In the beginning there was nature: a world of predators and prey, of pecking orders, of packs and herds and hives, but no oppressor or oppressed. To survive in this world, you had to be strong or smart. Opinion did not matter here, only survival. It was a world without intellectuals.
Then came human culture, born out of human intellect. We domesticated fire, water, plants and animals, and even humans, with rules and rituals. We gave ourselves meaning and agenda through stories.
According to one story, with culture came contract. But there was a breach of contract resulting in oppression, with some communities cornering wealth, power and knowledge and using it to dominate the rest.
There is hope that one day the contract will be restored, that there will be a fair redistribution of wealth, power and knowledge that will satisfy all. That day is yet to come. Maybe a revolution will accelerate the process. The revolution may be inspired either by a messiah, a messenger of god, or by a rational scientific leader.
This story influences Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and even communism.
There is another story. It influences Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism, and even capitalism. In this story, there is no oppression in the world – only hierarchy. Hierarchies of wealth, power and knowledge result from the animal instinct to compete and dominate, which humans have been unable to shake off.
While awareness of animal nature with intent to outgrow it prevents exploitation, blindsighting it creates tension. Any attempt to overturn the prevailing hierarchy will only create chaos and end up creating just another hierarchy. Hierarchies are inescapable and eternal. Those who cannot handle the hierarchy need to step out, either physically like an indifferent monk, or psychologically, like a detached yet engaged householder.
Understanding the problem
Caste, as an idea, emerges from the second story. But people are explaining it and seeking solutions for it, from the first story. There is a vast epistemological gap as pointed out by Bernard Cohn in Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge and SN Balagangadhara in Heathen in his Blindness. It is like trying to understand and solve the problems of football using the rules of cricket. However, we rarely acknowledge this gap. We don’t want to, or we can’t. And there are two reasons for this: free speech and political correctness.
Free speech was designed to help critics of a system speak out freely, to get unheard voices to be heard. But it ended up enabling the majority to drown the voices of the minority. Political correctness was designed to protect the oppressed from violent language. But it has ended up gagging the powerful, building silent resentment and even turning many moderates into extremists.
Today, no member of the privileged castes can speak about caste. If a person tries to understand or explain it, he/she is accused of justifying it, or of being defensive, and apologetic. If a person condemns caste, he/she is accused of appropriating the movement for his/her career growth.
Likewise, if a member of the unprivileged castes says anything good about Hinduism, or engages with it positively, he/she could end up being seen as a traitor. And if he/she says anything bad about Hinduism, he/she will end up being admired by a few radical academicians, but also hounded by Hindutva radicals as "anti-national".
People on every side are being storm-tossed. So while politicians get their votes, academicians get their doctorates, and media get their debates, caste remains the least understood problem of India, trapped in epistemological limbo. When a disease is wrongly diagnosed, the prescription can never be right.