the pious ‘caste no bar’ insertion by many non-resident Indians tacitly affirms the importance of caste. Bal Thackeray was only stating the truth when he told an interviewer, “In India, people don’t cast their vote, they vote their caste.” Ideology and modernism may shape the thinking of the urban elite that benefited from Macaulay’s Minute on education, but they are a dwindling minority.

For most Indians caste (like gotra) is an essential part of identity, not something to be proud or ashamed of, just something that is. Acknowledging it in the census sounds logical. Caste becomes pernicious when it is exploited for social, financial or political reasons. This is what the notorious khaps are suspected of doing in Punjab and Haryana where the lower female ratio (under 800 per 1,000 men) make women a valuable commercial commodity. Caste assertiveness is also abhorrent as another signal that India is retreating into the medieval darkness that the late Nirad C Chaudhuri predicted with eloquent erudition in his masterpiece, ‘Thy hand, great Anarch!’

Inevitably, those who accord greatest importance to caste also oppose land reform and the empowerment of women and dalits. They support the Babri Masjid’s destruction, demand a Rama temple on the site, and denounce the Setu Samudram project. Their agenda includes campaigns against bars and night clubs, persecution of Christian converts and lynching of missionaries.

The growing hold of astrology, sadhus, gurus, vaastu and bride and sati burning are part of the same rejection of the Anglo-Saxon rationality imposed by colonial rule. Despite court injunctions, shrines are sprouting at streetcorners, some operated by businessmen who prey on faith, other, like the altars against the Char Minar’s pillars in Hyderabad, politically or communally motivated. Whatever the motivation, they signify ‘aam admi’ assertiveness.

Even West Bengal’s CPM no longer ignores the proliferation of Durga Pujas testifying to the religion of the masses. Voters must be courted in an idiom they understand. There is no point talking to bustee-dwellers or peasants of English social scientists who upheld the rights of man. That is why Mahatma Gandhi made a greater public impact than Jawaharlal Nehru. Charan Singh’s Bharatiya Lok Dal and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal tapped the same vein.

Assertion

Nirad Chaudhuri criticised the elaborate yajnas that insulted Nehru’s secularism but were performed by his followers when he was no longer able to protest. They reflected the faith of the majority and — it was said — of Nehru’s daughter whose socialism co-existed with a succession of supposedly holy men and women. Motives are always mixed and some claim that Indira Gandhi’s Hinduism was a reaction against the westernisation of her aunts and a statement supporting her mother’s orthodoxy.
Governments have fought a losing battle against this retreat to obscurantism. The first Press Commission denounced as ‘undesirable’ what it called “the spread of the habit of consultation of, and reliance upon, astrological predictions” that were “certain to produce an unsettling effect on the minds of readers.” The second Press Commission urged editors “who believe in promoting a scientific temper among their readers and in combating superstition and fatalism” not to publish astrological predictions.
No editor took the slightest notice. Some may themselves have been too dependent on the stars to obey Press Commission directives. But whatever their beliefs, all knew that stopping astrological features would lose a solid chunk of readers. With one or two notable exceptions, media success everywhere is based on giving people not what is good for them but what they want. There is little doubt that despite Nehru’s urgings, even most Congress party members remain faithful to traditional religion as they understand it.
That is also true of Indian Singaporeans who celebrate Thaipusam and fire-walking festivals more fervently than in most Indian cities and whose temples recall Madurai and Kancheepuram. About 70 per cent of the community are south Indians and, like exiles everywhere, most are caught in a time warp.
Anyway, the problem is not so much caste as the system’s gradations and distinctions. While most Indian Singaporeans are descended from plantation workers or convicts, new settlers are high-flying bankers and IT experts whom Shashi Tharoor, formerly based in Singapore for the United Nations, calls ‘Global Indians.’
The difference between them reminds us that because of historical factors that are not to be condoned, caste often indicates class and culture. The friction between Singapore’s ‘old’ and ‘new’ Indians, therefore, repeats controversies over India’s ‘forwards’ and ‘backwards.’ Both would vanish if caste were seen simply as a neutral label. Instead, people at both the top and the bottom — especially the latter — reinforce its vicious hold by living up to the ancient ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ definitions.

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