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Rohingyas and Origins of the Caste System

Umar Nizar

umarHow foolish it would be to suppose that one only needs to point out this origin and this misty shroud of delusion in order to destroy the world that counts for real, so-called ‘reality’. We can destroy it only as creators.
-Nietzche, ‘Gay Science

If you are seeking origins of the caste system, then well, it lies in the large intestine. Slavoj Žižek has an infamous joke where he compares the lavatories of Germany, France and England with the respective philosophical traditions of those nations (Thus German lavatories are idealistic, French ones revolutionary and English ones utilitarian). This also prompts one to ponder about Indian philosophy and dry toilets.

Slavoj Žižek has just as infamously referred to Gandhi, as being more violent than Hitler. Here Žižek in typical rabble-rousing fashion was trying to be polemical. There are two aspects to this polemic. The first is the apparently obvious one which casts Gandhi in a negative light by bringing his name into proximity with that of someone as odious as Hitler. The second is the more subtle point, that Gandhi was more violent in dismantling the system that existed in British India, and Hitler in Germany was not so thorough as Gandhi,. The first polemical point has more force and is in consonance with Žižek’s publicly stated stand where he sides with Amdedkar against Gandhi. There is no love lost between the Mahatma and the ‘Elvis of Cultural Theory’.

The Government of India was so agitated by Slavoj Žižek’s pronouncements against the father of the nation (that he made while on a tour of India to deliver a lecture at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi, in 2009) that the Slovenian embassy was sent a missive inquiring whether Zizek’s (a former Slovenian presidential candidate) stand on Gandhi was the European nation’s official position. Žižek, when contacted by the Slovenian apparatchiks allegedly told them to respond that ‘it was not the Slovenian Government’s official position at the moment, but only gradually becoming so’.

Žižek, in a public lecture on ‘The Need to Censor Our Dreams’, delivered at the London School of Economics (which he calls the Libyan School of Economics owing to the fact that Gaddafi Jr. was an alumnus of that institute, and that there were allegations of it receiving Libyan Government funding), in 2014, derides the ‘Brahmin’ cultural studies theorists of India. Žižek says elsewhere that, ” I have troubles with Gandhi. He was a great guy, he did many great things, but his attitude towards caste was what I’m tempted to call ‘proto-fascist’. He was not for the abolition of castes, his motto was, ‘every caste is divine and they have their own role to play‘(Slavoj Žižek).  

Caste as an ether envelopes India, and externalises its unconscious, like the planet Solaris in Stanislaw Lem’s eponymous science fiction novel, which turns the innermost and hidden thoughts of humans into material reality. The putrefaction slides out and mingles with the earth, where it becomes hierarchy.

 I was not visualizing the nauseating mud-eruption which had swallowed up the gold-rimmed spectacles and carefully brushed moustache. I was seeing the engraving on the title-page of his classic work, and the close-hatched strokes against which the artist had made his head stand out — so like my father’s, that head, not in its I features but in its expression of old-fashioned wisdom and honesty, that I was finally no longer able to tell which of them was looking at me, my father or Giese. They were dead, and neither of them buried, but then deaths without burial are not uncommon in our time. The image of Giese vanished, and I momentarily forgot the Station, the experiment, Rheya and the ocean. Recent memories were obliterated by the overwhelming conviction that these two men, my father and Giese, nothing but ashes now, had once faced up to the totality of their existence, and this conviction afforded a profound calm which annihilated the formless assembly clustered around the grey arena in the expectation of my defeat.
-Lem, Stanislaw. ‘Solaris’

 In Kerala, when Dr. Palpu, (1863 – 1950), bacteriologist, fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in London, and one of the earliest social reformers and a comrade of Sree Naryana Guru, sent a job application to the local ruler, he received in return a hubristic response that cited caste rules mandating the following of one’s ancestral trade. The letter has become legendary, and so has the insult, even in contemporary times, forgetting the fact that the King was an anal retentive who had sent similar letters, to follow their respective ancestral professions, to upper caste job-seekers as well. Thus even the repudiation of caste takes on the hues of caste, which thus clouds the vision and overpowers the olfactory sense with its stench. It is like the euphemistic chewing gum that sticks to your footwear. There is no getting good riddance of it, outside of radical modes of transformation. (Ralph Ellison in his immortal work ‘The Invisible Man’ suggests that racism is not a visual thing, but anti-visual. It is not sensorial, but anti-sensorial )

The plight of the Rohingya is a case in point. In Myanmar, the Rakhine have been violently attacked, and displaced and also made to flee, which are acts of unspeakable violence and cruelty. But if you turn the objective, cold blooded lens of history inwards, India, where 40,000 or so of the Rohingyas have been living has been even more cruel to them. Their humanity has been denied, and even worse, their status as refugees is being debated in the media. They are a proud people, and in this spirit a couple of Rohingya gentlemen in Delhi, arranged to slaughter a buffalo for their Eid festivities and were promptly beaten up by goons for this importunate seeming act. They had been deprived of their homeland and their livelihoods, but not their humanity, which they only lost in their exodus to India and Bangladesh. Myanmar had a system of exclusion which was extremely brutal and unjustifiable. But their status as a ‘form of life’ was questioned only in India, where they became the excreta, the purged shadow people. An entire millennia-old history is repeating itself again before our eyes, this time as farce. It involves no large-scale violence, murder or subjugation, but only casual indifference, minor cruelty and Vedic genius.

Some scientists adopted a position at the other extreme, and agitated for more vigorous steps to be taken. The administrative director of the Universal Cosmological Institute ventured to assert that the living ocean did not despise men in the least, but had not noticed them, as an elephant neither feels nor sees the ants crawling on its back.

–Lem, Stanislaw. ‘Solaris’



 Umar Nizar is a Research Scholar in JNU. A former journalist with the New Indian Express, his poems have been published in the Ibex Press Year’s Best Selection, Vayavya, Muse India, Culture Cafe journal of the British Library, and also broadcast by the All India Radio. His research interests include Alternate aesthetic theories of modernism, comparative religion, fusion ethics across categories and Philsophical systems of the mind.

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