Each in Their Place: Caste and Class Are Both Complex Defence Systems against Equality. but They Have Important Differences Too. Mari Marcel Thekaekara Takes a Look at the Evil Twins from an Indian Perspective

By Thekaekara, Mari M. | New Internationalist, January/February 2004 | Go to article overview

Each in Their Place: Caste and Class Are Both Complex Defence Systems against Equality. but They Have Important Differences Too. Mari Marcel Thekaekara Takes a Look at the Evil Twins from an Indian Perspective


Thekaekara, Mari M., New Internationalist


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IF you live with something long enough, it ceases to shock you. That's caste in India. I rant and I rage at the injustice of it, the sheer cruelty of it. But I'm not shocked by it.

Class in Britain, on the other hand, shocks me. Recently I listened in amazement to a man who told me proudly that his family had been tenants for several hundred years on some Duke's decrepit estate. To me, this sounded suspiciously like the feudal system of the Middle Ages, not Britain in 2003.

Feudal landholdings were outlawed, at least in theory, by the Indian Constitution some 50 years ago which decreed that if one farms a piece of land for 13 years one earns the automatic right to own it.

So why would a 21st-century Brit accept that a man whose ancestor, by virtue of being born on the wrong side of some royal blanket, would be his Lord and Master 200 years down the line? Because class in Britain is alive and well and accepted as inevitable.

It takes time for the outsider to understand the British class system. In India, the modern class system borrows liberally from the British; we learnt our lessons well, taking over from where the colonial masters left off. So in India we have both traditional caste and modern class well and truly in place and even the most liberated people flaunt it - albeit discreetly - when it suits them, to prove a point: to tell you who they are.

A brief history of caste

Perhaps the only class-free society in India was that of the indigenous or adivasi people who still today manage to practise equality with a wisdom that is truly humbling. Yet this lack of acquisitiveness, this disregard for hoarding, has earned indigenous communities sobriquets like 'uncivilized' or 'primitive'.

Then came caste, a system devised by Machiavellian minds to keep an entire sub-group in bondage forever. Caste was invented by the Hindu Brahmin or priestly group some 2,000 years ago. They took what were essentially divisions of labour and dictated that everyone had a predestined, preordained station in life. To ensure that this diktat was obeyed, they created an elaborate religious system which insisted that your birth in this life was directly related to your sins or good deeds in the last one. Hence everyone had to accept this rigid system which controlled society and totally prohibited social mobility.

Knowledge was closely controlled by the Brahmins. Disobedience could mean death or worse. For example Manu, the Hindu lawgiver who codified a great deal of caste-dictated social behaviour into rigid laws, decreed that 'a Dalit (person below or outside the caste system) who listened to the chanting of the Vedas (holy texts) should have molten lead poured into his ears'.

The system benefited the upper castes who had what amounted to slave labour for centuries. Even Muslims, Sikhs and Christians in India have internalized this system. They cling to the castes they were born into and, though less rigid about the polluting effect of the lower castes, tend to keep to their caste sub-groups when it comes to arranging marriages.

Caste thus became a system set in stone. The Muslim Mughal Empire that conquered and ruled India in the 16th and 17th centuries was feudal, and the people who converted to Islam from the upper Hindu castes thus became part of the feudal elite. However, there was a certain amount of upward mobility for anyone who caught the Mughal Emperor's eye.

Enter class

Then in the 18th century came the British. In the 1830s Lord Macaulay introduced English as the language of education in India to provide the empire with the clerks and administrators it needed. He certainly succeeded in creating a cadre of 'brown sahibs', Indians who sought to emulate British dress, customs and language. Upward mobility was linked to the way you spoke and wrote English. Today, getting a decent job without a good grasp of English is still almost impossible in India. …

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