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Globalism: from caste to fraternity

Valson Thampu

 Radical all-round changes are the most striking feature of the Indian
situation. Change is basic to life, and no society can be immune to it.
Normally, a society changes so gradually that it seems to evolve, rather
than caught in the maelstrom of a social revolution. India of the  '90s
is an exception to this. Everything about us is changing so fast that we
can barely keep pace with. In a few years the very feel of being Indian
has changed.

Change and insecurity

 Change breeds insecurity. The more radical and abrupt the change, the
deeper the anxiety it evokes. Radical changes bring about psychological
homelessness, which could also provide, if managed creatively, the
impetus for discovering an alternate home. If approached negatively,
however, it breeds the temptation to resist change and to remain stuck
to the past, like trying to live in a house that collapsed years ago.
How a people cope with change proves their genius, and shapes their

Irrationality is unavoidable in insecurity. The known causes and
provocations put together will not account for the prevailing anxiety
levels, once a society is infected by insecurity. At the same time, each
group will arrive at its own diagnosis, and try to defend itself against
the supposed enemy. Not infrequently, irrelevant battles are fought on
the basis of wrong diagnoses. It is in this light that paranoid notions
like Christians being a threat to Hinduism, or an international
conspiracy brewing against India, need to be seen. They are very
significant as symptoms, despite their dubious factual value.

A classic irony in anxiety is that the more desperately an individual or
group seeks security, the more vulnerable it tends to be. Strategies of
anxiety are, perforce, double-edged swords. They cut both ways. Because
anxiety effects a collapse of reason and understanding, it fuels the
pursuit of vested interests at the cost of general wellbeing. This
proves suicidal. The more ferociously a group fights to advance its
partisan interests, the more it awakens the anxiety of other players in
the field, and provokes their united opposition. In this process, the
old equilibrium is sorely tested, leading to a regrouping of
socio-political forces, like what is happening even within the Sangh
Parivar today. Eventually, what is manifestly harmful to the larger
interests will be get discredited. No amount of communal clap-trap can
drug them for ever.  In history no single agent or group, no matter how
potent or dominant, has ever completely directed the dynamic of a
society and arrived at their intended destinations. Only in a static and
frozen society can a single centre of power hope to maintain its
hegemony for long. But such a society now belongs to the museum of

We are poor change-managers

It is natural that change-induced anxiety has a deep resonance in the
Indian context. Culturally and historically we have been fiercely
pro-status quo. The caste-system is the most potent anti-change
mechanism ever evolved by the genius of man. We have a rare knack for
resisting change. While this has made us socially resilient, it has also
disabled us as change-managers. We are out of our depths when it comes
to dealing with what is new, especially if it has to be done in a short
period of time, as is the case today.

To see this for what it is we only have to compare ourselves with the
Chinese. They have responded to the challenge of globalism with an eye
to the future. They do not allow the buoyancy of the present to be
blighted by pre-historic sentiments and loyalties. Rather than dissipate
their national energies by resurrecting the grievances of the past, they
are excited about catching up with the West by 2016 A.D. They have found
a new coherence as a nation. In contrast, we seem to be pulling in
several directions and sinking deeper into anarchy.

 But the present chaos need not be wholly negative. It could also be the
womb from which a new social order may emerge. But that will not happen
by itself. It has to be worked for, within a dynamic vision for our
society and nation. Today we have the opportunity to free our society
from the shackles of the past, and engage the emerging challenges of a
New World order. It is strange that having signed ourselves into the New
World order, we are busy regressing to the past! "Globalization is not a
matter of choice any more," says Justice M. N. Venkatachaliaah, the
Chairman of the Human Rights Commission. "Like it or not, things are
going to change. We must rearrange the social forces and restructure our
society in such a manner that these changes may not overtake us."

 Besides our pro-status quo genius, what escalate our anxiety today are
the gross inequalities in our society. Indeed the more iniquitous a
society, the more anxious it becomes at the prospect of change. It
develops multiple-motives for resisting changes. The caste system has
perpetuated inequality and social fragmentation. It could not have been
otherwise. The extent to which this has undermined our historical
destiny is not adequately recognized.

