Girish Karnad, Caste system, Hindu fascism


In a response piece in The New York Review of Books Karnad says

I wonder if Mr. Griffin isn’t confusing the caste system with untouchability, which certainly could be described as “the greatest single evil in the modern world.” The two are distantly related but not identical, which tends to mislead many Westerners unfamiliar with India.

Since Mr. Griffin is interested in today’s India, he might like to know that it has been argued that, given that 88 percent of India is Hindu, the internal diversity resulting from the caste system may be our main defense against a Hindu fascist state controlled by the traditionally advantaged classes.

NYRB, Volume 47, Number 10 · June 15, 2000.

from: google images

from: google images

I for one didn’t understand this distinction, nor the rationality behind making such a distinction. I know that caste system is something far beyond untouchability, which is one of its sins. As a system it has  pernicious customary differentiations within the so called ‘touchable’ castes.

Yet, Karnad puzzles me.What is the benefit of suggesting that ‘untouchability’ and caste system are ‘distantly related’? Can we say it is not intimately maintained by caste system? What is more shocking is his statement that caste system has the benefit of defending against a fascist rule. He seems to ignore completely that caste system is equally evil as (if not more evil than) fascist rule. Defending caste system on the ground of the possible Hindu fascist rule is a very very strange idea. Caste system has been encouraging fascist practices for ages. Now to defend it as a defense against a danger being perceived in today’s society is weird.

But his plays visit caste issues interestingly. While his Fire and the Rain is one such play dealing with the issue of caste system directly, Taledanda, obliquely, there are other plays that deal with it symbolically.

Some of Karnad’s plays have the theme of metamorphosed beings. For example: Hayavadana (Horseheaded Man); Nagamandala (Snake-circle). These plays are seen as presenting the motif of shape-shifting, metamorphoses. I wonder if we could also see these mixed-species beings symbolically and relate these to the concept of ‘varna-sankara’ or caste-mixing. ‘Sankara’ within the brahmin protocols is the mixing of caste through certain kind of ‘touches’. In Karnad, the shape-shifted beings could be telling a story ‘between the lines’.

Any thoughts on the symbolic connection between Karnad’s metamorphosed figures and caste system? Share with me.

2 responses »

