A Response to the House of Lords proposal on 11 Jan 2010 to insert “Caste” in the discrimination legislation after representations by the Lobby Group ACDA/DSN
[ACDA – Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance and DSN – Dalit Solidarity Network: Both Evangelical Missionary Christian based organisations with a Conversion agenda in India]
Response prepared by: Anil Bhanot
Submitted to the Lords, Baronesses and MP’s involved in the Equality debate
Date: 10 February 2010
Caste System in India
Based on the more recent research into the chronology of the Seers or Rishis and the Kings of the early period of what we now call the Vedic times I think the Caste system would be much older than 5000 years ago, by which time there already was a thriving civilisation in that part of the world. Recent research is also revealing, apart from the Genetic route of Humans travelling from Africa to India and onward and sideward, that the theory of the Aryan Invasion into India conquering the Dravidians is also in the process of being discredited, though I suspect it will all still take some time to finally do that as Indian institutions move at quite a slow pace. I am pointing all this out because the Aryan Invasion Theory tried to explain the hierarchy of Castes according to a Master and Slave relationship, which is not at all correct.
King Mandhata of the early Vedic era c. 4000 BCE established a ‘Varnashram system’ for his people, where Varna is for the profession and Ashram for the stage of life. He split the professions in 4 categories: Brahmin, Kashatryia, Vaishya and Shudra. These were the 4 Varnas or professions or the 4 main castes.The life span was also split into 4 stages: student years, family and working life, retiring period of discharging responsibilities and then finally the renunciation stage in old age to go on pilgrimages and do charity or Daan.
The Varna system was based on equal opportunity for school, according to some stories in the Vedic period scripture. Of course what actually happened is anyone’s guess but the land was very resourceful and it is unlikely that poverty kept children away from school as is the case now in India. Anyway the children who fell out of school became labourers, Shudras, the ones who lasted longer to learn a trade or skill became Vaishyas and then a Kashatriya’s schooling lasted longer than the Vaishyas and the Brahmin studies lasted the longest. For Brahmins there were further degrees, up to the ages of 36 and 45, though these degrees must have developed much later in those ancient times. The hierarchy was based on the level of education; it was a status for ‘respect’ and not a master-slave relationship. The exercise of ‘Free Will’ was the corner stone of Vedic culture. Society was not ruled entirely from a central source but each village had its own Panchayat system of elected elders who ran the village. The prevalence of such systems has been verified by the IndusValley civilisation excavations when the Caste system was still in its pure Varnasharam system.
The problem developed much later on in time as the hereditary principle began to creep into this Varna system. Without a king’s regulatory measures it would have been unavoidable – Pure faith by itself can never impose regulatory measures on people because true faith’s platform is free will – but it suffices to say that at least during the Vedic timeline of up to the 4th Millennium BCE there is no evidence of discrimination against the less educated professions or labourers.
Even in the Ramayana early 3rd Millennium BCE there does not seem to be any concept of a low caste, as Rishi Valmik, known to be a Shudra, went onto become a great Sanskrit scholar who compiled the historicity of Rama in the epic Ramayana. All Hindus revere Valmik as one of our great Rishis and the Valmiki community (of the now hereditary Shudra Caste) revere him as a Deity.
In the Mahabharata early 2nd Millennium BCE, however, we see the hierarchical discrimination becoming a bit more prominent. It also becomes apparent that the hereditary principle was taking root by this time. For instance Guru Drona refused to teach archery to a warrior Karuna because the Guru said Karuna was not of the Kashatryia caste but that he was the son of a Charioteer. [Incidentally Karuna like Moses was floated in a basket in a river by an unmarried princess, having given an illegitimate birth but he was saved and brought up by a Charioteer’s family; the story of Moses is the other way round for being discovered by a princess]. It’s important to note however that while Karuna was known to belong to a caste lower than the Kashatriya, possibly Vaishya or even Shudra though the story does not mention it, he was made a king of a small principality simply because he was an expert archer.
There are several other stories in Mahabharata where Lord Krishna rebukes people of hierarchical discrimination and he specifically teaches that Varna (Caste) is determined by the work you do and not by your birth.
By Buddha’s time 600BCE the hierarchy of ‘hereditary caste system’ had become much more rigid, as was the rise of ritualistic worship, all of which he stood against. But even then there is no account of ‘untouchability’ found and although poverty was now being seen on the street, the historical accounts of Chinese visiters much later still recorded a happy and rich society, at peace with itself. Nonetheless the ‘equal opportunity’ principle was obviously being sacrificed by this time and this is the problem at the heart of the rigidity of the Caste system.
