System of Caste – A matter of identity
Our conversations about humanity are largely centered on the idea of body and soul. But if look around, what get to see is nothing but identities – some self-defined and some enforced. In the sea of humanity, identity seems to be the omnipresent social tag.
As social beings, when we navigate through the maze of society, we need to optimize our interactions so that we can efficiently deal with the ups and downs of life. We seek predictable human behavior, not just from the society but also from family and friends. Knowing how someone would react to a situation is perceived as a good benchmark of how much do we know that ‘someone’. The same idea of predictability is at play when we intrinsically assign attributes to any collective – grouped along the lines of ethnicity, gender, region, religion, caste, facial features, colour of skin, etc. It extends further as collectives representing professions, schools, colleges, languages, political opinions and even choices of music or literature. All these so-called ‘pre-conceived’ notions may be perceived as politically incorrect, but in reality they seem to represent an intrinsic animal instinct designed to alert us against ‘danger’.
In modern India, the most common identity attributes are caste, religion and gender. Though there are numerous other attributes at play, let us focus on these three prominent identities which are not a choice but an enforcement of sorts. It wraps our existence within a social-cultural assumption that pre-defines what we stand for. Our personal association with the attribute does not really matter. Even the collective understanding of a family unit or a small social group ceases to make sense beyond the group because, eventually, the collective social perception of an identity gets enforced. Irrespective of what one thinks about oneself, we are subtly or forcibly made aware of this so-called identity. And no matter how much we ignore this identity, we often end up negating it – which indirectly translates into an embracement of sorts.
The other face of this identity coin is marked with pride. An identity thrives because people associate pride with that identity. Many a times it is the only thing that one can feel proud about. This pride mostly gets exerted as some sort of supremacy. Gaining a sense of supremacy through an association is one of the lowest hanging fruit of the tree of identities. The assertion of being a ‘proud abc’ as stickers on cars & bikes, as social media announcements, as salutations, etc. are nothing but stark examples of this collective hollowness. Such social hierarchies also manifest as so-called professional supremacy. The huddling together of alumni of so-called premier institutes for mutual gains, coming together of people from a certain profession to create us-and-them demarcations, display of brotherhood by a certain class of administrators or celebrities… these are nothing but tools to gain and assert power in the garb of identity. It is one of the most basic survival instincts that forces individuals to become a part of a herd to ensure supremacy over, or safety from, other herds.
Caste system may have started off as clubbing together, via a noun, of a certain group of people who shared common roles or skills. These nouns, which should have been mere identifiers, eventually gained a value attribute based on the value associated with the linked role or skill. I sometimes feel that the idea of caste was not a deliberate attempt to exploit a section of the society. It perhaps happened because individuals love hierarchies. The present caste system was created way back in time but even today we regularly create caste-like hierarchies. It is easy for us to label our ancestors as shortsighted and narrow-minded for creating caste identities, but we too do something similar on daily basis – through our acts of commission or omission. Our social engagements seem to be designed to continuously define and refine identities and the associated hierarchies.
Quite similar is the case with regards to gender identity. It does not matter what a girl feels about herself. She may carry very different notions of being a girl, or may choose to ignore the relationship between her being and her gender, but her social engagements continuously nudge her gender identity. Her gender impacts her choices, her social relationships, her freedom… and so on. Anything done in contradiction to this identity is hailed or frowned upon. We chose to love the ‘hail’ but both – the frowning and hailing – are essentially similar. Both end up acknowledging, and thus perpetuating, the identities based on gender.
Coming back to caste, our family names, or surnames, often represent our caste identity. It is naïve to believe that doing away with it will erase caste identities because nouns, within themselves, do not carry any value. The value attribute resides in the associated semantics. There is an interesting anecdotal story that illustrates this point. I joined a residential school in Nainital (Uttarakhand) for my senior secondary. Only a small minority of students were locals while most of the staff, and even teachers, hailed from the hills. I hail from the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand and in our language an elder brother is called Dajyu – an equivalent of Bhai sahib or Anna. The male non-teaching staff of our school was called Dajyu. For us, the locals, Dajyu was a mark of respect but for everyone else it meant someone who is there to serve you. Due to this interpretation ‘Dajyu Sala’ became an abuse used against students of Pahari origin – a classic example of how the association changes the narrative. Imagine which term would be considered lowly if the caste hierarchy was turned upside down.
