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Brahminism and bigotry: Decoding the NCAER data on untouchability

A sample survey on India's human development status carried out in 2011-12 by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and the University of Maryland, US, suggests that one in four Indians practices untouchability in some form or the other.

The highlights of the survey, based on a sample of 42,000 households and published by The Indian Express today (29 November) are that 52 percent of Brahmins admitted to practising untouchability in some form or the other, with the percentages for non-Brahmin forward castes being 24, for OBCs 33, and 15 and 22 for the scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs). Apart from Hindus (35 percent), Muslims and Sikhs also had a large proportion practicing untouchability (18 percent and 23 percent respectively. Only Christians had a relatively low 5 percent.

 Brahminism and bigotry: Decoding the NCAER data on untouchability

Brahmins, or upper-caste Hindus, hold "Janeu" (sacred thread), also called "Yagnopavit", as they perform prayers at a temple. Reuters

These results are not surprising, and will surely give endless joy to Brahmin- and Hinduism-bashers - who will carefully exclude the Muslim and Sikh practice of untouchability from censure. Moreover, there is the danger is deciding the glass is half-empty when it is half-full. If 73 percent of Indians do not overtly practice untouchability (we can never know about hidden attitudes), that is a gain from the near-100 percent who did a century ago. It is not a reason for self-flagellation.

But that need not detain us here. While detailed conclusions can be arrived at only when we get more details about the methodology used and more finer data-points, some broad conclusions seem worth elaborating on. In fact, the real message of the survey is in its outlier data - not the ones that conform to our stereotypes.

#1: Brahmins and caste: The high percentage of Brahmins in the untouchability blacklist is believable for Brahmins have historically been the most obsessed about ritual purity and formed the priestly class. The positive thing to note from this distressingly high level of untouchability practised by Brahmins is that it is mostly confined to the Hindi heartland. Education seems to be a driver of progressive attitudes, not wealth.

A counter-point: My own belief is that changes in caste attitudes may have less to do with even education and more with urbanisation and the meritocracy brought in by a market-based economy. There might be a mine of information in the urban-rural data on untouchability in the NCAER survey (remember Ambedkar asked Dalits to move out of villages for precisely that reason). It’s a pity we don’t have time series comparisons with attitudes, say, before 1991 and now. Future surveys should track these things or else we will have no points of reference.

#2: Democracy and caste: The high percentage of casteism may seem shocking and a cause for much breast-beating, given that we abolished untouchability in 1950 with our modern constitution. But it needs to be seen against the reality that change in a democratic polity tends to be slow. It can’t be forcibly eradicated. Electoral democracies, by their very nature, tend to polarise voters in order to create vote banks that politicians can benefit from. In India, electoral democracy has emphasised caste identities rather than reduced them.

Consider America’s fight against racism as against our fight against casteism. America abolished slavery more than a century-and-a-half ago, but racist attitudes dominate more than 56 percent of Americans, according to an AP survey. This blog, in fact, points out that nine in 10 Americans can be considered to harbour racist attitudes – since racism is not a one-way street involving only whites. Blacks are racist too, in their own way. The difference between America and India is this: racism is more sophisticated and subtle in America.

#3: Minorities and caste: The NCAER data show that untouchability is high even among Muslims and Sikhs – whose religions have never been formally associated with caste discrimination. What this suggests is that caste is a social factor, and not just derived from Hinduism. Varnas and jatis may have originated in what we now call Hinduism, but it is widespread in all religions. If, as secularists say, it was the lower castes that converted out of Hinduism due to caste discrimination, then their plight ought to have been much better among Muslims and Sikhs. But this does not appear to be the case. These castes are now seeking reservations despite opting out of Hinduism.

Another counter-point: Just because Aids may have originated in Africa, it does not follow that Africans must bear the guilt for it. Ditto for caste. Where caste originated is less important than its eradication today – especially the attitudes of discrimination against the less fortunate.

#4: Us versus them: The real surprise is the high proportion of SC/STs who claim to practice untouchability. If 15 percent of SCs and 22 percent of STs practice casteism, it more or less torpedoes the theory that untouchability is something imposed only from above. Why would the disadvantaged practice discrimination among themselves when they themselves are victims of bias? What this implies is that caste is something more than a system of oppression. It is, in fact, a form of kinship, an affiliative institution, a form of social capital. There are in-groups and out-groups.

A counter-point: Caste can be form of discrimination born out of the all-to-human tendency to classify people into “us” and “them”. It may be no different from classifying people on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, gender or class. To understand why caste bias is no different from any other form of bias, consider this way of looking at it: if caste was treated as a separate religion or nationality, would we still consider it to be as abominable as when we classify it as a separate sort of evil? If each caste is considered a minority grouping, we would actually give them protection under the constitution.

#5: OBC casteism: Another surprise: OBCs seem more conscious about caste than non-Brahmin forward castes, with 33 percent of the former admitting to the practice of untouchability compared to the latter’s 24 percent. In fact, this attitude would be obvious in Tamil Nadu, where the dominant political power groups are the OBCs, and not Brahmins or SC/STs. Both Brahmins and SC/STs are discriminated against.

The anecdotal evidence in Tamil Nadu is that OBCs are harsh towards Dalits – Brahmins are not their oppressors. For example, in November 2012, OBCs from the Vanniyar community clashed with Dalits over an inter-caste marriage. In the Khairlanji Dalit killings of 2006, the media went overboard trying to pretend that it was an upper caste assault on Dalits. The reality is the violence was perpetrated by the politically-dominant Kunbi group of OBCs.

A counter-point: Caste oppression is often about the sharing of the spoils of economic power and not just caste feelings per se. This suggests that in future job reservations and efforts to uplift the downtrodden should be based not so much on caste identities, but a mix of caste and socio-economic status – with the latter being given higher weightage.

A larger point I would make is this: there are Brahmins and there is brahminism. The former refers to people born in a particular caste, and the latter (ie, brahmins, with ‘b’ in lower case) is a pejorative descriptor. As an adjective, the world ‘brahmin’ or ‘brahminism’ can be taken to mean the discriminatory attitudes of the upper class elite. It is not just about Brahmins – the people born in the caste that goes by this name. The dictionary has this definition of brahminism: “the attitude or conduct typical of a social or cultural elite.”

What we need to root out is brahminism. Individual Brahmins themselves may be progressive or regressive. The meanings of the terms progressive or regressive vary with ideology.

Consider this: all the national leaders who were considered “progressive”, from Jawaharlal Nehru to PC Mahalanobis (the man behind our socialist and planned economy past) to the entire top leadership of the Communist parties and many of our eminent historians (Romila Thapar, et al) were brahminical – an upper crust elite who decided what was good for the country. They created a feudal system of patronage as the best way to help the poor. They led us down the path of growth-killing socialism and the so-called Hindu rate of growth.

Market-based capitalism, with its innate ability for creative destruction and anti-elitism, would have been the choice of Ambedkar, and also of another Brahmin, C Rajagopalachari.

My conclusion would be this: urbanisation, a market-based economy (with some exceptions) and a true meritocracy hold the keys to eradicating casteism and untouchability. This does not mean abandoning the support that the poor need to stand on their own feet, but it does mean choosing whom to help consciously on the basis of clear socio-economic criteria.

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Updated Date: Nov 29, 2014 14:38:33 IST