The Spectator

WHEN I was growing up in India one of the first ditties I was taught ran as follows:

Ghosh Bongsho born bongsho
Bose bonghso datta
Mitra kutil jat
Dutta sala haram jadha.

It translated into:

The Ghoses are high caste
The Boses are generous
The Mitras have low cunning
And the Dutts are bastards.

It was made clear to me that as Boses we were part of the elite, high-caste Kayasthas of Bengal, next in importance only to the Brahmins, the highest caste in India. Family folklore was full of tales of how we were rich landowners from the east, even if the stories were tinged with bitterness as the land had been lost as a result of the partition of India. But the caste still maintained its privileged pose by defining the minutiae of social behaviour and making sure all brides were fair and from the right families, preferably the Ghoses.

So while at my Jesuit school the teachers, speaking against the background of the obligatory cross that hung in every classroom, taught us that all men were equal in the eyes of God, at home subtle caste distinctions were always being made.

A frequent visitor to our house was a Mr Barat. When he first came I was just getting ready to touch his feet, this being the traditional way young people showed elders their respect, when I noticed my aunt quietly motioning me not to do so. She then took me to one side and explained that his caste was not high enough to deserve such respect. But since he was an important business client of my father who had to be cultivated he would be regularly invited to high tea.

Then instead of samosas and cutlets, normal fare on such occasions, he would be served an exotic mix of Chivas Regal whisky, cashew nuts, slices of Danish Kraft cheese and cream cracker biscuits. None of these products had to be cooked at home and were beyond the control of the cook. Mr Barat was too important a man for my father to neglect, but then the cook, who would only serve people of high caste, could not be trifled with either. As my aunt used to say, it is easier to get business clients than good cooks of the right caste.

It was only many years later, when researching for a biography of another, more famous Bose, that I discovered the truth about the Kayasthas. Back in the middle ages they were probably a very lowly caste who through their opportunism and cleverness during Muslim rule — possibly readiness to learn the tongue of the invaders — had risen to positions of eminence and power. But so distant was this transformation, so keen my Kayastha ancestors to obscure their origins, that by the time I arrived the Kayasthas strutted about the caste stage of India as if they had always belonged to the top order.

It has always seemed to be that this story illustrates a truth often missed about caste in India. The caste system does imprison individuals. For an individual to try to break out of caste is to lose it. But it is possible for a whole caste to move up in India just as the Kayasthas did. There are hundreds of such stories of caste move­ments, sometimes slight, sometimes major movements upwards or downwards, which have been lost to memory because Indians in trying to explain caste to outsiders have simplified it and thus distorted it.

Caste was once seen as the steel frame of Hinduism, but now the structure has begun to rust a fair bit. So much so that the revival of militant Hinduism is often a reaction to growing caste problems. Political parties unable to hold different castes together often play the religious card, and a classic illustration of this has been the revival of the Ayodhya temple dispute by the militant Hindu BJP party — they want to rebuild a temple destroyed by the Moguls in the 16th century, on the site where a mosque now exists.

In theory Hindus are supposed to be divided into four castes, Brahmins, the priestly class, Kshatrias, the warrior caste, Vaishyas, the traders, and Sudras, the untouchables, condemned to do all the unskilled work — particularly cleaning the loos. The Brahmins used their remarkable closed shop in the priesthood — you have to be born a Brahmin to be a priest — to maintain their ascendancy, and nothing could rescue the Sudras, often clearly identifiable by their darker colour. But in the two castes between the Brahmins and the Sudras there has always been move-ment and, what is more, they have spawned millions of sub-castes. So in Ben-gal, which has virtually no Kshatria warrior tradition, it was easy for the Kayasthas to insinuate themselves next to the Brahmins and claim their high status. This process worked so well that today many Kayasthas think of themselves as inheritors of the Kshatria warrior tradition although it is highly unlikely that any of my ancestors ever went near a battle.

