Wednesday, January 4, 2012

When in India, Occupy Caste

There are LOTS of social issues with respect to caste. Foremost of all is the general economic disparity — the usual ‘rich is getting richer and poor is getting poorer’ cliché. The huge chasm between the rural India and the urban India is facing us. The overwhelming urge of the former to merge with the latter is not only intriguing but also worrisome. The lack of opportunities is what’s driving this social disorder. There are many more ailments like failing infrastructure, lack of governance, civil disobedience when it comes to adherence of basic laws, poverty, illiteracy, corruption and growing Maoist threat. All these inimical elements blend perfectly with our turbulent society.
These are the social issues. Political terrain is quite different and bumpy.
Political issues pertain mostly to politicians. Democracy empowers us to vote, yes but what happens next is not guaranteed. Of course, that’s the case with almost all democracies across the world but here, things are a bit more skewed (or screwed, for lack of better word). Politicians are perceived as villains by the haves and saviors by the have-nots. But that doesn’t stop us from electing more of the unreliable kind. The reason behind this being the role caste plays a key role in the national arena.
Caste is like the most legal illegal substance in India. The Untouchability Act was passed in 1955. In that very year, the Protection of Civil Rights Act was passed. Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act took place in 1989 and Human Rights Protection Act in 1993. Since they are part of the constitution now, they are bona fide laws. Besides, the Hindu system has been casteist since time immemorial. It’s India’s version of apartheid. People like Buddha and Mahavir were the earliest proponents of ‘Chuck discrimination! Everybody is equal’ dictum. And if one observes closely, Buddha in particular was very successful too. It’s a different story though that his ideals are followed more religiously in South-East Asian countries than in India! Similarly, Gandhi took particular interest in the upliftment of the Harijans.
So reservation helps the case or not?
Reservation was a temporary solution crafted by our founding fathers who thought the under-privileged ones should get an upper hand when the nation kick-starts. Reservation was meant to go on for about 15 years. But it’s been almost 65 years now! When Morarji Desai founded Mandal Commission during his tenure as the PM, it was an honest step towards separating the privileged from the underprivileged ones. But with PM VP Singh’s shrewd decision to implement the reservation policy in 1990, caste, politics and reservation became inextricable bedfellows – ultimately giving new rise to new faces in politics who run the roost today.
Interestingly, the Dalits found a messiah in Mayawati when she became the Chief Minister of the largest non-nation entity on the planet (read: Uttar Pradesh) but as time went passed by, it became apparent that she’s just another narcissistic politician. For the record, the last Dalit leader whom no one has been able to emulate till date is Dr. Ambedkar (who is also considered the Father of Indian constitution). Every other Dalit leader carries his picture for approval from poor Dalits but barely anyone truly stand for what he did. Political solutions are most effective in a vast country like ours but it takes a lot of awareness and time. And patience is an expensive virtue in politics.
On the other hand, independent India saw some Dalit leaders making a mark too in the last two decades. Like RK Narayan becoming India’s first Dalit President and KMC Balayogi, first Dalit Lok Sabha speaker. KG Balakrishnan became the first Dalit Chief Justice of India in 2006.
So we can’t deny that thanks to such schemes, there has been a heck of an improvement for Dalits in the overall social order. In fact, a lot of progress has taken place over the years due to reservation mainly in the field of education and employment. But at the end of the day, reservation is self-defeating and anti-competition. And worst of all, people who are economically privileged and don’t even belong to the eligible caste try to leech benefits. There was a time when people didn’t know that caste was a major issue in independent India but now, thanks to widespread mass media, we get to know what happened where. People aren’t asleep anymore.
As a byproduct of these actions, we now have 27% reservation for OBC (Other Backward Class) and Muslims are eagerly anticipating a 4.5% reservation as a sub-quota with the OBC. Women are looking forward to 33% reservation. Math can’t get murkier than this. Even some new states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh were formed under the pretext of empowering the downtrodden communities. But what’s going on today is in stark contrast with what was supposedly intended. Or like Charlie Sheen would quip, upper caste politicians are #winning in these states.
So how does the non-political entity contribute to this cauldron? Well, there are effective personalities like Sudha Murthy (wife of Infosys founder NR Murthy) who is busy building schools in far-off villages. And there are selfless crusaders like Binayak Sen and many more who could have lived a charming life in cities if they wanted. These activists and campaigners try to work at the grass-root level. Most of them are of the opinion that education is what’s missing. And it’s very true. They believe that stringent legislation will empower the lower castes in the long run. Offering a helping hand by upgrading their living condition is the way to go.
Here again, political will portrays an important role. Like Indira Gandhi’s garibi hatao movement was effectively turning land laborers into landowners overnight!
