What is India? The question has many answers. One definite answer that I can think of is that India is a country of castes. This has definitely made it different from all the other countries in the world. Nations have pluralities based on race, class, religion and gender. India has all of these and additionally castes that have constructed us as entirely different beings. We may see racial differences, even the life-modes are more different from caste to caste. If the many religions have brought in differences in belief, the thousands of castes have resulted in differences in taste as well. In each city and village, people live in distinctly different social clusters. Caste has formulated even our concept of beauty differently.
If we are to see Indians as modern social blocs, they live as Adivasis, Dalits, obcs and upper castes. Globalisation is driving the first three blocs into a death trap, and the latter towards a hi-tech economy. This reality takes us to other questions: Whose India is it? Who constructed India as a modern nation and who controls its essence?
If India is defined as a nation of productive skills—of tilling land, of cutting crops—its holistic (meatarianism and vegetarianism) food culture, its symbols of civilisation such as the pot, wheel, shoe, sculpture and so on—it belongs to the Adivasis, Dalits and obcs. If India is defined as a nation of books (from the Rig Veda to the Bhagavad Gita to M.S. Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts), big temples and theoretical ownership of them—it belongs to the Brahmins. If that definition includes owning of wealth—land as property, gold, bungalows, cars, airplanes, IT institutions, star hospitals, hotels, Parliament and assemblies, judicial structures, media and so on—it belongs to the upper castes.
This social division, mode of ownership of the nation, is unlike the one that we see in class societies. In class societies, the hope of moving from ownership of skills to ownership of products to ownership of the history of production—the material wealth of that history is an attainable reality for the oppressed. In a caste society, that hope remains a mirage.
In ancient times, the Adivasis, Chandalas and Sudras had no right to education; and hence no knowledge of national self. Education was the prerogative of the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. Colonial modernity extended the right to education to all. In the post-independence period, a small section from the oppressed castes got an opportunity to read and write, and became conscious of their own otherness. Now, they hear the rhetoric of the Hindutva forces: one nation, one culture, one people. This is only to hoodwink them.
When they realise that the nation is made of their labour power and productive skills, the Dalit-Bahujans feel happy. When they realise that the wealth of the nation is actually their sweat and blood and yet does not belong to them, they stand stunned and shocked. What is more is that educational institutions do not recognise their historical contribution; their knowledge is not characterised as meritorious. So-called institutions of science never consider their knowledge of productive skills as science. Their names do not figure while patenting these knowledge systems. And they know that this happens because of the caste system.
This is an age of globalisation, about which every intellectual of the country is excited. But when a proposal for discussing the question of caste at a UN forum comes up, every intellectual of India is afraid that it might become a global issue. National sovereignty is suddenly invoked. When opening up the Indian markets for multinationals, when selling public sector undertakings at throwaway prices to global agencies, national sovereignty hides itself in the Capital’s cupboard.
The once-enslaved African Americans, the migrant Asian-Africans in Britain, the upper caste Indian diaspora in Euro-American countries, they have all acquired the right to total dignity. Women have got the right to discuss globally the indignities suffered by them within their families. But the Dalits of India have no right to talk about their lost history at international fora and have no right to equal status.
Who do the present governing forces represent? Yes, democracy has given the ruling castes a right to claim representativeness, but not to appropriate the national essence for posterity. Vajpayee, Advani and Jaswant Singh can simply say that even a discussion on caste depends on their will and pleasure. The situation of the Dalit-Bahujan masses is similar to that of a black and beautiful buffalo that gives more milk—white milk at that—than the cows of India, but has no sacred status in civil society and no legal protection in the Constitution. Such a situation forces us to ask, whose India is it anyway?
(Kancha Ilaiah, author of Why I Am Not a Hindu, teaches political science at Osmania University, Hyderabad.)