Once, a Southern Baptist missionary was my co-passenger in a flight. Like every missionary out to seek a convert, he was pleasant. After learning that I am a Hindu he asked, "Is the caste system going away in India?" I quipped, "Why should it go away?" He was surprised by my response and remarked, "You are the first Hindu who responded this way. Most Hindus agree that caste must go away and say that it is slowly going away."
I decided to turn the tables on him. I asked him,
"What language do the African Americans speak?" He replied, "English." I asked, "What did their ancestors speak 500 years ago?" He began to contemplate. I thought that I might have to wait for eternity like the Christians have waited for the second coming of their messiah before the missionary would answer, so I prompted him, "Swahili? Hausa?" He agreed, "Yes." I asked, "Do the African Americans worship the animist deities of their ancestors? Do they wed and bury per their ancestral customs?" The missionary replied, "No."
I said that one could replace African Americans with any immigrant group: The Dutch, the Germans, the French or the Latinos. I added, "What you proudly advertise as the melting pot actually imposed the language, culture, religion and customs of the dominant ethnic group on all others. On the other hand, visit even a small village in India with just 300 families. The chances are that this population would be made up of 10 different castes and each of them retains its distinct religious, wedding, funerary, culinary and dialectic features. This is because, as a truly pluralistic society, the Hindu India allowed each ethnic group, regardless of how numerically small it was, to retain its identity."
"So," I added, "Caste is a result of this spirit of freedom and pluralism. It is something to be proud of. On the other hand, the so-called melting pot is actually a result of cultural, and often physical, extermination of diverse identities by one intolerant and powerful group."
I continued: "Like every other man made institution, caste too has been misused. Then, so has been every other man made institution like democracy or secularism. It was a democratically elected Hitler who exterminated 6 million Jews, Gypsies and mentally retarded patients. It was a democratically elected Jefferson who fixed the worth of every AfricanAmerican child at $ 22.50 and proposed to forcibly snatch them away from their parents and ship them back to Africa after ensuring that the adult African American population does not procreate any further. It was a democratically elected Roosevelt who declared that the extermination at the hands of the Whites was the best thing that happened to the Native Americans. Stalin and Mao were secular but they mercilessly sent millions to death camps."
I asked him, "Is anyone demanding that democracy or secularism be abandoned because of a Jefferson, Roosevelt, Hitler, Stalin or Mao? Why should caste be abandoned just because it was misused? Hindus have systematically addressed caste inequities over the last 80 years or so. If we assume that we rid our society of all discriminations in the next 30 years, members of every caste, be it Brahmin, Kayastha,Maratha or Paraiyah could proudly say that they follow the millennia old religion, customs and dialects of their forefathers. Suppose the Christian West similarly resolves racial discriminations, could an African American, Dutch American or Latino make similar assertion?"
I pointed out that in the casteless Christian West, the minorities have been forced to abandon their identities and instead have been made to imitate the dominant group in every aspect of life such as religion, language, wedding and funeral customs. I cited the words of Nathan Katz and pointed out how Hindu pluralism, of which caste is an integral part, actually preserved minority customs. Katz, while discussing how the Jewish people flourished for centuries amidst the Hindus, writes: "A crucial distinction between India and the rest of the Diaspora, however, is that in India acculturation is not paid for in the currency of assimilation. By acculturation I mean fitting comfortably into a society while retaining one's own identity, whereas by assimilation I mean that the loss of that identity is a perceived condition for acceptance. The study of Indian Jewish communities demonstrates that in Indian culture an immigrant group gains status precisely by maintaining its own identity. Such is the experience not only of India's Jews, but also of local Christians, Zoroastrians, and recently, TibetanBuddhists. This striking feature of Indian civilization is reflected by each of these immigrant groups. Now let us forget the Southern Baptist missionary and ask the Hindus: Would this preservation have been possible without the spirit of pluralism, which was ensured by the caste system? Are the Hindus going to repeat the missionary propaganda and deny the strengths of their own civilization or are they going to understand the institution of caste dispassionately? The missionary and the imperialist know that the institution of caste must be obliterated if the Hindu society were to be weakened and converted. A Hindu should critically analyze his traditions instead of uncritically absorbing propaganda.
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