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20th century Assam icons - A caste point of view

By Dhruva Saikia
The two most recognized Assamese personalities in the second half of the twentieth century are certainly Dr. Bhupen Hazarika and Dr Bhabendranath Saikia, incidentally from the same caste with identical constitutional status and social footing. I believe their success and standing bears an epoch-making significance which ought not to be diffused by some inflexible outlook.  

The honourable man belonging to the Brahmin community incites me for a caste reappraisal of the two most famous Century 20 Assam sons, Bhupen and Bhaben, as he calls himself progressive and castigates Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia for robbing Mr. Pradip Barua of the glory as the mastermind of the premier Assamese magazine Prantik. He claims to be a relative of the Prantik editor and I have known him since 1970s, initially as one of my classmate's father and later as a respectable senior person with a lot of advice.  It need be mentioned here that Dr Bhabendranath Saikia was the founder chief editor of the Assamese fortnightly Prantik launched in the 1980s with Mr. Pradip Barua as the editor, printer and publisher. 

As for the honourable man and my classmate's father, there had hardly been an occasion for me to doubt his integrity. He is educated and polished, well behaved and helpful besides being a former journalist who contributed editorials for the Assamese daily I began my career with. Though I belong to a caste apart from his, there was no hitch in our relationship right from my school days until one doubtful day the retired bureaucrat volunteered to make me aware of his broadmindedness by revealing that he does not wear the sacred thread called lagun.   

So, he boldly discarded a prevalent Brahmin custom. An ill practice in his views, and the seventy year old former bureaucrat earnestly added, “I don't believe in caste discrimination.” For years together I remained a curious spectator of what he wanted me to acknowledge as liberalism or modern outlook.  

Years later it was this very liberal Brahmin who tried to convince me that the credit for the most successful Assamese magazine should go to his relative Mr. Pradip Barua and not Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia 'who does not do anything.'  

The honourable man's charge of Dr Saikia 'doing nothing for Prantik' stunned me as I vividly remember giving the manuscript of my only article to be printed in Prantik to an ailing Dr. Saikia who gracefully accepted, edited and returned it to me with a note to the Prantik editor Pradip Barua; I carried the manuscript from Dr Saikia's residence to the Editor who eventually published it.  Later I collected the manuscript and still preserve it with Dr. Saikia's notes and correction marks. So this is my first hand experience of Dr. Saikia's diligence and commitment for the magazine of which he is the founder editor, yet paradoxically exists a class of people to disparage him.       

My mind went back to the old honourable man's avowal of liberalism years ago. I was not amused then. No symbolic, ad hoc, superfluous gesture of revolt moves me. The elderly Brahmin's professed antipathy for caste awareness in the Indian society was apparently an articulated sign of egalitarianism. He clearly expected clapping for this, but then there is also India's 'best loved Englishman' Mark Tully who finds “…caste is obnoxious to the egalitarian West, so it is obnoxious to the Indian elite too.” (No Full Stops in India, Mark Tully, Penguin).  

What is caste then? Caste remains a buzzword in Indian social interactions, formal and informal, academic or casual. For most Indians it is a column to be filled in application forms submitted to the authority. Caste invariably defines employment and education opportunities. Caste decides political outcome and it is an undercurrent in all kinds of social contacts, more openly in wedding alliances.   

The caste system outlasts century old revolt against it in the forms Buddhism or Vaishnavism, Ambedkar and Mandal Commission and also this nameless bureaucrat Brahmin discarding lagun. I know caste is steady yet caste deliberations never cease to entertain me. Here a few of caste centric paragraphs from a few outstanding books that leave me no wiser but I can't help reading them again and again.   

Caste and kinship:  

Let us revert to the best loved Englishman in India Mark Tully's caste diagnosis. Naturally the BBC newsman made no attempt to glorify or defend casteism in the light of theology or religious doctrine, yet the egalitarian fashion to denigrate the system annoyed Tully. Quoting a Bernard Levin article published in The Statesman, (one of the dailies of the English-speaking elite), Tully points out, “One way to discredit a system is to highlight its excesses, and Levin is right to say that caste system has many of these. But what the constant denigration of the caste system has done is to add to the sense of inferiority that many Indians feel about their own culture.”  

To set out on the path of reforms, Tully implores us to recognize the merits of the caste system which can be discerned if we look at the system with an Indian pair of eyes. “It would lead to greater respect for India's culture…. caste system has never been totally static, that it is adapting to itself to today's changing circumstances….the system provides security and community for millions of Indians. It gives them an identity that neither the Western science nor the Western thought has yet provided…..caste is not just a matter of being a Harijan or a Brahmin; it is also a kinship system. The system provides a wider support group than the family…”   

Madhu Kishwar writes,  “Even though the survival of strong kinship and community loyalties has some negative fallouts, the existence of strong community ties provides for relatively greater stability and dignity to individuals… it explains why poor Indians retain a strong sense of self respect. It is that self respect which the thoughtless insistence on egalitarianism destroys.” (No Full Stops in India, Mark Tully, Penguin).  

So the caste system is not to be discarded but reformed. In case of Assam, a rich and reconciling caste evaluation may herald simply from an unequivocal   acclamation of Bhupen-Bhaben as the brightest 20th Century (1950-1999) Assam lamppost.  They touched the peak with perseverance while state patronage was minimal and now it is a bounden duty of the wider society to ensure unrestrained acknowledgement. AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharya, also a Brahmin, embarks on the ideal path by engineering the Bhupen statue.     September 2010

The writer is a journalist based in Guwahati, Assam