Finally the U.N. has woken up and is moving towards declaring the caste system as racist. What is India’s response? Defensive and unconcerned. Surprise! Surprise!
Some argue it’s just a form of “social organization.” That’s what Gandhi said too. He opposed its abolishment. But is that so?
The Sanskrit for caste, ‘Varna’ literally means ‘color.’ India’s ancient texts designate caste on basis of color and race. The supreme Brahmin is ‘white,’ and the lowest caste, also sometime called dasa (slave) is ‘black.’ In between you have the browns and yellows.
Through centuries of mixing India now is a conspicuous brown cocktail (of many hues), but not so to the Indian eye! A Brazilian journalist from the magazine Super Interessante, while interviewing me last year, for my book Sex and Power, said that some Indians have explained to her how she can identify a person’s caste. The people of the highest caste are very fair. The lowest are almost black! I challenged her to walk into any restaurant in town, randomly pick out a few customers and test that theory.
The only real give away to caste in India today is a person’s last name. When an Indian politely asks for your “good name,” they are trying to figure out where precisely you fit in the whole caste scheme, and how exactly they want to interact with you.
A few years ago, at the British Council in Calcutta, a very articulate young woman from an NGO that works for the empowerment of lower-caste women, described to the audience, how random strangers who are very friendly towards her at first, immediately turn away soon as they hear her last name. The occasion was the launch of British author, Valerie Mason-John’s book Broken Voices, a personal account of the lives and experiences of India’s “untouchable” women.
“Untouchable” of course is used not as in “fragile” or “delicate,” but as in “I think you are filthy like the rats and vermin” sentiment. Even today this scourge thrives. The ‘untouchables’ are not allowed into many temples and homes. People will not hire them. And in villages if a low caste person drinks from an upper caste well the whole clan is punished through rape and murder and their homes are burnt down.
But how would India’s educated elite respond to caste? Here I was sitting in the British Council in Calcutta among the crème de la crème of India’s intelligentsia listing to women talk about how they have been treated because of their caste. When it was the turn of the audience – quite a few asserted they were Brahmins and needed to protect the purity of their lineage through marriage.
And then a discussion ensued that was flabbergasting! It was on what last names represented the kuleen Brahmins – the highest of the highest. Many on the panel, academics and their likes, jumped in enthusiastically. Not one person objected to this highly obscene and insensitive response. The three women on the panel who had just shared their first hand experiences watched through this proceeding without uttering a word.
Some time ago an ugly little exchange on caste had erupted on my flickr photo site – this was a response from a middle-class, English speaking, internet savvy, Indian. So given all this, what is my take on caste-based reservation? That will be another blog!