Indianness is citizenship, not caste
A few days ago, I was surprised to read a screaming headline in several newspapers: Indianness the Only Caste. It was the headline of a story chronicling the Prime Minister’s speech at the inauguration, virtually, of the 90th anniversary celebrations of the “Sivagiri Pilgrimage” held annually in honor of Sree Narayana Guru, a holy philosopher who lived in Kerala (1856-1928).
My knowledge of the guru’s teachings and a visit to Sivagiri had led me to believe that the guru was staunchly opposed to caste as an identity and throughout his life fought against caste discrimination. The motto of his ashram in Sivagiri was “Om Sahodaryam Sarvatra”, meaning “All men are equal in the eyes of God”.
Bad choice of word
Mr Modi is the Prime Minister of India, which is a republic governed by a constitution which “we the people of India have solemnly resolved to…give to ourselves”. The Constitution recognizes states, religions, denominations, languages, castes and untouchability (and promises to abolish this hateful practice). The Constitution also recognizes citizenship acquired through several methods—birth, parentage, registration, naturalization, territorial incorporation, and migration (in some cases). The word “India” appears in many articles and the word “Indian” appears in the context of the Anglo-Indian, Indian State and Indian Independence Act, 1947. I couldn’t find the word “Indianness” anywhere.
Caste has only one meaning, either in English or any Indian language. It means jati, and is reminiscent of the myriad evils that were – and still are – associated with the caste system. I understand the spirit in which the Prime Minister may have used that word, but the choice of word was unfortunate and wrong.
Reject single identity
Equating Indianness with caste is dangerous. The “caste” has rigid and backward rules. According to the rules, marriage is endogamous and breaking this rule has cost the lives of many young people. Caste distinguishes a group of people and most often drives a wedge between two groups of people. Caste loyalties and prejudices are stronger than religious loyalties and as fierce as religious prejudices. Until recently, religion was underestimated; caste was worn on the sleeve. Now, under the Modi government, religion and caste are worn on the sleeve by many people.
Once the caste is exalted, it highlights the hateful traits of the caste. The caste is insular, exclusive, has rigid and generally inflexible rules about marriage, food, dress, worship, etc. The caste tries to create a unique identity. If “Indianness” also aims to create a unique identity, it is the polar opposite of diversity and pluralism. Like millions of fellow citizens, I reject the unique identity that the BJP is trying to create.
The Prime Minister’s statement prompted me to re-read the classic speech titled ‘Annihilation of Caste’ (which was prepared but not delivered) by Babasaheb Ambedkar. Here are some moving passages:
“The effect of caste on Hindu ethics is simply deplorable. Caste has killed the public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. Caste has made public opinion impossible.
“There can be no system of social organization more degrading than the caste system. It is the system that numbs, paralyzes and paralyzes the people from useful activity.
“There is no doubt, in my opinion, that if you don’t change your social order, you won’t be able to do much in terms of progress. You cannot mobilize the community either for defense or for attack. You cannot build anything on the foundations of caste…”
Caste has perpetuated social and economic inequalities. In villages, in particular, caste and the numerical strength of the caste (in the village, taluk or district) determine the social and political structure and the distribution of social influence and political power. Invariably, these determine economic opportunities. I found out that a simple thing like getting a patta (land title) or a bank loan or a government job is influenced by one’s caste or the numerical power of the caste. The private sector is no better. Most jobs in the informal/unorganized sector or in micro and small enterprises are held by people of the same caste as the owner.
If we equate caste and Indianness, we will find ourselves on a dangerous slope. I have no illusions that caste consciousness or caste-based discrimination will disappear overnight, but there are encouraging trends in getting rid of the caste system. Urbanization, industrialization, television and cinema, open economy, communications, emigration and travel (especially travel abroad) break down caste prejudices. Equating Indianness with caste will reverse the progress made over the past few decades.
A republican approach
Obviously, there is a quality in every Indian that can be described as Indianness. I won’t define it or even try to describe it, but being Indian is the ineffable feeling of belonging to a country. My conclusion that Indianness should be equated with citizenship is consistent with the idea of a Republic under a Constitution. A citizen who believes in the basic structure of the Constitution of India and owes allegiance to its fundamental principles is an Indian.
We must wean Indians from caste loyalties and educate them to celebrate universally cherished values such as freedom and liberalism, equality, tolerance, secularism and democracy. “Citizenship” is the true foundation for building a nation, sharing values, rights and duties, and achieving peace and prosperity. It will also be true republicanism.