In The Armchair

Stereotypes about Caste

Posted in India by Armchair Guy on June 23, 2008

I read an article titled “Schedule Conflict: the persistence of caste in India” by a Harvard student recently. It brought home to me how stereotypes that are propagated and reinforced in Western schooling don’t go away after a student grows up and begins thinking for himself. Here are some peculiarities:

  1. the perennially disappointing “Hindu rate of growth.” — Does anybody still use this offensive phrase, even flippantly or in quotes? The author probably picked it out of some newspaper or the other. It’s used in the Indian media sometimes, but only to sarcastically point out the way the West perceived India’s religion. I’d like to provide an analogy using America’s race conflicts, but it would be too crass.
  2. Traditional hierarchies—like caste—are supposed to be getting weaker. Why then was the nation’s capital suddenly in the grip of caste-based protests once again last week? — This seems vaguely inaccurate. When you say “caste-based protests”, one gets the sense that it has something to do with the way society treated them (recently), anger with their place in a hierarchy. These protests had nothing to do with this. It was simply a group with a sense of common identity demanding something. The Gujjars were a caste, but they were acting as any other group with a common interest would. This was not a caste conflict.
  3. This is closely related to what I feel is a difference in perception of caste between Indians and the West. The West tends to think of caste as a “system”, a social arrangement created with a particular purpose. If you’re a particular caste, other castes must have treated you this way, you’re above these castes, below those. Indians tend to view caste as a means of explaining identity, a label that identifies history. If you’re a particular caste, you might have been born in this area, your ancestors must have done this kind of work, these are your customs.
  4. what an Indian gets is still as much about who they are as what they have done. Caste members are eligible for certain government programs and jobs, as well as educational opportunities, based almost exclusively on their caste identity. — This seems to be contrasting the Western work-reward notion (what you get depends on what you do, not who you are) with a hereditary reward notion. But that’s not what’s going on. The Gujjars are demanding affirmative action based on historical disadvantage. If a Gujjar shows acumen, he can still become a doctor or a businessman or a scientist.
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  1. aakhatana said, on June 24, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    The Gujjars are demanding affirmative action based on historical disadvantage. Once they ruled India and fought battles with invaders. Danna Singh Gurjar stated the 1857 mutiny in Meerut.The Britishers took the revenge and declared them the criminal tribes and their suuffering is still going on leading such prolonged agitation. A A. Khatana, Delhi

  2. Armchair Guy said, on June 25, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    aakhatana:

    That’s interesting, I didn’t know the history. A quick search on Wikipedia seems to confirm what you said.

    I usually find Western treatment of caste in India to be shallow and accusative. Large proportions of Indian “intelligentsia” (I hate that term) seem to concentrate on “educating” Indians about caste, but in the process end up deepening caste boundaries and hatreds. I think downplaying historical problems is not good. But overemphasising the problems also does more harm than good!


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