Sunday, Jun 04, 2023

The Caste Cauldron: For Universities To Be Equalisers, Schools Must Be Where It Has To Begin

Essay Caste

The Caste Cauldron: For Universities To Be Equalisers, Schools Must Be Where It Has To Begin

Primary and secondary education in India is nowhere close to being free from class and caste bias. As long as that primal inequality persists, universities cannot be effective

Bitter truth: Our society keeps rubbing our ascribed identities in our faces Photo: Getty Images

A recent incident revived an old memory that goes back to my childhood spent in Bihar. My father has always been anxious about providing me, his only child, with a good education. He rightfully believes that it will help me earn a secure spot for myself in society.

However, back in the day, our nuclear family of three did not have enough to be able to afford a high-end English medium school. So, my caregivers, in their determined effort to provide me with the best education, found a way. It was practically a barter system. Every Sunday, my father would take out his old scooter. I would squeeze myself in between my father and my mother. Together, we would go to the homes of my teachers; one subject teacher every Sunday. The teachers would spend a few hours teaching me. In lieu of this service, my father would run errands for them.

I remember when I was in Class 5, my Mathematics teacher asked my father to go to the market to find and buy soojina phool (drumstick flowers) because his wife wanted to make pakoras (fritters). The teacher, in turn, helped me with a chapter.

When I was in Class 8, a teacher asked my father: “Are you a Brahmin? Your sanskar (upbringing), your behaviour shows you must be one. I never asked your full name. I am older than you, but I feel like touching your feet. A Brahmin’s blessings are pious, aren’t they?”

That was the barter for that week. The teachers wanted blessings from my father in exchange for clearing my doubts.

When my father replied with a low-voiced ‘no’, as a child, I did not understand why he felt a sense of lacking about his identity.
Our society, from time to time, keeps rubbing our ascribed identities in our faces. Unreported, undocumented social experiences and reported news stories keep reminding us about the nexus of caste structure and caste-based trauma, violence and othering prevalent in our society and institutions.

A few days ago, a conversation with a woman at Baghpat railway station in Uttar Pradesh unexpectedly veered in that direction. She was a regular traveller in passenger trains that connect Baghpat to Delhi. Like many others, she comes to the metro in search of odd jobs. That day, she narrated to me her plan of buying clothes and jewellery in bulk from Delhi’s flea markets and selling those door-to-door in her neighbourhood in Baghpat. During the conversation, to my surprise, she randomly asked me: “Didi, aap Brahmin ho na?” (You are a Brahmin, right?). She said the way I looked and talked made her believe so.

Unreported, undocumented social experiences and Reported news stories keep reminding us about the nexus of caste structure and caste-based trauma, violence and othering prevalent in our society and institutions.

I was eager to know how aesthetics, fallaciously associated with high-caste Hindus, governs public perception.

I asked her the precise reason that led her to this conclusion. She asked me again, “Pehle aap sach batao, aap ho na?” (Tell me the truth. You are a Brahmin, right?). At this point, Sant Kabir came to my rescue. His beautiful couplet Pothi padhi padhi jag muaa, pandit bhaya na koi | dhai/eke aakhar prem ka padhe so pandit hoye (Reading multiple books, a person does not necessarily become wise/but he can gain wisdom by learning a few words pertaining to love) put an end to her curiosity.

My interactions with the locals from Chhaprauli village in Baghpat who belong to the middle class or working class and dhabawalas (food vendors) around Baghpat railway station, too, have supplied proof of the prevalent dominant Brahminical culture. For instance, a vendor selling ‘shudh bhojan’ (pure food) on his thela (cart) was convinced that most Hindus don’t eat meat. This opinion doesn’t culturally trace back to the anti-killing philosophy of Buddhism but to the hegemonic puritanism of Brahminism. Interestingly, Chhaprauli is quantitatively dominated by two groups–the Jats, Other Backward Classes-Non-Creamy Layer (OBC-NCL) in the state list but UR (unreserved) in the central list and the Brahmins. This makes the situation ironic and unique.

In his work and writings, Dr BR Ambedkar, having observed this contradictory nature of Indian society, emphasised on the division among the labourers or working classes. He elaborated on the caste system resulting in graded inequalities and believed that without caste consciousness the potential to reinvent Indian society against oppression was slim.

Anand Teltumbde, an Indian scholar, writer, and civil rights activist, has written about the inability and reluctance of other contemporary leaders to understand Ambedkar’s standpoint. Referring to the 1929 workers’ strike in the book BR Ambedkar: India and Communism, Teltumbde wrote, “Ambedkar was singled out as the strike-breaker by both, the communists and nationalists”.