The last millennium saw many foreign invasions into India. The early Muslim invasions were particularly destructive. Mahmud of Gazni (Afghanistan) 1000CE destroyed many temples and universities and this carnage continued for centuries. Soon after the Mughals took ownership of India as their own country the Western Colonials came. So the resources of India continued to be depleted outward throughout the last millennium.
Sociologically the effects of proselytising were severe on the population. Some of the Mughal kings, except for the wise reign of the Emperor Akbar, used forced conversion methods and the people who did not convert were ‘crushed’ and the word Dalit was coined then for these ‘crushed’ people. That is probably why the Shudra caste shares some surnames from other castes – it was not like the case of slaves adopting their masters’ surnames – they were actual people. Moreover this was the first time that scavenging started where the Dalits were required to clean the toilets of Muslim women since the Muslim women could not go out into the fields as the other women traditionally did. I cannot of course be sure but I believe this practice probably led to the concept of ‘untouchability’ or at least it set its mark on society indelibly around the middle of the last millennium.
By the 18th century however the Hindu Maharajahs were regaining their lost power but then so were the Colonials moving in. Although to some the arrival of Colonials was a blessing in disguise, and one must admire their spirit of adventure without which the world would not be so small as today, their imposition of their religion and ideology onto the people was no better than the Islamic conversions. Both these religions treated other people as infidels or human cattle. The Portuguese were particularly cruel in Goa. The English East India Company in fact resisted the Church Missionaries at first but William Wilberforce won his way – a saint for the abolition of slave trade laws but quite the opposite for the ‘heathens’ of India.
I believe William Wilberforce’s law to send missionaries to India led to the Hindus and Muslims finally uniting to fight their first war of Independence or the 1857 Mutiny. On Caste various census were taken and schedules were made thus accentuating the Caste hierarchical divisions. With the salt tax some Indian states suffered their first ever famines. So with scarce resources the caste protectionism and discrimination and exploitation of the poorest were bound to get worse. Once you create those conditions human nature with its survival mechanism will follow such ills.
I think untouchability, evil as it is, and as we know it now could not be much older than 1000 years. The hierarchy of high and low is of course much older, probably 4000 years old dating back to the Mahabharata period but there is little evidence of untouchability during those ancient times.
However the ‘hereditary caste system’ of probably two millenniums leading up to the start of the second millennium around 1000 CE, from my religious point of view, would have created enough ‘bad karma’ for Hindus to later give them back the shock treatment through foreign invasions. Moreover I think the seat of learning clearly had to shift from a hereditary caste based people to, temporarily through the Middle East for a short period, finally end up in Europe where the reform of religion seemed to have well timed in with the need for innovative talent to flourish for developing new scientific discoveries. Only open societies really progress, rigid ones get left behind. India’s Taxila University, a world university of the ancient world, lasted to the end of the first millennium CE when the Islamists invasions destroyed it. But there was a gap of only a couple of centuries before new world universities sprung up in UK and Europe.
India’s biggest handicap has been to stifle talent from its so called lower castes. Government legislation has now helped quite a bit but due to the other burden of poverty and corruption it will still take time. Parity is definitely being promoted through cities but there is still caste based discrimination against Dalits in remote rural areas according to a survey I saw recently.
I think the main factor is the poverty that the Dalits are suffering so that the upper castes continue to use them for the menial tasks, including scavenging despite the laws banning such activity, but poverty is also creating another caste, the Brahmins unable to find priest work – who traditionally lived on alms and donations, a priest never had a salary – to now take up cleaning jobs, including lavatory cleaning, in metropolitan cities. The caste-demographics are changing. Still in India a lot has to be done but recent conversions to Christianity have not got rid of their caste and within Christians there is segregation for the new Dalit Christians. The reason I say that is to point out that the solution is not so simple. However it is good that the Christian churches are funding the converted Dalits education, as I saw in a recent survey the percentage of Christian officers, proportionately, rising well ahead in India. I abhor such induced conversions but on the other hand it’s still better that the converted Dalits come out of poverty this way.
There are now 6500 castes in India, sub-divisions of the 4 main categories. These evolved as new professions came up. Castes therefore are ‘groups’ of people which in the Vedic era were performing their duty to ‘society’ and later were just doing their job but with protectionism built in through the hereditary principle the lower castes lost their right to ‘equal opportunity’ and I am sure you will find most Hindus quite shameful about that. Perhaps that is the reason why maybe some of the Hindu Lords stayed away from this very one-sided debate at the House of Lords, with almost an underlying presumption that the mainstream Hindus in UK practice caste discrimination by nature.
