October 1999
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‘Caste is a precious gift’

The caste system receives generous treatment in Indian textbooks. Even the section in the text book of the Gujarat state board that seeks to explain the constitutional policy of reservations makes remarks about the continued illiteracy of the ‘scheduled castes and tribes.’

So, for instance, the same textbook pays lip service to political correctness through a fleeting reference to the fact that the varna system later became hierarchical, but in the same chapter, a few paragraphs later, literally extols the virtues of the intent of the varna system itself.

There is also no attempt nor desire, either in this text or the ICSE texts to explain the inhuman concept of ‘untouchability’ (based on the notion, “so impure as to be untouchable”) that Jyotiba Phule and B.R. Ambedkar made it their life’s mission to challenge, socially and politically. In understanding and teaching about caste, both this text and other ICSE texts display a marked reluctance to admit or link the ancient-day varna system to modern-day Indian social reality.

“The ‘Varna’ System: The Varna system was a precious gift of the Aryans to the mankind. It was a social and economic organisation of the society built on the basis of the principle of division of labour. Learning or education, defence, trade and agriculture and service of the community are inseparable organs of the social fabric. The Aryans divided the society into four classes or ‘varnas’. Those who were engaged in the pursuit of learning and imparted education were called ‘Brahmins or Purohits (the priestly classes). Those who defended the country against the enemy were called the Kshastriyas or the warrior class. Those who were engaged in trade agriculture were called the Vaishyas. And those who acted as servants or slave of the other three classes were called the Shudras. In the beginning, there were no distinction of ‘high’ and low. The varna or class of a person was decided not on the basis of birth but on the basis of his work or karma. Thus a person born of a Shudra father could become a Brahmin by acquiring learning or by joining the teaching profession…In course of time however, the varna system became corrupted and ‘birth’ rather than ‘vocation’ came to be accepted as the distinguishing feature of the varna system. Thus society was permanently divided into a hierarchy of classes. The Brahmins were regarded as the highest class while the Shudras were treated as the lowest. These distinctions have persisted in spite of the attempts made by reformers to remove them. Yet, the importance of the ‘Varna’ system as an ideal system of building the social and economic structure of a society cannot be overlooked”. (Emphasis added).

(Social Studies text, Gujarat State Board, Std. IX)
The only reference in this standard IX text to the indignities of the caste system as it exists today is through an attempt to blame the plight of the untouchables on their own illiteracy and blind faith.
“Problems of Schedule Castes and Scheduled Tribes: Of course, their ignorance, illiteracy and blind faith are to be blamed for lack of progress because they still fail to realise importance of education in life. Therefore, there is large-scale illiteracy among them and female illiteracy is a most striking fact. (Emphasis added). ” 

(Social Studies text, Gujarat State Board, Std. IX)
The ICSE texts are similarly non-critical and evasive. 
The New ICSE History and Civics, edited by Hart and Barrow, Part 1 has this to say.
“The Caste System: The division of society into four varnas (classes) had its origin in the Rig Vedic period. Members of the priestly class were called brahmins; those of the warrior class, kshatriyas; agriculturists and traders, vaisyas; and the menials, sudras. It is said that the caste system in the Rig Vedic times was based on occupations of the people and not on birth. Change of caste was common. A Brahmin child could become a kshatriya or a vaisya according to his choice or ability…

“Varna in Sanskrit means the colour of skin and the caste system was probably used to distinguish the fair coloured Aryans from the dark coloured natives. The people of higher castes (brahmins, kshatriyas, and vaisyas) were Aryans. The dark skinned natives were the sudras, the lowest class in society, whose duty was to serve the high class. 

Demonising Christianity, Islam

In a chapter titled, ‘ Problems of the Country and Their Solutions’, the Social Studies, Std.IX text of the Gujarat Board has a section with a sub-heading, ‘Minority Community’,that labels Muslims, even Christians and Parsees, as ‘foreigners’. It also states that Hindus are in a minority in most states. It reads:

“But apart from the Muslims, even the Christians, Parsees and other foreigners are also recognised as the minority communities. In most of the states the Hindus are in minority and Muslims, Christians and Sikhs are in majority in these respective states”. 

The same text also selectively denigrates the Catholic priesthood of the middle ages which may be legitimate but is suspicious when similar exacting criticism is not accorded to the Brahmin religious hierarchy. Monetary exploitation and persistent sexual harassment by the caste hierarchy in India which was not merely historically legitimised by caste but brutally holds Dalit women to ransom even today. 

“The priests of the Catholic church had accumulated plenty of wealth through unjust taxes, illegal fees, ownership of large tracts of land, selling miracles and indulgences. They spent this money on worldly pleasures and immoral behaviour. (SS, Std.IX).

