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Caste Is Dead, Long Live Caste

Caste Is Dead, Long Live Caste

Pune witnessed two grand caste congregations recently. Though the aims of the two seemed different, they were actually exercises in caste identity assertion.

COMMENTARY

to these people they have always been

Caste Is Dead, Long Live Caste

quite meticulous about who they are and what their historical role is. All chitpawanas are divided into 100 odd groups, each GPD sharing a common surname. They have ex-

Pune witnessed two grand caste congregations recently. Though the aims of the two seemed different, they were actually exercises in caste identity assertion.

GPD (gpdesh@vsnl.com) is a well known commentator on literary and political affairs.

W
e live in times of caste. Of course, we always have, except that if we are to believe the Mahabharata, the caste (jati) of an individual was always difficult to identify, let alone to determine definitely (‘dushparikshya’)because of rampant inbreeding among the caste groups (‘sankarat sarvavarnam’). This was the view of Dharmaraja, the eldest of the Pandavas. (There is a fascinating story that appears in the ‘Aranya Parva’ of the epic in which this remark of Dharmaraja appears. The story in itself is not material here.) The point is that the great historical, mythological and religious (take your pick) work takes that view.

In normal times a simple citation from the epic would have been enough. Now it might be an error to cite that work as a reference point. M Karunanidhi and his radicals would brand it as nonsense. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and his radicals may well dismiss it as imaginary. Narendra Mody and his people may accuse us of purposely distorting a great and sacred work of the Hindus. We have therefore chosen to give an eclectic and all-inclusive description of the work so that our citation is not suspect on account of the wrong terra firma on which we might be standing.

Be that as it may, the fact is that in more ancient times we as a people appeared quite open and even a shade ambiguous on the question of jati. Obviously the times have changed. We are completely convinced not only of who we are in caste terms but also of who everybody else is. Dharmaraja thought that this business was dushparikshya whereas the modern Dharmarajas think that it is quite ‘suprikshya’ (easy to determine).

The Modern Peshwas

Last week there was a big conference of the chitpawan brahmans in Pune. Nearly one hundred thousand chitpawanas had assembled in the city of the peshwas, themselves chitpawan brahmans, for a global congregation. Everything is globalised in our times. So was this conference. To be fair ercised such an influence that no modern history of Maharashtra can be complete without a sizeable section on their contribution. One rather funny example of their all-pervading influence was that when Rajendra Singh alias Rajjubhaiya became the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief many Delhi newspapers thought that he was the first non-chitpawan chief of the RSS. The learned copywriters of the capital thought that the first three chiefs were chitpawanas. In fact, however, no RSS chief was a chitpawan. That speaks for the overwhelming presence that they have always had in modern Maharashtra’s life.

This practice of getting the chitpawanas together is not recent. There is that famous incident relating to Veer Savarkar. Being a chitpawan he was once invited to a chitpawan gathering. He did not quite know how a Hindu nationalist could be present in a caste, actually a sub-caste get-together like that. He came out with a not so clever case that he was indeed born a chitpawan but was going there as a Hindu. He was chitpawan by birth and Hindu by consciousness. We are sure that there must have been thousands of chitpawanas there who were also caste-conscious Hindus in that huge turnover on the December 23. In Savarkar’s time this was mainly a provincial matter. Now it extends to the Silicon Valley and a large number of them flew to India for the congregation. It was also reported that the toll that one pays on the Mumbai-Pune ex pressway was waived for the folks travelling to Pune for the function. It is a practice in this state in particular that if you travel from one place to another for a caste or religious function you need not buy railway tickets. These upper caste well-to-do people naturally claimed the privilege that some lower castes claim! That is caste equality or sarva dharma sama bhava for you.

Caste Assertion

Nothing much happened at this conference. It was not meant to be. This meeting, it appeared, was in the main an exercise for liaisoning and contact building. At some stage, the (world) secretary of the chitpawan

january 26, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

conference, in a speech in a conference preparatory to this grand mela claimed that once the sun never set on the British empire. Now, he went on to add, the sun never set on where the chitpawanas lived! It was a grand caste-identity assertion. The chitpawanas believed that they were brought into this world by Para shuram. There is thus a genesis that is specific to them that no other caste, that no other group can claim. Jyotiba Phule rather wryly characterised, with a degree of exaggeration and with clear polemical content, this position when he branded them as invading foreigners. No wonder then that Vishnu Krishna Chiplunkar, himself a chitpawan and a contemporary of Phule, never really forgave him.

The polemic between Phule and the chitpawans like Chiplunkar still had social content. Their positions were interventions regarding a view of modern Maharashtrian society. It was more than a straightforward conflict between the conservatives and the reformers. Phule was a social revolutionary. People like Chiplunkar were modernist Hindus. This debate, which has not seen its end yet, cannot be dismissed as caste conflict. The Chiplunkars of the time placed themselves firmly within what they called “Arya” cultural syndrome. What these people were doing was firmly within a modernising impulse of contemporary society.

These modern avataras, on the other hand, want to assert their caste status and increase their bargaining power within the developing and globalising economy. It is one way of joining the exploiting coalition. None of these chitpawanas have anything to do with the traditional chitpawan values. Before long a number of them would be pure American or English speakers. The curious thing is that the more you lose it the more it asserts itself.

Imaginary Fight

But then this is not the only story of December. Just a day prior to this mela there was a congregation of the marathas. Their concern was the claim for “reservations”. There was time when maratha was a language identity. Certainly that was the case in Phule’s time. It has been turned into a caste identity. It does not have the inclusiveness that Maharshi Shinde’s concept of bahujan defined more than 50 years before Kanshi Ram or Mayawati used it. Bahujan as defined by Shinde helped him to be in constant touch with all movements including the anti-colonial struggle of the time including its leaders like Lokmanya Tilak.

It appears that the new maratha consolidation is not caste consolidation. It is a casteist consolidation. It uses the favourite terms of the radicals, like ‘parivartan’ (social transformation) and the like. But its biases are much too obvious. Its targets even include the scholarly and creative traditions of the brahmans. For example they would have little use of a summary critique of Marathi linguistic and literary tradition offered by Shinde, for the simple reason that Shinde takes the brahmans to be a legitimate part of Maharashtrian society even as he criticises or at times even attacks them.

The new maratha formulations cannot see the dialectic between brahmanya and the brahmans clearly. Its ideological position is so simplistic that nobody should be surprised if this ends up justifying the politics of hate.

Unlike their chitpawan counterparts this maratha sangh still has not woken up to the increasingly powerful world of free enterprise. It still finds itself in competition with the dalit job seekers. It indulges in the imaginary fight between the dominating brahmans and the suffering peasantry. It has perhaps got to do this because it knows that brahmans are no longer a part of the social contradiction in Maharashtra’s countryside. There are obvious implications of the caste situation in the countryside. It is not yet clear how it is going to handle them or how antibrahman rhetoric is going to lead to any kind of useful, or to use the current cliché ‘parivartanvadi’ (socially transformative) force.

Anyway, the city of Pune saw two big caste congregations. The politics of the two congregations was at two different levels. But it was not different. That politics was underlined by two posters of the Bahujan Samaj Party at the chitpawan gathering. If our friend’s version is correct, it clearly implied that “you got it right. We are watching you. Where are the Mishras among the chitpawanas?”

The other congregation was much too busy asserting its other backward classes status and indulging in parivartanvadi rhetoric. But both the congregations seemed to be in agreement on one thing. It can be summarised rather neatly as “Caste is dead. Long live Caste!”

Economic & Political Weekly january 26, 2008

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