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Madras High Court makes changes in judgment that said ‘Varnas can’t be blamed’, now says ‘caste categorisation is a recent phenomenon’

Madras HC erlier said, "Origins of the caste system as we know it today are less than a century old." Now, it says that Caste categorisation is a recent phenomenon.

On Thursday (7th March), the Madras High Court condemned State Minister Udhayanidhi Stalin for his remarks about Sanatana Dharma and said that the caste system as we know it now is less than a century old, and the caste difference cannot be linked only to the ancient Varna system. Now, the court has made changes to its order and said that the categorisation of castes, as we know them today, is a far more recent and modern phenomenon.

In the original judgment, Justice Anita Sumanth recognised that caste disadvantages persist, but added that the caste system as we know it today dates back less than a century. She said, “Origins of the caste system as we know it today are less than a century old. Can’t lay blame on the ancient Varna system alone.”

The latest version of the judgment uploaded on the website of the Madras High Court omitted the line “origins of the caste system as we know today are a century old”. The line is replaced with “categorisation of castes as we know them today, is a far more recent and modern phenomenon”.

What’s there in the original judgment?

The Court stated in its original judgment that Tamil Nadu has 370 registered castes and recognized tensions amongst castes. She went on to say that this hostility between people of different castes is due in part to the benefits provided to them.

“This Court agrees unequivocally that there are inequities based on caste present in society today and that they are to be eschewed. However, the origins of the caste system as we know it today are less than a century old. The State of Tamil Nadu has 370 registered castes and the State is a cacophony of pulls and pressures by groups of persons claiming allegiance to one caste or the other. This ferocity among persons belonging to different castes is also, in part, on account of the benefits made available to them,” the Court said.

What was the case?

The order was issued in response to a petition brought by the Hindu Munnani against Stalin, State Minister PK Sekarbabu, and Member of Parliament (MP) A Raja, which questioned their continued office despite such statements. On September 2, 2023, at a conference hosted by the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Artists Association in Chennai, Stalin stated that certain things should not only be resisted but abolished.

“Just as dengue, mosquitoes, malaria, and coronavirus must be eradicated, we must eradicate Sanatana,” he had stated, causing considerable indignation. Officers of the right-wing outfit Hindu Munnani then filed three writ petitions in the High Court, objecting to Stalin’s remarks. They requested the issuing of a writ of quo warranto, requesting an explanation from Stalin, Sekarbabu, and A Raja as to why they were still holding public office after participating in a conference calling for the extinction of the Sanatana Dharma.

What did the court opine?

Stalin insisted that his remarks were not directed at Hindus or Hinduism, but rather against the caste system. On Wednesday, the Court condemned Stalin’s remarks but declined to remove him as a Minister. The Court stated that it could not issue such a directive unless Stalin was legally disqualified from holding the position.

The Court also stated that making unproven statements about Sanatana Dharma constituted promoting misinformation, but declined to issue a writ of quo warranto to remove Stalin as minister.

The High Court said that Udhayanidhi Stalin was wrong in attacking the Sanatan Dharma over the current caste system. “The restrictive meaning attributed to the phrase Sanatana Dharma is clearly erroneous as Sanatana Dharma connotes that eternal, perpetual and universal code of conduct that is uplifting, noble and virtuous,” the court said.

Other remarks by the court in the original judgment

The Court accepted that people have attacked one another throughout history in the name of caste and ruled unambiguously that such acts are unacceptable. To address past injustices, the Court stated that constant repair and damage control, as well as honest introspection on potential solutions to correct injustices and create equality, are required.

Regarding whether these problems might be put wholly on the ancient Varna system, the Court stated, “This Court agrees unequivocally that there are inequities based on caste present in society today and that they are to be eschewed. However, the origins of the caste system as we know it today are less than a century old. Can one lay the blame for these torturous circumstances entirely on the ancient Varna system? The answer is emphatically in the negative.”

Furthermore, the Court held that the Varna system considers a vocation rather than birth as the basis for partition. “The varna system does not contemplate division based on birth, but based on avocation. The system was designed to work towards the smooth functioning of society centuries ago where the chief avocations were identified based on the then needs of society. The relevance of such a system today is itself moot,” it stated.

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