This advertisement for a “Brahmins Only” housing project appeared in a newspaper in April:
A visit to their website confirms that their objective is the preservation and perpetuation of Brahmanism:
To preserve, protect, propagate and strengthen intellectual identity, integrity and self- esteem of the noble culture of Sanathana Dharma, spanning its various sampradayas and traditions represented by Acharyas and Gurus.
When we posted the image on the Indian Atheists page it got the expected amount of anger, but there were also a handful of commenters who thought this ought to be allowed. This post attempts to tease out the moral arguments for and against. (I’m not neutral on the matter and will make my position clear too.)
First, it appears that this might be legal in India. I got in touch with a Nirmukta acquaintance who’s a lawyer, who sent me the following Supreme Court judgement from 2005: Zoroastrian Co-Operative vs District Registrar Co-Operative. Here are the facts I could gather from going through the lengthy judgement: a group of Parsis formed a co-operative society and acquired land for housing development. The by-laws of the society stated that “all members shall belong to the Parsi Community” and that flats constructed could be “sold only to members of the Parsi community”. A descendant of one of the original owners wished to sell property to a non-Parsi, and hence the court case. The court decided in favour of the society – i.e. it upheld the right of the society to only let Parsis in. The key points in the ruling were Article 19(1)(c) of the Constitution of India which states that “All citizens shall have the right to form associations or unions”, and the Co-operative Societies Act. The judgement contains portions which seem to acknowledge that while this might not be desirable, it is within the letter of the law:
It appears to us that unless appropriate amendments are brought to the various Cooperative Societies Acts incorporating a policy that no society shall be formed or if formed, membership in no society shall be confined to persons of a particular persuasion, religion, belief or region, it could not be said that a society would be disentitled to refuse membership to a person who is not duly qualified to be one in terms of its bye-laws.
It is true that in secular India it may be somewhat retrograde to conceive of co-operative societies confined to group of members or followers of a particular religion, a particular mode of life, a particular persuasion. But that is different from saying that you cannot have a co-operative society confined to persons of a particular persuasion, belief, trade, way of life or a religion. A co-operative society is not a state[…]
It is true that our Constitution has set goals for ourselves and one such goal is the doing away with discrimination based on religion or sex. But that goal has to be achieved by legislative intervention and not by the court coining a theory that whatever is not consistent with the scheme or a provision of the Constitution, be it under Part III or Part IV thereof, could be declared to be opposed to public policy by the court.
Even today, we have Women’s co-operative societies, we have co-operative societies of handicapped persons, we have co-operative societies of labourers and agricultural workers. We have co-operative societies of religious groups who believe in vegetarianism and abhor non-vegetarian food. It will be impermissible, so long as the law stands as it is, to thrust upon the society of those believing in say, vegetarianism, persons who are regular consumers of non-vegetarian food. May be, in view of the developments that have taken place in our society and in the context of the constitutional scheme, it is time to legislate or bring about changes in Co-operative Societies Acts regarding the formation of societies based on such a thinking or concept. But that cannot make the formation of a society like the appellant Society or the qualification fixed for membership therein, opposed to public policy or enable the authorities under the Act to intervene and dictate to the society to change its fundamental character.
This debate boils down to the fundamental proposition that the right is prior to the good. I.e., governments and justice systems (such as the ones in today’s democracies) guarantee rights (in this case, the freedom of association) without taking sides about what is good. There are good reasons for this. As we all know, religions have been forcing their notions of goodness and virtue on people for centuries. So by staying neutral on matters of virtue, individual rights can be protected. My view is that there is a downside to this, such as the segregation illustrated by the advertisement above – where harm is done by protecting certain rights.
How is this harmful? Well the thing to note is that “Brahmins only” is actually very different from (say) “No pet owners”. This is because in the case of casteism, we aren’t just dealing with individuals – we are dealing with social systems which privilege certain groups and oppress other groups. There is no equivalent social system which privileges non-pet owners and oppresses pet owners. Hence, these preferences do not have the same moral weight and cannot be treated as morally equivalent. Similarly, excluding gay couples from a housing society is different from excluding (say) car owners – because while there is a social system (heterosexism) in the case of the former, there is no equivalent social system in the case of the latter. This distinction between individuals and social systems – and how they interact – is key to understanding social life as we know it. “Brahmins only” is in fact different from “Parsis only” too – because the Parsis are a dwindling minority in India. I’m still not sure whether it should be allowed, but hopefully you can see that the two do not carry the same moral weight.
In a recent trend, Ahmedabad is witnessing ‘only-Dalit’ residential societies around 300 of which have come up in the last few years. However, for most Dalits, it is not a matter of choice, but of compulsion. “Even if a Dalit can afford a flat in areas dominated by the upper castes, they are often denied by the builders or the seller”, retired IAS officer P K Valera, who lives in one such Dalit society in Ramdevnagar, says.
