Caste 101 and the curious case of the Left-Liberal
Suresh (SC) enters a work space where a number of women are working. The women are a mixture of Paraiyars (SCs), Gounders (BCs) and Mudaliars (FCs). Note also that all these women are sitting together and working as a team. As soon as Suresh enters the space, all the women fold their legs in respect and go through the usual Hindu womanly sequence of sitting up straight and adjusting their saris. The act of keeping ones legs outstretched is a sign or disrespect. If indeed any of the BCs and FCs felt disrespect towards the SC man this would be the perfect opportunity to show it by refusing to fold their legs when he entered the space. None of them do that. In fact the instinctive way in which they go through their little personal respect rituals imply that this thought has never entered their consciousness. Simultaneously, Prabhavati (Mudaliar FC) rushes to make sure that the guest is taken care of in the traditional Hindu way. She rushes to the water filter and fills up a glass with water (the same one that all of them use) and goes over to Suresh to offer him water which he accepts gratefully. He returns the glass with a “Thanks Akka”. Elder sister! Terms of blood relations are used amongst people who belong. Other English terms such as Madam and Saar are used when dealing with outsiders.
We’re building a cow shed. Azhagu (SC) is a thatcher, he makes roofs from grass for a living. As befits the specialized work he does, his salary is Rs.600 per day. Murugan (Mudaliar FC) is a “coolie” he works on all kinds of physically demanding jobs in exchange for a day wage of Rs.400. Note that the SC earns more than the FC not because of any reservations but because his work is more valued. It is easy to imagine a time in India not long ago when this was the case through-out the land, when artisans were respected and paid a salary commensurate with their skill. Azhagu is on top of the thatched roof pushing the needle through the roof. Murugan is standing below to receive the needle and push it back up. As chance would have it, Murugan pushes the needle too fast or too far (I couldn’t tell from where I was). Immediately there is a volley of curses from Azhagu. “Dai! Apidi kutthaadenu yevlavu vaati solunum da?” The shouting goes on for a minute. Murugan is silent. The tone, the use of words such as “Dai” and “Da” are all disrespectful but often used. Certainly one can imagine people working with each other using these terms and that tone when attempting to make a forceful point. Though the tone and words are disrespectful, there is no disrespect meant, it appears to be an exchange between equals and Murugan accepts it as such. Note that the possibility of an SC using disrespectful words and tone when addressing an FC does exist. It indicates that not only is the SC not afraid of the FC but also that the FC accepts disrespect when it is legitimate even from an SC.
After 15 years living in rural Madurai District, Tamil Nadu, it appears to me that the “left-liberal” reading of history, which everybody these days is calling a Marxist reading of history, is either biased in its observations, mistaken in its conclusions or entirely unsuitable for the Hindu context. By looking at ordinary events in an extraordinary light everything that is reflected back into the intellect is distorted.
I too grew up in a Congress-voting household, I too accepted the western, Nehruvian narrative about our society in the 80s and 90s as natural and normal and went to America for a college degree, where I quickly learned to think postmodern thoughts and where I was presented with a special pair of spectacles. These spectacles, once I put them on, showed me the world in a different light. In this light, people were either oppressors or oppressed. From a logical perspective, there is nothing inherently wrong with this point of view, it is just another way of cutting up worldly phenomena in order to examine them. For example, we could break up the world into Vegetarians and Non-Vegetarians or Lovers of the colour Blue and Haters of the colour Blue. Each binary reveals the world in a different light.
Unfortunately the chosen binary of Marx and then the Left-Libs, that of the Oppressor-Oppressed archetype, causes deep distortions in a person’s ability to both view and understand himself and the world around. The innate connected, harmonic nature of human experience is disrupted and replaced with a harsh split personality that leaves no room for nuance or complexity. Within each one of us is seen to lie an oppressor and/or an oppressed. This causes either a guilt complex (for the oppressor) or a victim complex (for the oppressed) or a mixture of both within the person. In all cases, some level of self-hate is born and the person sets off subconsciously to cure himself of it by changing the world.
Both common sense and our culture tells us that we were born to love ourselves, so the psyche’s immediate response to the phenomenon of self-hate is to see it as a cancer of the mind and respond violently. That internally felt pain leads directly to depressive thoughts which are often externalized in acts that cause pain outside of the person. In extreme cases, the infected person encourages the emergence of this pain in other people who, until then, may be going about their business perfectly contentedly. That is the business of revolution- Goddammit, If people don’t feel my pain, then they must be naïve, and they need to be awoken to this pain filled reality!
