The saying ‘don’t judge the book by its cover’ is passé. Award-winning Bollywood actor Kangana Ranaut has updated it. Now we should say, ‘don’t judge a book by a tweet’. The book in question here is Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Pulitzer-winning African-American journalist Isabel Wilkerson, which Oprah Winfrey sent to 500 American CEOs and leaders. Kangana Ranaut’s response to the book was not only ill-informed because she based it on a tweet, but was classic upper caste obfuscation that many Indians are hard-wired with.
Kangana Ranaut is an upper caste Indian like many others – Shashi Tharoor, Amitabh Bachchan, Nitin Gadkari – who say they believe in a casteless society and are caste-blind. They say with pride that they don’t recognise caste. This is the same mentality that forces you to look at the BJP’s politics as patriotic and the Congress as a national party, but the BSP, the SP and the RJD are labelled ‘casteist’ parties.
But every upper caste Indian’s rejection of caste is basically rejection of caste-based discrimination, a cloak used to cover up the atrocities that mostly go unreported unless they involve heinous acts such as public flogging in Gujarat’s Una. The oft-repeated claim that caste “has been rejected by modern Indians”, as Kangana said in one of her tweets, is a convenient assertion only found in privileged upper caste circles whose members begrudge the reservation system. A look at some of Kangana’s tweets shows what most upper caste Indians believe.
1. Cast (sic) system has been rejected by modern Indians, in small towns every one knows it’s not acceptable anymore by law and order its nothing more than a sadistic pleasure for few, only our constitution is holding on to it in terms of reservations…
2. Especially in professions like Doctors engineers, pilots most deserving people suffer reservations, we as a nation suffer mediocrity and brilliance finds a reluctant escape to The United States. Shame
3. Cast (sic) in Hinduism supposed to be your Guna/Quality not your identity, I am born to fight, I can handle pressure I suppose I have good leadership qualities I do believe my gunas are of a Kshatriya, most members in my family don’t feel the same, I am Bhartiya that’s my only identity.
4. …there are many ways of uplifting the oppressed other than gifting them the ranks they don’t qualify for, learn to earn your worth that’s what I stand for, reservation works on the same law as nepotism, undeserving gets the job cos of which Nation suffers, SIMPLE.
5. …let’s establish a system which makes our Nation the best, if you wanna talk about individuals I know thousands of Doctors, IAS officers, judges, engineers whose children drive Audi and getting reservations.
The normalisation of denial syndrome
Kangana is amplifying six basic arguments that caste-discrimination deniers make.
1. Caste is a thing of the past and in modern times, Indians do not practise caste.
2. Caste is an issue only where it concerns the reservation policies envisaged in the Indian Constitution.
3. Reservation is against meritocracy and results in brain drain.
4. Reservation is akin to nepotism.
5. Rich people are reaping the benefits of reservation.
6. Caste has nothing to do with one’s identity. It is related to one’s qualities (guna).
Kangana has stated the commonly held beliefs of the upper caste people who are opposed to the idea of egalitarianism and the constitutional idea of reservation in jobs and education. Children in upper caste families grow up listening to these ideas from their elders. These ideas become their pool of knowledge. They normalise such ideas by repeating them among their peers, and they do it because this is an integral part of their primary socialisation — rejection of caste to project oneself as ‘modern’. It is not a surprise that Kangana said these things. To the best of her knowledge, she is saying the “truth”.
It is also true that she or her parents or her relatives might not have killed or raped or discriminated against lower caste people. So, why should she own the blame for the horror that India’s caste system brings to millions of people? In one of her tweets, she asks if she should take revenge on every man because women have been discriminated against for centuries.
If Kangana had bothered to first read Isabel Wilkerson’s book, she might not have said such things regarding caste and reservation.
Quota, a support system
In her book, Wilkerson tells us a story of an old house, which looks perfect from the outside but when checked with infrared guns, scores of cracks and ruptures appear. She narrates the story of the house – “Many people may rightly say, ‘I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked indigenous people, never owned slaves. And, yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. Unaddressed, the ruptures and diagonal cracks will not fix themselves. The toxins will not go away but, rather, will spread, leach, and mutate, as they already have’.” She argues that there is a problem in the house and that needs to be fixed.
