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Understanding Existential Castes
Through Atrocity Metrics

By Anand Teltumbde

14 November, 2009

I make following five propositions:

•  The classical caste system depicted by the four varna structure is almost dead in India .

•  The existent caste system in India is concentrated at the lowest edge of the caste framework marking the division of caste and non-caste people.

•  While in urban areas the caste system operates as a system of premium and discounts, its most insidious expression in the vast countryside is caste atrocities.

•  Caste atrocities are the best proxy measure of the operational casteism and provide meaningful metrics to understand its contemporary form and content. Ending them would effectively end the remaining castes.

•  Any attempt to present castes in a more complex manner amounts to obfuscate their essential feature and only serves the interests of the ruling classes.


Despite huge scholarly interest in castes since colonial times and long history of anti-caste struggle, the discourse on caste still runs in a stereotypical manner, taking them as amorphous continuum of hierarchy, which is sourced from the Hindu dharmashastras. There is a kind of romantic delight in amplifying the prowess of this vile institution as defying the expectations of many, including the likes of Marx, who expected that it would crumble under the onslaught of capitalism and the forces of modernity.


The problem with this kind of understanding of castes is that it is utterly useless in dealing with them excepting perhaps for academic accomplishments and political opportunism. Firstly, such an amorphous continuum is not amenable to break into the neat contending camps with antagonistic contradictions, the resolution of which could be termed as resolution of caste issue. Secondly, since this continuum is supposed to exist with the religious authority of Hinduism, one is misled to infer that unless Hinduism is destroyed, castes may not be annihilated. Thirdly, the continuum, with its inevitable fluidity in holding innumerable castes in hierarchy entails endless contention between them and imparts it a kind of self-regulative perpetuity. And fourthly, in dealing with them it impels people towards directionless ‘social engineering' rather than aiming at revolutionary change that this kind of deep rooted venom requires.


Castes are essentially hierarchy-seeking and hence pervasively divisive. They cut across classes, tend to germinate reactionary consciousness and hence cannot be used for articulating any radical struggle. It is not to say that the caste struggles that have taken place during the last century did not have radical content. They indeed were waged with radical vision and even accomplished a significant change in the lives of India 's shudras and ati-shudras, the worst victims of castes. However, down the line, they entailed rejuvenation of caste consciousness and enlivening of caste identities, totally antithetical development as far as their avowed objective of annihilation of castes was concerned.


In my analysis the main reason for this paradoxical result lay in their lack of grasp of the essence of castes to begin with and the failure to keep pace with their subsequent developments.


If we see through the brief history of encounters with castes, we get varied conceptions of castes depending upon the intent of the definer:


Colonial rulers saw castes with their divisive potential and promoted their conceptualisation in a manner in which India appeared sans civil society and as a bunch of communities warring among themselves. Towards this object, they built up huge information base through district gazetteers from 1869, decennial census from 1871, provincial statistics (1875) and encyclopaedic castes and tribes survey (1891) that reinforced divisive consciousness among people. Anti-Brahmin movement took castes as the contrivance of the outsider Aryan conquerors, the ancestors of the present day Brahmans, for enslaving native people and therefore targeted Brahmins and sought to discard their customs and traditions. Dalit movement, particularly under Dr. Ambedkar, while rejecting the racial theory of castes propounded by the non-Brahmin movement and identifying the enemy in Brahmanism, distinct from Brahman caste, along with capitalism as the contemporary exploitative system, however came to the conclusion with regard to castes that they were an integral part of the Hindu religio-cultural structure and proposed renouncement of Hinduism to escape the caste bondage. For the Communists castes were just a feudal relic, a part of the superstructure, which would automatically vanish when the economic base is changed through revolution. The contemporary Bahujanwadis (and its offshoots such as Mulanivasis) look at castes as an asset to mobilise the oppressed masses into a constituency of 85% to vanquish the 15% upper castes.


All of these conceptualizations reflect varied degree of theoretical confusion and miss out the essential character of castes. As a result, while the non-brahmin movement and Dalit movement succeeded in some degree in challenging the upper caste rule and alleviating caste sufferings of the oppressed castes, they could not eliminate them altogether. Castes have not only survived but have also grown in their oppressive content.


Contrary to commonplace notion castes have been changing all through history. One can easily note momentous changes in them during colonial period, brought about by the imperatives of colonial rule. The socio-cultural milieu of pre-colonial India principally shaped by the family and kinship institutions that conditioned minds with a religious and caste identity was severally impacted by the influx of western liberalism, colonial culture and ideology. The early reforms initiated by Warren Hastings, who was sent as the first governor general of India by the British Crown in terms of Regulating Act of 1773, such as instituting private ownership of land and codification of Hindu and Muslim laws according to their respective scriptures, had vastly strengthened the upper castes. Integration of India into a single politico-administrative unit and consequently institution of a civil service, army, judiciary, etc. variously impacted the socio-economic structure of the Indian society. Implementation of uniform criminal law significantly weakened the caste panchayats. Besides these and such other administrative changes, the advent of capitalism during colonial times wrought significant changes in the caste system.


It is true that unlike Europe capitalism in India did not have to contend with feudalism; rather it saw feudalism as an important ally in its supply chain. What however should be noted is that the upper castes, mainly banias and Brahmins, from which the early capitalist class (entrepreneurs and managers) emerged, largely lost the ritual sense of hierarchy among them, which was characteristic of castes. The capitalist culture certainly had a debilitating impact on the caste culture and traditions of these communities leading to obliteration of ritual notion of caste and promotion of social osmosis among them. The capitalist class comprising entrepreneurs and managers belonging to banias and Brahmins, and other business communities like Parsis, Khojas and Bohras, largely overcome the classical caste hierarchy and came closer as a class. They would however promote caste divide among the lower castes, to keep their feudal allies in supply chain pleased and to discipline the working class in their own establishments with its fatalistic ideology and divisive ethos.


After independence, the bourgeois landlord state that came into being in India adopted the modernist constitution. The constitution created an elaborate structure of protective and development measures for the dalits and tribals, the people technically outside the purview of the caste system. The state settled for modernization because the feudal classes also saw prospects for their advancement through it. The Nehruvian modernist Project, significantly comprising Land Reforms and Green Revolution, immensely enriched the traditional farming shudra castes firstly by making them owners of land and thereafter bringing them huge productivity gains. The erstwhile upper caste landlords shifted to the urban areas leaving the villages under the lordship of the shudra rich farmers. With their economic empowerment coupled with their numerical strength achieved by consolidating all the middle-band shudra castes, they soon became an important element in the political sphere.


In the context of castes, Green Revolution brought in capitalist relations in the countryside through development of cash economy and markets for agricultural inputs/ outputs and credit. On the positive side for dalits, it broke the backbone of the balutedari system but on the negative side, it abolished many of their traditional vocations. Without any alternative means of livelihood, the dalits were increasingly pushed to work on the shudra farms as landless labourers. In absence of the traditional upper castes in villages, the baton of Brahmanism was wielded by the neo-rich shudra castes sans cultural sophistry of the former. They expected dalits to pay them obeisance as they did to the upper castes in yesteryears. However, the consciousness gained by dalits through their movement conflicted with this expectation and contributed to building up grudge against them, which could precipitate into atrocity with slightest provocation.


The shudra castes today dominate the political establishment of the entire country and are fast coming up in entreneurship too. Although the vaishyas and Brahmins may be very visible as leading the capitalist establishment because of their first movers' advantage, the shudra castes are fast catching up. The Gounders in Tamilnadu, a traditional farming caste, creating a world's biggest knitwear industry in Thirupur or the Nadars dominating the fire cracker industry in Shivkasi and dominating the transportation industry, or Marathas in Maharashtra controlling the sugar cooperatives and education sectors or Patels in Gujarat becoming big businessmen and industrialists are just a few examples. With their advancement in the economic and political scale the ritual status of the shudra castes as a classical inferior caste group has almost vanished.


The rise of the shudras has led to the emergence of regional political parties by 1970s, which made politics fiercely competitive and impelled parties to increasingly make use of caste and communal identities. It culminated into formation of the first coalition government at the centre in 1977 which changed the complexion of politics permanently thereafter. The very discourse on backwardness of the backward castes, reflected by Mandal Commission also is a product of this process. This discourse could be clearly seen as responsible for opening the floodgates of caste identities in the name of backwardness. It is not that there are no poor or backwards among the shudras. India where 78 percent people subside on the earning of about 40 cents a day and suffer various deprivations is naturally fraught only with poor and backward people strewn across the castes and communities. Caste however is not about secular poverty and backwardness; it is about the socio-cultural, quasi-racial prejudice against certain people.


Thus, there is no socio-cultural prejudice among the castes within the formal caste system. If there is not enough intercaste transaction among them, it is partly because of the cultural drag and partly for the class difference. The caste prejudice however exists only against dalits. The existent caste system therefore reduces to the divide between dalits and non-dalits. While it is pervasively experienced by dalits, its most menacing manifestation is seen in the form of atrocities on dalits in rural areas.


The empowerment of the shudra castes and relative disempowerment of dalits in countryside coupled with the latter's cultural assertion has been responsible for caste clashes and caste atrocities. While dalits were always wronged, the phenomenon of caste atrocities could be marked by the increased power asymmetry between dalits and shudras in villages by the late 1960s. O ne of the first grave atrocities took place on 25 December 1968 in Keezhavenmani in old Thanjavur district in which 44 dalits, mostly women and children were massacred by the landlords and their henchmen. It was followed by spate of atrocities all over the country. Initially, as even in Keezhavenmani, the atrocities came as a consequence of class struggle waged by the communist parties, firstly the parliamentary parties and later the naxalites. After Keezhavenmani, it was Purnia in Bihar which saw the first caste massacre in 1969. Then there were spate of killings all over Bihar over three decades. It only stopped when Dalits began to retaliate with the help of naxalites by the late 1990s.


