The question of freedom is intricately and inevitably linked to the question of caste in India and more particularly to our constitutional aspirations of equality and justice. To belong to a caste is to be prejudiced and to be casteless is to be civil – the former, a traditional requirement, and the latter, a constitutional aspiration.

As we celebrate 75 years of freedom from the violence of colonialism and colonial modernity, it may be necessary to think of caste and its effects on our collective and individual freedoms. Caste is broadly anti-freedom – in a liberal sense caste is the tyranny of cousins that affects both the privileged and marginalised in varying degrees and forms. However, our roots of identity and our competing and collective histories are tied to caste, making a casteless individual almost impossible. There is no self without caste and it is difficult to have caste without hierarchy, segregation and exclusion.

If being casteless is impossible, can our collective and individual freedoms ever be genuinely achieved?

Like equality and justice, the idea of freedom too may seem rather broad and sweeping – many a time an abstract pursuit which is never satisfactorily achieved even in the most advanced societies. Agreeing on what freedom and liberty mean can itself be a difficult exercise in India where hierarchies dominate our social worlds.

Equality is a mirage when our ontology itself is governed by hierarchies and aspiring for freedom without equality is like attempting to relish soup with a knife. Despite the limits of modernity, freedom itself is a modern-liberal quest. Freedom can be understood as the opposite of slavery, as anti-dominance if not anti-power, and an ideal that needs to be realised in our concrete world.

The Hegelian ethical life makes certain structures – family, civil society, and the state – foundational for promoting freedom. Such an understanding of freedom continues to remain critical for hierarchical and feudal societies in transition.

While we may harp on pre-Mughal (“Hindu”) polity as having the essential structures for ideal democracy, it was only under colonial and post-colonial modernity that freedom beyond caste servitude became a concrete possibility. A significant challenge to caste by subaltern social movements was introduced via the state.

The Constitution of India makes way for substantive equality through protective and preventive
measures for marginal castes. State measures like reservations despite their radical promise also reproduce caste prejudice and social distance between castes. We need to look beyond state measures for possibilities of freedom from caste, in family and in civil society.

Hegel’s family is patriarchal, heteronormative, reinforces subordination of women and is sexually repressive. My concern however is with the element of love in family that Hegel makes critical, something that distinguishes family from civil society and state. Here the individuals in love achieve self-consciousness by undermining their individual egoistic character and this (monogamous) dialectic of love produces ethical relationship necessary for freedom.

Is the much-celebrated Indian family based on love? Does it promote individual freedom? Marriage is an ethical relationship through which true human selfhood and freedom are achieved for Hegel. Does the much-celebrated Indian family promote individual freedom?

Families continue to be reservoirs of patriarchy and hierarchy in India. In 2020, 19 women were killed every day in India for dowry. The idea of family is hardly based on individual freedom in traditional societies and India is no exception. Further, the family in Bhartiya sanskruti, Indian culture, has much to do with the ideology of caste.

Caste is the actual larger family, whereas families constitute a micro arrangement for constructing caste solidarity. Caste thus precedes family and family tends to be void of the very idea of freedom, as hierarchy and patriarchy construct the inner worlds.

Marriage here is neither about choice nor about freedom, it is a form of calculated rationality that revolves around caste solidarity and hierarchy. Dowry murders and other cases of domestic abuse are merely overt forms of violence in our contemporary family system, rendered visible when such cases are brought to courts and police stations.

Much violence in family contexts is rather invisible and normalised, affecting individual freedoms and more particularly freedom of women. More than the state, caste limits individual freedoms. For Hegel, only families that are founded on love can promote freedom, and in India the institution of family leaves much to be desired in this respect.

The civil sphere in India is hardly civil – it is mostly driven by segmental loyalties of caste, tribe and/or religion. Caste thrives in the civil sphere.

My study of caste association in cities points to a regressive kind of forced cosmopolitanism configuring amongst privileged castes that works against the very idea of individual freedom. Caste thus governs our socio-political, economic and even spiritual life in various ways. What then are spaces of hope for freedom besides forced state interventions?

Dr BR Ambedkar differed and even clashed with Mahatma Gandhi on the idea of equality, freedom and justice. Gandhi placed hope in Ram Rajya and in rural traditions and spaces, whereas Ambedkar argued for urbanisation and even conversion out of Hinduism. While Gandhi saw cities and westernised society as hubs of immoral activity that affect both humans and the environment, Ambedkar saw tremendous hope in urban spaces and modernity – as means of achieving genuine freedom for marginal groups and women in particular.

Neither Gandhi nor Ambedkar stand totally correct – cities are neither the perfect sites of equality and freedom that Ambedkar hoped them to be nor are they living hell or blood suckers of rural folk as Gandhi imagined. Many parts of cities continue to have rural form to them and casteless urbane individualism is rare to see.

A survey conducted on social attitudes in 2018 found high proportions of respondents practising untouchability in urban UP, Rajasthan, and even Delhi. My study of Ahmedabad has documented cases of caste violence against Dalits – brutal and inhuman – that may generally be viewed as a rural phenomenon. A form of traditional urbanism persists which may reproduce caste in newer forms.

Not all is bleak, however. Urban spaces with a history of anti-caste politics and leftist movements, characterised by thick population diversity and increasing time famine, can provide radical spaces for blurring and even annihilating the clarity that caste provides to our social worlds.

Inter-caste marriages for instance are growing in numbers in urban centres as opposed to rural India. In urban areas ten percent of women are more likely to have inter-caste marriages than in rural areas. Urbanisation promises a radical overhaul of the caste based family system which is both violent and regressive. Besides remaking the family by purging it from caste sentiments and values, urban spaces could actively de-link caste from demeaning occupations.

The city of Guwahati has recently adapted mechanisation and use of bandicoot robots for cleaning sewage. Such progressive changes can and help marginal groups claim dignified existence. While cities of northwest India are highly segregated, cities like Mumbai have mixed living across caste (though not religion). Unlike Delhi and other north Indian cities, in Mumbai I have also documented cases of workers from the former untouchable castes who work as cooks in “upper caste” homes while the middle and upper classes more often clean their own toilets.

The two cities I have studied in depth are cities in contrast: while Gandhi’s Ahmedabad continues to nurture unfreedoms associated with caste, Ambedkar’s Mumbai-Bombay radically alters both domestic and public spaces to progressively provide freedom and expand caste-free sociality in contemporary times. Increased urbanism and rootless individualism beyond caste are critical in our quest for genuine freedom.

Freedom, like equality, is infectious and it can progressively alter caste across rural and urban spaces. Cities hold the promise of individuals moving beyond caste culture for freedom and adventure – much remains to be achieved however, and the next quarter of our freedom years remain critical.

Suryakant Waghmore is a Fellow of the New India Foundation who is currently working on a
book about the possibilities of post-caste cities through examinations of caste erasure in Ahmedabad and Mumbai.

Also read:

India at 75: What would our forests say about being the ecological property of the nation-state?

India at 75: Why one Neeraj Chopra or Abhinav Bindra does not make India a global sporting power