By Abhinita Mohanty:
Many researches have been done by both sociologists and orientalists to understand the complexities involved regarding caste in India. Louis Dumont, whose theory on caste is considered to be most adequate, said that in case of caste, the whole notion of purity and pollution is based on ritual ‘purity’ than on physical purity. The more one deals with natural wastes, the more impure one is. So, naturally barbers who deal with nails, hairs, ‘doms’ who deal with dead bodies, washermen who wash dirty linen are all untouchables and were bereft of rights in traditional India. But caste system has changed a lot since Dumont’s time.
A shift in power has occurred which was unthinkable in traditional India. Power is no more a monopoly of Brahmins or the kashtriyas (ruling class). Power has shifted to the middle strata of caste and also due to reservations, to the lower castes. But the reason to cheer is marred by the fact that success in politics depend less on caste and more on money and muscle power. The link between caste and politics in contemporary India and the power shift is something that needs to be discussed on a larger context than this. But I must mention that the political importance of caste has increased than its social importance. Candidates are appointed and ministries are made playing on caste politics, though other factors are also taken into account. This shift in power, instead of bringing any good, has led to more chaos and conflicts within politics. The higher castes are unhappy with this shift and the lower castes assert themselves again and again, and both equally misuse and seek power in every way. Uttar Pradesh, which was ruled by a ‘dalit’ Chief Minister, is notorious for recording the highest rates of crimes against dalit women.
Now coming to the changing social scenario of caste, it gets even more interesting. Caste as a typical Indian phenomena has perplexed many non Indians, and they wonder as to how a concept with a primitive origin based hierarchy and superiority continues to operate in the modern India. In an era when westernization and modernization has become the trump card among the Indian middle class to vouch for the elite status, the question is what relevance caste has? All the values that one needs to accept to be called ‘global’ and ‘polished’ is largely being embraced by the Indian middle class, but caste continues to evade in all important aspect of life. It will be erroneous to say that caste as a system has not undergone changes within the social ambit, with times. The fact is caste, as a system; with its typical features of monopoly over jobs, segregation in public spaces, and explicit exploitation (like bowing before higher castes, not wearing shoes) is all passÃ©. But caste as an institution still survives and thrives amidst the glaring glow of modernity.
When it comes to marriage, recruiting a domestic maid or allowing someone into their kitchen; caste as an institution suddenly emanates from its guise. The same people who would talk of equality, brag about their liberalism and expect their children to ‘look’ western, suddenly seem to be within a cocoon of antiquity, when it comes to their children’s marriage. Inter caste marriage, though is being accepted by many today, yet in most cases is frowned upon, especially in certain northern states of India where young couples are killed in the name of caste and honour. People would seldom mind to share lunch in their offices with a low caste colleague and take food from an untouchable in restaurants today. But no puritan ‘housewife’ or no sane man will allow this same colleague to enter their kitchen or the room where gods and goddesses are kept. A ‘dalit’ may be the chairman of a corporation with many high castes directors following her order but when she goes to her village, she is expected to follow her ‘caste rules’ and be conscious of her low status.
There lies the Indian hypocrisy. No one accepts caste as a form of distinction in public spaces anymore but it is followed privately within homes and minds. Caste moulds everyone since their childhood. A small child who seldom is conscious about their identity as an an Indian, will blabber something when you ask them about their caste. Caste and ‘gotra’ names are taught to every child and they are sub consciously socialized to accept the superiority of their own caste over others. Caste as a rigid system is rarely found today, but as a solid social institution you can see it everywhere. Caste today may not overshadow a person’s class or talent/opportunities (if they are financially well off) but it continues to be the shadow, following you from cradle to the grave.