Catch-22 of Casteism
Caste remains a complex tool for marginalisation and subjugation, aimed primarily at the consolidation of the positions of the powers that be
Caste conflict that broke out recently at Bhima-Koregaon brings to the fore the one vexing concern that more than characterising the largely Hindu society of India, has been the flash point of Indian politics – at any level, at any given time. The symbolism of this celebrated historical event holds greater relevance today. The details of this episode point to the adherence to caste and communal identity, irrespective of the caste. When the fragile Maratha supremacy of the Peshwas was thwarted, it was this decisive (and very significant in modern times) Battle of Koregaon that led to the dissolution of the Maratha confederacy.
The victory memorial of this battle conspicuously acknowledges the Mahars in this crucial event. Historically an Untouchable community, the Mahars, given their traditional roles, attained a higher status among their class primarily owing to the security services they provided, among others. Mahars were degraded and resigned to the status of Untouchable during the reign of the Peshwas. It was under the British that the Mahar community woke up to its potential to rise and advance. They had a low-status but an important role to play in the traditional village system. Eventually, when many from this community migrated to the city, they turned to new occupation and worked in mills, docks, and railways. Inevitably, they aspired for higher status and equality.
This community also lent its service to various armies over centuries. Adding to the evolution of this community, the British also recruited them heavily (until the Revolt of 1857). After 1857, the narrative changed. The British floated the 'Martial Race' theory which classified (discriminated) castes into martial and non-martial categories. To gain better control over India, this play for social appeal was much akin to the traditional varna (caste/class-based division) system of the Hindu society which acknowledges Kshatriya as the natural warrior in the social order. This reinstated some value to the defeated Peshwas. Besides, the conflicts within various parallel communities were ideal for the British to capitalise on the 'Martial Race' pretext and bring them under their fold.
This entire story serves a lesson. The connotation of such power play and clash goes beyond the narrow lines of communal conflict and stretches of time in history. As much as Caste is a communal identity, it is also a tool to sustain discrimination on any basis whatsoever. It is thus deployed as an organised method of marginalisation, subjugation, and oppression aimed primarily at the consolidation of the positions of the powers that be. It is hence, very much an instrument of power play which continues to be necessary in the present times. The spill-over of caste politics in recent times has added a novel texture to politics palpable on the national front.
There is an implicit political need to perpetuate caste-based segregation. In the fervour to break free from caste inequality and bring it at par with the 'forward' caste groups, new leaders have emerged to take the centre-stage but only to be supported by their respective caste groups largely. In several instances, these caste leaders have indeed carved themselves a niche and brought themselves much at par with the affluent in most economic aspects. But the ascendance of the leaders does not necessarily elevate the status of their community per se. The result is a fragmented vote bank. The Bhima-Koregaon episode asserted to be an orchestrated event is sufficiently explanatory of electoral motives for 2019.
Oppression, from historic times, as a method associated with caste, is a result of the malpractice to consolidate social power and position. Given the absence of any real compensation to the communities for ages of oppression they had been subjected to, the Band-Aid method of Reservation remains a matter that is literally politically untouchable. Caste groups are here to stay and caste is a ready identity up for exploitation by anyone depending on the purpose. A possible antidote to this is social inclusiveness and enabling individuals to come at a platform of equal opportunities; by way of celebrating the diversity of the Indian society despite the terror of Hindutva.
Interestingly, Mahar Regiment of the Indian Army is the only regiment that is composed of troops from all regions and communities of India, unlike other regiments which have some specifications with regard to recruitment. This is when the Military does not recognise the Indian government's Reservation system for recruitment! So, when casteism becomes a method of politics, does that not amount to anti-national?
(The author is Senior Copy Editor with Millennium Post. The views expressed are strictly personal)