CHATUR BANIYA: THE (IR)RELEVANCE OF CASTE & CIVILITY IN 21ST CENTURY INDIA

CASTE AND HIERARCHIES IN INDIA SOCIETY AND POLITICS: Researcher Dr Suryakant Waghmore says don’t worry, be happy…democratic India will win because most of us want to live in peace and harmony!

IT WAS such an engaging talk! And somebody knew anything to do with the words “chatur baniya” would get more folk to come and listen to what Dr Suryakant Waghmare (PhD Edinburgh) had to say at the International Centre Goa on July 15, 2017. His lecture, as Dr Waghmare clarified disarmingly, was actually  “Hierarchy Without A System? Why Civility Matters in the Study of Caste.” The “chatur baniya” was not his mischievous addition by his host, ICG’s director, Dr Pushkar, who introduced him at the talk. Interestingly, the hall was jam-packed for this talk!

Dr Waghmare is an associate professor of sociology at the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences and Indian Institute of Technology, Powai (IIT-B) amongst other designations and credentials. He is obviously steeped in study and research of how caste plays a role in Indian politics and society and continues to do so to this day in various guises subtle or not too subtle.

I thought we’d outgrown all that, my dears! At least that’s the world I live in. You’d think after 70 years of modern-day India’s independence and liberal education spirit, we would have outgrown such things as religion, caste, colour, community, profession and so on, but from the sound of it we have not, not really. We Indians have mastered the fine art of wearing masks or veneers of varying thickness when it comes to such delicate matters as caste and social hierarchies! At least this is what I understood after listening to the Dr Suryakant Waghmore’s very tantalizing talk.

He apologized for the unfair “chatur baniya” tag to his talk and Dr Pushkar took the credit for that, explaining for those who may not be aware that there is some background to BJP chief Amit Shah’s recent crack about Mahatma Gandhi being a “chatur baniya” (clever merchant or something like that). Actually, Gandhi did have the habit of asking foreign photographers for some money for taking photographs of him and a couple of times Sardar Patel, if he was present, joked with Gandhi that he was a “chatur baniya!” Gandhi took this in his stride as if to say and so what if he was!

We know how unique and complex a person Mahatma Gandhi was and he was much loved across the moribund classes and castes of India, as also religious identities. I don’t know about you, but I think he paid the price for the partition of India. But to stay with Dr Suryakant Waghmore’s talk, Mr Waghmore observed that it was good thing that in India with its post-independence liberal education and political will, we have the lower castes of India moving up from “the margins to mainstream”… and civility is to do with “not telling people what they can eat but let them eat what they want!”

IT’S wonderful how although caste remained central to the study of social solidarity in India it is not an accident. Instead, it has taken on dynamic forms to fit into the rapid political and economic changes in Indian public and private life. To quote, “The critical role of caste in constructing particular and broader social solidarities continues to generate significant research interest amongst sociologists, political scientists and social anthropologists…”

It was a very insightful talk. We must understand that civility between the various classes and castes may be only a surface thing, a mask in place vis-à-vis social relationships. What may be brewing beneath in the deep dark recesses of the human mind may be something altogether frightening! Caste barriers of the overt and covert kind manifest themselves more openly in rural India as we may see to this day. In urban areas we may put aside caste barriers for practical or pragmatic reasons but even then we have seen in recent times how it has bubbled up into violent confrontation.

Are we going to let a cow define who we are? Asked Dr Waghmore, surely we must think beyond and that is why neither Gandhiji or Ambedkar evoked Buddhism and not Western philosophies. Even if charity begins with civility it must not end for reasons of caste. In this sense, noted Dr Waghmore, we may be subtly motivated by our caste complexes and status but we may not think about it! And as far as politics goes, “our politicians are smart and know the importance of political power!”

We’ve been seeing how changing caste solidarities are challenging social hierarchies with the BJP in power. It is, indeed, a complex issue, with various groups challenging caste while others say “caste-ism” is over with and quite dead. Ground realities beg to differ however and if you read in between some of what has been happening  one may see subtly how caste does continue to manifest itself in modern urban India and abroad too!

Insidious caste sentiments continue to operate also in corporate employment. Points out Dr Waghmore: You will see how some students do well in exams but when they appear in person or oral interviews they fail miserably. What the candidate’s name is makes a difference to all our suited and booted classes. For example, if there’s a Kashyap pitted against a Harijan you may conclude who gets the job.

However, there is the silver lining here and there in a democratic India when the ethics of equality come into play and if this turns into social practice in personal life, we are better off — the end of the caste system does mean greater civility between members of society! All this despite the fact that in our urban spaces today although we do see vegetarian and non-vegetarian housing societies, “freedom in kalyug times in Mumbai is everyone being a businessperson first and in trains doesn’t everyone sit together?”

The flip side is that there are folk who do perceive being Brahmin as being genetically ingrained in modernistic terms — so we see these scenarios when we fall in love after checking out caste issues, or we just fall in love and pay the price in some states of the country (analyse the phenomenon of Romeo squads in some of our states).

It all sounds very eerily like although so much has changed, very little has changed, my dears! The question then is, how much is for real and how much superficial? Dr Suryakant Waghmore’s talk was very engaging and  packed with many  facets of how caste plays a role in our lives in India, be it in invisible forms. It is too early to write obits to the caste system. Dr Waghmore is optimistic, concluding with the observation that we will survive and live in peace on the “consensus of all!” Human nature usually prefers to work for peace and may his words ring true, my dears.

If you want to read more of Dr Waghmore, he’s the author of “Civility Against Caste: Dalit Politics & Citizenship in Western India” (Sage, 2013) and has co-editored “From the Margins to the Mainstream: Institutionalising Minorities in South Asia” (Sage, 2015).

I must confess I like going out to the International Centre Goa these monsoon days for it’s become quite a lush green paradise with birds tweeting at dawn and dusk and the little delicate butterflies I call “yellows” and “white psyches” flitting around in giddy trance from flower to flower. I wish the ICG gardeners would go in for planting herbals like tulsi, lemon grass, thymol, curry leaf…and yes, roses and golden champa grow very well in Goa I’ve noticed. Monsoon time is the time to take pleasure in monsoon time flowers, don’t forget; and on that note I’ll say avjo, poite verem, selamat datang, au revoir arriverdecci and vachun yeta here for now.

— Mme Butterly

 

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