Monday, May 11, 2009

Confessions About Caste

Two people forced me to write this post about India's Caste system.

First, Narayana Murthy, the famed founder of Infosys, who said in a recent interview that India is not a nation of doers and pointed to our Brahminical tradition of undermining physical work as the reason. And, then I met Dr. William Boyd, a Kiwi banker who worked for Natwest in London and now resident in Malaysia, in Manila, who turned to be surprisingly well informed about India's culture and tradition and we had an enlightening conversation about caste over lunch.

Dr. Boyd, unlike others, were deeply respectful about India's culture and that made me feel good. Talking about the caste system is always an embarrassment, as most Westerners I know look at it as a terrible social practise which makes India a really backward place. Dr. Boyd was different - he was speaking my language.- and was telling everyone else at the lunch table how caste was actually a system of division of labour that helped India progress, intellectually and economically, in the ancient time.

That was exactly the belief I grew up with. Calcutta was one of the more liberal cities in India, or so it seems. I have hardly seen the nastiness of the caste system directly, though that could well be for my lack of exposure than because of a real absence of prejudice. However, I grew up in two households - one, on my mother's side, a dedicated leftist family which was fiercely egalitarian and liberal, and the other, my own family, which was traditional, but a family of entrepreneurs who did not have time for caste. Yes, I was told that I must marry within my caste so that social parity is maintained, and heard odd remarks about unfamiliar surnames of my school or college friends, but since my parents were avowedly modern and liberally minded, it looked more an aberration than a social norm. In the end, I did view caste as a mostly obsolete thing, an useful system of division of labour worked out by Manu but something completely out of sync with modern India and out of practise in today's date. Growing up in India, somehow, I achieved the pure theoretical innocence that Dr. Boyd seemed to have.

But then, there were odd moments. I was once told, by a relative, not to touch the feet of the teachers who were not Brahmans. Since this was a traditional form of showing respect to elders, it was awkward for me not to do it to some people while doing it to others. So, I stopped doing it altogether. This habit lives with me today, and even when I have to do it, I remain distinctly uncomfortable. Indeed, I have outgrown the prickly consciousness of my adolescence and stopped thinking about the caste of the person I am showing respect to, but, truth be told, my discomfort today has its roots to that odd remark, and the guilt of many omissions that I have made consciously since.

I am not sure when my views started to change. However, I recall being fairly upset with Indian government's decision to implement the Mandal Commission report in 1989, which extended India's affirmative action programme, which was initially designed to run for 10 years to ensure social equality but was extended by successive terms of 10 years every time, to a large section of population, making special reservations for more than 51% of government jobs and seats in government funded educational institutions. Being a Brahman by birth, whether or not I enjoyed or demanded any privileges of being one, this shut the door for government jobs for me, more or less. I was upset, though not so upset that I shall commit suicide [which some young upper caste people did at the time] and thought the practise is apparently wrong. This event flew in the face of my belief that caste is unimportant in modern India, and made me conscious of my brahminness in a negative sense.

There were many events since, where I maintained that being upper caste is disadvantageous in India, a view rather widely shared among the upper caste people and political parties. I further developed my comfortable, rather patronizing, view of the caste system of India. This is why I usually defended the caste system to my friends in England and elsewhere, and felt so comfortable to find Dr. Boyd in agreement.

However, I have also been exposed to points of views rather different than mine. First, indeed, there was Gandhi, who saw none of the mild 'division of labour' usefulness of the caste system, but rather saw it as a stumbling block for progress of India. And, so did Nehru, , who had no time for the for the caste system and wanted to push forward with progress of India. These two men were quite different in their approach, one who engaged with the caste system consciously and tried to break the differences, and the other, who approached it with a similar sort of innocence that I had, thinking that it is obsolete and irrelevant. I did attempt to read Ambedkar's life thereafter, more as a curiosity than as a conscious learning effort, and ended up thinking of him as a caste warrior and a divisive figure rather than a hero of national struggle. I noted that he knew the caste issues from the terrible injustice he faced in his own life, and approached the issue head on with the zeal of a preacher, and thought of Gandhi as a higher caste agent exploiting the lower classes to achieve the higher caste goal of political independence. In my mind, I saw Ambedkar more as as an anti-thetical figure to Mahatma. To me, while Gandhi was putting together a new India, one at ease with itself, harmonious and possessing an unique character, he was up against four different ideas of India, each represented by a towering leader, but each with the narrower focus than the synthesizing whole that Gandhi represented. So, there was Ambedkar, approaching the idea of modern India from a caste point of view, where he put primacy of lower castes and social equality above the national independence. In this, to me, he was not very different from what Jinnah was trying to achieve, and he stood as distant from Gandhi's vision of India as did Jinnah. [The other two poles of tension from Gandhi's vision of India came from Nehru, who sought to create a modern, cosmopolitan state, and the traditionalists led by Sardar Patel and Dr Rajendra Prasad, who wanted to build a strong nation state built on a singular, homogeneous identity.]

