Dashiki Dialogues: The caste system is alive and well

2013-05-13 10:00

You’ve got to wonder if ­President Jacob Zuma and his circle are treated like ­Harijans by the Guptas too.

Harijans are the untouchables, or the lower caste (class) of Hindu India. In the Indian cultural system of social classes, the group is regarded as filthy and relegated to doing jobs that the higher classes regard as undignified. These include chores like collecting garbage and sewage, and so on.

I wondered about the quality of Zuma’s relations with the Guptas ­after the lot made headlines last week for all the wrong reasons. Apart from them flouting ­national security laws by landing a plane full of guests from India at the ­Waterkloof air base, there were stories of how the guests of ­Zuma’s friends from India barred Sun City’s black employees from entering their hotel rooms unless they washed themselves first.

You have to wonder how meals were possible with Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale, who reportedly visited the family regularly and delivered some “gogo ­atchar” to the Gupta matriarch to share a “Zulu meal”. Did his blackness and rapacious laughter remind them of the Harijans back home in India? One wonders what racist prejudices lay unspoken, which came to light at the wedding.

Here’s a bit of context on the Indian caste system: The word Harijan ­literally translates to “children of God”. It was initially used in the 1930s by Indian nationalist leader Mohandas Gandhi to refer to the lower class, or untouchables.

The untouchables were the ­Dravidians, the aboriginal inhabitants of India. From time to time, they included the pariahs (outcasts), people expelled for religious or social “sins” from classes they had been born into.

Created by Aryan priests more than 3?000 years ago, the caste system was made part of Hindu law.

The caste hierarchy goes as follows: the Hindu priests or Brahmin are at the top; next in rank are the warriors, or the Kshatriyas, whose modern interpretation would ­perhaps be military leaders; below them are the Vaishyas, comprising farmers and merchants (I imagine the Guptas, as businesspeople, would belong to this lot.

Their commercial muscle and powerful friends must be important in a culture so bent on class regulation); the fourth of the original castes are the Sudras, the labourers born to be servants to the other three castes, especially the Brahmin; and far lower than these ­Sudras, and arguably entirely outside the social order, are these people with no caste, the darker-skinned people who are considered the dirty untouchables.

Racism and bigotry deserve a hard dialogue with resolute dashikis.

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