India - Interviews
Watershed - Elucidate on the origin of caste system in India.
Vishal Pant - The word caste derives from the Portuguese word casta, which means breed, race, or kind. Among the Indian terms that are sometimes translated as (or used in place of) caste are varna, jati, jaat, biradri and samaj. Caste system in India is primarily associated with Hinduism but also exists among other Indian religious groups. Muslims sometimes expressly deny that they have castes - they state that all Muslims are brothers under God - but observation of Muslim life in various parts of India reveals the existence of caste like groups. Differences in caste are acknowledged and maintained among Indian Christians as well. As per the caste system, roles were defined and people were classified according to their function, occupation and economic place in society. Brahmins were to be the spiritual and temporal guides, teachers and exponents of law; Kshatriya were the warriors, princes and kings - in short, the nobility; Vaishya, took on the tasks of agriculture and merchantry; and Shudra included individuals who performed service to communities - manual and agricultural labourers, artisans, masons, etc. The term caste was used by the British as well. The British used two terms to describe Indian communities - Castes and Tribes. The term caste was used for Jats and also for Varnas. Tribes were those communities who lived deep in jungles, forests and mountains far away from the main civilization.
WS - Has the caste system affected the feudal structure in India? And how?
VP - The caste system did affect the feudal structure in India, but in a negative way. It exploited in the name of ‘caste’. By virtue of his or her birth, an individual was assigned a role in the society. Hence the son of a Brahmin, howsoever incompetent he may be, stepped into his father’s shoes and virtually lorded over the people from the other castes. Similarly the ‘son of a kshatriya’ was expected to pick up skills that would make him a good warrior. There was virtually no skill transfer. A skilled person from a particular caste could not transfer his skills to a person from the other caste. The result was a fragmented and stagnant society which gave rise to a lot of frustration. Infact till date caste rules the roost in majority of villages in India. Things are so bad that in many villages a harijan (person from the lowest caste) gets off from his cycle if he is crossing the house of an upper caste person and walks through the entire breath before getting onto the cycle again. Further, there are cases where a person from the lowest caste, working as a domestic help or servant doesn’t show his back to the person from an upper caste as that would be considered blasphemous. When India became independent in 1947, the makers of the Constitution kept a quota for the not-so-privileged. 22.5% of the seats in all government enterprises were reserved for this section. The idea was to get the ‘suppressed’ into the mainstream. Ironically, the person who framed the Constitution was a dalit called Baba Saheb Ambedkar. It would be fair to say that had it not been for him, the condition of dalits could have been even worse. It was Ambedkar who, in consultation with the top echelons of the political fraternity of that era, deemed fit that a quota of 22.5% should be reserved for the backward castes for a period of at least ten years. That the ‘quota system’ has not been done away with till now and infact had only increased in many states is a different story altogether.
WS - What is the state of caste system in the 21st century?
VP - In the middle of the 20th century when India got independence, a reservation of 22.5% was introduced. It was broken into 15% for the SC and 7.5% for the ST. The idea was to integrate both SC (Schedule caste) and ST (Schedule tribe) into the mainstream. Initially the reservation was proposed for ten years and it was expected that in days to come it would slowly be phased out. That however did not happen. The political compulsions made sure that not only did the reservation stay but also the quota for different castes was increased in different states. But the biggest example of the caste based politics came in 1989 when the then Prime Minister V.P. Singh implemented the findings of the Mandal Commission which recommended an additional reservation of 27% for OBC (Other backward castes) This was perhaps the last nail in the coffin as the new reservation policy divided north India vertically. Some analysts say V.P. Singh’s efforts to implement the findings of the Mandal Commission were a purely political move and an attempt to check the rise of Devi Lal, a rustic Jat leader from Haryana who, too, nursed the ambition of becoming prime minister of India. Whatever the case may be, post Mandal, the politics in India changed forever. Caste started to play a big role yet again, and with the passage of time national leaders and regional satraps who commanded a huge influence over a certain class started calling the shots. In short many of them became kingmakers – if not the ‘kings’. Incidentally, Mayawati, the present chief minister of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, is a Dalit, and she is very powerful too.
WS - Are inter-caste marriages still a taboo? If so, what are the repercussions?
VP - In the 21st century India seems to be more open to the concept of inter caste marriages. At the moment one can’t quantify what is the percentage increase in the number of inter caste marriages vis-à-vis those in the 20th or the 19th century, but by all counts the country has seen an exponential jump in the number. As the economy flourishes, young India it seems is much more open to the concept of inter caste marriages. It will be fair to say that much of this has got to do with the opening up of India’s economy. As the new economic policy was unveiled and the economy opened up in the last decade of the previous century – the economic barriers dissipated from different sections of the society. From caste, the benchmark shifted to economics. In the last fifteen years or so the economic prosperity across the board has ensured that caste has taken a back seat when it comes to marriages – especially in the urban centres. And this is not only true in case of love marriages, but also arranged marriages. However, the concept of inter-caste marriages is still taboo in rural areas where the landlords are mainly from the upper castes. Farm labourers, an uneducated lot, are mainly from backward castes. It would only be fair to say that this is an exploited lot which finds tough to make the two ends meet. Under such huge economic disparity caste plays a dominant role in Indian villages. And it would take a while, infact many years, before the disparity recedes. Infact, there are many stories in the village folklore that have become legends. Stories where the village panchayats (the highest village body) have given rulings that young couple who marry out of caste should be given only one punishment – death. There have been several reports of young couples being publicly lynched for the same offence.
