20 April 2011

On Caste

I don’t think caste is such a bad thing. Of course, it’s problematic to say so, not the least because the very idiom in which we talk of caste and caste based discrimination is replete with connotations of derogation and extremism, but still, fact remains that caste based discrimination, both as a concept and as a social reality, is nuanced way beyond the narrow confines of the general understanding of the matter.

How? Well, first of all, discrimination in itself: what is so bad, so hugely taboo about discrimination? Like all others, the word means many things, some of them all at once at the same time. To argue that discriminate connotes discretion is, of course, not to argue in favour of caste based discrimination as we generally understand it to be, but it is still to add a spectrum of possibilities to the word, the process – and these not necessarily adverse to any particular person or persons’ welfare and well being. After all, discrimination, with all its paraphernalia of functionality and utility, with the implied sense of order and structure, is the foundational premise of nature and of humanity; not just this, discrimination is also the premise of equality, not just the cause which makes it desirable but also the basis on which it is conceived and organised – for, again, what is equality without an order, a structure, and how may these be had sans discrimination?

To argue that discrimination per se is bad, to talk thus in black and white, is then to be naively in the mould of the post-enlightenment, rationalised and so-called progressive realm of social aspiration, a discourse which has provided millions much food for thought and which continues, hypothetically at least, as the end of much of human activity today. Within this discourse equality and equity stand strong as the operative concepts which, though consistently interpreted differently, have yet inspired much idealism and fervour over the last two hundred or so years and still continue to be the stuff dreams of countless well-meaning, make-it-a-better-world people’s dreams are made of. Discrimination, being one of those things one likes to associate with feudalism and all that was, is and could be bad with humanity, naturally finds no place in the overall schemata of these dreams.

Yet, dreams too require a certain amount of discrimination; or, to put it otherwise, the stuff such equity-equality utopian dreams are made of too involves discrimination at some level. That level, indeed, may be such that causes the least possible discomfort or inconvenience to the least number of people, but the fact would remain that at the semantic level, it would be discrimination still.

Which, in short, is my point about caste based discrimination: when I say it’s not too bad, instead of referring to the active prejudice and handicap which it imposes and in a way necessitates, I think of its import, of what it means and has meant as a concept and as a way of life to all of us who are Hindu or of Hindu origin. I think of caste as a cultural artefact that has been the marker of so many of our Hindustani people’s identity.

This is where it gets tricky and, of course, subjective. I can say caste is not so bad because my baggage is not a bit as heavy as of those who’ve been at the receiving end. Of course, that it’s not and that I can think of caste without my blood boiling at the oppression enforced upon zillions has got something to do with both my placement in the hierarchy and my own inclinations, but that still doesn’t take away from the fact that my subjective opinion on and experience of the matter, presented so and not in any way claimed otherwise, is of note. Not, indeed, as of those who wish to end oppression and who in acting tangibly and working for the so-called greater good needs must couch their subjectivity on the matter in the objective idiom of the post-enlightenment and blah-blah society, as of one who, given a certain origin and placement, can afford to be against such discrimination as curtails the making available of equal opportunities to all and still not dismiss caste and caste based discrimination, having in doing so a certain nostalgia for those nuances of caste which make up one’s identity as both an individual and a community.

Yes, a certain nostalgia for caste.

Why not? The experiences of those who’ve suffered apparently and tangibly, though infinitely more worthy of comment when empowering the marginalised and considering programmes for social justice, cannot totally make redundant the experiences of those who have not to the same degree and manner. Which is why if I feel caste in the Hindu and Hindu origin context has a certain cultural capital and that the memories we have of ourselves as castes are endangered by discourses which completely seek to do away with it, then I have as much of a right to feel so as someone who, like me, is against caste based discrimination and who, unlike me, feels caste as a basis for social organisation, as a concept, as a memory, should be erased from our cultural consciousness for good. Indeed, I will perhaps be more justified in saying that. For starters, the ills of the past cannot be wished away and then, even if we were to somehow forget them, we cannot forget that evil for one is not evil for all. Not evil for all, yes, but also not evil in the way that makes evil subjective in a typical oppressor-oppressed relationship.

Which, ultimately, is my point on caste and caste based discrimination. It’s an evil and by far not a necessary evil; yet it is part of those forces which make so many of us what we are and being so, it constitutes an undeniably important part of our identities. Besides this, and which is a bit more important to me here, it provides the basis for so many of our cultural artefacts, particularly intangible artefacts which, as stories, anecdotes and proverbs, are threatened by the zealous condemnation of all those in favour of a caste free cultural consciousness. To condemn and work against active discrimination is all very right and proper; to negate the centrality of the cultural background of such discrimination too is important. But to totally deny and to wish to fully erase the memory of all is, in the final analysis, not just redundant – after all, if we don’t remember what our equality has been achieved against, then the achievement won’t seem worth half the effort – but also dangerously unfair to the rights of those who think otherwise.\

Which is why I say caste is not such a bad thing at all.

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