Online edition of India's National Newspaper
Tuesday, September 25, 2001

Front Page | National | Southern States | Other States | International | Opinion | Business | Sport | Entertainment | Miscellaneous | Features | Classifieds | Employment | Index | Home

Features | Previous | Next

Caste, race and Durban conference

THE SUBJECT of caste has recently hit the headlines because of the enthusiasm shown by pressure groups at the Durban conference to treat it as one of racial discrimination. Suspicions have been voiced in India that there are political forces behind with hidden agendas pushing such gullible groups and their objective is to vilify India in any forum or occasion, justified or not. So it is relevant for us to know to what extent race is involved in caste.

The caste system in India has received attention from foreign travellers from early times. Megasthanes of the third century B.C. was probably the first to give an account. Hieun Tsang of the seventh century A.D. was another to give a reasonably detailed picture. It was the Portuguese who gave the name "casta" to the system in place of the locally prevalent term of Jati. Later on the researches of Indologists on Sanskrit linguistics might have sparked a racial theory but such a theory has been discredited since. It was only towards the end of the nineteenth century and during the twentieth century that the subject received proper scientific study when sociologists entered the field. Sociological studies are still continuing at micro-field level. But the framework of general conclusions is fairly discernible. It is the sociologists' views which are relevant in understanding caste but which, however, have been lost sight of in the midst of political din and fury. Some of the data and insights garnered by them are now brought before the public gaze.

Caste is said to be unique to India. It is not quite accurate. In far-off Bali island, where the population is 95 per cent Hindu, a caste system has been in existence for centuries based on the Indian one. There are four castes &151; Brahmana, Sattriya, Vaisya and Sudra. There are no sub-castes. There is no dalit caste either. There are no vegetarian castes. Beef is not taboo. Pork is a favoured dish. Intercaste marriages, though not common, do take place, the children being absorbed in the caste of the father. The people are of uniform ethnicity. Balinese Hinduism indicates that race and caste are not interconnected and that untouchability is not a necessary concomitant of a castiest society.

The case of Japan

Next let us take the case of Japan which had a caste system for a thousand years and remnants of which still survive. It is said that Buddhist monks from India were responsible for introducing such a hierarchical social organisation. However, the Japanese model was not an exact replica of the Indian one but was so designed as to meet its societal objectives. The first caste was of the princes and courtiers. They were few and had no effective role, and this caste was more honorific than otherwise practising refined luxurious living. The second in status was the samurai who was both a scholar and a warrior, a sort of Brahmmana- Kshatriya and who formed the governing caste. The farmer was the third. The farmer could at times be promoted and absorbed in the samurai caste depending on his talent and opportunities and luck. The trader was lower down. Though well to do in economic terms he was placed low because he was considered a parasite who did not directly contribute to the production of wealth but who only distributed what others had produced. Even in India, the trader did not occupy the first two slots. The conclusion is that economic exploitation is not the basis of the caste system.

As in India, there was another caste below the fourth one in Japan called Burakumin or Eta. Their position was the same as the Scheduled Caste. They had to live in segregated areas in the village. They could not travel during daytime. They were allotted only jobs like that of butcher, leather worker and executioner. However, their touch or near presence was not considered polluting necessitating a cleansing bath. Since this last humiliation has disappeared in India also there is now no difference between the dalits of India and the Etas of Japan.

During the Meiji era of transformation in the mid-Nineteenth century the caste system was officially abolished in Japan. The ground reality, however, was that only the first four dissolved their individual identities and merged. The Etas were kept where they were till the end of the Second World War. Some half-hearted attempts have since been made to eradicate discrimination but local prejudice has been high. Unlike India, Japan has not introduced any affirmative action but depends upon educating majority public opinion.

The mainstream Japanese and the Etas are both migrants to the Japanese islands from the Asian mainland through Korea and belong to the Mongol race. There is no ethnic difference worth the name. Yet there has been hierarchic stratification and discrimination belying the assumption of race being the cause of caste. The probable cause is attributed to the influence of Buddhist missionaries from India and their prejudice against animal slaughter, in other words to religious beliefs about cleanliness. This is contrary to the general feeling that Buddhism eschews caste. Buddha might have done so but not all his followers, if we go by the Japanese example.

The story of Japan does not end here. The island's original inhabitants were tribals called Ainus, a hirsute group of people, probably of Caucasian origin and racially different from the Mongolian stock of the mainstream. How they waded to this area through a sea of Mongol people is not known yet. Some have been absorbed and the rest have been pushed to the northern islands. There has been and still is discrimination against them and their numbers are dwindling. If there is discrimination on account of race, pure and simple, here it is.

Why this discrimination?

