The Indian Express Editorials & Analysis, Tuesday, September 04, 2001
Grain of Truth: Our debates on their terms

Caste system isn’t racism and our best sociologists and anthropologists are clear on this


THERE is a very interesting debate going on in the country on racism, caste and discrimination in India. By now it is clear that the discriminatory aspects of untouchability are one of the severest blots on the Indian experience, the ‘filth’ as an expert put it, emerging out of our historical memories, and needs to be discussed openly and exorcised. It is equally clear that India’s caste system is not racism and the country’s best sociologists and anthropologists are clear on this, as Andre Beteille’s position brings out. In global fora, India has to take a lead in discussing issues of inequality and deprivation, rather than reacting to them on terms set elsewhere. This is possible only if the issue is discussed openly, both at home and abroad.

The fact that such debates, emerging in the context of other cultures and agendas, can lead at best to great confusion and at worst to great hypocrisy, comes out clearly in the debates on environment. A chapter on ‘Tribals’, for example, which occurs right at the beginning of the well known Morse Commission, is one of the most important illustrations of this. This report is the bible of ‘activists’ with a global orientation. The introduction and summary of Harvard’s William Fisher’s book on sustainable development reports a conversation with me, where my plea that dissent was at the heart of Indian ethos, but that the debate should be at home, was rejected by a well known activist leader arguing that their movement is global. The Morse Commission makes the interesting argument that tribals are not a part of Hindu society. It further goes on to argue that as a part of the Independence movement, anthropologists like Professor Ghurye made an attempt to incorporate them into society
as backward Hindus.

Now these assertions were so far removed from any reality that they should have been rejected outright. However, anthropology not being my forte, I sent them to some of India’s most serious scholars. They were thoroughly outraged. Apparently the ‘authorities’ quoted by Bradford Morse, like one Dr Padel, were obscure, and worse still, persons with great colonial prejudices. It was made quite clear to me that this whole chapter on tribals would not stand any scholarly srutiny. Yet, amongst some persons and in some parts of the world, it stands as wisdom.

The interesting thing was that in the early twenties, an adivasi freedom fighter was hanged by the imperial power. Gandhiji began as part of the freedom movement the Bhil Seva Mandal. Gandhiji and Thakker Bapa also tried to awaken the conscience of the nation to the wrong inflicted upon tribals during the pre-Independence period. The Bhil Seva Mandal was a distinguished predecessor to many voluntary organisations working in this area like the Narmada activists in the Arch Vahini. In 1927, an enquiry committee was constituted by the voluntary workers for looking into the problems of tribals. This committee under the chairmanship of Thakkar Bapa included prominent social workers like Jugatram Dave, Narhari Parikh, Kishorilal Mashruwala, Kalyanji Mehta and Chhagan Joshi (all Gandhian workers). The real impact of the earlier work of the Gandhian workers among the tribals is that a large number of voluntary organisations grew in every tribal region and all these organisations drew inspiration as well as guidance from this work to organise their voluntary efforts for tribal development.

The entire scholarly tradition relating to the subaltern religions of India showing how Hinduism and other Indian religions adapt themselves to the requirement of popular culture at the level of its artisans and rural workers (mainly Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes), like Sufism in Islam in India, the Bhakti Movement, Mazhabi Sikhs and others has been ignored by the colonial mindset. John Stratton Hawley describes how the Bhakti movement had gathered force by the fourteenth century; its members, though part of no overarching formal organisation, were united in their commitment to the value of personal experience in religions. They questioned the ritualism characteristic of the sort of Hindu worship superintended by Brahmins, and they often criticised the caste conceits that went with it. Another consequence of their belief in the value of personal experience was their use of vernacular religion language as appropriate action of ‘faith’. Hawley shows how this religion of saints who were Sikhs, low caste Hindus and Muslims is a major dominating force in India today. Some have no time for these niceties.

Chris Degan, a sensitive anthropologist, who has done the perambulation of the Narmada, which means the entire river, since it is entirely a pilgrimage, pleads that ‘‘to understand and absorb the ethos that constitutes the Narmada as a cultural zone is merely the first step in accepting its coherent and interdependent human and cultural ecology.’’ Not all the midnight’s children have the time.