System of Caste – Genesis and Anatomy

In order to understand the issue of caste it is important that we zoom out a bit and discuss the legacy and context of caste oppression. Human history, and present, seems to suggest that the casteism is more of a rule than being an exception.

Sometimes people ask, rather innocently, why the issue of caste is clubbed with racism, patriarchy, communalism, etc. Even the political discourse seems to promote the association, though selectively. The reason is pretty straightforward. It is about the coming together of people at the receiving end – subject to similar thought processes.

Though racism, patriarchy, communalism, etc. are different classifications, they are essentially similar to casteism. They all are systems of oppression in which a class believes in its superiority and exerts the same. Such superiority is often legitimized by myths, rituals and popular belief systems. And at the core of all of them is the need to accumulate and exert power.

Historically, power was about survival. Clans and kingdoms fought for resources, often veiled as the need to exert moral and cultural supremacy. This basic instinct did not fade away even with the advent of modern nation states. After all the building block of modern nation states too are traditional societies which still think and acts like ancient warring tribes. Everything finally boils down to superiority of identity, lust for power and desire to subjugate.

What we are taught about in history books is the history of kingdoms and wars. There is no place for ‘people’ in the popular historical discourse. But if one was to visualize a village of an ancient society, it comes across as a fairly self-sufficient community. Unlike today, children must not have nourished dreams of being someone other than the people they see around them. Most of the people would have known to do most of the things. During sowing season everyone must have become farmers and during an enemy attack everyone would have become soldiers. Most of the people would have known how to handle material, make stuff, hunt, cook, and so on. They would ‘found’ their Gods in their hills and forests, in plants and animals, in nature and all its elements. They would have had conversations with their Gods until someone came and told them rather forcefully that they were doing it the wrong way.

In such a society children would have learned stuff from their family members. Most of the stuff would have been about survival skills. This must have gone on for year’s altogether. In such societies, families were the true gurukuls until gurukuls, as we know them, came into being and conceptualized pedagogy. While pedagogy may have been established claiming it to be something superior and/or desirable, in reality it turned out to be a pretty dangerous device. It slowly snatched away the ability of a community to think and decide for itself. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Once power equations are established, nepotism and favouritism creep in pretty easily. Irrespective of what people say, everyone wants it easy. And once the society of haves and have-nots gets established, the haves never want to give away their privilege. That perhaps is the genesis of caste. No matter what one may like to believe, it seems fairly obvious that caste system was born out a need to maintain power. Exerting power for maintenance of power was an obvious outcome. And then some ‘bright’ minds must have conceived the idea of using stories to sustain power. And stories are a very powerful tool.

Similar stories are used to further the concept of racism, patriarchy, communalism, etc. which are nothing more than weapons for maintaining the status quo of power equations. In the modern context, the same power manifests itself as the power of identity. All that a privileged person has to do to belittle someone’s underprivileged status, past or present, to exert the supremacy of their identity, often confined in one or two words. I firmly believe that such exertions are weapons of weak people. Sadly, as a society we are more about weak people than about strong souls.

Talking about racism, it is not just about being of a certain ‘inferior’ colour. It is about all physical differentials. So deeply embedded are these notions that in spite of being ancient inhabitants of India, lot of Indian citizens are regularly targeted for their unique facial features. Everyone dark skinned is labelled as a lowly being. Most people belonging to certain religious belief systems are perceived as reactive people who kill in the name of God. This idea of a monolithic society where everyone needs to be physical and mental clone of each other is the abyss of mankind. And we seem to be in love with that thought.

Just as it is hard to find a girl who has not been eve teased or gropped, it is hard to find someone with an underprivileged status who has not been subjected to racist, classist, casteist or gender slurs. It is often claimed that it happens unknowingly, with no harm intended. But that is not true. Like it or not, it is a manifestation of our mental conditioning that we do not have the guts to do away with. If one is serious about not falling for these notions of discrimination, there is no option but to put in the extra effort needed to remove the rust. No wonder people at the receiving end react angrily. Sometimes the anger gets manifested but most of the times it simmers inside and becomes a chronic hyper sensitive sore – not just giving pain but impairing judgments, leading to further misunderstandings.