Due to the hereditary caste system the castes are identified now through family surnames. Nonetheless with education the old caste barriers are disintegrating and now at universities in India the youth think less and less in caste hierarchical terms. There is nothing wrong thinking in caste terms itself since caste itself does bring in some benefits, like no social exclusion or loneliness. Caste by itself means a wider family, a clan, a club and that is all good for the support mechanism required in any society. But it is the hierarchy of high and low caste, which in the system people take for granted without considering its discriminatory aspect, which my point about university education is that such barriers are gradually eroding. The caste-hierarchy is disappearing, as respect for education returns; the hierarchy of ‘earned-status’ is finding its true meaning. That sort of hierarchy of status based on merit and achievement, on what one earns for oneself, will always be with us and is a good thing.
Legislation in India has had a positive effect on Dalits for education and employment but poverty still restricts their progress.
Caste System in UK
The castes in UK are of minor importance, they are more of a family grouping. There is no effect on jobs, health or education. There is no evidence to suggest that the so called higher castes or certain groups of ‘surnames’ discriminate against another group of surnames. I am a small employer and caste is never in my mind, we simply don’t think like that in this country. Perhaps some older people or new immigrants from India’s rural heartland think in terms of caste but are they the people who have any significant role here to discriminate against the so called lower caste? The people who have any sort of small or large role of influence are really the second generation onwards and as I can well claim to know the Hindu population here none of them will think in terms of caste discrimination.
The Hindus have integrated well into society here and for the noble Lords to now put us down in the way that they have done seems grossly unfair to me. I do not mind if they disregard my opinions but to disregard our youth’s opinion from the National students Hindu Forum (NHSF) would be a major mistake. What is absurd is that the NHSF enjoys the membership of all Hindu students including the Ravidassyia and Valmiki communities. It is the Christian evangelical organisation, Dalit Solidarity Network (DSN) which is actually intent in creating a wedge between our communities, and furthermore try and convert the poor Dalits in India by citing them the UK’s laws that the so called upper castes still continue to discriminate against the lower castes, so much so that the UK Government had to make laws against those people. Their motives are suspect. Some of the Baronesses have spoken for the Dalits also but we would love to do that, it makes us feel good if we are shown to look after the disadvantaged, but their discard the opinion of the mainstream Hindu bodies seems to me almost an abuse of their powers against integrative communities.
The Hindu umbrella bodies are needed to give a voice to a community which otherwise would remain silent. The National Council of Hindu Temples (NCHT) is the oldest body, who for wider representation helped to form the HCUK during 1992 to 1994. Later HFB was formed in 2004. NHSF is much older than HFB and the students work with all three umbrella bodies HCUK and HFB and NCHT. HCUK, NCHT and NHSF work on a voluntary basis under the principle of Seva, or selfless-service.
In the UK the caste system is developing into a clan system where groups of castes are now forming wider groups. But all that is good for community cohesion. I see a lot of support mechanisms being built up as a result within the Hindu communities.
Even the Dalits – and I hate using this word in the UK, as they are not Dalits anymore – no longer ‘Crushed’ but they are ‘Proud’ (and incidentally the Christian Missionaries are now even complaining that Caste groups are becoming proud and that is wrong too), but I will use the Dalit word for the purposes of this response only and since the organisation DSN perseveres in its evangelical mission against my religion Hinduism – are now formed into two main groups,
1. Valmiki Community
2. Ravidassyia Community
Representation with the Valmiki and Ravidassiya Communities
As the General Secretary of HCUK in 2006 I went out of my way to get the Valmiki community and Ravidassiya community representation on the HCUK executive and was successful in having two executives from them on the Board.
I was particularly pleased to see the Valmik Southall temple priest from their ‘own’ community as someone who knew the scripture as a Brahmin priest would. In my interactions I always paid my respect to him as Pandit ji. For me he was a Brahmin not Valmiki but these labels do not matter anymore. What matters is that he is doing the work of a Pandit in a temple. In India I heard that there are organisations now who train the Dalits to be priests.
The Valmik temple in Southall agreed to help the HCUK prepare a report on the Caste System and I had a meeting with their executive. They were very positive, though there were some dissenting voices simply taking the discussion to India, whereas my remit was for UK only. Their President who was younger second generation always said, “We are all one”. In any case almost immediately after I released the HCUK Caste report in February 2008, the DSN took exception and started writing adverse emails and I think a press release also went on their website.
