The fallacy of the caste system in Mauritius

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Raini charhi rasool ki, (The glorious colour of the Prophet is the blessed dye)
So rang maula ke haath, (And Maula Ali’s auspicious hand does the dying)
Jis ki choonar rang diyo, (Whosoever’s veil gets dyed in this colour)
So dhan dhan wa ke bhaag, (Happy is their fortune)
- Amir Khusrau

Piya Tan talks about Ambedkar

The Buddhist scholar, the venerable Piya Tan, translator of sutras on www.dharmafarer. org and a very reputed Buddhist teacher recently published a post on Shri B.R.Ambedkar, which received a large interest following on Facebook. To quote a main part of his post. “…On the 14 October 1956, Ambedkar organised a public ceremony for himself and his supporters in Nagpur (3rd largest city in Maharashtra after Mumbai and Pune). Formally accepting the three Refuges and five Precepts in the traditional manner, Ambedkar completed this mass conversion. He then proceeded to convert an estimated 500,000 of his supporters. Taking the 22 Vows, they explicitly condemned and rejected Hinduism and Hindu culture…”

I had immediately posted a response in the message trail and straightaway got my hands slapped when I expressed reservations that we cannot of course assume that “Hinduism = Caste System”. Thought it was seriously myopic to deconstruct a 5,000 year history of Vedic culture to a stratification of society via into “groups” and “levels”. My response to the minimization of Hinduism to one specific event in history, was expressed as follows:

“Rejecting Hinduism is like saying I reject capitalism. Which Hinduism are people reading and practicing? Because the one that I studied: a) Yogasutras of Patanjali, b) the first Upanishads (ish, svetasthara, etc.), c) the Vedantic treatises, d) the Bhakti poets (Kabir, etc), have a message of deep tolerance and inner inquisitiveness, the nirvanic paradigm of Buddhism or the ‘Brahman’ of Hinduism are in fact the same immutable Dharma itself. So, those who reject Hinduism do not in fact understand the depth of the culture and are unfortunately biased and largely following fake Gurus. And I reject the ‘invented’ racist Hindutva Hinduism concocted by politicians.” Similarly, one can argue the caste system in itself is not the main paradigm of Hinduism but to understandits veracity and roots is a useful exercise.

Roots of Caste System and Interrogation

There are still ongoing discussions on the roots and origins of the caste system: were they a) brought and engineered by the Aryans? b) adapted from South Indian Dravidian cultures by the Aryans, where this type of categorization could possibly have already existed before the Aryans migrated south, and so on and so forth? This is not the focus of this piece, alas.

B. R. Ambedkar has been interrogating society on caste segregation since the 1950s. Meanwhile, he was also pioneering a key role in setting up the Indian reserve bank, passing the Hindu code bill for women empowerment in India and pioneering the development of a national bill for water and electricity in India1. The mass conversion of the Dalits to Buddhist was Ambedkar`s complete ras le bol with the old stratified Indian society. In his book Waiting for a Visa2, Ambedkar puts in the simplest of words, and a clarity that is daunting, an essay that would become the centerpiece of anti caste literature. This book is now essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the underpinnings of Caste System in India.

Caste Study by B. R. Ambedkar

He writes about his own experiences as a young barrister coming back to India after being sponsored in the US by the Maharaja of Baroda. He returns to a country deluded on its own “identity”, where even amongst Muslims, Parsees, the Medical profession, and in Government, Dalits were abhorred by one and all, and simply considered as a polluted race. So, of course, access to water was denied to one and all, as they could ‘pollute’ the water sources. A laughable theory of physical pollution. In one specific case, he unearths a case reported in the village of Lathiawar by an individual, and which defies all norms of civility and humanity. Caste consciousness were entrenched in the Indian psyche. There was an automatic understanding of who is “high” and who is “low”. Despite the definitions being subjective and emotively based.

“On the 5th of this month a child was born to me. On the 7th, she [the writer’s wife] fell ill and suffered from loose stools. Her vitality seemed to ebb away and her chest became inflamed. Her breathing became difficult and there was acute pain in the ribs. I went to call a doctor, but he said he would not go to the house of a Harijan, nor was he prepared to examine the child. Then I went to [the] Nagarseth and Garasia Darbar and pleaded [with] them to help me. The Nagarseth stood surety to the doctor for my paying his fee of two rupees. Then the doctor came, but on condition that he would examine them only outside the Harijan colony. I took my wife out of the colony along with her newly born child. Then the doctor gave his thermometer to a Muslim, he gave it to me, and I gave it to my wife and then returned it by the same process after it had been applied. It was about eight o’clock in the evening and the doctor, on looking at the thermometer in the light of a lamp, said that the patient was suffering from pneumonia. Then the doctor went away and sent the medicine. I brought some linseed from the bazar and used it on the patient. The doctor refused to see her later, although I gave the two rupees fee. The disease is dangerous and God alone will help us. The lamp of my life has died out. She passed away at about two o’clock this afternoon.”