The arrival of the British aided this evolutionary process of change. The leader of a sub-caste had only to share a meal with the British to lose caste. But if this led to the downfall of some high sub-castes, the reverse also happened. As the British developed their Indian collaborators, other lowly sub-castes followed the example of the Kayasthas and used the patronage of the new ruler to uplift themselves. British rule prised the educational system away from the Brahmins, who till then had controlled all learning, and this formed an additional means of subverting the system.

But for Indian nationalists this was far too slow and cumbersome a process. It was far easier to couple the evil of colonialism with the evil of ‘casteism’ and promise to remove both. This was the great rallying cry of Jawaharlal Nehru, who diligently read his New Statesman every week and pledged himself to create a classless, caste-less society — Fabian socialism mixed with a touch of Indian egalitarianism. Nehru, the son of a self-made Brahmin, should have known that the easy equation of caste with class did not hold. A man of high caste was not always wealthy. Brahmins could often be very poor and, while they would never dream of sharing a meal with the lower-caste traders, sometimes they were forced to borrow money from them.

In independent India, however, there was no time for such Hindu nonsense, as Nehru saw it, and so on an essentially feudal structure a strong dose of what would now be called American-style positive anti-discrimination legislation was applied. The Indian constitution, written by the leader of the Sudras, untouchables, reserved government jobs and educational places for them and the backward tribes. Forty years on it is clear that this attempt at social engineering, quite the most extensive seen anywhere in the world, has failed. The untouchables rarely take up their full quotas, it has bred resentment among higher castes and in some cases introduced a unique, very Indian corruption: high- caste students and job-seekers declare themselves to be untouchables in order to get a university place or a government job.

Undeterred, V.P. Singh, India’s Prime Minister, has sought to extend the reserva-tion principle even further. In addition to the constitutional reservations for untouchables, he is proposing to reserve government jobs for a whole host of lower castes just above the untouchables in the Hindu order. If his proposals go through, almost half the population will have reserved government jobs, much coveted in India for providing life-long security.

The Singh plan is essentially a political ploy. The report on which it is based was issued ten years ago and probably used suspect data to justify its proposals. But for Singh this matters less than the fact that it offers him the only chance of retaining power. He hopes that the plan will prove so attractive to lower-caste voters, who are in the majority in the country, that he can build the classic Indian coalition: an army of lower-caste voters led by Singh, himself a man of high caste.

But the violence it has provoked from the higher castes, those who have mainly benefited from India’s massive but uneven post-independence industrialisation, suggests that this time the attempt to impose an American solution on an Indian problem may tear the country apart. India is always capable of such sudden, barbaric violence. Peace one minute, butchery the next is a recurring pattern. It happened during partition as the British divided the sub-continent, it happened during the riots that followed Mrs Gandhi’s assassination when suddenly Sikhs were butchered in a manner made all the more appalling be-cause it was so casual.

But the violence that has greeted V.P. Singh’s decision is different. Here children, some of them as young as 11 or 12, are setting themselves alight with paraffin, urban India’s favourite fuel, in protest against the reform. The children fear that if the reservation plan goes through they may not get to university.

Even before Singh announced his plans the sheer pressure of numbers in Indian education was putting a university place out of reach of most students. Twenty years ago, when I took the Indian equivalent of A levels, a 70 per cent mark meant I had the pick of almost any university place I cared to choose. Twenty years later, when my nephew took similar exams, he had to aim for a near 90 per cent to be sure. In other countries such students would have been expected to be fashionably progressive, supporting plans to better the lot of those poorer than themselves. But these Indian students fear that should Singh get his way then the lower castes will quickly supplant them and they may be forced back to the jungle of Indian squalor from which they have so recently emerged. In such a situation progressive liberal sentiments find little favour. The old certain prejudices of caste will reassert themselves. The arrest of the BJP leader and the party’s decision to withdraw support from Singh’s government, which could bring it down, show how dangerous the caste game has become.

© Mihir Bose


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