What has propelled me to pen this write-up was an incident which occurred while I was reading something in my college library. A first year student came and sat next to me. After a few minutes of silence, we began interacting with one another. When I enquired about the percentage which this person acquired in his board examinations, he embarrassingly admitted to have taken admission under the OBC category. His attitude was a reflection of the dampening failure of the government’s affirmative action programme which instead of diluting caste identities has ended up strengthening them. But this admission did not come as a surprise to me as a lot of people whom I’ve encountered are quite reserved about them belonging to the reserved category. I went ahead and tried to explain to this person the reasons behind them availing this kind of a privilege. I wished to introduce or rather re-narrate to him the history of the caste struggle and oppression which has been intrinsically associated with the soul of India.
The shocker was in-waiting and it came along when I politely asked this person to tell me why some people are given reservations. He replied, “People who are provided with reservations are those whose forefathers refused to study in the ancient times and committed all sorts of crimes. In order to ensure their progress and development, the government initiated the affirmative action programme.” At first I thought that this explanation was based on lack of any knowledge in regards to the caste problem but my repeated questions and his innocent answers sent further chills down my spine. I was told by this student that things which he shared with me were once told to him by his school’s headmaster. I was appalled and for a moment, I did not realize how to tackle the situation but I went forth and narrated to this person nothing but the truth. I told him about the genesis of the caste system and enumerated upon the manner in which the lower castes were systemically segregated and put through a vicious cycle of oppression and humiliation. The bulk of my discourse was aimed at making this student realize that because of the complexities of the caste problem in India, we cannot overtly reject the affirmative action programme on caste lines because caste discrimination continues to be a reality in India.
This encounter of mine with this young chap was a daunting reminder of the fact that to a large extent, we have ended up “Manu-ising” the history of caste. By subscribing to the Brahminic narration of the caste problem, we have subverted the development of Dalit discourse in this nation. I somehow feel that the Indian society is not as vocal against caste oppression as it should be. Our history books deal with this subject in such a euphemistic manner that we end up accepting the Brahminic doctrine at its face value. The books used at school level would narrate how Mahatma Gandhi worked for the welfare of the “Harijans” but they would never mention about the fact that the depressed castes in India rejected the term “Harijan” in favour of the word “Dalit”. Would it be sacrilegious if our books talked a bit about BR Ambedkar’s animosity towards Gandhi and how he branded him the “biggest enemy of Dalits?” What is most appalling is the near acceptance of the fact that the caste system originated as a form of division of labour! Ambedkar himself admitted in his book “Who were the original Shudras?” that he would have been carefree had this narration been true but it overlooks the sinister designs of the hereditary principle because of which freedom of profession was non-existent and inequality was systematically ingrained in the society.
While introducing students to the subject of caste, why are our academic books devoid of any mentioning whatsoever of the Purush Sukta of the Rig Veda? This is the very hymn which elaborates on the creation myth that different castes were created from the different body organs of the Lord. How often do we talk about the caste messages ingrained in the Gita when we see Arjun worry about the birth of men of undesirable progeny (mixed castes) as a result of the war (See Gita: Chapters 1 & 2)? Do our books ever subject that advise of Shri Krishna to criticism wherein he tells Arjun that one should never abandon his caste duty no matter how bad he might be in doing it and how good he might be while performing the duty of others (See Gita: Chapter 18)? How many of our scholars have tried to explain the reason behind Ram’s killing of Shudra ascetic Shambhuka on account of him practising penance (Valmiki Ramayana: Uttarakanda)? Some have debunked it as an extrapolation while others have vaguely tried to draw a parallel between Ravana’s penance for evil purposes similar to that of Shambhuka. These are subjects which need to be subjected to rigorous academic research and debate but unfortunately all of that has been missing.
Another worrying factor is the emergence of extremities in the Dalit discourse (if there is one). Maximalism of any form is a detriment for the society and this is precisely what some Dalit narrators and writers have resorted to. To debunk the entire Hindu thought and to try and isolate Dalits from other sections of the Hindu community is totally uncalled for. No amount of apologies could compensate for the oppression meted out to the Dalits by the upper castes but let us not forget that time and again there have been voices which have tried to break the shackles of bigotry by reaching out to the Dalits. The credit for the creation of the Vedas and Mahabharata rests with a Dalit! The Constitution of India was also formulated by a Dalit under a Brahmin Prime Minister. A party of Brahmins and Baniyas lent support to a Dalit lady in order to make her the Chief Minister of the most populous state in India. Numerous examples can be cited to show how we are inching towards greater integration but there is a long way to go before we achieve that. The most saddening reality of modern day India is the casteist reflection of its society. The only way to deal with this problem is by being the guardians of honesty and truth. Be apologetic about the wrongs which have taken place and yet be boastful of the steps taken in the positive direction. Let’s not narrate to our younger generations things whose veracity can be easily doubted upon and let us also not allow radicalisation among vulnerable groups via brainwashing, exaggeration and over excessive narration of past subjugation.