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South Asia

Socio-political Dynamics of the Hindu Caste System

Aditi Aryal

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If the discriminations and disparities on the basis of gender, race, religion, and creed were not cruel enough, there exists a system in Hindu societies that perpetuates segregation on the basis of caste. This caste system comprises four castes the Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudrain order of rank. This is a system that has been in place for a thousand years. This system is directly linked with other determinants of a person’s living standards and access to education, health, income, and opportunities. This extends much beyond a person and is a part of a larger society which is greatly prevalent even today in one form or the other.

Origin and History

The Hindu mythology places the birth of the caste system in the creator out of whose body parts; mouth, stomach, thighs, and soles of the feet; emerged different groups of people. This gave birth to four castes, and the interpretation and development vary among different literatures but the essence that remains constant is that originally this system had been in place to serve the purpose of division of labour in the society. Basically, people were divided into various castes based on their occupation, the Brahman were the teachers and priests, Kshatriya were the army, the Vaishya merchants and traders, and the Shudras served the previous three castes. This meant that Shudra took up all the remaining work no one else wanted to do like sweep the streets, bury animal carcass, and work in other people’s fields.

This kept continuing over generations from one to another and people automatically started taking the occupations of the families they were born in. Over the years, the system originally of division of labour changed to a system of oppression as the higher castes became more educated and rich because the kind of work they were involved in and the conditions of the lower castes deteriorated because of various discriminations that had come their way. The others could dominate Shudras because they were poor, dirty, uneducated, and lived in terrible conditions.

Caste and Religion

This system has its bases in religion making it one corrupt institution that has furthered stratification in the society. When the idea of differentiation of people on the basis of their castes is made obligatory by religion, the individuals profoundly religious are bound to inflict upon others mistreatment and malpractice. It would be unreasonable to believe that people would discard what has been followed as tradition and culture guided by religion because if people were that kind of rational, this system would not be in existence today.

Having said that, we can now fathom a society where everybody knows each other’s caste and treat them on that basis. There exists inequality in society which is given validation due to the social norms and customs that are a huge part of religion, like visiting temples or participating in communal activities. The people from lower castes are banned from entering temples or fetching water from the communal wells and taps. In fact, people get violent towards them for entering temples on almost a regular basis. They are barred from hearing the religious texts, let alone see or read them. The very religion that rendered them as outcastes also does not permit them to read or practice it freely.

Additionally, the indigenous communities not traditionally Hindu have also been a part of this system due to an overwhelming influence of the Hindu majority in Nepal and India, both. This has also caused disadvantage to the people of minority religions and sects. Buddhism was in fact borne out of the fact that it was a necessary declination to an egalitarian society without discriminations based on caste.

Caste and Society

Because the societies are held intact by religion, it permeates into other social institutions and thus all these institutions fuse at some point. Therefore, due to the system of discrimination that is the caste system, there exists heredity and affinity towards one’s caste. People are born into one caste and they can be excommunicated if they are dishonorable. This system is kept in check and difficult to break out of because of the fear of shame that comes from being excommunicated from the caste and community.

The cultural and social behaviours are often pre-dictated and everybody that is a part of this system follows it without asking twice. The word ‘untouchable’ is not loosely used in this context. They are literally considered so. The Brahmins, for example, do not accept food or items that have been touched by the lower castes.

In a modern-day scenario, it could translate to a person being told off for hailing from a low caste, their opinions insignificant, and their say in social and personal affairs negligible. It was observed by Human Rights Watch in six states in India that children from lower castes cannot go to the same school as others, and if they do get enrolled they will not be allowed on desks and chairs but on the floor and other children do not interact with them. Also, the ethnic languages of these children belonging to the lower castes could be different; ‘crass’ and ‘uncivilized’; from the mainstream language so these children do not understand what is being taught to them and they cannot communicate with other kids who anyway refuse to interact with them in the first place. In India, an alarming 2 million children are out of school for these reasons. In rural Nepal, complaints of not being given adequate mid-day meals, forbidden from using the school toilets, and regular bullying are some of the reasons why they stop attending school.

A lot of urban people claim to not bother about the caste they belong to but the fact remains that a person’s caste is revealed by their surname and this complicates things because a person’s caste is not hidden. Surnames, in Hindu societies, cannot be easily changed because of societal attachment and responsibilities towards one’s clan and ancestry. Yet, people belonging to the lower castes have sanskritised by adopting the habits and rituals of the upper castes, and sometimes even their surnames.

It is believed that every 15 minutes, an atrocious crime is committed against a person of the lower caste and six women are raped per day. Women face double disadvantage since they are discriminated against by their husbands and family, and also by the society. According to the UN, stripping and naked parading, torture by pulling out nails and hair, sexual slavery, bondage, and witchcraft allegations is really common among the women of lower castes. The entire sham of untouchability seems to disappear when the men belonging to the higher castes deem it okay for them to enter into sexual relationships with the women of the lower castes. It is more accepted for men to marry women of lower castes but not vice-versa. Marriage outside the caste is still considered a taboo to maintain the purity in the caste and so in cases of breach, the guilty are severely punished by the community. The children of such marriages or inter-caste relationships do not inherit the high caste of their fathers but there exists a complicated system to ensure that the impure offspring does not claim a high caste.

Caste and Politics

Constitutionally, caste based discrimination is outlawed in both India and Nepal. However, historically, the Nepalese constitution in 1854 had propagated the system of caste hierarchy and rendered people as ‘enslavable’, ‘impure’ and ‘untouchable’. It was later outlawed in 1962.

Dirty games have always been played in politics keeping in centre the caste system. Representation of the lower castes have always been low and they are dominated in the local panchayats (village councils and tribunals). In Nepal and India, it has repeatedly been argued that the higher castes have always dominated regional and national politics despite reservation. In both these countries arguments have harboured against the system of reservation on the basis of caste which has been always favourable towards the creamy layer but the actual people who require these benefits. Politicians belonging to lower castes are very few in higher positions, but some include Mayavati and Ram Vilas Paswan who have only furthered their wealth but have contributed nothing significant to the people they represent.

The current President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, is the second president to have hailed from a lower caste since their independence from the British in 1947. However, vote bank politics has a major role to play here because since his affiliation with the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party, the people from lower castes en masse switched their votes from the Indian National Congress. The lower castes make up about 20% of the total Indian voters which definitely has a huge bearing on the society. Thus, they have always been political ploys to garner votes by mobilizing them but in return, they do not get what they are promised. Nothing is really significantly done to change the ground realities.

Aryal is a student of Social Science and writes about social and developmental issues pertaining to exclusion, inequalities, and gender disparities in the South Asian context.

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South Asia

The “Neo-Cold War” in the Indian Ocean Region

Kagusthan Ariaratnam

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Addressing an event last week at London’s Oxford University, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said some people are seeing “imaginary Chinese Naval bases in Sri Lanka. Whereas the Hambantota Port (in southern Sri Lanka) is a commercial joint venture between our Ports Authority and China Merchants – a company listed in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.”

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has denied US’ claims that China might build a “forward military base” at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port which has been leased out to Beijing by Colombo. Sri Lanka failed to pay a Chinese loan of $1.4 billion and had to lease the China-developed port to Beijing for 99 years. Both New Delhi and Washington had in the past expressed concerns that Beijing could use the harbor for military purposes.

Image courtesy of Google

The USA, China, and India are the major powers playing their key role in the “Neo-Cold War” in Central Asian landmass and the strategic sea lanes of the world in the Indian Ocean where 90% of the world trade is being transported everyday including oil. It is this extension of the shadowy Cold War race that can be viewed as the reason for the recent comment made by the US Vice President Mike Pence that China is using “debt diplomacy” to expand its global footprint and Hambantota “may soon become a forward military base for China’s expanding navy”.

According to some analysts, the deep-water port, which is near a main shipping route between Asia and Europe, is likely to play a major role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In his book “Monsoon” Robert D. Kaplan (2010), a senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security notes the following:

[…] the Indian Ocean will turn into the heart of a new geopolitical map, shifting from a unilateral world power to multilateral power cooperation. This transition is caused by the changing economic and military conditions of the USA, China and India. The Indian Ocean will play a big role in the 21st century’s confrontation for geopolitical power. The greater Indian Ocean region covers an arc of Islam, from the Sahara Desert to the Indonesian archipelago. Its western reaches include Somalia, Yemen, Iran, and Pakistan — constituting a network of dynamic trade as well as a network of global terrorism, piracy, and drug trafficking […]

Two third of the global maritime trade passes through a handful of relatively narrow shipping lanes, among which five geographic “chokepoints” or narrow channels that are gateway to and from Indian ocean: (1) Strait of Hormuz (2) Bab el-Mandab Passage (3) Palk Strait (4) Malacca and Singapore Straits and (5) Sunda Strait.

While Lutz Kleveman (2003), argues that the Central Asia is increasingly becoming the most important geostrategic region for the future commodities, Michael Richardson (2004) on the other hand explains that the global economy depends on the free flow of shipping through the strategic international straits, waterways, and canals in the Indian Ocean.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA)  report published in 2017, “world chokepoints for maritime transit of oil are a critical part of global energy security. About 63% of the world’s oil production moves on maritime routes. The Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca are the world’s most important strategic chokepoints by volume of oil transit” (p.1). These channels are critically important to the world trade because so much of it passes through them. For instance, half of the world’s oil production is moved by tankers through these maritime routes. The blockage of a chokepoint, even for a day, can lead to substantial increases in total energy costs and thus these chokepoints are critical part of global energy security.  Hence, whoever control these chockpoints, waterways, and sea routes in the Indian Ocean maritime domain will reshape the region as an emerging global power.

In a recent analysis of globalization and its impact on Central Asia and Indian Ocean region, researcher Daniel Alphonsus (2015), notes that the twists and turns of political, economic and military turbulence were significant to all great players’ grand strategies:

(1) the One Belt, One Road (OBOR), China’s anticipated strategy to increase connectivity and trade between Eurasian nations, a part of which is the future Maritime Silk Road (MSR), aimed at furthering collaboration between south east Asia, Oceania and East Africa; (2) Project Mausam, India’s struggle to reconnect with its ancient trading partners along the Indian Ocean, broadly viewed as its answer to the MSR; and (3) the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, the USA’s effort to better connect south and south east Asian nations. (p.3)

India the superpower of the subcontinent, has long feared China’s role in building outposts around its periphery. In a recent essay, an Indian commentator Brahma Chellaney wrote that the fusion of China’s economic and military interests “risk turning Sri Lanka into India’s Cuba” – a reference to how the Soviet Union courted Fidel Castro’s Cuba right on the United States’ doorstep. Located at the Indian Ocean’s crossroads gives Sri Lanka the strategic and economic weight in both MSR and Project Mausam plans. MSR highlights Sri Lanka’s position on the east-west sea route, while Project Mausam’s aim to create an “Indian Ocean World” places Sri Lanka at the center of the twenty-first century’s defining economic, strategic and institutional frameworks. Furthermore, alongside the MSR, China is building an energy pipeline through Pakistan to secure Arabian petroleum, which is a measure intended to bypass the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca altogether.

A recent study done by a panel of experts and reported by the New York Times reveal that how the power has increasingly shifted towards China from the traditional US led world order in the past five years among small nation states in the region. The critical role played by the strategic sea ports China has been building in the rims of Indian Ocean including Port of Gwadar in Pakistan, Port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Port of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar and Port of Chittagong in Bangladesh clearly validates the argument that how these small states are being used as proxies in this power projection.

This ongoing political, economic and military rivalry between these global powers who are seeking sphere of influence in one of the world’s most important geostrategic regions is the beginning of a “Neo-Cold War” that Joseph Troupe refers as the post-Soviet era geopolitical conflict resulting from the multipolar New world order.

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South Asia

IMF bail-out Package and Pakistan

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Pakistan may approach IMF to bail-out the current economic crisis. It is not the first time that Pakistan will knock the doors of IMF. Since 1965, Pakistan has been to IMF 17 times. Almost all of the governments has availed IMF packages. Usually, IMF is a temporary relief and provide oxygen for short time so that the patient may recover and try to be self-sustained. The major role of IMF is to improve the governance or reforms, how the ill-economy of a country may recover quickly and become self-sustained. After having oxygen cylinder for 17 times within 5 decades, Pakistan’s economy could not recover to a stage, where we can be self-sustained and no more looking for IMF again and again. This is a question asked by the common man in Pakistan to their leadership.  People are worried that for how long do we have to run after IMF package? The nation has enjoyed 70 decades of independence and expects to be mature enough to survive under all circumstances without depending on a ventilator.

The immediate impact of decision to approach IMF, is the devaluation of Pakistani Rupees. By depreciating only one rupee to US dollar, our foreign debt increases 95 billion rupees.  Today we witness a depreciation of rupee by 15 approximately (fluctuating), means the increase in foreign debt by 1425 billion rupees. Yet, we have not negotiated with IMF regarding depreciation of Rupees. Usually IMF demand major depreciation but all government understands the implications of sharp devaluation, always try to bargain with IMF to the best of their capacity. I am sure, Government of Pakistan will also negotiate and get the best bargain.

IMF always imposes conditions to generate more revenue and the easiest way to create more income is imposing tax on major commodities including Gas, Electricity and Fuel. Pakistan has already increased the prices of Gas, Electricity and Fuel. It has had direct impact on basic necessities and commodities of life. We can witness a price hike of basic food, consumer items and so on. Except salaries, everything has gone up. While negotiating with IMF formally, we do not know how much tax will be increased and how much burden will be put on the common man.

We believe, our rulers know our capacity and will keep in mind the life of a common man and may not exceed the limit of burden to common man beyond its capacity. We are optimistic that all decisions will be taken in the best interest of the nation.

It is true, that Pakistan has been to IMF so many times, so this might be a justification for the PTI Government to avail IMF package. But, there are people with different approach. They have voted for change and for “Naya” (new) Pakistan. They do not expect from PTI to behave like previous several governments. If PTI uses the logic of previous governments, may not satisfy many people in Pakistan.

Especially, when Pakistan was in a position to take-off economically, we surrendered half way, may not be accepted by many people in Pakistan.

The government has explained that other options like economic assistance from friendly countries was also very expensive, so that they have preferred IMF as more competitive package. I wish, Government may educate public on the comparison of available options, their terms and conditions, their interest rate, their political conditions, etc. There might be something confidential, Government may avoid or hide, one may not mind and understand the sensitivity of some of the issues. But all permissible information on the terms and conditions of all options in comparison, may be placed on Ministry of Finance’s website or any other mode of dissemination of knowledge to its public.

Against the tradition, people of Pakistan have voted Imran Khan, who so ever was given ticket of PTI, public has voted him or her blindly in trust to Imran Khan. A few of his candidates might not be having very high capabilities or very good reputation, but, public has trusted Imran Khan blindly. Imran Khan is the third most popular leader in Pakistan, after Jinnah the father of nation, and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the Former Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1970s.

People of Pakistan have blindly trusted in Imran Khan and possess very high expectations from him. I know, Imran Khan understands it very well. He is honest, brave and visionary leader and I believe he will not disappoint his voters.

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South Asia

Now India denies a friendly hand: Imran Khan debuts against arrogant neighbors

Sisir Devkota

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Imran Khan is facing the brunt for overly appeasing its arch rival-India. On September 22, Khan tweeted that he was disappointed over India’s arrogant reply to resume bilateral talks in the UNGA and that he had encountered many “small men” in big offices unable to perceive the larger picture.I am observing a south Asian order changing with Khan’s rise in Pakistani politics. We in Nepal need to grasp the possible reality before circumstances shall engulf our interests.

Observation 1

Narendra Modi was undoubtedly “The Prince”of South Asia from Niccolo Machiavelli’s 16th century classic political narrative. I sense the old prince acting in distress over the rise of a new one. Imran Khan’s invitation for a ministerial level meeting in New York; amidst the eyes of foreign diplomats could not have been a better approach by Pakistan in a long time. Instead, Indian foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj dismissed the offer, blaming Pakistan’s double standard in killing Indian forces and releasing Burhan Wani’s (India’s terrorist and Pakistan’s martyr) postal stamps. Khan did not sanction the postal release, but as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, he must be held accountable for failing to stop the killings,just when talks were supposed to happen. He should have addressed the highly sensitive Indian government. But, I do empathize with Khan’s statement, “small men in big offices”; as he clearly outlined the exact problem. He directly called upon the Indian government to think bigger and escape circumstances to solve historical problems. Narendra Modi has developed a new rhetoric these days; that India is not going to keep quiet over Pakistan’s actions. It fits the nature of Machiavelli’s Prince as an authority which can maintain national virtue. Unfortunately, I do not buy Modi’s rhetoric. The Prince has come a bit late in his tenure to act for Indian virtues. I am sure many at the UNGA would have noticed India’s apprehension in the same manner. I suspect that the ex-prince is facing insecurities over the fear of losing his charisma. Nepal, in particular was charmed by his personality when he first visited our capital, with promises that flooded our heart. And then, we faced his double standard; right after the massive earthquake in 2015. Nobody in Nepal will sympathize with Swaraj’s justification of cancelling the meeting.

Observation 2

Let me explain the source of insecurity. Modi has thrived by endorsing his personality. A tea man who worked for the railways under great financial hardships, became the poster man of India. He generated hope and trust that his counterparts had lost over the years. His eloquent stage performance can fool the harshest of critics into sympathizing his cause. People have only realized later; many macro economists in India now argue that demonetization was, perhaps, one of the worst decisions for India’s sake. Narendra Modi is India sounds truer than Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister of India.

Imran Khan, a former cricketer does not spring the same impression as Modi. Khan, a world champion in 1992, is known for his vision and leadership in Cricket. Comparatively, Khan does not need to sell his poster in South Asia. He does not cry over his speeches to garner mass euphoria. Ask anybody who’s into the sport and they will explain you the legend behind his name. I suspect that Modi has realized that he is going to lose the stardom in the face of Pakistan’s newly elected democratic leader. After all, the Indian PM cannot match Imran’s many achievements in both politics and cricket. I suspect that Modi has realized the fundamental difference in how his subjects inside India and beyond are going to perceive Imran’s personality. I expect more artificial discourses from India to tarnish Imran’s capabilities.

Nepal & Pakistan

You will not find Pakistan associated with Nepal so often than with India. Frankly, Nepal has never sympathized with Indian cause against Pakistan. We have developed a healthy and constructive foreign relations with the Islamic republic. However, there has always been a problem of one neighbor keeping eyes on our dealings with another. Indian interests have hindered proximity with past governments. Now, Imran Khan has facilitated the platform for deeper relations. He does not carry the baggage of his predecessors. He is a global icon, a cricket legend and a studious politician. He is not the result of mass hysteria. Imran Khan has pledged to improve Pakistan’s economy, reinstate foreign ties and boost regional trade. For me, he is South Asia’s new Machiavellian prince; one that can be at least trusted when he speaks.

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