DSN sent one of their women activists/director to the Valmik temple but their President said to me that he asked her to leave the temple as she was trying to divide us and especially since she started banding about this new word ‘Dalit’ which he said he had not even heard of.
DSN then sent another gentleman who asked for a meeting with both the Valmik and Ravidassiya communities but he too was sent back and no meeting took place. However all this interference by DSN had the effect of creating a wedge between the Valmiki community and me. As a matter of fact one of my HCUK Executives who was from the Ravidassyia community found out that the gentleman was a converted Christian and then asked him to leave them alone. Here you can see why the Missionaries are complaining about the Castes becoming ‘proud’ now.
For the Ravidassiya Community, HCUK hosted an event at the House of Commonsin November 2008 under the auspices of Lord King when their Guru Sant Ramanand ji came from India. Apart from the celebration part the debate centred on caste. There was a British Ravidassiya young doctor who said that in the UK he never knew about caste differentials and only when he went to India that he saw the poverty and discrimination for his people and that he felt disgusted. His testimony was like a breadth of fresh air to me and of course in India we all want to help eradicate the caste problems.
This event was actually run by the International Human Rights Organisation (IHRO), a Ravidassiya organisation, who wants to take tangible action on caste. I offered to help them in India also but they then started intimidating one of my stalwart Executives in HCUK, for his more integrative approach in the UK, and who wanted to form a group of all the marginalised Hindu communities. I gathered later that IHRO actually is more concerned about India and wants to use the community here to build up a momentum to help and do something in India, even if it has to inflame their community here against other castes to achieve those aims. I believe, their call to insert the word ‘caste’ in the UK’s legislation is most probably a part of their India plan. All this is a recent development but events are moving fast.
I think due to the IHRO stand, even my Ravidassiya Executive – I’d rather not name him to avoid any unnecessary intimidation – started to keep a low profile with HCUK. Majority of the Ravidassiyas and the Valmikis are integrative, particularly the youth – and you will so find among the NHSF – but a minority of the hardliners seem to be setting the agenda, for which there can be adverse repercussions in the UK. Otherwise both communities are a lovely people who need our support.
After the callous murder in Austria last year of the same Guru Sant Ramanand ji, who was a holy saint, the Ravidassiyas have now established a new religion, The Sat-Guru Ravidassiya Religion. I think this is a good development as the so called lower castes find their pride again by organising themselves, albeit under different religions.
The Valmiki community will probably follow the same trend and if it brings pride and self-respect to the community then it would be a good development.
Both communities are now shedding off their old castes and developing new identities as the Ravidassiyas and the Valmikis. I would give my personal support to help bring their pride back.
There was a case reported in the Birmingham Post last year that two Ravidassiya brothers who employed an upper caste Hindu dismissed him unfairly for being an upper caste Hindu, as the Tribunal ruled. This is reverse discrimination and I suspect hard line organisations are behind this. Quite rightly there is a lot of anger among some of the Ravidassiya and Valmiki community members for the Caste discrimination in India but this vengeful approach is wrong. In the UK we all have plenty of resources and each caste/clan will help the other and moreover we simply do not “think” in terms of high and low.
HCUK even worked with the Department of Education and other Govt. agencies to ask them to teach Hinduism without the emphasis on Caste, which was shaming our children. The DSN’s relentless campaign, which is now developed under ACDA, for Caste legislation is to further compound the shame on the Hindu community and in DSN’s case, I believe, to also use it to ferment trouble and conversions in India. But to put the word Caste in legislation in the Equality Act here would be to go backward and prove anti-cohesive for the British Hindus living here in the UK. Caste now is no more or less that one’s surname. If Caste is legislated against then it will impinge on peoples surnames which will visibly create differences of high and low – we want to forget them not solidify them as was done by the Colonial schedules, albeit for good reasons of collecting raw census data then.
Moreover it could lead to a form of Caste-o-Phobia developing at place of work. The Ravidassiyas and the Valmikis are no longer castes as such in the UK; they are communities, developing into religions. The rest are merely groups of ‘surnames’, or communities, not so much castes in the UK, the Lohanas, the Patels and so on. Even there are wider groups now forming like the Panjabi Hindus or the Bangali Hindus, our youth is setting that trend. Even the UK temples try to cater for all communities by consecrating the Deities of all communities. We are an integrative society not a discriminatory one but adverse Government policy from the top can have the effect of destroying what is being cohesively built up from the bottom up approach at the ground level. This approach to community cohesion does not mean that you ignore any discrimination that might occur from time to time but to allow a more positive force to work through for lasting positive results.
Anil Bhanot 10/02/10