Atrocities mirror the intricacies of social dynamics vis-à-vis caste. As for instance there has been a qualitative difference between atrocities earlier and now. Earlier, atrocities were committed as a routine with an assumption of absolute right over Dalits, with no sense of wrongdoing. Now atrocities are committed with a sense of loss of that right, with a sense of being wronged. Earlier, atrocities were committed in arrogance as Dalits would not speak out; now they are committed in vengeance against Dalit assertion. Earlier, atrocities were the manifestation of contempt for Dalits, today they are the manifestation of resentment against the privileges Dalits get from the state.


There has also been a difference between the nature of atrocities earlier and now. Earlier, they were committed as an integrated part of the interaction between Dalits and non-Dalits and hence tended to be casual, more of humiliating in nature than of physically damaging. Today, they are far more violent and are in nature of vengeance or punishment. They are therefore not only humiliating but also physically destructive; far more brutal than before. Earlier, atrocities were mostly committed by individuals, in a huff of rage. Now they are committed collectively, somewhat in a planned manner, in a mode of demonstrative justice; teaching a lesson to the entire community. The increasing number of atrocities against Dalits in recent years has been alarming enough but this change in their intensity also is noteworthy.


Atrocities, data on which incidentally are maintained by the government, can serve as the best proxy measure for the existent casteism. The intensity of atrocities, the area in which they take place, their frequency, their time series growth and even the data on the subsequent process of justice delivery system provide good metrics to understand castes and caste dynamics and for strategizing combat against them. Many a myth gets exploded in their wake. For instance, the myth that only the upper (brahmanical) castes are the oppressor of dalits and in corollary the shudra (backward) castes are their allies; the myth that economic development dampen castes, the myth that the caste atrocities are the correlate of feudal economy, the myth of representation logic dearly upheld by Dalits that if their caste-men are represented in administration, the latter would take care of their interests; the myth that atrocities are committed only on the weakest of dalits, the myth that there exists a vibrant anti-caste Dalit movement that is vigilant about the dalit interests, the myth that the formal political opposition represents contradiction among the ruling classes (castes) and which helps dalits in fighting their oppression, the myth that political action of dalits is leader-centric, the myth about the independence of judiciary and impartial media; the myth that there exists a sizable progressive civil society, which is against casteism and the greatest myth of state being the friend of Dalits or at least impartial mediator between Dalits and others, had all crumbled at Khairlanji, as variously in other atrocity cases. It held out mirror before us and showed us what needs to be done. All atrocities unambiguously exposed that casteism is no more confined to civil society; it is well supported by the state apparatus, implying thereby that the anti-caste forces necessarily have to deal with the state too.


Given the obscure origins and the resilience of the caste system, the viable strategy for combating caste could be seen in curbing its manifestation. In contemporary times, atrocities being the most dominant manifestation of castes, the strategic focus should be to arrest atrocities. As seen before, the root cause for atrocities is the growing power asymmetry between dalits and non-dalits in villages. It may be interesting to recall that more than seven decades ago Dr. Ambedkar, while explaining the rationale behind his declaration to renounce Hinduism to his vanguard activists in 1936 had exclusively focused on the issue of atrocities and diagnosed exactly the same thing. He proposed the solution in terms of supplementing dalit-strength by merging dalit community with some existing religious community through mass conversion. Although his religious conversion in 1956 did not confirm to this prescription, the futility of communitarian solution or religious conversion is not difficult to see. In the then communally charged atmosphere, it might have been thinkable to speak in terms of communitarian solution, but today when the classes have sprouted out of the bellies of each caste, they would be utterly useless. The power asymmetry between dalits and non-dalits can be effectively overcome only by their class unity with others, transcending the caste idiom. While it may appear as the distant dream to many today for historical and other reasons, it is the only effective solution to the caste problem worth pursuing. The initiative in this respect shall have to be taken by the Left forces. The beginning can always be made if they join dalits with ideological clarity in retaliating atrocities. As the experience in Tsunduru and the Gaya-Aurangabad belt indicated, retaliation is the only effective way of curbing the atrocities and in turn castes. The shockwave created through it can not only deter the perpetrators of crime but also detach the oppressed masses of the shudra castes from them. The same can also impel desired cultural change and accelerate class unity of the oppressed masses across castes.

Contrary to commonplace view, the problem of castes has become much simpler today than ever before. The existential castes are confined to a divide between dalits and non-dalits, quite like the racial divide between blacks and white or the class division between capitalists and proletariat. No time in history, castes rendered themselves as easy for combating against as they do now. The historical project of annihilation of castes is accomplishable now, provided the forces swearing by it are ready to act.


Dr. Anand Teltumbde is a Mumbai based human rights activist and writer on the issues related to peoples' movement.


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