Sunday, July 29, 2007
Hidden casteism in the Indian psyche
I often read in the papers that casteism still exists in India. Most often the northern states such as UP and Bihar get cited due to the extremely violent conflicts that arise between castes in these states. It is probably not easy to gauge the magnitude of this issue and no matter how much people write about it in media, blogs etc., it would be fair to say that we are still understating it. My post is based on my own personal observations in Andhra Pradesh, my home state. Altough, AP has higher literacy and is much more well developed than some of the poor performing states in India, social evils such as dowry and casteism still exist. They are so deeply embedded in our psyche that it is not only the illiterate poor who still fall to its prey, but educated city folk such as my own kith and kin and probably a lot of my friends. I do not recall harboring casteist feelings although I was brought up in a conservative south Indian brahmin family.
People in my home state have adopted the Internet to fix-up marriages. Many of my friends, cousins and even my younger sister found their spouses on an internet portal. This matrimonial portal is unlike any dating site in the developed world. It is far more serious than dating - it is used to set up arranged marriages. In principle, I think the matrimonial sites have done a great job in increasing the availability of information in the marriage market. However, they have also introduced a very serious evil into the system. In arranged marriages, parents only seek out members from their own caste and the sites have allowed and even encouraged this practice. Consequently, portals have become a haven for propagating two social evils - dowry and casteism. It is constitutionally not wrong to seek out a person from the same caste - however it reestablishes a social order that was slowly fading out from society.
I feel ashamed when I read Wikipedia pages of some of the dominant castes in my home state. I try to edit some of them to be factually correct. However, it is a lost cause - a new age technology is being used for shameless promotion of a social evil. If any of you have attended the ATTA or the TANA meetings in the US, you would realize, how casteist these cultural events are! we should all just boycott these organizations!
Why is caste still important in today's modern India? If you ask me, it is not. However, some of my educated friends are still guilty of having hidden feelings about the superiority of their caste. They need serious soul-searching. It is a shame that parents are still fixing up the marriages of their kids in their same caste. Such attitudes only tell us that an educated and modern India can still be socially non-liberal. Moreover, the dowry system perpetuates the myth of caste superiority as certain castes in AP take great pride in the fact that they are extremely rich and can afford to give and take exorbitant dowries. In fact they even look down upon other castes where dowries are lower. To them it does not matter whether the parties are intrinsically rich, socially forward etc., just that the dowry is lower! I am guilty of this too. Although, I did not take one, I surely gave one. You can could imagine this section as a self-punishing, self-loathing diatribe.
Youngsters from my generation conveniently blame their parents saying that they did not want the dowry but they could not say no to their parents. So, is it alright if it happens without us knowing or ignoring it ? Are we a bunch of spineless worms or knuckle dragging Neanderthals? We have been socially brainwashed into thinking that taking dowry is acceptable if the girl's family can afford it. In principle we all know it is a symbolic transaction. However, don't you think symbols have a meaning? Symbols are what convey who we are as a society and what we stand for. These symbols need to be changed, soon.
My objective here is not to offend anyone I know, who might have unknowingly been involved in similar situations. However, I would be really happy if even one person takes a step-back and talks to someone else about this. Such conversations should be in the open - we all need to realize that we all have skeletons in the closet. Our silent acceptance of the caste system and dowry is one such skeleton that we all need to bury. All men (and women) are created equal, period. There are no corollaries.