“The Christian Church was a part and parcel of this integrated feudal system. Almost half of the land and other property belonged to the bishops or the heads of parishes. The Pope who was the head of the Roman Catholic Church was himself a big landlord. The Church received sumptuous gifts of land from the king as well as the lords. Thus the Church had amassed great wealth. The Pope, archbishop, bishops and other priests lost their heads, forgot their duties and lived a life of luxury and sensual pleasures.” (SS, Std. X)

 The following extract is from a recommended third year  B.A. textbook for the student of history in Maharashtra. The chapter on Mahmud of Ghaznavi is used blatantly by the author to launch a tirade against Islam itself.
The opening para reads: “The advent of Islam might have been a boon to the Arabs who got united under its banner, and were enthused by it to carry on conquests in Asia, Africa and Europe but it has been a curse for the people outside Arab world because wherever the Islamic hordes went, they not only conquered the countries, but killed millions of people and plundered their homes and places of worship and destroyed their homes, places of worship and above all their artworks”. 

The author continues: “The general Islamic belief that political power can be claimed by anyone who can wield power goes not only against the legality of inheritance to throne but encourages intrigues, plots rebellions and assassinations of father by his son, brother by his brother, ruler by his military commander or minister and above all master by his servant, nay, even by his slave. There might have been some killings of such a type among the people of other religious faiths like the Hindus or Christians but those were exceptions while in the Islamic people these have occurred as a rule, not as exceptions”. 

The author makes his orientation more and more plain as we read on. The question, however, is how did such a text past muster and how does it continue to be one of the recommended texts at the graduation level in Maharashtra. “The king of the Ghaznavides, Subuktagin, who started raids on India in the last decades of 10th century A.D. was a slave of Alptagin, who himself was a slave of Samanid ruler of Khorasan. So it is the slave of the slave who set in process, the Islamic invasion from 10th century A.D.”

This is how the concluding para reads.”Why these atrocities? Because Islam teaches only atrocities. Have not Islamic invaders done so wherever they had gone, be that India or Africa or Europe?” (Emphasis added). Mahmud returned to Ghazni with a large booty.” 

‘Sati was a virtue’

The authors of Indian textbooks retain an extremely ambivalent position when it comes to  describing the status of women in ancient India Gujarat state social studies’ texts have no critical comment on the Manusmruti. “The Manusmruti or Manava Dharma Shastra has helped in the forming of the Hindu code while the Puranas besides being religious books are a treasure of Indian history.” How equitous or inequitous was, or is, the Hindu code? What was the status accorded to women under it? There is a suspicious silence in the text on the issue.

There is, however, clear- cut statement on the ‘low’ position of women in the Ancient civilisations of Greece in the same Std. IX social studies text in Gujarat.  “Women occupied a very low position in Athens and other city-states of Greece. They were denied the right to participate in public life or to get education. Home was considered to be the best place for them. They hardly ever appeared in public places. They were denied the right even to vote. The references to women in the literature of that period can be regarded as derogatory.” 

Students studying the ICSE course are given a novel understanding of how Rajputs translated into practice “their respect for women’’. The text starts by telling us how Rajputs had a deep respect for their women. But a few paras later we are told: “The birth of a female was considered as a bad omen in the family. Very often, such a child was killed immediately after its birth. (Emphasis added). 

In a chapter titled, “Rajput Contribution”, the New ICSE History and Civics, edited by Hart and Barrow, Part 1, accords special place to the Rajput period. The authors state that this period has a special importance in India. Why? “It is noteworthy that the Rajputs were the last Hindu kings in Indian history,” state the authors going on to extol the uniqueness of the period under the heading of “Rajput Custom.” Here we are told of the Rajputs’ “Respect for Women”:

“The Rajputs respected their women. The women too had their self-respect. They would burn themselves in the fire of jauhar rather than fall victims in the hands of their enemies”.

“Position of Women. The Rajput women enjoyed freedom in society. They could choose their husbands in swayamvara. They were educated, they could read and write Sanskrit. They took part in public life. Re-marriage of widows was not allowed. Rajput women were deeply religious. They spent most of their time listening to pious stories from religious books like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata”.

“Polygamy and Female Infanticide: The rich and the ruling class practised polygamy, though one of the wives was treated as the chief wife. The birth of a female was considered as a bad omen in the family. Very often, such a child was killed immediately after its birth”. 

“Child marriage: The daughters of the family were married of at an early age in order to safeguard their honour. Once married, the Rajput women were very devoted to their husbands. They would sacrifice their lives to safeguard their honour.

The same Rajputs we are also told, with no critical comment, abhorred untouchables.
“Caste System: While the Rajputs held the Brahmins in high regard, they despised the untouchables who were even forbidden to live within the town or the village. The Rajputs considered that it was their exclusive right to fight battles and no other person could raise arms in the battlefield. The rigidity of the caste system led to the narrow-minded attitude among the Indians during this period. 

“Sati and Jauhar: It was considered a virtue to perform sati, that is, to immolate oneself at the funeral pyre of one’s husband. The jauhar was performed when the Rajput women burnt themselves to death to escape dishonour at the hands of the Muslim invaders. It is said that Rani Padmini, with 16,000 Rajput women did jauhar in Chittorgarh by walking into fire when their men marched into the battlefield to fight to the finish instead of surrendering themselves to their enemy”.  

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