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The category of "caste" has had a long history both in and out of the Indian subcontinent, one that is frequently intertwined with that of "race." From H. H. Risley's use of late-nineteenth century European race science in anthropometric research, to Max Müeller's articulation of the Aryan theory of race and pan-Africanist expressions of racial solidarity with the lower castes of India, caste has frequently been redefined and politicized by being drawn into wider discourses about race. This essay will trace this politicization of caste, primarily in India and cursorily examine the use of the concept of "caste" in contexts vastly different. The debates that the essay will focus on vary from the 19th century decennial census, the Nationalist movement in India, the reservation policies adopted post-independence, the emergence of Hindutva and the recent U.N. Conference in Durban against racial Discrimination.
The colonial conceptualisation and politicization of caste is where the essay will begin. The popular consensus among the colonials was that caste opposed nationality. This view, propounded by Risley, found a steady refrain among colonial voices, for whom such an analysis was deeply comforting in its projection that Britain's empire would not be threatened by a genuine nationalist movement. Ironically, it is through the decennial census, instituted by the same colonial authorities, that caste entered the realm of politics. Increasing agitation over caste denomination and the assignment of social status by caste groups gave rise to a competitive politics that began to make caste the basis for political mobilization. [i] Thus, through the census and its attendant politics, caste became the primary mode of textualization of social identity in the last years of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Conflicts emerged with special force in the wake of the politicization of caste around the census as well as in relation to the rise of anti-Brahman movements and the growing agitation- both from within the Congress and outside it- concerning the rights of untouchables.
The roots of the dissent lie in the decennial census. One of the major consequences of the census was the denomination of the "Hindus" as the majority community with the "Muslims" as the dominant minority. It was not just the idea of a majority community that was new but also the use of the term 'Hindu' to designate a population that ranged so widely in belief, practice, identity and recognition. The discourse of nationalism and minoritarian politics make an entry at this crucial juncture.
Nationalism, as Aloysius alerts us in Nationalism without a Nation in India, was hinged on the cultural nationalist ideology. Ever since the late eighteenth century, the cultural core of the nation to be came to be identified with the tradition of Vedic Brahminism. The nationalist ideology called upon the nation to recognise its uniqueness in these terms and unite to oppose everything that threatened its continuance. Inclusion of Untouchables within the Hindu fold was actively encouraged by the doyens of the Nationalist movement for utilitarian reasons, as Dirks points out. Rather than constituting another minority, the Untouchables would help the Hindus make the majority. As a response to this Brahminic monolithic nationalist agenda, new voices emerged as representatives of sociopolitical constituencies that saw Hindu whole as hierarchical, oppressive, and graded. This was the emergence of the Subaltern perspective on the Indian National movement and caste was the primary mobilizing instrument in this. Through the voices of such leaders as Periyar and Ambedkar, cultural nationalist ideology came to be identified as the precipitate of a politics of exclusion that endangered groups both within the caste Hindu fold and outside.
Contestations within the nationalists resluted in the crystallizaion of a novel aspect of the nationalist movement. This aspect of the Nationalist movement Aloysius calls the Political nationalist movement. [ii] As the strategy adopted by the pioneers of the movement- Periyar and Ambedkar- indicate, the movement arose with some form of a democratisation process within society and the emergence of the mass into the public sphere. Invariable concomitant of such emergence was the loss of privileges based on ascription for the traditionally dominant. What this movement gradually snowballed into was a demand for homogenization in the sense of equitable distribution of power within cultures, articulated by the masses themselves. The common historiographical assumption, perpetuated by the elites through cultural nationalist ideology, was that the masses, defined as Muslims, Tribals and Untouchables, were essentially dormant. This perception was turned on its head by the Political nationalist movement which successfully brought caste into the fraught realm of national politics. Muslims and tribals voiced this movement as in continuity, as Aloysius tells us, with the age-old tradition of resistance to Brahminic ideology. This was facilitated by several contingent factors. The general location of the political nationalists, like Ambedkar and Periyar, was at the lower levels of the social structure and their cultural embeddedness determined their relationship with their masses- the marginalised- and the nature of their political articulation. Ideology of political nationalism, abolition of ascriptive privileges and democratization of society in the subcontinent was concretized into a series of rights, culminating in the much disputed Poona Pact of 1935, for the lower-caste masses and minorities, facilitating their emergence into different spheres of the new power and opportunity realm of civil society.