  1. Before forming any opinion or passing comments on caste-system, it would be better to understand what caste system is? How and why it came into existence? And what is the difference between ‘caste’ as a system and ‘casteism’? Is creation of a ‘caste-less society’ possible on the basis of ground realities that exist today?
    So far, critics of Caste or supporters of caste-less society have not been able to suggest a better alternative scheme, system and norms needed to substitute caste-system. Common men in India is not sure about the effectiveness of new systems to be created by the proponents of caste-less society. They are reluctant to replace or abandon caste system – an institution of proven value with a Caste-less society on trial and error basis. They understandably wish to make improvements in the tried and testes old system by removing deformities developed into it with time. A change is good for the growth of a society. But Changes must be based on constant interpretation of past experiences and opinions, present requirements and existing ground realities of the place and future prospects.
    Caste still commands respect and attention of commonmen as a natural, valid and useful social institution, not only of Hindus but of other sects also living in India, with all their egalitarian faith, whether foreign or indigenous, like Muslims and Christians, Sikhs or Buddhist. None of them could not remain immune from caste system for long.
    Adaptability and absorptive nature of caste system has saved it by erosion from within and assault from outside. It has given Indian society coherence, stability and continuity and held together for generations different castes and communities despite numerous foreign invasions, migrations and assimilation of various groups having diverse languages and practices. Caste-system took different shades and meaning with changing times and places. Once changed, it never returned to its original form. Its character during Indus Valley Civilization was altogether different from what exists today. It is still in a transient phase. It is different in context of village, locality, region or religion. It has not become obsolete so far despite all its weaknesses, otherwise it would have given place to other systems.
    Caste system is a natural response of mixing up of numerous social multi-ethnic groups with indigenous people of the land into a single cultural system, coming from different parts of the world at different points of time in waves. Beauty of caste system lies in the way, it assimilated numerous social groups – immigrants, locals, tribal, professionals or others – into its mainstream. It assigned each incoming group a separate caste identity. Society remained stable, while offering a place to a new community. The system neither disturbed its existing internal social order nor prevented any new group to develop itself. Without any conversion, caste system made new groups its integral part. It never tried to annihilate their faith, originality, internal order, customs, culture or language. Instead, it gave them freedom to prosper/make changes into their systems according to their internal rhythm.
    Family, extended family, Kula, and Caste are fundamental social institutions in India. A common man regards caste a natural, and inevitable unit/institution widening the scope and contacts of a person in the society. An individual is a natural member of a family, which is the unit of an extended family, extended family of Kula (clan), Kula of a tribe (Vish) and a tribe of a Jana or Jati (Caste). Caste is second only to the family. To them, Caste, which is nothing else but a large extended family bonded by same language, customs, thinking, style of living, occupation and way of living. Rules of endogamy, ritual purity, interdependence, specialization used to be its important traits.
    Almost all principles of a good organization are found in caste system. It provided strong structure based on principles of ‘Varna, Dharma and Karma”, kept its members comfortable and satisfied, assigned duties to different sections of society according to their natural instincts and qualities and instills amongst people feeling of interdependence and team-spirit etc. It had provided mechanism for decentralized self-regulated systems were the mode in social, political, and economic life of the country. Varna system along with Caste-system believed in lofty principles like “Vasudhaiv Kutumbkam” (whole world is one family), “live and let live”, “Self restraint”, “automatic checks and balances” “division of labour” along with “to each according to his needs and from each according to his capacity” etc. etc.
    In the past, ‘Caste system’ acted as shield for Hindus to retain their cultural identity while living under alien rule. It was a major force for failure of Islam, Christianity and other religions to make headway even after mass conversion, whether it was Mughal’s, Portuguese or British. Islam and Christianity had received substantial state patronage for sufficiently long period. However, this was the time, when many evil practices and deformities had developed in the system.
    British rulers made purposely an ideological attack on Indian society. They developed a complex in the minds of Indian intellectuals of different sections of society about efficacy of caste system. British rulers portrayed caste-system as “discriminatory,” “iniquitous,” “exploitative,” “oppressive” “barbarous,” “uncivilized” and “highly stratified”. They held caste system responsible for evil social practices, feudalistic attitude, backward thinking, belief in dogmas and superstitions sustained by a unique set of rituals, and whimsical concept of purity and pollution.
    Through Census operations British rulers divided Indian social structure in a fundamental way and gave rigidity to social stratification and hierarchical ranking. The older four Varnas, embracing numerous castes and sub-castes within its fold were divided into five new unbridgeable compartments – Backward caste, forward caste (caste Hindus), untouchables or scheduled caste, scheduled tribes and minority. Through legal process, each one got a new separate and distinct identity. It gave rigidity to social stratification and hierarchical ranking. Census operations instigated caste consciousness, caste animosities and made caste a tool in political, religious and cultural battles that Hindus fought amongst themselves from now onwards without any sign of relief even as of today.
    With the beginning of industrialization in India under foreign rule, many traditional occupations became obsolete or less paying or were regarded more hazardous and more time consuming. White collared jobs gained importance. More, a person withdrew from physical labor, more civilized, honored and qualified he was regarded by modern society. It resulted in discrediting many traditional occupations and in destruction of Indian handicrafts and cottage industry. With it, scattered efforts, sense of direction and manufacturing skills of millions of artisans, craftsman, weavers etc. Very few of them could join modern occupations. Majority belonging to different castes could neither enter modern sector, nor could stick to their traditional occupations considering menial work derogatory and lost their creativity, sense of achievement and pride. Such people added the numbers of poor agricultural laborers, industrial workers or marginal labors or unemployed. Outcome of such a development has been casualty of workers first, afterwards their work style, commitment, motivation and culture.
    With the efforts of reformers of nineteenth and tentieth centuries and constitution-framers, spread of education, process of modernization, industrialization and growth of awareness among people, traditional caste barriers and evil practices developed into the system started breaking slowly but steadily after the Independence. Caste system has become more liberal and less restrictive. The system allows its members a greater degree of freedom in all walks of life. Castes no longer enjoy legal or religious sanctions. Expulsion from castes means little, while, earlier it meant complete social ostracism. In metros and cities of almost all the states in India nobody asks for anybody’s caste. The old style of authority and power of caste-elders in every day life has already diminished.
    In all the metros and cities throughout India nobody asks for anybody’s caste. Restrictions or interactions between different castes arising due to considerations for purity and pollution are fading away from public life even from rural areas. Earlier caste related issues were – who ate with whom? Or who married whom? The traditional barriers on marriage, hereditary occupations and commonality are loosing its importance slowly but steadily with the spread of education and awareness of masses.
    However the seeds sown by British rulers against caste-system has flourished in full in the political atmosphere of Independent India. In present politics, Caste has found a new lease of life in different form. It has become the single most important factor in politics. Lower castes are more tenacious on the subject of their caste than the higher. Many castes grouped together and increased their numerical strength. These groups have become very vocal and assertive. Politicians find it easier to sway them emotionally on the grounds of caste and fear to annoy them. Therefore, all political parties concede to their demands openly or discreetly, while in power. Of late, Dalits, backwards and Muslims are being wooed with vigor by all the political parties. Even Naxalite groups find in Dalits the allies, as most of their action squads are formed of Harijans.
    First Backward class Commission’s Chairman Kaka Kalelkar had very wisely commented in mid fifties, that “National solidarity in a democratic set up demands Government to recognize only two ends – the individual at one end and the nation as a whole at the other. Nothing should be encouraged to organize itself in between these two ends to the detriment of the freedom of the individual and solidarity of the nation. All communal and denominational organizations and groupings of lesser and narrower units have to be watched carefully, so that they do not jeopardize the national solidarity and do not weaken the efforts of the nation to serve the various elements in the body politic with equity. Mutual help, mutual respect and mutual trust are the touchstone, on which all communal and denominational activities will be tested.”
    A strong political will and courage is needed to bring to an end caste-ism and with it all kinds of discriminatory or repressive laws and practices.

  2. I think a set of people they feel that they are inferior that is why they are in trouble.That feeling has to be erradicated.

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