Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Annihilation of Caste, reviewed

Caste is system of social classification in India, which finds some justification and examples in a few Indian scriptures and the common mythological legends.  There are also many Indian scriptures which do not encourage it or give importance to it.

The most important manifestations of this classification are social prohibitions which are exclusive to certain castes, and a segregation which is practiced quite pervasively when it comes to interaction of the castes.  That segregation is especially forceful in terms of inter-marriage, inter-dining and the use of communal resources and places of worship.  This segregation is enforced quite brutally with violence and by various kinds of social punishments and humiliations enforced by kangaroo courts in Indian villages.

I consider caste as a way social power structures in India have preserved themselves.  At the point of social boycott or a gun, any upward mobility of the lower classes has been crushed by the powerful who obviously benefited from the status quo.  The powerful in India remained only somewhat powerful, and due (in part) to this myopic and socially stunting preservation of their privilege and power, did not ascend to the enlightenment and global power of Europe where the lower classes were at least allowed education and organization.

B R Ambedkar, in his work "Annihilation of Caste" advocates a repudiation of the authority of various Indic scriptures, and thereby a demolishing of the various foundations of what is now known as Hinduism, as the only way to get rid of this brutal system.  He was opposed in his view most famously by M K Gandhi, who was inclined to the view that moral education and self-governance was key.  He hoped that benevolent and moral masters would treat the lower classes with compassion, and could be expected to wield their power humanely, and that it was unwise to compel the masters to give up their power or to organize the lower classes to revolt against the masters.

Arundhati Roy has written an introduction to Ambedkar's essay.  I do not take Ms Roy seriously as she is not a social scientist and frequently veers into invective and sentiment after being impressed, and trying to impress the reader, by anecdotes.

But I do believe injustice is endemic in India, and it is of fundamental importance to see how this system of injustice can be, and should be, transformed into a system that is more just and which protects the basic human needs of liberty and safety.

I am of the considered opinion that Ambedkar had a sound intellect and was well-intentioned, but that he was unrealistic and misguided in his remedy.  Ambedkar did observe the injustice, was pained by it, and wanted to correct it, but his solution suffered from a bad diagnosis (which was probably a result of his own lower-caste background) and, more pertinently, was simply un-achievable.  It is not possible for religion, or the authority of scriptures, to be demolished without severe restrictions on speech and thought, and without state oppression (as was done in Russia and China).  In a country like India, it would have led to outright civil war.

Ambedkar, as part of his remedy, wanted religious freedoms to be massively curtailed, with the state sanctioning and certifying priests, and with unlicensed priests to be prosecuted by law.  Moreover, though he acknowledged that caste and segregation was not limited to Hinduism, he thereby failed to conclude that perhaps it was not Hindu scriptures at fault, but something else.  In his zeal, he quotes obscure scriptures which are not in common use and whose rather brutal assertions and prescribed penalties are nowhere followed in the present times.

As for Gandhi, I consider him to be quite deluded and archaic, thoroughly non-rigorous in his thinking, and quite woefully equipped is his intellectual understanding and acceptance of orthodox religious beliefs.  To list just a few instances, his understanding of human sexuality, medicine, modern science, evolution, the mechanisms of law and power etc. were quite regressive.  He was effective in gaining power through his persona of holiness and self-mortification, and he was possibly seen as a safe opponent by the British, but he had no real sociological or psychological insight which could stand the test of analysis or science or time.  Political success often requires little insight and is usually much more effected by charisma and abject manipulation of impressionable minds.

Coming to the question of injustice in India, I consider that a modern state must first take care of protecting its citizens from violence and intimidation and that any further legislation is dead in its tracks if a citizen can be assaulted and intimidated, without consequence, to remain powerless, ignorant, mute and subservient.

Caste can become a justification of violence, just as religion can be, or ideology, or even something as common as a property or marital dispute.  It is an acceptance of injustice, and a further injustice, if instead of tackling violence per se, the state starts legislating on what it sees as the psychological causes of that violence.  When a state is involved in policing thought instead of acts, it undermines the most important foundation of human happiness: liberty.  When a state outlaws and prohibits conduct which may lead to violence, it is thereby admitting that it is powerless to punish those who are actually violent, and would rather preclude it by clamping down a priori.

If two communities do not wish to inter-marry or inter-dine, it is no business of the state to compel them to do so.  But it is the solemn duty of the state to protect two individuals who defy their communities to inter-dine or inter-marry.  The state is overreaching when it seeks to impose justice by prohibiting or criminalizing acts which are not violent in themselves.

