Caste system is not different from race

If you look at the consequences of the practice of racism and that of caste system, then there are many things in common. This is because both race and caste discrimination leads to treatment of fellow-human beings as inferiors or superiors.

Noted sociologist Prof T K Oommen tells Rinku Pegu that caste system is not only similar to racism, but also more oppressive than racism Should the unfair and iniquitous caste system be equated with racism? It has become a hot issue as Dalit activists are determined to bring it up in the forthcoming UN conference on Racism. The Indian Government has, however, said a big no as it regards the two issues to be different. But UN High Commissioner For Human Rights, Mary Robinson, has spoken in favour of the Dalit view at the conference.

Professor T K Oommen of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) explains to Rinku Pegu why the caste system can be regarded as racism. In practice, says Oommen, the caste system is much more complex and, consequently, more oppressive than racism. Excerpts from the interview:

Is it correct to equate caste system with racism?

To understand the caste system and racism, they have to be looked at in two ways. First, in terms of attributes, and second, in actual practice. For instance, if you look at race in terms of attributes, it is clearly rooted in biology. But caste, in terms of its attribute, is certainly a social category. So, at this level one can say, that caste and race are different qualitatively and, therefore, a comparison between the two is untenable.

But if you look at the consequences of the practice of racism and that of caste system, then there are many things in common. This is because both race and caste discrimination leads to treatment of fellow-human beings as inferiors or superiors. In giving a straight answer to the issue, I would like to take a position that it is much better to look at caste and race as categories, which are involved in interactions. As we interact as racial groups, or as caste groups, certain prejudices come to the fore. So, it is better to think of these two terms in their interactive context, rather than as an attribute.

Can you elaborate on the similarities shared between racism and caste system in the way they are practised?

The similarities are many. We must try to look at what is called the career of the concept of race, and then caste. To begin with, anthropologists would say that race is a biological term. Human beings are divided according to their physical appearance. The race characteristics usually identified are colour, nasal index and cross-section of the head. But the problem with this definition was a preconception that the White people with their characteristics, constituted the most superior group. The assumption was not based on any scientific analysis.

Following this definition, a particular combination has been worked out. In terms of the cephalic index, it is called Dolico-cephalic, whereas the so-called black people have Bracho-cephalic. Bracho means the widest. The most beautiful people are those with the narrow index. Now, this distinction is, in a way, understandable. People do differ. And with this came the creation of hierarchy, making out the White people to be superior and Blacks as the most inferior. The Yellow and Brown people were in the middle.

But the argument went further. It said, "If you are White, you are also more intelligent." In other words, physical superiority indicated level of intelligence. This implied that "If you are Black, you are, necessarily, intellectually inferior." Obviously, it was a false notion, which is why anthropologists label racism not as a science but as a pseudo-science. In fact, a whole field called anthropometry, measuring the physical features has been in vogue for a long time now. Even in India, several anthropologists practised it till the 1960s.

Do race and caste follow a common historical evolution?

Yes. To begin with, in the case of race, the Philologists (the 19th century students of the historical evolution of language) entered the picture. They started using the term race in terms of a specific language. To give an example, the term Aryan, used in India, is a linguistic category. However, people think that Aryan refers to race. But it has nothing to do with race. It is a linguistic category. Therefore, race has been extrapolated into the realm of linguistics.

Then the ethnologists entered the picture. The ethnologists started talking about race as connoting culture. So, if you belong to a particular racial category, it also meant that you are a practitioner of a particular lifestyle and culture. So, race came to be co-terminus with culture. And from this point, people went ahead and brought in the political connotation, "Race as Nation".

Thus the concept of race moved from the biological to philological to ethnological to the political. And people use the term 'race' in all these contexts, although ideally it is a concept denoting the physical features. Isn't it a fact that people have used the notion of Aryan race not only to intimidate and dominate, but also to kill people (for example, the genocide that the Nazis perpetrated against the Jews)?

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Referred by: Benjamin P Kaila
Published on:2 Sep, 2001
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