Our understanding of castes must change, and castes themselves need to be less inward-looking than what they are now.
The logical thing to do is to let castes find their own way out of formal Hinduism so that the greater pluralism of Hinduism survives, prospers and expands.
The only way India will remain plural and open is by converting all castes and communities into minorities. Right now, the state discriminates against those who think of themselves as Hindu on the specious plea that they constitute a majority, and thus need no autonomy in their institutions. On the other hand, minority institutions get the protection of Article 30(1), which says that “All minorities, whether based on religion or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.”
This article, meant to guarantee non-interference in minority institutions, has had the opposite effect of ensuring substantial interference in so-called majority institutions.
A case in point is the story today (6 September) about the Christian Medical College (CMC) at Vellore in Tamil Nadu, which has decided it will not take in any MBBS student (bar one) this year, in view of the central government’s decision to offer admissions to medical courses only through a joint entrance exam called NEET (National Eligibility-Cum-Entrance Test). CMC sees NEET as an intrusion into its rights as a minority institution.
While CMC has challenged the central diktat on NEET in the Supreme Court, the reality is that its normal intake is reserved 85 per cent for Christians, with 15 per cent leftover for others. Now, under NEET, it can continue this reservation for Christians, but only if they score above the minimum cutoffs.
The discriminatory nature of Article 30(1) is thus clear: it enables only minority institutions to take care of their flock, while Hindu institutions, despite being a diverse bunch of smaller caste and community groups, are excluded from the article’s protection. The same article allows minority institutions to avoid obligations under the Right to Education Act, but not so-called majority institutions. Hindu institutions thus try and create space for themselves by pretending to be linguistic minorities in regions outside their home states.
Put another way, this means caste or linguistic groups have greater freedom to claim minority status if they set up shop outside their home states, rather than in their home states. Hindu rights may thus be best protected by dissolving them in caste and minority rights.
By treating Hindus as a majority, the state also finds it easy to gain control of temples, using the divisions of caste to claim it is more egalitarian, and thus in a better position to run religious institutions fairly. State control then works against Hindus, with these resources now blocked from being used to extend the faith, as churches and mosques can do to gain converts. State control of temples is thus loading the conversion game against Hindus.
The problem with the so-called “liberal” understanding of caste is that they reduce it to a mere system of oppression, when the reality is more nuanced. It is fair to say that casteism, with its belief in birth-based status hierarchies, has done damage to egalitarian principles, but it was individual castes which were at the forefront of preserving Hinduism from the ravages of Islamic invaders and later Christian missionaries. Casteism is different from caste cohesion and kinship.
The caste system probably became rigid and disallowed upward mobility some time in the early part of the first millennium after the start of the Christian era, largely because it got reduced to a protective shell, intended to preserve what was there, and not to deal with the challenges thrown up by Abrahamic iconoclasm and other threats.
Castes thus became preservers of the status quo, rather than dynamic vehicles of kinship and expansion.
Starting from where we are now, there are two ways of looking at ending caste inequities: one is to seek the artificial annihilation of castes, as Babasaheb Ambedkar wanted to do at one point, and the other is to allow castes to flower and expand on their own by simply attacking the hierarchical and endogamous nature of caste. Abolition of caste is not possible without mindless violence and attempts at making Hinduism uniform and fundamentalist.
The rejuvenation of Hinduism without taking on an Abrahamic character (like Sikhism did) is to make castes the key torch-bearers of varied Hinduisms, both preserving and expanding reach by active conversions to their caste rather retaining a theoretical Hindu identity. Hindu identity is inherent in castes.
The problem with broad-based ghar wapsi and other conversion programmes is a simple one: what caste does a potential convert converts to?
On the other hand, if castes are at the forefront of conversion and reconversion strategies, there will be no issue. You convert to my caste, whatever it may be.
Castes became inward-looking because they encouraged endogamy, and also did not allow fresh entries. This happened partly because castes were also guardians of specific vocations, whether it was the Brahmin priesthood or the Kshatriya warrior class or the Vaishya trading community or various artisan jatis. Castes thus became vehicles for retaining IPR, jobs and skills within a community.
But today, professions do not stay within castes, and Brahmins can run public toilets as much as Dalits can turn priests. And political power depends on castes growing larger than they currently are.
So what does this mean? It means recognising that castes are about kinship and social capital, not hierarchies and oppression. The following ideas could offer a way forward on how castes may be important to Hindu rejuvenation.
First, castes must seek to convert more, and have clear entry and exit rules. Entries and exits need not happen only through marriage and patriarchy, the latter of which will surely die at some point as women are empowered. Other criteria can and should apply too. Over time, this will ensure caste mobility, including the absorption of smaller castes into larger ones, thus giving the resultant caste larger political heft.
Second, we need to create caste councils both at the state and central levels, where conflicts and problems between castes can be addressed and resolved. The important thing to stress in this council is that all castes are equal. No caste is above another. They are just castes, different forms of kinships.
Third, if each caste is considered a separate faith group, it follows that all castes will be minorities in the Indian context. They can run their own temples and institutions, and generate resources for expanding their clout.
We may be making a mistake in believing that castes are evil. They are not. Investing ourselves with guilt is a trap we need to avoid. Strengthening Hinduism needs a strengthening of castes, not their annihilation. The only caveat is that no caste is above any other caste.
Clearly, our understanding of castes must change, and castes themselves need to be less inward-looking than now.
The logical thing to do is to let castes find their own way out of formal Hinduism, as I have suggested earlier, so that the greater pluralism of Hinduism survives, prospers and expands.
Image: The Christian Medical College at Vellore. (Wikimedia Commons)