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Home > International Relations in the Age of Empire > India - an Empire in Denial > Old Habits Die Very Hard - India's Ugly Underbelly - Badri Raina
India: an Empire in Denial
Old Habits Die Very Hard
19 September 2009
Caste & the Tamil Nation and
India's Tamilians have always considered themselves a distinct race. Distinct from the Aryans who, history tells us, displaced their Dravidian ancestors after the conquest of the Indus-Valley civilizations. The Tamil language and script are perhaps of greater antiquity than Sanskrit and have remained largely free of its influence. Not to speak of Tamil literature which may be the richest India has to offer, both in depth and scope.
Which is why Tamilians break into passionate protest when any Tamilian anywhere be perceived as being under siege. Sri Lanka offering a prime example, as well as the situation of Tamilians in Malysia.
So, would it be right to infer that Tamilian civilizational homogeneity brooks no breach?
In the Peraiyur taluk of Madurai district in Chennai is a place called Uthapuram. And there, for the last two decades a ten foot high wall segregates Tamilians from other Tamilians, namely, caste Tamils from those without caste ("untouchabes"). This wall was built to deny access to casteless Tamils of Uthapuram to public places and facilities frequented by caste Tamils on the other side. Indeed, at one point recently, a live electric wire was attached to some iron scaffoldings in the wall to deter any attempt to scale the wall.
Another wall was to come up to prevent the authorities from providing a bus shelter to the dalits, something that was demanded by the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Elimination Forum (TNUEF), an organization that had first drawn attention to the electrification of the Uthapuram wall. This internecine conflict between Tamilians in Uthapuram is apparently of old vintage, indeed some 75 years old.
Over the last two years matters have come to a head. To their great credit, the CPI(M) with some help from the Karunanidhi government succeeded in demolishing some 150 ft. of the wall in April, 2008. (see my "CPI(M) Breaks New Ground", Znet, 13May, 2008).
Owing to efforts made by the TNUEF, the electric wiring has also been removed, and Brinda Karat of the cpi(m) alongwith the All India Democratic Women's Association (women's front of the party) have been agitating for the wall to be fully demolished, and the ugly apartheid to be ended.
Thumbs down for "pure reason."
Let us recall that, although the inception of the Congress party in 1885 was accompanied by the establishment of the "Social Conference" as well, political reform was always given precedence over social reform. Here is what W.C.Bonnerjee had to say in 1892 at the 8th session of the Congress:
"I for one have no patience with those who say we shall not be fit for political reform until we reform our social system. I fail to see any connection between the two."
That, by and large has remained the position of the Congress on the issue, although at one point in the thirtees, Gandhi was to feel pressured enough by the Ambedkarite movement to launch his movement for the eradication of untouchability. A purple patch which did not have the objective of eradicating the caste system to which Gandhi subscribed in however a rational mode.
The irony then is that those sterling social reform movements which arose and came to decisive ends in the southern states of India should now have lost all their will and steam. Something that the Karunanidhi government in Tamil Nadu may ponder.
The irony seems explicated by the fact that state formation anywhere and anytime seems inevitably to be accompanied by the desire of the dominant to hold the balance of class/caste forces in an equilibrium that best suits them. Encouragement to radical movements for equality from "below," however these might issue from the very ambit of the ideology used by the dominant to come into dominance (equality/liberty/fraternity) runs the risk of undermining the new class consensus. As Lassalle was to say in 1862 to a Prussian audience
Needless to say to the dalits in Uthapuram in Madurai, and indeed everywhere else, that the Indian political arrangement may be decentred only when india's social reform movements acquire a clout forceful enough to nudge that arrangement. And, however, onerous the ask, democracy carries within it the logic that allows the downtrodden to harbour the hope of achieving that decentring. Through massive mobilization and persistence, and a dogged shaming of the dominant through the very arguments they have used to achieve their present position.
There are of course those sociologists and clinical psychologists who argue that India's modernizing project should skirt the bland deracinations engendered by the legacy of the Enlightenment. In their view such store of riches from the past as religion, race and caste must be incorporated into the equality project rather than done away with, so that india's modernization does not merely ape westernization.
Needless to say, very few of them are either dalits or women.
Speaking of women, let us turn to the Khap Panchayats of north-western India.