Homogenising Culture and Narratives

To identify the Brahmanical homogenisation of minds and culture, one must begin by acknowledging the diversity in India vis-a-vis culture, lifestyles, community and history. Critiquing Brahminism from the lenses of the Sramana tradition, GC Pandey, a well-known Indian scholar, philosopher and historian of the Vedic and the Buddhist periods, provides textual evidence of the obsession of Hindu Brahminical texts and scholars with the social category of Brahmin and the Brahminical theory of caste.

Sonadanda Sutta, a Brahmin scholar well- versed in the mantras, Vedas, rites and rituals, lays down five prerequisites for being a Brahmin. These include the necessity of being ‘well born’ on both parental sides and having mastery of the Vedas. The personal and collective aesthetics of a Brahmin are “handsome, gifted with great beauty, pleasant to look upon.”

A society where caste is decided by birth moves a step ahead to categorise its perception of human beings using such ideas, which attain a popular, moral, social and political sanction via different institutions. Endogamy embraced by the so-called modern-day matchmakers and matchmaking apps and Indian courts using the laws of Manu in judicial statements offer evidence of a ‘fractured modernity’. Sharmila Rege, a sociologist, feminist scholar and author, conceptualised this idea in her book Against the Madness of Manu.

Reality Check: New-age entertainment is not untouched by the concept of fractured modernity
Reality Check: New-age entertainment is not untouched by the concept of fractured modernity Photo: Getty Images

Popular culture and new-age entertainment are not untouched by such a fractured modernity. The Viral Fever (TVF) is seen as a pioneering platform of original online entertainment in India. The core team behind many popular projects of TVF are from the IITs, institutions considered as premier by a large section of India’s youth.

There is a scene in a popular TVF web series in which the protagonist, while ranting about Chemistry labs, says: “Why should I smell rotten eggs, I am a Brahmin!” This character is written with the intent to reflect the real-life struggles of students who move to Kota to prepare for Engineering entrance exams. Such writing not just shows thoughtlessness, but also underlines that the writer, as an individual, is stripped off either by choice or by ignorance, or both, from the sense of social consciousness and social memory about the society that he has lived in. Such isolation leads to leaps of faith and creates possibilities of submitting to irrationality.

Human life is full of absurdities and existential anxieties, yet human beings have always felt a sense of relief, however momentary, in feeling powerfully situated in the social realm. On the other hand, philosophers have attributed diverse meanings to human life, ranging from objective meaning to no meaning.

Human life is full of existential anxieties. human beings have always felt a sense of relief in feeling powerfully situated in the social realm.

French writer Albert Camus had a unique response to the problem of nihilism. He accepted human life as absurd. On the contrary, orthodox Indian schools of philosophy accept the Vedas as infallible and hence Varnashrama dharma as the only socially acceptable way of living. However, Camus proposed that only the absurd is knowable. Human anxiety to seek confirmed answers makes them choose philosophical suicide, which takes a leap of faith and goes beyond rationality. Hence, the social practice of identifying a person by caste, religion and sexuality, followed by the act of oppressive othering, qualifies as philosophical suicide. When the leap of faith is of this nature, it no longer remains just a philosophical tragedy. It results in individualistic and organised discriminatory practices by the privileged. 

Critiquing Brahminism, the Dharmakirti (of Sramana sect) laid down five signs of folly, including belief in the Vedas, pride of caste and belief in a creator. Dharmakirti had his own ideas about countering philosophical suicide originating from Brahmanism. P. Keshava, Head of Department, Philosophy, Delhi University, argues that there are diverse ways of doing philosophy. Yet in India, only those who pledge conceptual faithfulness to Varnashrama dharma and Brahminism are accepted as relevant.

Brahminism has a history of shape-shifting into a cultural hydra with a motive of appropriation. Take, for instance, the appropriation of Buddha, tribal gods and local community deities. Because of philosophy’s unavoidable tie-up with culture and the other way round, such appropriation facilitates invisibilisation and marginalisation. Government bodies, institutions and the rhetoric of popular figures often reflect this phenomenon. This reaffirms and sanctions perceptions of a large section of society that translate into their everyday behaviour. Both these phenomena survive in symbiotic relationships.

Politics of Feelings, which was the editorial theme of Outlook for January, doesn’t exclude political as well as cultural feelings of the individual. Rohith Vemula’s last letter before he was institutionally murdered mirrors such politics, and a tragedy, not individualistic but social and cultural. “The value of a man was reduced to his identity, to a vote, to a number, to a thing”, Vemula wrote.

The conception of the self, free from social identities ascribed by birth, is difficult yet not impossible, at least not philosophically. On the other hand, attempting to erase the existence of any sort of oppression from the conceptualisation of the truth of human life is unfair and opportunistic. Any practice in action or in words/conversation employing caste, is mired in violence and oppression.

(This appeared in the print edition as "THE CASTE Cauldron")

(Views expressed are personal)

Aishwarya Raj is a philosophy student at Delhi University