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Mainstream, VOL LV No 50 New Delhi December 2, 2017

Classy Caste and Prejudice: Being Scientist, Being Khole

Saturday 2 December 2017

by Navneet Sharma and Anamica

Maharashtra is a land of wonders. Wonder leads to philosophy, it amazes and amuses, simultaneously it bewilders. Maharashtra has been the land of Shahuji Maharaj, Ambedkar, Ramteerth, Ramdas, Namdeo Dhasal, Bhaurao Patil and Dabholkar. Simultaneously, it is the land of Bal Thackeray, Hedgewar, Savarkar, Sambhaji Bhide and Khole. Medha Khole is the newest addition to the list which has taken off the lid from filth which the modern middle class society has been shoving in glorified dustbins or under the carpet. It has already stopped us from wondering what we aim at and meaning we take of schooling/education. As reflected from the high profile curriculum vitae of Ms. Khole, she is a senior ‘scientist’ with the Indian Meterological Department. In the month of September, she walked into the police station and lodged a complaint that her ‘maid’ (domestic help) Nirmala Yadav has breached her trust and her faith, belief and religion has been defiled. The maid she employed told her that she is a ‘brahmin married woman’ whereas later she did find out that the woman is an ‘untouchable’ (OBC) and a ‘widow’. The maid cooked ‘prasadam’ (as she was asked to, being a married brahmin woman— sumangali) for which she was handsomely paid (because being a married brahmin woman places one in the higher social stratum) but she has ‘lied’ and thus has infringed her trust and her fundamental right (Right to Religion) has been violated.

Marriage and Caste: The Patriarchal Framework

In this commentary, we attempt to understand this incident or phenomenon and what guides our understanding which pervades beyond our schooling/education. Caste, why it cannot go and to exposit the idea of ‘classy caste’ and how a consumerist and politically liberal and ideologically Hindutva society will not only sustain but also promote this jingoism and prejudice. The nation, society and government is rarely worried about its half-population and women and their issues become the centre-point of discussion only in the patriarchal framework, be it Uniform Civil Code, temple entry or reservation in legislature. The society where women are seen as evil, whether menstruating or not; the mythology wherein women cannot attain moksha (salvation) - condition being repaying of Guru Rina (debt of teacher), Pitra Rina (debt of father) and Matra Rina (debt of mother), the society which places women in requisite social stratum as per her caste and marriage status—Medha Khole and Nirmala Yadav both suffer from double jeopardy. If a woman is born on Tuesday or Mangal Grah dominates her horoscope (Mangal—not to be confused with welfare but the day of Lord Hanuman, celibacy is virtue and women are the ultimate sin), she is a Mangali or Kumangali. A woman becomes Amangali when she becomes a widow (the virtue is that a women should die ‘suhagan’ that is before her husband’s death) and Sumangali is a married woman (preferably brahmin).

There are a number of rituals which can be performed by women only according to their marital status. Medha Khole, being a woman, is not entitled to Moksha anyway. She was more worried about Moksha of her family, male members as their path to salvation gets obstructed because they had ‘Prasadam’ made by ‘Amangali’ (widow) achoot (OBC). Ms Khole realised the gravity of the crime she committed when she did not double-check the caste and marital status of her ‘maid’ (domestic help!!) and jeopardised the heaven route of her male family members. This compelled her to walk into the police station to complain.

Caste in India is indisputably a countrywide phenomenon. Caste is a closed, named, ascribed, hierarchically graded, endogamous group and the co-relation between castes is regulated by the concept of purity and pollution. There are nearly 3000 castes and more than 25,000 sub-castes in India, each traditionally associated to an occupation. Some castes, which perform priestly roles or impart knowledge, are considered as ‘clean’ or ‘pure’ and are seen as the ‘highest’ in society. Whereas, some occupations like scavenging, cleaning, leather work are said to be ‘unclean’ or ‘polluted’ and give such castes a ‘lower’ status. The dictate regarding maintenance of purity and avoidance of pollution is complicated and the rigidity of these regulations can be seen in matters of marriage, commensality, personal contact and so on. These notions are well entrenched in the psyche of all caste groups and society as a whole, stressing upon maintenance of these standards and abstaining from any kind of transgression from them. Who can touch whom? Who can marry whom? Who can cook for whom? Who can eat with whom? All these queries can be contented in terms of rules of purity and pollution. Food and kitchen are specially seen as centres of observing purity-ensuring rituals guaranteeing freedom from pollution. Cooking for rituals is seen as ‘pure’ work and only some castes are entitled to take up such pure occupations. And, as per the caste system, castes which are placed lower in hierarchy are regarded as polluted and hence, they are not qualified for taking the ‘brahmin only’ jobs. Thus, brahmins, who are highest in the social hierarchy, would accept pakka food from castes which are ranked equal in the ritual hierarchy and not from ‘unclean’ castes wherein Nirmala Yadavis said to be belong. Moreover, where a married woman is seen as sumangali, Nirmala, whose marital status is actually of a widow, further downgrades her on the scale of purity and pollution.