Preponderately a kshatriya phenomenon in ancient times, this form of social organization where the Jats of the western belt would, in aggregates of 84 village communities (khap meaning "all castes"), meet to deliberate upon how best to defend their terroritories against internal and external threat/aggression, these wholly unelected panchayats with no locus within India's constitutional regime have since come to represent extra-judicial, alternate village governments where it concerns the rights and social freedoms of members of the community.
And not surprisingly, the chief objects of its upper caste oppression remain women and dalits.
What is noteworthy is the fact that its edicts are delivered without the least fear of the law of the land, and in complete contempt of the elected panchayats duly empowered to oversee village governance.
As India's modernizing "development" makes breaches among the iron-clad regimes of the khaps, chiefly in the challenges made to it by young men and women who seek to register their personal/sexual freedom, the khaps have been lately, especially in the state of Haryana where the Jats dominate both socially and in land and other assets ownership, driven to issuing murderous fatwas against young couples, many of whom have then been actually done to death.
Zero tolerance is thus asserted against anyone transgressing caste/gotra (gotra being an intra-caste category within Brahminism, and an intra-gotra marriage seen to tantamount to incest, never mind that no blood relation may exist between the boy and the girl) boundaries.
That such a dispensation is at bottom calculated to keep the land and other assets within caste, and to ensure the bonded/chattel status of women as labour class within and without the family is not difficult to understand.
As ever, these sordid considerations are sought to be couched in the language of morality in emulation of the much-maligned Taliban who, after all, are a recent phenomenon. Here, for example, is what Mahendra Singh Tikait, a redoubtable leader of the farming community in western Uttar Pradesh, has said recently:
"Only whores choose their partners. . . .Recently an educated couple married against the samaj's (community's) wishes in Jhajjar. We hail the panchayat's decision to execute them (reference not to the elected/authorized panchayat but to the khap). The government cannot protect this atyachar (unacceptably immoral behaviour). . . .(The law of the land) is the root of all problems. . . .That's is your Constitution, ours is different."
This Tikait, it should be noted, is as of now a Congress ally. No wonder that the local Member of Parliament, and a young one at that, expressed sympathy for the "sentiments and local customs of khap panchayats." Not to speak of the police who invariably share the social philosophy propounded by the khaps.
Here is the point, though: India's Home minister, the erudite Chidhambaram, holds the view that no special laws are necessary to meet such pronouncements as Tikait's above (remember that special laws do exist prohibiting any form of support to Sati and inducement to dowry); plainly, he thinks, the murders should be treated as murders, as any ordinary murders, and dealt with accordingly.
Never a day goes by when some senior member of the cabinet does not lambast "internal challenges to the state." Invariably they have left-wing extremism in mind.
You may well ask why Tikait's explicit rubbishing of the Constitution, followed by assent to the execution of educated and adult and consenting young men and women does not constitute an internal threat and challenge to the state as by law established. Left-wing extremists atleast by common consent do what they do on behalf of the dispossessed; the Khap does the same but on behalf of the entrenched. And maybe that is why its doings are not seen to tantamount to any internal threat to the state (Lassalle above).
And yet, the ever increasing numbers of young men and women who seem now willing to court the murderous fatwas of this alternate system of tyranny only underscore the certain decentring of the khap. Matter of time, as dominance carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. Those that everyday swear by democracy while wishing to contain it cannot succeed.
Once again, those in the forefront of the battle against the khap brigandage are largely India's women. It is once again the AIDWA (women's wing of the cpim) which has been holding fort in these regions on behalf of those that should but won't.
The following demands have been placed before the government of the day by protestors led by various segments of India's parliamentary Left:
These specific demands have been made to the honorable Home minister under the signatures of Kavita Krishnan, National Secretary, AIPWA and Sucheta de, Joint Secretary, AISA, Delhi Unit.
It is to be much hoped that the government will move in the matter, disregarding considerations of electoral calculus, and with a view to eradicating this barbaric and boldly voiced internal threat to the constitutional regime.
Yes, lynch mobs did rule the American west once some century and a half ago, and then again during the era when the Ku Klux Klan behaved like India's Khap panchayats.
If our strategic friends, the Americans, sorted those things out, how about we do the same.
Not enough simply to grow at 9% per annum, leaving barbarisms to flourish at an
even greater percentage.