PAST AND PRESENT OF THE CASTE SYSTEM: A BRIEF INTRODUCTION

Historians, anthropologists and students of religion have been busy with the caste system and its origin since the beginning of indological studies in the 18th century. Various the theories put forward, even though everybody agrees in underlining the system’s diabolic intents. The origin of the caste system in the way it has developed up to the present day can be fixed to the beginning of the Christian era. Before that we do have mentions here and there of its existence but very likely it is only from the beginning of this era which the varna template takes solid roots in the Indian sub continent. In the Manu dharmasastra (written approximately between 200 BC and 200 AD) the system is developed and manifested in all its ideological strength. Manu states that the four varnas were divinely ordained from the very beginning. Quoting from the Rig Veda, Manu says that from the mouth of Purusha, the Self-Existent One, came the Brahmans, from his arms came the Kshatriyas, from his thighs came the Vaishyas, and from his feet came the Sudras. According to Manu other castes were the result of miscegenation between members of these four original varnas. In the years following 200AD the practice of caste and therefore untouchability was intensified and applied to more groups. As a result society was structured on the varna theory. Ultimately this theory paved the way to a society divided into groups based on people’s birth and occupation. Pollution and purity became the criteria to distinguish and rank the different groups. This however is the ideological explanation of Manu, an explanation which students of religion and anthropologists alike have too readily taken up as the explanation of the caste system. Manu after all was the mouthpiece of the elite which had all the benefits from such a system!
Some scholars however think that perhaps religion is not as involved with the caste system as social stratification instead might be. In the early days of civilization stratification of society was done purely on the basis of “division of labour” i.e. for economic purposes. According to these scholars it was necessary for emerging city-states to promote an interactive system of production to ensure safety and sustainability for all. This division of labour guaranteed also a hierarchical ranking where elites could take away economic surplus from the labouring masses. The whole system condemned the vast majority of people to a sort of Hegelian “master-servant” relationship.
Another sort of explanation, favoured by the contemporary Indian Dalit movement and their academic mentors, tries to explain the caste system referring to the dialectic of “conqueror and conquered”. Accordingly, the coming of the Aryans and the struggle which ensued with the local Dravidian populations of North India would explain the varna template. The Aryans because of superior warring techniques and weaponry subjugated the Dravidians which were then absorbed and ranked in the new Aryan society. Some historians have tried to prove that the fall of the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation of Harappa and Mohenjodaro was due to the invasion of the Aryans. The explanation however is anachronistic and fanciful since the Aryans came, if they ever did, a couple of centuries after the fall of the Indus cities.
Apparently the caste system and untouchability, part and parcel of the former, originated in the Indian subcontinent as a political development. Reacting to the Buddhist religious, political and, in one word, cultural hegemony, Vedic elites in the successful attempt to regain a lost political centrality invented Hinduism to counteract Buddhism, and the caste system to offset Buddhist imperial formations. The caste system was then not a religious institute but a political one. In other words the caste system was the formal structure of early medieval Indian polities, the way Indian states were built and functioned. Religion and social stratification did have a say in it but in as much as they justified and sacralised the status quo of those early Indian polities.
Be as it may, the caste system has passed through lots of historical vicissitudes and transformations. It has however maintained its roots in the Indian subcontinent showing a remarkable resilience. Unfortunately this means that even today the system’s evil aspects are here among us. Untouchability is one of these dreaded aspects.

THE IMPACT OF THE CASTE SYSTEM

The first impact is the harsh fact of social stigma. The untouchables are considered polluting and are therefore kept at a distance. Their mere presence as well as their belongings are discarded or avoided. They are made to live separately and often cannot share such common village amenities as the well. The stigma of untouchability is attributed to the traditional occupation of the jati and affects all members of that jati regardless of actually being engaged in that occupation or not. Those jatis who clean up, deal with dead animals or eat their meat, are ritually unclean and beyond the pale.

The vast majority of so called untouchables are actually engaged in agricultural labour. For many, their traditional occupation is simply a supplementary and temporary work over and above their main agricultural occupation. Ironically, however, the stigma remains. That agricultural labour is not in itself ritually polluting and carries no special social stigma is borne out by the fact that higher caste people do engage in it without jeopardizing their social status. In the case of untouchables this is not so.

