Why Caste Matters & Does Not in India

The NYTimes found the fact that India appointed a Muslim as the director of the Indian Intelligence Bureau a strong enough point to draft an entire article around it. The author wondered if Egypt would take a leaf out of India’s book and follow such a ‘secular’ model.

The article has a simplistic view of India, which is perhaps good for the country’s global standing. They author believes that India is actually secular and democratic country.

As a citizen witnessing numerous riots and clashes in everyday life, I am not sure I agree.

In terms of titular heads of various organizations, we have been quite effective in placing all castes and religions.

We had Muslim Presidents, Sikh Presidents, Prime Ministers, Supreme Court Judges etc.

But the fact that we are making such a big deal about appointing a Muslim as a direction of the IIB just shows that we are not really secular. In a secular country, the religion of a head should not matter. His religion does not really come into play in a post as high as this. We have appointed him for his skill and accomplishments. Does the fact that he is a Muslim make a difference to how he functions?

Caste and religion play an important role in everyday life.

Take Karnataka for instance. The governments here are deeply divided. Janata Dal, which used to be a popular, ‘farmer’ party, leans heavily towards Gowdas. Party loyalists know that you are not as favored if you belong to any other class.

But if you are a Lingayat, you would side with Yediyurappa. He promises you the riches.

I’m not making this stuff up. Just read any news articles in the past few months, where every minister has openly talked about this.

They do not care if they topple the government as long as someone from their caste stays in power.

Take Bihar. It is a constant war between the lower and the  upper castes. Lalu Prasad Yadav won repeatedly, as some articles pointed out, not because he brought in great development. His caste has more members in a more powerful position. And he does represent the underdog vs the Thakurs etc.

There are again the Yadavs and the Gurjars and the Tiwaris, who all have to fall back on areas that are strong with their castemen to gain votes.

I used the words ‘caste men’ specifically here, because in these areas women are yet to smell the air of ’empowerment.’

Though they legally have the power to vote, what is the ratio of women who do vote according to their choice and not what their husbands state.

Sure, the government ads show ghunghat-clad women happily powdering chillies or milking cows that will be sold and get them money, ergo empowerment. But what is the statistic for women education in these areas? What are the statistics for the deaths of women in these areas?

There are some cases that manage to leak out of the caste-enclosed communities and we read about murders in the name of family honour, rape meted out as punishment and more. But I constantly get the feeling that the actual numbers are much higher than what we get to read about.

But then, we are one of the few nations in the world to have had women Prime Minister, Chief Ministers and cops in high position. And we worship female deities as well. We have entire festivals dedicated to them, rather than leaving them on the lower altar.

That does not preclude rapes, murders, female infanticide, lower education rates, child marriage to older men and many such things.

The Indian mind works on a strange level. We are able to beautifully compartmentalize things like ‘laws’ and ‘reality’.

So, there might not be much fuss about a Muslim being a director, or a woman being a PM. Because these are things that affect us for half an hour in the morning, so to speak. We do not consider the larger impact of these things. But a woman walking down on the street late at night, a man offending your God in front of you – these are things that actually get you going.

Once that spark is lit, the other things come into play.

We aren’t democratic. For  most part, it still remains a sham… booth capturing, fake votes and lots more. We still have the system of reservation in every single aspect of our functioning.

It starts at the school level… and then continues through your life, where a guy who perhaps does not even want to be a doctor gets entry into a medical school because a) reservation quotas b) it becomes a point of honour for his family. His talent and aptitude rarely are considered here.

We are not even particularly secular. We discriminate based on sub-caste, caste, religion, gender, language and region. We are as fricking racist as one can get.

And yet, we function. As a whole. Either because we turn a blind eye to a lot of things that don’t go down easy, or we ‘adjust’. And we believe that two wrongs might just equal a right.

So, I would like to hear more about why we are NOT like Egypt. Why we are believed to have a culture of dialogue, peaceful and respectful arguing, and not a rock-throwing, boycotting, conspiracy-mongering atmosphere.

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Dear BJP,

Looks like Tehelka read one of my previous posts… Read this about Karnataka and BJP recently.

Tehelka is supposed to be a little anti-BJP, so a friend warns me that we are supposed to take this with a pinch of salt.