What we must understand though is that these processes are happening deep within the psyche of the person. Most left-libs are unaware that they are playing out this script in a grand world-wide drama that is being fuelled by a very specific simplistic presumption about the world – that of the oppressor-oppressed archetype. Once he has accepted this presumption as paradigmatic, everything else locks into place. The ordinary left-lib is not a mastermind consciously hatching disruptive plans, he is just being himself…totally naturally (but with the special spectacles on). I, for example, was totally into left-lib ideology. I did not see it as wrong in any way. In fact it was surprising to me that anybody would fail to see the world as I did! I was the virtuous one, the crusader in the fight to save the world. I still remember the rush of blood to my head when Kanhaiya Kumar made his electrifying speech after being released from jail.
This desire to change the world and the unproven faith that that will heal the rift within us is so strong in the left-liberal that he is forced to demonize all other points of view. This disease of righteousness is the reason that left-libs appear neurotic to everyone else.
Depending on the type of person he is dealing with, the deep
questions fueling his rage are –
1) “How can you not know that you are oppressed?”
2) “Once you know that you are oppressed, how can you sit still and not respond violently?”
3) “How can you continue to oppress?”
4) “Once you know that you or your ancestors were oppressors, how can you sit idle and not atone for your/their sins?”
Perhaps, for the ordinary person and also for many unconscious left-libs, this analysis will serve as an eye-opener. With this in mind, it becomes easier to understand a lot of the phenomena that are playing out around us in the political sphere that previously appeared nonsensical.
Now sample this:
My friend is out looking for farmers who grow indigo. After going round and round in circles in the villages near Villupuram she finally finds the farmer who had been recommended. He grew indigo. They got to talking and life stories were exchanged. As she thanked him and readied to leave, he stopped her and says – “you know how expensive this is, but since you are a brahmin, I will give you this sack-full for free” and he collects the plants into a sack and carries it over to the car. The left-lib will read this as a man brainwashed by centuries of conditioning that brahmins are divine and any gift given to them will earn him spiritual merit. But wait a minute, stop those thoughts for one second and witness the act for what it is and what it represents. A farmer in keeping with the great Hindu tradition of sharing and not letting a visitor leave empty handed has offered a guest something that he grows. If he grew coconuts he would certainly have offered yelaneer and if he grew fruits, or groundnut he would certainly have offered that. Secondly, a brahmin, apparently in his lived experience, is a particularly respect-worthy person deserving of this special gift of indigo which is an expensive item into which a lot of hard work has gone. Imagine that! here in Tamil Nadu after 60 odd years of harsh anti-brahmin rhetoric by the people in power, after brahmins have been forced to leave the state following insults and reservations, we have this example of a still surviving sentiment that points to an ancient reality that our mainstream narrative has done its darndest to cover up. Brahmins are a deeply respected community. Even here. Even now. Why? I don’t know. We can only guess. And I choose not to guess brainwashing. Simply witness, from a place of human emotion without your ideological bias and you will see differently. Where there is love and respect, if you are a normal person, you will see it, you should know it, accept it and reciprocate it.
Surely our common-place understanding of “caste-relations” is deeply flawed. Surely these examples do not show us a world of oppression and oppressed. Surely they reflect a world where differences exist but are not wished away. These differences are recognized and simultaneously respected. Internal rules of engagement that have evolved over millennia have maintained the peace between literally thousands of tribal factions* while an underlay of deep universalist philosophies has bound us together helping us to work together to create the pre-eminent civilization of pre-modernity. That in itself is an amazing civilizational achievement that places in Western Europe with their recent failing experiments in multi-culturalism are only now beginning to open their eyes to.
* Tribes are simply groups of people who prioritize their group identity over their individual identities. This is not to be confused with the same term that is often used solely to describe hunter-gatherers or forest dwellers. One can be tribal even living in a city.
I invite my left-liberal friends to take a step back and view the world around them without their special spectacles.
Now Sample this:
Priya (Irular – ST) is a doctor. She is marrying a classmate of hers, Aravind (Mudaliar – FC). At the wedding, that takes place in Salem, the bride arrives all alone. No family, no friends, just her. At the wedding altar, the groom’s father cries. He can’t bear to see his daughter-in-law abandoned like this on this, the most auspicious day of her life. Note that it is the “lowest of low” Irulas who have objected to the marriage not the Mudaliars! And note that it is the Mudaliar who has accepted the Irula into his family and publically sheds tears on her plight. I don’t have to dissect the irony of this situation for all of us who have been schooled in the high-caste-oppressive, low-caste-oppressed school of thought.
