Casteism: TamBrahms

It is very easy to say “I am against the caste system”. In fact, it is so easy, that everyone says it.

I say it too.

Every now and then I try to see how exactly that statement reflects in my own real life – what it means to me.

Within my own head, when someone talks about caste indifferently, condoning it, or defending it, I immediately fume and rage and slot them away as casteist. Quickly and easily I absolve myself from any guilt or responsibility from that situation.

Later, when I meet someone else or recount that incriminating conversation, I cast myself insidiously in a better light.

“How ignorant can someone be to talk about caste? I know right. Indians are really the worst. I did not even know where to start. My breath would be wasted. I’ve really given up.”

Suddenly, removed from that conversation, when the climate is more conducive, it is as if I was the better person.

So now, when I actually say “I am against the caste system” I feel internally validated. I am the person I think I am. A virtuous, liberal, well-adjusted person. Because I took it all in the stride and made it out without a moral blemish.

But that is within my mind. The hypocritical bit.

Truly, it does not matter what I think. It is what I do, what I say, how I react, that determines what I stand for.

Ever wondered what the guillotined would have thought if they knew their executioner’s heart bled for the victims in secret?

I’ll give a hint. Fill in the blanks.

“Not one fly_ng fuck”

Everyone is against the caste system until the tip of their tongues. Till the clenching of the fists. Then something happens and what oozes out is resigned socialese, that insipid dribble of weak laughter, silent judgment, and no-risk-territory.

But how many people are in positions – socially, professionally, maritally, personally – to speak out, if not every time, at least sometimes, consistently? Not many. So they open up when with the right people, at the right time.

It is, after all, taxing and risky to want to change the status quo. And that too for what?

While I understand the plight of those who don’t speak up, extending them the benefits of doubt, very rarely do I find them inspiring.

Doesn’t everyone lose something when they stand up for something? Isn’t it universal?

Yes, granted, some lose less, some lose more. Some have less to lose while some have more to lose. When someone stands up for something, it is a risk they are taking. While the same can be said of someone who keeps quiet, it is those who speak up, those who act, who inspire.

To speak in a gathering of like-minded people is easier. While there is value in the active effort of finding strength in numbers, in the prudence of organization, all the while recognizing where each person is in their maturity and ability to counter or stake their stance, it still does not match up to someone actively countering regressive beliefs in-person.

In-person engagement mostly trumps online activism which often descends into proxy keyboard battles, but being vocal online has its advantages in helping to structure thoughts, of sifting through arguments, of a larger reach, in having permanence of what is being said to be fact checked or referred, and the valuable exit option of disassociating when the going gets too heated.

In my case, I’ve realized that I have, till now (and I don’t for one second believe this run would continue) managed to engage, understand, and if possible, co-opt or push back some beliefs that crop up during personal interactions.

The more I analyse caste, the more I realize it is not a well-defined problem. It ends where many other discriminations start, all of which are intertwined.

That is probably why many people condone casteism.

“Poor fellow, he has a thousand and one problems already”

It is never easy.

Even with all those considerations and commiserations, I still think, casteism, among Indians, is one of the most influential social discriminators. I think that is also why casteism ranks high up on my hot buttons, along with sexism and classism. This awareness of the non-linear spectrum of intersectionalities (because even though I have listed only three there are so many others that have would a greater immediacy to many) should give an indication of how committed someone is in their claim for justice in the world.

When I hear someone passionate about just one tiny aspect of this inequality menu, completely insensitive to the other forms, I find myself questioning their maturity in spotting discrimination. Again, admittedly, there are those who know they are not doing justice to many forms of discriminations, those who admit to not recognizing many methods of recourses (like movies, art, politics, personal behaviors) because all their energy is spent on just one. This is a problem of a specialist. But somewhere, they all have a bigger picture view of the interconnectedness of problems and can spot discrimination in its many forms even if they can’t focus on them fully.

I struggle with this myself.

I am ignorant of so many problems that, sometimes I am plagued with guilt at what I might be missing from the other person’s perspective which they aren’t able to/don’t care to articulate.

Privilege makes a person as eloquent in defending their status as much as how need necessitates a person to express themselves.

Case in point, TamBrahms. Tamil Brahmins.

I speak of Tambrahms more than I speak of Nairs just by virtue of association. I know more Tamil Brahmins than Nairs and I suspect casteism in Kerala is as bad as in Tamil Nadu, among Nairs as much as TamBrahms.

But first, what exactly is casteism?

We can use this as a working definition. “It is the unequal social discriminations and privileges reinforced along caste identities.”

There are various hierarchies of castes, and no caste is exempt from casteism towards those beneath them. This is not an indictment on just one caste, the TamBrahms. I focus on them only because I run into them a lot. It speaks for my social setting too and how biased or cushioned my researches (none too rigorous) and experiences have been. In fact, I can count in my hands the number of Dalit friends I have.

In case you are wondering if this is Brahmin, and by extension Nair and Namboothiri and Trivedi etc., bashing, let me clarify.

Yes, it is.

If their privileged caste is the primary identity of the individual, something they are unwilling to shed, I find it problematic, especially when they take the moral high ground in other places where they feel discriminated against.

While a lot of better qualities can overcome the deficiencies of an individual’s caste practice and elevate them to better humans, it is always “despite the caste affirmation that I respect them, not because of”.

