Last month, our Sociology of Education course within the MA Education programme had the privilege of hosting a guest lecture by the renowned writer-activist, Sunny M Kapicadu. The discussion revolved around the topic of caste, which is central to how social stratification operates in the Indian context.
Students were exposed to perspectives on the characteristics and perils of the caste system and imaginations around annihilating it. Having personally gained knowledge and inspiration from Kapicadu’s insightful public lectures available on YouTube, for example, here, I was excited for our students to listen to him.
Throughout the lecture, Kapicadu highlighted several key ideas that shed light on the intricate nature of the caste system and its impact on society.
Kapicadu delved into the multiple definitions of caste, which characterises it as a system of social relations, division of labour, operating around the notion of ‘Shuddhi’ (purity), and enclosed class. These definitions illustrate the complex and multifaceted nature of the caste system.
He elaborated on the inherent characteristics of caste, including membership through birth, forceful endogamy, control of women’s sexuality, violence, exclusion, unequal possession of land and capital, and the collective mental state that in turn manifests as actual physical force. These characteristics underscore the deep-rooted and oppressive nature of the caste system.
Kapicadu emphasised that untouchability is not merely a practice but is based on assumptions about basic human relationality, categorising some bodies as holy and others as undeserving. This is perpetuated through the divine sanction of ‘Chathurvarnya,’ which negates the existence of others.
He further made it clear that true egalitarianism is unattainable in a social system shaped by caste relations. Caste system inherently perpetuates inequality and discrimination.
He pointed out the tendency to remain silent about caste in public discourse, highlighting that caste is often being replaced by modern ideals of citizenship and class. However, he emphasised that silence does not equate to the absence of caste.
In today’s times, Kapicadu argued that an anti-caste stance is of utmost significance. To truly create a more inclusive and equitable society, it is essential to actively challenge and dismantle the deeply ingrained thoughts and emotions around the caste system.
Kapicadu’s lecture left a profound impact on all of us, sparking thoughtful conversations and encouraging us to critically reflect on our own roles in addressing the perils of the caste system. It underscored the importance of education in challenging and dismantling oppressive social structures and left us with a renewed commitment to foster a society where caste no longer exists and no longer dehumanises people.
The lecture brought out the subtle nuances of caste practices in modern society very subtly. Even in this modern era of educated, literate, and progressive people, caste discrimination has evolved its forms but remains an invisible power, wielding its influence over all people, be they educated or not, rich or poor, male or female.
The lecture challenged our myth of the notion of progressiveness in an educated environment and raised questions about the objectives of education. Are we really progressive, as we think we are? I wonder!
Contemporary Indian society is riddled with questions of caste. Is there caste at all in Indian society? Isn’t caste only a cultural system that accommodates diverse groups? Should our reservation system be caste-based, or should it prioritise reservations based on economic conditions?
For those against the caste system, why would they utilise caste-based reservation policies? Would a caste census reveal the harsh realities of the system, or would it be exploited for political gain? Shouldn’t we carry the attitude of castelessness in modern societies, rather than reinforce caste by shaping our policies around it? Isn’t the constitutional provision of equality contradictory to the provision for positive discrimination towards some groups?
Many such questions put young people in a confused state of mind about their positionality towards caste as a social system.
This might also blind them to one’s own location in the larger society and how this might have shaped their experiences of education, occupation, and social mobility. Individuals and groups otherise each other based on their caste identities or their positionalities towards the caste system, and hate and anger become the emotions that shape human relationalities.
Classroom discussions about some of these questions post Kapicadu’s lecture, I believe, have opened up pathways to engage with caste from a more critical and humanistic perspective.
In contemporary situations, many of us are well-educated and believe there is no caste or caste-based discrimination. It is not so true; caste-based or class-based discrimination still exists, the form in which it exists could be different or changed. The culture we glorify, the tradition we follow, has some rationale behind it but we are blindly following such practices which have some pre-existing discriminatory beliefs.
About the Author
Vijitha Rajan is an MA in Education faculty member at Azim Premji University. She connects practice and theory to seed critical thinking and humanistic perspective in her students.