I think it’s high time we dismantled, altogether, the remarkable framework of lies that has been injected into our cultural blood stream by the British and their left-liberal heirs. There is no caste “system” in this country. There are tribal communities (known as jaatis) in this country. Each such community is exclusive in nature as tribal formations all over the world have been. They guard fiercely their culture, traditions and means of professional production. No doubt there have been skirmishes and jockeying for power between all of these communities. No doubt, the fortunes of communities have risen and fallen along with the ebb and tide of history. But the clear stream of Dharma has always flowed through our intertwined histories until the coming of the Europeans. The idea that some work is “high” and some work is “low” is an entirely western idea. The Christian Europeans have always had a horror of the earth and the body which we, in Bharat, never had.
Our tribal frictions and their resolutions are an internal matter. As Hindus we have had the experience over millennia of settling our issues mostly non-violently. Problems have arisen, been resolved, gone away, come back in newer forms…this is the nature of the world, everywhere. Power struggles, co-operation, competition, celebration- this, the constant negotiation at multiple levels over the resolution of these problems is what creates the web of Hindu life. Unlike the West, Hindu society did not need modernity and its nihilistic choices to embark on processes of introspection and self-correction. For us this has been a continuous process. We never had to reject the past in order to modify our societies. Wise men and women have arisen whenever the need was felt and have led our communities with the example of their own lives on the path to mutual-respect, harmonious co-existence and towards the other cherished values of our civilization, Ramanuja, Basavanna, Ramananda, Ravidas, Kabir, Nanak, Sankardev, Mirabai, Narayana Guru, Vivekananda, the list goes on. What we left-libs, who ironically admire a number of these people, must realize that the way towards change adopted by all of these greats was never the culture-leveling, western social justice model of today but rather relied heavily on Indian wisdom, compassion, self-reflection and communal sharing. Why have we abandoned this higher path in favour of the cruder, black and white, violence ridden western path?
Historically, our greatest social accomplishment has been our engagement in this delicate dance between the particular and the universal without succumbing to nihilistic western final solutions which have included the Genocide of native Americans, the Slavery of West Africans, the depredations of Colonialism, the stupidity of the World Wars, the horror of the Gas Chambers and the Gulags, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the ridiculous Cold War, and the modern day capitalist Assault on Culture, Community and Family.
Compared to that record of “elevated” western thought, and despite all of our weaknesses and ugliness, India still stand as a beacon for mutual respect in the world. It is in India that we have lived with and at times even loved our enemies for over a thousand years. This clichéd Christian notion – “love thy enemy”, has ironically found life only here in India and not in any of the blood-soaked Christian lands of the West.
Let us accept that problems exist between our communities but let us also admit that the solution to those problems lie within our own long traditions of dialogue and spiritual action and not in the pages of Das Kapital. Let us also admit to the possibility that the root of these problems lies not in the evilness of our ancestors as the Christians would have us believe but perhaps in the more mundane idea of economic and cultural devastation wrought by the colonial British. Reading ‘The Beautiful Tree’ by Dharampal shows us how the traditional educational system was widespread, successful and universally available even to all those communities who today unfortunately find themselves labeled as SC. The coming of industrial technologies with the British broke the economic-backs of the jaatis that worked with their hands and bodies and elevated those jaatis that worked with calculation and trade. The situation was made worse by the take-over of forests, lakes and village commons by the Crown and the forcible replacement of our traditional schools with the straight-jacket of Macaulayan factory education. The debased condition that some jaatis (agricultural, nomadic, artisanal communities) find themselves in today is a result of that unfortunate throw of the colonial dice. But that the luckier jaatis did not deem it important enough to reach out to their left-behind brothers and give them a hand or leg up is entirely our failure. That, for the past century and a half, we have not live up to the best of our own Sanatani traditions is a blot on our consciences. For that we apologize and make amends.
Let the “oppressors” among us rid ourselves of our guilt complexes and let the “oppressed” among us rid ourselves of our victim complexes. In today’s “caste-speak”, Krishnadevaraya was a Shudra, Gandhi was a Vysya, Buddha was a Kshatriya, Basavanna was a Brahmin! We built this thing together.
Even if our traditional community identities no longer hold in today’s high-tech world, each one of us can and should be proud of where we come from and the contributions our ancestral communities have made to the building of the magnificent edifice that was Bharat.
“All Indians are free, and not one of them is a slave. The Indians do not even use aliens as slaves and much less a countryman of their own” – Megasthenes in his INDIKA, 300BC
References and Links
- The Beautiful Tree, Dharampal, 1983
- Indika, Megasthenes, Translated from the original by W.McCrindle
Featured Image: Scroll