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HVK Archives: Community service

Community service - Mid-Day

M. V. Kamath ()
October 15, 1998

Title: Community service
Author: M. V. Kamath
Publication: Mid-Day
Date: October 15, 1998

Caste has come to stay, says a headline in one of our national
dailies, as if it is a new discovery. It has, has it? Now, isn't
that interesting? Caste has always been with us and it will
probably be with us for a long time to come. But the world - and
things associated with it - has lost much of its edge in recent
decades. Most people are caste-conscious. And yet what are
considered as caste rules are observed or discarded at various
levels throughout the country.

Anti-brahminism was once rampant in the south, especially in
Tamil Nadu. Anti-brahminism exists still, there is no doubt bout
it, but in many ways it is dying slowly, almost imperceptibly, as
other castes are getting to be more affluent. One notices this
specially in urban centres like Mumbai. Inter-marriages between
castes occur and do not create a stir. It is not uncommon even to
witness anuloma and partiloma marriages. Caste institutions are
not sacrosanct and often are open to all, just as Christian
missionary hospitals are open to all people irrespective of their
caste, creed or community. I noticed this the other day when I
was invited to the medical centre operated by the GSB Sabha's
Medical Trust at Dastruwadi, Dadar. GSB stands for Gowd Saraswat
Brahmins and they have their own Sabha which, some time in 1968,
decided to set up an organisation to provide medical relief
services to GSBs. The idea originally was to make medical
services available to the community for free or at very low cost.

But the Sabha soon realised that the community was not living in
isolation there were thousands of people from various castes and
communities who needed help. It therefore derided to throw open
the services of the centre to all; nobody was asked about his or
her caste. What was relevant was service, not caste. Caste was
irrelevant.

The centre was started with the idea of providing preventive
immunisation for certain preventable diseases but so great has
been the demand for other services that over the years many
departments were added. A diagnostic centre was started in 1910.
Presently the centre has an X-ray unit, an Under-five age clinic,
a scheme for complete medical check-up, a pathology department, a
department of physiotherapy, a department for speech therapy and
audiometry, a department for dentistry and a department for
family planning. Facilities are available for electro-cardiogram,
echo cardiogram and ultra sonography. There is even a free drug
fund. In recent years, the Trust has been giving free treatment
to members of the Adivasi Unnati Mandal. All this is done with
little fanfare.

Some 300 patients come every day and are provided with free or
low-cost service depending on their ability to pay. Many of the
doctors - both physicians and surgeons - are from GSB community
but there are doctors from other communities and religions as
well. They are happy to be of some use to the community at large.

They take pride in the Trust as a non-communal and non-profit
organisation. The important thing to remember is that the
original idea sprang from one caste or community the GSBs - but
it serves people from all castes and communities. The original
funding was from members of the GSB caste but anybody is free to
make his or her contribution. So impressed was one national
financial institution that it donated over Rs 20 lakh for the
purchase of new and vitally important equipment. It is the
quality of service that attracts public to mention the university
of its nature. Caste is irrelevant, a point that cannot be too
much. But caste does provide a focal point, a feeling of
commonality that can be put to good use.

Caste feeling is not necessarily evil. It becomes evil only when
it is politicised as by the likes of the Yadavs - Messers Mulayam
and Laloo. The Unique Selling Point, to use a common cliche, of
the GSB Sabha's Medical Trust is that it is GSB only in its
origins. In the service it provides, it cuts-across all bonds of
caste and creed. And that is as it should be. Mumbai happily, is
full of such organisations, bless them. They are funded by one
caste or community but their services are open to all. They are
by no means exclusivist. So, one might ask, what is wrong with
caste?

The caste system had its origin in the racial divide of the
mystic past but its growth and proliferation were conditioned by
several other factors. It is misleading to say that divisions in
society do not exist in the West, though western countries may
pretend that they are free from them. How many white women would
marry black men in the United States, for instance? Or, for that
matter, how many Methodist whites would marry Catholic whites?
Or, how many Catholics would marry Jews? There is social
discrimination of a kind everywhere in the west, sometimes based
on class as well. So, if the caste system persists in India, we
do not need to be apologetic. The important thing is to put it to
constructive use.

There are misconceptions about caste even in India. There is the
belief, for instance, that in ancient days brahmins didn till
the soil. That just isn true. According to S V Desika Char
(Caste, Religion and Country) brahmins did not always stick to
the priestly vocation.

It simply did not ensure a decent livelihood. The Buddhist
Jatakas refer to the following callings of the brahmins: tillage,
tending cattle, trades, hunting, carpentry, weaving policing of
caravans, archery, driving of carriages and even snake-charming!
We might do well to remember that Drona was a brahmin and he
taught archery to the Pandavas and the Kauravas. In today's India
there are brahmin castes who do not hesitate to put their hands
to the plough like the Sanketis of Mysore, the Haigas of Kanara,
the Mahastan or Masthans of Orissa and analogous castes in Tirbut
and Bihar. And who says that business is the sole occupation of
Vaishyas? Vaishyas are to be found in every occupation. The GSBs
of Goa were long known for their trade and commerce; in fact
these were their sole occupations.

The point that I would wish to make is that in matters of caste
it is best not to generalise. Besides, caste walls are breaking
up fast. What is most endearing is that in matters pertaining to
social service, castes are opening up to other castes whether
bove or elow them. And it is a wise person who thinks of
castes as being equal and not hierarchical. I do not subscribe to
the theory that on caste is above another. Sri Krishna is a Yadav
and is worshipped by Brahmins and Sri Ram is a Kshatriya, and is
also worshipped by brahmins. So who is greater than whom? And
Buddha is accepted as another avatar of God. Has anybody tried to
name God's caste? If we think of these things, we might possibly
become better Hindus - and Indians.

(M. V. Kamath, veteran political commentator, takes on all
comers)


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