Saturday, June 14, 2014

Decoding India's Caste System...And Maybe Our Own.

Just Another Word for Structured Inequality?

"The caste system in India is a system of social stratification, which is now also used as a basis for affirmative action Historically, it separated communities into thousands of endogamous hereditary groups called Jātis which is synonymous with caste in contemporary usage. The Jātis were grouped by the Brahminical texts into four categories or varnas: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Certain groups, now known as "Dalits", were excluded from the varna system altogether, ostracized by all other castes and treated as untouchables. Strongly identified with Hinduism, the caste system has been carried over to other religions on the Indian subcontinent, including Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism."

Endogamy:  Marrying within your group, clan, caste.
Exogamy:  Marrying outside your group, clan, caste.

"Almost every statement of a general nature made by anyone about Indian castes may be contradicted."  D.D. Kosambi, 1944.  Yep. That about covers it.  Indian scholars themselves cannot agree, much less the greater population.  And outsiders tend to view the caste system as some kind of static phenomenon, taking the viewpoint of India as "stereotypical [and] tradition-bound."  Yet it appears to operate more radically...more fluidly if you like, according to the greater or lesser fortunes of the state and society in general.  Meaning really, that Indians themselves frequently alter the definition to fit the situation at hand. Gosh....imagine if that happened here? 

This caste system goes back a long ways (maybe 5000 years), and is remarkably similar to early Roman social/class/spiritual belief structures of that time, only in India's case, wrapped tightly to the scriptures of Hinduism.  Yet even here, vast disagreement exists on origin and purpose, further complicated by our friends the British, who remodeled India's caste system (colonial period) as an aid to both administering the British Raj and as a tool for social control. But...and a big 'but' here; these systems were highly practical where basic survival was a daily challenge to establishing static, permanent communities.  A little like the goals of the 'socialist state,' whereby each person had a purpose (caste), in the greater community.  However, once money (gold, whatever), replaced value as the currency of the realm -- versus individual contribution, the system became abusive and cooperation for the common good went obsolete.  Ha...maybe Lenin should have spent a little quality time in Bombay.     

Basically, the castes are split 3 ways -- ranked accordingly from the old Brahman texts:

1st.  Judicial and priestly.

2nd.  Military and war.

3rd. Production, agriculture, crafts and commerce.   However, others argue that the origins as defined in Krishna add one more:

4th. The 'untouchables.'  ('Untouchables dealt with sewage and dead animals...including people.)

Course, as usual, Britain's meddling had backfired by the 1920's, actually forcing the Raj to introduce many 'affirmative-action' type programs, most aimed at elevating the social/economic status of the more oppressed groups; especially the Dalits.  (We're hearing a lot about this group lately.)  But it was also a tool of division, used frequently in American foreign policy-making, particularly during the Cold War years.  By putting minority populations in a position of power, the resulting group-to-group antagonism deflected attention from the real enemy:  the colonialist and imperialistic powers. Course, eventually the locals caught on anyway. However, below is one interpretation of how this system was/is structured: 

  • Strict segmentation of society, with the various groups being rigidly defined and membership of them determined by birth.
  • A hierarchical system that defines a ranking place for all of the castes
  • Limited choice of occupation, which is enforced within a caste as well as by other castes. A caste might follow more than one traditional occupation but its members would nonetheless be constrained to that range
  • The general practice of endogamy, although in some situations hypergamy is acceptable. Endogamy applies to the various sub-groups within a caste itself, preventing marriage between the sub-groups and sometimes imposing an additional geographical constraint, that one can only marry a person from the same gotra and the same place
  • Restrictions on dietary and social interactions that defines who could consume what and accept from whom. As with marriage arrangements, these restrictions apply at sub-caste level, not merely at the caste level
  • Physical segregation in, for example, villages. This is accompanied by limitations on movement and access, including to religious and educational areas and to basic facilities such as supplies of water. Again, this segregation applies at sub-caste level as well as at the higher level

The Big Picture

Safe to say that the British really mucked up Indian culture and traditions.  Aside from manipulating the caste system, they also socially re-engineered the entire region via population transfers; i.e., separating Hindu from Muslim in one of history's largest forced migrations, which resulted in the formation of two new nations in the process: Pakistan and East Pakistan, later re-named Bangladesh.  And following independence, all three were subjected to Soviet and US imperialism, all in the name of the new Cold War politics.  And yes, this plays heavily into the vacillating geo-political tensions and perceived loyalties throughout this region:  India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed, both mutually suspicious, both facing immense internal pressures; Pakistan, as close to a failed state as a country can get and still claim marginal functionality.  And yes, this plays into the equation, particularly with US foreign policy, the case for human rights usurped in favor of...well, it's getting tough to tell anymore.  Billions in American corporate interests re-arranging Indian society, Pakistan holding the keys to Afghanistan's back door, the current Indian prime minister on the State Department's 'dislike' list. Nothing as simple as it might seem.  Yet the macro picture must be considered along with the micro, because in the case of these two countries, the stakes are higher than most.