After all, you won’t find pickets like “Occupy Caste” anywhere in India. Urbanites don’t care about it and that’s that. This is how it works (and doesn’t work) in India. Since rural areas are the ones where casteist discriminations takes place, most of the activists working there are nameless and faceless. Except when we read about their inspiring work in newspapers/magazines.
Caste doesn’t change but our perception towards it does… from place to place. If you are born a Hindu, it implies one surety – you are born in to a caste by default whether you like it or not. And in states like Gujarat and Rajasthan, caste transcends religion. Like the Muslims have castes belonging to mercantile communities and such. In South India, people usually don’t care much about caste in the society unless someone is getting married. YOU’VE GOT TO MARRY A PERSON FROM YOUR OWN CASTE – is the norm. Politically, it’s very Brahminically-oriented though. In North India, caste is more prominent and sometimes, brutal. But cities like Patna and Lucknow won’t witness discrimination based on caste the way forlorn villages are bound to.
Caste has also benefited proselytism. Christian Missionaries will generally target the forest-dwellers and the downtroddens. They offer education in exchange of faith. Net-net, it’s a win-win situation. No one’s complaining. Except the radical Hindu groups who think it’s a conspiracy against their religion. Net-net, they are morons.
Development (read: capitalism) has what it takes to overshadow caste. Remnants of feudalism can still be found in villages where Dalits often suffer at the hands of cruel landlords. Everyone must have heard or seen Bandit Queen. It’s a hardcore movie about a real-life dacoit who took revenge on people from upper caste who wronged her when she was younger. Well, the story ended this way – she surrendered, served sentence and joined politics later and then one morning, got shot by a kin of whom she massacred!
The setting is quite different in cities as far as caste identification is concerned. Urban areas function like a neo-liberal. Hardly anyone cares to ask each other which caste one belongs to. Everyone share a common table in the office canteen without any hassle. However, religion, linguistic and regional identity rather plays a bigger role in metropolitans sometimes. Caste is not THAT visible in the vital status. People are way too busy chasing trains that often don’t run on time to bother with anything else.
Mass migration has a lot to do with the prevailing caste (mal)practices in rural areas. Loads of people migrate to Mumbai every single day. It goes without saying that a major bulk of this ‘Diaspora’ belongs to the lower caste. They enter the city with dreamy eyes. Everyone wants a new start and they are no different. Once they are within the city, their caste ceases to exist. Hard work and opportunities are what matters. The word is reinvent. In any case, they are better off in restless Delhi or Kolkata than in the bucolic pockets of India.
Talking of Mumbai, Bollywood is a shining example of how casteism can be thwarted. First of all, Bollywood is like the most secular thing in India. The very fact that the Punjabi Kapoors and Muslim Khans have dominated it over the years illustrates this point. A different and purer adaptation of caste-ing applies here — dynasty. It is pivotal. For example, Big B’s son becomes an actor even though he might not have an iota of actor in him. The same goes for Hema Malini’s daughter. A producer’s son becomes a producer (if he fails as an actor first!) and a director’s son will vie to get behind the camera like his father. So in a way, it’s a casteist from a professional point of view.
To understand why Bollywood doesn’t have a Dalit superstar yet, we’ll have to peek into its history. Bollywood happened in a Marathi-Gujarati Bombay but it thrived because of the Punjabi infusion. Bollywood’s first superstar post-independence was a Muslim who went about with a Hindu name: Dilip Kumar. And today, it’s a Muslim who proudly goes with his Pathan name: Shah Rukh Khan. Between them, there have been an array of superstars who came and went but none of them were Dalits.
Perhaps the future might belong to some Dalit superstar. Hopefully. It will definitely be a positive sign. There were Dalit poets and writers but how much of their work influenced Bollywood needs to be researched. There are Dalits in the production team who work behind the scene but they aren’t forced to display their ID cards.
In an ideal world, caste won’t exist. But we don’t live in an ideal world. So I believe affirmative actions with a pedantic approach is what’s needed. There will always be people who’ll be oppressed, especially farmers. After all, India is an agrarian country with nearly 70% of the economy depending on agriculture. And it’s a sorry state of affairs for farmers who commit suicide as if it’s a newborn trend. Hence reservation ought to be based on economic factors rather than one’s caste.
Just because a person is born of low caste doesn’t mean s/he should be addressed with provisions meant for the underprivileged. In simpler words, it’d be unfair. The same goes for the lower caste kids who are applying for colleges/universities. Why should they be given preferential treatment when a kid from a general category scores better marks but is denied the rightful seat?
Gumption is what’s lacking. And the worst scenario happens when casteist mentality becomes apparent in cities while applying for higher education or government jobs. LUCKILY, THERE ARE NO RESERVATIONS IN PRIVATE SECTOR THOUGH POLITICIANS ARE TRYING TO GATECRASH IN THERE TOO!
Anti-discrimination has to take place at the grass-root level like most the national activists keep on reiterating. What’s the point in allowing reservations in IITs and IIMs when the low-caste kids don’t even get to attend a proper school? Education, general awareness and a strong political go-to-ness is what’s required to tackle these issues. Society can change but a country as a whole needs politicians at the helm. And we aren’t blessed with such politicians. Yet.

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