Saturday, January 21, 2012

Waiting on the world to change

The British understand class. There is an innate comprehension that cockney flower girls are at the bottom of the heap while you can get away with anything if you wear a crown. So when little English girls play at being princesses, it's not cute; it's a desire for world domination.

British class, however, comes down almost solely to money. In India, the situation is far more complex.

Naturally, discussion of social situations is an ethical mine field. So I want everyone to feel reassured that I have a full and complete grasp of this topic from spending AN ENTIRE WEEK in India and attending a play exploring class that was performed in entirely in Hindi. I knew you'd all feel better.

Two major ways of categorising people in India are caste and religion. In theory, the two are interconnected, since caste is a Hindu concept. However, this social stratification is seen in other religions which in theory should be outside the system. A Christian church, for instance, will often have a congregation predominately from the same caste.

Which caste you belong to is decided by birth. There are four major divisions (and about a gazillion subsets) whose origins stem from professions: the Brahmins are the priests and intellectuals, the Kshatriyas are the warriors and rulers, Vaishyas are merchants and Shudras are farmers. Below these are the Dalits, once known as the Untouchables, whose jobs involved the most menial and dirty of tasks, such as toilet cleaning and... midwifery... because small children are similar to toilets.

Discrimination against the lower castes has been banned by the Indian constitution for 50 years. Perhaps predictably for a social system thousands of years old, this has met with mixed success. On the one hand, the current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, an Indian province that includes the Taj Mahal, is from the lowest Dalit caste. Her career has been colourful, although this is less likely to do with her born status and more with her actions which include commisioning a statue of herself and suggestions that fellow Dalits should beat upper castes with their shoe. On the other hand, despite the ability for low classes to reach high posts, it is still uncommon to marry outside your caste. This, perhaps more than jobs, emphasises the underlying separation is still very much felt.

Aside from the caste system, there is the question of religion. Upon gaining independence from the UK in 1947, it was decided to make two separate countries from the former British Indian Empire; India and Pakistan. The division was founded on the basis of religion, with Pakistan being an Islamic state.

A major problem was the division of land was that is was done by a British lawyer who had never visited India. He drew the boundaries based on population density, creating two areas with a Muslim majority to be East and West Pakistan. These two provinces of the same country were separated by thousands of miles of Indian territory.

... This worked every bit as well as you might suspect, and in 1971, East Pakistan gained independence as Bangladesh.

The whole division was bloody and left millions of Hindus and Muslims with an unappetising choice; give up their livelihood and relocate to the appropriate side of the border or become the minority in their own homeland. Whether this division should ever have been carried out is still a much speculated subject, but the fact of the matter is that it did occur with at least 10 million people changing countries and another half a million dead.

For the Muslims that did remain in India, they found themselves subjected to a significant feeling of bad will from those who believed they gained their own country in the partition and should have moved. This was one of the main topics discussed in the play I attended at the Indian International Cultural Centre on my last night in Delhi. The play was entitled "Ghandi Park", written by Manav Kaul, and focusses around who has the most right to sit on a bench in a city park (no, they can't share; don't complicate the issue).

The play opens with a small boy dancing to John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change". His father is concerned that his bad grades at school are because he is being discriminated against for being Muslim. The father in question appears as the boy runs away and is the first 'bench stealer' in the performance. His method has a charming simplicity about it; he threatens to vomit on a young man, Uday, who is currently sitting there.

Moving hastily to another bench, Uday is told to move again after the arrival of the school teacher. The teacher makes his case in terms of caste, profession and age, none of which impresses Uday in the slightest. The teacher's case was not exactly strengthened by his confession that he wanted the bench for the view it offered of the balcony of a girl he admired. The father then wakes up and ... well, things don't run smoothly.

While social issues aren't always the most enjoyable to discuss, I found this amazingly interesting perhaps because it IS discussed in India. It left me with a feeling that even the oldest traditions can change.

So, who is up for skipping Charles in the succession for the throne?


  1. While we Americans pride ourselves on not having a caste or class system per se, and our Declaration of Independence (from Great Britain) declares that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator "certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness", there were times in our history when slavery was legal, women didn't have the right to vote, and black people were considered to be inferior.

    Then along came Martin Luther King, Jr. to become a leader in the civil rights movement employing non-violence and following the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.

    Perhaps it's merely incidental that this post, "Waiting on the world to change", is published just 5 days after the Martin Luther King national holiday across the USA.

  2. This trip to India with you has been fascinating. I have discovered so much I never knew

    My New Blog – “Lizard Happy”

  3. Thank you for the link, Mynx -- I'm really glad you enjoyed the posts.

    Don, I find the social divides in different countries fascinating. They tell you so much about a country's history.