Caste and its Implications
Ranbir Singh (Hindu Human Rights Group)
The caste system is almost always made synomous with Hinduism. Indeed in the discussions I have attended the anti-caste lobby are noticeable by their venomous tirades against all things Hindu. Faces redden, saliva spews out of the mouth, fists bang on lecterns and tables as incomprehensible tantrums work up the crowd. After about an hour even the crowd get immune to this as each speaker runs over their allotted time and each conspiracy theory gets even more unbeleivable than its predecessor. Hindu points of view are noticeable by their absence.
While Hinduism is blamed for the caste system we must note that every pre-modern society was brazenly inegalitarian. Equality is a product of modernity and would have been inconceivable without industrialisation and modernisation which broke down the traditional feudal ties which bound peasants and serfs to the land and shifted power to the towns and cities. In Britain from the eighteenth century we find that enclosures in rural areas changed patterns of land use to the detriment of tenants who were now pauperised as landless casual labourers, while the great noble families benefited immensely from beign the few that actually owned land and reaped the rewards of rents. Destitution accelerated the drift to urban centres where new industries such as cotton, coal, iron and steel needed workers for labour intensive factory systems which enriched a newly emerging entrepreneurial middle-class. Growing rich and winning the vote in 1832 it was his first generation of capitalists which supplanted the power of the aristocrats in Parliament. Mercantilism and its protected market using slave labour was replaced by free trade and laissez-faire economics The long inexorable march to an urbanised society with new patterns of social hierarchy and mobility had begun and was emulated in other nations.
Caste is codified in Hindu religious texts which reflect the prevailing social norms of the time, which was of course, as with much of Europe until as recently as a century ago, an overwhelmingly agricultural society. Hence we find similar types of social system in areas of the world where industrialisation has yet to take full effect and where urban living remains the exception of the few. This is why we find caste prevalent in Pakistan. The great landowning families such as Bhuttos not only the land but also the people on them. That is why land ownership is always the dream of Third World peasants today much as it was of Irish emigrants to America in the aftermath of the Potato Famine. Land provides food, income and stability in an otherwise merciless world where welfare systems funded by taxation are non-existent, and even taxation is erratic. Pakistan’s great landlord families are guaranteed political clout under military dictatorship by their traditional power base in a society which accords respect to wealth based on land ownership. In democratic times this power base is guaranteed by the captive votes which the serfs give unquestioned to their feudal lords. There is scant concept of here on voting based on ideology or to one’s conscience. In such societies traditional patterns of land use and rural power base ensure that caste based on occupation, tribal origins and lore, as well as socio-economic status remains largely undisturbed. It is this which anti-caste groups in Britain rarely look at because it does not allow them to simply blame Hinduism for caste discrimination. In all pre-industrial societies the inherent inequality will never be tackled under effective means are undertaken towards modernisation which will mean dragging such societies kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. In Pakistan the power nexus of military, mullahs and zamindars has precluded such attempts. For minority Christians and Hindus this is doubly worse. Even if they are relatively affluent, as non-Muslims they are subject to officially sanctioned discrimination and violence. For the low caste and often poor, dependent on their very existence and protection on landlords, police and employers, they are deliberately pauperised and kept as third-class citizens, easy pickings for bonded labour, sexual exploitation and trafficking. The minority religious element in this only makes it worse and deepens their untouchable status. The solution is that along with modernisation there needs to be evolution of common citizenship and values integral to the healthy functioning of civil society. Only then will caste and other forms of discrimination finally be stamped out of existence.