Closer to Calcutta

However, to be fair, the British did conduct an extensive and thorough ethnographic analysis of the entire region; material still in extensive use today.  Sure, it also served equally as a tool of manipulation, but for an area as large and diverse as the Indian sub-continent, the demographic research has proved invaluable over time. [Side-note: One of Britain's contributions to the developing world was rail systems. In India, this transportation network was extensive.  Yet here, on the trains, Indian's ignored the caste system completely, choosing transportation over cultural prejudices.  A lesson learned much later in the US.]    

So how does religion/spirituality play into the caste system?  Good question and to be frank, one I can't really answer logically, at least not in a western-trained mind.  However, a clue or two might be found in the words of two pivotal characters in India's fight for independence.  First, Dr. B.R. Ambedker, India's first Prime Minister following independence.  He was also an 'untouchable.'  

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

"Ambedkar, was born in a caste that was classified as untouchable, became a leader of human rights in India, a prolific writer, and a key person in drafting modern India's constitution in the 1940's . Ambedkar wrote extensively on discrimination, trauma and tragic effects of the caste system in India."

"Ambedkar described the Untouchables as belonging to the same religion and culture, yet shunned and ostracised by the community they lived in. The Untouchables, observed Ambedkar, recognised the sacred as well as the secular laws of India, but they derived no benefit from this. They lived on the outskirts of a village. Segregated from the rest, bound down to a code of behaviour, they lived a life appropriate to a servile state. According to this code, an Untouchable could not do anything that raised him or her above his or her appointed station in life. The caste system stamped an individual as untouchable from birth. Thereafter, observed Ambedkar, his social status was fixed, and his economic condition was permanently set. The tragic part was that the Mahomedans, Parsis and Christians shunned and avoided the Untouchables, as well as the Hindus. Ambedkar acknowledged that the caste system wasn't universally absolute in his time; it was true, he wrote, that some Untouchables had risen in Indian society above their usually low status, but the majority had limited mobility, or none, during Britain's colonial rule. According to Ambedkar, the caste system was irrational. Ambedkar listed these evils of the caste system: it isolated people, infused a sense of inferiority into lower-caste individuals, and divided humanity. The caste system was not merely a social problem, he argued: it traumatised India's people, its economy, and the discourse between its people, preventing India from developing and sharing knowledge, and wrecking its ability to create and enjoy the fruits of freedom. The philosophy supporting the social stratification system in India had discouraged critical thinking and cooperative effort, encouraging instead treatises that were full of absurd conceits, quaint fancies, and chaotic speculations. The lack of social mobility, notes Ambedkar, had prevented India from developing technology which can aid man in his effort to make a bare living, and a life better than that of the brute. Ambedkar stated that the resultant absence of scientific and technical progress, combined with all the transcendentalism and submission to one's fate, perpetrated famines, desolated the land, and degraded the consciousness from respecting the civic rights of every fellow human being.  According to Ambedkar, castes divided people, only to disintegrate and cause myriad divisions which isolated people and caused confusion. Even the upper caste, the Brahmin, divided itself and disintegrated. The curse of caste, according to Ambedkar, split the Brahmin priest class into well over 1400 sub-castes. This is supported by census data collected by colonial ethnographers in British India."

Worth noting here that Ambedkar took his beliefs so seriously that he converted to Buddhism -- bringing many Dalit followers into the Buddhist faith.

And of course, the words of Mahatma Gandhi:

Mahatma Gandhi
In his younger years, Gandhi, disagreed with some of Ambedkar's observations, rationale and interpretations about the caste system in India. "Caste," he claimed, has "saved Hinduism from disintegration. But like every other institution it has suffered from excrescences." He considered the four divisions of Varnas to be fundamental, natural and essential. The innumerable subcastes or Jātis he considered to be a hindrance. He advocated to fuse all the Jātis into a more global division of Varnas. In the 1930s, Gandhi began to advocate for the idea of heredity in caste to be rejected, arguing that "Assumption of superiority by any person over any other is a sin against God and man. Thus caste, in so far as it connotes distinctions in status, is an evil."

Many scholars argue that the caste system is inherently embedded in Hindu religious practices, particularly the teachings of samsara, dharma and karma, yet as mirrored by the British colonial use of caste as a social engineering tool, is it not too far afield to assume that the Indians themselves are not just as culpable?  After all, according to ancient texts, no untouchable could possibly gain a leadership position in India, yet three have become Prime Minister.  Further, what are the current conflicts, including this pogrom against the Dalits -- particularly the women -- really about?  To this author, as limited as my knowledge is...doesn't smell of religious or sectarian fault lines, but rather another glaring example of a rising social inequality throughout the world -- the same blame-game we play in America whenever and wherever immigration enters the conversation.  Those with the least power, the limited voice always make the best targets in tough times.  And the times promise to get tougher.