But at the Durban meet there was no noise about these people nor about the Etas, neither by the international do-gooders nor by any native pressure group from these communities. It was only India, which practises affirmative action on a large scale unlike any other country, which was sought to be put on the mat. Similarly, reams and reams have been written about India's social system and its inequities whereas Japan has been more or less left alone. Why is there this discrimination? Is it because that Japan is a wealthy power and a munificent donor to the many countries represented at Durban or is it because it was a closed society for long or is it because the positive reforms of India have given sufficient confidence to its dalits to stand up and shout unlike as in Japan? Or is there a hidden agenda, since an NGO mentions Kashmir and the Northeastern States of India as occupied territory but omits similar reference to Northern Ireland or Corscica or Gibralter or the Panama Canal or Baluchistan? Whatever may be the answers, the evolution and crystallisation of the Etas of Japan shows that race is not the basis for the formation of dalit groups.

It may be argued that the Balinese and Japanese systems are but derivatives and India is the original sinner. Even this is not quite accurate for India does not stand alone. There was a more elaborate system of seven castes in Ancient Egypt of the Pharaohs. The lowest was that of pigherdsmen against whom a mild form of untouchability was practised. No serious suggestion has been made that India copied its system from Egypt though an oblique reference has been made by Slater to such a possibility. But it is worth noting that Ancient Egypt was contemporaneous with the Indus Valley culture, that the former was a Mediterranean culture, that the Indus Valley people are said to be Mediterranean in their origin and that they were keen on cleanliness.

The Egyptian system died out with the arrival of Coptic Christianity and later of Islam. In India, on the other hand, the Christians of South India practise caste differentiation and the Muslims have developed a mild caste system of their own like Ashrafs and Ajlafs. What is unique about the Indian system is its extraordinary persistence.

Racial theories surfaced in the nineteenth century when scholars of linguistic studies discovered the affinity between Sanskrit and the European languages and noted that the Sanskrit description of the system was varna dharma. Varna in common parlance means colour and by extension the colour of the skin. So the theory enunciated was that the fair-skinned Sanskrit-speaking Aryan invaders introduced this hierarchical system after encountering the brown-skinned Dravidians and the dark pre- Dravidians and appropriated the top echelon for themselves. This theory was a superficial one and on the basis of other evidence some scholars set the beginning in pre-Aryan times. It does not even satisfactorily explain the system's colour scheme of white, red, yellow and dark for the four castes. The invading Aryans would have been warriors and why should they accept as their symbol the red approximating to the Dravidian brown and not white? How is the yellow colour given to the Vaisya explained. Yellow is the characteristic of the Mongol race whereas the varna system outlined in the Vedas pertains to the Punjab where there were no Mongol settlers at that time.

On the other hand, the orthodox explanation gives a better fit. Colour is only one of the meanings of varna. A more general meaning is description. For example, there are varnas composed in the Carnatic musical system and their purpose is to delineate the ragas and they have nothing to do with colour. Similarly the white, red, yellow and dark of varna dharma have nothing to do with the colour of the skin but are symbolic of work and attitudes prescribed for the four castes. To explain further, the Kshatriya takes part in warfare and sheds blood and so his symbol is red. The Vaisya collects wealth and gold and so yellow, the colour of gold, is his symbol. The Brahmin's duty is to lead a pure life of austerity and spirituality and be an example to others in that direction and so white, standing for purity, is his symbol. The Sudra who was denied access to knowledge was given the dark colour, the opposite of the light of knowledge.

Another misconception

So much for racial theories. Let us now move to another aspect where also misconceptions have gained undue hold. It is said that the caste system is no more than one of economic exploitation of lower castes by upper castes. The conclusion of the sociologists is quite different. They see it as less exploitative in the economic field than other systems prevalent in the past or even in the present. The popular misconception has arisen because there is no social equality in the system. The concept of equality came up only at the time of the American and French Revolutions. Before that there was feudalism in the West based on inequalities. The American innovation of equality and liberty has led to capitalism (with some help from slavery) where profit is the main motive and human considerations are at best marginal. In both feudalism and the subsequent development there is class if not caste resulting in economic inequalities and hence in exploitation and social tensions.

Jajmani system

The Indian caste system whose social framework was evolved in an agricultural background, simultaneously developed a concomitant distributive system called the jajmani system. Here every group in the village has to be given a share of the agricultural produce. The shares may not be equal but nobody is to be left out. Even the professional beggar and the professional thief get their shares. Referring to this procedure, the great French sociologist Louis Dumont writes, "In a market economy all buyers and sellers are identical, each after his own profit and needs are adjusted unconsciously by the market mechanism. But here the majority of relationships are personal and the organisation is oriented towards the satisfaction of the needs of all those who enter into the system of relationship. In one case the reference is to the individual pursuing his own gain, in the other reference is to hierarchical collectivity. In short the caste system should be seen as less exploitative than a democratic society. If modern man does not see it that way he no longer sees justice other than as equality."

Evidence for the jajmani system being more equitable comes from elsewhere too. There had been no peasant rebellions in India whereas they had occurred in feudal Europe and even in egalitarian China where there was centralised governance. Centralisation of power sometimes leads to tyranny and to rebellions in reaction. Apart from the jajmani distribution another social security net provided was that the eviction of tenants and agricultural workers was not permissible according to traditional values. Other virtues seen in the system by sociologists are that the system was a cooperative one because the parts, though unequal, were mutually interdependent, that as a consequence there was more social stability and less of tensions than elsewhere, that there was decentralisation of powers through caste councils functioning in an atmosphere of direct democracy, that dispensation of justice was quick and inexpensive at the village level, that caste councils acted as bulwarks against government tyranny.