The similar, historically contingent circumstances of the marginalised dalits and minority communities like the Muslims in India have, hence, brought caste within the discourse of politics. This in the 1980s, as Yoginder Sikand alerts us, coalesced with the minority movement's aspirations of firstly, attacking the Hindu hegemony and secondly, to critique the existing minority (particularly, Muslim )leadership. The Bahujan Samaj Party was also instrumental in gradually expanding the term "Dalit" into "Dalit-bahujan," borrowing terminology from the non-brahmin movements of the 1920s in order to forge a political unity between Dalits, OBCs, and indeed also (religious) minorities. It is here that the establishment of Dalit Voice in the 1980s is significant, politically. In place of the established Muslim religious leadership, considerable number of Muslim, and also Dalit writers call for a new and what they call revolutionary Islamic leadership among the Muslims in the country, one that champions the 'true' teachings of Islam while at the same time uniting the Muslims along with other marginalised communities to challenge the domination of the 'upper' caste Hindu minority, which is seen as the principal cause of the manifold problems facing Muslims and other suppressed communities in India. The motivation behind this is the failure of the present Islamic leadership (the Jama'at-i-Islami (JI), the Tablighi Jama'at (TJ), as well as the custodians of the Sufi shrines) [iii] to respond to the concerns of the Muslim masses and their inability to protect Muslim lives and interests in the face of the increasingly menacing threat of 'upper' caste Hindu aggression.
Upper caste Hindu aggression, as Sathianathan Clarke points out, has had two more or less distinct lives in the Indian political environment. "Hindutva is not a word but a category", declares Savarkar at the beginning of his self-consciously ideological tract- Hindutva- Who Is a Hindu?, even as he proceeds to show how this history is crucially intertwined with a geography. This, the first life of Hindu nationalism, as it were, was in many ways a socio-psychological reaction to the complex process of colonial rule. The constitution of minorities in colonial India served both to justify the colonial state, which legitimated itself in part through its claim to offer protection to minority groups that were seen as endangered and to fashion the majority as a homogenous group. [iv] So, Hindu nationalism, on the one hand, reproduced the myth that colonialism constructed. The colonized Other claimed for itself some integral features which the colonial Self ascribed to it, perceiving itself as the dominant majority. Simultaneously, it was also reacting to the politicization of caste in the census. Hence, it rejected the tendencies in colonial policy to divide the Indian community into numerous caste divisions according to the colonialist's own whims and fancies. In this context, Hinduization was a deliberate act of consolidation. [v]
The genesis of aggressive Hindu nationalism, perceived by some to be consolidating the nationalist movement, was for the many who did not belong to the cultural category of Vedic Brahminism, a form of classification, a mode of communication and a method of enforcing control. As a spatial form of classification, it divided all those living within the Indian sub-continent into two distinct mutually exclusive camps- those who possess Hindu-ness or Hindutva and those who do not. Savarkar's claims amount to the assertion that only those marked by Hindutva have the moral and, importantly, political right, to constitute the nation. [vi] Thus, the writings of Savarkar may be cited as representative of an inordinately influential form of nationalist thinking which homogenized the idea of India into one region, religion, and race. Multiple religio-cultural traditions of the subcontinent were now seen part of one single coherent religion- Hinduism. Savarkar's ideas have gained acceptance with the modern resurgence of Hindu nationalism and the consequent reemergence of the discourse of caste in politics.
