The inglorious caste system


The tragic tale of Naresh and Swati that unfolded recently in Telangana is yet another example of demand and pressure of society (though unfounded, unwarranted and illogical) taking precedence over individual’s choice.

The case of inter-‘caste’ marriage that happened in Telangana is not an one-off incident and has been prevalent in India ever since the caste system itself came into being. Khap Panchayat and honor killing in north India along with caste issues including inter-caste marriages is a menace that comes into light every now and then and refuses to die.

Needless to say, society in general is responsible for direct/indirect suppression of individual’s choices and preferences. The notion that a particular clan gets polluted or gets diminished in size due to inter-caste marriage is a millennium old concept, which has no relevance today. But the mind-set continues to this day as the so-called upper caste finds ways to keep them relevant and somehow show their superiority over others.

There is no denying that there exist hundreds or even thousands of cultures and communities in India, each wanting to preserve its own traditions. Fair enough, each community has the right to do so. But at what cost? What if an individual does not want to be a part of that community?

It is interesting to note that the Hon’ble Supreme Court addressed this issue squarely and in unambiguous terms while dealing with the menace of inter-caste marriages. In Lata Singh versus State of UP [2006 (6) SCALE 583], while dealing with inter-caste marriage between two majors, the Supreme Court declared that “this is a free and democratic country, and once a person becomes a major he or she can marry whomsoever he/she likes”. But observation such as this is so cliched that it is almost no one takes note.

If the parents of the individual do not approve of an inter-caste marriage or inter- religious marriage, the maximum they can do is cut off social relations (though this also does not make sense to any sensible man). But no law permits the parents or to anyone for that matter, to harass, threaten, instigate or commit acts of violence against people who choose their partners with a rational mind and going beyond the “caste” filter.

It is also a very naive notion that anyone who gets married to a person from another community forgoes the good practices of his/her culture/community. He or she may perhaps be continuing the same practices of his own community but at the same time acknowledging the other traditions as well, though not forming a part of it. If such is the case, the question of diminishing of the size of a clan does not arise. Foregoing a wrong practice, whether or not it relates to any particular community, is not breaking-away or revolt, but is rather introspection leading to correct ways.

As far as the question of a clan getting ‘polluted’ or ‘impure’ is concerned, I find it unfathomable to even think that a person (merely based on his birth) can be deemed to pollute some other person. The pollution, in such cases, is not caused by the person discriminated against, but is instead caused by the person, who came up with such thought process. With greatest regret, I have seen and met such people, who are very much in existence and are also my close family members. I hang my head in shame for the ideology they believe in and ideology they are still passing on from generation to generation, without utmost shamelessness. I am also reminded of an event in Uttarakhand, where a school teacher killed a man for defiling a flour mill as he belonged to a “lower” caste. Such people should be purged from society.

Another point to understand is the fact that the water tight compartmentalization of castes that exists today, came into existence in or around 1000 BC when nomadic tribes started to settle down as a community. In a bid to effectively manage the society of that time, people were divided based on their innate qualities. These innate qualities may be broadly categoriszed as Satva (Knowledge), Rajas (Valor) and Tamas (Ignorance). As a result, the ones with good thinking and forecasting abilities formed the learned class or Brahmans. People with qualities of valor formed the Kshatriyas or warriors, who protected the community. Third division was the merchant class and agriculturists, who generated wealth to sustain the society and lastly the working class or labor class, that is, Shudras, who did manual labor. Considering the lack of a proper education system and industrialization, the system developed was well conceived considering the circumstances of that time.

That time has undergone a continuous change resulting in shifting of balance of power. While Brahmans holding monopoly in learning and education dominated the early era, that ruling class was eventually overthrown by next-in-line Kshatriyas, who developed kingdoms with Brahmans becoming mere advisors to the king. Intelligentsia (Brahman) of that period though had the power to spread Satva or knowledge, unfortunately did not do much to remove Tamas. Had Tamas been removed, Satva would have taken its place. Had that happened, downtrodden people would have known how to live their life and would not have been dependent on a particular class. Obviously, ‘Brahman’ class failed in their duties at that time by limited the power of knowledge to only a few. By developing the mischievous theory of lineage, which eventually dictated the rules of the society, the rule makers (in all likelihood becoming greedy and “forecasting” that others may also compete later), ensured that the structure of the society became permanent and irreversible.

In mythology, why was Eklavya made to chop off his thumb by Drona? Why was Karna discriminated all through his life? These two examples stand out in mythologies, which indicate the age-old caste over merit mindsets.

In short, time has changed, mindset has not.

The problem of caste exists today at two levels – one at societal level and the other- at family level.

With increase in number of occupations, the number of classes and communities also grew with each galvanizing into a separate caste or a class. However post independence, with rapid urbanization and with spread of education and industries, the compartments are now getting loose, albeit slowly. Backwardness still remains since vast population still remains illiterate. Unfortunately, much like the earlier times, a part of today’s ruling elite ( few political parties) have still kept that illiterate part of society as ignorant and unaware of their rights, though claiming to be championing their rights. Had such a group been serious about bringing their people up, they would have spent their efforts in educating them and not indulging in inciting violence by claiming threat to their community.

In the instant case, the supposed “backward” boy was not backward by any means since he was educated and capable enough to be in the same college as Divya, who was apparently “upper” caste. Merely because the boy belonged to a particular community cannot be a reason for him to be backward. Going by pure logic, both were at same level.