Untouchables are very poorly compensated for their labour and thus forced to live a life of constrains. Their diet is poor; their clothes are few and rarely clean; their homes are small, fragile and unhealthy; and they are hopelessly overwhelmed with debts. Poverty and indebtedness means bondage to and dependence on the village strong man of the moment.

An important aspect of so called untouchables’ life is their life style. The anthropologists have described untouchable communities’ customs and ceremonies surrounding birth, death, and marriage in great detail. In many respects these resemble those of higher caste. However, two practices, both indicative of women’s more equal status, do distinguish them from higher castes: giving a bride price rather than a dowry and permitting widows to remarry. Some of the vices of the untouchable community, such as personal or domestic uncleanliness as well as the practice of eating carrion, are the direct consequences of severe poverty. Others such as drunkenness, frequent quarrelling, domestic violence, untrustworthiness in serving others, are together indicative of a deep inner rage which can be expressed only in forms of self-hatred, contempt for one’s own people, and passive aggression vis a vis one’s “betters”.

Finally, untouchable communities have little hope for outside sympathy or support. Every reform, whether political, economic or social has adopted a lasses-faire attitude towards the caste system and has not basically interfered. Of course, the changes reforms introduced to tax and administer the rural life as well as to develop the economy did affect the untouchable communities, but these were not made with their welfare specifically in mind.

CASTE SYSTEM IN BANGLADESH

Bangladesh came into existence as an independent state only 32 years ago. Historically however it has a multifaceted heritage, enriched by its ancient Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim roots. It is through this deeply rooted psycho-social heritage that untouchability has been ingrained into the social fabric of the country. Traditions of hierarchy and patronage, the strongholds of the caste system, remain strong among Bengalis irrespective of their caste and creed. Even religions have failed to ensure social equality due to centuries of cultural indoctrination and present political convenience. Of course many people will deny that a caste system still exists in Bangladesh. There are several reasons behind this “Caste-blindness.”

It is generally understood by people that caste system is only associated with the Hindu Community. Therefore, the common belief is that besides and beyond Hinduism the caste system
cannot exist. But this is not true. In reality a “Caste mentality” if not the actual caste system strongly exists among Bengali people. For example people engaged in some particulars menial jobs such as cobblers, sweepers, palanquin bearers, weavers, potters are discriminated against and looked down upon by society at large. People engaged in these occupations are known as muchis, methors, beharas, napits, jolas, pals etc. all of which are derogatory words in Bengali. Social regulations are imposed upon them as to restrict inter-dining, inter marriage with other groups. Even household gods (deities) are different from those of high caste Hindus. Popular faith among Muslims (known as Sufi Islamic practices) and doctrinal faith (Known as shariat Islamic practices) are manifestation of this sectarian division on the Islamic religious domain. Similarly the Christian community in Bangladesh is often described as “Old Christians” “New Christians” and “Adivasi/Tribal Christians.” All these sectarian discussions represent hierarchical stratifications of Bengali society which are simply a reflection of caste mentality.

Secondly in Bangladesh demographic analysis has always focused on the line of age, sex and religion. Cultural minorities, social minorities are relatively a new terminology in our social science. Political change for over half a century has played a greater role in removing these terminologies and thereby perspectives from the constitution as well as from official books and records. During British rule special provisions were made for “the scheduled caste” or “the depressed class” in the then Indian Constitution. After the partition of the subcontinent in 1947 India continued to keep provisions and gradually inserted many other clauses in its constitution to ensure the rights of the scheduled castes. However in the case of Pakistan (and the than East Pakistan) the “Basic democrats” structure of local government introduced by the than president Ayub Khan in 1960 replaced the “Caste-wise” system of government which existed in many places and did away with caste as a political organization. The consequences have been far reaching and wide. Caste blindness in the then East Pakistan and in today’s Bangladesh has been promoted by the state. Unfortunately the caste minorities neither could integrate themselves with the mainstream nor could the mainstream ensure social equality for them.

