Prejudice disguised as politeness

Caste as a form of hierarchical bias is still a factor in Indian marriage alliances. But it also seems to have found a newer form and vocabulary.

Updated - May 30, 2015 02:15 am IST

Published - May 30, 2015 12:15 am IST

A Crucial Distinction: “Pride in one’s own caste may be a form of ethnocentrism or an in-group preference; prejudice stems from hate or disgust.” Picture shows Padma Iyer, who published an advertisement seeking a groom for her son Harrish Iyer, the first of its kind in India. Photo: Special Arrangement

A Crucial Distinction: “Pride in one’s own caste may be a form of ethnocentrism or an in-group preference; prejudice stems from hate or disgust.” Picture shows Padma Iyer, who published an advertisement seeking a groom for her son Harrish Iyer, the first of its kind in India. Photo: Special Arrangement

Padma Iyer, mother of Mumbai-based gay rights activist Harrish Iyer, was in the eye of a storm recently for placing a matrimonial advertisement that read: “Seeking 25-40, well placed, animal loving, vegetarian groom for my son 36, 5’ 11’ who works with an NGO caste no bar (though Iyer preferred)”. People were not angry that Ms. Iyer had transgressed the norms of heterosexuality, but that she had shown preference for a particular caste for her son. Ms. Iyer was quick to clarify that the preference mentioned was in “jest”, to sound “typical” and to satisfy Mr. Iyer’s grandmother. But her clarification failed to cool tempers down, with most people branding her “casteist”.

Does choosing to marry someone from one’s own caste make one casteist? It is useful to look at what the law says. The Indian Constitution bans the practice of untouchability, but it is not unlawful in India to show preference for or take pride in one’s own caste. This is also the reason why caste associations continue to flourish across the country’s vibrant public sphere.

It is important to make a careful distinction between pride, or preference, and prejudice — pride in one’s own caste may be a form of ethnocentrism or an in-group preference; prejudice stems from hate or disgust. Taking pride in or preferring a particular caste, either in the case of marriage or while voting for a candidate during elections, is not necessarily considered prejudice in India.

The usual hetero-normative matrimonial ads, published everyday, routinely specify gotra and other ascriptive preferences, even within specific castes. Ms. Iyer’s advertisement goes against these in that she is willing to transgress the caste barrier, while only stating a particular preference. The advertisement may fit sociologist Dipankar Gupta’s thesis of identity over system, wherein he says the caste system has collapsed but has given rise to caste identities. What remains, Professor Gupta says, is the prominence of jatis as an indicator of identity. The preference for one’s own caste, exemplified in Ms. Iyer’s case, may have less to do with hierarchy and more to do with subjective socio-political choices in private and public life.

Traditionally, endogamous, arranged, and hetero-normative marriages played a significant role in retaining the purity of caste. They also invariably controlled women’s choices, particularly, and sexuality. For B.R. Ambedkar, the superposition of endogamy on exogamy meant the creation of caste and caste hierarchies.

But now, there appears to be some change, even if it’s barely perceptible. According to the findings of the India Human Development Survey, close to 5 per cent of Indian marriages are now inter-caste. Such exceptions, including caste-no-bar advertisements, may not end caste hierarchy but they are worth noting, as they could be baby steps in challenging the notion of purity in caste and sexual control.

Are caste-no-bar advertisements entirely free of caste prejudice? Do they carry any new forms of caste prejudice? And are the preferences they state devoid of hierarchical beliefs?

Two forms of prejudice

A preliminary analysis of matrimonial advertisements that show preference for a particular caste reveals two forms of predominant prejudices. Most of the advertisements exclude Other Backward Castes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes from their purview. For instance, an advertisement seeking a groom for a girl from a Maratha caste in Maharashtra says she is born of “an inter-caste alliance” and that her “family values are liberal”. The advertisement states a preference for a good-looking man who earns well. Yet, while seemingly progressive so far, it goes on to note the preferred castes: Hindu Brahmin Deshastha, Hindu Brahmin Gaud Saraswat, Hindu Brahmin Koknastha, Hindu Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu, and Hindu Maratha. The choice here is for Marathas and those above Marathas in hierarchy. It further clearly specifies in brackets, “OBC, SC/ST, please excuse” — clearly seeking to follow the older order of keeping the “untouchables” out of the varna system, but in a new form wherein all other castes on the ladder above the SCs, STs and OBCs are seen as marriageable.

But this is not the whole story, and emphasising this could undermine the dynamic nature of caste. Much is changing for some of the lower castes — they are increasingly being considered acceptable for purposes of marriage and commensality by the upper castes, with even caste-no-bar advertisements from Brahmins increasingly excluding SCs and STs but accommodating OBCs. Take this advertisement, for instance: ‘I am a Hindu Brahmin. My annual income is 9.6 lakhs. My Nadi is Anttya. I want a Hindu-Bride, SC/ST please excuse’.

However, this is only limited good news, because it unfortunately aggravates the prejudice against Dalits and Adivasis. For instance, in another advertisement, a Lingayat Vani (OBC) of 42 years is a lecturer seeking a bride. His caste-no-bar advert still lists a set of preferred castes for the prospective bride — which includes all castes except SCs and STs.

New ideas of caste purity

Thus, caste, far from losing its hierarchical biases in marriage alliances, seems to have found a newer form and vocabulary. It is not surprising that most of the prejudice is against SCs and STs. The ascending scale of reverence and descending scale of contempt that is fundamental to caste, and that Ambedkar was wary of, continues to affect inter-caste marriage choices. Matrimonial alliances through caste-no-bar advertisements are breaking certain codes of the traditional caste hierarchy by not sticking to strict endogamy rules, but in the process they are creating new ideas of caste purity. They are seeking horizontal unity just above a new purity line that marks SCs and STs as undesired partners. Castes in the middle of the ladder resort to the ‘SC/ST, please excuse’ disclaimer as they seek to climb up the hierarchy and unite with the higher castes by denoting SCs and STs as lower. Most puzzling, though, in this new dynamic is the use of constitutional categories created to promote social justice (OBC, SC, ST) to universally practice prejudice, albeit in a polite form.

Part of the problem could be with the way our Constitution defined untouchability. The Interim Constitution of Nepal (2007) may hold some lessons. Article 14 on untouchability in Nepal bans any demonstration of superiority or inferiority of any person or a group of persons belonging to any caste, tribe or origin; such demonstrations are seen as linked to the practice of untouchability. Article 17 of our Constitution, on the other hand, by merely abolishing untouchability and its practice in any form seems to have failed to foresee the prejudice hidden both in preference and in politeness.

(Suryakant Waghmore is Associate Professor and Chairperson, Centre for Social Justice and Governance, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and DAAD Visiting Professor, Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Göttingen.)

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