A 'Kayastha Christian'
By A.J. Philip
"WHAT is your caste?" bluntly asked a colleague soon after I joined
the English daily The Searchlight at Patna as Assistant Editor over 30
years ago. I had heard that Bihar was the hotbed of casteism but I was
not prepared for this question so soon after reaching the state. I
gathered my wits and told him, "I am a Syrian Christian from Kerala.
To be more specific, I belong to the Mar Thoma Church".
His facial expression suggested that he was not satisfied with my
answer. He asked me a series of questions about Syrian Christians. I
told him that we trace our ancestry to Mar Thoma (Saint Thomas), a
disciple of Jesus Christ, who came to Kerala in the first century and
converted a few Brahmins, centuries before Christianity reached the
shores of Britain. Until then he believed it was the British who
brought Christianity to India
I also told him that, over the centuries, people from other castes
also got converted and it was difficult to find out the original
castes of individual Syrian Christians. Far from enlightening my
colleague, my clarification only confused him.
I remembered one Christmas in Bhopal when a Brahmin neighbor visited
us to "share the joy of Christmas". My wife had prepared a lot of
South Indian delicacies besides plum cake and we served it to him.
I noticed his reluctance to taste any of the food items. When my wife
tried to persuade him to eat, he asked me, "Are you a converted
Christian?" I understood the import of his question. So I gave him a
mischievous, though correct, answer, "All Christians in India are
converted Christians. Even Emperor Constantine was converted".
Immediately he left my house without touching the food.
Years ago, my friend K. Raveendran, who is now a senior journalist in
Dubai, and I used to tease a Brahmin panwallah who had a kiosk in
front of Nirvachan Sadan, the Election Commission office. We noticed
that he sat slightly away from the counter and would never hand over
cigarettes or pan to the customer. Instead, he would leave it on a
steel plate. The customer was also expected to leave the money on the
plate. We realized he was practicing "untouchability", a punishable
So every time we bought cigarette or gave him cash, we would make it a
point to touch him. He could not do anything except murmur. We also
noticed that after we left the counter, he would wash his hands. No,
my Searchlight colleague was not a practitioner of untouchability. His
only interest was to place me somewhere in the Hindu caste order and
accord me the status I "deserved".
Since my answers were all confusing, he himself solved the problem,
"You are a journalist, a lover of the written word. So reading and
writing is your profession. This means you are a Kayastha, for reading
and writing come naturally to Kayasthas. So I will treat you as a
He was happy to find in me a country cousin, for he himself was a
Srivastava Kayastha (Later, I learnt that the Srivastavas had broken
away from the Kayasthas who were patwaris -- keepers of village
records -- because the latter had earned a bad name for chicanery).
And to boost my morale, he told me Amitabh Bachchan and Gen S.K. Sinha
I realized how well-entrenched casteism was when he told me that The
Searchlight was a den of Bhumihars, for the News Editor, the Chief
Reporter, the only Special Correspondent, the Crime Reporter and the
Sports Editor were all Bhumihars. "I am told the Editor, who is a
Khatri from undivided Punjab, is also some sort of a Bhumihar".
When I asked him about the origin of Bhumihars, he had no clue. I did
some research and found that Bhumihars trace their origin to
Parashuram, a Brahmin who took up arms. So Bhumihars claim to be both
warriors and Brahmins. Soon, I would tell my Bhumihar colleagues that
it was a Bhumihar who created my home state. They would not
understand, till I solved the riddle for them. It is believed that the
land of Kerala was formed when Parashuram threw his axe into the
Arabian Sea and the water got displaced.
There is an equally interesting story about the origin of caste.
According to the Purusaukta legend, the Brahmins and Kshatriyas
emerged from the head and shoulders, respectively of Purusa, the
primeval being. Consequently, they merit high-caste status. The same
legend goes on to say that the lowly Shudras deservedly occupy a
subordinate position because they were born from Purusa's feet.
Anyway, I began to take an interest in studying the phenomenon of
caste without which it was impossible to understand Bihar politics.
Before long, my colleagues began to admire my knowledge of caste,
though I had, by then, inculcated the bad habit of finding out the
caste of every person I dealt with. I am not sure whether the
knowledge influenced any of my decisions.
When The Searchlight was wound up and The Hindustan Times was started
in its place, I was instrumental in recruiting and training many new
staff. One of the persons I recruited happened to be a bright
It was incidental that he belonged to a backward caste. But when he
started working, most of my colleagues would warn me against the
danger of recruiting such a person. "Mr Philip, you have only bookish
knowledge about caste. You will regret your decision to recruit him".
This was their refrain. They could not appreciate the fact that a
backward caste person could also be an English journalist! To cut the
story short, I was forced to change my decision as the candidate
concerned got embroiled in a criminal case.