WS - How does the international community view the caste system?
VP - For the international community, caste disparity is a puzzle. For it can’t understand one simple thing: how a country that has a booming economy and that aspires to become a superpower in the near future has a totally different and an ugly side to it. They may not understand the nuances of the ‘caste system’ as such, but they are definitely taken aback by this class disparity. It would be fair to say that for the international community, beyond a point, the term ‘caste’ and ‘class’ blur. Let me illustrate the point I am making. People from the other countries find Indians to be friendly and hospitable. However, they are dazed to see how certain individuals treat their domestic help. For them it’s a classic case of ‘class disparity’ where an individual treats his or her domestic help as a ‘servant’ - quite literally. While the above example does not in any way apply to all Indians, the fact that this disparity exists, surprises people from the other countries. Around ten years back one of the leading shoe companies based in the U.S. was shocked to discover that their partner in India had serious cases of human rights violation. What shocked them was the fact that these violations were happening in the factory meant to produce shoes for them. And all this only came to light when one day the workers in the factory – fed up with the insults that they had to go through day in and day out – decided to take the law into their hands and nearly lynched the managing director of the company. This international shoe company since then has severed all its relations with the said Indian company. An offshoot of the above example also gives you a peep into something else: the world of child labour - that is easily available in India and which often goes unreported as the victims do not complain due to stark poverty. So illiteracy and backward classes help industries indirectly to make profits as the population explosion in India feeds the labour market. No wonder then, the best of the foreign brands want to set up their manufacturing units in India or sublet their contracts so that they could maximise their profits on the finished product.
WS - Is India really a land of thousand Gods as professed?
VP - Religion is a part and parcel of Indian tradition. The fear of God the Almighty, whether it was instilled by birth or compulsion, is very much visible in an average Indian whether he/she really adores some deity or the stars like the morning Sun or the Moon at sunset. The belief in the existence of the supernatural is ingrained in the very psyche of the people of this subcontinent and a considerable time of the day is spent in invoking the Lord and asking for His protection. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, and the rural folks are more into religion than the urban counterparts and due to the heterogeneous society we live, each state and region have their own beliefs and gods that come down from tradition. Some of these religious beliefs border on superstition as some ignorant tribes sacrifice even their children to appease the Gods. There were cases where to end the barrenness of a woman human sacrifices were made. But the Government takes stern action against these false believers and slowly with the introduction of literacy and presence of social workers these macabre practices are stopped to a great extent. The real reason why there are so many religions and gods is that India was overrun by various races in the past. Also the present feudal society that is mainly based on castes is also a major factor as certain places of worship are meant only for higher caste people resulting in religious apartheid. Of course this happens in remote areas where the caste system is observed strictly. But with the introduction of the mass media and the forays made by television most of these taboos are got rid of. Also the presence of so many gods is the result of backwardness of the villagers in remote areas who follow tradition without any logic and the height of the situation is that they believe that these deities can cure their folks of serious illnesses that actually require modern medicines. The bottom line is that people of India – whether rich or poor, backward or advanced –have the fear of the supernatural. Like Mahatma Gandhi said we have to do the right things in life and avoid the wrong things. Gandhi said if we do good it is religion itself. It is just like saying first is obligation and then is devotion. So, apart from the thousand gods theory, and it is a fact that these various gods are invoked across the sub-continent, the important thing is that people are god-fearing and this trait goes a long way in character formation of modern Indian. They take religion very seriously, unlike the west where the infusion of science and permissive life has changed their approach to the Almighty and faith in God has taken a back seat.
WS - What are the main religions in India? What are their main activities?
VP - India is a land of spirituality and philosophy. India is the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and so on. The minorities, reinforced by the secular clause in the Constitution of India, are Muslims, Christians, Jews , Parsis and so on. Percentage wise there are 80.5 per cent Hindus, 13.4 per cent are Muslims, 2.3% are Christians, 1.9% Sikhs. Others 1.8% and Miscellaneous 0.1% The main activities of Hinduism are many but they were put in a nutshell by Swami Vivekanand when he addressed a parliament of religions in Chicago on September 11, 1893. He said that Hinduism had no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognize divinity in every man and woman, and whose whole scope and force will be centered in aiding humanity to realize its own true and divine nature. Also the core concept of hindu philosophy is Dharma, which means right conduct, right action, virtue and moral law. The Hindu Temples have ashrams where people on pilgrimage have boarding and lodging in many places. Corporate houses finance the temples and the government takes special care for the upkeep and safety of heritage and other shrines. The Christians and the Muslims, Parsis and other religious groups have their own heritage places all over India . The Christian missionary schools are very famous for their high standard of learning and morality. Sikhism and Jainism also have a lot of good constructive activities. Most of these religions have spread to the West and a lot of temples, mosques, gurdwaras are found in the U.S.A., U.K., and Canada.
