(Originally published in Hindu Voice UK – July 2009)
“Intelligent Life” (?!)
Recently I received a copy of “Intelligent Life” (Spring 2009 Edition), a quarterly lifestyle magazine from The Economist Group. As its name suggests, the makers of the magazine fancy it to be a particularly intelligent magazine!
The Economist Group of publications is a well established media group covering international affairs and business. On its website, the group praises itself as possessing “objectivity of opinion” and “originality of insight”.
Flicking through the magazine, a feature titled “21st Century Slaves” caught my attention. The feature consisted of a short article about the plight of the “dalits” or “outcastes” of Indian society, and a number of pictures of individual victims of either economic or caste atrocities. The pictures are all taken in Indian Punjab, which is approximately 60% Sikh.
While I am all for people bringing attention to the sometimes inhuman plight that many of the so called outcastes of Hindu society still have to face, and have written about this in the past, I am equally emphatic that coverage of such an important issue should be an accurate portrayal of the ground realities, rather than cheap ill-researched coverage that muddles up the issues at hand. In particular, with a publication that fancies itself as intelligent one would expect much better than tabloid quality journalism.
The article starts out talking about modern day slavery as a phenomenon which can be defined by a person not being free to leave their place of work. Such people normally take a loan to provide basics for their families, and then have to work for years to pay off the loan. If the debt is unpaid at the time of death, the children will inherit the debt and have to continue working to pay it off. These people have to work in some of the harshest conditions, and are often not able to even bring up the subject of better conditions, for the fear of violence. This phenomenon, according to the article, exists in many parts of the world. In India up to 20 million people, by this definition, could be classed as slaves.
The article inevitably links this modern day slavery with the “Hindu caste system”, and describes these individuals as being “routinely scorned and abused by their high caste neighbours”.
This is where the feature begins to lose its objectivity and reality and repeats slogans and stereotypes of India that are commonly spouted through the media, but seldom reflected in the ground reality of rural India. The interaction of caste with such socio-economical slavery that persists in India is complex. It is certainly not a simple case of “upper castes” and “lower castes.”
First of all the concept of “caste” as written about in the article consists of two overlapping phenomenon. One is the existence of numerous communities called “jaatis” that are almost like sub-ethnic groups that usually share a strong internal community structure and certain defining customs. The existence of these “jaatis” is not a religious phenomenon. They are generally not mentioned in religious texts. Examples are the Jatts, Patels (of which there are many types), Thakurs, Marathas, Luhanas and Kolis.
Then there is the “Varna system”, which is the traditional four-fold Hindu caste system of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. This system is not necessarily birth based, but in practice for most of Indian history, it has been. This system does not accept any system of outcastes or untouchables. Jaatis generally think of themselves as belonging to a particular varna, and wider society may or may not agree with their self appointed designation in the varna system.
In practice, most atrocities done on “low castes” are not done by “high caste” people, but by certain castes and tribes which are themselves relatively low in the traditional view of caste (assuming a four-fold varna model). The traditional high castes are normally nowhere to be seen in such conflicts or generally in the phenomenon of bonded labour as described in the article. It has been well documented that the majority of atrocities on Dalits take place from groups that come under the broad category Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and Shudras. OBC/Shudra jaatis form the majority of Hindu society (over 45%), and in India they are often large dominant groups of people in the local area – possessing a lot of land and power. Dalit writer Chrandrabhan Prasad has often written that high castes (particularly Brahmins) are rarely if ever participants in the caste atrocities of the modern Indian state.
It is much simpler and sexier to blame “high castes” for oppressing “untouchables”, but the fact is that this is generally not the case. The caste communities which are generally responsible for atrocities on Dalits in modern Indian (and especially Punjab) are those OBC and Shudra jaatis which possess a lot of land in towns and villages. In most of India it is they that inherit and own most of the land and hence carry out the illegal and inhuman practice of bonded labour.
The feature in “Intelligent Life” has several pictures with captions. Five of the pictures show victims of violence and have captions which describe the perpetrators of the atrocities as “upper caste”.