Religion is a popular and most favorite card of all political parties. But every time the BJP government plays that card, it puts a few extra cards on it and makes a huge impact. Probably, that is because of the ‘Hindutva’ card they play and have support in the form of hooligan friends RSS and Shiv Sena.

The last huge problem between Hindus & Muslims I remember in the state was when I was in school, more than a decade and a half ago. It was perhaps the Babri Masjid time… when the entire country went crazy. I don’t remember much of the time except it was summer vacation and much of it was ruined because I had to stay indoors. I was vacationing with some relatives who lived in a town with mixed population. Even though we all loved our neighbours, everyone stayed indoors because of a few miscreants.

“A few miscreants” – they are the ones that always create trouble. Do they really care about their religion or are they hyped on their own sense of power and the mob mentality?

Anyway, that is not really the point.

Is Karnataka going the Gujarat way? That is a scary question, particularly if the answer is anything but a firm ‘no’.

Everyone says that the Hindus need to be protected because our Constitution gave the minorities too much power. Perhaps that was the need at that time… the minorities had been abused so often that legally enforcing some rules was the only way out.

But it is time that those laws were revamped. Let is scrap all those reservation systems that are based on caste. Let us give space where it is required.

How many people from the SC/ST actually make use of the reservation system? At least the ones that really do need to make use of it? How many undeserved people get into high places because of laws like this and remain drunk on their untouchability? While being an outcast is something that nobody wants, nobody should dance on the merits of that very thing that we are trying to abolish.

We need a new system. And a system that does not involve religion in any manner.

Personally, I’d rather ban any political party that even has a whiff of religion in it. I do not care if they help a region economically because they are creating a scenario that will destroy all that is built simply in the name of religion.

Think of this as a war… on the surface, buildings are being built, jobs are being created. But these buildings are being built as havens during war, these jobs are created to place those soldiers… and one day, the war will begin and these will be empty shells housing the destroyed. Their coffers will be full. Yet they want want more money and they will proclaim that the others are destroying us… they will stop work till things go there way and then where will the common man be?

Isn’t that what Hitler did? I’m sure he helped Germany a lot but his idea about the human hierarchy is abhorrent. Ditto here.

True, I’m being a little over-the-top but let’s not go there in reality as well.

***

Side note: A few year ago people related to BJP and its associates said women in bars/pubs would destroy Indian culture.
A few weeks ago, the current ruling party made rather derogatory statements about women’s clothing, rape and a certain march. Rape, they said, happened because of the way women dressed.
And yet, these esteemed protectors of Indian culture, were watching porn sitting in the government assembly. They then dared to protest that:

a) they were not watching porn but a video of a woman being raped.

b) They were watching a documentary of a woman being raped. (Never mind the ‘location’ where they were doing it!)

c) The former CM of state who was ousted rather dishonorably claimed “Everyone watches porn. What is the big deal?

The big deal, Mr.Hindu-Culture-Protecting-Corrupt-Former CM, porn (regardless of how many people watch it) is not legal in our country. It does not matter if everyone watches it, as a sworn minister of law, they should not be breaking the law.

Even if porn was legal, they should not be watching it while the assembly in in session. That is like watching porn when you are work, for which you can be fired. That is an indecent act.

And lastly, the big deal is that you are hypocritical ministers who would’ve probably stoned other people to death if they had done the same thing. Sure, everyone watches it. But let us pretend to be a civilized nation.

I sure hope that was not a porn clip of a woman being raped. That would be a completely different level of violation of several laws and moral codes.

The Woman behind Sita

I had an interview today with a local author. She has written 2 books, with the third one on its way and all of them are based on the Indian epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Her latest book was what caught my interest. It is the Ramayana told from Sita’s perspective. I had not read the book, but the conversation sparked enough interest to find a quick look at the first two chapters of her next book – Searching for Sita.

It reminded me of several questions I had as a child about Sita. I always found it ridiculous that Ram would give up Sita after all that they had gone through. I thought both of them should leave… I mean Ram and his brother were the reason that Sita was arrested in the first place. But it was explained to me that Ram had bigger duties and responsibilities. Therefore, off went Sita alone to raise two kids in the forest.

