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Back | Project: Racism and Public Policy

Abstract of Paper by Vijay Prashad

  • Project from: 2000 to 2001

Cataracts of Silence: Race on the Edge of Indian Thought
This paper discusses how ‘race’ thought entered South Asia with colonialism, how ‘caste’ is not identical to ‘race’—even if it became similar after much reworking of the concept during the colonial era, and how the fight against ‘caste’ is structurally similar to that against ‘race’—even if there are substantial differences.

One of the dangers of US hegemony is that the anti-racist programme for organizations and activists from across the global might replicate the terms of the US movement against racism. Race, then, as a central category of the struggle for equality may be self-evident in the US context, but it may not be as useful in other settings. To create a genuine international response to the problems of discrimination, how does one deal with the translation from one context to another, and with the need to draw links between movements without hastily drawing parallels between the forms of oppression that entangle the lives of people in different settings? A discussion of caste in a conference on race, therefore, must tread first into the domains of method and of the construction of political categories. This is the first task of this paper.

Yet caste is not a term so very alien to the idea of race, for both have their emergence in the crucible of modern imperialism, during the century that led to the French Revolution. Caste is a Portuguese word used to describe a very complex set of social formations that dot the Asian subcontinent. The discourses of race and caste (as well as tribe) emerged simultaneously, with attempts to justify the expropriation of values from certain parts of the world to what was to become the centre of the world economy: Europe. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, European conservatives justified their ill-gotten gains on the basis of race/caste, rendered in terms of biology, and they continued their reliance upon military force on the basis of their imputed racial superiority. Caste and tribe became the words used to index the lesser forms of social organization in India and Africa, social forms used by racial inferiors. Caste and tribe provided European imperialism with the means to select native leaders who were to be loyal to their European overlords. The second task of this paper will thus be to show the complex relationship between race, caste and tribe—not as abstract sociological terms, but as historical weapons in the race war of modernity.

When the Portuguese first landed in the southwestern coast of India in 1498, they came upon a form of social organization to which they gave the name caste (from castus). What they referred to was not one system, but a series of social formations to which they gave one name. There was the ancient system of differentiation known as Varna, where society is divided into four categories (Brahmins, Kshatryias, Vaishyas, and Shudras). One reads about this in ancient texts, but it is unlikely that society ever conformed to this hierarchical simplicity. There are two social groupings that the Portuguese observed, gotra (mainly emerging at times of marriage) and jati (community). It is this latter social form that the Europeans called ‘caste’, something which they saw as rigid and entirely oppressive—forgetting, perhaps, their own rigid feudal social order, and ignoring the many struggles against jati oppression in southern Asia.

Jatis emerged from the ancient world by various means, some from occupations, others from marriage bonds, some from dietary habits, and others from religious customs. Indeed, there is not one principle to explain the ‘caste system’. What is clear is that in most regions of southern Asia, some jatis ascended to dominance through social, religious, military and economic means. These jatis (and there are different dominant jatis in different parts of southern Asia) demanded the fealty and labour of others, those who would over time come to be the Dalits. There was nothing polite about the way the dominant jatis made their demands. Dalits fought off routine violence from dominant jatis, who, in turn, tried to erect vicious mechanisms to control the will of Dalits. As in the southern United States and South Africa, the Dalits could touch all manner of dominant jati things, if it was a way for them to provide labour. But, when the Dalits worked for themselves, then their touch was seen by the dominant jatis as a form of social pollution. Dalit women worked in the homes of the dominant jatis, and they fell prey to the sexual violence of elite men. However, these men disdained from any other interactions with the women.

With the demise of direct colonialism, the newly liberated nations strove to undermine the role of caste-tribe, even if the general tendency of nationalists was to make concessions to the ‘native leaders’ for the purposes of electoral gain. The work of Mahmood Mamdani on Africa is relevant to my purposes here, and I shall draw from his framework. The anti-caste and anti-tribe discourses of liberationist nationalism faced threats from the entrenched interests as well as from the everyday (or material) existence of ‘caste’ and ‘tribe’ in the habits of the people: there are alternative genealogies of caste, as community, as family or even as nation. I will explore the logic of these myriad lineages of caste and show how the struggle against caste oppression is not of the same character as the struggle for anti-racist justice.

In a 1999 report, Human Rights Watch found that the situation of Dalits was deplorable and called their condition ‘hidden apartheid’. There is nothing ‘hidden’ about the violence against Dalits, which moved M.K. Gandhi (1869–1948) in the 1930s to bring their struggles to the centre of the Indian national movement. His was a liberal gesture, far from the radicalism of some sections of the politically active Dalit movement led by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1891–1956). Ambedkar, a Dalit from western India, felt that ‘it is wrong to say that the problem of Untouchables is a social problem’, a reference here to Gandhi’s attempt to create social reform. Rather, he argued, ‘the problem of the Untouchables is fundamentally a political problem (of minority versus majority groups)’. It is also an economic problem, one of land rights and control over capital. Rather than become the ‘mere recipients of charity’, Ambedkar called upon the Dalits to ‘educate, organize and agitate’ for a struggle which he called ‘the reclamation of human respectability’.

The final section of the paper elaborates on the limits of a single programme for anti-racist justice. It calls for a careful form of internationalism that is scrupulous about context. In 1949, Ambedkar told the political leaders of India that their hesitant approach to land reform (and wealth redistribution) did not bode well for democracy. ‘How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.’ Fortunately, the Left and liberal Dalit groups have taken it upon themselves to be the guardians of political democracy by fighting for social and economic democracy. One hopes that their struggles will make India truly the world’s largest democracy, in the fullest sense of the word.