Over the last year, I spoke at Universities in Canada and the United States on India’s development challenges. One question that repeatedly came up was on the issue of caste and how it was impacting India. India’s caste system has been much studied and researched. It has been criticized and commented upon. Many have blamed it for the present day ills. Subscribing to the view that ‘development is an expansion of human capabilities’ and that poverty is more a lack of opportunity rather than anything else, I have been personally disgusted by the discrimination and the denial of opportunity that the caste system has created. Part of my dream for India was an egalitarian and caste-free society where every Indian would have equal opportunity to pursue his life without fear and with all his basic needs addressed. The State would only be a facilitator, ensuring that the people below the safety net have a helping hand. Will our caste ridden societal framework ever let this happen? How could the system based on division of labor (as propounded in the Bhagavad Gita) have degenerated over the years to what it is today?
Our early ancestors were mainly hunter-gatherers and depended on crude weapons to help sustain their lives and economies. With progress came the concept of a settled existence and this led them to have land holdings, take to agriculture, store food grains and become less nomadic. Societal demands forced them to discover the secrets of metallurgy, fabricate better weapons, and develop their drive to acquire and defend. They not only had to start thinking about tomorrow, but also protect what they had and lead a life based on some social norms. Development of specialized skills also led them to exchange what they produced and rudiments of trade started emerging. This meant more laws and society needed more specialized skills and people with different skill-sets. People had to think through the way they lived and conducted themselves, the way they interacted with each other, they way they handled power and geographical boundaries. This meant that a class of people who were essentially thinkers and planners with knowledge of society, governance and statecraft emerged. To ensure that these laws were implemented and societal order maintained, another class of people with skills to do this emerged. Society could progress only because civilized growth and evolution forced them to have four major categories of people working for it. One was the worker class that tilled the land and ensured food security, what would be later called the ‘Shudras’. Another specialized in trade and economic growth: the ‘Vaishyas’. The ‘Brahmins’ devoted themselves to knowledge creation while the ‘Kshatriyas’ focused on governance and maintaining law & order. Each had a specific role to play based on the skill-sets that they acquired. The concept of societal progress occurring due to the convergence and collective movement in the areas of labor, knowledge, trade, politics and defense emerged and evolved. This ensured that growth and development not only happened but also was based on the reciprocity and interdependence of these categories.
Lessons in history and folklore also demonstrate how these divisions were not rigid but permitted movement across each compartment. The Brahmin could acquire knowledge of weaponry and become a Kshatriya. Dronacharya and Parashurama were examples of this. Kshatriyas could focus on knowledge acquisition and we have the example of Vishwamitra, a king who turned into a rishi. Karna representing the ‘labor class’ migrated to become ‘royalty’. History also tells us that movement across these sectors was not easy and had barriers and costs attached too. Ekalavya had to lose his thumb to acquire the skill sets of a Kshatriya. Progress also meant that the selected few got greedy and wanted to maintain their power and societal position. They realized that information was power and became the zealous guardians of it. This hardened the boundaries, made them more rigid and the barriers to migrate became impossible to surmount. Gradually, Indian society sank into being divided by class based on hierarchies and birth. In order to enjoy privileges, the few elite had to constantly invent new laws and preserve and sustain them through discrimination and denial. Opportunities gradually vanished. Passage of time and the exploitation of this system by outside forces like the British gave very little space for change. Though reformers attempted changing the social fabric, very few realized that such change without mainstreaming it through the economic fabric of society would neither last long nor be meaningful.
India is now on the verge of extraordinary economic growth. On one side we are growing at rates between 8 and 9 percent, while poverty levels are also alarmingly increasing. Where is the inclusive growth that the Government talks about? Does inclusivity merely mean being included in the economic framework? Should it also not include the framework of knowledge, governance, defense and trade? True inclusive growth can happen only when opportunities are created for all our citizenry, whether they live in a village or an urban area, to move from one compartment to another – freely and without barriers. The role of the government is to facilitate this either by economic support or through positive discrimination in the form of special reservations. The rest of the society must understand that any further denial of opportunity and excluding these segments of society will not augur well. Principles of reciprocity and interdependence can no longer be mere jargons, but have to be the fundamental pillars on which India’s growth is based. Only when this kind of opportunity is created and each of us can decide which compartment our skill sets are most suited for, will there be true equality. The caste system will gradually wither away and people can then aspire to be what they want to be, not by the largesse and support of the State, but out of their own free will and desire, with their dignity and self-esteem intact. This will ensure that they do not feel dependent and at the mercy of the ‘superior few’, but can move on in life and participate wholly and freely in the acquisition of knowledge, trade, politics and business.
That is the development that India desperately needs. Only then will growth be truly humane and inclusive.