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Caste System 2.0

The election of Ramnath Kovind, the second person from a Scheduled Caste to be elected President of India, could have been considered as a huge step towards establishing a polity that is free from the tyranny of the caste system. His ascension spoke of how we could be ready as a democracy to turn into an India that does not consider caste when it comes to the treatment of its citizens. It pointed to a probability that we were indeed moulding a society devoid of social prejudice. However, the questions remain: Was it a true reflection of the absence of a social hierarchy? Can we conclude that the caste system is actually being obliterated?

Sadly, it isn’t.

The idea of the caste system has been so deeply ingrained in the Indian mind that, contrary to popular belief it still exists in many parts of India. Hailing from a certain caste myself, I can speak of the vigorous existence of a social hierarchy. Though it has been relatively weakened and the patterns of discrimination have come down, it remains to a considerable extent. It is not visible in plain sight but continues in a disguised manner. This is the era when we are expected to settle and welcome the rebranded, rephrased and pretentiously justifiable version of the caste system, the Caste System 2.0: ‘Community’.

A community is defined as a group of people who have a particular characteristic in common. In modern times, the use of the word ‘caste’ can raise eyebrows and even increase tensions among people in certain contexts. ‘Community’ serves as an excellent alternative to prevent aggravation, but it isn’t merely just a safe term. It’s a perfectly thought-out word that is tailored to the demands of the modern world, particularly the absence of discrimination. It doesn’t directly meddle with the social hierarchy and expect members who belong to a lower caste to honor the

conventional caste system. But on closer scrutiny we will find that it still obliquely advocates the division of classes.

The existence of the modern community is often justified as a means to conserve a group’s traditional practices. Marrying within the community is how such traditions are preserved — a Nair marries a Nair, a Brahmin marries a Brahmin, and a Chettiar marries a Chettiar. It is still not uncommon to find matrimonial advertisements in newspapers and online services that specifically look for a bride/groom from a certain community. This display of a parochial attitude is portrayed to prevent outsiders from attempting to damage the community’s ‘reputation’.

The idea of a community system seems harmless to a great number of people. It is often reasoned that a community chooses to culturally isolate itself to conserve its traditional practices. And since it claims to not engage in direct discrimination, its existence can be deemed acceptable.

However, what is deplorable is not the fact that these communities wish to preserve their practices, but the desire to perpetuate practices that were once built up on a sense of social prejudice and dominance. This sense can be conspicuous in modern times as discrimination over caste has been covert. Nevertheless, the pride of being part of a ‘superior’ caste is still drilled into many irrational minds. This is highly evident where I come from; no matter the level of education and economic wellness, there is still a certain fictitious pride in belonging to a superior caste. This feeling of pride is passed on to the succeeding generations through indoctrination, and the natural human tendency to feel superior aids the sustenance of such communities.

This self-centred view is where the problem lies, and that is the reason it threatens societal unity more than ever. Pride resulting from assumed superiority threatens the unity of people since it is not possible to view each other as equals if one assumes superiority over the other. As it is, our nation has been divided in various ways that lead to social and cultural fencing off. Do we need the community system to further aggravate the situation? I believe our inability to solve the nation’s greatest problems arises from disunity. How can we solve problems when we don’t have a united front in the first place? If we still allow a system that divides us, we will not be able to tackle complexities that demand that we work hand in hand.

I find one question pretty hard to answer: what exactly is the point of tradition? Of course, it is deemed to have the ancient values passed down by ancestors to succeeding generations. But is that it? Are we expected to blindly follow and conserve traditions just because our ancestors did the same? Failure to develop a sensible rationale regarding tradition isn’t rare in India. We refuse to question ancient practices and proceed with the easy answer: “Our ancestors did it, so should we.” What we fail to realise is that at the cost of preserving tradition we are subjecting ourselves to cultural seclusion. Instead of forming one strong Indian unit, we are carving up sections of people that prefer to have more differences than similarities.

While the caste system is being modified, it is important that we revisit the concept of untouchability. This time around one is not considered untouchable by birth or economic status. Rather, it is a matter of choice. The real untouchables are those who still choose to isolate themselves as communities that alienate other people. They are those who choose to preserve tradition while threatening the unity of the nation. They are those who still choose to persist with, in a covert or overt manner, the irrational and disgraceful social hierarchy.

As we attempt to pass the gates of economic and social prosperity, we cannot afford to have a divided Indian crowd hindering the process. Difficult and pressing issues ranging from sexual assault to secularism require our united attention. Malevolent trends such as the community system only leave a broken populace in their wake. It divides us for the sake of fictitious supremacy. When will these communities come to realise that an army of ants is much better than a bunch of deluded rats?

getmanickam@icloud.com

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Printable version | Nov 21, 2020 12:34:24 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/caste-system-20/article24955067.ece

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