Anna’s thought-provoking post on caste yesterday generated a few links to defenders of the institution which I found intriguing. One defender argues that caste is nothing but cultural pluralism:
… as a truly pluralistic society, the Hindu India allowed each ethnic group, regardless of how numerically small it was, to retain its identity…Caste is a result of this spirit of freedom and pluralism. It is something to be proud of… I pointed out that in the casteless Christian West, the minorities have been forced to abandon their identities and instead have been made to imitate the dominant group in every aspect of life [Link]
p>This is disingenuous because it entirely ignores the hierarchy and separation at the root of the caste system. What he’s trying to imply is that the caste system creates groups that are “separate but equal” except that he can’t even say that they’re even nominally equal (and we know how the whole “separate but equal” thing worked out).
p>Another author goes the opposite direction and embraces the idea that caste is all about inequality but says this is good:
… jati and varnam are merely a codification of the fact that all humans are not born equal in their endowments: some are tall, some are fat, some are musically talented, and so on. Caste is about the ruthless Bell Curve, and is about as inescapable as race. It is neither good nor bad; it just is (casteism, however, is reprehensible, just as racism is.) In fact, caste must be useful, which is why it has survived for so long… [Link]
p>Of course he doesn’t come out and say that it’s about groups being better than others, but when somebody says that “all humans are not born equal in their endowments” it’s hard not to conclude that they’re talking about a hierarchy. His social darwinism comes out loud and clear when he argues that the survival of caste as a social institution is evidence of its usefulness; he’s saying that caste must be a beneficial adaptation for it to have persisted.
p> The final defense of caste is far more subtle, and comes from an IIM Professor:
The metropolitan elite and rootless experts have concluded that caste is bad. They have made it so that every Indian is expected to feel guilty at the mention of caste. Internationally, caste is a convenient stick to flay anything Indian, its religions, customs, culture.
But the caste system is undeniably a valuable social capital, which provides a cushion for individuals and families to deal with society and the state. The Western model of atomising every individual to a single element in a right-based system and forcing the individual to have a direct link with the state has destroyed families and erased communities. Every person stands alone, stark naked, with only rights as his imaginary clothes to deal directly with the state. [Link]
p>The argument he makes is that caste based social capital has enabled within caste institutions which then allowed entrepreneurs to emerge:
Tirupur has become a hotbed of economic activity in the production of knitted garments… The needed capital was raised within the Gounder community, a caste relegated to land-based activities, relying on community and family network…. the point that is often still missed is that, in a financial sense, caste provides the edge in risk taking, since failure is recognised, condoned, and sometimes even encouraged by the caste group. [Link]
p>He further argues that instead of using affirmative action to try to erase caste distinctions, social policy would be better devoted to empowering backward caste entrepreneurs. He even brings out the big guns in defense of his argument, a quote from Gurcharan Das arguing in favor of certain castes:
Gurcharan Das, the strategic consultant, writer and former vice-president and managing director of Proctor & Gamble Worldwide, says in his book, India Unbound, “In the nineteenth century, British colonialists used to blame our caste system for everything wrong in India. Now I have a different perspective. Instead of morally judging caste, I seek to understand its impact on competitiveness. I have come to believe that being endowed with commercial castes is a source of advantage in the global economy.” [Link]
p>The problem with this last set of arguments is that they try to find something positive associated with caste rather than weighing the net social impact of a variety of different social arrangements. So of course social networks are good and helpful, but you know what – they’re better when they’re open to outsiders and they’re meritocratic. It’s nice to have somebody who can lend you money, but market mechanisms do this a heck of a lot more effectively than non-market ones. Lastly, anti-caste social policy is not at all remotely an attempt to create atomized individuals, so his dichotomy is falsely posed.