The third reason for this blindness is mass poverty. Social scientists and development planners have always tried to understand poverty from the view of needs and their fulfilment. Therefore all development initiatives were undertaken on the basis of enhancing livelihood and purchasing capacity of the poor. As a result the whole process has been counter productive for caste minority. In fact, there has hardly been any attempt to see poverty from the perspective of social inequality.
Yet caste blindness may be even wilfully procured by today’s government for ideological purposes. On the one hand being Bangladesh a Muslim country to state that the caste system is still a problem is to diminish the brand of Islam lived out in the country, particularly on the international scenario. Secondly, since the caste system was basically a political structure whose pillars were patronage and hierarchy, and since today’s Bangladesh’s political scenario still relies on those same pillars it may even be that the caste system or mentality comes in handy to today’s political needs!

CASTE SYSTEM AND THE RISHI COMMUNITY OF SOUTH WEST BANGLADESH

A baseline survey, ‘Religious Ethnic Minority Groups of South west Bangladesh, conducted by Reza Shamsur Rahman (sponsored by Uttaran in 1993) revealed that there are at least 20 such minority groups in Khulna and Satkhira districts. These groups are the Bajondars, the Beharas, the Bhagobenees, the Bunos, the Dias, the Dhopas, the Hazams, the Jeles, the Kaiputras (or Kaortas), the Namasudras, the Nikaris, the Pandra Kshatrias, the Parois, the Patnis, the Rajbangshirs, the Rishis , the Fosua, the Shahjee, the Shikaris, the Tele and others. Among them the Rishis and the Namasudras constitute the major part of their total population. Caste system has literally out-casted these small groups of people who are popularly known as Muchi or, less derogatorily, Rishi.

They usually live at the edge of villages. Since they are still considered unclean, they live separately from other ‘clean’ groups in their own village. They might live next to either Hindu or Muslim neighbourhoods, but they are only allowed to live in the most undesirable areas, which nobody else covets. However, small groups have migrated to towns in an attempt to find better livelihoods. Access to drinking water is also restricted if not denied to Rishi communities in some areas. Rishis are not allowed to take food on the some plate which is served for “higher” caste people in many local restaurants.

Education for the Rishis is a difficult and sometime painful experience. Their children are not welcomed into neighbourhoods or schools as they are considered polluted and polluting. Shame, guilt and trauma are the way of living for many young learners of the Rishi community. Their elders are illiterate and thus not aware of the importance of education. To many, education is a luxury. Girls are particularly the worst victims of illiteracy. Females dropout rate from primary school is relatively higher among Rishi people.

The economic situation of most Rishi families is vulnerable. Their job opportunities are limited. They hardly possess any land. Their occupational skills, except for few trades, are poor. They are not often hired as agricultural labours because often they are not apt to the task. Earth cutting, loading and unloading goods, pulling rickshaws or vans, shoe shining, making bamboo and cane furniture etc. are the main activities of the Rishi. Employment opportunities for Rishi communities are gradually shrinking due to commercial production of commodities that were previously produced by Rishi people. Even some services offered by Rishi people in the near past are now taken over by non-Rishi people by investing more capital and introducing modern machineries and equipments. As a whole the Rishi communities have failed to adapt with the changing economic scenario, becoming poorer.

A recent study, “THE RISHI COMMUNITY OF SATKHIRA” conducted by Caritas Development Institute depicts the same picture as mentioned in the above paragraphs, detailed with facts and figures.
In the sample of 1990 Rishi households selected from 87 villages of 33 unions of Ashasuni, Kaligonj and Kalaroa thanas of Satkhira district, it was found that agriculture contributed to 3.75% of the Rishi total annual income while other non-agricultural activities contributed to 96.24% of their total annual income. Seasonal unemployment mostly for 2-3 months in the rainy season was another of the finding. The asset base of the Rishi people came out to be very limited. Fifty percent of the respondents had some savings but mostly below Tk. 500. Most of the sampled households received loans from NGO groups and local moneylenders within the range of Tk. 500 and 5000 and mainly for purchasing bamboo and cane and sustaining thus household expenditure.
The literacy rate was found to be of only 30% (male 36.31%, female 23.15%), that is, half the national literacy rate. Development interventions by both GOs and NGOs were found to be extremely inadequate, except for some credit programmes by some NGOs. Last but not least, the Rishi people were deprived of social and legal rights. They had no social participation and were not given access to social functions by the majority community. Early marriages and dowry were prevalent in the Rishi community. Local influential men, Hindu or Muslim, dominated the Rishi people. Sometimes they grabbed their lands and/or threatened to evict them. These were some of the findings.

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