Caste and Castigation: The Stratification of Indian, Rwandan and British Society

Posted: July 5, 2011 in Opinion

Before travelling to India, I was aware of much hand-wringing by the media over the caste system, the segregation of this massive nation into a four-fold (Brahmins- Priests/Teachers; Kshatriyas- Warriors; Vaishyas- Merchants; and Shudras- Labourers) class-based structure (plus one “untouchable” subclass, the Dalits). There was a warning of blatant discrimination and rigidity of this archaic notion. The reality for foreigners entering India is that this aspect of Indian culture is far from obvious and more flexible and complex than painted by the popular media.

Who's who?

Who's who and who cares?

Most foreigners arriving in India travel around the major cities and tourist hotspots, avoiding, either by prejudice or transport (un)availability, the small towns and remote villages. In the chaotic brouhaha of India’s brimming cities, the traveller categorises their hosts in several ways: rich/poor; driver/stallholder/holy man/businessman/wallah; muslim/hindu/buddhist/not sure; friendly person who is after my rupees/my body/my friendship/nothing at all. These seem to be the temporary caste systems that the traveller imposes on the natives in order to process the barrage of sensory input that strikes them as soon as they leave the air-conditioned cocoon of the airport arrival gate.

In addition, the caste system, although hidden to foreign eyes and ears, is more adhered to up country and is more complex than the castes listed above and even more arbitrary than those that a visitor employs. Indian society can be further classified into thousands of jatis or clans, where intermarriage is possible to all but the most traditional adherents. Having only a faint working knowledge of the clan system in Scotland, people of my generation (as well as several generations before) barely know their own clan origins let alone what their tartan looks like and which members they can or cannot marry. In India, this is already happening, especially with the increasing urban shift and the emergence of the new Indian middle class. Having stayed with Indian families throughout my travels, I have only noticed the geographical, cultural, religious and linguistic differences as well as the strong presence of mind and kindness of my temporary hosts. Not once was caste mentioned in conversation and I certainly did not deem it appropriate or pertinent to ask such a seemingly personal question.

In Rwanda, there is still much misinformation about an apparent caste system, which still reverberates after the genocide there in 1994. Three tribes: Hutu (short, with stub noses), Tutsi (tall with long noses) and Twa (pygmies, making pots and living in the rainforest). This facile description is- inconveniently for media soundbite enthusiasts- bollocks. This description may have loosely applied in Rwanda before colonialism but the lines between these ethnic groups (not tribes, as they all share the same language, culture and living space) became blurred in the period after the First World War when the German occupiers ceded control to the Belgian King Leopold. New criteria were drawn based on the wealth of each citizen, then based on ownership of cattle. Owning above a stipulated number meant being labelled Tutsi; below this threshold earned a Hutu tag; the Twa having been left much to themselves. ID cards were issued with these new identities and thus a nation primed for post-colonial political struggle was born.

Ziggy, Danny and Vicky

Shared language. Shared culture. Shared fondness for leather jackets.

Superficially, these ethnicities can still be recognised today, although never officially- ID cards have merely said “Rwandan” after the end of the genocide. There are people with some classic Tutsi, Hutu and Twa profiles, in the same way that there are those from other nations with recognisable Swedish, Hispanic and Tamil characteristics. Although after generations of intermarriage, many Rwandans are difficult to pigeonhole, especially by foreigners. Many Rwandans, however, still instinctively mentally label their countrymen into one of the three groups as old habits and even older feelings are often hard to break despite the Rwandan government’s “One Rwanda” policies.

In the UK, we too have a fine tradition of  class division. Towards the end of the reign of Queen Victoria at the turn of the Twentieth Century, there were four distinct classes: the nobility; upper, middle and working classes (plus an “untouchable” underclass living in squalour and abject poverty).  This was well documented, satirised, and then serialised by Charles Dickens as well as being blatantly obvious to and mostly ignored by those in power at the time. Again, these divisions became weakened after the First World War, with the advent of universal suffrage, the emergence of a welfare state and the reliance of the ruling classes on the working man to defend them against foreign powers and stock market crashes.

from The Frost Report, BBC TV

"I know my place" (nobility not included)

Eventually people could bring themselves out of poverty and into respectability with the help of free education and public lending libraries although the divisions were still clear  as even a qualified surgeon could still be deemed working class if he did not have the clipped tones of an Eton or Harrow accent. Even today, accent and family background still invoke some- albeit nominal- prejudice, whether it be Brian Sewell being derided for his exquisite poshness or John Prescott for his working class overtones. Incidentally, the class boundaries in Scotland are less established as Scots seemed to be unified, especially abroad and if not on opposing sides of a football stadium. Maybe there are clearly upper, middle and working class Scots but they all drink in the same bars and wear kilts at international sports fixtures.

It seems that, from afar, every country has their own form of class division. These arrangements may be necessary for each society to function even when one class is oppressed by another. Some countries seem to be more renowned for their castes and classes than others, thanks to media attention, major international incidents or heartbreaking tragedy. When scrutinised more closely, these lines are often blurred and full of exceptions. However, these systems of caste or class discrimination are very much alive, even in a world with a functioning United Nations and international human rights legislation. Maybe class and caste discrimination are harder to battle than that of sex, race or religion as current laws cannot penetrate the vague boundaries of class. Or maybe we are too comfortable being labelled and rubber stamped, knowing our place in society and our role within it.


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