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Arif Mohammed Khan is a former Union Cabinet minister.

Is India a nation or conglomeration of communities?

reputed historian and freedom fighter, Dr Bishambar Nath Pandey, in a lecture on national integration delivered in Lucknow in 1986, narrated three interesting anecdotes to show the ubiquitous impact of the "caste system" and its deep effect on Indian morals and social ethos.

Describing the first incident, he said that in 1930, he went to visit a fellow Muslim professor at Allahabad University and found him engrossed in a document consisting individual names and their family details. When Dr Pandey asked about the list, the professor replied, "You know we are Bhatnagar Kayasths who had embraced Islam. I have prepared this list of Muslim Bhatnagar girls and boys to help Bhatnagar families find prospective brides and grooms as we do not marry outside our caste."

The second incident is rather funny. Dr Pandey was sitting with another colleague, Professor Bhatti, when Professor Adams of Christian College came to see him. Bhatti asked his peon to offer water to Adams. The peon gave him a glass of water, but refused to clean the glass later, for it had been used by a Christian. Professor Bhatti reprimanded the peon who belonged to a family that had converted to Christianity a few decades ago. He said, "Why do you behave like this when you yourself have become a Christian?" Pat came the reply: "Isai bhaen hain to ka apna dharam dain hain (Yes I am a Christian, but does that mean I have given up my religion)?"

The third incident narrated by Dr Pandey involved the nephew of the famous Urdu poet Akbar Allahabadi, who was an officer in Allahabad Municipal Corporation. In 1950, this gentleman requested Dr Pandey to help him find a suitable match for his daughter who had done her post graduation. Before parting, he cautioned Dr Pandey to keep in mind that "we are Sunni Rizvi not Shia Rizvi".

These individual instances show that no matter how loudly the slogans of separate special identity of the religious communities are raised, Indians across the board subscribe to the same social ethos and behave in a remarkably similar manner. The Hindu religious principle of "supreme soul (parmatma)" pervading all individual souls (atma), or the Islamic and Christian principles of equality and brotherhood have not been able to make any dent in the caste system that upgrades few and degrades many.

The Hindu religious principle of “supreme soul” pervading all individual souls, or the Islamic and Christian principles of equality and brotherhood have not been able to make any dent in the caste system.

Caste discriminations are manifest not just in social interactions but have secured some sort of religious legitimacy in the sense that Muslim Personal Law, as practised in India, differentiates between Muslims of Arab and non-Arab origins in matters pertaining to compatibility of spouses. Similarly, a 19th century papal edict banned the entry of lower caste Christians into churches set up by Christians of Namboodri origin (South Indian Brahmins). There is no doubt that after 1857, the British as colonial masters used the instruments of administrative policies and constitutional reforms to heighten community consciousness, which, in turn, projected India not as a nation but as a conglomeration of communities. The process started in 1817, when James Stuart Mill's History of India sought to divide Indian history into Muslim and Hindu periods, and through communal interpretation tried to construct religious-cultural identities, culminating in the partition of India in 1947.

Partition created strong public sentiment against institutions and statutes like caste and separate electorate that possessed divisive potential and weakened national sentiment. The Constitution of India fully reflected this new awareness when it abolished both untouchability and separate electorates, and pledged to secure to all its citizens justice, equality and fraternity, assuring the dignity of the individual. The entire Constitutional scheme depended for its success on the establishment of a social order free from birth-based discriminations.

We changed our laws but refused to change our political methods. The political parties, in their vote grabbing exercise, have grossly violated the letter and spirit of the Constitution. They do not try to win the support of the citizen, but rather concentrate on communities and castes to transform them into their constituencies, and in turn, aggravate communal and caste differences. The results are obvious. Caste enumeration is back and separate electorates cannot be far behind.

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