What is also interesting is that surnames do not seem to be originally created to ‘mark’ people from a caste point of view. Epistemologically, they seem to display a location or capability attribute. My original surname was Milamwal, which means someone who hails from the village Milam. A large number of surnames have a place association. Then we have capability attribute like Chaturvedi, which means someone who has mastered all the four Vedas. The surname Chaturvedi is similar to the title Haji, which represents a person who has been to Haj (holy Islamic pilgrimage). The only difference is that a Haji’s son does not automatically become a Haji but, somewhere in history, a Chaturvedi’s son retained the title of Chaturvedi, even without mastering the Vedas. And that is perhaps where the problem began – through deliberate attempts to acquire value attributes via association.
The location attribute based identity comes across as non-hierarchical but somewhere in history it seems to have triggered identity crisis. For instance, all the people who hail from a village called Taklakot (fictitious name of place to illustrate a real instance) carry the surname Taklakoti. This includes people from all castes backgrounds. The so-called upper castes did not like the idea of sharing surname with folks belonging to so-called lower castes. With migration, their location identity became irrelevant. What they wanted to carry with them, while migrating out, was not the location but their caste attribute. So most of the Brahmins stopped using the surname Taklakoti and switched over to common Brahmin surnames they relate with. A similar relatable example is that of Amitabh Bachchan. The family carries forward the pen name of Harivansh Rai ‘Bachchan’, who did not have a good opinion about his caste attribute, as evident in his autobiography (Dasdwar se sopaan tak). Hundred years from now the surname may represent a clan instead of a family and in some thousand years it may end up representing a ‘caste’ instead of a ‘clan’. Both these examples seem to suggest that surnames may not have been originally designed to exploit a status. And that they were changed in order to do away with associated value attributes. I think that trying to understand caste from these perspectives may help us decipher the matrix so that we can possibly move towards some lasting solutions.
In order to end the notion of caste, we not only need to stop carrying the historical baggage of caste but also refrain from creating new ones. As ‘labelling’ seems to be an intrinsic human trait, merely wishing away caste identity is not going to serve any purpose. Instead of being reactive, there is a need for proactive measures because we need to fundamentally challenge, as social beings, the way in which our mind is wired to work. And that is easier said than done.
In the current political landscape of the world, one of our core identities is our nationality. In case of India, nationality is a mere war cry because our democracy intrinsically thrives on various prevalent systems of identities. More than the core principles of democracy, it is these value associations that drive our choices. Even our military units thrive on regional, religious or caste pride. So deep are these associations that even voting for popular televised contests seems to happen along the lines of region, ethnicity, profession, etc.
In this whole discussion about caste, what we seem to ignore is that the moment we take pride in our lineage, culture, history, customs, language, profession… we somewhere start owning these associations as a part of our identity. We can very well stop at the stage of acknowledging an association but we choose to embrace it, thereby forging an alliance of identity with everyone else who embraces the association. By doing so, we end up contributing to the pool of shared identities which eventually engulf us. What we fail to see is that for something to be better; something else has to be lesser. Hence we end up ‘pushing’ someone down to feel good about ourselves.
Caste may have started off as an innocent identity tag for optimization of our social responses and engagements, but in the ‘modern civilized’ society it is mostly used as a tool to create a false, often superior, narrative of one’s being. Modern societies and its notion of growth and success seem to nourish some sort of hollowness within us which, in turn, creates an acute desire to feel unique and important. Identities like caste, class, region, religion and nation play a crucial role in filling this gap. They foster pseudo identities which we end up exerting in order to establish our ownership.
To sum it up, casteism is nothing but a growl, aggressive or defensive, of an animal called identity. If we truly want to address the issues of caste then we will have to address the issues of individual self-worth, which is deeply entangled with our modern day notions of success, happiness, brotherhood, power, security, and so on. While we look around for answers, it seems that the real answer lies deep within us!
This article is part of a series of ten essays through which one aims to understand this rather complex reality which we often tend to simplify. The articles written and published so far are as follows –
1. System of Caste – My brush with caste and reservation
2. System of Caste – Genesis and Anatomy
3. System of Caste – A matter of identity