Sunday, June 26, 2011

Corruption in India-3

A cardinal aspect of corruption in Indian society, which the Lokpal debate has studiously avoided, is the divisive, oppressive and nationally enfeebling caste system. Perhaps one reason for its absence from public debate is that while the system is widely condemned, it is little understood.

Caste has been the focus of reform efforts for some five centuries, beginning with the Bhakti Poets, most significantly Kabir (1440-1518) and Guru Nanak (1469-1539). Those efforts suffered a severe setback under British colonial rule which could be sustained only by Indian disunity. The British sought to strengthen caste divisions and made it the subject of relentless propaganda aimed at inflaming internecine tensions.

The British invented a prehistoric “Aryan” invasion from Europe that not only sought to legitimize their rule and lay European claim to the origins of Vedic civilization, but presented the Brahmins – the primary Hindu bulwark against religious conversion – as the oppressors of other groups constituting some 95 per cent of the population. At the opposite extreme, British sanitary arrangements imposed the task of “nightsoil collection” on the lowliest groups, pushing them deeper into pariah status.

With the census of 1871 the British also introduced into the traditionally fluid arrangements of caste an unprecedented rigidity. The census set down in cold print what the British believed to be India’s caste hierarchy; it caused a great uproar all over the country, for it obliterated the grey areas that allowed castes to move up when opportunities arose. This mischief was intended, for their own historians had noted the fluidity of the system and how it had benefited two of the greatest figures of Indian history, Ashoka and Shivaji. Indeed, a third of the country’s ruling families from which the British wrested control of the country belonged to castes the census deemed low (and now fall in the category of OBC -- Other Backward Castes).

Indian reform efforts sharpened under British rule, most significantly in the movements led by Gandhi and Ambedkar. The latter, as the primary architect of India’s republican constitution, gave formal shape to the vision of a society without caste discrimination. However, progress towards that ideal has been slow. Electoral politics emphasizing caste-based “vote banks” energized divisions, and it has taken more than a generation for a counter-trend to emerge in the unifying logic of shared development and improved governance.

Today, with the corruptions of the system still raw and oppressive to many, there is a clear need to energize reform but Indian social activists seem to be at a loss on how to proceed. Part of the problem is conceptual, for the confusions spread during the colonial era still prevail, kept alive by a steady flow of “histories of India” from British authors who command a much larger audience than any Indian writer because they are published by the handful of foreign companies that dominate the Indian book market. (Not that Indian writers have set forth a particularly different perspective; our mainstream and “Left” historians are still very much in thrall to the West; those on the “Right” tend to be Hindutva fantasists.)

Meanwhile, modern research, especially genetic mapping, has revealed much that is new about the origin and evolution of the caste system. In September 2009, Nature published the findings of an Indian-American research project that studied some 500,000 genetic markers in a diverse sampling of the Indian population. It found, as one of the senior researchers told the Press, that “it is impossible to distinguish castes from tribes” and that the available evidence supported “the view that castes grew directly out of tribe-like organizations during the formation of Indian society.”

The sociological implications of that discovery are significant. When the tribal groups that began migrating out of Africa some 70,000 years ago collected in India, they did not settle into eternal conflict as happened elsewhere. Indian society evolved by allowing groups to keep their internal autonomy while fitting them into a pattern of functional interdependence.

The development of a common worldview and shared philosophy was taken up by the Upanishads (literally, to speak sitting together); we would call them “conferences” today, perhaps even “town meetings.” The concepts of a Universal Spirit and the individual soul, of Universal Moral Law (Dharma) and the inescapable Law of Causality (Karma), all emerged from discussions among the best and brightest of Indian society; they were rational concepts that everyone could accept, and served as an umbrella for all manner of tribal customs and beliefs. The amalgamation of those beliefs under that umbrella laid the foundation of what is now “Hinduism” – the “Sanatana Dharma” (the Eternal Law) at the philosophical level, supported by the hydra-headed formations of tribal worship at the popular level.

The decentralized social system that emerged was preeminently tolerant of differences. Although tribal groups fell into the four universal occupations – teachers, warriors, merchants and manual workers – the divisions and many subdivisions allowed great flexibility. There was also a pragmatic acceptance of intercaste liaisons. The Puranas discuss the matter at numerous points and there is mention of entire castes composed of the progeny of such mixing. Indians today share a strong genetic commonality: the 2009 study that showed the tribal origin of castes provided conclusive proof of it. The proportion of shared genes within the Indian population ranges from 49 to 80 per cent in different parts of the country.

Such mixing would appear impossible given the general ban on inter-caste marriages, and the especially strong Brahmin emphasis on the purity of bloodlines. However, we must take into account that in social relationships theory and fact cannot be immutably wedded; and that the record-keeping Brahmin caste had ample incentive and opportunity to present itself as superior and apart. 

The tribal origin of caste explains its persistence. For the group and for the individual, it had survival value, not only in the wilderness from which they emerged but in the multi-tribal grouping of Indian society: amidst its bewildering diversity the caste offered the security of shared custom and ceremony, of peerage and order.

The Ramayana celebrated the emergence of a unitary state out of tribal federalism: Rama is the God-King next door, the quintessential family man, a dutiful son, loving husband, loyal brother, kind even to his heartless aunt who engineers his exile from Ayodhya. Everyone, high and low, can identify with him, gain access. The gods in Indra’s heaven applaud as he sits on equal terms with a lowly forest dweller. Lakshman protests when a poor woman offers the prince fruit she has bitten into to make sure it is sweet, but Rama checks him: she acts out of love.

Rama is so conscious of democratic constraints that he even sends away his beloved wife Sita when the citizens of Ayodhya express suspicions about her pregnancy soon after return from Ravana's captivity. The message that "Ramrajya," the ideal State, is marked above all by the integrity of the king, is a constant theme of the epic. Rama accepts 14 years of privation in exile to uphold the sanctity of the king’s pledge, the ultimate guarantor of the safety and security of those he rules.

By the time of the Mahabharata, the incorruptible ideal of Ramrajya is long gone; the State is in the hands of evil power-hungry men who drive the country into the fratricidal war that augurs the onset of the Kali Yuga, the dark immoral age in which we now live. In such an age, caste has become merely a tool of narrow-minded sectarian politics, a means for the corrupt to manipulate the group for personal profit.

If we are to continue the process of social renewal that began half a millennium ago, social reformers must address this situation head-on. Denunciation and agitation are not enough; they must provide an alternative to the identity and security offered (even if only notionally) by caste. Perhaps this could be done by organizing social security along new functional lines or at the level of communities, in effect, creating new “tribes” that look after their own, weaning loyalty away from the obsolete shells of caste that benefit only a manipulative elite.

Such an approach will have to deal with the massive trend towards corrupt elite control powered by corporate globalization. That will be the subject of the next post.

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