…Socio-political scientist Achyut Yagnik says, “There are more than 300 Dalit societies in the city. In Chandkheda alone, there are 200 societies, most of which have come up after the 2002 riots when people moved out from Gomtipur, Bapunagar and Dani limda area. You will find construction contractors who only build Dalit societies.”
…Jayantibhai Jadav, a Congress councillor from Chandkheda and a builder-constructor, said, “In case a Dalit approaches a upper caste builder for accommodation, he is either directly discouraged or tacitly denied. The upper caste buyers don’t even approach Dalit builders.”
Jadav points out that while a Dalit from Gujarat cannot find a house in the upper caste societies, things are different for Dalits, who are non-Gujarati. “As the unfamiliar surnames do not reveal the caste of non-Gujaratis, Dalits from other parts of the country stands better chance to get accommodation in mixed societies”, he adds.
…Ashok Shrimali, who moved from Gomtipur to Shyam Bungalows, one of the Dalit societies in Chandkheda post 2002 riots, said, “A quest of safety took me to various Hindu-dominated housing societies in Ahmedabad. But I was denied an accommodation everywhere as I am a Dalit”, says Shrimali. Even in Chandkheda, he could not find accommodation in any of the mixed societies. “Finally, I moved to this society, inhabited by Dalits only”, he says.
…Builders and real estate agents say selling property to even one Dalit family in a society becomes detrimental to sales. Pulin Modi of Modi Constructions says, “Buyers do check out their neighbours before they book a flat in any area. Caste plays an important role as people want to live with their own class of people”. He further said that people even avoid the builders, who sell houses to Dalits.
…Manjula Pradeep of Dalit Shakti Kendra says, “It is not always that people move to such ghettos because they were refused houses elsewhere. Even if a Dalit manages to find a house in such areas, the moment his identity is disclosed, his neighbours start avoiding him. This fear of rejection, social isolation and a need for social security has pushed most of the Dalits to such ghettos”, Pradeep adds.
Some time ago I visited a Dalit hamlet in Rewa district. It was hemmed in on all sides by the fields of upper-caste farmers, who refused to allow any approach road to reach the hamlet. There were short roads inside the hamlet, but they stopped abruptly at the edge of it. The hamlet felt like an island, surrounded by hostile territory.
According to the writing, the Dhanwada Panchayat has created a water distribution system based on caste. People from the upper caste will have access to water for the first two hours in the morning. The writing says Rajputs and Patels will get water from 8 am to 10 am. Then, from 10 am to 12 noon, it is the turn of the Bharwads and Vaghris and lastly, Harijans and other untouchables for the next two hours. […] Such water distribution system can be seen not only in this village but in most villages,” claimed Ramila Parmar, project coordinator of Navsarjan Trust, an NGO. “We have found in our survey that the Dalit Falia is always situated outside the village or in an isolated area. Sometimes they are not provided ample water or they get it after other castes get their supply. Hence they always have to face water scarcity,” added Parmar.
So my position is that all freedoms of association are not the same, and some need to be curtailed by law.
There are a few objections which can be raised to this position. The first is, “Segregation is going to happen whether this is legal or not.” It is true that segregation will continue. It happens via subtle discrimination and chilly climates, via a gulf in social and economic capital, and via collusion with real estate agents who can quietly steer “suitable” people to certain societies and keep others out. Schelling’s work on segregation models suggests that even mild individual preferences like “I want 30% of my neighbours to be like me” result in heavy segregation at the macro level. But this cannot be a reason to not address the problem via legislation, because legislation can at least make it harder for segregation to occur. Civil Rights legislation in America might not have solved segregation there, but surely it increases the “cost” of it, by offering legal support and deterrents, and by altering social norms and values – today the idea of a “Whites only” sign instantly provokes a feeling of revulsion, as it should. So let’s have legislation, and keep fighting segregation via social activism as well.
Another objection would be to turn the argument around: “You’re a progressive atheist type, how would you feel about religious fundamentalists moving into your housing society?” I confess that a part of me would rebel against the prospect of fundamentalist neighbours, and I don’t have a solid justification for this. I think my counter-argument would again be based on notions of virtue and on the prevailing systemic conditions – atheists wanting to exclude religious fundamentalists is not the same as religious fundamentalists wanting to exclude atheists, “heathens” and “untouchables”.
(Readers unfamiliar with the caste system might want to watch the excellent documentary India Untouched. On Caste Privilege is a good piece written from the point of view of someone with caste privilege. The website Round Table India regularly publishes news articles and opinion from Dalit-Bahujan voices.)