 "Caste" is not only a socio-religious apparatus. It is also a mental
orientation that makes us apathetic to whatever is beyond our immediate
boundaries. Till recently, migration from one region to another was
frowned upon. The caste outlook was at work in the idea that crossing
the sea polluted people. The danger is that what we cannot develop
skills to cope with what we deny, and so will be overwhelmed by it
eventually. To the extent that we excluded the external forces in the
past, we have succumbed to them repeatedly. The result was the
successive subjugation of this sub-continent for over a millennium. It
is important that we become the wiser for it. Having situated ourselves
in the global arena, we cannot perpetuate the caste mindset. But then,
there is no way we can outgrow it without dismantling the caste system
itself. It is not an accident that the protagonists of the swadeshi
agenda are the upper caste communal factions.

 In this light, it is clear that an encounter between the imperatives of
globalism and compulsions of the caste system is unavoidable. It is
happening already, and the outcome is in no doubt. Irrespective of the
diversionary side-skirmishes organized from time to time - Muslims vs.
Hindus, Hindus vs. Christians, merit vs. reservation, and so on- it is
no secret that the caste issue is at the root of the present turmoil. On
this question none can afford to remain ambiguous. Either we remain
committed to the caste system, or we brace ourselves for the coming
millennium. We cannot do both.

A paradigm shift

India today stands in need of a shift in social paradigm. The Caste
paradigm has survived so far by keeping at bay the mandates of
modernity. This truth is writ large over the national situation whether
it is in respect of the rule of law, or minimum quality of life for all,
or universal education for children under 14, or gender-equality, or the
value of individual life. Globalization cannot but dismantle the walls
we have erected against the claims of modernity. Now the world is not
out there at a distance, it is right here in our midst. Its sights and
sounds are pouring into our living rooms. Our children are clothed in
its skins. Its values (or the lack of it) ferment in their minds.  The
windows are open on all sides.

 This makes a social paradigm shift inevitable and imminent. It looks as
though the French Revolution, in its Indian edition, is unfolding
itself. The ideological passion in that great human ferment was to
effect a paradigm shift from class oppression to "liberty, equality, and
fraternity"; the basics of a just and egalitarian order. Peoples in the
western world have engaged this ferment ahead of us, though all of them
fell short of the entirety of this paradigm. The Euro-American bloc, for
example, pursued the values of liberty and equality. But, because they
neglected the ideal of fraternity in this process, their pursuit of
liberty degenerated into license, and the practise of equality,
especially in the grand Marxian experiment, yielded a faceless
collectivity inhospitable to individuality. The central irony of our
times, as a western observer points out, is that the age of
individualism does not produce authentic individuals.  We must learn
from these experiments. The time has come for us to design our own
response model, and we need to ensure that it is an improvement on its
western counterparts.

 That can be done only by creating a culture of 'fraternity', based on
our shared destiny. The casteist strategy will be to aggravate
alienation, which is the violation of fraternity. Fraternity is the
ethical anti-dote to casteism. Celebrating the ideal of fraternity
-unveiling our essential oneness and interdependence- is essentially a
spiritual and ethical task. That was why fraternity was overlooked in
the secular west. India's unique gift to the world could be the full
realization of the dream of the human species as articulated in the
French Revolution, "liberty, equality, fraternity!"

But that will not happen by itself. People with understanding and a
sense of historical mission have to address this task. Our current
tragedy is that the reactionary forces are active and well focused, and
they are not counter-balanced by agents of benevolent activism. Today a
unilateral and multi-pronged war is being waged by the hangers-on of the
caste order, which is being interrogated by the very logic of our times.
And it is essential that the people at large engage this process, rising
above partisan loyalties.

The minimum investment for the next millennium is to liberate our vast
human resources that remain socially frozen at present. This cannot
happen within the caste paradigm, to which the instruments like
'reservation' and 'minority rights belong'. As a response to inequality,
reservation and religion-based privileges have undermined
egalitarianism. Allowing for reservations, rather than shifting to the
paradigm of equality, has served only to delay our social
transformation. Within such a mindset, even 'merit' becomes a prop for
the caste order! Merit is an egalitarian argument. But it assumes
overtones of injustice when employed within a system that does not
practise equality. As we move into the new millenium, we must leave
behind the age of cosmetic measures marked by strategies of appeasement.
All sections of the Indian society must cooperate, even sacrificially,
to engineer a new and dynamic social order that is capable of meeting
the challenges of globalism, and fulfilling our collective destiny as a
nation of righteousness.


Valson Thampu
Reader in English,
St. Stephen's College, Delhi -7

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