Vantage point

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


The caste system is a form of ‘racism’, in fact probably one of the worst forms. Worst because it was “institutionalised”.

Racism/xenophobia is in my opinion a natural reaction of human beings. Distrust or dislike of people from a “tribe” other than yours is a feeling that will naturally arise. The natural expression of this is a tendency to be with your own flock, and be indifferent or distrustful about the “other”.

The unnatural and dangerous form of this racism occurs when one group tries to actually actively stop or hinder the other group from doing well. In a plain and simple tribal system, this would be reflected as tribal wars over territory.

But in a “civilised” society, a major tool offers itself for misuse in racism - the state. The people in a particular “tribe” who want to subjugate another tribe know that if they use the state for that purpose, the subjugation will be much more effective. And unlike a tribal war in the jungles, when a tribe, after losing the war, may come back months later rejuvenated and launch a counter attack, a state action insures the everlasting nature of the subjugation.

Look at other dangerous examples of racism. The blacks in USA started suffering from racism because the state sanctioned the racism, and in fact made anti-racism illegal. The same thing happened in South AFrica where apartheid was enforced by the state. And of course nazi Germany where it was the state that ousted the jews.

The American, South African and German examples are very recent. The Indian caste system is centuries old. Until a few centuries ago, only kings ruled most of the world, and were usually considered incarnations or agents of God, religion was an extension of state. Thus “religion” was the de-facto constitution.

Certain tribes/races in India used religion, i.e the de-facto constitution, to subjugate other castes. And they did it in the most efficient way - tie it to economic activity.

People who dismiss economics as some dreamy abstract discipline should recognise that no matter how primitive or modern the era is, economic activity is the basis of man surviving, and even prospering.

Whoever devised the caste system was/were genius in an evil way because he identified the basis of a man’s survival and progress, and used the de-facto state to clamp several restrictions on that very basis - economic activity. So only a few races/castes were allowed to indulge in the more cerebral, sophisticated, glamorous, and well-paying economic activities, while others were forced to make their living from a few menial jobs.

Notice the term “caste system”….”system”….. caste-racism worked because it was made part of the system. The system enforced this racism.

Is there an example of racism working, or rather working to such alarming limits, without the state actively pushing racism? Working enough to actually make one race “underprivileged” over the centuries?

I can’t think of one.

So if the state has been the most misused tool for racism, is it right to assume that the state itself can correct the action? Or is it foolhardy?

The answer lies somewhere in between. How did the state enforce racism in the first place? By trampling on individual rights of a certain group of people.To just trample in the opposite direction, i.e on the rights of people who did not suffer during the racist era, hardly makes sense. We've all heard the cliche about two wrongs not making a right. Whenever rights are trampled by coercion or state action, you have a group of people being wronged. And saying, "Hey, these castes were wronged for centuries, now it's your turn to be wronged!" is not justification by any stretch of imagination.

So whenever the state is contemplating any action to improve the life of a group of citizens who were wronged, the first step should be to determine whether those actions are coercively trampling on someone else's rights? If they are, then the actions should not be undertaken.

An action like a law for reservations in the private sector is one such action. It tramples on the rights of private companies. By it's very nature, the action betrays its foolhardiness. Centuries of racism enforced by the de-facto state (something that still happens at the hands of the village panchayats) has made people racist. It is a sad but true fact that most Indians, across all castes, are racist. The caste system, though slightly weaker than before, still exists in the minds of many people.

The first job was to make sure that the state wasn't racist itself, which has happened to an extent. The next job is to ensure that the common public is not racist. And giving reservations to certain castes is a step in the opposite direction. Instead of making people understand how caste system is wrong, it will actually propogate the caste system. It is a step which will incentivise belonging to an underprivileged caste, and the objective of wanting to do away with the very concept of some castes not being as good as others will fail.

This post started off as a comment on Shivam's blog.