The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) held in Geneva (September 2009) deliberated on the recognition of caste as race. It proposed to ensure that descent and work based discriminations need to be fought against at global level. Nearly 200 million people all over the World are victims of such discriminations, which are associated with notion of purity, pollution and practices of untouchability. These are deeply rooted in our society and have also assumed cultural forms. India so far has been taking the stand that caste issues should not be internationalized as caste is not race and it is our internal matter. On this issue, earlier Nepal, a Hindu Kingdom, also was toeing similar line. With overthrow of Hindu Kingdom and coming in of democracy, Nepal has come to take the stand that caste based discriminations are akin to race based one’s and so international efforts need to be thought of to supplement the national efforts. India still is trying to hide its underbelly, which is quite unfortunate.
There are two types of pressures on India currently. The Human Rights activists are urging that India should take leadership in ensuring that UN norms are brought up, caste recognized as race and the caste discrimination should invite censures from UN as well. On the other hand BJP spokesperson Ravi Shanker Prasad stated that India should oppose such a move as that will involve UN sanctions if such violations take place in India. He went to say this internationalizing the issue of caste is a failure of India’s foreign policy. At the same time we read that dalits were beaten up (15th Oct 2009) while trying to enter temple in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu. This is a matter of great shame. This temple entry was part of several such programs planned to ensure that dalits are not discriminated against in temples. We recall that nearly eight decades earlier Dr. Ambedkar also met a similar fate when he organized Kalaram Temple agitation on the issue of Dalits entry into temples. How little things have changed after such a lapse of time!
In consequence, Nepal has been the first country in South Asia, where untouchability has been traditionally practiced, to articulate its opposition to those abysmal practices in a very strong manner at International level as well. UNHRC document is proposing a regional and international mechanism, UN and its organs are to complement national efforts to combat caste discrimination. It proposes to equate all discrimination on the basis of caste occupation and descent as violation of Human rights. India’s opposition to this is shocking despite an earlier (2006) statement by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which compared untouchability to apartheid. It seems that the state machinery has elements that are deliberately tilting the policies in this retrograde direction. BJP’s opposition to the UN Human rights efforts is quite understandable, as BJP politics is based around the goal of Hindu Rashtra. In all the concepts of religious nationalism, based on any religion for that matter, there is a neat division between rights and duties. Rights are for elite dominant sections and duties are for the downtrodden! So as per that human rights for dalits and women are unthinkable. But how come Manmohan Singh who equated untouchabilty with apartheid is keeping quiet on this?
Despite the provisions enshrined in our constitution and various prevalent laws the practice of untouchability, caste based discriminations do persist. There are also political tendencies, which want to undo the affirmative action directed to uplift those discriminated due to caste. In India today various theories are doing rounds as to the origin of the caste. Many of these are mere propaganda of vested political interests in the guise of theories.
It is being propagated that caste system came into being due to the invasion of Muslim Kings, who were out to convert the local people by sword. According to this those Hindus who were very proud of their religion escaped to forests, resulting in their social down slide and so the caste system came into being. The other such Hindus who opposed their conversion were forced to clean the toilets of Muslim kings and elite. Due to this, caste system came in and untouchability became a norm! These ‘theories’ of caste system are merely a figment of ‘politically necessary’ imaginations, not based on any historical scholarship or deeper social understanding of those times.
Some of the more serious theories revolve around Aryan-Dravid race theories, some around Marxist class theory of division of labor. About the Aryan-Dravid theory of caste, recently Genome studies have ruled out any water tight Aryan-Dravid divide, as there is unrecognizable mixture. Aryans took some as Dasas, but later intermixing was very extensive to be able to maintain race boundaries. As far as class theories, division of labor, Ambedkars’s comments are very apt, caste is not a division of labor, it is a division of laborers.
The origin of caste is much more complex. Ambedkar in his various contributions presents highly nuanced theory of caste origin. Two of his books, ‘Who were the Shudras?’ and ‘Untouchables’ deal with it. His ‘Revolution and Counter Revolution in Ancient India’ also throws light on the topic. Ambedkar rejects the race theory to a great extent. As per him caste is a social division of people, created by ideological and religious factors. The concept of caste can traced to first Millennium BC. Let’s remember here that Muslim kings’ influence in India began around eleventh century only.
Multiple factors operated in converting the locally organized tribes into castes. The process was not sudden and went on getting rigid over a period of time. The factors converting these local tribes into caste entities were, coming of Aryans and Brahminical ideology. The Aryans who came here were divided loosely into three groups, warriors; priests and trader-farmers. The Dasas were added up here in India. Over a period of time this loose arrangement became birth based and tribes in local areas got transformed into fixed endogamous groups, belonging to a particular caste, performing a fixed economic function. This in turn created a social hierarchy between castes. By second century AD its contours are very marked.
The Vedic period is a one of Varna. Purush Sukta of Rig Veda tells us that Lord Brahma created four varnas from the body of Virat Purush. With coming of Buddhism, Brahmanical values of Varna got challenged and were not adhered to. This resulted in the betterment of condition of Shudra and women. This period is followed by the period of Manu Smriti (2nd Century AD) where Varna gets converted in to caste, with consequent downgrading of shudras and women.
The Muslim Kings who ruled areas of the country did not disturb the local social arrangements. As a matter of fact they had many associates and advisors, who were Hindus and they were also part of top echelons of administration and army during this period. Two other phenomena took place during this period. One, Indian caste system affected Muslim community as well, because of which there came into being castes amongst Muslim community, Ashraf; Azlaf and Arzal, quiet akin to the caste hierarchy in Hindu society. Two, some low caste Hindus tried to escape the Brahminical tyranny by embracing Islam under the influence of Sufi saints. Bhakti tradition also talked against caste system. Most of the Bhakti saints themselves were from low caste.
The period of freedom movement, in contrast, is a period of the beginning of processes demanding the equality of caste and gender. Movement for Indian nationalism was accompanied by these values while the politics based on Muslim Nationalism and Hindu nationalism, had not much to do with these social processes. Low caste Muslims and Hindus both kept aloof from Religious nationalism and followed the concept of composite Indian nationalism. We see the contrast that the protagonists of equality for Shudras burn Manusmriti, the codification of caste and gender hierarchy, while the one’s based on religious nationalism called for ancient glories when Manu Smriti was ruling the roost. Some of them (Deen Dayal Upadhyay) went on to state that different varnas are like different limbs of the body politic of the society, needed for proper equilibrium in society.
Today sixty years after Independence and coming into being of Indian Constitution, the prevalence of untouchability and caste practices are a matter of shame for us. It is time we intensify our own efforts to eradicate it and join the global efforts to end this carry over from our past.