The grimmest irony of being an Indian is that even the most horrendously deplorable reality hardly shocks us. The Dalapchand case of an atrocity committed against a newlywed couple- Karan and Divya, reported by Sikkim Chronicle – as dreadfully shocking as it was hardly struck us as something unexpected. We pretended to be shocked when we heard it. But our sense of shock about such a social evil is largely artificial and let me tell you why.
When we claim that we were appalled by the Dalachand news, we are effectively saying that Sikkim no longer practices the caste system. Is that true? Even the most highly educated and those from the topmost strata of society are privately committed to maintaining the sacrosanct nature of their perceived superior caste. The caste hierarchy is dearer than life itself. How many Brahmins are marrying outside their hierarchical status? How many Chettris are marrying from “below” their caste? How many Vaishyas are stooping lower from their supposed third rung of the caste system to find marital matches? Even among the Shudras, there is such pride in holding onto their internal hierarchy.
Why is it taking us so long to realize that the caste system was a conspiracy plotted by an obnoxiously smart and self-serving bunch of people in ancient times to rule the downtrodden of the day? The inventers of the caste system wickedly anchored it to religious doctrine, weaved it with cultural sentiments, implemented it with political power, sustained it with social engineering and made it indispensable by installing it in the economic system. It was merely a satanic system of dehumanizing a certain section of humanity and deifying the other section. Imagine the cruelty of those who could “invent” the doctrine of “untouchability”. Writer and historian Ramachandra Guha once said, the “caste system is the most rigorous, most diabolical system of social stratification ever invented by humans, and we, Hindus, invented it.”
After thousands of years of backwardness, social unrest and fragmentation, injustice, exclusion, deprivation, marginalization and all their ilk, India (Nepal included) should have realized that such an evil system is the prime hurdle to authentic advancement. Nicholas B. Dirks in his Caste of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, writes, “Caste defines the core of Indian tradition, and it is seen today as the major threat to Indian modernity.’ How is it that with all of our education and modernity, we have not felt ashamed that we belong to a cultural heritage that was so barbaric and uncivilized? How is it that we are so comfortable with an ideology where ‘surnames’ (read ‘castes’) determine the greatness and smallness, purity and pollution and superiority and inferiority of an individual?
Many of those who are on the ‘right side’ of the caste system may feel tempted to stay there as it gives them a perceived defined and superior position. But even those who are on the ‘wrong’ (lower) side of the caste system seem to be happy holding fast to it. This, to me, indicates that our very conscience has been so hopelessly dehumanized that we feel inherently obliged to live within it. The caste system does not feel like a chain. It feels like a part of our humanity. We are locked into it but we feel that there is no human existence outside the realm of the caste system.
Unfortunately, even some Christians are still irredeemably chained by a caste mentality to the utter defiance of the Biblical teaching of humans being created in the image of God. Curiously enough, many Buddhists in Sikkim do practice the caste system, seemingly unaware of the fact that one of the reasons for Gautama Buddha renouncing Hinduism was the caste system.
Zeroing in on the Dalapchand case, Divya from the Rai community married Karan from the Baraily community, supposedly low caste with blessings from Divya’s parents. As a response to the marriage, some Rai individuals of the locality convened a meeting to announce the death of Divya Rai and her social ostracization. Speaking to Sikkim Chronicle on behalf of the offending Rai people of the community, a gentleman said that they were merely conducting a ritual, obligatory under their custom. His sad interview had nothing worthy to listen to except that he feels ‘if such an (evil) practice has to be banished, the entire Rai community across Sikkim, Darjeeling and beyond must be spoken to’ indicating how rampant and deep-seated the issue is. Present in the meeting in question were people from other communities as well.
Although I was born into a system with the indoctrinated conviction that people are born unequal, I’ve grown mature enough through my learning, interactions, experiences and travels to see how blatantly untrue that is. I am enlightened enough to disgust and hate the caste system from the pit of my stomach. The Dalapchand case has reminded us of how blinding the system is! I have two questions that I would love to get the answer to. One – technically, Rais do not have a caste hierarchy since they have a highly democratic social order. To say that certain castes are below and over Rai people is therefore unheard of, for which there is a point of reference. On what basis, then, do we invoke the inferiority and untouchability of other castes? Two, Rai people have a parallel tradition to Aryan people and therefore we do not belong to the caste system. Historically, Rais neither shared religious affiliation nor cultural commonality with the Aryans. Many of us accepted Hinduism but why did we not discard the evil tenets such as the caste system, untouchability and the doctrine of ‘chal/achal’ ‘pani muni’ and ‘pani mathi’?
Finally, it may be noted that this is not the problem of Rais only. Almost every community in India and Nepal discourages and privately hates inter-community or inter-caste marriages on the pretext of saving ethnic identity. Boasting about our educational degrees, spiritual enlightenment and socio-political convictions, on which we often wax eloquent, can we sincerely say that such prohibitions on inter-caste/community marriages are human, democratic and progressive? Many of us do still believe that our identity is rooted in our culture, ethnicity, caste etc. Such a conviction may be the manifestation of our inherent insecurity as we are faced with a belligerent world outside – which is a matter of discussion for another day. However, we would do well to differentiate between the progressive and regressive aspects of our cultural aspirations.
“How is it that with all of our education and modernity, we have not felt ashamed that we belong to a cultural heritage that was so barbaric and uncivilized? How is it that we are so comfortable with an ideology where ‘surnames’ (read ‘castes’) determine the greatness and smallness, purity and pollution and superiority and inferiority of an individual?”
By Jiwan Rai, the author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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