Reflections on proposed caste discrimination legislation: or ‘What is this thing called caste?’

The question I put to the British parliament is this; Why is her Majesty and the entire stratum she occupies not included in the proposed caste law, and why is it limited to race and aimed only at South Asians as it is currently tabled?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary definitions of caste are as follows:

  • One of the hereditary social classes in Hinduism that restrict the occupation of their members and their association with members of other castes.
  • A division of society based on differences in wealth, inherited rank, or privilege, profession, occupation or race.
  • The position conferred by caste standing.
  • A system of rigid social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy, and social barriers sanctioned by custom, law, or religion.

My argument:

Please read Caste, Class and Community in India: An Ethnography Approach by Balmurli Natrajan (William Paterson University).

The article’s argument supports my view that we are confusing class/economic distinctions with caste, such that the economic status of social groups is being projected onto, and even conflated with, social caste.

The fact is that like-minded social groups gel and function together as they have intimate nuanced understanding that cannot be accessed by other groups. To put it another way: we humans are neither psychologically nor socially identical, and do not share the same life experiences. This does not, at least in various Indian cultures, emerge as prejudice but is rather a form of snobbishness verging at times on hostility.

Precisely because of this, it makes sense therefore that individual social groups practice social endogamy and establish their own kinship clubs – Gurdwaras are a case in point. And they should be encouraged in doing so.

My point is that caste is a paradigm encased in structured cosociality rather than in subjugation and unequal power relations.

(And if we are talking about the latter, it is worth noting that I have repeatedly experienced rejection by well-to-do so-called lower castes – which blows apart the idea that oppression works in one direction only!)

The problem with the proposed legislation against caste discrimination is that it is embedded in the notion that caste is a form of unequal class/economics relations. It simply does not recognise the cosociality of caste as a valid, necessary and comforting form of in-group identity.

But consider this: in playgroups, babies can clearly be seen exhibiting strong likes and dislikes towards each other; they congregate in like-minded groups. Who taught them such prejudice? No-one. We human-animals psychologically attach ourselves to, and associate and intermingle with like minds.

This is not prejudice. What precisely it is, we have yet to sort out.

Now, for those who say caste as practiced today – in the form of class/economic inequality and hostility – is a historical phenomenon within South Asian societies… go learn your history!

Buddhism, Sikhism and Vedism in earlier times – before Bharat lost her substantial lands and succumbed to successive periods of colonization – did not apply caste divisions as we understand them today.

Indeed, caste division is not ‘Indian’ at all. It began in the west as a form of rigid social organisation whereby people were not permitted to work outside the occupational bandwidths set by the state, as happening to trades people in the United States. The Roman Empire relied on this to protect itself from implosion. Thus, caste refers in this sense to established western practices of restricting people to certain occupational domains, which restricted them socially and economically.

Such casteism continues to operate in the west today, as a cursory examination of recent English history illustrates. The cost of moving beyond the barriers of one’s caste was experienced by King Edward VIII when he deigned to marry Wallis Simpson – he had to abdicate. Even Prince Charles was not permitted to marry at will, but was shepherded into a marriage of convenience.

All of this is not to say that caste is not an aspect of Indian cultures. But as I noted earlier, it was certainly not a feature of earlier Buddhist, Sikh or Vedic societies, especially not in the western form of restricting people to particular occupational bandwidths.

Originally, in Bharat, children were given into the care of faith-teachers whose task was to find the appropriate occupation and role of their wards, and to encourage them to fulfil that. So, a farmer’s child with artisan skills would be encouraged in that direction, while the child of unskilled workers would move into farming if they exhibited the abilities for such work. It followed that people did not necessarily follow in their parents’ footsteps; they moved across groupings freely based on their skills-set.

It also follows that parents did not prize financial solvency when looking for life-partners for their children, rather they laid greater store by a prospective son- or daughter-in law’s capacity to manage their affairs responsibly and maturely.

However, older western societies have come to exert a strong influence on the modern construct that is Hinduism, which is itself the product of a socio-political revolution against the perceived rigidities of Vedic practices. Ironically, Hindusim has curated the kind of casteism for which the whole of India has become renowned, and which it erroneously embraces as an inalienable and intrinsic aspect of itself.

Consequently, we forget that caste refers to a bandwidth of in-group intimacies that in fact have been vital in enabling the successful transnational flow of people. Sikhs and others who moved to East Africa or to the United Kingdom were intrepid aspirants, but they were only able to ease the isolation that migration brings by congregating with others who shared their language, diet, rites and rituals, and who could advise them of local mores and provide a network of support.

Against the cosociality that caste traditionally referred to in older Indian societies and cultures, is the highly stratified system of difference which it exhibits in the west and which we forget to call out because we are so busy misunderstanding and denigrating our own eastern cultural heritages and practices.

And if we are in doubt as to the rigid boundaries that caste builds in the modern western world, let’s consider how our kids from North America and England emerge from university with degrees – equipping them to practice some trade or other, but which actively preclude them from switching trade or following another occupational strand. For that, they have to go right back to university and re-train, and get re-certified.

The same restrictions apply ofcourse to trades-people. Since the emphasis is on economic security and socio-economic mobility, very few people get to change occupational track despite showing flair and having accumulated skill-sets that make them ideal for jobs other than those they’ve been certified to do. The moral degeneracy of this situation is that it stratifies people, restricting them ‘to their own kind’. Yet, when they embody such stratification and hierarchy, we call them out and propose anti-caste legislation. When the system itself enforces this, why blame the people for imbibing it?!

And to what degree will anti-caste legislation be enforced? Will Gurdwaras have to provide a register of how many people of other castes (cosocial cultural groupings, as they themselves see it) attend in order to stay on the right side of the law? What counts as discrimination? Will I, as somebody who has repeatedly experienced discrimination from so-called lower castes, be safe-guarded and be able to pursue my case under law?

Will the British monarchy be allowed to continue to exist in its closed forms, while the average person on the street gets vilified for belonging to a group they know intimately and feel a sense of support, security and belonging with?

Clearly, I am missing the point of the anti-caste legislation, because it feels to me very much like a stick with which to beat Indians. And the best thing is, we Indians are culpable in this, because we know nothing of our own history or that of caste as a phenomenon.

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