Those days, reporting of elections was never complete without an
analysis of the caste composition in particular constituencies. I
wondered on what basis reporters gave figures of Brahmins, Bhumihars,
Rajputs, Yadavs, Kurmis etc in a constituency for the decennial census
did not count castes. It was my friend Ambikanand Sahay, then of The
Statesman, who elucidated me on this.
"The last time caste details were collected was in the 1931 census. So
if the census said 20 per cent of the population comprised Bhumihars,
the percentage would remain the same even after several decades", he
explained. So the caste figures were all 'guesstimates'. They
overlooked factors like vivisection of districts and constituencies,
migration of people etc since 1931. In other words, imaginary caste
figures substituted for real figures which nobody knew.
During the freedom struggle, many of the national leaders opposed the
caste-based census on the ground that it perpetuated caste identities
and divided the Indian society. They saw it as part of the
divide-and-rule policy of the British. So when India became
independent, founders of the Constitution were vehement in their
decision not to encourage caste feelings and caste divisions.
The Dalits, also called Harijans (children of God), and Adivasis were
a different ball game. Having suffered deprivation and oppression for
centuries, they could not be considered equals to the people belonging
to the upper castes. They needed special care to bring them on a par
with the rest of the people.
That is why reservation for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes
was introduced, initially for ten years. It has now become a ritual to
extend the period of reservation every time it ends. Even after 60
years of reservation, they are still not able to fill up all the
vacancies reserved for them in the Central and state governments. But
whether the children of IAS and IPS parents should also get the
benefit of reservation is a moot question.
In our constitutional resolve to banish casteism, the Constitution
even fights shy of mentioning the word "caste". For instance, it
approves of affirmative action in favour of socially and educationally
backward classes (not castes). But did casteism go away? I was in
Patna when there were frequent changes of chief minister. Every time a
Brahmin like Jagannath Mishra or a Rajput like Satyendra Narain Sinha
would be made Chief Minister and a popular leader like Ram Lakhan
Singh Yadav would be overlooked.
This underwent a change when the backward castes like Yadavs and
Kurmis realized that they had enough numbers to send the likes of
Mishra to political wilderness. Then came V.P. Singh as Prime
Minister. There are many reasons why he dusted the Mandal Commission
report and announced its implementation -- to fight Devi Lal who was
planning a massive demonstration against VP and to earn a name for
himself in history.
The decision upset the upper castes. A little bird told me that the
lady IAS officer, a Rajput, could not control her tears when she
signed the gazette notification implementing the Mandal Commission
recommendation. She was a Secretary to the Government of India.
While the government conceded the demand of reservation to the
backward castes, it did not know how many castes were there or how
many people belonged to them. But in our resolve to "fight casteism,"
we decided not to take any caste census. The myth that castes divided
people was perpetuated little realizing that it was religion, not
caste, that led to Partition. But that did not prevent the nation from
conducting, as usual, religion-based census.
Those who demanded inclusion of caste in the census were looked down
upon as relics of the past. That was till the last session of
Parliament when not just parties led by the three Yadavs -- Lalu,
Mulayam and Sharad -- but even those like the BJP demanded inclusion
of caste in the census.
Home Minister P. Chidambaram's argument that it would be impossible to
collect the caste data -- there are thousands of castes and sub-castes
-- did not find favour with the members who insisted on inclusion of
caste in the 2011 census. Less than 24 hours later, Finance Minister
Pranab Mukherjee announced the government's decision to concede the
While a proper Cabinet decision in this regard is awaited, the entire
political class which exploits caste for political ends needs to be
blamed for the possible throwback to the dark periods of our history
when caste identity mattered more than all other identities. Whether
the backward castes among Christians and Muslims, who enjoy the
benefit of reservation in some states, would also be counted remains
to be seen.
Unlike in the past when lower castes aspired to move up the caste
ladder through a process known as Sanskritisation, the trend is now in
the opposite direction. Eager as everyone is to get the benefit of
reservation, "the Patidars of Gujarat who earlier claimed Kshatriya
(Rajput) status, now claim Vaishya (Baniya) status, thus preferring a
category which orthodoxy would hierarchize below the Kshatriya order".
(Interrogating Caste, Penguin, Page 78). Little surprise, the Gujjars
of Rajasthan want themselves to be declared a Scheduled Caste!
Come to think of it, in the early years of the 20th century, social
reformer Sree Narayana Guru, who belonged to the Ezhava caste,
organized a powerful campaign against casteism in the state. He coined
the evocative slogan, "One Caste, One Religion, One God". He also
exhorted the people, "Ask not, Say not, Think not Caste".
Eight decades after his Samadhi, enumerators would be visiting every
household in the country with that question which Guru despised and
which my Searchlight colleague asked 30 years ago, "What is your
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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