Minds Are Like Parachutes, They Only Function When Open

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

India needs a real change

An impecunious woman in her seventies was pondering at the impeccable interiors and arrogant ostentation of the shopping mall situated at the centre of Hyderabad, a cosmopolitan city in Southern India. Having spent impoverished decades begging at the same place, she has witnessed, if not understood, the transformation of India like no other. Cell phones have replaced the aging telephones, and the emerging technologies have transformed the way the Indian institutions work. Despite an unprecedented development in the last decade socially, technologically and economically, little did her position change and even if it did, it plummeted further below the poverty line. Little known Indian firms on a global stage such as Tata and Mittal have made valuable inroads acquiring multi-billion dollar western firms such as Jaguar and Corus steel and in spite of the rusting infrastructure, automobile and aviation sectors are the fastest growing sectors. This dichotomy or rather the stark contrast between the flamboyance of the mall and breakneck speed of expansion on one hand and the hunger and the indigence on the other is more likely to hit a foreigner in the face but for the city dwellers it is a common sight and barely of any consequence to their hectic lives. Besides this poor woman’s ever deteriorating poverty, there are other things that haven’t changed much and are worsening in line with her destitution. The most important one is the caste system and the apologetic attitude of the public towards this crude and primitive social system.

The caste system here that I am referring to has little to do with the Brahminic Varnashrama Dharma system i.e. the division of social structure according to Brahmanas, Kshtriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras as this stratification is a class system as opposed to caste system known as Jatis. The merits and demerits of the class system and is beyond the scope of this article as well as my knowledge domain and the caste system will remain the focal point in this critique. Moreover, my criticism focuses more on people’s attitude towards caste rather than caste system itself but I thought I wouldn’t be doing justice to the criticism without understanding the origins of the Jati(caste) system.

In the course of early Indian history, various tribal, economic, political and social factors led to the consolidation of the existing social ranks which became a traditional, hereditary system of
social structuring[1]. It operated through thousands of exclusive, endogamous (practice of marrying within a social group) groups, termed Jāti. People of different Jatis across the spectrum from the upper castes to the lowest of castes, tended to avoid intermarriage, sharing of food and drinks, or even close social interaction with other Jatis. Given the diverse cultures across India with numerous tribes and clans with their own languages and dialects the Jati system has a socio-biological explanation and I think it was a natural outcome of innate xenophobic tendency i.e. (dislike against the genetically dissimilar out-group and nepotistic favoritism towards the genetically similar in-group). In Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, author James Waller argues that all human beings "have an innate, evolution-produced tendency to seek proximity to familiar faces(we could argue in this case castes) because what is unfamiliar is probably dangerous and should be avoided[2]. And this would have made sense and probably was advantageous for the community as a whole and would have fostered close relations among a particular caste. Over the generations this practice was passed down to the younger generations and it is least surprising that the caste system is still widely prevalent in India.

But in the current day India, this caste system blended with a potent mix of money and caste superiority, has transformed from a mere inter-social community to a political instrument with devastating consequences. At its infancy, what was purely an endogamous group has developed into a rigid and fundamentalist ideology which in many cases with muscle and economic power manifested itself into mainstream politics of the state. The disastrous effects of caste politics is eloquently put by Lok Satta Party President Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan –“ political parties are fanning the flames of hatred, engineering riots and fragmenting society on the basis of caste, and undermining the Constitution. While countries around the world strove for unity among peoples, political parties in India were consciously perpetuating and accentuating divisions for narrow political ends[3]”.Besides the caste system’s foray into the political stage, the country is in such a pathetic state that majority of people draw their self-esteem, self-respect and identity just by belonging to a particular caste. Hailing the superiority of caste is part of everyday conversations and children are being raised with a constant brain washing of caste superiority which accounts to nothing less than child abuse. Children grow up into adults with false sense of grandiosity and lack of empathy towards other castes or communities which could result in militant outfits such as Ranvir Sena. The caste system is an anachronistic and a regressive ideology in the 21st century and very little is being done to defeat it.

The idea seems far fetched, but I still think, another disturbing consequence of the caste system is the dowry system. I would not go so far as to claim that the dowry system is the direct by-product of the caste system but would have certainly fuelled this practice. In the male dominated where female infanticides were (and still are) ripe along with restrictions on widow marriages and Sati, endogamy which forms the basic foundation of caste system, would have created a stiff competition for bridegrooms, which in effect would have made the dowry system a common and lucrative practice. But the sad reality is that despite our moral standards have changed, it is utterly disgraceful and shameful that dowry is still rampant and often a customary phenomenon in the present day India. Slavery and apartheid, in today’s world are seen as the vilest of ideas, yet dowry and caste system which are a form of a slavery and apartheid are being practiced by every section of Indian society, rich to poor, lower class to higher class, uneducated to educated families alike.

We have entered into a new era of technology and innovation. We have such an easy access to information and knowledge that in unprecedented in history, and we have more understanding of the world than our ancestors and parents do, yet all we do is follow and rehash old stupid traditions, all in the name of respect to our elders wisdom and keeping up with our culture. I think our current generation has greater responsibility than ever, needless to say, ability and the means to inspire our future generations to free India from the clutches of caste system and the barbaric dowry system. We should tell our children that equality and empathy for others is what makes a man and gives him respect and esteem, but not the inherited caste. Marriages within the same caste should be discouraged if not completely shunned and the arranged marriages should be dumped in the dustbin of history. The oft repeated statement “we as parents know who is a better partner for our children” should be replaced by “we raised our children not to be imbeciles and but to be mature enough to take control of their own lives”. We should learn from Germans, who have defeated Nazism in just over fifty years and from Japanese, who alienated themselves from imperialism and grown into a major economic power from the brink of total destruction. I honestly think we can do the same and clean the caste politics and the social system of India, but do we have the guts to do it?



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