So, at the end of all this reading, I was still where I was. I believed in Ambedkar's stories of terrible injustice, but that was too far, too alien for me. I thought - this was true, but irrelevant now. Well, yes, I had my moments of uncertainty, especially when in college I came in touch with radical Maoists who were fighting a class war in Bihar. They were ordinary, and I must add, good men and women, with interests as normal as anyone, just more sensitive souls who could not stay at home and be indifferent; I quite liked them and tried to offer help as much as I could, though I found them too doctrinaire at times and kept a distance from their political ideology. They were class warriors, but I heard from them horror stories of caste discrimination. I saw - there was a war going on - right at the heart of India. But, still, it was too distant, too foreign, for me to accept that this is indeed a problem.

So, here is my long awaited confession - I was in denial. And, I am not alone. I have not reached this enlightenment by touring the rural India. I realized this through talking to various Indian executives and businessmen, all city men and women. And, I realized that most of India is actually in denial about the caste.

Let me explain. To start with, let me quote from an otherwise brilliant and vastly useful book I just read. I am talking about Rama Bijapurkar's We Are Like That Only [published in Britain under a different name]. This is a direct quote from Chapter 7:

'What do we need to know about the caste system in order to do business in India?' I was recently asked this while addressing a group of CEOs of US companies who wanted to understand India and China better. My answer was 'nothing'. One of them persisted: 'And in order to understand Indian consumers?' My answer again was a flat 'nothing'.

While this is indeed not true, this is exactly the view held by thousands of policy makers, academicians and ordinary urban Indians. Let me explain why I think caste is ingrained in our behaviour, and yes, why it is a vile system which is impeding our progress.

Before I go on to talk about what Narayana Murthy said, yet again, let me dwell for a moment about my own observation, made earlier in this post, that Calcutta was, and is, a more liberal city as far as caste is concerned. This is indeed what we Bengalis like to believe, and after all, we elected a communist government for more than 30 years. However, I came across a very interesting observation made by the Political Scientist Dr. Ashis Nandi that Bengalis are more in denial about caste than anyone else in India. He asked whether we actually see a possibility of electing a lower caste Chief Minister in foreseeable future. The answer indeed is no. While Bengal may claim to be socially progressive, the affirmative action programme in Bengal is somehow muted and social development indicators indeed show that we have not done that well in bringing the caste barriers down. I would guess even my account above will validate the problem - we possibly never thought caste is a problem and never tried to solve it.

Narayana Murthy's statements to me were revealing. I had the opportunity to travel across India for last couple of years. During this time, I had the privilege to see parts of India I have not seen before, and meet people from various backgrounds and professions, with the common trait that they were all urbanites and all wealthy men and women. This period was also helpful to me in other ways. Because I was trying to set up a business in India, I actively engaged in studying about the country. I also took up writing this blog, which forced me to crystallize my thinking about issues and reflect upon it. Besides, I was coming at it from a somewhat comparative perspective, wishing that my country had the good things of Britain while leaving out its decadence, and asking why it can not be so.

During this period, I observed and wrote about the culture of privilege that I see in India. To me, that sounds anti-meritocratic and something that stifles free thinking and therefore, progress. In searching for an answer, I got to Hofstede and learnt about high power distance cultures and that India is one. But, then, it still did not tell me why in India, any argument must degenerate into 'you know who I am' and why the policeman must let some people go scot free all the time. I felt something is wrong, and primarily ascribed to our old colonial culture of privileges, where some citizens were more equal than others.

However, this is what I think now, with the benefit of more studies and thinking: What the British colonial system actually did was to preserve and codify the system of privileges coming from our caste system. Indeed, the caste system was not about division of labour as I believed, because it had a hierarchy; it was a system of privilege. This is what is ingrained in Indian psyche, that men are not equal. This is what the British rulers exploited. In fact, this is why India remained a fractured nation all its history and was so easily conquered. Besides, India was not just conquered easily, but was subjugated easily. It was always difficult for a nation of 10 million people [Britain of Nineteenth century] to subjugate a nation of 270 million people, but not so, because we were always divided.

Besides, as Narayana Murthy observed, the caste system created a bias against the physical work. This almost explains why we must employ Peons in our offices and why my suggestion that our staff will make their own tea so offensive! I am sure someone will try to justify this by saying that this is an age of Conceptual work, and we have belatedly discovered the virtues of the Brahminical system. This will indeed be a statement in denial, and pure nonsense, as saying that some people must do all the physical work goes against the very principles of freedom and openness which have brought about the conceptual age.

In my mind, India can not progress unless we actually take all our citizens as equal and strive towards it. I shall maintain what I thought about our affirmative action programme, it is a bloated, corrupt bureaucratic system that must be thrown out of the window at once. But this should not please the higher caste lords; what we need is a full scale social revolution challenging the orthodoxies of Indian thinking. If this needs to start with a compulsory manual work for all high school kids, so be it. But it must be done if we have to get somewhere. And, indeed, the intelligentsia must accept Caste as a problem, a terrible problem that may keep India a divided, poor and unfree country forever. It is time that we stop play hide and seek and stop consoling us saying enough has already been done through reservation etc.

I confess: I was wrong all this while. Dr Boyd is indeed wrong, though I can not fault his generosity. However, we must solve our problem now and confront the issue of caste - if we have to fulfill any of those dreams of becoming a prosperous, happy country at ease with itself.

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