If you go back to the 1950s or 1960s scholars would be talking about caste with the assertion that this institution of caste must go away… Despite the particular methodological framework from which these scholars spoke or despite their diverse ideologies, they seemed to share this one idea: in the long run caste will disappear, caste must go away.
Today we are talking about how to preserve caste. This is a terrible thing to be faced with. It is as if the system of learning in the social sciences has almost gone one full circle. And this is something I want you to think about very seriously. Today we are faced with a situation where it is being suggested to us that caste is important.
Let me just tell you why I think caste as an institution must come to an end.
Firstly, caste is a pre-modern institution that is seeking to re-run, rejuvenate, adapt, in the modern world and as a result it is running into huge problems. India is not the only society that has a system like this -- China had caste. Europe had a caste system. They came out of it. They didn’t try to deify it and valorise it. Today the core category for them is that of citizens. Ranade and others in India were actually making the argument that we needed a social revolution. But there never was one and as a result, we just carried our baggage of caste lock, stock and barrel into modernity.
Secondly, caste is a closed system of hierarchy, a closed institution. You might try to go up or down but the fact of the matter is that it is always your birth that seems to suggest to you what particular caste you are. And this is a terrible, terrible indictment of a system that refuses to imagine that people can overcome the positions or disadvantages that their birth might have offered them.
Thirdly caste is an institution that promotes social exclusion. I’m all the time working out ways in my mind of how to protect my caste identity. To do that I must constantly engage myself in all sorts activities that promote a sense of “you and me are not the same.” Yes, we sit together and talk together, but we are not the same. And we promote exclusion in very sophisticated ways…
Fourthly, caste is basically a way of undermining a human being in terms of their status as a human being. And this is the most crippling condition that we live with in Indian society. Let’s just think for a while about the pervasiveness of this phenomenon, how does it represent itself to us? (And caste is not a conspiracy; it is very much a part and parcel of our society. I firmly believe that the day we as Indians, especially young people, can reflect and critically interrogate this phenomenon, then there is a possibility that we can overcome it.)
But I would like to show you how we can carry with us images, self-representations and collective representations of caste...
Look at how naturally we accept that there is somebody who comes and cleans our toilets every day in the morning. Have you ever thought of that? We use those toilets and we use those bathrooms, without even a single moment something crossing our mind saying “Who cleaned this today?” There’s someone cleaning toilets up at Rashtrapati Bhavan too and that fellow is an untouchable, somebody who is seen as unclean.
Gandhi made it clear to all the inmates of the Wardha ashram that you manage your own shit, learn to manage your own dirt. Nobody remembers this about Gandhi today. Nobody remembers that Gandhi was telling these caste men that your problem is at the level of your psychology. Change that. That was Gandhi’s message but we so comfortably kept it aside.
Each of us are embodiments of caste consciousness. How? Each of us has been socialized in systems of exclusion. From the time we are born, the larger group around us is basically socializing us into the consciousness of caste. And before you know it, we are told – “Don’t speak to that person, don’t go with that person, and don’t go into that area.” – and it is so amazing that this socialization of caste happens so casually. We are talking about an institution that is embedded in us when we are so defenceless, as children. How can we as mothers and fathers bring up children in a world where there is no caste? This to me is the greatest project that we can take up.
I want you now to think of how education reproduces caste. If you look at sociology as a discipline, for example, we have so skilfully constructed a discourse that is always about the ‘other’. Right from the time you learn about sanskritisation in 1st year of junior college you learn about sociology as a study of ‘the other’. If I speak about caste, I will always speak of caste as the other, there. So caste is in Aurangabad, caste is in Bihar. Here, I’ll keep quiet, because you see, what we each of us do as scholars, as teachers, as students is that we very skilfully separate the private and public domains of caste discourse. So in public I will speak about caste as something that must be done away with, that caste is bad. In private, I’ll try to work out how to get my daughter married to a member of the same caste. And I’m doing this whether I’m a Dalit or a non-Dalit. Why? Because I want to reproduce caste…
Caste is a form of capital. It is not just somebody parading out their identity. One can actually achieve benefits out of caste. And I’m not only talking about reservation benefits – that is perhaps the most obvious thing. For example, have you ever figured out how caste works in a marketplace? It is amazing how it is possible for a community to control a particular kind of trade in such a way that an outsider will never enter. And if he does, he will not succeed. The caste system helps to corner resources… When a certain caste person becomes, for example, an IAS officer, others feel “now our man is there, we’ve got entry there”. Caste as capital basically shows how an entire opportunity structure comes to get constructed around the caste identity.
This brings me to the next point which is talking about caste as an ideology. Caste as an ideology has two kinds of developments that seem to go parallel. When the upper castes talk about caste as an ideology, it is caste as a represented in the world of the private. At the level of the lower castes, caste is always a public announcement in which the lower castes have always been placing caste ‘out there’ as an object of interrogation.
If you look at the journey caste has gone through from the 1920s onwards when Ambedkar was talking about that famous work of his, Annihilation of Caste, we’ve had movements that lower castes have taken up to fight against caste. And I’ve often wondered to myself when lower caste people fight against caste and attack caste are they doing it because they want to eradicate caste, or are they doing it because they want to belong to an upper caste?
And I must say with a lot of reservation, in India the Dalit movement has been hijacked by those who believe that they can emancipate themselves of caste by using caste. And I think there’s a terrible dilemma here and that dilemma basically is that once you work with a category of caste, it becomes very difficult now to think of a language of modernity. Which is why I started with the assertion that caste is a pre-modern institution. A language of modernity is a language of universals, and the moment I start to say only Mahars, only Chamars, only Mangs, I am actually reproducing the very same structures of oppression that I’m trying to fight.
There is this persistent attempt on the part of caste identity to reinvent itself in a discourse of emancipation, but the very moment of its reinvention is also the moment of its betrayal. We might have a dalit, one day, who might stand up and say look we don’t want this reservation, stop it, stop treating us like victims, we’re not victims -- that would be a moment of great emancipation.
Why have we arrived at the situation where we are now almost at home with the idea of preserving caste? We are not incensed, disturbed or outraged anymore. And I think that the answer to this lies in the fact that we have today in the 21st century, in an era of globalization, we have been successful in creating an ideology of caste that is at home with the idea of globalization and liberalization. Ironically, because of liberalisation, caste and class have got merged. We are not a class society as yet, we are still a caste society. Take the IT sector – there’s a film on the Bangalore IT industry that shows lower caste people very happy with their jobs, but there is still caste consciousness in the workplace.
And just as we are unable to develop a critical engagement in globalization, we are likewise unable to engage with a critical engagement of caste. And we carry on as if everything is normal, as if everything is okay. But it’s not. Because every so often we get this terrible outburst like what happened in Khairlanji, that reminds us how barbaric and how pre-modern we all are.
During the caste upheavals of the 70s there were so many young people engaging with this issue of what is caste. The Yuva Kranti Dal, Lal Nishan etc. But at the end of this period, the BJP came up and suddenly the biggest issue confronting all Indians was not caste, but how do we protect our secularism. But please, just go back to the history of the 70s, the mid-60s, you’ll find some amazing stories, some amazing experiments that were going on with youth leaders, and radicals and people working in the rural areas, so don’t think answers are not there, it’s there. You need to rediscover a language of modernity again. Once we do that, we can begin to explore our past, and our traditions and without linking it to this exclusivist conception of ‘mine, not yours.’