Yesterday, I was waiting in a long queue in the cafeteria of Sciences Po, when I ran into a friend who was before me in the queue. After a minute or two of small talk and Sciences Po bashing, as is normal with all students of the dratted college, I happened to mention that I have a dissertation on Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka to complete. She looked at me, rather strangely might I add, and then asked me why I did not consider doing my dissertation on the caste system and democracy in India. I replied, in no uncertain terms, that I was not interested in the topic, adding that the much-maligned system of castes cannot be studied by one who has grown up in it. At that comment, she told me that it would be an interesting thing to write about how castes can be abolished.

Now, let me make it clear that while I am no avid supporter of the caste system in India, I do not believe it can be abolished. It exists and will continue to exist for the next 500 years. Nobody wants to get rid of it, not even the “oppressed castes” themselves. There is an increasing affirmation of one’s caste identity within the framework of Indian democracy. And, I made the mistake of actually telling Miss. Know-it-all this in the belief that she would drop the topic and concentrate on getting her low-calorie sandwich and “yaourt nature” from the counter. But no, she was not to be outdone. In an irritatingly smug voice she declared, “Maistu sais que le sytème des castes va à l’encontre de la démocratie en Inde. Tu te rends compte que c’est l’oppression!!”

For those poor souls who know little or no French, she was basically trying to convince me that the system was against the concept of democracy and that it was oppression of the lower castes! Hello!! But who exactly is someone from an ex-Soviet republic that has no idea of freedom, and much less of democracy, to hector me on what it means to be democratic? It was, at best, frustrating. In fact, all I felt was a sense of outrage at being told that India was not democratic. At that moment, I felt like tearing her argument apart by pointing out that her country did not even remotely resemble a democracy and that people in glass houses must not throw stones.

Aargh!! Honestly, some people believe they have exclusive sovereignty over concepts like freedom, democracy and liberty. A cursory glance at the Freedom House index of liberty in the world will reveal that India is one of the few developing countries in the world that is completely free. Also note that most countries of the ex-Soviet Union are considered not free. Need I say more? I admit that India is not the best country in the world when it concerns corruption, human development and primary education. But, to say that India is not democratic infuriates me like no other comment can. I may be wrong in saying this, but ask the man on the street in India if caste must be abolished. He/she will say no. Caste, like a family name is an identity. It is a symbol of belonging to a particular group. So much so that many people are beginning to adopt their caste names as surnames in South India. Who is a western-educated Kyrgyz student of International Relations to hector the people of India to get rid of that one symbol that gives them security? It is true that the “oppressed” castes must be given basic rights. But, to say that the system must be abolished is both unrealistic and patronising.

Let me make one thing clear. Ridding India of the problem of caste is not, as Kipling would have claimed, the white man’s burden. It is not even the black, brown or yellow man’s burden. The people of India will get rid of it when they feel that it has lost its utility and relevance in the modern world. Until then, the world would do well to step aside and let us rule ourselves the way we think fit. We elect our leaders in free and fair elections every 5 years, sometimes even more frequently. We are capable of deciding who should rule us and what the rulers should do. Like all other democracies, we have our failings. We elect people who are not worth it. We make mistakes and so find that politics is increasingly corrupt and criminalised. But, let us deal with it in our own way. Through democracy. It has served us well over the last 60 years. And I believe it will continue to do so for many decades to come. Until then, western-educated know-it-all snobs would do well to refrain from commenting on things they neither know nor understand.

Of caste and democracy…

One thought on “Of caste and democracy…

  • June 12, 2007 at 10:58 am

    you have to ask her to read jaffrelot’s seminal book “india’s silent revolution” that documents the rise of lower caste people in indian politics! how have you been otherwise?


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