But I never was convinced. Where was Sita’s perspective? Her voice in this entire epic novel? She was like a really crucial character but had no voice. Like an object. A line from another book I read seems to fit – yet another voiceless victim.

Sita was shunted from her mother’s house into her adoptive father’s house without a choice. Okay, she was a baby. Then she is married to the guy who can shoot really a well. Again, not really given a choice. Her good luck – the guy seems to be quite good. Too good sometimes.

The only choice she seems to make is to follow her husband into exile. Perhaps it was born out of a sense of duty but she does and that makes a difference. They go where he chooses, eats what he hunts.

Then she makes yet another choice, again out of a sense of duty and this time, majorly screws up by stepping out of the line, literally. And so people use this incident to state that women should not really be trusted yadda yadda yadda.

But why isn’t there a single chapter from Sita’s perspective? If Ravana had not been the hermit in disguise, would Ram have come back and yelled at her for not really stepping out to give him food? He’d have probably said she valued herself more than the hermit. Maybe all she was doing was trying to please him.

I’m not trying a feminist’s perspective here. I’m just curious about the woman who has been held as “the standard” for all of us. How can she be a standard if we really do not know anything about her?

I always wondered why she did not turn around and ask Ram also to step into the holy fire with her. Of course, when a movie dared ask that question, it was nearly burnt to death and banned. Why did not Urmila ask that question of Lakshmana? Where is the other perspective?

The author I spoke to today mentioned that in rural areas, many of the folk songs are from Sita’s voice. They talk about their troubles, worries and victories, which are linked to their partners.

“Sita still has a voice here,” the author said. It is just in mainstream, everyday settings that she is forgotten. That she is just a footnote, as they say.

Considering how big an impact Ramayana has on Indian culture, there has to be the other voice – the other person who was the cause of this all!

India’s batteries are out

We Indians are in a strange spot. The government and its machinery is trying to figure out how much they can get away with defying certain things a democracy should stand for. We have had a slew of corruption cases in the past 2 years, when we thought the worst it could get was the 15-year old Bofors case.

We thought that was as bad as it would get. It was only in the movies that a bad guy tried to sell out a country… what those movies didn’t tell us that one didn’t have to sell out the country, he could just pocket pieces of it for his own.

So then we had the CWG scam, the Radia scandal, the 2G scam, the Mumbai land allotment scam… and numerous others that the government got wary about reporters.

But here’s the catch – how much can you trust the reporters too now? News channels are turning notoriously corporate. Sensationalizing is as common as writing a headline. And in the attempt to beat ratings, quite a bit of fake news seeps in.

Some people know that certain channels do stories on companies just to harass them. But who will question the media? Who will ask if the story I’m reading is absolutely accurate and true?

With questionable watchdogs and open scandals, the citizen wants to do something. But what? Where does one turn to for action? Even though small time, group efforts are commendable, it would need one head to direct it all. And turns out, every head has its shares of snakes hidden.

Anna Hazare movement was something that began beautifully. We thought it was the dawn of a new era… but once accusations started flowing, it went damp and along with it, public hope.

Reuters published an article about the waning flame of ‘Incredible India’. It says there that nobody in the machinery wants to take decisions right now, fearing spotlight. And without Sonia Gandhi, the party has lost is bearing.

A little scary to realise that the hands of the world’s largest democracy lies in the hands of one woman who might not particularly care about the country at all. While I do not have any problems with her country of origin… plenty of people have married into India and made it there own… I do wonder if she really can understand the Indian mindset, given that she did not marry into a normal middle class family. She married into almost the royals in the country. So like every king and queen, she knows of the 21st century version of the polo matches and ghazal evenings but not how it feels to travel by the Mumbai train every day, to be stuck in a traffic jam, to face pension woes.

But if not Sonia Gandhi and her Congress, would it be the BJP?

I’ve always been anti-BJP. Even though they bring ‘prosperity’ into the city/town, it is at the cost of an increased alienation of the minorities. India is a secular country. Not Hindu. Not Muslim. Not anything else. Secular, by its definition, means there has to be space made for everyone.

There has been a rise in fundamentalism as soon as the BJP government entered the state. Would you ignore it in return for better roads and factories if soon those very places will be a spot of contention based on religion? Would you support it when they start stripping away pieces of Indian history, trying to eliminate parts they deem not suitable for the next generation?

