Saturday, November 13, 2010

Liberation from caste identity - Part I

I wrote previously that had there been no separate country for Indian Muslims, the castes in India wouldn't have developed a 'Hindu' identity. The argument  that Hindus and Muslims were two different nations(championed by some Muslims) was equally true for each caste. Each caste was an independent nation. Even though this might not have given rise to caste specific countries, but eventually,  intellectual classes would have emerged among middle and lower castes which would have liberated those castes from their narrow caste worldview and identities.

I was wondering how the situation would have played out in the alternate history. As far as I could think there could be three major variables.

1. Proselytizing religions
2. Alternative worldviews
3. Caste size

1. Proselytizing religions
What would have happened had there been no division of the idea of India based on religion? The first question that comes to the mind whether the castes that had privileged positions in the hierarchy would have allowed other religions to poach their unprivileged castes whose presence in the system,for an observer, gives them their sense of superiority.

If you see Indian history the answer would be a surprise 'NO'. However, if you understand the philosophical purity-pollution foundation of the caste system that might not look very surprising. Let us consider bellwether state of caste philosophy, Kerala's history.

I came across this article on the genesis and growth of Malayali Muslims (Mappila) that quotes the various authors of the past millennium how privileged castes treated converts to Islam from underprivileged sections. We should keep in mind Muslim and Christian writers' highly political nature of their religious belief while reading these quotes.

Another point to be noted is that” the conversion of low caste Hindus to Islam did not lead to estrangement between the followers of the two religions. The change of faith among the low castes or out caste Hindus never seemed to have been a matter of concern to upper caste Hindus”

Shaikh Zainuddin reports:
The unbelievers never punish such of their countrymen
When embrace Islam, but treat them with the same respect
shown to the rest of the Muslims though the convert
belongs to the lowest of the grades of their society.

When the lower castes realised that conversion to Islam accorded them higher status in the society and they would surpass many vexations and discriminations, they accepted Islam in large scale, C.A. Innes had pointed out that a “number of recruits come from time to time from the ranks of Tiyyans and from the Cherumans and the serf caste to whom the “honour of Islam,” bring franchisement from all the disabilities of an out caste.” Thus a low caste through conversion rushes ahead several steps higher than that which he originally occupied.

Graeme in his report submitted to the government in 1822, had noted the point thus:
He (the converted low caste) is no longer a link in a chain
Which required to be kept in a particular place. His new
Faith neutralises all his former bad qualities. He is no
Longer a degraded pariah whose approach disgusted and
Whose touch polluted the Hindu of caste, but belonging
now to a different scale of being; contact with him does
not require the same ablution to purify it.

After emphasizing Graeme’s view Logan observes: “The conversion of a Pariah or low caste Hindu to Mohammedanism raised him distinctly in the social scale and he is treated with more respect by Hindus.”

This attitude continued down to the twentieth century. C. Kesavan, a social reformer, in his book, has quoted an appeal submitted by the Ezhava community to the maharaja of Kochi. The appeal points to the plight of the Ezhava in a very pathetic manner: “Even now in certain schools, especially in the girls’s schools, we, the slaves. had no permission. We, the slaves, are never admitted in the students houses. Even We the slaves, cannot go near a post office. The notice boards which prevents our movements didn’t decrease, but increase. We, the slaves are not appealing for higher privileges and had no desire to enter temples of caste Hindus. Our appeal is very moderate and it is that, while we are continuing as Hindus we may be provided the right and liberties which we get when we are converted either to Islam or Christianity.”

It was about the same time Kumaranasan, the Ezhava poet in his lines, mocked at the Brahmins who maintained strange and irrational practices:
A Cheruman (a serf caste) who keep off,
The way many a distance
When embraces Islam,
Can be seated aside.
Don’t be afraid, oh, Lords’

However the main fact remains that a low caste Hindu obtains by conversion many a substantial benefits, for Mappilas as a class, pull well together and he is a bold ”Hindu” who tramples on their class prejudices and feelings.
For an outsider the caste system might appear either an exotic oriental farce or as a  stagnant pit of both privileged and under-privileged. But it was the philosophy of purity-pollution that none of the castes understood but couldn't over come that remained the backbone of its existence.

What we really should see here is that the castes didn't consider their identity was part of the political system of the land. Though the kings/chieftains of Malayala region encouraged Muslims and Islam because of economic reasons that is beside the point. Was this only true for Kerala?

Consider North-West India(which includes Punjab and Sindh of Pakistan, Kashmir of India). After the spread of Islam in those lands, the remaining Hindus were mostly made up of privileged castes. However, until the arrival of the British there were no organizations or movements to stem the rate of conversions. In fact, in Kashmir almost all of the remaining castes were Brahmins. So, it's obvious that the privileged castes in those regions gave higher respect to converted underprivileged castes than the ones who remained with them in the pit.

The whole scenario appears as if the privileged castes were depending on the underprivileged castes' "boldness" to liberate themselves so that they can liberate themselves from their purity-pollution fears. I'm not sure whether the situation has changed much for non-political privileged castes of present day. A Brahmin I knew, who always maintained his pride in his Brahminhood, once claimed that all erstwhile untouchables or Dalits should renounce Hinduism and wondered why they hadn't already.

It is in this background I believe the creation of Pakistan resulted in political identity of the castes (now termed as Hindutva). The creation of Pakistan resulted in physical fear for the privileged castes (as they have seen the cleansing of their equivalent castes in Pakistan, Bangladesh) that they have plunged into number games championed by Muslims. But the true victims of this game have been underprivileged castes who lost an opportunity to liberate themselves from their limited life and worldview with the advent of education, opportunities and new ideas.

I'm not overlooking pre-partition Hindutva political movements like RSS and Hindu Maha Sabha. However, their success with underprivileged castes or with the castiest privileged castes wouldn't have been so great but for the unifying identity gave by the Muslims to all the castes. But, certainly, being educated in Christian (British) schools would have created political religious view among the privileged castes anyway. However, possibility that they would have been successful to bridge the caste faultlines, as they have done at present, without making any changes in the system (all the untouchability rules were made illegal by the secular government of India but the caste marriages and the food practices haven't been touched) would have been low. Their success in propagating Hindutva identity was made easy as they were able to peddle the fear of Muslims to all sections of the caste society.

1. Genesis and Growth of the Mappila Community

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