Therefore, Ambedkar is wrong in asking the state to intervene in the religious affairs of its people, just as Gandhi is wrong in asking the state to be religiously guided.  The constitution must be an enlightened one, but it must not seek to force that enlightenment at the point of a gun.  If two people in a modern state want to believe in a flat earth, or believe in global warming, or consider women as superior to men or vice versa, or consider gay marriage as sinful, or consider the Nazi holocaust as a fiction, it is their freedom to do so.  But when they start beating or killing someone who disagrees with them, then the state must protect their victims with all the force that it can muster, and it must punish the aggressors quickly and effectively.

Instead of abolishing caste, what was, and continues to be, needed in India is simply the effective enforcement of laws against violence and intimidation. If the upper-castes butcher a lower-caste man who dared to marry an upper-caste woman, the solution is not to have an SC/ST atrocities act (as Arundhati Roy would giddily advocate) but simply, to deter and punish those who dare to commit such an assault, and to ensure protection to those who claim danger to their lives from social thugs.

Therefore I say: it is much more important to have a tangibly accountable and effective police and judiciary than to endlessly debate on how to have a more just society.

I wonder why Ambedkar sought a far-flung remedy instead of simply helping create a constitution in which ordinary citizens had quick recourse to state protection when they felt endangered, and in which criminals could not appeal all the way to Supreme Court and get away.  He left the IPC and CrPC unchanged.  Did he not see that these were tools of the colonial masters, and not fit for a self-governed democratic republic?

A response to my argument may be that we cannot expect the police and judiciary to be faithful to the constitution and that they will work as per their biases.  And therefore the state must actively legislate against the biases.  But then, what will that further legislation do?  How and why should we expect the police to faithfully enforce the SC/ST atrocities act instead of simply expecting them to faithfully enforce the law against murder?

I have no real problem with prejudice.  I see it as a stage in evolution of human thought, which will eventually wilt or see a scientific basis.  In the longer term, education will hopefully make people more enlightened.  And secular education, after justice, must remain a priority for the state.  But if education is cognitive nourishment and (hopefully) enlightenment, criminalizing "bad" thought is coercion and brutality.  It is not the job of the state to correct prejudices and shape the minds of its people, howsoever we might see those prejudices as harmful to society.  Once a state is given sanction to prosecute prejudices in its people, it will quickly turn into an entity that prosecutes anyone that it sees as prejudicial to its interests, and those of the powerful.

It is the role of intellectuals and the social reformers to educate the society, in a democratic way, of their conclusions.  They may face opposition, as Ambedkar faced from Gandhi, but that dialectic and process cannot, and should not, be short-circuited by state power.  It is a slow process, and revolutionaries often want quick solutions to historical injustices, but such revolutions often leave in their wake suffering and resentment, which then necessitate a coercive state and a violent underground.

Ambedkar was wise to insist on affirmative action for a decade, in government recruitment and higher education.  But such affirmative action has become a permanent firmament in India, and more and more tribes and castes are angling for "reservation".  Arun Shourie's book "Worshiping False Gods" is an interesting take on the corruption and massive resentment that this perpetuation of affirmative action has caused.  I have no doubt that special facilities and budgetary allocation must be provided for the education and upliftment of those communities that have been historically intimidated.  It is debatable whether after 70 years of affirmative action, do we need more of it or do we need to refocus on the ground realities and provide good education and healthcare.  It is not self-evident that those from the oppressed classes who rise to the top do not themselves become collaborators in their oppression.  It is far more important to address the base of the pyramid (of the oppressed classes), when it comes to health, education, sanitation and access to legal remedies, than to continue to only ensure that the top of that pyramid is at an equal height to the other, historically advantaged, pyramids in society.

What a state should seek is lack of prejudice under law, not lack of prejudice between individuals or communities.  As abhorrent as communal or individual prejudices might be to you or to me, the state must stay away from criminalizing them.  What is abhorrent today might not remain so tomorrow, and what is abhorrent to me may not be to you.  If all abhorrence is to be outlawed, what will we do with heretical or unpopular opinions?  Ironically, this manner of thinking (of outlawing prejudice and abhorrent thoughts and acts) is one reason why blasphemy and homosexuality continue to remain crimes in India.  To the Indian state, and presumably to Ambedkar, whatever is offensive and might start a cycle of violence is thereby criminal.

More than an attack on the ideal of liberty, this is also a pragmatic error.  The more a state clamps down on prejudice, the more that prejudice festers and explodes eventually.

Let people be free, and protect them in their freedom.  That is all.  The Indian state fails utterly in the latter, and thereby justifies its failure in the former.

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