If there are so many virtues why has the Indian system evoked hostility and revulsion? There are two reasons. One is that it can function best in a stagnant economy where there is no sustained thrust towards technical creativity and innovation. More importantly it is pervaded by the concept of pollution resulting in a fifth varna of untouchability and even unseeability. This concept of pollution which results in segregation and in heaping humiliations on a set of people on account of their birth is the evil feature which overwhelms all the useful features because it is morally degrading.

There is no mention of a fifth varna in the Vedic scriptures or in the Gita. Even the Manusmriti prescribes only four though it alludes to the existence of a fifth. Some sociologists feel that this concept of pollution predates the formation of the caste system but has later got inextricably intertwined with it. Dumont, on the other hand, feels that Hinduism is obsessed with ideas of purity and that it is inevitable that it has evolved a social hierarchy based on a purity-impurity nexus. Though Jainism and Buddhism rose as casteless sects, their emphasis on values like non-injury, vegetarianism and revulsion at animal slaughter is said to have intensified this great divide in the caste structure.

The concept of pollution is based on a superstitious fear that persons or a group of them may possess some non-material power pervading their bodies, which will cause harm or damage to others. Hocart, a nineteenth century anthropologist, has pointed out that a similar concept prevailed in Fiji and the Polynesian islands. The Polynesian manifestation, however, is in the reverse direction though the principle is the same. There the chiefs are held to possess some power in their bodies which can cause harm to ordinary people and so they were segregated and could not be approached except by a few. Food prepared for them cannot be used for others. The Polynesians are a brown race and a theory about their origin is that they hail from the coast of South India and moved in the remote past to Polynesia through Indonesian and Fijian coasts in outrigger canoes, which are similar to catamarans. A brown race and a South Indian coast makes one think of South India as a starting point or a staging post for pollution concepts but no firm conclusions have been drawn.

No longer valid

Coming down from the past aeons to present times the repeated statements made that the upper castes are oppressing the dalits are no long valid, for the simple reason that land reforms have made the upper castes lose their rural base and become urban- oriented, as part of the clerical proletariat and knowledge workers. Discrimination based on pollution concepts cannot be practised in the overcrowded urban milieu. The upper castes are also more educated and enlightened and less superstitious now than before. On the other hand land reforms have benefited the backward classes who as tenants have inherited the landed property of the former owners. According to Prof. Srinivas the backward classes were always the dominant castes in the countryside because of their numbers, their leaders appropriating the Kshatriya role as zamindars and dominating local politics. Even the Brahmin was only a service caste though a respected one. With land reforms giving them more landed wealth, the backward castes have become even more dominant in the countryside and their political clout has spread to legislatures and Parliament. It is they who refuse to give the dalits equal status in the countryside. Being rural based they are less modern, less enlightened and more attached to the old traditions of lording it over the dalits. Thus the present problem is no longer a problem of upper castes versus lower castes, but of lower castes versus still lower castes in the hierarchical table. The political power equation is in favour of the former in a democratic setup because of their numbers and voting potential. Against this force stand the dalits who have more confidence than before and are better organised in asserting their rights. Violent clashes are inevitable unless government intervenes with new policies to restore the balance in favour of dalits and this it has to do in spite of the formidable political clout of the BC groups and do it quickly.

Affirmative action

The current kind of affirmative action has changed attitudes in towns and cities. But reservation quotas and faster promotion in the corridors of power in New Delhi or Chennai has no significance in the countryside where power resides with the landowner and the policeman. A new kind of affirmative action can be designed taking these ground realities into account, by transferring more land to the dalits and by recruiting more dalits to the police force. Some ideas:

Whenever a piece of land comes up for sale, the state should purchase it in the same way as the Income Tax Department takes over some buildings registered for sale and auctions them. The state should transfer it to a BPL dalit on a mortgage basis to be cleared in about 15 years.

For the next 50 years the entire reservation of the lower ranks of the police up to the level of sub-inspectors should be given to the dalits. The extra jobs which the dalits may get may be compensated by giving up their quota in the teaching profession. In a knowledge oriented world with intense international competition right knowledge should be imparted by the right teachers. Teaching is not a profession for reservation but for merit. The earlier dereservation starts in this field the better it is for the economy.

V. RAMANATHAN

Former General Manager,

Indian Railways

Send this article to Friends by E-Mail


Section  : Features
Previous : Memories of 'Manikodi'
Next     : Dalits and Durban

Front Page | National | Southern States | Other States | International | Opinion | Business | Sport | Entertainment | Miscellaneous | Features | Classifieds | Employment | Index | Home

Copyright © 2001 The Hindu

Republication or redissemination of the contents of this screen are expressly prohibited without the written consent of The Hindu