Literacy and Economics:

Here it gets a little sticky.  When British rule ended in the 1940's, the literacy rate throughout India stood at 12%. Today is stands at 74% (2011); excellent progress considering the obstacles, but still 10 points below world averages.  There is also a gender-gap disparity of about 20% -- men over women. And too, a geographic void between rural and urban populations, aggravated by this caste system.  A system that finds greater credence in rural areas, where folklore, superstition and the role of subsidence agriculture have traditionally played a greater role in societies. [More on the ag. issue later.]* 

[Dark green indicates highest growth]
Movement on educational improvements in these rural areas is frequently hamstrung by these discriminatory beliefs, causing both low enrollment and an extremely high (52%), drop-out rate. (2005 figures)  India too, is a land of strong stereotypes, particularly surrounding gender, contributing greatly to the wider gap between educational opportunities afforded men over women.**  And if that's not enough, the old traditions of family-based agriculture in India tend to value brawn over brains -- a common theme in much of the developing world.  Flawed?  Perhaps not.  But the alternative has proven to be even more disruptive to Indian society.

[Orange indicates lowest literacy rates]

Anyone else notice a disturbing parallel?  Yes, as one of our past president's once exclaimed, "It's the economy, stupid!"  

Two things are at play here. The first deals with the massive schism between rural and urban life in India.  In urban areas, the PhD has all but replaced the caste system.  Much can be said on this matter, but technology-export from the US and Europe has played a huge role in the upward mobility of those in the south of India. Certainly not the case elsewhere, and as I said earlier, literacy rates weigh-in heavily in this social system, for they use the old tenets of ancient Hinduism as a doctrine against the upward mobility of those 'sanctioned' as inferior.  But then, nothing new or remarkable here really.  Take away the tools of education, the access to knowledge and the drones will labor on.  We sort of invented the concept clear back in the 1920's. Only today, we call it the corporation.


*Talked about this issue in some previous blog postings.  Stole the term from Christian Parenti's book, [Tropic of Chaos].  It is basically when multiple issues 'converge' in one spot and metastasize from many small and seemingly unrelated diseases, into one very large and potentially fatal tumor.  Again, note the two maps above -- then the drought map shown here:  On a macro level, much of the tension between India, Pakistan AND Afghanistan is rooted in water issues; aka, Khashmir. Glacial run-off feeds the rivers of all three. As Parenti says, "Without the river (Indus), Pakistan's stock of groundwater and impounded reserves would only last a month. No river, no country.  And atop the river sits the enemy, India: Huge, economically dynamic, politically democratic, internationally respected and atomically armed."  Add one more element: the monsoons have been disrupted for a decade or more and the glacial fields are retreating -- drastically in most cases.  And as I noted in previous blogs, the impact of neoliberalism on agricultural production in the Global South has virtually destroyed traditional farming in these regions, along with arable land. [See Convergence, Parts I-III]

What does that have to with caste?  Simple. Caste is no longer a religious/cultural issue in India, but instead an economic one wrapped in the arms of marginal literacy, a rising urban opulence (fueled by the tech-servicing industry), dwindling basic resources and now, climate -- which in turn fuels migration from the land to the cities, where these ancient and obsolete traditions find new credence as the 'have-nots' rub hard against those that 'have.'  And the government is reluctant to address the problem:

[Parenti]: "As India's weather patterns have become more disjointed, so too have its economic policies shifted rightward to effectively abandon the peasant farming class and create greater inequality."  The result?  "The Maoist fire burns not only due to drought but also because of free-market government policy."  Yes, in northern India and Nepal, drought has caused a re-awakening of both the far-left and the fundamentalist right. (Hold that thought for a moment or two.) And yes, the statistics bear out the correlation between drought/privation and the rise of insurgency activities throughout the world, such reactions about as basic and primal as they come.   
Maslow's Hierarchy

I bring up Maslow's little pyramid because throughout the developing world, the top three take some pretty heavy trudging to even come close to fruition.  That same trend is occurring in this country, though for the most part, we remain well-insulated. Well, some of us anyway.  However, in this current convergence of multiple issues, the foundation -- the most basic premises of life are under almost relentless siege. And that brings me to a rather startling conclusion:

Religious Fundamentalism 

What happens when civilization, however we choose to define it, begins to unravel? Regression.  Without a tangible or definable future, we always look back to the past -- the times of security, safety...the bountiful harvest of nostalgia.  We yearn for it, as the questions were so much more basic, the answers seemingly so simple.  God, family, dinner.  Not chaos, deprivation and violence.

Fundamentalist ideas grow out of fear and uncertainty and serve to fuel radical, yet simplistic solutions.  And because we created a world that chooses money over value, today's societies fracture along the fault-lines of economic mobility.  Take that to the most basic levels: sustenance over starvation; the earth itself collapses under the strain. And it is an equal opportunity plague.  It honors no borders, claims no favorites.  India or America...little difference in this ongoing struggle.   

Caste?  It is no longer just a tradition of the Hindu is a global fact of life.            
**Gender stereotyping is NOT confined to women's roles within India society. Men too, find their identity wrapped around outside expectations in the community, duly noted in the burgeoning number of suicides among male Indian farmers over the last decade or more. 

Mere thoughts here...on a very, very complicated world. 



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