Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Business of caste - Dalits convert to Buddhism

In one of largest mass conversions in India, thousands of lower caste men and tribals converted to Buddhism recently in Mumbai. In a hope that they would finally be ejected out of a discriminating religion which categorizes men into higher and lower merely based on which families they are born into. It is a futile hope. In India, you can never shake off your caste identities even if you change your religion. For example, there are dalits who are lower caste Hindus, and then there are Muslim dalits, Christian dalits and even Sikh dalits. Identity like Christian dalit sounds misnomer as Christianity does not have any notion of caste but when a dalit converts into Christianity he takes his caste along with him and there is even attempt to legitimize these identities when politicians demand reservation for converted dalits. Castism is a social problem and caste identities are so deeply ingrained in rural India that even if a person converts into a different religion he can not escape his caste. People in his village, in his neighborhood, in his social circle would always know what caste he belonged to. I said rural India because it is village which is really the den of caste based discrimination. Cities are product of migration of people and often in cities caste identities tend to evaporate. Even if it does not totally become irrelevant, it blurs as cities are melting pots. Cities provide certain amount of anonymity and loosely coupled social fabric which makes caste based identities less visible. Cities are also about economic activities and ability of a person to contribute in them takes precedence over his caste background .I am not saying that cities are about equality but a dalit person is less likely to be identified by his caste and stopped from entering a Hindu temple in a city than he is in his own village. As India become more urbanized, would caste identities become irrelevant is something left to be seen.

Ambedkar, the first dalit leader of modern India and author of our constitution realized this fact that caste in India is difficult to escape when he was stopped form entering a temple in Nasik in 1930. So dismayed was he with incident that he proclaimed that though he was born a Hindu he would never die in that discriminating religion and eventually few months before he died, he converted en-mass with his followers to Buddhism. What has been happening in Punjab is also a stark reminder of how deeply rooted castism is in Indian society. Sikh religion was created during a dark period in Hindu religion when it was under threat from Mugul (arab-muslim) invaders and from its own ritualistic distortions and brahmnical corruptions. The main teachings of Sikhism were based on equality and outright rejection of caste. So it is quite ironical that in today's rural Punjab, large number of backwards and dalit Sikhs feels discriminated and left out by mainstream Sikhism which is controlled by a body which is brahmnical equivalent of Sikhism. The Dera phenomenon which has gathered momentum in rural Punjab is a reaction to this very fact. People, who have felt marginalized by high body of Sikhism, flock to deras to get their fix of religion. The recent violence in Punjab between a dera followers and Akali Sikhs can be understood in this light as a power struggle between those who control the religion and those who feel left out and seek other alternatives. As I had mentioned in my post on social groups, it is a classic case of a social group (Sikh) conflict when members of a group desert it to form another group.

The mass conversion of dalits and tribals can perhaps be termed as political stunt by certain dalit politicians of Maharashtra but it is important to see it from another perspective which is that of emergence and assertiveness of dalits as political force in India. The fact that last month a dalit party, BSP, won elections with majority seats in most populous state of India and a dalit is chief minister is indication of this fact. What is unique about this new found political awareness is the fact that instead of being used as a pawn and vote bank in political equations by national parties, BSP has forged its own alliances to seize the power, signaling a shift in political maturity of the party. How interesting is it that BSP a party of dalits and lower caste has forged alliance with higher caste Brahmins and even fielded high caste candidates to seize the power taking most of national parties by complete surprise. What it would do to political landscape in India and how it would change social profile of dalits would make an engaging spectacle.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Athiti Devo Bhava in Delhi

I have been travelling to Delhi quite frequently for past 10 years and I have seen it go through some welcome changes over the years unlike other cities like Mumbai and Bangalore which have been going downhill . City looks cleaner and converting large fleet of public buses, taxis and autos to run on CNG has made city's air breathable. Metro rail is a showpiece of new modern India. Roads are wider, even though traffic remains chaotic but that is more to do with our indian driving sense and unwillingness to follow rules than anything else. City is gearing for 2010's common wealth games and government's ambition is to transform Delhi to a "worldclass city" by then. But cities are not defined by thier physical attributes alone. Cities are about its people.

On a recent visit to Delhi, I noticed every taxi and autorickshaw displaying "athiti Devo Bhava" sticker. "Guest is like God" goes the ancient indian time honoured custom but like many of our culture's lofty traditions , this one also remains but a phantom from the past. It means nothing. It is one thing to force (by ministry of tourism) taxis and autos to use these stickers on thier vehicles, but what happens in reality is a starkly different story. Delhi's taxi and autowallahs represents to a large extent what Delhi is about. These guys are rude, unfriendly, foul mouthed and have scant respect or regard for any rule. They blatantly refuse to take pessengers, overcharge them almost everytime and never use electronic meters. Their meters are always broken. You have to haggle with them about rates if they agree to take you to your destination depending upon their mood. And this is regardless of wheather you are a native of city or an outsider. In fact if you are a tourist and insist on using the meter and meter starts working miraculously, be assured that you will be driven all around the city even if your destination was few streets away. Even in case of prepaid taxis, it is not unusual for driver to demand a tip from passenger as if by driving safely he has done a great service to the passenger. The old "bakshish" syndrome in a new avatar. One can imagine what foreigner tourists must go through in Delhi. Their travails start very much at airport when they are swarmed by dozens of touts.

On my first trip abroad to Germany many years ago, I took taxi from airport to a small town. taxi driver started talking to me im his halting english and when he learnt that I was from India, tuned to a hindi radio station aired from UK, chatted to me about India and almost told me history of town I was going to. I never felt like god but I still remember the ride and his pleasant demeanour. The point is that why must we pretend and elevate guests to pedestal of Gods when the fact is that guests to cities like Delhi can not even expect to be charged fairly for a simple taxi ride. We can not whitewash and hide the warts and ugly realities by merely sloganeering from our past.