I must've been 10 or 11 when I first remember some distant relative remarking, "Woh apne casht ka nahin hai".
It wasn't a derogatory remark, just a matter of fact one. Pointing to the fact that here was someone with different customs with respect to food or marriage or just the way a certain festival was to be celebrated.
So perhaps I should qualify my earlier remark about having grown up without the concept of caste. I did grow up without the concept of caste as some kind of rigid system which you're born into, that determines your entire existence.
But of course I was aware of 'caste' in terms of the way it is more often and casually used in India - as community. As V G Julie Rajan points out in an article in Hinduism Today:
Today, most Hindus do not abide by the chatur varna (four caste) system but classify themselves according to the more specific colloquial form of caste known as the jati system. Jati are horizontal divisions within the four castes, and there are thousands of them, segregated according to occupational, sectarian, regional and linguistic distinctions.
So when a Dalit leader lamented on NDTV,"They (as in upper castes) don't wish to marry us!" I wanted to point out to him that it's a much more complex issue than what he's suggesting. In a country where arranged marriages are still the norm, parents prefer to get the children married into families very similar to their own. So it's not caste per se they look at but 'community'.
As Madhu Kishwar, editor of Manushi magazine explains, "The operative unit even today for social and marriage purposes is not caste but jati. You talk of brahmins as a caste, which is pan-Indian, but the fact is that a Tamilian brahmin would rarely have a marriage alliance with a Punjabi brahmin. They are as far apart from each other culturally as could possibly be. It's really not the operative and, yet, we have the whole notion of Brahmin domination, Brahmins as a caste, whereas the regional differences matter much more."
I think this is an important point which is getting lost in the entire crusade against caste as a social system. I am not defending caste (in the classical sense) here. Although there are enough thinkers and historians who've pointed out that the system had its merits, but degenerated over a period of time.
The point is that degeneration (the practice of untouchability, specifically) is completely unacceptable in modern society. Neither do we, in a modern society, wish to be born in and be tied to a particular occupation.
The new interpretation of 'caste' is more in terms of a community of people who share ancestry, and certain social and cultural rituals. Again, this can be a bad thing if I feel my community is superior to yours. Or my allegiance to my community comes first. (Which is a sentiment politicians exploit when communities choose to see themselves as 'votebanks')
But there are positives as well!
Why community matters
The ideal state is if we can engineer a society where community is not our primary identity, but merely a part of it. But its existence makes us more interesting people than a country like America where within 2 generations, a person from Poland or Sweden or Russia simply became a standard issue 'American'.
In India it comes naturally to most people to identify the region from where a person originates, based on his surname. I think that's a cool skill to have - as long as you don't oppress, suppress or write off a person based on this information. That is the vision the nation-state must put forward.
Secondly, community serves as a kind of social security network for millions of people. And, according R Vaidyanathan, a professor of Finance at IIM Bangalore, it is also a form of social capital.
“Since 1985,” says the World Bank’s World Development report, “Tirupur has become a hotbed of economic activity in the production of knitted garments... The success of this industry is striking. This is particularly so as the production of knitted garments is capital-intensive, and the state banking monopoly had been ineffective at targeting capital funds to efficient entrepreneurs, especially at the levels necessary to sustain Tirupur’s high growth rates.”
"What is behind this story of development? The needed capital was raised within the Gounder community, a caste relegated to land-based activities, relying on community and family network. Those with capital in the Gounder community transfer it to others in the community through long-established informal credit institutions and rotating savings and credit associations. These networks were viewed as more reliable in transmitting information and enforcing contracts than the banking and legal systems that offered weak protection of creditor rights.”
Prof Vaidyanathan believes the amount of networking and contract enforcement mechanisms available with caste institutions has not been fully studied, despite the striking success of Tirupur. He observes, "Large amounts of literature are available on Marwaris, Sindhis, Katchis, Patels, etc, and the global networks they have created. But the point that is often still missed is that, in a financial sense, caste provides the edge in risk taking, since failure is recognised, condoned, and sometimes even encouraged by the caste group.
He concludes: The 1998 economic census ...revealed that eighty per cent of all the enterprises in the country (24.39 million) were self-financing. Much of it would have come from informal caste networks. Attention should, therefore, focus on enhancing credit systems for such enterprises, especially those owned by SC/ ST and other backward communities.
Incidentally, the census data showed that as much as half of all enterprises were owned by SCs/ STs/ OBCs in the rural areas and nearly 38% per cent in the urban areas. Of this a large chunk is owned by OBCs.
Our tribal minds
This division of mankind into "Us" and "Them" is a universal human trait. David Berreby has written an amazing book called exactly that - 'Us and Them: Understanding your Tribal Mind' which goes into the science behind why we behave as we do. It's not easy to read (I am stuck on page 103) but may be worth picking up!
He writes: "A category of person starts out as an idea in someone's mind. That person convinces others that he or she is onto something, nd the idea spreads. The people who belong to the newly minted human kind start using the concept to giuide their behaviour and understand themselves."
In recent times, new communities have emerged in India, based on shared beliefs and experiences. So for example, if a guy working in an advertising agency were to marry his colleague, both families may be quite OK with that because they perceive there is enough commonality between the two young people in terms of lifestyle and education to transcend differences like language or community in the traditional sense.
This new community now refers to itself in matrimonial columns as 'cosmopolitan'. But it's still, essentially looking for People Like Us. People who've been through similar schools/ colleges and work at certain kinds of places. People who share similar views on how life should be lived.
The point of what I'm writing is this: what makes this new community superior to the traditional ones? A cosmopolitan person would not marry someone who does not speak English or chews paan. Or exhibits any of a million other 'People Like Them' traits. How different is that from Agrawals saying we don't want our daughters to marry Jats?
To conclude: Caste - with its baggage of untouchability and occupational rigidity must be eliminated from our social system. But caste - as community is not necessarily a bad thing. It makes our country a richer and more interesting place to live in. Except when we use it to trample over each other. When we make it our sole badge of identity.
The idea of reservation for more and more castes - rather, communities - is a step in that very undesirable direction.
And with that I've said just about everything I could possibly say on this issue! It's back to the pavilion for now...