In the case of India, reservation in jobs and educational institutions is only one of the mechanisms to fix the problem of the system of caste-based discrimination. It might not have fixed the problem of upper caste hegemony and might not have delivered the desired results. But to do away with the reservation will be akin to removing the ventilator of the patient, without making any alternative arrangement.
And yet Kangana and others will continue to oppose the reservation system — though you won’t hear them say anything against the Narendra Modi government’s 10 per cent quota for the upper castes.
The invisible privilege
But if Kangana is unable to see the problems of the caste system, then it is not entirely her fault. It is an invisible knapsack of power and privilege that is passed down from one generation to another. Caste works like an invisible code or, as Wilkerson says, like the grammar that “we encode as children, as when learning our mother tongue. Caste, like grammar, becomes an invisible guide not only to how we speak, but to how we process information, the autonomic calculations that figure into a sentence without our having to think about it.” Or as feminist author Peggy McIntosh argues, while discussing White privilege, that it’s like “an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. (It) is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”
Although, in India, the caste system many times works in a very crude, raw and violent manner. Cases of caste atrocities abound, especially in rural and semi-urban settings. But in the case of NRIs, urban Indians and Gen X, Y and Z, it works mostly in a subtle manner.
Invisibility of caste makes it more lethal, more dangerous and gives it longevity. As Wilkerson says, it’s in the bones. “Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions. It is the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions for maintaining, social order.” Caste is not always visible. It’s not required. “They are like the wind, powerful enough to knock you down but invisible as they go about their work.” Just take Kangana for instance. She wields her Rajput identity at will. She did it at the time of the release of her film Manikarnika. In normal times, she acts ‘Indian’ or casteless.
The opportunistic system of caste
Caste system in India asserts itself at opportune moments. For instance, dominant caste groups asserted themselves while opposing the caste census in 2011 or at the time of the enactment of 10 per cent reservation for them in 2019. Once the caste purpose is served, the upper castes recede into hibernation and the caste system suddenly becomes non-existent. When the caste system lies dormant, the dominant groups claim that caste is a “thing of the past” or “caste system exists only in the villages” and so on.
Kangana’s claim of castelessness is fluid. She claims that though she has all the qualities of a Kshatriya, her only identity is that of an Indian. But her claim of castelessness is a privilege only upper caste Indians enjoy. The nomenclature of the general caste in itself is the biggest manifestation of this privilege. Satish Deshpande argues that “the privileged upper castes are enabled to think of themselves as ‘casteless’, while the dis-privileged lower castes are forced to intensify their caste identities. This asymmetrical division has truncated the effective meaning of caste to lower caste, thus leaving the upper castes free to monopolise the ‘general category’ by posing as casteless citizens.”
Wilkerson argues that “caste system works in silence, the string of a puppet master unseen by those whose subconscious it directs, its instructions an intravenous drip to the mind, caste in the guise of normalcy, injustice looking just, atrocities looking unavoidable to keep the machinery humming, the matrix of caste as a facsimile for life itself and whose purpose is maintaining the primacy of those hoarding and holding tight to power.”
This invisibility of caste has made the upper caste Indians oblivious to the horrors the caste system perpetuates. Writer Dhamma Darshan Nigam says that “for such people, manual scavenging is just an occupational hazard and sewer deaths just another occupational fatality. Caste-based atrocities are very normal and Dalit-Bahujan (identity) politics is the worst thing happening to India, caste-based reservation are a loot of national treasures.”
At the time of the last decadal census, a group of upper caste influencers opposed the enumeration of castes, formed a coalition, and named it Meri Jati Hindustani. As if only lower castes have caste identities and all the upper caste people are just Indians and nothing but Indians. They are not Brahmins, not Kshatriyas — regardless of the amount of pride (or hurt) they invoke, regardless of the claims, by Lok Sabha speaker no less, that ‘Brahmins are superior’ — they are just Indians. Kangana should be happy that she is not alone in her utterances regarding castelessness.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. Views are personal.
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