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Warped in caste conundrum

Warped in caste conundrum

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Surendra Kumar

In early 1960s, at my college, Syed Mubarak Ali, the Art teacher, and Devi Singh, physical training teacher, used to be served food in white porcelain plates at teachers’ lunches while others ate in brass thalis. I thought it must be a reward for their meritorious services; they were two of the most popular teachers. Years later, the retired principal let out the secret: it was an action in pollution control rather than recognition of their talent! According to him, the brass/copper was good conductor not only for transmitting electric current but also for pollution related to caste and religion. If Ali, a Muslim (Mleksha) and Singh a Scheduled Caste (Shudra) were served food in thalis, pollution of a Mleksha and a Shudra would have passed on to other teachers; they could have resigned. So, introduction of porcelain plate was a diplomatic solution: it avoided offending other teachers and also retained the much needed two teachers. I was left speechless at the genius of the scion of a family of Chaturvedis (who had mastered all the four Vedas!)

In late 1960s, at one of Allahabad University’s hostels named after a great Indian educationist, there was no ban on admission of the Muslim/SC students if their marks met the criterion but the students of these two categories seldom opted for this hostel. Once, a Muslim student got admitted. On the very first night, during the harrowing ragging session, the seniors set fire to his pubic hair; he ran for his life without collecting his meagre possessions, never to return again!

An additional secretary in the MEA, on a trip to Hong Kong in late 1980s, won’t initiate a conversation with the first secretary as he couldn’t figure out correctly what caste he belonged to. He rose to become the foreign secretary and died in harness as the governor of an important state!

A former young Turk of the Congress party, while serving as the governor didn’t know what to talk to when he couldn’t make out the caste of the Indian ambassador designate from his name. When his repeated insistence on the full name failed to elicit the most vital information, an exasperated Rajyapal Ji blurted out “OK, then, what is your caste?” He rose to become the vice-president of India!

In 1980s, the vice-president of India (he later became the President) who had graduated from the prestigious Cambridge University of UK felt terribly uncomfortable in talking to the head of the Hindi Service of BBC’s World Service during his visit to London when the Press Counsellor couldn’t tell him in advance the caste of the interviewer!

On the auspicious day of Holi this year, after the time for throwing colour and besmirching faces with gulal was over, one of the retired ambassadors residing in the IFS apartments requested us to drop by for a drink in the evening. Another ambassador, retired recently, had also joined with his wife. While we were chatting about increasing cases of rapes in Delhi, this ambassador turned to me and asked, “So, what is full name?”

Forty years after joining the IFS, I was puzzled by such a question from a fellow ambassador. But to satisfy him, I told him my name as mentioned in my passport.

Not contented, he said, “Let me rephrase my question, if you were to give your full name, what it would be?” I replied, “This is all what it will be; there is nothing more to add or subtract!”

Not to give up his single-minded quest, he added, “Then let me ask you directly: what is your caste?” I couldn’t resist telling him tersely that he reminded me of that AS (AD), the governor, the vice-president & the President of India who were lost for words unless they knew the caste of an individual and that I was wrong in imagining that 38 years in IFS with several postings abroad and the tolerant faith he followed might have made him lose interest in the phenomenon of caste. “Well, I wanted to know out of curiosity’, he responded.

Surprisingly, like that governor 20 years back, he showed no curiosity about the fact that I was India’s ambassador in Libya for five years and had met Col. Gaddafi more than 20 times!

After listening to thumris, dadras and kajris in soulful voice of matchless Girija Devi ji at Azad Bhavan last month, I and my wife were having dinner on the lawns with the renowned art critic, Shanta Sarabjeet Singh. Another lady whose face looked familiar turned towards me and remarked that she had attended some of IAFA events at the IIC including the memorial for late Dr Abid Hussain. Then I realised, she was the wife of a highly respected civil cervant who had spent nearly three decades in the US with an international organisation. Suddenly, this lady turned to my wife and whispered, “Is your husband’s last name Kohli?” “No, it’s Kumar” my wife whispered back. “Kumar? So, what is he?” she couldn’t suppress her curiosity!

Since India took the plunge in favour of economic liberalisation in 1991-92, a lot has changed in India for the better, contrary to the claims of cynics and naysayers. We have a middle class bigger than the total population of the US; cellphone owners number three times the number in the US. From the stage of having to mortgage gold, the outflow of investment from Indian firms today is higher than the annual inflow of FDI. Though industrial production and economic growth have slowed down, India is still one of the fastest growing economies. India’s IT industry, especially software sector, is a force to reckon. With demographic dividend on her side, India is tipped to be a major global player in the knowledge society of tomorrow.

But what might trip India? Near total collapse of moral and ethical values in day-to-day life, governance and management; insatiable obsession with caste (those who claim that caste doesn’t matter to them are simply being hypocrite and dishonest) and rampant corruption at all levels of life. In the US and UK if you told your co-passenger in the metro that you were from a business firm or a university, your introduction was complete; conversation veered around the business firm or the academics of that university. But in India, the mother of all curiosities is the curiosity about one’s caste! Just have a look at the matrimonial columns, some of the brightest young men and women coming from IITs/IIMs and serving in lucrative positions are looking for suitable matches from their respective castes! The sage who said: jati na poochho sadhu ki.. was wrong! He should have urged: jati hi poochho sadhu ki …!!

Mera Bharat Mahaan!
Jai ho!


The writer is a former secretary in the ministry of external affairs.

[Courtesy: The Asian Age, June 11, 2013]