Sunday, 12 December 2010

Class, Caste and Conscious Citizenship

Some of my earliest caste memories are from my childhood, when we had a separate person, a 'jamadaar', come to clean our toilets in Kolkatta. Often, in acts of charity, my folks would give this person our food discards. I remember distinctly a particular occasion when I was asked to give Rotis to our jamaadar, and instructed to make sure I did not touch this person..I had asked what would happen if I did touch this person, to be told, with great stern-ness, that I was to not do that, since we did not touch such people. I remember lingering on the hand of this grown man as I gave him the left overs and then staring my hand several times, in wonder, that nothing had happened to me, even though I had touched an 'untouchable'. Its at least four decades since that childhood experiment, awakening and empowerment of discovery that we are all one, truly. Since then, caste thoughts have found few rare pockets into my conscious thought, speech, action.

Recently, PUCL-Bangalore, organised a discussion meet on the topic of 'Human Rights, Democracy and Media : Challenges in Contemporary Times". Isaac Arul Selva, Editor, Slum Jagattu, was a featured speaker, representing a first of its kind alternative media, a monthly journal with origin, organization, and focus on slum based issues of Bangalore. Selva's talk focused harshly, severely condemning the corporatization of main stream media which predominantly represents upper caste realities, issues and interest. Now, I am comfortable with the notion that all mainstream media are run like corporate houses - this is also my personal perception. I further support that there is an extreme class bias in features of media reports. But, while caste and class are strongly linked in our country, I am still uncomfortable with a predominantly 'dalit' lens to view the world, especially issues related to human rights.

There are many responses that crop up when I review this discomfort - some emotional, some rational, all of which I have decided to confront. An immediate, albeit an easy and weak explanation is that by growing up in a privileged class, I was sheltered and distanced from lower caste repressions, battles. By accident, apathy and comfortable ignorance, my associations as an adult featured those who had more in common with me, my background, interests, and battles, than those whose lives had carried a burden of caste design. It would be easy to dismiss the caste angle by saying "no one I know thinks along caste lines - it is just not a reference point!" But I would prefer for it not to be so. I hope I am sincerely and consciously open to exploring, with a caste lens, the deep social grief and burden this has caused, and thus free myself from my ignorant, guilty and privileged bliss. Yet, I am intuitively aware that this caste lens does not carry a solution for establishing equity or equality - i.e. a new order.

My rational side also needs to chew on the cud that Selva fed me and come to my own understanding. I argue that class now more universally separates the haves from the have-nots, the ones who may from those who may-not, and all those who shall and from many more that shall-not. The general direction of this is that, those who have, may and shall continue to pilfer wealth, power, resources at the expense of the large numbers of those who have-not, may-not and shall-not. That is the dictum of today's development and growth of all, including the media. I feel that wealth and power have replaced most other divides within society, including gender and caste, especially in an urban setting. While an ability to accumulate wealth and power was culturally a caste related proficiency, these days similar abilities if acquired by women, adivasis or dalits gives them about the same privileges originally intentioned for males of dominant societies. So while the representation of women, dalits and other marginalised groups still remain statistically small, exceptions (like the examples of many IAS officers from backward communities) are getting space, and also becoming examples to lead their communities along exact goals and aspirations of their higher caste counterparts.

On the flip side, this argues that issues of basic human rights violations do not heed the type of section victimized. The basic resources grabbed away from poor, while affecting mostly the lowest caste, are intended just to grab resources for profiteering and not necessarily for directly targeting the lowest caste-based community. Indeed the right or necessity to constantly profit or show improvement in profiteering dominates the psyche of both the corporate world and the middle class share holders that sustain it. The fact that victimized communities are caste based, and traditionally voiceless, ill equips them to take on mighty state backed corporations. However, this is an equation that is rapidly changing in some of the most ground breaking, tribal based people's movements, like in Orissa, which has wide support from national and international forums.

The caste angle becomes important in cases of a few traditionally inhuman professions, like that of manual scavenging, still practiced today. Such a profession is dominated by members of a particular caste and its practice still remains to be abolished. Such caste based professions and lifestyles are more closely linked at lower class end. Higher economic classes, linked to higher castes, seek to fervently imitate a globalized culture that is more consumer than caste based.

I prefer, therefore, to not always represent caste at the forefront of our all our pervasive ills. To do so limit us, both in understanding and scope, to battle the many grave issues that currently threaten the fabric of a democratic society. So, while affirmative action measures should be implemented in a rigorous fashion, genuine progress would have been achieved only when such measures become unnecessary and can be phased out. My basic partiality towards imagining an eventual caste free, and non fragmented society requires we do not resort to only compensatory practices, such as the quota systems, to address historical and social ills. This would only perpetuate the process of 'othering' between human beings, rather than move towards a society of 'only' citizens - all with equal rights.

Human rights activism means addressing all violations of the guaranteed fundamental rights - for all citizens. It necessarily encompasses all groups victimized on the basis of caste, gender, religion, that are covered in our constitution, but also taking on those matters that are a necessary part of individual choice, such as sexuality, that might not be covered in our constitution. By taking on issues of direst rights' violations and minimum needs of most, one will necessarily address issues of the most marginalised and victimised communities - and to phrase it this way makes more sense than a continual reminder and re-enforcement of an outdated and inhuman structuring of social strata.

Conscious citizenship is a necessary condition for a functioning democracy, and requires a social conscience that goes far beyond a mere 'one person, one vote' premise. It is based on the equality of all human beings, which include equal right over resources, access to choices, and thereby a pursuit to happiness. It demands equitable social and economic restructuring to ensure such democratic principles can be practically adopted, such that voting represents a real participation and choice, not structured along caste, class, religion, gender or other lines, but by our right to be represented by those who speak our individual voice, while demanding respect for those chosen to represent the largest democratic interests. Such citizenship demands going far beyond class, caste, gender, religion and community based accumulations of privileges, but thinking that our individual good lies in larger, common welfare - of all.

I appreciate what Selva's talk did for me - open up an entire world of lives, lived very differently than mine, and apparently valued far less than mine. Yet to set the balance straight requires less in making concessions based on caste, and a much more active involvement to demand rights' equivalence for all. To reiterate, the solution lies not in seeing the otherness of those whom we have failed, but seeing the similarity of their similar aspirations that are compromised when all is privatized, corporatized, and sucked dry - the earth, the water, the air, and all creatures big and small, in it.


  1. please do read
    Ambedkar , Annhilation of Caste
    Anand Teltumbde, Khairlanji
    Nivedita Menon and Aditya Nigam, Power and contestation in independent India...
    might be useful in thinking through the issue of caste

  2. Well said. Even I am with you in viewing disparities more in terms of economic class rather than caste. As society becomes more capitalistic and transactional, economic relationships will determine power structures.

    Attachment to caste, community and extended family has very little significance these days, though it can vary b/w urban and rural India.