30 June 2006


India has been known as one of the greatest civilisations in the world… well, at least, in the ancient world. For, over the years, India has become known as the land of the poor; the land of caste divisions, untouchability, dowry, sati, and various other gender discriminations and social ills. In the eyes of the world, these social ills and customs define India’s backwardness – a land unwilling, and unable, to change with the times, despite its growing importance in the global economic forum.

I’ve often wondered who sanctioned such social customs. What gave life to these social practices that made a great civilisation dysfunctional and turned it into a backward society? Perhaps, if we could find answers to this question, we could reverse the process of social backwardness in which India has been slotted… and make India a great civilisation once again. While reading up on the Net, I came across a very informative site on History of Social Relations in India (on Tripod) and have provided here several quotes from one of their articles on ‘Caste and gender equations in Indian history’.

Historically, caste and gender discriminations have been evident in many societies. They are not uniquely Indian as many people believe them to be. Wherever and whenever there have been hereditary and authoritarian ruling dynasties, or the domination by religion or a powerful state bureaucracy, social inequities have appeared. The roots of these inequities have been economic in nature and have, typically, focused on distribution of wealth, rights to property, and political power.

Socially, it seems, this has meant stratification of societies into classes, where the elite – made up of the royalty, the warriors, the priests and the land-owners – have garnered the greatest share of privileges. Not only that, according to the article I referred, this social system has “often meant hereditary privileges for the elite and legally (or socially) sanctioned discrimination against those considered lower down in the social hierarchy.” The article provided several interesting examples of this social stratification from various parts of the world, and I have reproduced below a few of these for you:

“…in Eastern Africa some agricultural societies were divided between land-owning and landless tribes (or clans) that eventually took on caste-like characteristics. Priests and warriors enjoyed special privileges in the 15th C. Aztec society of Mexico as did the Samurais (warrior nobles) and priests of medieval Japan. Notions of purity and defilement were also quite similar in Japanese society and members of society who carried out ‘unclean’ tasks were treated as social outcasts – just as in India.”

“Amongst the most stratified of the ancient civilizations was the Roman Civilization where in addition to state-sanctioned slavery, there were all manner of caste-like inequities coded into law. Even in the Christian era, European feudalism provided all manner of hereditary privileges for the knights and landed barons (somewhat akin to India’s Rajputs and Thakurs) and amongst the royalty, arranged marriages and dowry were just as common as in India. Discrimination against the artisans was also commonplace throughout Europe…”

“It should also be emphasized that caste-distinctions were not the only way, or even the most egregious way in which social inequities manifested themselves in older societies. In ancient Greece and Rome, the institution of slavery was at least as cruel a practice, if not worse…”

Are these examples of great societies or social backwardness? Do they celebrate civilisations or deride equal opportunities for human beings? Is there a learning for us all in these examples? Whatever they be, they do not seem to justify India’s position on social, political, religious or economic discrimination of its own people. Perhaps, it’s time India looked forward.

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