Monday, February 07, 2011

Non-political dimensions of society

Marriage of true minds Saturday 19 June '10 A. M. SHAH Indian Express 
A census that assumes caste is a discrete, endogamous unit contradicts the freedom to mix 
MANY ARGUE argue that there is nothing wrong with politics based on caste and tribe. But these identities were created and supported by the denial of a vital freedom. Those who look at society only in terms of political power, close their eyes when confronted with non-political dimensions.

THERE is a big lacuna in the current debate on caste census: none of the contributors has considered the nexus between caste and marriage. According to law, an Indian citizen has freedom of choice in selection of spouse for marriage.
S/he can marry under the Special Marriage Act. However, for the vast of majority of people this freedom is taken away by caste custom, by what sociologists call the rule of caste endogamy (marriage within caste). For most members of every caste it is a traditional value. However, Westernisation and modernisation during the last two hundred years or so has created new values due to which increasing numbers of individuals wish to exercise the freedom of choice in marriage by marrying outside of caste.
Let us recall that in the initial period of change, many individuals had to face strong opposition from the tradition-bound members of their caste. I do not have space here to nar rate the nature of that long and complex struggle, which was also linked with the nationalist struggle. It is clear however that the opposition to endogamous marriage has gradually softened, and more and more individuals are exercising the freedom of marrying outside their caste, such that a whole new class of caste-less individuals has now emerged, however small that class may be.
The opposition to marriage outside caste has of course not disappeared. We still hear and read about terrible punishments meted out to young boys and girls for marrying outside their caste. Various social forces continue to restrict this freedom. The reservations and the census based on caste and tribe are two of these forces. All of the thousands of castes and tribes, including those listed as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes, are endogamous groups. A caste or tribe is always considered a hereditary group. One acquires its membership by birth.
But, heredity is derived from parenthood, and parenthood depends on legitimate marriage, which in caste society depends on both the parents belonging to the same caste. This seemingly trivial fact is crucial in determining membership of a caste or tribe. Whenever a person claims a benefit from the government as a member of a SC, ST or OBC, s/he has to produce a certificate of membership of that caste or tribe. When this certificate is disputed in a court of law -as indeed many such certificates are disputed -the judiciary applies the test of legitimate parenthood and marriage in a particular caste or tribe.
Since the SC, ST and OBC lists are comprised of numerous endogamous castes and tribes, any support for continuing these lists amounts to supporting endogamous marriage. A census based on caste also does the same. Both go against the individual's freedom in choice of spouse for marriage. As mentioned above, the jurists protect this freedom of the Indian citizen, but they also support caste and tribe endogamy inherent in the three categories of backward classes.
They thus contribute to restricting the same freedom. The judiciary of independent India has inherited the definition of caste as an endogamous group from the colonial jurists, and the latter had accepted it from the Shastris and Pandits as expert advisers on traditional Hindu law and custom.
Thus the present jurists continue to apply the same scriptural notion of caste. When the Supreme Court or a high court demands statistical data from the government about thousands of castes and tribes in the SC, ST and OBC lists, they are presuming that these castes and tribes are out there in the open to be measured as discrete endogamous units. There is a contradiction here.
Many political leaders as well as intellectuals, including social scientists, talk about freedom of the individual on the one hand but support the caste and tribe based reservations and census on the other, both of which negate the freedom in the realm of marriage. And all in the name of eradication of caste! This is another contradiction.
These intellectuals and social scientists often argue that in politics based on caste and tribe we have only identity politics, and there is nothing wrong about it. But, these identities were created and are supported by denial of a vital freedom.
At a recent seminar on backward classes, when I raised the above point, a distinguished social scientist said, "Marriage is messy. We do not understand it." Many of the intellectuals, including social scientists, who look at Indian society only in terms of political power, close their eyes when confronted with non-political dimensions of society. The author is former professor of sociology, University of Delhi. [Division and Hierarchy: An Overview of Caste in Gujarat (Studies in sociology and social anthropology) A. M. Shah, I. P. Desai (Hardcover - Dec 1988)]