An ideology of exclusionOnly by exposing its fraudulent nature and inhumanity example by example can caste be eradicated from the Hindu consciousness.
Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents has been on The New York Times Bestseller list since it came out last August in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the protests that followed. In Nepal, since the killings of six young men (four Dalits and two others) in Rukum, Jaat Ko Prashna (the Question of Caste) along with other programmes organised by the Samata Foundation has created waves in the Nepali public sphere. These are salutary discursive assaults on the inhumanity that both the United States and the Hindu society in Nepal have perpetuated for centuries, in the Hindu case for millennia.
Rajesh Hamal, the male superstar of Nepali cinema, anchored the half-hour Kantipur television programme for all its 12 episodes. He opened the series by taking the questions about caste and the perpetuation of its injustice to the bereft parents of Ajit Mijar, a young Dalit man who was found murdered in 2016 after he fell in love and secretly married his Brahmin sweetheart. The parents have refused to claim his body until the culprits are identified and brought to justice and Mijar’s body still lies in a morgue in Kathmandu. Episode by episode, Hamal takes his questions about caste’s prevalence and its atrocities to the country’s law minister, attorney general, two former prime ministers (one from a centrist party and another a former Maoist leader), the police chief, and Dalit and non-Dalit intellectuals and activists. He asks questions, highlights the issues and seeks answers and solutions in his suave manner with a sense of bewilderment, his emotions barely in check.
While this series was shown on television in Nepali and posted on YouTube, Samata Foundation’s Chair, Pradip Pariyar, himself a Dalit and victim of discrimination in childhood when his teacher let him get drenched in the rain rather than allowing him inside the former’s home, conducted a weekly ‘Caste Conversation’ series with international scholars and activists in English for 14 weeks. The Foundation also ran a number of other programmes in Nepali. In the meantime, Nepal’s other organisations, such as the Tarai Madhes National Council, organised their own virtual sessions on caste, gender and ethnicity to highlight the issues of discrimination.
While the solutions they provide vary, the interviewees and interviewers of these various sessions all agree that caste injustice is inhumane, a stigma on Hindu society and that it must end. But it is unlikely to end soon. Hindus, especially the so-called upper caste members, have stuck to it, especially when it comes to the Dalits, the fifth column of Hindu society.
That’s why, any assault on the caste system must be accompanied by intellectual firepower. Hindu society needs many more BR Ambedkars, many more WEB Du Boises and Isabel Wilkersons than it has at the present moment. Only through a merciless analysis and demystification of the system can it be exposed as one of the biggest frauds the world has ever seen against another group of human beings. Fraud because by spreading the tentacles of caste, privileges of status, wealth and power have been accumulated and maintained and passed on from father to son to grandson for thousands of years in Hindu societies. And just because somebody, or a group of Sanskrit scholars over time, framed the laws doesn’t mean it must remain in place as binding for perpetuity. But it has remained so. Why?
Isabel Wilkerson in her book Caste goes beyond the twin pillars of commensality and endogamy on the grid of purity and pollution in defining the caste system’s insidious grip on society, whether in its racial form in the United States and Germany during the Nazi era or as a system of privilege for some against others in Hindu society. A book filled with anecdotes of caste humiliation and violence, including many of them her own, Wilkerson’s Caste lays out eight pillars of the caste system: Divine will and the laws of nature; Heritability; Endogamy and the control of marriage and mating; Purity versus pollution; Occupational hierarchy; Dehumanisation and stigma; Terror as enforcement, cruelty as a means of control; Inherent superiority versus inherent inferiority.
Indologists and anthropologists from Louis Dumont to Declan Quigley to Nicholas Dirks have variously described and analysed caste in various ways, but the challenge is to write about it in a way to destroy it from people’s consciousness, from social, political, legal and economic structures so that it disappears from people’s practices in daily life for good. Attributing it to British colonialism or just understanding it in terms of a balance between status, power and wealth hierarchy is not enough. Only by exposing its fraudulent nature and inhumanity example by example, as Wilkerson has done about the caste of race in America, can it be eradicated from Hindu consciousness and Hindus shamed to abandon it.
By leading the discursive assault on the caste system in the aftermath of the Rukum massacre, the Samata Foundation has done a tremendous service to Hindu society, as Wilkerson has done in the case of the United States. But the Samata Foundation’s work goes one step beyond that. It is also building a discursive community of Dalits and non-Dalits from various social and professional groups to build a consensus against the toxicity and backwardness of caste practices in the name of gods and religion. This community building and discursive assault must continue and people of conscience everywhere must support this effort in whatever way possible until the inhumanity of caste and the blotch on the Hindu society goes away.