The role of the Indian state's policies of affirmative action, targeting specific communities, post-independence, and the furore surrounding the implementation of the controversial Mandal commission's recommendations in early 1990s have had a crucial role to play in the politicization of caste and the resurgence of aggressive right wing Hindutva. The significant negative response to V.P. Singh's decision to implement the recommendations of the Mandal commission in 1990 contrasts significantly with the general acceptance of plans for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes reservations in the early 1950s. The politics of the Backward Classes needs consideration here. The constitutional mandate, as Dirks points out, had used the term class rather than castes, concealing what were already massive differences about the role of caste in post-independent India. Academicians like N.K. Bose argued for the use of pollution and exclusion indices in assigning backwardness. And, Ambedkar himself clarified his wording in the abovementioned constitutional mandate when he observed that "what are called backward classes are nothing but a collection of certain castes". This notion that Backward classes were in reality certain castes meant that reservations for them wouldn't be accepted with the same degree of magnanimity by upper-caste Hindus as it was in the case of SCs and STs. This can be used to explain the Mandal agitation. OBC members, it was felt, were more likely than SCs or STs to fill positions vacated for them in the most desirable institutions. Hence, they were a greater competitive threat to high-caste Hindus. The other set of circumstances that snowballed into the Mandal agitation concerned the reigns of political power at the center. In the 1950s, the Congress Party was in full control of both Central and State governments, and its predominantly Brahmin leadership was widely respected. In the 1990s, however, power was divided among a variety of parties at the central and state levels, many of which owed their strength to the mobilization of lower castes included among the OBCs. [vii]
The crystallization of caste in the discourse of politics, thus reaches its zenith in the debate over the implementation of Mandal Commission's recommendations. The concomitant political resurgence of right-wing Hindutva explains this further. As Dirks argues, the controversy over Mandal played a significant role in generating the political consensus that made Hindu fundamentalism more acceptable. The Mandal agitation, thus did for Hindutva in 1990s what the Nationalist movement had done for it when Savarkar conceptualised it in the 1920s. . One more factor in the politicization of caste, hence, bears exploring: the rise of Hindu ethnicist politics, specifically as this found public expression and support in the BJP's Ramjanmabhoomi/ Babri Masjid Campaign. It was in the wake of politicization of caste over Mandal that calls were made for Hindu unity over caste division by political leaders of the BJP. The BJP stressed that Hindutva was a much better focus for social identity than caste. And, since then, it has not tired of stressing the way caste identity works against the spirit of national unity. What is obfuscated in this discourse is that the nation so unified is one that is the intended "Hindu" nation. The implications of this contradiction were not lost on the Dalit intellectual community: as Kancha Ilaiah would write, "in the Mandal Yuga (era of Mandal)...[upper caste Hindus] abuse us as meritless creatures, but in their Ramrajya [ideal State] we are defined again as Hindus".
In line with the resurgence of Hindutva in 1990s over Mandal agitation is an investigation of the circumstances that allowed for acceptance of reservations for SCs and STs post-independence. It is here, through the Indian state's affirmative action policies, and their similarities with the positive discrimination policies adopted elsewhere in the world, primarily U.S.A, that the question of whether caste and ethnicity belong in the same debate will be examined. In the early years after India gained independence, there was great deal of public support for reservations in favour of SCs and STs. The idea of reserving places for disadvantaged groups as a way of doing justice to those groups, had been legitimized and popularized during the British rule. The extent to which positive discrimination was embedded in the constitution of independent India, in tension with its commitment to individual liberty, testifies to the degree of support it enjoyed. [viii] Affirmative action policies never enjoyed in the U.S. the kind of society-wide positive consensus that characterized reservation policies for Dalits and Adivasis in India, but affirmative action resonated with a majority of Americans as an appropriate response to the past injustices and current disadvantages suffered by Blacks in particular and Hispanic and Native Americans as well. In the U.S., much like the Mandal agitation in 1990s, growth of opposition to positive discrimination became highly visible when Ronald Reagan was elected to power in 1980.
It is interesting to note that the arguments posited against positive discrimination in the U.S. mirror those used against the implementation of the Mandal commission's recommendations, of course within the relevant cultural contexts. That they would result in reverse discrimination; that they were poorly tailored to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged; that they were divisive of societal unity; that they serve to heighten consciousness of irrelevant ascriptive distinctions; that they compromise on merit and efficiency; that as a consequence they engender psychological and social inferiority as second-class citizenship were all arguments that were made to counter Affirmative Action policies in the two countries. [ix] What this similarity of marginalisation, this similar location as second-class citizens in the political geography of both countries and the virulent opposition to policies tailored to their advantage by the upper-castes (much like the ruling power elites in the U.S.) achieves for the caste system, as Deepa S. Reddy articulates, is a global travel. At the heart of the contest is the question of whether or not caste can be re-defined as "racial discrimination based on descent" simply to draw it into the international spotlight. The essential ethnicity of caste as a tool for global political mobilization will be the focus of the rest of this essay.
From H. H. Risley's use of late-nineteenth century European race science in anthropometric research aimed at categorizing and enumerating the castes of India, to Max Muieller's articulation of the Aryan theory of race, to the consequent development of Tamil/Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu, caste has frequently been redefined and politicized by being drawn into wider discourses about race. C.J. Fuller observes that the process Weber described, whereby status groups can develop into ethnic and then caste groups "is now proceeding in reverse in contemporary India": "[c]astes are...being historically constructed, or perhaps more aptly being 'deconstructed,' as a vertically integrated hierarchy decays into a horizontally disconnected ethnic array". On the one hand ethnicity is "the reach for groundings" within the "post-modern flux of diversity" [x] ; on the other it defines "distinctive groups...of solidarity," or strategic alliances demanding recognition, both conceptual and material. And, this correlation between horizontal caste associations and ethnic arrays fostering solidarity is what enables the linkage between caste and race as discrimination based on descent.
In this context, Deepa Reddy draws attention to the Third UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (henceforth WCAR), held in Durban in 2001. This is only one site of the global reconfiguration of caste, but an especially important one both in terms of its impact on caste mobilization in India, and in its mobilization of support for the issue of caste outside India, as the essay will explore. Eminent Indian social anthropologists, Andre Beteille for instance, objected to the linkages being established between caste and race. He echoed the Indian state's response when he thundered, "[e]very social group cannot be regarded as a race simply because we want to protect it from discrimination." For Beteille, then, equating caste with race was both "scientifically nonsensical" and "politically mischievous," for such movement away from specificity would surely open the door to other discriminated linguistic or ethnic groups from all parts of the world to claim themselves victims of racism. [xi] Dalit rights activists, on the contrary, see a similarity between race and caste in that inequality is inter-generationally transmitted in both. Dr. Ambrose Pinto, a dalit activist, in responding to Beteille, said: "Prejudice and discrimination are both a part of caste and race and such prejudice and discrimination are not merely personal but institutional, a part of the structure and process of the whole society. In both caste and race theories, the higher or superior groups take the attitude that their culture is superior to all other cultures and that all the other groups should be judged according to their culture." The debate, therefore, has centred on the articulation of caste as discrimination, and the various forms of that discrimination - exclusion, untouchability, denial of constitutional rights and guarantees, violent subjugation and histories of slavery - as resonant of internationally recognised forms of racism. They argue further that caste, like race, is inherently an economically exploitative system and has had specific material consequences. Vocabulary of racism attached to caste by these common tropes and the opposition to it by the Indian state and academicians in public discourse enabled the universalization of caste via the notion of Human Rights. The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) was established on December 10, 1998-significantly, World Human Rights Day-with the stated aim of ensuring that "India and the International Community recognize and uphold that Dalit rights as human rights." [xii]
The setting for the WCAR couldn't have been more apt. The two prior World Conferences to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination (1978 and 1983, both held in Geneva) had been preoccupied with the regime of apartheid in South Africa, characterizing it as nothing short of a crime against humanity. It is in this globalized context, then, that the reading of caste as India's "hidden apartheid" was sought to be placed. To quote Reddy, "taking caste to Durban was therefore to enact a politics of embarrassment on an international stage." Human Rights Watch elaborates on the possibility of using caste as the yardstick for societal discrimination in Caste Discrimination: A Global Concern, prepared specifically for the WCAR. "[c]aste denotes a system of rigid social stratification into ranked groups defined by descent and occupation", the report notes (Introduction). It follows, then, that other racial or ethnic groups that are similarly structured could reasonably be described as "castes". . "Untouchability" becomes a metonym for the injustices that continue to exist in the world. What this allows is the dislocation of caste from a context specific to India, and its global fluidity and adaptability to any instances of marginalization anywhere in the world.