WS - Does Religion really play a great role in the life of an average Indian?
VP - Most Indians, when they rise early in the morning say their prayers so that they start the day invoking God’s protection and soliciting good health and happiness for their families. Immaterial what religion these Indians belong, God’s presence is felt by them and they pray fervently, on their knees for divine intervention in the day to day affairs of their family and business, children’s studies and their happiness. Most of the Indians who own businesses or business establishments start the day with an invocation to the Almighty with incense or lighted candles and then only entertain their clients. Workers in factories and the white collar fraternity in the offices also start their chores after they pray to the Almighty. All this comes from a disciplined background and the family is still an institution in India that holds the children on the right path as good seeds are sown in them during the formative years of their life. Children in turn are mostly ambitious and career-minded, though there are a lot of exceptions. Indians regularly go to temples, churches, mosques and gurdwaras and offer prayers and subscribe to charities to help their brothers in distress. People regularly contribute to the cause of natural calamities, wars and pestilences. The Indians are taught how to respect their elders from very young age. Can you depict a scene where, even grown up children kiss the feet of their parents? And mind you these young people are highly qualified and sophisticated, but they keep up the tradition where the parents are held in great esteem. And when a son/daughter bends to kiss the feet of the parents they in turn exclaim “be happy son”. Which parents wont be fulfilled with these gestures from their offsprings? All this evokes from respect to authority, first to the Almighty and then to the elders. This is the reason why Indians can still face a lot of problems as the family life is intact and the elders are willingly ready to sacrifice anything for their children. However poor Indians are very rich in principles and virtues and that serves them to face life with a smile on their face and optimism which emanates from spiritual blessings.
WS - Does politics take any mileage from religious practices?
VP - In Indian films we find a villain. So also there are villains in every walk of life and these characters foment trouble to create an atmosphere of uncertainty. When similar rogue elements invade the sanctity of holy places trouble is sure to take place as the people of India hold their gods in high esteem and reverence. And so they just cannot tolerate such atrocities perpetrated on their holy shrines. We all know what happened after the demolition of the Babri Madjid. It had so many echoes including the terrorist attack in Mumbai in 1993. Recently there are cases of Christians being persecuted and churches desecrated in Orissa and Karnataka and many other places. In some places the vandals even resorted to the rape of nuns. Some years back pastor Stein was burnt in a jeep along with his 2 teenage sons in north India. This unwanted persecution of the minorities has some political overtones and this destroys the very fiber of our Constitution where secularism is clearly spelt by our founding fathers headed by Dr. Ambedkar. There are better ways to influence the people other than the persecution of the minorities. Godhra carnage in Gujarat stands out as another blot on the face of secular India. Whoever started the Godhra incident it left behind a lot of sorrow. Life and property worth crores was destroyed and it is for us to read between the lines as to who actually benefited from the tragedy—man-made tragedy. It is hightime we realize that tolerance pays better dividends in the long run and also God is never pleased with violence—it erodes the very religion the perpetrators of these persecutions, try to preach.
WS - Is Christmas and the New Year celebrated as international events?
VP - India is heading towards better times due to high advances in technology and globalization. The world is a small place due to advances in transport and communications. Indians belonging to all religions have travelled abroad, on business or pleasure and have imbibed of the alien spirit and even food habits. Indians more and more embrace to western style of living and hot drinks and non-veg. food is no longer a rarity with them. On the contrary they have fully merged with the international community and enjoy Xmas and New Year with full gusto. The people of other religions celebrate Christmas in the same spirit as Christians, erecting Xmas trees, welcoming the Xmas father and exchanging cards and presents. We Christians also celebrate the festival of lights, Diwali, that brings a lot of cheer to our youngsters. All Indians accept the New Year 1st of January as start of the year to keep accounts and so on. Recently India has scrapped the holiday that was enjoyed on the first day of January. This is because various religions have their own special days as holidays. New Year, especially is celebrated with great enthusiasm and all and sundry join the fun at midnight of 31st December to bring in the New Year with great fanfare. After all Indians have seen life abroad and they want to keep up with the Jonesses. The modern sophisticated jetset crowd enjoy in 5-star hotels and holiday resorts. After all the New Year comes after 365 days and it is an opportunity to meet friends and family in this season that is the best as it is very pleasant with moderate cold that even increases the appetite for good Christmas season delicacies. Christmas Season brings a lot of cheer to all Indians immaterial what religion they belong.
Interview by Lynus Paul Misquitta