Saturday, March 27, 2010

Caste, Half-Caste& Outcaste, in India and Outside

CASTE SEEMS to be coming back to our lives with a vengeance. And sadly not only in India, but in other parts of the world too where there is an Indian connection. We made effort to remove it with the help of sour secular Constitution. But see what some of our learned judges in the Supreme Court had to say in a recent judgment:

“The murders were the outcome of social issues like a marriage with a person of so-called a lower caste. However, a time has come when we have to consider these social issues as relevant, while considering the death sentence in the circumstances s these. The caste is a concept which grips a person before his birth and does not leave him even after his death. The vicious grip of caste, community, religion, though totally unjustified, is a stark reality. The psyche of the offender in the background of a social issue like an inter-caste marriage, though wholly unjustified would have to be considered in the peculiar circumstances of the case.”

In other words if a Brahmin murders a lower caste person because he married his sister, then the seriousness of the crime gets reduced because of the higher caste status of the criminal! Well, going by this, we can very well expect a day when our learned judges offering some special privileges for those involved in Dalit lynching in our wonderful land. After all, the Dalit, by his very existence, is a sinister presence that evokes a sense of nausea and anger among the higher castes, don’t they?

After reading from this Supreme Court judgment, I got a mail from my friend John who was traveling in the Caribbean islands where there is a huge Indian presence. He wrote from Guyana:

“Today I discovered about how caste perceptions are pushed to this society by the Indian Indians. Two very well-off guys here told me how they do not like the Indian diplomats here as they looked down upon people of Indian origin -- telling they were low caste coolies "shipped" from India. This kind of Brahminism and caste attitude of Indians is there deep inside, and they even impose it on those communities (like Guyanese) who have outgrown or escaped from caste.”

Then elsewhere in global discussion group I was talking abut the problems of Anglo-Indians, a group often described as half-castes by the English. I never knew it was a widely held practice all over the English-speaking world until Ainslie Pyne, my artist friend in Adelaide, Australia, wrote to me:

“Interestingly the term 'half-caste' was quite common in Australia and New Zealand for those who were the product of a Maori/white - Australian Aborigine/white liaison.

In the case of my mother's ancestry - I still used the term 1/8th caste to denote that Mum was part Tasmanian aborigine and 7/8th English ancestry and I think the term half-caste Maori is still common in NZ; but maybe they have bans on labelling NZ’ers based on the percentage of mixed blood they have.

I doubt it is any more debasing to say someone is 'half caste' or whatever percentage it happens to be, than saying someone is of 'mixed' blood.

As a matter of interest - what is the acceptable term in India for someone of mixed Indian/European ancestry?”

That meant I had to explain to her what caste, half-caste and outcaste meant to us India, especially to those who were at the receiving end of these social practices. Here is my note to Ainslie:

I think the Europeans took the expressions caste, half-caste and out-caste from their Indian connections and experience. Caste as a social organization actually came to exist in India and it got deeper and stronger as an institution here, that for the past 3000 years it defined the essence of Indian society and culture. It remains so even today, though caste oppression is now officially extra-legal and discrimination based on caste could get you a jail term, at least in theory.

Caste means a society which is divided on the basis of one's birth: If you are born to a Brahmin you are at the a top of the social hierarchy and if you are born at lower order, you are in the lower or middle order and there are out-castes who are outside the caste system and hence they are outside the social stream.

According to ancient Indian custom, there were four castes: Brahmin (priest), Ksahtirya (soldiers and rulers), Vasiya (traders), and Sudra (peasants, artisans.) and those outside were outcastes or Avarnas. There was a stiff social stratification and often untouchability was practised even among these sections. Hence if a Brahmin is polluted by a Sudra, he would have to pay a heavy penalty, and at times it even meant death to the Sudra, the polluter.