These captions are particularly misleading with regards to the interaction of caste with the reality of the events and circumstances they describe.
For example, we find the picture of a pretty young girl named Bindu, who belongs to a nomadic “jaati” who are considered to be “dalits” (outcaste). She and her family are now homeless, and according to the caption accompanying the picture, “She had incurred the wrath of the local upper castes by refusing an offer from the son of the town leader of 50 rupees (about $1) for sex.” Her home subsequently was torched and her family’s possessions were thrown into a river.
I have no doubt that the story of a strongman (goon) trying it on with this girl did happen, and that her turning down his “offer” is what led to the attack. In such cases there is often also a “caste dimension”, in that thuggish youth from more dominant jaatis (who in fact are themselves usually low varna) often act atrociously with girls of more vulnerable jaatis.
But it is very unlikely that her turning down sex from the son of a town leader would “Incur the wrath of the upper castes” as a whole. The language implies that all (or most) of the “upper castes” were aware that the son of the town leader had offered this girl 50 rupees for sex and were jointly outraged by this girl turning down the “opportunity” to prostitute herself to this local goon. This would be quite startling if it were true. This is a fanciful account and poor journalism.
The caption implies that the boy went home and said something like, “Dad, I offered this dalit girl 50 rupees for sex and she turned me down”. He in turn would have said, “This is terrible, we can’t have it, lets call a meeting of all the upper castes.” The upper castes would then get together and proclaim “This is unacceptable, the son of our leader should be able to approach any girl from that caste and pay her for sex. Lets make an example of her and burn her family house down”.
In actual fact, such atrocious acts are committed by local goons without support and sanction of most of the local people. Furthermore, the caption refers to “upper castes” as if they are one homogenous whole who think and act together. In fact the “upper castes” are a bunch of different “jaatis” who are often at loggerheads with one another and are not making joint decisions to destroy a family’s home because a girl refused to prostitute herself to the son of a local strongman. The story of Bindu is thus made into something which it is not.
Another caption shows two grieving parents with a picture of their son who was murdered. The caption accompanying the picture runs: “Another dead son, murdered by a gang of upper-caste youths with whom he had dared to have an argument. The police have not even investigated.”
You may think that I am nit picking here. After all, at least the article and photos bring some sort of attention to the plight of these people – who most of us are too busy to try and help. But the fact is that nobody is helped by inaccurate, frivolous and sexed up reporting of serious and complex matters.
When I showed my brother the article and discussed it with him, he gave two very lucid insights:
1) For most Hindus growing up in the West, except those with some sort of background in a Hindu organization like Swadhyaya, Swami Narayana or Shakha, seeing a few pieces like this which are moving but unbalanced in their coverage is enough for them to reject their culture and background as something backward which they do not want anything to do with.
2) India is a place where many messed up and brutal acts are done. As Hindus of Indian background we should strive to be part of the solution.
Just to clarify my personal position on caste. To me there is no “upper caste” and “lower caste”. The designation of an individual comes through their own qualities and actions. And Hindu philosophy states that each individual is divine, having a portion of the Supreme as the innermost core of their consciousness. Birth based caste is a socio-economical phenomenon which may have had some benefit in a certain time and place, but has done more harm than good and should actively be eradicated by all conscientious Hindus.
By writing this I have no ulterior motive of protecting “upper castes” from defamation. My own background is from a jaati that is commonly thought of as a Shudra caste and is just particular that type of dominant jaati that in the villages of rural India commits the kind of atrocities which I am writing against. The purpose of this article is to bring attention to the inaccurate coverage of Hindu and Indian affairs that even supposedly quality media sources provide. Such an article is seemingly intelligent and well meaning to the inexperienced reader, but actually is a result of poor research and provides a misleading and sexed up account of the events it aims to bring attention to.
Let nobody think that I’m trying to gloss over or negate the suffering that the article speaks about. The suffering is real. Every Indian (including non-resident Indians) should contribute to the ending these problems. If we are not part of the solution then we are part of the problem.