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The caste quicksand
March 01, 2003
The caste wheel has come the full circle. Just two months into the new year and there have been three reservation rallies in Rajasthan demanding 15 per cent reservation for... Brahmins!
At the last such rally in Alwar earlier this month, a certain Rajesh Kumari listened to 30-odd speakers addressing a gathering of 30,000 and then proclaimed, 'I had no clue we Brahmins were being discriminated against so much.' And a student leader, Parvender Sharma, roared that 'like the Jats,' the Brahmins must 'take reservation with brute force.' (The Indian Express, Mumbai, February 2, 2003)
If the militant Brahmin finally arrived, it ought to be no surprise to the objective purveyor of the national scene that has evolved since the inception of the Constitution of India which, under Article 16(4), enabled the state to provide for reservation of jobs to backward citizens under various caste labels.
For decades till then and thereafter, the Brahmin sect of the Hindu community had been simultaneously envied and despised by huge numbers because of their blatant display of superiority complex in temple and temporal matters alike. It was characteristic of the then meek nature of the Hindus in general that while the Brahmin priests for long treated their non-Brahmin devotees with contempt, the devotees took it as a practice granted by tradition. So it was in schools or eating places or other walks of life. And so it is even now in many parts of India, the abolition of untouchability under the Constitution's Article 17 notwithstanding.
It is believed it was towards the end of the 19th century when, with British rule, that the Brahmins became dominant in India's social life, in the professions and in the beginnings of the nationalist movement.
It wasn't so earlier they say. On pages 29-30 of his book On Hinduism -- Reviews and Reflections (Voice of India, New Delhi, 2000), Ram Swarup, a giant in the field of comparative religion, says 'The old Hindu social system raised the lowest and treated even the Shudras like the Brahmins... In the old system, caste represented the principle of security and continuity; it represented the principle of vocation, of training, of excellence, of pride, of dedication; it represented the principle of co-operation, conciliation, culture and dignity; it was also a great centre of national power and national expression... A Vedic verse prays for lustre and light to reside "in our Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras"... Everyone was honoured.'
It is well known and indelibly recorded that it was Mahatma Gandhi who was dedicated to the uplift of the untouchable sections of the Hindu community whom he dubbed as Harijans. It is almost equally well known that it was Dr B R Ambedkar, another Hindu, whose commitment to the cause of the so-called Scheduled Caste and Tribes was such that he has today been accorded the status of an idol god in those classes of people who were long shunned by the rest of the Hindu community. However, it is largely unknown that that the specific battle against the Brahmins was pioneered by a man from what is now Tamil Nadu. He came to be known simply as 'Periyar,' a Tamil word meaning a sage or a wise man.
Now Periyar is nowhere the universal recognition attained by Gandhi and, to a lesser extent, by Ambedkar. But he is nevertheless a venerated man in south India today, even 30 years after his death.
History treatises apart, a compact and compelling account of Periyar's life and revolt against the Brahmins is given by V S Naipaul in his non-fiction India -- A Million Mutinies Now (Viking, 1998). And below is what the Nobel Laureate recorded there:
In all these years in the south and all other regions of India, various reservations for various citizens under the genus of 'backward classes' have spiralled, what with the political parties exploiting the device to create and retain vote banks. The newspapers are no less guilty though they should know better; 'Maharashtra's First Dalit CM' proclaim their headline, for instance, and never hesitating to analyse all electoral issues on the basis of caste and sub-caste. The allegedly liberal and intellectual Hindus say they abhor the caste tag but practise it nevertheless in daily living excepting when circumstances just don't permit it -- as when travelling in packed trains or public buses.
The tragic transformation in the ideological conditioning of the caste element from what it was once upon a time was best put in Ram Swarup's mournful sentence, 'Old India had castes but no casteists; new India has casteists but no worthwhile castes.' (ibid page 30).
It's a tragedy of modern India that it does not realise the dangerous consequences of this quicksand of caste. It's a quicksand that has simultaneously killed meritocracy and bred dangerous differences between one Hindu sect and another. Many among those who have benefited from the reservation policy have chosen to rest on their 'laurels' instead of raising the level of skills -- their own and those of their kin. Those meritorious who have lost out have pleaded helplessness, frustration and, now in Rajasthan, a militant attitude. It's altogether an unhappy situation. And it will become explosive if perverse politicians, overzealous in trying to win the vote of those it deems as underprivileged, extends the job reservation 'policy' to the private sector.
The legal way out is for a constitutional abolition of the entire reservation scheme. That, alas, is not going to happen in the near future, not even when the constitutional provision for reservation of seats in the state assemblies and Parliament (Article 334) comes to an end -- if at all -- in 2010 as per the Constitution (79th amendment) Act, 1999. Remember, there is no such time limit to the reservation of jobs set out in Article 16(4) cited earlier in this commentary.
That leaves us only with the moral way. It's the media which can show the way. If each and every member of our media decides to outlaw the word 'caste' from its lexicon, it will wither away from all public documents and discourses. It's really not difficult to do so once you set your mind to it. Remember, the 'fundamentalist' and 'fascist' RSS has done that among its fold of 10 million or so.
Meanwhile, the likes of Rajasthan's Parvender Sharma and Rajesh Kumari must not become desperate and lose heart. They would do well from what Kakusthan told Naipaul, 'As long as the world exists, Brahmins will always survive. Brahmins are indispensable to society.' The Kashmiri Pandits too will do well to remember those words.