Additionally, caste in India has always been in correspondence with class, for instance, members of the propertied class have always been from upper castes only. But this caste-class nexus became more prominent during the British rule. Earlier, India was a caste-based society and caste was the prime basis of division among people; in British rule both caste and class became prominent determinants of one’s social status. The British introduced a new economic system along with new institutions like schools and colleges, technology, new agriculture system, different ways of trade and commerce, industries, railways, modern bureaucracy, army, police, communication system, printing press and so on.

Even though the opportunity of getting benefits from these educational institutions or new employment agencies in theory were open to all, they were still more or less accessible to or dominated by higher castes who were already predisposed to education and supervisory jobs. This gave rise to an English educated ‘new elite class’ who were rich and belonged mostly to upper castes. This new class adopted modern and western ways of living (people who were Indian in blood and colour but English in taste) in order to project themselves as classy or modern. Hence, maintaining the supremacy of both class and caste became the major demand in order to retain a high social position. For instance, being brahmin was prestigious in society but being classy or modern brahmin was the call of that time.

Another phenomenon which is subsumed under modernisation is ‘secularisation’. Upper castes, who were most influenced by modern-isation and western outlook, also acquired some degree of secularisation in their lives. The crucial component of secularisation is ‘rationalism’ which refers to ‘the practice or principle of basing opinions and actions on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response’. It is assumed that Hindus were most affected by secularisation among all the religions of India and it has enervated the strength of purity-pollution relations prevailing in this religion. In the lives of the modern urban class, their daily rituals are more governed by demands of their education, employment and city life pressures rather than by caste or religion. Also, a supposition is that for the modern educated class, the relation of pollution has now shifted from caste to cleanliness, for instance, what is not clean is polluted rather than associating it with the issue of caste.

Furthermore, if we try to put the caste system of India in the Marxist framework, it will be a futile attempt as caste has no place in this framework. Marxian theory gives more importance to class in order to understand the social reality but it is a well-known fact that in the Indian subcontinent major division in society is on the basis of caste. The caste system of India has perplexed Marxians for a long time. To fix this difficulty Marxians argue that the ‘caste system is nothing but a class system in disguise and therefore, the adoption of the same Marxist methods will bring an end to the caste system’. Thus, it was the Marxian belief that the rise of the class system in India will subdue its caste system.

But this viewpoint, that the economic idea of class can subdue the social castes, needs to be re-scrutinised. The belief, that in a class system people are so economically motivated that they are least concerned by caste, seems imploding through examples like Khole. Khole is associated to the same state as Ambedkar, who is known for his criticism of the Hindu religion for its evil practices of caste system and voiced against practice of ‘untouchability’; she, on the other hand, proved that she was a staunch believer of caste system and its discriminatory customs and ideology. Where Ambedkar on one hand argued that caste not only divides labour but also the labourers and hence, this system should be eradicated, people like Khole, on the other hand, evince that casteism is deep-rooted in our society and it is still an enigma if this prejudicial system can ever be eliminated.

Rationality and Religion: The Quagmire

The dismay increases manifolds as Ms Khole is highly educated and education is supposed to widen the purview of one’s mind and makes him/her unprejudiced and accommodative. But, in spite of having received a good education, importantly science education, Medha Khole has discriminated against Nirmala Yadav on the basis of her caste and marital status. Science, if it is to be perceived through the lens of its legitimacy, reflects rationality. A person studying science or trained in the paradigm of science is expected to be rational. Though one cannot expect science to promote atheism, yet it is expected to imbue rational thinking amongst its students or believers. Science gains its legitimacy on the idea also that it is egalitarian in nature and would inculcate equity and equality in society. For instance, science will help us to stop manual scavenging and thus would ‘liberate’ people.

But, science, scientism and scientific temper in the Indian context have hardly an influence and when it comes to women, it seems to suffer from double jeopardy. Women are the value-carriers of religion and caste. A modern woman with scientific attitude is an antithesis to the religious ‘pious’ woman. Being a woman scientist, Medha Khole had to balance on this tight rope and the cultural milieu pulls her toward values imbued by caste and religion. Women are the ‘honour’ of the household which is to be guarded by men. Women are not supposed to be a rational agency. Moreover, women must not think at all. A woman can’t have her own interpretation in religious matters that is akin to blasphemy. A woman, in Hindu mythology has to be ‘guarded’ by the father in childhood, by husband in youth and by the son in old age. Woman and rational thinking or sciences are two parallels which hardly converge.

In case of Medha Khole, science lost to womanhood, caste and religion. A woman is not but made as the adage goes, Medha Khole chose to be a woman than a scientist. Thus, the learning from outside school won over and against the to lessons at school. But in a society where Ganesha drinks milk, the model of Mangalyaan is placed in the feet ofTirupati for divine blessing, students of science begin their exam by writing ‘Jai Saraswati Ma’ on the corner top of their answer sheets, a country where the Pradhanmantri (PM) thinks that the elephant head of Ganesha was what modern surgery is, Dhritrashtra had aphrodisiac for 100 sons was what we now know as Viagra or the ruling dispensation believes that ‘the designer tall, intelligent, fair complexion Hindu men can be produced for racial supremacy’, people like Medha Khole only look like a tad.


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Navneet Sharma, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor, Department of Teacher Education, School of Education, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. He can be contacted at navneetsharma29[at]

Anamica is presently pursuing Masters in Education (M.Ed) from the Central Institute of Education, University of Delhi. She has done B.El.Ed from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi.

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