It appears to me that many of today’s social issues which look unsolvable, have become so because of the political system within which we are seeking answers. Let us take together the three issues of the Jallikattu (bull taming ceremony) in Tamil Nadu, the Dahi-handi during Gokulashtami in Maharashtra, and the Kaveri river-sharing tussle between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It is true that there is cruelty to the bull and also that some men get injured in Jallikattu; it is true that the high multi-storeyed Govinda-mandalas sometimes cause grievous injury to the participants; and it is true that Karnakata should not stop the river’s natural flow into Tamil Nadu. Yet we are not able to resolve these issues. Why? Because resolution means a change of heart, and a political or judicial decision forcefully enforced can never inspire change of heart. Social issues have to be solved socially, internally within the community. Modern society is so fragmented that if you have a problem with your neighbour, you don’t talk to him, you run to a third party who knows neither you nor your neighbour. And this third party is not only a stranger, he is not even from your community, and sometimes not even from your cultural and linguistic base. How will a Punjabi judge understand the sentiment of Pongal, with which Jallikattu is associated? Or how can a Malayali judge comprehend the celebration of Krishna Janmastami and the viewpoint of Govindas? But if local community is allowed, even encouraged, to resolve the issue, it can happen in an organic way. There is a mountain of evidence of such self-governance happening in our village communities before the onslaught of modern government and if one extends this argument of community decision-making, then we can also include the Musalman’s issue of triple talaq and the Catholic Christians’ issue of not accepting divorce – it is for their communities to resolve it from within, if we are actually looking for a lasting resolution based on change of heart. No paper law, however threatening, can make people give up an idea or their dogma, only mutual relationship and dialogue within community can bring about change of heart – which is real human progress.
People, especially among us urban educated, make the grievous mistake of assuming that the community cannot solve its own problems, and therefore an extra-political authority is essential. This is the view of western thought based on Roman law: that man is fundamentally sinful; left to himself, he shall only do wrong, and so he has to be controlled, regimented. Just see how different the Indian civilization view is: that man has ishwar (God) within; that every human being is endowed with the potential to realize perfection. But unfortunately, it is the colonial view which has settled in our subconscious through modern education. May be we need to look at ways to undo this.
But we cannot undo our views of modernity and of Indian village community until and unless we are willing to honestly face and understand the jati vyavastha; because for India, the gram vyavastha is inseparable from jati vyavastha, the jati vyavastha is inseparable from artha vyavastha, and artha vyavastha is inseparable vigyan vyavastha, and all these are interconnected through samaj neeti and dharma neeti. i.e., the village community is inseparable from the jati system, which is inseparable from the economic system, which in turn is inseparable from science and technology, and all these are linked together through social and spiritual frameworks. Because they are so intricately interconnected, those amongst us who have become allergic to the word ‘caste’ have totally dismissed the entire package of the traditional Indian gram vyavastha (village ecosystem).
Take the recent incidents of targeted violence against the Harijans. This has again thrown up a divisive debate. The media discourse has predictably chosen a binary: dalitvaad versus brahminvaad. Here, Brahminvaad is supposed to represent the combined Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra groups who want to keep the Dalits down and dalitvaad is the opposite force, that resists the former. How conveniently they put this into two neat containers, together representing each and every one of the nearly one billion Indian Hindus!
What this blinkered Dalit discourse has done, apart from sparking hatred, is to name the ‘caste system’ as the thing to be annihilated. The word ‘caste’ (of Portuguese origin) is an ambiguous term which is used quite indiscriminately to represent varna or jati or vamsha, so we don’t know what they mean by it, and whether the debaters have at all studied the jati vyavastha.
How does one annihilate the caste system? One part of it is the wonderfully elaborate small technology-based local economic system which is actually the road to sustainability. Modernity and its gross economic forces have already fractured this and are pushing it towards annihilation. If, because of this controversy, we actually study the jati vyavastha, we will realize that this is the part which we must revive and preserve; it is the answer to modern ecological disaster and the road to a sustainable world based on self-sufficient local communities. Many in the west are beginning to see the truth of this. Ironically, it is only when they announce it that the Indian elite will wake up and, in their imitation mode, applaud what was always their own.
The other part of the jati vyavastha is the constantly evolving nature of social interactions between different cultural groups and in this, the approach of Indian civilization in trying to arrive at working relationships which would keep different groups together while also providing them freedom within, is a unique experiment. Imperfect and with faults, no doubt, but it has been a positive experiment. Our civilization has also constantly tried to rise above the differences through its spiritual efforts at finding unity and universality. Rabindranath Tagore feels this way, so does Mohandas Gandhi, so does Sri Aurobindo. Three great men of the last century who have observed and studied both Indian and Western civilizations at depth. Despite being exposed to western education, these three seers could free themselves of its conditioning and see India for what it is; maybe it is not a coincidence that the three were also deeply spiritual. Unfortunately, other Indian political leaders could not free themselves of the English yoke, including Jawaharlal Nehru and Bhimrao Ambedkar. “What is the village except a den of ignorance,” said Ambedkar. “A village,” said Nehru, “is, normally speaking, a backward environment.” These two men adored the modern culture of rationality and they saw India through western eyes: as backward, with nothing of merit in its tradition, culture, philosophy, skill and intellect. Both sought a modern, western style of development.
It is indeed ironical that two men of such diverse backgrounds and even deep personal disagreements, one a rich Brahmin and the other a poor Dalit, should have such similar views about India and the way ahead. The only thing common to them was their thorough English education, which conditioned them totally in favour of western modernity. What Nehru’s vision was, we now know from his western socialistic, materialistic, development plans. Since Ambedkar is in the news now after the Dalit controversies, let us also be aware of his vision: Leave your village (and become urban), leave your language (and adopt English), leave your clothes and customs and livelihood, and adopt the western way of living – this is his core vision. He felt that by being like the English, the Dalits could have an even standing in society. Sadly, and thoroughly, mistaken. Agreed, Nehru and Ambedkar were both intellectuals. Ambedkar further was also a revolutionary with concern for the downtrodden. But visionaries? Think about it. And that is why the dalit issue needs a resolution without hatred. It needs a spiritual resolution.
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We have tried to place some contemporary issues in context to encourage a fresh study of Indian society. As we said right at the beginning, our national discourse seems so limited. It is indeed an odd mix, the Left and Right corners of modern India. The Left cannot hear anything good about tradition and culture of India, while the Right cannot hear any criticism of it. In reality though, representatives of both sides live modern, urban, lifestyles and both are comfortable in imitating the west and its consumerism. So it is up to us to find a way out of this limited space and explore things on our own. We have to keep away from the smug hypocrisy of NDTV and also keep equal distance from Times TV, where a lunatic escapes from asylum every evening to harangue the nation. This is a beautiful country, as all of us know from our tourism perspective, but it is beautiful in many more ways and if we are inclined to study and visit our communities with an open mind, the possibilities of joyful discoveries are tremendous.
(excerpted from Possibilites of Discovery, first published in the Raibar journal, July 2016)