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Castes

Diversity is India’s most vital metaphor. Apart from caste and religion, linguistic states also divide it. It is thus a multinational nation. In a sense, it is what plural Europe would like to be – a united economic and political entity in which its different nationalities and minorities continue to flourish. India’s diversity is the result of historic migrations and wanderings of many peoples and tribes who came here over thousands of years and made it their home. An anthropologist described the subcontinent of India as a “deep net” into which various races and peoples of Asia drifted over time and were caught. The tall Himalayas in the north and the sea in the west, east, and south isolated this net from the rest of the world and this led to the development of a unique society and is the origin of the caste system. It has made it possible for such a vast variety of people to live together in a single social system over thousands of years. It has proved capable of absorbing new intruders.

Observers have often noted the tolerance of Indians. They are surprised that people of such diversity can live together in reasonable harmony. The answer may well lie in the caste system. In this system “a group’s acknowledged differences… become the very principle whereby it is integrated into society. If you eat beef, you must accept being classed among the untouchables, and on this condition your practice will be tolerated.” Some academics have argued that caste is an artificial category, invented by imperialist Europeans to simplify the character of Indian social life for the purpose of legitimizing colonialism and to establish European cultural and political supremacy. It is true that some nineteenth century scholars (like James Mill) did paint an overly simplified and rigid picture of caste in India that is plainly inaccurate, but to conclude that caste is a social construct of the imperialist West, and must therefore be dismissed, is silly. Travellers to India – from the Chinese to the Arabs, in ancient and medieval times – consistently observed and described the caste system. Indian nationalist leaders inveighed against the evils of caste for a hundred years. Indian and foreign anthropologists and social scientists made detailed studies of caste. Plainly, caste is indigenous. But it is an evolving institution; it varies from one part of the country to another – more unbending in some areas and flexible in others – and it impacts modern life in different ways.

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