Indian Society/Culture, Writing

Why do we fear caste?

There is a large section of India where caste continues to matter a great deal; indeed caste can sometimes become a matter of life and death. But there is another India, albeit a small one, where caste or at least any reference to it is difficult to find. For people living in this ficult to find. For people living in this little alcove, caste is an anachronism that belongs elsewhere, both in terms of space and time, and has no role to play in everyday life. As the controversy around Rajdeep Sardesai’s tweet congratulating fellow members of the GSB (Goud Saraswat Brahmin) community on their achievements suggests, any mention of caste is politically fraught.

The attitude towards caste is a peculiarly schizophrenic one. In one part of India, it is seen to colour everything, while in another it appears nowhere in any public discourse, except as a description of the other. When it does surface in a personal context as in Sardesai’s case, it evokes outrage. It is easy to see why there is such great sensitivity to the casual mention of caste -it has after all been the most significant axis of discrimination in the country . But is any mention of it an automatic act of promoting discrimination and hatred?

There is no question that caste continues to play a role even in the part of India that thinks that it has moved beyond it. It does so in overt ways, like the caste mentions that we see in matrimonial ads. It does so in more implicit ways -a clear caste pattern can be seen in the surnames of CFOs in corporations across the country .It manifests itself more structurally in a comfort with hierarchies of an embedded kind -take the way in which domestic help is treated in this country , not as employees but virtually as a different category of human beings. The importance accorded to seniority in the government is another caste-like structure in that conceptually , `birth’ determines the future for all times to come. This is true even of the products of the IIMs where `batch parity’ continues to be of great importance. In a general sense, not only are hierarchies revered, but there is an attempt to make them permanent. Once a VIP , always a VIP .

But there is another side to caste that appears in a lower case version, and resides in a certain way of life. For most people of Sardesai’s generation and mine, caste did play an important role, particularly in the formative years of life.Whether overtly or otherwise, it was part of what was seen as everyday family life, it influenced the food cooked at home and the rituals, religious or otherwise that were practised.The sense of community that one belonged to, the feeling of a shared way of life and an overall sense of where one came from was shaped by caste. At a time when most people tended to live in their home towns, within their communities, caste was the most natural source of identity . The absence of economic and social mobility meant that in most cases, competing sources of identity were absent. For this generation, caste continues to be an idea that evokes a sense of belongingness, for it was a real part of their lives.

But when it comes to the next generation of the urban middle class, the role of caste is receding. Opportunities are taking people outside their closed communities, and new avenues for personal growth have multiplied the sources of identity that were available today. Traditional customs are becoming truncated and homogenized as part of an evolving pan-Indian form of tradition -for instance, the baraat is now a caste-neutral phenomenon.A large part of middle class India is gradually relocating its source of identity from a collective past to a personal present. Education, occupation, the area of residence, even the kind of car that one drives -these would in all probability be more expressive markers of identity than one’s roots. It is increasingly more important where one is going to rather than where one came from. In this new scheme of things, identity is a more fluid idea that draws from many sources and morphs frequently in response to rapidly changing contexts.

In this construct, caste is one among many factors that shape identity . So far, the dominant liberal reaction to the idea of caste has been to combat its apparently insidious influence by denying it a place in our public utterances.This denial of reality has created a schism between the public and the private, the professed and the practiced, and alienated a large part of India who have felt detached from their past. Rather than shut out the past, and make caste a towering absence in our lives, it is time to put it in its place. As one of the many sources of identity and influence that shapes us.

TOI-30 November 2014