What is the point of mere economic progress if they take us back a hundred years in every other way? India needs to step forward together… leave behind old prejudices about caste and religion and sexual differences. That includes the minorities, and in certain cases, the reservations made for the ‘underprivileged’.

The definition of that word needs to be revised.

A friend argues that it has been difficult for the Karnataka governments to do much in preceeding years given that it has always been the opposition party in the centre. But that just makes me think that we really need a system that the machinery of the government works as it is supposed to, regardless of who is in the centre of state.

What we need a simpler way of functioning, not the ever-bureaucratic, red-taped, convoluted babu system that requires approval from higher authorities for every little thing. Now, the question is, how do we make that happen?

Muslim Identity in India

I attended a talk by a prominent author today, reflecting on the Muslim identity in the Indian society. I guess it also dealt with the diasporas of Muslim communities in India. And it was quite educational, even though it focussed only on two towns in India – Ahmedabad and Bhopal.

I went to the talk mainly hoping to learn about something else related to the society. The speaker did not touch on those topics at all, but I learnt a lot more about the state of Muslim identities in the society.

Firstly, it made me realise that I need to read a lot more about the Muslim identity in India. Living in a city like Bangalore makes you blind to the state of Muslims in most other states, particularly one as communally charged as Ahmedabad.

The author mentioned that there are no strong Muslim figures in politics, economy or the local mafia in Ahmedabad. I found this rather surprising, given the state of Muslims in that city. Every one is aware of the Godhra riots and the fallout, and the following rise of Modi (surprisingly to me). Muslims have a lot to fear in Gujarat. Ironically, this is one state where one would expect peace, as it is the birth place of Gandhi and all that. But either way, why isn’t there a political bigwig, businessmen or any such strong presence in the state?

Also, how much are their identities – culturally and politically – being directed by the Middle East culture? I keep hearing that there is an increasing number of muslims who send their children to madarasas. I hear that people are growing more communal, putting religion before country. But a lot of the research that I do read says otherwise. The truth probably lies in between. Yet, there is a rising link between the muslims in the Middle East and the ones at home. Every person has a relative there. Then again, half the people from Kerala also have relatives there.

But is the culture dictated by those regions? Do muslims here grow more rigid, accepting ideals from there?

Bangalore is expected to be the next Mumbai and Ahmedabad, given its growing popularity and decreasing tolerance level. A couple of years ago, I would’ve flicked away such statements.  But I notice the divide (new or new awareness in me, I am not sure) and I wonder if this would happen. I keep asking people if they are seeing more women wearing the veil in Bangalore. They all say no… but I have a feeling there are more women wearing the burqa. Young girls. And the keep it on. And that is a little freaky. Any time you see such outward signs of religion, trouble is not far behind.

Most cities in India have muslim localities. True, they might interact with other cultures in the society but there are segregated area for each culture.

As the author pointed out today, each city has ‘sections’ or buildings where people of one sect are more in number. Muslim communities tend to be more obvious I guess, as they are more in number, have several community-related shops and mosques around the place. In Bangalore, there are certain areas that are well-populated with muslims. At the same time, many of these are also business establishments, traditionally handed over from family to family.

Many saree and other clothing stores in the centre of the city are owned by muslims. And they have traditionally been a part of my landscape as far as I can remember. It isn’t just nostalgia speaking when I say I want these business establishments to stay. It is the crucial question of balance in any society. The businesses have to be spread evenly across the cultures to keep the power balance right.

I guess the talk brought up more questions in my mind. About the future of muslims in our country. They might be a minority but they are no where a small number. For every city, they form at least 30 percent of the population. It is hard to hate and reject 30 percent of the population, particularly in a country like India. Also, if we choose to push these minorities to the fringes, it damages the fabric of Indian society in a way I cannot explain.

Minorities have been persecuted in India for centuries. It was first the Dalits, or who are called the Dalits now. They were called the untouchables, the Harijans and other things. Perhaps that is simply because Indians are actually quite racist. It shocks me when someone says “We are Indians. We are Hindus. We are vegetarians.”