The reduction of caste to two 'essential' elements - religion and hierarchy- both inherently oppressive has, as Ronald Inden argues, become simultaneously the means of localizing caste and enabling its global travel. [xiii] It is when the localized caste comes to acquire a global mobility that caste comes to acquire an ethnic character. Ethnicity of caste, thus, has a dual advantage. It has the advantage of not making India look peculiar, while simultaneously taking into account the tendencies in Dalit discourse to highlight locality and uniqueness.
The universlization of caste manifest in discourse on politics internationally is best demonstrated by the American example of affirmative action policies which are 'essentially' similar in their positive discrimination policies with the reservation policies undertaken by the Indian state. A key difference is that in India, caste became explicitly codified, whereas in America social structure by ethnicity or family lineage remains uncodified and subliminal. Most law firms in the US are owned by Jewish families; most motels are owned by Gujaratis from India; Bush and Gore are both political dynasties. The advantage of the uncodified, invisible and often denied phenomenon of the American caste system is that it does not become cast in concrete. Rather, the lack of rules makes it porous and not impermeable, and open to change over time rather than static. India's caste discussions are locked into a 'South Asian' contained context, one that has been repeatedly pointed out by Dalit activists. Likewise, most well educated Americans have a blind spot about their own caste system. Using the same terminology forces the comparison, much like upper-caste Indians and academicians have been shown to have a blind spot about racism in the Indian context. The issue then borders a lot on linguistic vocabulary and application of meaning to words within specific contexts.
It must be remembered that Ambedkar's coining of the word Dalit, meaning 'crushed', was part of the exercise in unifying the oppressed and forging a common cause. What also must be kept in mind is that race is centrally about ideologies of domination, so that any effort to construct equivalent/equal biological types [Aryan, Dravidian, Aryo-Dravidian and Mongolo-Dravidian] in an otherwise "homogenous" non-white culture, that India for upper-caste or right wing aggressive Hindutva is, is bound to fail. If instead, one looked at the use of the Portugese word casta ((an early sixteenth century word which embraced several meanings, not the least significant of which was "purity of blood". Scientific opinion has not to date refuted the interpretation of the word casta. The science of anthropology has also actively applied this term to describe the specific form of institutionalised discrimination on the sub-continent, as well as its application to the two levels of groups in the Indian sub continent: the jatis, roughly about 3000 or more and the four varnas.)), and its semantic field in comparison with the semantic field of race historically, the similarities between caste and race would be more than obvious. No social group is completely homogenous across region and time. The Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes are no exception. However, it is perfectly legitimate to assert the commonality of experience across cultural, linguistic, regional, national and ethnic diversity. The trajectory that caste has taken since its etymological genesis in 16th century through to politicization of it over the decennial census in the 19th to contestations between crucial elements of the Nationalist movement in early 20th to furore over reservation policies in post-independent India and contributing in no small measure to the emeregence and re-emergence of right-wing Hindutva in 1990s indicates that not only has it entered the discourse of politics, but that it is a concept fraught with uniqueness of experience and the possibility of that uniqueness to extend from a localized setting. The possibility of the extension, as this essay has tried to demonstrate, is predicated on the essential similarity of circumstances of disadvantaged groups across the planet. It is high-time indeed to move beyond the semantics of both words "caste" and "race" and work towards a holistic sensitization of the global community towards the plight of the repressed.