There is another interesting perspective that proves how deep this malice is. Many people who supposedly do not practice casteism in their modern lifestyles, fail to stick to their ideology when they visit their native places or during family reunions. They maintain stoic silence when they witness the practice within their family and friend circles claiming, “What can I do? Personally I do not believe in all this shit!”. Well, that is an easy way out to absolve oneself of any burden. Old and deep wounds need lot of time and effort to heal and such proclamations are nothing short of supporting the belief system. We need to understand that when a force exists, it can be nullified only through application of opposite force. In this scenario silence is neither a virtue nor a solution. Silence is nothing but tacit support.

What this also proves is that people really do not understand the meaning of privilege. The ability to get health care facility in a private hospital, to send a child for coaching for college admissions, to teach one’s child in a private professional college, get job through reference, leverage entrance exam rank or college name even decades after graduation or post graduation – they all are some sort of privileges. The ability to live in a gated colony is a privilege. Ability to speak a foreign language in a prevalent accent is a privilege. To look like and conduct oneself like the majority is a privilege. To consume natural resources without getting displaced for it is a privilege. To think of it, the sheer ability to think beyond one’s basic needs itself is a privilege.

And with every privilege comes judgment and justification. If one was to delve deeper, all these are nothing short of us-and-them kind of equations. In order to understand the anatomy of caste we do not need to visit a Dalit neighbourhood. Identifying and understanding one’s own privileges offers well enough view of the anatomy and how it manifests itself and thrives in our daily actions.

I strongly believe that the root cause of casteism or patriarchy or any such system is not discrimination but privilege. It is an effort to sustain one’s position with minimal effort. It is a basic instinct. Hence it cannot go away just because we wish that it goes away. Frankly, we who talk of privileges are ourselves not willing to do away with the same. Calling it a basic minimum, we tend to carry on. And so is carried the legacy of discrimination because privilege is after all a relative construct.

In the same context it would be worthwhile to understand that when we champion various causes, we often end up fighting over a noun. Don’t call me a Harijan! Don’t use the word Dalit! Don’t call me a female! Don’t call me a Bhotia! And so on. I think there is some sort of nothingness in that fight because the changed name would soon start to imply the same that we had wanted to erase through a name change. Sometimes this name changing business comes across as a ploy to keep people busy, asking for a change which does not really imply any change so that the business continues to usual.

Likewise, we also get entangled in the discourse of replacing a system. What we fail to realize is that replacing a system of privilege with something else is not a solution. Replacing Dalit oppression with Dalit supremacy is not a solution. Replacing patriarchy with matriarchy is not a solution. Replacing majoritarianism with minoritarianism is not a solution. We all know pretty well that when the proletariat replaced the bourgeois, only the name and beneficiaries changed. The hierarchies of power stayed on.

So if there is a solution then it exists in dismantling the systems of privilege and not in altering, replacing or renaming them. Remedial measures will always be remedies. They cannot act as solutions. And the first step towards a solution is the answer to the most pertinent and challenging question– Are we, as individuals and groups, ready for change? And are we willing to be that change?

This article is part of a series of essays written 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

4. System of Caste – A hierarchical worldview

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4 Responses

  1. Prashant says:

    Nicely put… I think the evolution of caste and class is rooted in the kind of economy we were. Classes were determined on the livestock ownership when we were herders and shepherds, later on the basis of land ownership when we became agrarian; and now in the iron age on the basis of factories, houses and bank balance… With concentration of assets, a few classes transformed into so called elite castes with identity politics getting attached. Ever wondered what happened to the folks who had no assets but were actually the crucial service providers of those times; the cobbler, the weaver, the potter, the janitor, the landless farm laborers, etc? Surprisingly many of them got stamped as as the backwards. But these are specialist and highly remunerated professional services at many places in the world. I feel the so called wealth or asset concentration would corrupt any society for that matter where a few would love to secure the continuity of their hegemony…. The politics-wealth-power cycle…the unending nexus…

  1. October 4, 2021

    […] ***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 reservation2. System of Caste – Genesis and Anatomy […]

  2. February 11, 2022

    […] are as follows –1. System of Caste – My brush with caste and reservation2. System of Caste – Genesis and Anatomy3. System of Caste – A matter of […]

  3. December 3, 2022

    […] are as follows –1. System of Caste – My brush with caste and reservation2. System of Caste – Genesis and Anatomy3. System of Caste – A matter of identity4. System of Caste – A hierarchical […]

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