Caste Not Culture

One of the first refrains that I hear from a TamBrahm is that they don’t believe in caste. They are Brahmins because of their culture. That is why you see a lot of poonal wearing atheists, or madisaru wearing culture chameleon maamis.

One of the signs of how deep-rooted caste is in Indian society is how each caste system within India has its own anthropological ecosystem.

Is it culture? Yes, it is culture.

But remember, there is a lot of casteism that has been baked into, that has gone into the shaping of these subcultures. When one speaks about how art flourishes in the families, of how literature and science are encouraged, what is not understood, or acknowledged, are the generations of patronage that have gone into bringing these very luxuriant social traits into the DNA of the Brahmin household.

Is culture that bad? Isn’t culture just culture? Every caste has their own subculture, doesn’t it?

The one thing to remember is that some cultures are shaped by riches. Some by hardships. Some cultures are benign, some oppressive. The very climate that created the superior culture of Brahmins, was what shaped the “inferior” culture of the Dalits. Those economic and social functions that were discarded by the Brahmin culture were forced upon the lower castes. So while the lower castes, out of historical ignorance or fierce pride, hold up their culture, that is not an excuse for Brahmins to double down on their own culture argument.

In casteism, when punching up to combat downward oppression, what is permissible to one group further down the ladder, might not be applicable to those higher up in that particular argument. When graded inequality works downwards, the benefits of doubts should be applied upwards, with the lower rungs always getting more lattitudes.

Otherization and Appropriation of Identity

One of the most alienating features of a normal human being is when their way of life is ghetto-ized. Wherever one travels, when the general discourses only recognize one dominant lifestyle, one subculture, the feelings of alienation seeps in.

Where are we? Where is my food? Where are my festivals? Where are my names?

In Tamil Nadu, there is the deceptively nominal glorification of the non-brahmins in movies. But Tamil movies have attained such a sense of stupor, that you can show anything packaged in the format of dance, love, fight, a climax that it is a farce to think they have been a tool for betterment in this case. It is frustrating to watch the space movies take in an average individual’s life, and how it is being frittered away.

Tamil movies are a mass opiate that nullifies. A placebo that is offered the downtrodden as a cultural trophy.

Wherever I travel, there is mention of South Indian food as Dosa’s, Idlis and Sambhars. Of curd rice and filter coffees. Of Hindu papers and doctors and engineers. Of Bharathi songs and Carnatic music. Even of those who have been co-opted into the mainstream psyche, like Ilaiyaraja and MS Subbulakshmi, their veneer of divinity played no small part in their total assimilation, to the point where their roots are erased.

The achievements hailed by Indians, the Nobel laureates, the hall-of-famers, are all disproportionately from the Brahmin class.

They are all tremendous achievements.

Are they to be faulted? Are their achievements to be belittled?

Definitely not.

This is not a case of stripping away what has been achieved but acknowledging the chain of privileges that has given rise to this selection of achievers. Understanding this in itself would go a long way in sensitizing how we speak about them. We would be a little more considerate in how we trot out the merit inherent. If we think to take stock of the cultural practices and icons that we hold up, are aware of the patterns, we would make for a better breed of humans.

But I do not mean harm

I am not sure what to make of anything that celebrates a culture that is casteist. Madisaru, golu, poonal ceremony, TamBrahm congregations etc. I find it distasteful. I find it clannish. The stubborn need to stick to their kind and celebrate those ties to a caste identity. To anybody saying they don’t believe in castes while enjoying everything that their caste identity gives them is hypocritical.

It is unstudied and lazy. You choose not to “believe in it” but you are doing everything to perpetuate it.

How much then do you really understand about discrimination and the various forms it takes?

Shedding casteism is not the same as shedding the name of an Iyer or Iyengar. It is also in the first names. It is in the names that you won’t ever christen your children.It is in the language, in the festivals, in the attires. It is in the stererotypes, in the real estates, in the shunned professions, in the constant markers, small and big, that differentiates you from everyone else, that screams “I am a TamBrahm”.

Do I expect then for TamBrahms to strip down each and every custom and rebuild an identity, a life, a lifestyle shorn of casteism?

Yes. I do.

In the absence /refusal of such commitment, go ahead. Follow the customs.

Just, please, do not claim virtue.

Without one single iota of doubt, it is casteist.

It is easy to drop the name of an Iyer or an Iyengar. It is passive. What matters is how much are you willing to correct actively? Not the thought or pretense, but the actual act of correcting, of changing your life?


How exactly does that absolve you from accusations of casteism?

To be continued as this is getting too long. 

But I really want to clear my head around these topics at least. In no particular order

  • Is reverse racism a thing. And reservations?
  • Can we shed the worst of caste and take the best of it?
  • Maturity curves of awareness, because not everyone has time or energy.
  • Intersectionality – feminism, classism, and casteism so who can speak what?
  • Data vs Intent ( the role of data (probably different from facts) in arguments)
  • What about religion?
  • Hipsterism and post discrimination.
  • Is social justice pursuit ever honest, or, whatabouttery?

And so on and so forth.

I realized writing about these, without humor, without fictionalizing, brings out exactly what I think about the subject. It is easier to sound wise otherwise.

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