The Dawn: Mar 27, 2015

PUNJAB NOTES: Caste: social and political power

Mushtaq Soofi 

The deeply ingrained caste system in our collective psyche has been and still is bane of our ancient society despite many a social transformation. Even the enlightened among us exhibit noxious signs of the malady though subconsciously, caused by the uncritical acceptance of the permanent hierarchal division of human beings along the seemingly inerasable caste lines. The amusingly nauseating evidence can be found in the language used by apparently cultured men and women when, in a tense exchange of harsh words, they try to humiliate their opponents by exposing their imagined low caste origins.

The well-known origins of caste system in the subcontinent lie buried in the historical conflicts which arose between urbanised Harappans and the incoming pastoral Aryans thousands of years back. It was, in fact, a monumental social engineering and political restructuring dictated by clashing interests of the civilised but hapless vanquished and the powerful but uncouth victors obsessed with retaining and developing their distinct identity in a new setting. Initially, it was the colour that formed the basis of caste edifice because it was what appeared to be the most visible distinguishing mark between the Harappans and the Aryans. The former were dark-skinned and the latter fair-skinned.

The Sanskrit word for caste is Varna which means colour. In Punjabi we still use this word for colour, Vann, with letter R dropped. A late hymn of Rig-Veda describes the origins of the castes in mythical terms. ‘When the gods made a sacrifice with the Man as their victim... /when they divided the Man, into how many parts did they divide him? / What was his mouth, what were his arms, what were his thighs and his feet called? / The Brahman was his mouth, of his arms were made the warriors / His thighs became Vaishya, of his feet the Shudra was born / With Sacrifice the gods sacrificed to Sacrifice, these were the first of the sacred laws…’

Eminent historian Romila Thapar writes that ‘the continuance of caste was secured by its being made hereditary…The basis and continuance of the caste system depended not on the fourfold division but on the vast network of sub-castes, which was intimately connected with occupation. Eventually, the sub-caste (Jati, literally means ‘birth’) came to have more relevance for the day-to-day working of Hindu society than the main caste (Varna), since the functioning of society was dependent on sub-caste relationships and adjustments, the Varna remaining an over-all theoretical framework’.

The shenanigans we witness in our daily life are generally a product of sub-caste (Jati/Zaat). A haughty Rajput, proud of his so-called martial lineage, can be as dark-skinned as an African living in Sahara and a cobbler thought to be of low caste in Potohar region of Punjab may be blue-eyed like a Greek. Intermingling of races in an unstoppable historical process gradually caused the decrease in the value associated with white skin. Climate might also have played its role in this unwelcome change. Hence the colour of skin is no longer an effective tool of discrimination though it persists on cultural and literary level as detritus of traditions inspired by colour consciousness. ‘Gori’ (white woman), beloved of many a poet, is considered to be the acme of female beauty.

Sub-caste has had inexorable links with occupation. An array of occupations signified a clinically parceled social hierarchy. Skill and physical work whether in form of productive act and useful service have been taken as defining features of low caste. Upper castes at the opposite end rarely did something other than chanting arcane mantras and bearing sword. Sub-caste with the tag of specific occupation determined one’s social status. Caste rules have not strictly been followed in Punjab, the Gangetic Brahmins tell us. The economic, social and political domination of powerful sub-castes nevertheless remains unchallenged. What we see all around in our countryside, towns and cities is a display of sub-castes’ (Jati/ Zaat) culture which is little more than an obscene expression of power; economic and political. The powerful have a penchant for wearing their caste identity on their sleeves. Look at the names of powerful Punjabis. They begin or end with their sub-castes. Prefixes or suffixes are intended to convey a message to all and sundry; ‘touch me not’. Look at their vehicles.

The sub-castes of owners in bold on the rear screens warn you in an indirect manner not to mess with them even when they flout traffic rules, putting you at risk. Members of a well-placed sub-caste are promised socio-political dividend. The sub-caste network can help you win election. It can pave the way for you to get a cushy job in public sector. So much so that poor immigrants from Arabia and Central Asia claiming noble ancestry, real and imagined, have evolved their own religion inspired sub-caste, Sayyed which simply means Mr in Arabic. They, looking for a cosy place, have sneaked into our caste hierarchy as ‘Muslim Brahmins’. So if you are born among the chosen, announce your name with caste and be counted.

Shakespeare’s ‘what’s in a name…’ rings hollow in our culture which glorifies what is supposedly an immutable ‘genetic stratification’ of humans. Sanctifying human inequality in the names of gods, who never existed, is a thinly concealed political act reflective of unending power struggle. The question is: what is the future of a society which, in a dehumanised social practice, compels persons with myriad skills to hide their face and encourages the ‘inherently’ superior and the witch doctors to flaunt their persona in a show of impotent self-assertion lacking in empathy.—

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