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Across the Aisle by P Chidambaram: Indianness is citizenship, not caste

I understand the spirit in which the Prime Minister may have used the word, but the choice of the word was unfortunate and wrong.

chidambaram column
Caste has only one meaning either in the English language or in any Indian language.

A few days ago, I was startled to read a screaming headline in several newspapers: Indianness the Only Caste. It was the headline of a story reporting the speech of the Prime Minister when inaugurating, virtually, the 90th anniversary celebrations of the ‘Sivagiri Pilgrimage’ held every year in honour of Sree Narayana Guru, a saint-philosopher who lived in Kerala (1856-1928).

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My acquaintance with the Guru’s teachings and a visit to Sivagiri had led me to believe that the Guru was resolutely opposed to caste as an identity and, throughout his life, fought against caste discrimination. The motto of his Ashram at Sivagiri was “Om Sahodaryam Sarvatra”, meaning ‘All men are equal in the eyes of God’.

Wrong Choice of Word

Mr Modi is the Prime Minister of India that is a Republic under a Constitution that “we the people of India solemnly resolved to… give to ourselves”. The Constitution acknowledges states, religions, religious denominations, languages, castes and untouchability (and promises to abolish the detestable practice). The Constitution also recognises citizenship acquired by several methods — birth, descent, registration, naturalisation, incorporation of territory and migration (in certain cases). The word ‘India’ occurs in many Articles and the word ‘Indian’ appears in the context of Anglo-Indian, Indian State and Indian Independence Act, 1947. I did not find the word ‘Indianness’ anywhere.

Caste has only one meaning either in the English language or in any Indian language. It means jati, and brings to mind the innumerable evils that were associated — and are still associated — with the caste system. I understand the spirit in which the Prime Minister may have used the word, but the choice of the word was unfortunate and wrong.

Reject Single Identity

To equate Indianness with caste is dangerous. ‘Caste’ has rigid and retrograde rules. Under the rules, marriage is endogamous, and breaking that rule has cost many young lives. Caste distinguishes a group of persons and, more often than not, drives a wedge between two groups of persons. Caste loyalties and prejudices are stronger than religious loyalties and as fierce as religious prejudices. Until recently, religion was understated; caste was worn on the sleeve. Now, under the Modi government, both religion and caste are worn on the sleeve by many people.

Once caste is exalted, it brings to the fore the odious features of caste. Caste is insular, exclusive, has rigid and usually inflexible rules on marriage, food, dress, worship, etc. Caste attempts to create a single identity. If ‘Indianness’ is also aimed at creating a single identity, that is the polar opposite of diversity and pluralism. Like millions of fellow citizens, I reject the single identity attempted to be created by the BJP. 

The Prime Minister’s statement prompted me to re-read the classic speech titled ‘Annihilation of Caste’ (that was prepared but not delivered) by Babasaheb Ambedkar. Here are some stirring passages:

“The effect of caste on the ethics of the Hindus is simply deplorable. Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. Caste has made public opinion impossible.”

“There cannot be a more degrading system of social organisation than the caste system. It is the system which deadens, paralyses, and cripples the people, from helpful activity.”

“There is no doubt, in my opinion, that unless you change your social order you can achieve little by way of progress. You cannot mobilise the community either for defence or for offence. You cannot build anything on the foundations of caste…”

Caste has perpetuated social and economic inequalities. In villages, especially, one’s caste and the numerical strength of the caste (in the village or taluk or district) determines the social and political structure and the distribution of social influence and political power. Invariably, the latter determine economic opportunities. I have found that a simple thing like getting a patta (land title) or a bank loan or a government job is influenced by one’s caste or the numerical power of the caste. Private sector is no better. Most jobs in the informal/ unorganised sector or in the micro and small enterprises go to persons of the same caste as of the owner.

If we equate caste with Indianness, we will find ourselves on a dangerous slope. I have no illusion that caste consciousness or caste-based discrimination will vanish overnight, but there are encouraging trends toward getting rid of the caste system. Urbanisation, industrialisation, television and cinema, open economy, communications, out-migration, and travel (especially foreign travel) are breaking down caste prejudices. To equate Indianness with caste will reverse the progress made in the last few decades. 

A Republican approach

Obviously, there is a quality in every Indian that can be described as Indianness. I shall not define or even try to describe it, but being an Indian is the ineffable feeling of belonging to one country. My conclusion that Indianness ought to be equated with citizenship is in accord with the idea of a Republic under a Constitution. A citizen who believes in the basic structure of the Constitution of India and owes allegiance to its fundamental tenets is an Indian.

We must wean Indians from caste loyalties and educate them to celebrate universally cherished values such as liberty and liberalism, equality, tolerance, secularism and democracy. ‘Citizenship’ is the true foundation for building a nation, sharing values, rights and duties, and achieving peace and prosperity. That will also be true Republicanism.

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