The Mauritian caste system – An adopted fallacy

I recently questioned myself about the politics of caste in Mauritius. After returning to Mauritius, after a very long spell outside, I was propelled to question it, especially after watching the live parliamentary debates. Notwithstanding the squabbles, and visible distrusts amongst fellow parliamentarians on both side of the room, the unspoken language that everyone in Mauritius knows, but firmly pretend do not exist, remains the fact that during “the electioneering period”, candidates are in fact selected on “appartenance”. By this, I mean caste “appartenance”, as well as based on other well calculated cultural equations and well thought of formulaic expressions.

Of course, shrewd political leaders have happily exploited this for years in the name of “democracy”, and continue to do so, pseudo scientifically. Assuming someone is a “gran or ti nation” (whatever this means) as is commonly called, then most of his/her efforts to campaign in certain districts might be completely wasted from the start, as by the time of selection, about a year to six months’ period before election, candidates are finally “given their tickets” based on a quantum of how many people of x caste, and y caste, or population générale, etc. Live in the specific area. And herein lies the problematic of development in Mauritius.

Our pretensions of matching Singapore always gets dented because when other countries (take Singapore itself as example) talk about diversity and representations based on cultural background of the populace, they are making sure the community diversity is well projected and represented in the house. Having said this, in these same countries, the people to be elected from local communities will have to prove their worth, their historical experiences and wisdom. In Mauritius, right before election, it is a scramble to select the candidates, like horses in the final turn at Champ-de-Mars, experience is often never the prerequisite, it is the ugly head of “appartenance” that in fact wins in the end. Ask Mr Berenger about this, he apparently knows a thing or two about the process.

Why do we hold on to adopt archaic systems of no value?

We, in Mauritius, still attach ourselves to an age old decrepit system that is erroneously attributed to be essentially “Hinduism”. We, in Mauritius, have flatly rejected many old tribal systems from the day our ancestors landed at Aapravasi Ghat, but somehow firmly hold on to illusory systems to our bosom. As example, we recreated the Ganga at Grand-Bassin, as symbolic of the emergence holy water, and became Shaivites (at least for once a year) and celebrate the night of Shiva with great gusto. On the night of Shiva, whatever one’s beliefs, whoever you are, does not really even matter, it is Shiva Brahman that is the idol of worship, and the immanent eternal Rishi makes no categorization of who is bathing in the water, drinking it, and who is not.

There are Shiva temples that I have visited in other countries like Nepal, where there still exists the ominous sign, “Hindu only”, which we Mauritians will immediately scoff and laugh at. Hence, we created our own proto religion to speak in a foreign land, and before time, we became Mauritians, and NOT Indians. Then, why would one have kept the archaic, unspoken, racist caste system, which some Indologists like Danielou might reason could have possibly served its latent purposes during a morphing of society in India some 3000 years ago.

But, clearly is of currently no real value or substance today. The question of “encouraging younger Mauritians to get interested” in politics falls flat on its feet when we realize that at the basis and core, the underlining selection process is still, and let us not shiver from saying it, very racist, stinks of caste and religious bias, and such flotsam infiltrates the government, parastatals bodies,and unfortunately even, the private sector.

On Radio Plus

Recently on Radio Plus,one member of the public called and made a passionate plea to reject the “science of casteand religion” on the basis ofwhich, candidates, cronies and friends are selected. Alas, we continue to be bogged down by archaic illusory systems that have been well surpassed by modernity. 2,500 years ago, Gautama Buddha passed away, in Khushinagar, at the house of a cobbler, Cunda. In my view, this momentous passing away of the Great teacher in such a simple manner at the house of the Cobbler, indirectly sends a powerful message as he departed. The message points at the falsity of duality, high caste and low caste, poor and rich. We are not what our ego tells us we are, seemed to say the Buddha.

References

  1. Piya Tan, Dharmfarers. org, facebook Post, April 17th 2017
  2. Waiting for Visa – BR Ambedkar – Colombia University
  3. B. R. Ambedkar: 10 Facts You Probably Don’t Know About the Father of the Indian Constitution, The Better India, Sachari Pal.
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