The Indo-Pakistani Caste System: multi-hued Smarties!

Transcript of Dr. Ramaswamy’s radio interview on Caste in South Asia

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Hello, Claire Herringstone for the weekly Asia Today.

Our guest on tonight’s program is Dr. Ramaswamy, social anthropologist from Madras University, whom we’ll be interviewing for our viewers on the subject of untouchables within the South Asian caste system.

“Dr. Ramaswamy, good evening and thank you for joining us.”

“Good evening, and thank you for inviting me.”

Hen-henh. The first question is — how did a country with such fine philosophical roots end up with something like the caste system?”

“Caste is an old, established institution, almost as old as history. Gautam Buddha opened temples to all castes, so even before Christ, it was well entrenched in India. It’s hard to say whether the migrant Caucasian tribes brought caste with them, or whether the social structure of the Aryans of the Saraswati was already based on caste. According to the Rg Veda, Purush, the primal man, destroyed himself to create a human society. The Brahmin priests sprang from his head, the warrior Kshatriyas from his hands, the land-tilling Sudras from his thighs, and the untouchables from his feet.”

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“Indeed, but surely there must be something more than history and religious mythology to enforce it?”

“Yes. Manu’s Laws as they are commonly referred to in the West greatly reinforced the caste system.”

“When was that?”

“About two thousand years ago. Even then, Indian craftsmanship was highly valued beyond its borders. India was renowned as an exporter of the highest quality weapons steel at that time.”

“Could you tell our listeners a little more about that?”

“What the West today calls Damascus steel, and is unable to duplicate.  The ingots of this exceptional steel were exported to Persia and the Middle East, where sword-smiths fashioned blades whose cleaving power and flexibility held the Crusaders in awe. Sir Walter Scott’s description of the cutting power of Saladin’s sword in The Talisman is a good illustration. In fact, the pre-Islamic Arab word for sword was Muhannad, meaning from Hind. Thus, at that time, the skills of India’s craftsmen had placed the Indian economy in a unique position in the world. So the Indian leadership was keen to ensure the continuity of these techniques. It was considered that skills were best passed on from father to son. Encouragement soon became edict. A caste-based society further reinforced this institution by adding scriptural and scholarly justification, further empowering the ruling class.”

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“Most illuminating, Doctor. In India, there’s been this name change. Mahatma Gandhi called untouchables Harijans, and they call themselves Dalits. Why is that?”

“I myself am a Dalit, and we prefer it to Harijan which we consider to have been condescending, and untouchable, or backward, which is an insult.”

“Are Dalits, then, a separate race?”

“Yes and no.”

“How’s that? Sounds like a typically Indian response!”

“I object to that. It’s an anthropologist’s informal way of saying ‘to a certain extent yes’. Indian academics prefer not to speak pompously with laypersons! Anyway, Dr Ambedkar’s research proved genetic similarities between the highest and lowest castes in Maharashtra State.”

“So how do you account for the genetic similarities between the highest and lowest castes?”

“Victors have always raped the subjugated, and India’s states and chiefdoms were forever fighting each other — that’s one reason. Then there were concubines, and love matches. Over the centuries, India’s myriad states of varying sizes saw periods in which they came under a central empire and times when they receded from its grasp. Thrones regularly changed occupants while dynasties waxed and waned. The losers either vanished into mendicant yogi orders, or disappeared into the impure bastis of the untouchables. Thus it is that among the chuhras, lowest on the rung, there are those who talk of royal lineage. The oldest of these are descendants of royal families who escaped conquering blades that sought to eliminate dynastic lines. They are the Chuhra Choudhry leaders of today, and over the centuries, have been inter-marrying with other chuhras.”

“So caste does have something to do with wealth and fortune!”

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“Although caste may appear to be almost genetically fixed, it can be won, lost and reinstated by force and fortune. It is also an overlap of geography, race, profession and politico-military power. In Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, Jatt farmers were considered Sudras. However, the British historian, Colonel Todd attributed Rajput origins to them.  This places them in the Kshatrya warrior caste. Up until the rise of Sikhism in the Punjab, Jatts were lower than Rajputs. With the evolution of Sikhism as a militant force, their status rose. In the eighteenth century, as a result of Banda Bahadur’s revolt against the Mughals, Punjabi Jatts assumed the status of Kshatryas, for the simple reason that they exchanged their ploughshares for swords. Tribes that had jealously claimed loftier origins were content to pass themselves off as Jatts rather than Rajputs. Conversely, at the height of Muslim power in India, tribal bards invented fantastic Arab and Central Asian origins for their chiefs. Muslim Arains claimed to be from Iran, whereas as Hindus, they were Kumbhos and claimed Rajput origin which society in general denied them anyway. If, by some freak accident of history, a region had come under Chuhra rule, these very tribes would have started claiming Chuhra origin. Maybe that is why India has this proverb “the buffalo belongs to him who wields the staff.”

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 “But the Sikhs and Muslims have no caste!”

“Their religions don’t recognize it, but their communities practice it. Despite calling itself an Islamic Republic, Pakistan practices caste! So do the Christians, especially the ones in the South.”

“And why’s that, Doctor?”

“Because, it is India’s curse, with which we are all tainted. On the other hand, as Deepa Kandaswamy says, the West suffers from race and class.”

“Indeed. Could you tell our listeners a little more?”

“Chuhras converted to Sikhism are called Mazhabis, full fledged members of the warrior brotherhood that served the British and now serve India in its armed forces. Chuhra converts to Muslims who remained serfs are called Mussalies, and often with a change in fortune, assume the tribal names of their former masters. Those that managed to leave serfdom took the titles Sheikh and Khwaja, which were the titles of the highborn Muslim missionaries from the Middle East or Central Asia who converted them. Chuhras converting to Christianity took the family name of the British missionary who converted them. Thus it is that in India and Pakistan are found Sheiks who would scandalize an Arab, Smiths and Johnsons who would shock an Anglo-Saxon— we are indeed, a multi-hued nation, like a packet of smarties!”

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