The Caste Non-System

It is only recently that Hindus are discovering that the terms of discussion for Indic practices have been conducted for the last few centuries primarily based on Western terms, standards and nomenclature. It is only in the last decade or so that Hindus have started looking at themselves through their own eyes and worldview, rather than blindly accepting what non-Hindus have perceived their culture to be. Among all their practices, if there one nomenclature that has been blindly accepted most by Hindus without any debate is: The Caste System. This article does not debate the merits and demerits of Caste and its origins (since it has been documented thousands of times and is available everywhere over the internet), but it solely focuses on the name under which it is commonly known, because as we shall see, nomenclature means a lot.

If you are lost somewhere, and are looking for directions, and a passerby tells you: “Go ½ a mile, make a right, then go another mile and you will see a big tree next to Idiot Ivan’s house, make a left and go straight.”. Then you start following directions and get lost again. You ask another passerby and she says: “No. You need to make a right at Idiot Ivan’s house. Not a left”. You continue, and yet are lost. You ask another man, and while he is talking, you notice that his mailbox says: “Ivan”. You completely switch your mind off, because you already have assumed him to be an idiot, since two people have called him that. He must be the village idiot, you think to yourself, and completely ignore his directions.

Naming is everything. Especially for discourse regarding common human behavior, it sets the playing field for discourse, and the name may be a deciding factor between who wins and loses the debate. A specific phrase search for “Caste System” under Google yields one Million+ results!

Before continuing, I would like to point out the impetus behind this article. Recently, Indian PM Manmohan Singh (who is not a Hindu) made a blunder when he said at a conference to highlight social and caste-system injustices in predominantly Hindu India: The discrimination faced by low-caste Hindus in India is similar to the suffering of blacks under apartheid in South Africa…The only parallel to the practice of untouchability was apartheid”.

Predictably the international press picked on to this cue, and sure enough the India baiters came out of the woodwork and issued their press releases: “International scrutiny is growing and with it the condemnation of abuses resulting from the caste system and the government’s failure to protect Dalits,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. A resolution passed by the European Parliament on February 1, 2007 found India’s efforts to enforce laws protecting Dalits to be “grossly inadequate”…

International organizations have smelt blood, and are warning of serious consequences. The only entity predictably which is defending India, is, predictably, the BJP which realizes that Manmohan’s stand is polar opposite to the stand taken during the World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001, when India had resolutely refused to allow a discussion on caste-based oppression. The government had steadfastly maintained, in the face of criticism from Dalit rights groups and NGOs, that notions based on caste are entirely different from race as a concept.

None of the Indian newspapers are making India’s point. No one wants to hold the proverbial bull by its horns and call a spade a spade. It behooves us ordinary Hindus to defend ourselves with nothing but a computer and our intellect, because this is an ideological war that we must win.

By no means is this article an attempt to rationalize many injustices that the lower castes in India face regularly: rapes, looting, killing and other forms of discrimination abound and must be eradicated. However, as I would like to point out, these injustices exist because the problem has been misdiagnosed, starting with its name. If we redefine the problem, then the solution could become much clearer. The Government of India is trying its best to solve this problem for the last sixty years, but without any success. Indeed, it is becoming apparent that the problem in rural areas is growing worse. The more money and resource the Government and NGO’s pump in, the bleaker the results look. It is clear that the point of diminishing returns has been reached. Could they be barking up the wrong tree?

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Let’s first look at what a System is. The Wikipedia definition says: System (from Latin systēma, in turn from Greek σύστημα systēma) is a set of entities, real or abstract, comprising a whole where each component interacts with or is related to at least one other component and they all serve a common objective.

Does caste actually belong to this category?

Let’s look at an example of a system, say, the nervous system. Turning again to Wikipedia: The nervous system … coordinates the activity of the muscles, monitors the organs, constructs and also stops input from the senses, and initiates actions. Prominent participants in a nervous system include neurons and nerves, which play roles in such coordination.

Another example for a computer system: A computer system is the combination of hardware and software. A typical computer system has memory and set of states that define the relationship between the systems inputs and outputs.

Some (but not all) of the criteria for something to be termed a System are:

  • There is either a central authority that monitors and controls its subordinates or a decentralized authority that controls and monitors each of the sub-components with it. Eg: Brain is the central authority of a nervous system (and spinal cord a sub-authority). Heart is the central authority of the respiratory system. Stomach is the central authority of the digestive system.
  • Every component of a system has a specific purpose and it can play no other role or change its behavior. (Nerves can only carry information. to and from the brain. Arteries can only carry blood from the heart. Intestines can push food only in one direction.)
  • All similar components of a system are expected to behave uniformly. (The nerves in your finger tip have exactly the same behavior as those in your forehead)
  • Any part of the system which does not function as defined is immediately ejected from the system or punished otherwise. (A blood vessel which clots or erupts is immediately caught and ejected from your body)

Since Manmohan Singh likened Caste to Apartheid, let us first determine if the latter is indeed a System. From the Wikipedia definition: “Apartheid (meaning separateness in Afrikaans cognate to English apart and -hood) was a system of racial segregation that was enforced in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. Apartheid was designed to form a legal framework for continued economic and political dominance by people of European descent

Even going through some of the basic characteristics of Apartheid convinces one of the fact that Apartheid indeed was a system, because it was well, systematic. There was a central authority (South African government) which passed laws and enforced them to create and maintain the system of discrimination. The different organs of the system had specific roles to play: There were white judges who were appointed specifically to try cases against non-white people who violated laws. There were lawyers specializing in that discipline. The system was implemented uniformly, that is, a non-white person who was caught on a white-only beach was fined exactly the same amount of money in all parts of the country. No part of the system was allowed to deviate from its designed behavior, that is, a liberal white person who ran a restaurant could not violate the government policy and seat his non-white patrons along with his white customers. The system was backed by the force and dictat of State.

Now let’s see if Caste indeed has some of the basic characters that are needed to classify it as a system. Is there a central authority which decides what the rules are for Caste, what the punishment for violating those rules is? No. (People often erroneously quote the ManuSmriti, a book which has not been referred by any Hindu for the last few Millennia. The number of Hindus who carry ManuSmriti in their homes is about the same as customers in Ford dealerships in Japan).

Do all the participants in Caste behave uniformly? Does a lower caste person get treated exactly the same way in Mumbai as in rural India? No. Does an upper caste person in Kerala treat a lower caste person similar to what happens in Bengal? No. I have relatives who have arranged inter-caste marriages. I have other relatives who have only grudgingly accepted their children’s inter-caste marriages. Yet other people I know have completely stopped speaking to their children who went against their wishes to marry inter-caste. And a few even tried to have their children killed. There is no uniformity.

Do all similar lower-caste people perform the same work? Are people from the sheep-herder caste in Karnataka sheep-herders? Or are they politicians, doctors and engineers as well? Are people of cobbler caste in UP all cobblers? Or do they work in offices, restaurants and theaters?

Are all violators of Caste treated similarly? Aren’t there weddings where people of all castes eat together and everyone accepts that? Aren’t there marriages where many upper-caste invitees bring their own food, all the time chiding the organizers of violating the caste codes? Aren’t there marriages where many upper-caste relatives threaten the bride and groom’s parents to have separate eating halls for themselves or else they would not attend the wedding?

There is no uniform way Caste relations are conducted in India. It differs not only from caste to caste, but also region to region, state to state, from one economic class to another, town to town. Indeed, it varies from individual to individual. Hence, it cannot be termed as a system. There is a word in the English dictionary for this: Culture. As Wikipedia says: “Most general, the term culture denotes whole product of an individual, group or society of intelligent beings.” This describes the notion of caste perfectly.

The correct terminology to use is: The Caste Culture. Unfortunately, a search for “Caste Culture” on Google yields seventeen thousand results, out of which almost all yield results with the phrase “Caste, Culture” – the comma in the middle indicating that they are two separate things.

Similarly, many other ills of India are not systems, but cultures. For E.g.: It is not a dowry system, but a dowry culture. But that’s a separate discussion for another day.

Why does this terminology matter? Because once you specify it to be a culture, then the whole notion of what it is changes completely. Solutions to ills that are caused by a system can only be eradicated by an opposing system. E.g.: Apartheid was eradicated only by international sanctions from various states. However, solutions to ills that are caused by a culture can only be eradicated by a superior culture. Hence, Caste cannot be eradicated by the Government, NGO’s specializing in Caste, or international outcry. Caste can only be eradicated by changing the culture of the populace. Its solution lies in identifying the root causes that manifest themselves in Caste discrimination and finding solutions to the root causes. In one region, the Caste problem might be caused due to inadequate water supply – once the water issue is solved (channels, wells), the caste differences go away. In yet other case, Caste differences may come because of land disputes. Once a strong framework of land recording is created and maintained by the Government, the Caste disputes go away. Every case is different and needs individual attention and a different solution.

By calling Caste as a System, successive governments have tried to institute a one-size-fits-all policy to eradicate caste, thus failing at every attempt. Moreover, it gives the outsider the impression that the Government is in fact the cause or abettor of Caste in India. At the extreme level, it could cause international sanctions and the like to be imposed against India if care is not taken. The Manmohan Singh government ought to retract its statements and do some damage control soon.

As ordinary Hindus, we could preach the notion that Caste is a Culture and not a System in our own little way by frequenting websites and resetting the framework of the debate. This article is a first step in that direction.

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