Casteism: Dalits hold the key

By Swami Agnivesh And Rev Valson Thampu

Whether or not caste system is dismantled forthwith, it is a breakthrough in itself that the taboo on discussing caste in public has been punctured. It was a subject that was, till the other day, kept under wraps.

The very fact that a debate on caste has been deemed anathema to the ruling elite at all times proves that everyone knows how indefensible this infamous system is. This truth is further reinforced by the improvisation of an ideology of violence in recent times in the form of Hindutva to forestall any questioning of this crude instrument for the perpetuation of systemic inequality. The use of force and the need to kick up a smoke screen of ideological misinformation arise in the wake of giving up on the avenue of reason.

Violence has always been an alternative to debate and reasoned dissent. The detractors of Swami Dayanand who could not engage him in rational debate on the authentic interpretation of the Vedas, for instance, resorted to shouting him down and, eventually, eliminated him.

Historically, this unprecedented ambience of dialoguing is a byproduct of globalisation. The nation States' pretensions of cultural and ideological inviolability have become weaker in the wake of the emerging global order. But it is nave to expect that caste system, that has resisted the "law of impermanence" for centuries, will collapse simply because the UN addresses it.

In history, systems of oppression have collapsed only through the awakening and determined resistance offered by their victims. Karl Marx undermined the Russian oligarchy by uniting the proletariat. The caste system has survived for so long in this country largely because the lower castes have been made to internalise its ideology and psychology, its physics and metaphysics.

Caste has sent its roots deep into the Dalit consciousness.

They too practise the caste system among themselves; often more zealously than their upper caste enemies. As long as this state of affairs continues, the battle against caste cannot be won. Ultimately it is not the UN, but the Dalits of this country, who hold the key to abolishing caste.

In this respect, the Dalits need to reckon two basic realities. First, they are the victims of a pseudo-religious conditioning that gets them to believe that it is in their interest to comply with the prescriptions and practices of caste system.

This is done by holding out hopes of better prospects in their next births and fears of worse calamities in case they overstepped the caste boundaries.

So it is in their interest to conform to their own caste dharma within the totality of the caste system which, in practical terms, amounts to giving up their rights and human dignity and consenting to live in social misery forever. As Max Weber, the German sociologist of religion, points out in his book The Religion of India, the lower castes are more zealous in complying with caste prescriptions than the upper castes! They have been persuaded to believe that their next births can be heaven only if the hell of their present birth is endured meekly.

It is necessary to address the question of the scriptural sanction that the caste system claims, especially on the basis of the purushsukta that seems, when interpreted in a way contradictory to the spirit of the Vedas, to justify a hierarchy of social castes. In point of fact, the true meaning of this Vaidic verse is the integration of diversity and unity.

There are different social and economic functions, but they all belong together and comprise the social body. It is an insult to the spiritual splendour of the Vedas to insinuate that they justify a birth-based iniquitous system. On the contrary, they call us to a life of mission to create a society in which all are free to fulfil their earthly potential and spiritual destiny.

By Vaidic standards, those who live according to the dictates of their meaner self are Shudras, irrespective of their pedigree. According to Swami Vivekananda, only those who struggle tirelessly to ennoble and empower the whole society can be Brahmins.

Secondly, the lower castes are infected by the psychology of the caste system, especially in respect of its social prestige. In every society, it is the upper class or caste that sets the trend. Their ways are then aped by the socially underprivileged.

The abuse of psychedelic drugs, to take a familiar example, started with the elite. It did not take long for this to be imitated by the rickshaw-pullers, taxi drivers and slum dwellers. The social elite, sensing the danger, gave up on drugs; but the poor still remain stuck. This pattern is noticeable in every social evil and abuse. The multifarious caste groups within the Dalit spectrum have organised themselves into a rigid social hierarchy.

The higher castes among the Dalits are as ruthless about their privileges and prestige vis--vis the lower castes as are the members of the upper castes in respect of the lower castes in general. They ruthlessly punish caste violations by those who are caste-wise inferior to them. The Dalits, thus, play a part in perpetuating the caste system. The task at hand is not only to target the caste system. It is also to create an egalitarian society.

The caste system is a mechanism of disunity. Socially it fragments and freezes. It pits one social segment against another. By doing so, it robs its victims of the ability to unite and fight for their liberation. By infecting the minds of the victims by its logic, besides, the caste system reinforces its legitimacy.

``````` If the lower castes practise caste discrimination, what right do they have to resent the discriminations against them? This robs the Dalits of their morale and spiritual stamina in opposing the injustice they suffer. The radical task in combating caste is liberating the Dalits from the psychology and theology of the caste system. This is something that the Dalits cannot leave to the UN.

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Referred by:Sashi Kanth
Published on:31 Aug, 2001
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