Swami Agnivesh & Rev. Valson Thampu


The architects of the Indian Republic fondled the hope that, as secular ethos took roots, democratic institutions spread, and a secular-scientific outlook consolidated itself, the Indian society would outgrow the evil of caste system. Those who harboured this hope were not insincere. They simply underestimated the die-hard durability of a pseudo-religious institution primed by a pro-status quo worldview. Because of this, they did not launch an all-out war against caste. They assumed it would wither away in course of time and die a natural death.

This however did not happen and instead what has happened is that the ‘India of our dreams’ began to undergo a radical re-definition. Our republican dreams are being revised. A political engineering to perpetuate caste-domination has gained gradual ascendancy over the liberal-secular ideal of an egalitarian society. This has happened by default. While republican and egalitarian ideals were preached, precious little was done by way of practical action to break the stranglehold of caste over the Indian society. The gulf between theory and practice continued to widen, eroding the credibility of the theory. Today there is widespread cynicism on whether or not the war against caste is winnable.

No institution can be effectively combated unless its roots are identified. The roots of the caste system are not religious, as many tend to assume. This is the case made out, especially by those who are keen to secure a contrived legitimacy for caste so as to prolong its social tenure. In point of fact, caste is not, and cannot be, a religious institution. It is a socio-economic system that arrogates to itself the rags of religion, simply because it is aware of its utter nakedness. Caste system, as Ambedkar identified and all social scientists agree, has two main roots: ban on inter-dining and inter-marrying.

Social inter-mingling through meals and marriage are experiences of purest proximity and kinship. Dining –especially of a ceremonial kind- is not a matter, merely, of eating. It is a projection and affirmation of belonging together, an implicit recognition of the equal worth of all who share the meal. It involves an overcoming or denial of inter-personal and inter-communal distance. Ceremonial dining, for instance, is the most universal expression of the birth of a new relationship, as in the case of a wedding or a new deal in business. It has played a key role in all cultures in the formation of communities and has helped to break the barriers that keep individuals and groups segregated from each other. The ban on inter-dining is, therefore, a powerful means for keeping social segments and religious sects apart from each other. A case in point is the appalling divide between Catholics and Protestants in Christianity perpetuated through the ban on sharing the Lord’s Supper, which is a ceremonial and symbolic meal meant to unite the household of faith. The taboo against inter-dining is a clever conspiracy of fragmentation, a psychological and ritual mechanism of division. It seeks to foster a mindset of prejudice and rejection. Those we assume, by taboo, to be ineligible to dine with us, seem to lack human identity and dignity for this reason alone. How powerful a social reality this is, can be measured by the immense gratitude and encouragement that the dalits even today experience when some one from the upper caste background eats with them. It is felt as socially liberating and affirmative, even when it is done as a private act with no social reverberations. Inter-dining is, thus, a measure of potent psychological significance. It is a concrete metaphor of mutual acceptance and a leveling instrument, socially and psychologically.

Even more powerful than inter-dining, as a tool of reformative and affirmative social engineering, is the instrument of inter-marriage. Marriage is the foremost institution of intimate acceptance. It has the potential to dismantle all walls of division and alienation. In the Bhakti tradition, for example, the devotee believes herself to be married to her ishtadevata: a state of intimate integration or perfect one-ness. Such intimacy is the necessary medium for knowing the other. The alternative to intimacy is alienation or social, cultural, and mental distance. Distance is a medium of distortion. It is only in a state of distance that the truth and worth of a person or group can be denied or distorted. Multi-faceted distance is of the essence of caste. In contrast, the spiritual goal in all religions is to overcome distance: first, distance from God and, next, distance from our fellow human beings. Caste is contrary to the logic of spirituality.

Both Swami Dayanand and Bhimrao Ambedkar were convinced that so long as inter-dining and inter-marrying are not practiced, our society couldn’t be exorcised of the anathema of caste mentality. The institution of caste survives, flying in the face of history and progress, mainly because the various segments remain confined to their separate social ghettos, policed by a host of deep-rooted taboos and interdictions. Given the fact that we are social animals, separation is an aberration: an unnatural state. It is only an unnatural system that has to be enforced, coerced and reinforced with severe social and religious sanctions. Except in the cities, the punishment for inter-caste marriages even today is death. And this is a practice in spite of the fact that even our religious literature acknowledges love to be beyond all social and economic labels and stigmas.

The problem with caste is not only that it forbids inter-dining and inter-marrying. It is that, in doing so and in order to do so effectively, caste fosters a mindset that turns a society against itself. The social injustice immanent in caste generates a cultural and economic compulsion to create a correlation between caste superiority and economic progress. It is easy to see how this happens. Marriage has to be between equals. The best way, hence, to forestall inter-caste marriages is to aggravate inequality between castes. This creates a commitment to deepening the economic and cultural divide between the upper castes and lower castes. It is as a by-product of this mentality that today ‘merit’ is defined almost wholly along caste lines. Merit is involuntarily equated with caste superiority. Hence there is a tendency to idolize ‘merit’ as it is understood today. The prospect for inter-caste marriages, in such a social climate, is manifestly bleak. The commitment to caste, thus, becomes a keenness to perpetuate the developmental disabilities of the lower castes: a fact writ large over our policies and priorities in education and the incremental exclusion of the dalits and the backward classes from the opportunities of development.

Experiences spread over five decades of nation-building leave us in no doubt that the evil of caste system will not wither away, unless the war against it is joined in a tactical and practical way. The parroting of pious sentiments will not do. Concrete measures have to be adopted and implemented; foremost among them being inter-dining and inter-marrying. It is in the dalit and backward constituency that the soul of India remains shackled. This is where the war of liberation has to be joined in all earnestness. Going by its track record, religious conversion seems to cope out with respect of this epic battle. The basic goal is to heal the Indian society of its social leprosy, and not merely to offer an escape-route of questionable merit to some of its victims.