Monday, September 07, 2015

Living in ghettos of mind: segregated cities on caste & communal lines

“We don’t believe in all that” – one often hears this while discussing the caste-based or the communal politics in India.This self-righteous and a-political sounding lot goes further to claim how they believe in equality or meritocracy and how they are completely against caste-based reservation or caste-based politics. Very well, but people who oppose reservations based on ‘meritocracy’ arguments do not come out as strongly against the caste system itself. The idea of ‘caste’ is not based on any merits yet it is being practiced for thousands of years. The practices of caste system systematically excluded a major part of Indian population from acquiring any education, new skills or new sources of livelihood. Yet, the caste-based thinking prevails amongst the most educated and privileged section of the society. 
Unfortunately, ‘we don’t believe in caste system’ and ‘I am proud of being from my caste’ is often spoken in the same breath! Those who claim their belief in equality and meritocracy need to check, what drives their newfound love for equality. Is the conventional caste-based inequalities are not beneficial to them anymore?
Caste system is deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche and its direct implication is seen in our cities – small and big. Neighbourhoods dominated by a certain castes or sub-castes have been a unique feature of Indian cities since centuries – From Madurai to Varansi and from Ahmedabad to Kolkata. People who say that they do not believe in the caste system should check their own surroundings to figure out if they are living in the ghetto of their own tribe. This tribe is defined by ‘people like us’ and by othering the ‘others’. ‘People like us’ are people from the same caste or sub-caste or from the same religion. Ask the real estate agents in your city and they will tell you the advantages of belonging to a certain so-called higher castes. The buyers flag their caste while buying the property and the sellers gloat over the fact that the property is sold to ‘one of us’! Such attitudes result in making cities segregated on caste and communal lines.
So what is the problem with segregated cities on caste lines? Segregated cities create population groups, which are insulated from each other, and deep mistrust is cultivated between communities. Human beings are the species who have prospered by co-operating with other human beings for thousands of years. Openness and diversities are fertile grounds for innovations and social progress. Historically, whenever segregation and inequalities have taken over integration and equalities, the social progress has regressed. If we live in our own tribe then we are not taking full advantage of being in a city – melting pot of cultures, agglomeration of economies and congregation of multi-sectarian societies.

The issue of ‘caste’ needs to be dealt with politically and socially. It is not enough to say that lets put all these caste-based reservations behind and built a society based on meritocracy. It is more important to demonstrate how are you breaking the caste barriers – beginning with your own mind, your own surroundings. Many Eastern societies like China and Japan had their own systems of social hierarchies which they have put behind and embraced the modern ways. Globalization makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in isolation unless the modern urban societies decide to live in ghettos of their own tribes. Living in one’s own tribe shows how deeply ingrained the caste considerations are. Then the arguments on equality or meritocracy sound quite hollow.

(24th August, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

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