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Indian society deludes itself that caste discrimination is a thing of the past, yet it suffuses the nation, top to bottom
In October 2016, a young man walked into a flour mill in Uttarakhand, a state of northern India where the mist-wrapped mountains of the outer Himalayas begin. He was Dalit (Sanskrit for broken, scattered, downtrodden), a relatively recent collective identity claimed by communities across the nation that are considered untouchable in the caste system. Present in the mill was a Brahmin schoolteacher – Brahmins are the caste elite – who accused the Dalit man of having defiled all the flour produced there that day, merely by his entry: notions of purity and pollution are integral to caste. After the Dalit man objected to the insult, the schoolteacher took out a blade and slit the Dalit’s throat, killing him instantly.
The incident caused uproar in the national press. Dalit groups in Uttarakhand staged a series of protests. The Brahmin schoolteacher was arrested, along with his brother and father, who had threatened the murdered man’s family if they went to the police; booked for murder and criminal intimidation, the men were also charged under the ‘Prevention of Atrocities’ act – a vital part of the Indian Penal Code that prohibits a range of violent and non-violent action against members of the lowest castes and tribes.
After the initial flurry of limited upper-class angst – followed by self-congratulation (at the foresight of the lawmakers for how the state machinery kicked into gear to protect the lower-castes) – the violence was then safely imagined as belonging to a distant, retrograde realm, where things would soon change. Silence followed, then forgetting. There was no discussion of the deep-seated convictions and codes that enabled this gruesome act, or how each Indian life was linked to it: the key to living in a caste society is to distance yourself from its most horrifying manifestations.
The American documentary Meet the Patels (2014) illustrates yet another dimension of caste that Indian society has trained itself to ignore. Made by an Indian-American brother and sister team, Geeta and Ravi Patel, it relates how ‘Ravi’, on approaching 30, decides to leave his Caucasian girlfriend and marry a girl of the Patel caste to fulfil a lifelong demand made by his parents. Endearing and witty, the film shows in granular detail Ravi’s painful quest to find a suitable wife, and thereby silence his parents (who are no ogres, I might add, but a hardworking couple of distinctively Indian humour and charm).
Most striking is that at no point do the Patels realise that they are making a film about the endogamous (same-social or same-ethnic) strictures vital to caste. Ravi is a seemingly assimilated Indian American. In speech, bearing, even ambition (he is a comedian and actor), he transcends the bounds of traditional Indian society; still, a lifetime of conditioning ensures that he feels the pressure of endogamy so deeply that he will overturn his life to search for a Patel mate. He travels to huge conventions where young men and women can meet Patel members of the opposite sex. He allows his parents to set up a string of dates. He visits astrologers: and he does all this out of filial duty, never interrogating why his parents demand this of him. Endogamy is shown as a trait of Indian society, not caste society. Yet the documentary stands as a revelatory exposition of how caste exercises control between generations; how, without a whisper of violence or even punishment – simply, the fear of disappointing your parents – caste ensures its own survival, even in lands and cultures distant from its place of genesis.
It is unsurprising that the Patel siblings are unaware that they are, in effect, making a film about caste. Many Indians watching this movie would experience the same blindness. As caste has been globally castigated as a social evil, upper-caste Indian society has found numerous ways to refer to caste without explicitly mentioning it. In everyday language, media and advertising, proxies include ‘community’ and ‘family background’. Endogamous pressure is condoned as vital to Indian society because it preserves the community (few modern Indians would admit to wanting to preserve the caste group). Another linguistic proxy for lower-caste groups is ‘different’. These proxies carry the full range of meanings that caste categorisations do, and are used in a variety of situations, from school and job interviews to a landlord meeting prospective tenants.
This sleight of hand lets Indian society permit itself the feel-good release of loudly castigating brute incidents of caste violence, even as it perpetuates a self-serving mythology about the nature and limits of caste. As we will see, caste is both varna(hierarchy) and jati (endogamous groups). The failure to break caste stems in part from India’s unwillingness to examine how just how jati feeds into varna…