Caste off!

One of the tragedies of our history books is that they do not look at history holistically, but rather as specific events of battles won or lost and so on. In the bargain, we fail to learn our lessons completely, which is perhaps the primary purpose of reading history.

Today, there is an urgent need for a study of comparative histories and for linking our political history with the social and economic currents of the time, otherwise we will never comprehend our past -- its glories and its tragedies.

If there is one area historians are wont to skip, it is mentioning the negative role of caste. Given that most of our past and present historians are from the so-called upper castes, there is a natural inclination to avoid mentioning how casteism ensured India's perennial defeats, why when Europe began its Renaissance and Reformation leading to its pre-eminence, India with all its advantages continued to languish.

A few examples of the pernicious role played by casteism in Indian history, rarely mentioned in our books:

Shivaji was the first Indian king to hire Dalits in his army (ref: Defence of India by Jaswant Singh). Much like the blacks in the US Army in World War II, the Dalits lived in separate camps, but fought for Shivaji. These hardy men, used to living in difficult conditions, were an asset in his various campaigns. But when the Peshwas rose to power, their natural inclination as Brahmins saw them put an end to the practice of hiring Dalits. The martial Dalits, not at all keen to go back to their traditional vocations, found employment in the British Army (Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar's father was one such soldier). These very Dalits were instrumental in helping the British defeat the Marathas later.

When the Mughal empire was faltering, the three greatest challenges came from peasant-soldier communities -- the Marathas, Sikhs and Jats. Most history books tend to look at these groups in terms of Hindu-Muslim warfare or Hindu consciousness; few pay attention to why the peasants rose while the Kshatriyas did not and even the Rajputs stayed quiet. And what are the reasons that while Rana Pratap lost to Akbar, Borphuken in Assam repelled Mughal invasions? Is it because the Assamese army was less caste-conscious and therefore more representative? (It is another matter that we know so little about the history of the Northeast. How many have even heard of Borphuken?) Is it that when Mahmud of Ghazni attacked the Somnath temple 11 times (or more), there was no defence simply because our caste system did not allow it? The upper castes were always a minority in numbers, the Kshatriyas among them were only a small segment of the upper castes. How could this small segment, divided into clans, resist Mahmud's huge army? But why did the peasants not take up arms? Was it because the Brahmins and Kshatriyas did not want the peasants to protect the temple? Or is it because the peasants did not even have access to the Somnath temple and therefore cared little for it? Why did the temple priests not raise an army with the temple's huge wealth?

Returning to Maratha history, it is well known that in the mid-18th century, the Marathas and the British were the competing influences on land and the Arabian Sea. When the Royal Navy finally defeated the Maratha navy, one reason was a small device called the screw, invented a few years earlier. The British cannons on board the ships could take aim with the aid of the screw, allowing great precision in hitting the target. The Marathas still pushed and pulled the cannon turrets, and aim was a casualty. Inventing the screw links the blacksmith with intelligence. This happened in Europe, but not in India, because the learned Brahmin probably never touched tools and never socialised with the Shudra. The Shudra, who worked with tools, lacked the most basic education and could never think beyond doing exactly what his father and grandfather had done! He was never trained to think beyond the present task. Even if he did, who sought his opinion?

Tipu Sultan, it is well known, was trying to invent rockets. The sultan, against whom were ranged the British, the Nizam and the Marathas (though in the last battle of 1799 the Marathas stayed away), also tried his hand at international diplomacy by seeking the help of Napoleon (who was then in Egypt), but in vain. Why did the Marathas not do the same? Invention involved the Brahmin's knowledge working with the Shudra's craft, but no Brahmin was willing to pollute himself by suffering a Shudra's company. No wonder that while the British were introducing field rifles with awesome effect, the Marathas were still using swords and lances!

The navy is another story. By declaring that crossing the seas meant a loss of caste, the Brahmins gave India her greatest loss. International diplomacy was impossible and the Brahmin-Kshatriya elite stayed on land. Shivaji's navy was led by the so-called lower castes, but once these lower castes became Sanskritised, they often obeyed caste rules and quit plying the ships.

Incidentally, the Battle of Waterloo was fought in 1815 and the Third (and last) Anglo-Maratha War in 1818. What turn would history have taken if the Marathas, after the Second Anglo-Maratha war in 1803, had sought an alliance with the French?

But the Maratha elite then was composed of Chitpavan Brahmins, and no Brahmin would cross the seas to meet the French. No negotiation meant no diplomatic alliance, and in quick succession the British went on to become the masters of everything between Europe and Australia! Hindu caste consciousness thus only helped the British.

Incidentally, a school of thought believes the Brahmins banned crossing the seas to curb the power of the merchants of South India who had acquired huge wealth from the Western and Southeast Asian trade routes. The Brahmins thus handed over the trade (and cultural and political) routes to the rising Arab power, allowing Islam to replace Hinduism in Indonesia. The Brahmin order stopped Hindus from going overseas to Southeast Asia just when the Muslims began arriving.

Hopefully, some historian will study the debilitating effect casteism had on India and Indians' ability to defend their country. The horrendous caste structure ensured the lack of education of the masses (something that prevails even today) and our economic weakness. It strengthened the system of heredity in succession, which after two generations usually produces incapable leaders. We need to study the past more thoroughly to prepare for the future.

TAILPIECE: Would the British have ever created their empire in India if they had NOT lost the American War? I don't think so. No matter how powerful the British were to become, no power could have maintained two empires (in the Americas and in India) simultaneously. The American victory in their War of Independence was India's loss, since it helped the British concentrate east of the Atlantic in general and on India in particular.

Amberish K Diwanji

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