It is generally supposed that caste as a social institution, does not exist in 21st century modern India anymore. Haribabu Thilakar falsifies this myth rather brilliantly, by demonstrating the workings of caste in urban India in all its various forms. If anyone is still unconvinced, they can look at the latest ‘Chowdary Solidarity (Kamma) Anthem’, which adds a lie to this myth.
The anthem, from the end credits, seems to have been composed and produced in North America, where there is a strong presence of the Telugu NRI community. It attempts to appropriate the successes of various individuals, who were born into the community, by limiting and valorising their achievements under their caste banner. The video mostly mentions the achievements of men - only four women featured in it, well in line with its other close cousin, patriarchy. Even the Telugu Association of North America (TANA) has been labelled the pride of Kammas in North America, and rightly so.
The composer of the anthem, Sandeep, participating in a TV9 debate over the phone from North America, implored viewers to look at the ‘positive’ side of caste, or at the very least, as a ‘neutral’ association of people.
This rather ahistorical view is not an uncommon one. Many continue to subscribe to this view. For instance, the usual justification given by many self-proclaimed educated liberals marrying into their own caste is that they only look at it as a matter of similar cultural practices, which would ensure a smooth married life, and not through those evil lenses of prejudice. Whatever happened to Ambedkar’s call to destroy the single most defining and perpetuating feature of caste — endogamy.
This attitude raises two important questions. One, is there anything at all positive about caste? Two, why, and why now, did this video originate in the Telugu NRI community of North America?
Ever since settled agricultural communities based on the principles of private ownership of land and social division of labour came into existence, the primary problem faced by the ruling classes was how to capture the surplus produced by the labourers.
In all pre-industrial societies these labourers were given different labels, like, slave, serf, bonded labourer, peasant and so on. Although other methods were employed in our country, primarily the caste system was implemented with great success. These labourers, who had nothing else to sell but their own labour, were called shudras.
New social norms like — some people, by the qualification of their birth, do not have any claim to land or other wealth and have to fulfil their dharma (duty) by serving those who have all of these by the mere qualification of their birth — were introduced for the purposes of social control.
These social norms were given religious justifications. Lord Sri Krishna, not once but repeatedly, said in the Bhagavadgita that it is better to even die than to not fulfil one’s own dharma. The Aytreya Bhramanam even listed elaborate rules of torture for any transgression on the part of the shudras. So much so that even Chanakya said that the shudras have no right to even complain against their owners.
Since so much land was available at the time, approximately 1500 BC, some shudras did manage to own some land. As agricultural productivity increased, more labourers were needed. Slowly, people who were living outside the caste system until then, as hunter-gatherers, the Harijans in Gandhi’s parlance, settled as agricultural labourers. They were treated much worse — both as a cheap source of expendable labour and also as a polluting untouchable banished from the village.
However, the root cause of all this discrimination was the question of land; to alienate them from the land. By successfully doing so, a pliant, expendable, and cheap labour pool was created in our country. Most of our modern social reformers focused on eliminating discriminating practices like ‘untouchability’, with only mild success, but not much has been done to solve the land question.
That this is still a fundamental unsolved problem, is evident from the new Dalit movement being led by Jignesh Mevani, where the primary demand is for land.
In all of this, can Sandeep point to anything positive at all? In fact, he and many others who subscribe to this attitude have to understand that what they see as positive is nothing but good old prejudice to everyone else who isn’t ‘them’.
The holy thread around the Brahmin’s torso might be a positive symbol to him but to the lower caste person it was and still continues to be a symbol of oppression and crude prejudice.
The forms might change but the discrimination still continues. Our ‘comrades' could do well to appreciate the necessity to annihilate the very system of caste (solving the land question) and not just fight against the mere forms of caste discrimination, for they seem to have got their base-superstructure formula all wrong and upside down.
This brings us to the second question. Presently, the Kamma community predominates the political class in Andhra Pradesh. It was primarily agrarian in nature and came of age against the backdrop of agrarian struggles against the zamindars and the freedom movement during the British Raj. These struggles that accompanied its birth have also given it the largest share of participation in radical movements; socialism, rationalism, atheism, communism, and radical humanism.
Over the given period, the people of this class have also grown substantially rich, and have multiplied their riches since the Green Revolution. The rise of NTR and his TDP is generally seen as the long overdue assertion of this class. It is true that most of the leaders in the TDP belong to this community.
It is true that scientists, like NG Ranga and Yelavarthi Naiduamma, both mentioned in the anthem, belong to the same community. It is true that Tollywood is dominated by heroes, producers and directors belonging to the same community. It is also true that most of Telugu NRIs, living the American Dream, come from this community.
These Telugu NRIs, who primarily service the tech industry in North America, are mere immigrants there. That they could never be treated on par with the whites is evident from how the Americans treat their own African-American citizens. Therefore, in such a foreign land, they had to come together.
It is true that such associations could have been based on any number of identities but the choice of caste clearly demonstrates the undemocratic core of our society, and more so, of the highly educated Telugu society.
With the ill-effects of globalisation playing out in terms of the immigration laws, the situation of these NRIs has become extremely unstable. There could only be two responses to this — fear and submission, or pride and defiance. As their political class back home debates and deliberates to ease the situation, the associations there took to the display of their caste pride in a poor show of pseudo-defiance.
That Sandeep informed that the solidarity anthem was made by and for the Kamma NRI community and their later generations, lends more evidence to this line of reasoning.
Finally, it is foolish to argue that caste has played no role whatsoever in the successes of these individuals. By the very nature of our society, being born into a dominant forward caste with all its social capital, without assuming any wilful ill-intent on his/her part, ensures that one is way ahead of the starting line in this race for anything and everything. Add some, much emphasised, hard work and one has guaranteed success.
Life is subject to chance and, more often than not, is inescapable. A majority find themselves at the dark end of the tunnel. No matter how hard they work they can barely see the light. It is only in this context that fairness in opportunity is emphasised more than the mere fairness in process. But for the successful minority under the sun, to assume that their success is due to the superiority of their caste is both racist and unscientific.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.