Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Caste and the question of Identity (Part I)

Caste and the question of Identity I


The term untouchables have long been associated with the caste system of Indian culture as a reference to the class of people at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. While extreme interpretation of this system is beginning to fade away due to the changing times and education which has become the main propellant in empowering those from the lowest rung of the social ladder, there is still a large consciousness among the masses of their cast and creed and the seemingly permanent social distinction. The Indian caste system is deeply routed in the ancestral occupational attachment which has sadly become some kind of social imprisonment for those who are associated to the most “unclean” or dirty jobs thus permanently condemned being labeled as outcasts.

Having said that, it is natural for an outsider to assume that in modern times caste would no longer be relevant for someone who becomes empowered to finally become independent by virtue of his education and profession to break away from such social imprisonment. Apparently that is not the case, as there is also a large fellowship who prefer to retain that identity regardless of caste. Even the so called lower classes take pride in their identity and form such comradeship which is reflected in the politics of today.

In an age of globalization and cultural plurality, we somehow find people who firmly hold on to their castes as a vital aspect of their identity. In a multi-layered atmosphere of Indianness, the question of “who am I?” can never have a simple “Indian” for an answer and the whole concept of Indian is corrupt; the entity having sprung out of an artificial union ; a byproduct of a colonial past. Therefore most would generally be linguistically and regionally divided into the almost countless numbers of languages and dialects they belong to, such as, a few among others, the Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam,Telugu, Hindi,Punjabi and Bengali speakers. Their Lingua-Regional identity comes first and then comes the question of caste and creed before even thinking of Indianness. However the term has gained much popularity abroad among the Indian Diaspora, for this term itself is founded upon that very conception and best reflects the identities of Cultures from the Sub-continent. Caste, while being a sensitive issue these days, is extremely important even for those whose sensitivities are most affected .On the other hand, the downtrodden while denouncing it entirely would also uphold it at some time or other.. It should be noted that caste based societies and associations are thriving in Malaysia with approximately 100 registered bodies.

South Indian Sir Names are most certainly a reflection of castes which they belong to and this could explain the reason behind Indians who don’t possess second names Most Indians would not want to be labeled as an advocate of the caste system. However, there are people who are proud of their ancestry and carry the family name (caste) as their sir-name. But the most unfortunate are those who do not want to be ostracized by society thus keep it a secret. To end in a positive note, I am very pleased to say that the new generation of Indians in Malaysia regardless of caste does not emphasize caste as much as their ancestors did with reference to sir-names.

No comments: