Caste spins and readings

Print edition : December 26, 2014

The journalist Rajdeep Sardesai (right) with the historian Ramachandra Guha at a function in Bangalore. While we need to cut Rajdeep no slack for this lapse of judgment, some of the broad-brush diatribe and generalisation it has occasioned in sections of the social and mainstream media seem quite over the top and counterproductive. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

MANY years back, in college, there was this inspirational professor of English literature who believed in, and taught us, Shakespeare with such impassioned and complete devotion that he could not even begin to understand why anyone would be distracted in his class, or how anyone could not but be fully absorbed by the Bard. He generally held the class spellbound, but there were these few students who didn’t quite take to Shakespeare as enthusiastically, and preferred the back benches, where they carried on an alternative discourse under their breaths about more practical matters like which class to “cut” to catch up with the new movie playing in the city.

My friend Chang, whose family ran a popular Chinese restaurant in what was then Madras and where we frequently ate (often on credit that was always in part outstanding), was one of those unmoved by Shakespeare and into this whisper club. On one occasion, the murmurings from this group became more excited and audible than usual and intruded into the professor’s meditative exposition of King Lear. The normally mild-mannered man flew into a rage. He flung Lear on the floor. His eloquence collapsed into a sputter as he pointed with shaking fingers in the direction of the offending group and demanded that “you... you... the Mongol” stand up.

A collective inaudible gasp froze the moment. There was pindrop silence as Chang rose, his face flushed, and announced combatively that he was not a Mongol and resented being called one. That jolted the professor out of his paroxysm and, seeking desperately to make a virtue of dire necessity, he launched into a spiel about the greatness of the Mongols —about Genghiz Khan and Kublai Khan and all the rest. By the end of it he had explained, and elaborated on, his faux pas to a fault. He had, so to speak, defaced the page in trying to efface the word, or, to paraphrase a Malayalam saying, ended up staining what he sought to cleanse.

Rajdeep Sardesai seems the least likely of our television anchors, based on what we know of him on and off air, to be casteist. So it was rather out of character when he exulted, in as many characters as it took for the tweet: “Big day for my Goa. Two GSBs, both talented politicians, become full cabinet ministers. Saraswat pride!” GSBs refer to Gaud Saraswat Brahmins and the two Ministers are Manohar Parrikar and Suresh Prabhu, inducted recently as Defence and Railway Ministers respectively in the Modi government. The tweet was as self-congratulatory, Rajdeep himself being a GSB, as it was a commendation of the two new Ministers. Such caste preening in Twitter space was, to put it mildly, in poor taste in a context where caste-based discrimination and exploitation have been, for centuries, and continue to be, rife.

Sense of proud bonding

What made matters a shade worse was Rajdeep’s effort, like the hapless professor, at explaining this blooper, in this instance in a column in a leading national daily. He deplored that instead of his tweet being seen “as a statement of fact”, he was “being accused of being casteist and worse” and “typical of the noxious side of social media”, he was “barraged with abuse and hate mail”.

While he certainly does not deserve to be barraged thus, it is a bit of a stretch, even as euphemisms go, to characterise the tweet as just a statement of fact. Surely, there was a sense of proud bonding there by one who belonged to the same privileged caste. But Rajdeep would, rather disingenuously and incredibly, have us believe that it is a bonding of victimhood—that the Saraswat Brahmins have been at the receiving end of history; that their ancestors migrated from Kashmir (perhaps invoking the contemporary plight of the Kashmiri Pandits); that they suffered at the hands of the Portuguese invaders. He notes that the Gaud Saraswats are progressive (which they may well be) and fish-eating (and therefore liberal?). Such factoids (to use the appropriate TV jargon) about GSBs strewn like non sequiturs in his piece do not address the motivation for his caste-angled tweet, nor detract (if that was the intention) from the elevated niche the Saraswats enjoy up there in the caste and social hierarchy.

Convoluted logic

In a similar vein, he goes on to list, apropos of nothing, sundry big Saraswat names of contemporary and recent times: Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Girish Karnad, Shyam Benegal, Guru Dutt, Deepika Padukone, the Pais of Manipal, Nandan Nilekani, K.V. Kamath. Why he drops these names is not clear. Was the talent or worth of these illustrious, or other not so illustrious, Saraswat Brahmins contested or in doubt anywhere along the way? Are they what they are for what they were born as? Do they wear their caste on their sleeves? It gets even more convoluted when he gets into the politics of caste in Ministry making. Much of what he observes about the functional and changing role caste plays is unexceptionable and some of it is enlightening. Only, none of it has a bearing on why he tweeted as he did, or how he justifies it; all of it seems designed to obfuscate the original gaffe. The straightforward thing for him to do would have been to recognise the gaffe as such, as one made in a weak moment, or accept one’s weakness for one’s caste, and move on. Instead, we have a comedy of identity politics spinning out of control.

The academic and novelist Amita Kanekar cites anthropologist Professor Raghuraman S. Trichur’s Refiguring Goa: From Trading Post to Tourist Destination (2013) to show that the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins actually thrived and made their fortunes under the Portuguese in the 17th and 18th centuries. She draws on the spirit of D.D. Kosambi’s Myth and Reality (1962) to pour scorn on the idea that the GSBs were victims of Portuguese power: “Isn’t it nice to learn that those at the top of the caste hierarchy, those who dominated the village communities, controlled the most fertile lands and the biggest money-spinning temples, employed bonded tenants, servants and also hereditary slave labour, were also oppressed by the Portuguese?”

Indeed, a name Rajdeep forgot to add to his list of eminent GSBs was that of D.D. Kosambi who was born into a Gaud Saraswat Brahmin family of Goa, was, more than a fish-eater, a meat-eater, and had systematically explored, interrogated and demystified various aspects of caste, including vis-a-vis class and tribe, and Brahmin gotras.

It does not do, for a person of the influence and popular reach of Rajdeep, to put the clock back, with a tweet, to a romantic sense of celebratory upper caste belonging and identity un-critiqued by historical experience. It does not do to advance the examples of identity assertion by those way down in the social or caste pecking order or, like the Dalits, perforce kept totally outside the order, to justify crowing about a dominant and historically domineering caste. Surely there is a difference between rooting for a Dalit President or Prime Minister or Chief Minister or even panchayat president, and cheering for an upper caste Hindu for any of these posts; or, to carry the comparison from caste to race, between black pride in a black President and white pride in a white President in the United States?


On the other hand, while we need to cut Rajdeep no slack for this lapse of judgment, some of the broad-brush diatribe and generalisation it has occasioned in sections of the social and mainstream media seem quite over the top and counterproductive. The journalist and publisher in the Dalit cause, S. Anand, in an opinion piece in a leading English periodical, seizes on this incident to do some gratuitous Brahmin-cum-‘lib-sec-dem’ (liberal-secular-democrat) bashing. Gratuitous because none of his “exhibits”—yes, he lists Rajdeep, Girish Karnad, Ramachandra Guha and Indra Nooyi as exhibits 1, 2, 3, and 4 respectively—anywhere near clinches the point he would like to make, which ostensibly is that their vestigial Brahminhood lurks un-exorcised underneath their liberal secular democratic façade.

He makes an out-of-context pettifogging semantic quibble of Girish Karnad countering, in the course of an interview, an “allegation” that the national award-winning Kannada film Samskara, in which he played the protagonist, was anti-Brahmin (which it actually was in terms of depicting the hidebound oppressive ways of the Madhwa Brahmin community) by pointing out that the writer of the story, the producer and most others associated with the film were Brahmin, so “why would we put forth anti-Brahmin views?” In fact, that is if he was quoted correctly in the first place, Karnad himself seems to have got his facts wrong because the producer, who was also the director, of the film was Pattabhirama Reddy, obviously a non-Brahmin, as were the female lead, Snehalata Reddy, and other key members of the production team like the cinematographer, Tom Cowan, and the editor, Steven Cartaw.

Similarly, Ramachandra Guha is hauled over the coals for admitting, in an essay on the grand old man of Indian politics, that he not only wept when C. Rajagopalachari passed away, but that “the tears flowed more freely because the leader who had just died came from my own community of Tamil Brahmins”. Again, shorn of the context, the statement could appear tendentious, even if only to those who don’t catch the self-bemusement in it. In fact, he prefaces the statement by noting that “being a sentimental sort of fellow, I suppose I would have wept anyway”. Guha is, to put it in fair context, speaking of the traditional and conservative setting of his parental home—which was the given, not of his making—where his father subscribed to Swarajya published by the anti-Indira Gandhi and anti-socialist Swantantra Party and his mother bought Rajaji’s translations of the Ramayana and Mahabharata for him to read. At the same time, as Guha observes, “for the modernising Tamil Brahmin of those days, Rajaji was sui generis”.

Anand then gets after Indira Nooyi, exhibit 4, and seeks to extract all kinds of meanings from an excerpt of an exchange between Nandan Nilekani and her. The excerpt as reproduced by him goes thus:

Nilekani: “Your mother seems to be have been (sic) a huge influence on you, right from the days she prompted you to get 100 per cent marks in Maths and all that….”

Nooyi: “That is typical southern Brahmin stuff. So there is nothing unique about that. I think that she was genetically programmed for that. The entire family focussed on grades. When parents got together, they only compared the report cards of their kids.”

Anyone reading this, unless with caste-tinted glasses, can see that Indra Nooyi was, if anything, being dismissive and blasé about this emphasis on scoring well as something typical and routine in south Indian Brahmin families.

Is there really any hint of exclusive caste or community pride in that observation? Anand really doesn’t seem to feel the need to find out and latches on to this to launch his ad hominem attack. “South Indian Brahmins are genetically programmed to be good at math and focussed on grades” is his misleading summary of that brief proceeding; it doesn’t make the grade even as a basic reference-to-context exercise. “And we should be grateful,” he adds caustically, “the enlightened Nooyi family perhaps did not employ a domestic slave to go buy milk late in the evening.” This, in reference to another harmless, whether real or cooked up, tidbit about “how on the day she returned home as Pepsico CEO, all her mother told Nooyi was to go buy milk”. Indra Nooyi may be answerable for cola-lateral damages wrought on the world economy and the health of the global population. Not, at least on the basis of the flimsy evidence of that bit of interview provided by Anand, for touting her caste.

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