We want to think of people as individuals, but the Indian conforms to his caste.Outsiders won’t notice that nurses in our hospitals are Christian girls from Kerala. Bollywood reveals their identity through use of the convent word “sister". They are among the best nurses in the world, and the reason Europeans see India as an attractive place for cheap operations. Underpaid and cheerful, their caring comes to them through Christianity’s view of suffering.

Target: Riots reflect the logic of collective punishment. PTI

Hindus have a horror of bodily pollution and it would be embarrassing to see a census of upper caste Hindus in nursing. There’s no question of Muslims letting their women work with undressed patients.

The murder and abortion of female foetuses is not a generic problem in India. It is concentrated in peasant castes, above all Haryana’s Jat and Gujarat’s Patel. Their average is one daughter killed for every three born. The peasant works with his hands and not his head, and so women are useless to him, presenting only an expense at puberty.

The Patel has butchered his daughters so efficiently that now other castes must supply brides. There is evidence he is marrying eastern Gujarat’s tribals, bringing them into Hindu culture. This is an instance of the Gujarati becoming inclusive through violence. The Patel is the sword-arm of Gujarat’s Hindutva movement (Pravin Togadia is Patel). Like all peasants, he is intellectually primitive and easily roused by symbols. He’s also familiar with violence because he handles cattle.

Also Read Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

But unlike the Jat, the Patel does not do honour killings. Why not? Because Gujarat’s culture is dominated by the Baniya, both Jain and Hindu. Gujaratis say Vaniya ni mooch neechi (the Baniya turns his moustache downward). Baniya instinct means always picking benefit over honour. Since honour has no premium in Gujarati society, it is not reposed in the woman’s body.

If Europeans understood the Bengali contempt for Marwaris, would they still adore Satyajit Ray? Unlikely. The Marwari in Ray’s movies is represented by Maganlal Meghraj, a dreadful stereotype, like Shylock. The villain of Mahapurush, a superb film about a cheating holy man, isn’t the swamiji. Ray etches his rogue lovingly, giving him knowledge of Latin, and letting him escape with his loot. Ray’s wrath is reserved for swamiji’s vulgar followers, like the Marwari seth who is given three brief scenes, but is nailed in them. Why does the Bengali revile Marwaris?

Bengalis have no trading castes. The Marwari occupies that space profitably in Kolkata, and so is hated. The Bengali’s inability to build his state’s economy is explained away as the incompetence of Communists, but it is a problem of caste.

In PNB’s Krishi Card advertisement, shown daily on Krishi Darshan, the sahukar (Baniya) is a shifty man the peasant must avoid. But the state cannot underwrite 30 million farmers who lack collateral, and whom the Baniya services.

Communal violence disturbs us, but it is quite easy to understand. Because the Indian’s identity comes not from the individual but his community, we are comfortable with collective punishment. Muslims are punished for doing Godhra, and Sikhs are punished for killing Indira.

Gujaratis are irritated when scolded for their behaviour in 2002, because “Muslims started it". The Indian riot is marked by two things: participation of civil society, and retreat of the state. Because his identity is also collective, India’s policeman and magistrate feels the anger of rioters. The state permits settling of scores by relaxing its monopoly over violence, breaking Weber’s rule. The British administrator was able to stop Indians going berserk because he didn’t feel the anger of community, and his interest was served by peace. Our leaders easily reveal their caste. Manmohan Singh is Khatri. The word is derived from Kshatriya, but the great Punjabi Khatri community of Guru Nanak is mercantile. This explains Manmohan’s sobriety. Manmohan’s favourite Montek Ahluwalia is also from the trading Kshatriyas. Gujarat’s Khatris are also mercantile. They are an egalitarian community where women drink with men, and these aren’t cocktail parties.

Chidambaram is Chettiar (trading communities are identifiable by their “st" names: Seth, Sheth, Shetty, Chettiar, and Muslim Sait). He is what all Indian leaders should be like. Lalu and Mulayam are peasant Yadavs, and that’s unsurprising. Muslims are separate by both caste and religion. Sunni is quite different from Shia. Shias await the return of their beloved Imam Mahdi, who is in occultation. Shias often have haunting names, like Muntazar (Iran’s Ayatollah Montazeri), which means “the awaited", from the root intezar. Disinterested in the present world, Shias are quietist.

The great scholar Kalbe Sadiq of the Muslim personal law board, who says there’s no problem with Vande Mataram, is Shia. Shias are more willing to compromise with Hindus: The BJP’s Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi is Shia. So is Asif Zardari, and he is good for Pakistan, with his inclination to make peace with India. The Sunni intellectual, like the brilliant Arif Mohammed Khan, is also drawn to compromise, but Indians have no use for intellectuals. Sunnis should be attracted to trading since Prophet Muhammad was a trader. But India’s Sunni isn’t converted from trading castes, so he is tradesman instead: carpenter, butcher, weaver or mechanic.

Let us see how caste touches Muslims. Draw up a list of India’s Muslim businessmen, and you notice something strange: They are Sevener Shia, and Gujarati. Wockhardt’s Khorakiwala is Vohra, Wipro’s Premji is Khoja, Cipla’s Hamied is Kutchi and Zodiac’s Noorani is also Gujarati. Their community is less than 500,000 people, but India’s other 150 million Muslims can’t compete because they’re converted from non-mercantile castes.

The greatest trader in India is the Jain from the Gujarati village of Palanpur (population 100,000). He dominates the global diamond business, and is the only man with the talent to compete with that other superb trader, the Ashkenazi Jew. The diamond bourses of Tel Aviv and Antwerp are full of these two communities. Palanpur’s Jain is understated and the rare flamboyant specimen is unpopular in the community, like film-maker Bharat Shah.

Lakshmi Mittal’s son Aditya interned at Credit Suisse First Boston. In his early 20s, Aditya was a star, working on mergers and astonishing his bosses with his fluid understanding of balance sheets. This comes to him from his Baniya training, superior to business school.

India has the world’s fifth largest foreign exchange reserves. Unlike China, Russia, Japan and Taiwan, however, our reserve hasn’t been built on trade surplus but on capital inflows. These are vulnerable and must be protected. From being 18.6% of inflows, foreign portfolio investment collapsed after Pokhran and turned negative (-0.8%). Growth was affected for over a year and investment left India because of the BJP’s act. Why? Capital is a coward and flees uncertainty, especially that brought about by such mindless acts of bravery as playing with the atom bomb. The BJP’s monkeying around with India’s poor, who suffer when growth dips, would be unpardonable in a civilized nation. Advani is from the Luhana caste that Azim Premji and Jinnah are also from. But his exile has imbalanced him, as his autobiography shows. He wants to hit back at Pakistan, but the militant instinct is misplaced because it hurts his country.

Manusmriti is wrong in this sense: Nations are best ruled by traders and not warriors. It shouldn’t worry Indians that someone wrote a book about caste rules 3,000 years ago. What should terrify us is our inability to break out of the book’s stereotypes.

Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.

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