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.

Holi (festival of colour)

On the full moon of the last month of the Indian year (Phalgun – Feb/Mar), a special festival is celebrated.

I first experienced Holi in Panjab, after we had left Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, and it was eye-opening.

I already knew the three main stories associated with the event. Inter-connected, they stemmed from the Arya tradition, morphed into Vedic tradition, aspects of which were then debunked in Sikh tradition, until they came to be made synonymous with Hindu tradition. The version of the story which one celebrates at Holi is usually chosen after a quick period of introspection as to which story resonates the most.

Story #1

An arrogant and obnoxious king of Multan, Panjab, considered himself the perfect human being – a god whom his subjects ought to worship. This king’s son, Hiranyakashipu (Hira, for short – which in its diminutive means ‘gem’), however, worshipped not his father but Lord Vishnu. When debate, dictates and threats proved useless in swaying the child to do his father’s bidding, the king employed a nursemaid to smear her breasts with poison before suckling the child. The nursemaid died from poisoning; Hira lived. Exasperated, the king then ordered his son to sit in his aunt’s lap – she who, following a prolonged period of penance had been granted the ability to withstand fire – and she would then sit on a pyre with the child in her lap. The son acceded to his father’s demand – his aunt was burned alive; Hira emerged unscathed.

Seldom making its way into this version of the Holi story is that Hira, Lord Vishnu’s worshipper, covered himself in an array of earth elements of various colours, and thus protected himself from the fire. The inclusion of such a critical aspect of the story would have been deeply problematic to a an Arya culture grown increasingly impotent in terms of its capacity for analytical understanding and instead pinning all its hopes on divine intervention. If Hira saved himself, whither the miracle of God’s intervention and grace!

Sikhs have taken up the baton of analytical understanding and insight discarded and lost by the Arya. Indeed, according to their dharma (i.e., Sikhism) there is no divine intervention. Psyche and divinity are logical aspects of creation, albeit at a rarified super-conscious level; though of course, they must get their hands dirty, so to speak.

Accordingly, Holi is celebrated as the victory of good over evil in the form of Hira smearing himself with the colours of the earth. No divine intervention in sight!

Story #2

As a child, Krishna’s skin pigment was deep purple. In fact, he was so deeply and darkly purple as to resemble people from Africa. You can conclude, therefore, what his origins were; I have an open mind about such things, but Hindu India is certainly not ready for such facts. Anyway, Krishna was besotted with Radha. She was fair. He was dark, very very dark, purplish-black indeed, on top of which he had all the usual boyish complexes. Following his mother’s advice, Krishna the child smeared Radha – who up until then had dismissed his approaches – with earth colours. Their differences thus muted, the children played together happily and went on to become the great lovers of Vedic Indian lore.

Story #3

Lord Shiva, a very boring guy should you happen to meet him since he is always meditating, is portrayed as moody, unapproachable and intolerant of mischief and petty conversation. You can decide for yourselves whether that makes him a social outcast or a god, though for my part I respect this configuration of his personality. Anyway, one day an upwardly mobile, divinely-steeped person decided to test Lord Shiva’s meditative focus. Assuming the form of an irresistible damsel, the changeling began dancing in front of Lord Shiva. Where others would have been fooled, Lord Shiva was not. The changeling was burned to ash with one look from Lord Shiva’s third eye, who then gave him back life. Thus, during Holi, ash is smeared on the forehead by the devout to represent the death and the revival of the changeling. Over time, earth colours were introduced too – suggesting some symbiosis of the various Holi stories.

Sikh analysis

Now let’s imbue proceedings with some Sikh analytical thought and insight. For this, I need to revisit my childhood.

As I said earlier, my first Holi celebration took place in Panjab after we had moved there from Kenya. In the days leading up to the event, all the local kids raced around borrowing each other’s possessions as if it were their right to do so (we would now call this thieving). We gathered together things we had thus ‘borrowed’, including from our own mothers’ kitchens, after school and raced to the local playground – basically, a large area of dry and barren earth, around which housing was erected, and which we used for playing gulli-danda, kick-about and, above all, cricket.

Escaping the clutches of mothers and sisters, as we ran we held close our booty of turmeric, neem, dhak, kumkum, powdered red sandalwood, dried flowers, radishes, pomegranates, mehndi, gram flour, vibrant and deep coloured fruits and vegetables such as berries, grapes and beetroot, dried tea leaves and charcoal… and of course most important of all, water.

No single household had all these items, so we each gathered what we could find, and brought them to the playground where the older boys organised for us to take turns grinding everything into a paste using a pestle and mortar – basically a larger flat stone and a smaller more rounded stone. We would then leave the paste out to dry in the sun.

Each group of lads would end up with a fair amount of dry powder at the end of this activity. Three days before the last full moon of the year, younger kids like me were assigned to collect firewood from around the local area. As darkness fell and the full moon appeared on the horizon, we lit a fire to commemorate the symbolic burning of the young boy Hira.

The next day, the fun began. We dispersed our dry powder in large metal buckets filled three quarters of the way up with water. We filled our bicycle pumps, appropriately sealed to prevent leakage, with the colourful solution… and then it was a case of let them have it! No one was spared, as we sprayed all around us with colour, and everyone was a happy smiling target – old and young. Those of us who didn’t have bicycles yet, filled up glass Coca-Cola and Fanta bottles and shook them around. It was playful war.

Misunderstanding the rules, I would often forget the playful aspect in favour of the war aspect, thinking it was my mission to remain as dry as possible while soaking as many other people with colour as possible. One lad too umbrage at this misunderstanding of mine and came after me, glass bottle against glass bottle. The inevitable happened, the necks of the glass bottles broke, and I was slashed deep at the wrist just above the bone, while he was similarly if also less deeply cut. A gaping bloody wound opened up just centimetres from a huge vein that snakes its way around the wrist bone, and was duly wrapped in cloth. Instinctively, I submerged my hand and wrist into one of the buckets of colourful water, and then an elder yanked it out of the water and smeared it with some of the powder we had ground days earlier. I got an earful that day, and I still bear the scar to this day – but damn it was fun!

Looking back at the event now, I can apply some rational thinking to what went on.

The season is turning; bio-systems are undergoing a physical cleanse to release them from the rigours of winter; and the cold virus abounds. Cures and cleanses are sought in homeopathic medicines whose ingredients are earthbound. The beginning of springtime is thus the moment in which we boost our immune systems.

All of this activity is of course stepped in rite and ritual – but its effects are tangible and embodied.

In communities that celebrate Holi using traditional earth ingredients, none of the eye, skin, or inflation problems suffered by city dwellers are experienced; and rates of influenza are lower, as is their severity. In urban areas, by contrast, the use of industrial synthetic colours entails eye irritations requiring hospital intervention, severe skin problems requiring manufactured medicine, and seriously debilitating bouts of flu.

If I were you, I’d make my way to India – off the beaten track there are places where Holi celebrations last a month. Tell them Avtar sent you!

As for the story of Holi that resonates with me? Well, I prefer to conceptualise the event as a turning point away from old grudges, feuds and animosities; and towards the renewal of friendships and reinforcement of existing ties.

The new organic year has kicked off and has brought with it spring and new life.

Happy Holi!

Now, go bury the hatchet…