But the severest pains were reserved for the out-castes, Avarnas, those who were seen to be outside the caste system which was called Varnashrama or Chaturvarnya, as there were four main castes. (Chathur is a word which denotes four and Varna means colour.) Hence you can see casteism is something like racism, but more sinister as it goes very deep and is extremely complex and divides the entire society vertically and horizontally.

It has been a painful thing to India and most social scientists do agree that it has done immense damage to the social fabric. Still, it remains intact and strong because it gives a comparative advantage to each segment in the system (except the lowest underdogs), because they have people lower down whom they can boss around and despise. I think this system was devised by people who had a great insight into human mind, his venality and meanness.

Islam has been a religion which originally had no such social divisions, but once they came to India they adopted it in their lives. So had the Europeans and Christians, who seemed to have developed similar caste prejudices as they lived in India. But I never knew they carried it even to their homes as you tell me such expressions do exist even in Australia and NZ.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Some Ethical and Cultural Questions with Regard to Mayawati Cartoon Controversy

I WAS seriously in trouble last week as I decided to publish a cartoon of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ms Mayawati, in a provocative posture, following the pubic outrage over her acceptance of a currency garland which is said to be valued anything between Rs 5 crore to Rs 20 crore. It was a disgusting scene, the chief minister of a state accepting such a garland from people who evidently had strings to pull. It was corruption through and through and a cynical expression of contempt for all norms of public decency by one who holds power under our Constitution.

That perhaps explains why our cartoonist Sudheernath decided to draw a very provocative cartoon with Mayawati in her toilet, asking for a bunch of 1000-rupee-notes for use as toilet paper.

I was in two minds as to what to do with the cartoon, whether to allow it to go or ask for a milder one. Finally I decided it to go in the paper, dated Wednesday, March 17.

Next day, there were severe protests from many friends, including Dr M S Jayaprakash, a long-time friend and a leader of the Bahujan Samajwadi Party, Kerala unit. The points raised were that the cartoon was per se obscene, and secondly it put a dalit leader in a poor light and thirdly, by using the image of a lady sitting in a toilet, the cartoon was demeaning to women. In addition to the protest letters, there was also an attack on the Thiruvananthapuram office of the newspaper on Friday, March 19.

I was anticipating objections to the cartoon, but I never expected the kind of fierce protest that was witnessed after its publication. I think this incident, hence, needs to be reexamined, to draw its lessons.

First, was it obscene? I am not sure where lies the dividing line between obscene and not obscene in a piece of art, whether it is a cartoon, a painting or a poem. This is an age old question and I feel there is no final answer. But of course for an editor, there is always this question to answer, what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in a particular newspaper. It is tough to arrive at a proper decision, keeping in mind the social attitudes, the readership's tastes and views, and the need for intellectual honesty, professional standards and ethics, artistic freedom and freedom of expression.

The second aspect was the allegation that the cartoon made a pointed attack against a dalit political leader. Why Mayawati was singled for such a demeaning treatment, was one line of criticism.

This, I realize now, is not a very easy question to answer. The evident and ready answer to this argument is that it was not because she was a dalit that she was attacked, but because she was a chief minister and she was corrupt.

This is absolutely true. A chief minister is holding a public office and hence under public scrutiny. The media cannot but criticize them in public interest. We cannot tone down the criticism only because one belongs to a weaker community.

But when I was deciding upon the cartoon one question I failed to ask myself was whether I would have allowed such a cartoon if it was, say Indira Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi on the seat of the toilet? And whether the cartoonist would have drawn such an image of them?

Well, here comes the cultural question; the question of middle class rationalizations of one’s preferences. I am sure no editor would dare to publish a cartoon of Indira or Sonia on the toilet seat because that would mean a massive public outrage on the part of their middle class readership and they know it beforehand. There the self censorship would work.

When I failed this test in Mayawati’s case, it is a reminder that I was insensitive to this cultural aspect. I was perhaps being dishonest intellectually as I failed to ask the right and most critical questions.