Going by the turn of events post their marriage, it is clear that it was that “upper caste” family that was backward in its approach. The family relentlessly hunted; girl was coerced to return back – which also led to her suicide under mysterious circumstances. To give the story the expected ending, the boy was kidnapped and found burnt in girl’s father’s field.

While the killers are no doubt responsible and should be served cold blooded justice, but it is the age old backward thinking, that needs to be wiped out. It is easier said than done. But it can be done starting with individuals. Unless individuals show some courage and persistence,it will stay.

Like in my case, quite a few people of “my” community get shocked when they hear such stories. Their immediate reaction is that such things wont work out in the long run, not realizing that marriage in same community also fail (which again, due to fear of humiliation, people refuse to admit about its failure).

At societal level, state machinery has a crucial role to play. If the administration gets swayed or gets buckled down by the voice of the powerful, then there is no point having state machinery. Law is meant to support the weak and keep a check on the strong – not the other way around.

Another area to work upon is education. Education, education and education alone can bring the backwards up and make them realize what is right and what is wrong. Unless people stop taking words of others and start rationally thinking themselves, the backward life style and backward thinking will not go. Such people have so many benefits granted under the law, but their ignorance and illiteracy is stopping them from taking such benefits and come out of their misery.

Again, that education is the only weapon to fight against the wrong practice is proved by Naresh and Swati’s case, who knew that they were right. Blurring of caste lines is what scared the family. It is the people like Swati’s father, who resort to violence to claim vengeance for such act and teach a lesson for if more and more people become aware of their rights, it will be difficult to convince them. And once that happens, it will be difficult to stay at top and control people.

Another problem existing at societal level is its inherent tendency to control the people forming part of it. A particular society may (invariably) require its members to follow the long existing rules, including marrying within that society. The rules seem perfectly ok since they do not interfere with rules of any other society. Its totally an internal regulation. Breaking of this internal regulation and the resultant fear of Societal backlash is ingrained in our minds. The fear is obvious and valid for a simple reason that everybody requires a society to live in and cannot live in isolation. But it is also this fear of isolation and rebuke that keeps the people from speaking up, even if they are right. This fear is perhaps the biggest hindrance for an individual to decide about his future without any preconditions.

It is one thing to preserve one’s own culture but it is another thing to make individual right subservient to society’s right, when such individual right will not cause harm to the society at large as was the case here. Every society has a right to preserve its culture and tradition in a manner it wants to but not at the expense of unwilling people. This inability of the society to let go of such unwilling people and making them lead an independent life is what is stopping the society from moving ahead.

This societal problem is to an extent mingled with the problem that the families also face. For the last decade or two, with the opening of the economies and world getting closer with more and more opportunities, there is a renewed hope and belief among the newer generation to take the world head on and lead an independent life. However, at family level, the families and parents are unable to let go of their children. Why? Is it too much love and care or is it fear of being alone in later part of life? It is indeed a tough question to ask and even tougher to answer.
Well, assuming it’s the case of only too much love and attachment, then the next question will definitely be – then why not let the children choose what they like? The normal reply from parents is “you don’t know what is right and what is wrong”. Well, going by their experiences, this might be true but this will also mean that children would never be able to make decisions on their own. Obviously, parents may be justified in stopping their children, if they are going wrong somewhere but stopping them simply because they don’t like it is not justified. The extent of control exercised can be gauged from the fact that children have difficulties in choosing what they want to pursue, what they want to buy, even with their own money. Even post marriage, children are controlled. It is true that everybody wants love and care but love and care at all times, eventually restricts the person to think freely for his own good.

The other question of being alone in later part of life, if children do take their own independent decisions, is based on assumptions. The first assumption being that independent decisions will always result in children living separately. Another assumption is that children will always choose a partner against the wishes of parents. Given the money mindedness, there is a good possibility of it happening. However, if parents are sure that they have raised their children well, this will not happen. The trust has to be there. Same holds good for second assumption as well. It can very well be the case where the choice is of individual but with prior and unconditional consent of parents.

Going by the facts of Naresh and Swati’s story, it cannot be said for sure whether he or she would have lived separately away from their parents. However, as far as the second issue is concerned, not taking the consent of parents before marriage was indeed the case, which could definitely be a factor for follow-up acts. However, if it were to be believed that girl’s family though reluctant in beginning, did not object later on and that it was the society and others that transpired against them, then it becomes clear that there was no problem at family level. Though approaching the family before marrying should have been the appropriate act, however even after getting married (though without taking parents into confidence), it was nobody’s case (apart from family) to question their decision.

Thus, society is at fault on two counts – meddling with personal lives of others and two, coercing directly and indirectly those who try to take independent decisions. Unwarranted meddling into the affairs of personal lives of people is not a standard that should be set. State should also get serious and instead of gaining mileage from divisive caste based politics, start towards ending the caste system altogether. This may seem to be a utopian concept, however, given the scheme adopted by Himachal Pradesh Government of providing cash incentives of Rs. 75000 to people opting for inter-caste marriages or even Maharashtra Government coming up with such schemes, political will is atleast emerging somewhere.

There is also a need to take a firm stand by Authorities as well as by judiciary against institutions like Khap Panchayat, who openly oppose inter-gotra marriages. If the country is to be considered as developed in true sense, then it is necessary that individuals are free to decide their about their life and coercive agents are removed. Till the time that happens, such news that shouldn’t be there, will continue to come up.