Removing Statues in India is Pointless. Let’s First Fight Casteism

Before crying out ‘Black Lives Matter’, India needs to face its elephant in the room – casteism. 

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Image representing the notion of purity and pollution behind casteism in India, used for representational purposes.
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As the western world reflects upon its dark, slave trading and colonialist past, India has grappled with its own past by renaming and removing, albeit very rarely, resorting to destruction only when politically-fuelled, as was the case with the Babri Masjid. By and large, India has followed the ‘Middle Path’, as espoused by her son, Lord Buddha. India, however, will not get swept up in the rage burning in the West, for our history is complicated and our culture is warped.

Contrary to the political revisionism plaguing our historical narratives, unlike the East India Company and the British Raj that followed, the Mughals were indeed a foreign, conquering force, but aside from the great sacking of Delhi by Nadir Shah, the Mughals turned out to be as Indian as the rest of us – they stayed on in India, and just about all their financial incomes and expenditures were rooted deeply in India.

Contrary to religious revisionism, which also rears its ill-informed head occasionally to propel political illiteracy, the Mughals had the support of Hindu leaders and kings on numerous occasions.

For example, Aurangzeb, the favourite whipping boy of the Right, had the support of a number of Hindu kings, most notably from the ‘warrior’ Rajputs – Maharaja Jaswant Singh of Marwar, Raja Jai Singh Kachwaha of Amber, and Rana Raj Singh of Mewar.

India’s Colonial History Reveals Uncomfortable Truths – Of Our Own ‘Connivance’

A fair analysis of even our colonial history will reveal uncomfortable and undeniable truths. The East India Company would not have made the kind of rapid and rapacious progress that drove India down from a quarter of the world’s GDP to almost none of it, were it not for their Marwari financiers. One of the calls for statue removal in the United Kingdom has come from the author and historian William Dalrymple, arguing for Robert Clive to be banished from Whitehall to a museum.

It was Clive who collaborated with the Jagat Seth bankers to wage war against the Mughals of Murshidabad, because the Seths found the latter’s financial terms disagreeable, resulting in the Battle of Plassey. This was not a clear-cut case of the British fighting the Mughals, this was Indian investors taking their money out of an Indian company and investing it instead in a foreign one, in the hope of a better return on investment. Clive’s avarice held no bounds, but neither did that of his Indian business partners.

Clive looted a foreign nation while his Indian business partners looted their own nation.

During the Raj years, when Crown rule took over from the Company, it was Gandhi himself who lauded and supported the British in their battles against Nazi Germany, firstly by organising a field ambulance service, the ‘Natal Indian Ambulance Corps’ during the Boer War, and then asking Indians to fight in World War-II, in the belief that Churchill would grant India independence. The right wing isn’t innocent of placating the Raj either. VD Sarvarkar’s apology letter and submission to British rule is well known. There were, of course, thousands, if not lakhs, of freedom fighters who took on the Company and the Raj, many paying the price with their lives.

More Than Racism, It Is Casteism That Is All-Pervasive in India

India needs to deeply introspect before aligning itself with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. Racism is inherent in India too, our own citizens from the Northeast are routinely subjected to vile behaviour, particularly in the age of COVID. Dark skin has always been frowned upon in favour of ‘Fair and Lovely’, well before the latter became a commercial success. Calling someone ‘chinky’ or ‘kallu’ has been normalised, and even considered ‘funny’ by many if not most.

But more than racism, it is casteism that plagues every aspect of Indian life.

Sometimes openly, with lynchings, beatings and killings by dominant castes of the oppressed castes – most often in rural areas – while urban areas see more subtle forms of bigotry and discrimination – the denial of jobs and admission to schools and other offices, and mostly ‘menial jobs’ like domestic work, sweeping, human corpse-handling and the perpetual sight of the diplomatically-phrased ‘manual scavenging’ – a euphemism for those who handle raw human waste and sewage – being assigned to the oppressed castes.

Amid COVID, domestic workers have also faced greater discrimination than ever before – with apartment complexes ‘segregating’ them or not allowing them entry at all, or holding them to higher standards of hygiene than the building’s more privileged occupants.

This is everyday casteism, and its underlying notion of ‘purity and pollution’ at work.

Religious hatred too is deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche – be it holding present-day Muslims responsible for Mughal conquests and depredations, frowning upon them for the partition of India – and even the spread of COVID. Everyday life is made difficult for Muslims, be it noticeably clear ‘No Muslim’ recruitment policies for many private sector jobs, and more subtly in government postings.

India’s Minorities Must Achieve ‘Class Consciousness’

Urban civilian life is more subtle – the ‘Vaastu Compliant’ branding on an apartment complex is often a subtle hint that Muslims / minorities are not welcome, or may face ‘segregation’ – harking back to the American civil rights era which saw signs like ‘No Negroes, Dogs or Jews’. Today’s India says ‘No Muslims, Maids or Minorities’.

The key difference between minorities in developed nations – rising up and challenging the status quo, often supported by well-meaning citizens, the courts and legislation – and minorities in India is that the former know that any form of discrimination is wrong and unacceptable.

In India, this discrimination seems perfectly ‘acceptable’ to many groups – in that, several minority groups or individuals belonging to marginalised sects are yet to achieve, what Marx called ‘class consciousness’.

Today, of course, with young leaders like Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan leading the Bhim Army, and several young Muslim activists at the forefront of bringing equality, justice and change – especially in the wake of the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens – the path to class consciousness is being paved.

Why Does India Continue to Accept Segregation & Discrimination?

Caste-based professions / jobs persist in present-day India. It has been in our blood for millennia, it is our way of life – ‘my lot does certain jobs, your lot does certain jobs, the two never need to clash or perceive each other as a threat’. Moreover, since oppression is systemic – by denying equal opportunities (in education, to begin with) – it is still rare to see an individual from an oppressed caste become a chartered accountant or a doctor, and one would be equally hard-pressed to find a Marwari cleaning septic tanks.

America’s George Floyd may have revived the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and allowed it to enter the Indian consciousness, but in India, we continue to simply fight for bread and butter – because about 22 percent of India, as per a 2019 report, continues to live below the poverty line.

Where there is hunger and malnutrition, there is perhaps, little scope to fight for other fundamental human rights.

The poor still fight for ration rights while the rich will, as they have always done, continue to collaborate with Hades himself for profit rights. Plus our middle class thrive on the ‘chalta hain’ attitude.

We happily continue to accept and absorb the largest monument to Queen Victoria anywhere in the world – Victoria Memorial Hall – that eternal symbol of colonisation – and what is perhaps the world’s most iconic Islamic monument – the Taj Mahal – as ours. Yet we also accept division, segregation and hatred as ours too. The Americans will battle racism, the British will remove statues, but we Indians cannot seem to find it in us edit our ‘genetic code’.

(Anthony Khatchaturian is a historian and commentator. He tweets @AKhatchaturian. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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