The dancer and the dance.

This thought provoking article by Sameena Dalwai on Indian Express prompted me to write this piece.

Caste is defined by its ability to permeate the most impervious of economical barriers built to keep it out. This may sound a bit out of sync. If the markets are caste-agnostic as capitalists claim, they would constitute a barrier to the operation of caste. Caste cannot sustain itself without tagging itself to the economic activities of the day. This gains importance in our globalised economy. The obvious question is if markets are designed by those who already hold capital, will it bring about a more equitable distribution of the wealth generated?

This is a question that every capitalist will answer, but with a lot of variance between them! One common thread is that the market process doesn’t discriminate between competition and hence is a level playing field. Even if we assume this to be true, how do we explain away the altruism of the early capitalists who were ready to give away their wealth which they are to generate through this market? Why would they design an equitable system when they can keep all the wealth to themselves?

This runs against the very grain of a highly competitive capitalist worldview where cutthroat competition is the prime marker of humanity. In the capitalist historiography, an ever competitive man always competed with his (sorry, women!) peers to emerge as the sole alpha of the pack. From this, we know for certain that he needs enough incentives to sustain his effort. His ‘effort’, to be brought out by competition is what propels humanity towards progress. His ‘surplus labour’ is a myth - only his unlimited effort is the reality. And that we should populate his world with infinite consumables so that he has this ‘incentive’ to put forward effort lies at the core of capitalist conception of humanity. This rat race of consumerism that is eating away the planet is just a logical extension to the precepts on which capitalism lie comfortably. In a world with so much delusion, denying global warming is just a small comfort - a fart inside one seething septic tank!

This is not a critic to capitalism. But of the insecurities of Caste that is quintessentially entangled with the capitalist world order. This is by no means a new phenomenon. Right from the days of ‘Free Trade’ as first envisioned by the imperialist Great Britain, a class of Indians have always aspired to integrate themselves with the promising new world. The free trade doctrine may be bolstered by ideations of people like Adam Smith, but has to be sustained by blood and iron on ground. The likes of opium wars and doctrine of lapse are auxiliaries to this larger ecosystem of capitalist exploits. Much before V. Lenin theorised that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, a class of Indians learnt it from their masters and aspired to mimic them in their own lives.

Now, most of them weren’t averse to shed their traditional outlook in this pursuit for ‘happiness’. As far as their masters from the ruling class willing, their heresy and reformist zeals were traits of fine men. This even forwarded the cause of the empire - unburdening the white man! As de-sanskritization was the hallmark of a westernised polity, this was only natural. As long as we stayed under the imperial yoke, the high culture should reflect the same. The orthodoxy of irrelevant masses were unaffected. But once politics evolved into democratic means, these same orthodox masses had to be co-opted into the larger equation. But the orthodox masses was a composite of diverse, often contradicting identities welded together by historic forces - like a brahmin sepoy or an upper caste but humanist Muslim. Interestingly, they were quite malleable. The situation demanded which identity would come out. The brahmin sepoy might fight hand in hand with the middle class muslim sepoy, but his ritual purity attains precedence when he walks into a temple after work.

So when we incorporated these people into our polity, pandering to their primordial identities became the norm than exception. While there were strong nationalist undercurrents that often overpowered them, they sustained themselves through the ethos of the time - a ruthless and corrupt government that legitimised any vile means of struggle against them. Bigoted rants like that of M.S Golwalker could be canonised by a section is a testimony to this. One success of our national movement was its ability to react even violently to such bigoted strains and keep them at check. The eventual success of nationalist movement was coupled with a moral awakening powered by ideas that kept blind competition at check. Growth of left leaning leaders inside Indian National Congress during the 1930s aside the vehemently anti-capitalist spiritual posturing of Gandhi provided a curious fortuitous mix.

But let’s go back to the formative years of British Raj for a while. The interaction of their capitalist values with our caste-ridden stagnant society and fragmented polity of the times made our society quite interesting. Even when the tawaif culture was patronised by Hindu and Muslim upper classes, the quintessential morality of both of them grew to venerate the victorian ideals of the ruling class. The revivalist movements of nineteenth century were the predecessors of communalism in India. But more importantly, these movements constructed bridges between the past and present while skilfully belying the contradictions inherent to organising a composite and utterly complex society along superficial markers like religion.

So the upwardly mobile middle classes tend to build bridges that will ultimately precipitate as the Hindu and Muslim identities of modern India. That our rich pop-culture/folk/spiritual traditions have blurred the lines between these communities was conveniently forgotten. This was only a side effect of a market oriented society trying to legitimise its own existence along the lines of ‘competition’ and ensuing legitimacy to resource capture.

Whether it be the partition of India brought forward by Muslim communal interests or the Gujarat riots (2002) were Muslim establishments were systematically targeted by Hindu communalists, the underlying quest for resource capture is nothing but a reflection of this blind ‘competition’. As conventional wisdom goes, competition is intensified when it graduates from individual level to group stage. The indispensable in-group feeling is bolstered under these conditions. As much as nationalism is benefitted by a group feeling created over common histories, communalism is the ultimate beneficiary of capitalist competition. This need not be always the case, but when Caste/religion provides the nearest and most effective social network for an individual, this is inevitable. Capitalism promotes schisms and intense competition bringing about social tensions to the forefront of body politic.

By itself, this is not problematic. Body politic should indeed see immense competition in a healthy democracy. But when the resource capture is monopolised through a caste/community network, competition intensifies such faultlines. The age-old caste/race/gender equations comes to the forefront again. As much as the market is not designed with an philanthropic intent, the market being a feedback system only reinforces processes efficient at wealth creation - not processes that bring about equity or sustainable environmental management. This is implied, but can never be emphasised enough in today’s world that has forgotten the basic tenets of power, competition for resources and the consequent emergence of economic inequalities. Tragedy of our times is that there aren’t enough swords vying for our blood to teach us reason. And we fail to notice the thousand needles that are slowly draining us.

In India, market operations are dominated by the castes that have traditionally monopolised literacy, learning, trading and commerce etc. So the cogs that are designed to run this system will ultimately benefit them. It should be of no surprise that even our universities and technical institutions that provide future leaders are underrepresented by the most marginalised - including women and minorities.

The gender relations in the Tawaif culture is intriguing. No doubt, it provided social mobility to a distinct class of women is beyond question. That many of them raised into influential figures and able rulers is a testimony to this. Even the Geishas or Hetairas were comparable in their exploits. The development of Harem as an institution was in part to check the undue influence sexual/erotic powers can exert on a ruler (pun not intentional!).

As we have made amply clear in this article, economic status is just an expression of the power wielded by an individual. I don’t want to go full reductionist by proposing a causative relationship, but their synchronicity is indeed notable. So it is only natural that caste would like to plug these ‘holes’ (of erotic power, of course) through which power can drain away into a different class. The existence of well defined pratiloma and anuloma marriages coupled with sexual monopoly for the upper castes has to be read in conjunction. That the system will seek to again regulate such relations should be obvious to a discerning reader.

So when we again see the system trying to save men from devious women, we shall giggle just two times as a mark of respect. That they could doggedly pursue this ‘noble’ aim with the overwhelming support of ‘good’ women and men alike shall make one thing amply clear. That intersectional feminism is indeed a need and not a choice. If we don’t equip ourselves with the goggles, we cannot complain when the muddy waters manage to eventually blind and sweep us into the vortex of irrelevance.

Written on January 21, 2019