These are three completely different things, with no relation to one another. We are not a hindu country. Pakistan is a muslim nation but India is a Secular country. Secondly, hindus are not really vegetarians. There is a small percentage of people who choose to be vegetarian. The rest – we love our meat. So on what basis is anyone calling Indians a hindu country and vegetarians at that? The Hindutva policy should really be banned in a country that is as volatile and emotional like India is.

It’ll probably not happen in my lifetime. But I sure hope for something better in the next couple of generations at least.

Prejudiced

The past few weeks I have discovered ideas… prejudiced ideas… in some people that I thought I knew. Including myself.

I generally do not have much patience with idiots, bigots, racists and people who hate women. I try ignoring them, or just be rude to their face. Not a nice quality, I know.

But what do you do when you discover a bad thing in you and the ones that you love?

Something you don’t even realise existed in your mind and then you wonder why that thought even took root. I generally try to accept people the way they are… with their beliefs and all. But when there is that slight disconnect, I wonder how to accept it… particularly when it is related to religion.

There is no worse bomb than religion. You have no idea when something will piss people off when you make a comment related to it. I tiptoe around issues related to religion. I do that if I  meet you and we are talking about it. I do that if I meet you and you belong to say… Islam or something.

Islam… I realised a while ago that though all my muslim friends do believe in God and the quran, they all are what the rest of the society terms ‘liberal.’ They do not subscribe to all the teachings of the quran, like many of my hindu friends do not agree or follow all the teachings of the gita. Or the bible. When we aren’t exactly called ‘liberal’ by the same society, why is this set called liberal?

Oh yes… there are sections where even the rest of us are called liberal… but why is following your own edict of a religion, which does not believe in closing up women, slaughtering people, waging wars or proclaiming your God is the only way to heaven, tagged a rebel?

I guess I was surprised to see myself tiptoeing around one of these issues recently. I never had the problem with others, even people I had just met, because I didn’t care about how they would take it or I knew how it would be received.

I believe each one of us has the right to follow what we want, as long as it does not harm anyone. This is exactly what the people I met were doing, so I could not get up on my high horse and say they were wrong. They did not force their religion on anyone nor did they seek approval. Nor did they judge what you did. I would be wrong then – as wrong as all these fundamentalists – to impose my ‘liberal’ view on them.

Dilemmas.

Response to Sathu

I got a comment on my post about “Back to Beef Talk.” I am not going to post that here because a) it is incredibly long and b) it is a chat conversation between someone named Sathu, who claims to be a hindu, and a Reshma Mahmud, who is a muslim as the name indicates.

The conversation started as a usual chat thing about asl and Sathu, who claimed to want to marry a muslim woman, went on to get abusive about meat eaters and how he hates muslims.

And yes, he calls women ‘unintelligent’.

Sathu, I will not try to convince you about the beef argument. What I portray here is merely my own point of view and I believe that everyone is entitled to their opinion as long they do not try to force it down someone’s throat or get abusive about it, like you did.

But I have to say this… it has been repeatedly pointed out to me that ‘hindus do not eat meat.’ This is quite ironic… because only the bramhins do not eat meat and bramhins form a very very very small portion of the religion of hinduism. Bramhins aren’t forbidden to eat meat. They just don’t, because at some point during the caste system… maybe around the same time evils such as sati and child marriage and the system of the untouchables came into play, they fell out of the habit.

But the kshatriyas, vaishnavas and shudras and whoever came out of that… they are definitely meat eaters. You have all heard the stories about kings going out for a hunt and roasting the deer they caught. If you don’t agree with anything else, it is simple math of a section of a population.

What you are trying to promote, Sathu, is the exact same thing that has given hinduism such a bad name and led people to look elsewhere for religious salvation. You are promoting elitist hinduism, like the RSS an BJP, and trying to tell the world that hinduism is synonymous with not eating meat and brahminism. The concept of “Ahimsa” is completely different from what you understand. Cause no creature any pain is true… but the Vedas also give you chants to kill an animal with a whisper. True story.

Yes… you might be a hindu. but you do not represent the majority or the truth. Maybe you should go back and read those texts you claim ban eating meat. If they did, we would not have gods like Shiva, Kali and their avatars.

(Side Note: the lower caps on all the religions here isn’t a mistake. It is a question I am trying to answer… I believe in God, I believe in his forms… should religions be given such importance and respect as to warrant an uppercase? What do you think?)