Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Caste and colonialism: From India to Mideast

Israel's employment situation might help to explain these unlikely Jews

If “poverty is the biggest caste” in India, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi said engagingly the other day, it’s worst global manifestation must be in a place like the Gaza Strip, where 2.3 million Palestinians are victims not only of “exclusion, isolation, domination and extraction” (all caste characteristics according to the eminent London-based economist Parthasarathi Shome) but also of a harsh form of racism.

Many parallels can be drawn between the Hindu caste system, that has been called the world’s oldest form of apartheid, and the plight of some 15 million Palestinians dispossessed by the nine million mainly European Jews who have made Palestine -- now called Israel -- their home. Paradoxically, the very fact that those Jewish settlers from the Balkans to the Baltics have made the desert bloom and created a vigorous modern state with a formidable military out of virtually nothing accentuates caste and class distinctions and perpetuates a cruelly exploitative hierarchy.

Yet, those who dismiss caste as an anachronism whose abolition is long overdue must be reminded that in the words of H.H. Risley of the Indian Civil Service, who is regarded as India’s first anthropologist, “caste forms the cement that holds together the myriad units of Indian society”. He argued in The People of India, published in 1868, that with the disappearance of caste “order would vanish and chaos would supervene”.

We cannot understand its cohesive force without the evidence of numbers. That is why a nationwide replication of the census which chief minister Nitish Kumar carried out in Bihar is absolutely essential if governance is to come to grips with the multiple challenges of diversity. London’s Economist lamented that the Bihar findings “have put caste back at the forefront of Indian politics”. It was never anywhere else; but ignorance encouraged mischief by allowing politicians to assume caste positions which they then exploited. With their detailed information about castes, sub-castes, occupations, habits and cultural practices, India’s British rulers thoroughly understood the land and its people and were able to exercise full demographic control.

Prime Minister Modi’s reluctance all these years to acknowledge his own caste affiliation may have indicated a tactical unwillingness to be identified with any group, especially since Brahmins and other upper castes are believed to be among the Bharatiya Janata Party’s principal supporters. Being vague about the precise label also enabled the Prime Minister to attack the Congress’s dwija Kashmiri leadership for supposedly attacking him for his less exalted birth. That’s politics. By claiming the Other Backward Class mantle, Mr Modi has astutely claimed the votes of 63 per cent of Indians (OBC plus EBC, or Extremely Backward Class) at a time when everyone is agog over the coming elections.

The Israeli-Palestinian equation also hinges on identity. But identity can be a movable feast. Israeli leaders like Golda Meir and Shimon Peres maintained, for instance, that there is no such thing as a Palestinian: it was only another term for an Arab making fictitious claims under a fancy name. But, then, Israelis have their own logic for distributing labels. Beersheva’s “Cochin Jew” flower workers, for instance, are obvious Malayalees who speak only their native Malayalam and some Hebrew picked up in Israel. Even more suspicious is Israel’s decision that certain Tibeto-Burman tribes in Northeast India (Kuki, Mizo and others) are the Bnei Menashe “lost tribe” of Jews entitled to “aliyah”, or settlement in the Promised Land.

Israel’s employment situation might help to explain these unlikely Jews.

Flexibility allows identity to be both used and abused in an Indian situation that is bristling with contradictions. Although special rights were originally intended for only a decade, more and more groups, even including certain Brahmin sects in Karnataka, clamour for reservations every year. Successive Commissioners for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have warned of the “Brahmanisation” of the leaders of supposedly underprivileged categories, the emergence among them of what is called a “creamy layer” and of targeted groups developing a “vested interest in poverty”.

No doubt Mr Nitish Kumar hopes that Bihar will help to restore the original purpose of quotas. Even his decision to break the news on October 2, Gandhi Jayanti, was pregnant with political symbolism.

The 26-party Opposition alliance called “INDIA” is visualised as a grand all-India force to restore the faith that inspired Independence but has withered somewhat in the years since. But there is no concealing the INDIA group’s underlying strategy of mobilising caste groups that are not sympathetic to the BJP.

If so, what should be a question of welfare and a search for means to deliver the greatest good for the greatest number of people can become an explosive political question. Anticipating this, Morarji Desai chose to ignore the Mandal Commission’s report. Not burdened by such scruples, V.P. Singh, whose ministry lasted only 343 days, tried to prolong his political life by promising preferential treatment for nearly 75 per cent of the population. That this promise of reckless affirmative action could also provoke spirited resistance and create national turmoil didn’t seem to bother him.

Not all initiatives need be as disastrous. As the report of the Sachar Committee, set up by Dr Manmohan Singh when he was Prime Minister, showed, an exploration of caste can yield positive results. Far from being destructive, Justice Rajindar Sachar’s report exposed what is called the “development deficit” among Indian Muslims and indicated remedial measures. Sadly, there was little follow-up action to enable roughly 207 million Indian Muslims (more than 14 per cent of the population) to benefit from social and economic development. But that is another story.

A real-life story from erstwhile Bihar (now Jharkhand) highlights what India really needs. A Bihar state minister who was visiting Telco’s office in Jamshedpur asked Gen. Shiv Verma, who held a post-retirement job there, how many Biharis he employed. Shooting his immaculate cuffs and with a flick of the snowy handkerchief tucked into his sleeve, the suave general retorted that he didn’t have a clue. “I always make a point of employing only Indians!” he added.

Caste statistics are an invaluable aid to planning if used to strengthen – and not weaken -- this overall identity. Similarly in West Asia, an immediate ceasefire leading to talks for a sovereign Palestine is essential for regional stability, Arab-Israeli peace, and also to restrain Islamic extremism. In both, exploitation of caste differences remains a vicious form of colonialism.

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