Caste, Race and the Indian Anthropoloigsts

Amarjit Singh

Andre Bettille appears to be on the forefront of a group of Indian anthropologists leading the fight against the "Casteism is Racism" slogan given out by Dalit intellectuals.

The actual slogan is Caste is Race and Worse. But what is actually being talked about is the discriminatory nature of the caste society. Caste Apartheid and untouchability is the best kept "open" secret in the world. Many years ago when the international community framed the preamble on race and discrimination, caste of course was not an issue in the international arena. Dalits were not in a position to demand its inclusion. They are now.

Andre Bettile is probably the best known Indian scholar of the caste system. His works are well known in the academic circles but he is not always quoted enthusiastically.

Referring to the South Indian society: Stephen A. Barnett (in Essays on South India edited by Burton Stein - Originally published by the University Press of Hawai, USA, reprinted by Munshiram Manoharlal New Delhi) writes:

For Beteille, caste hierarchy is moving towards westernization and secularisation and the class system is widening scope due to marketability of land and a cash economy.....

These are provocative statements but caution is needed. Betteille sees caste through Webarian lenses in term of distinctive lifystyles ("status groups") but does not come to grips with the caste culture or hierarchy as a whole. Counterposing Dumont and Bettille is helpful here.(page 163)

A caste-to-class shift ignores the concomitant rise of ethnicity, racism (my emphasis - AS) and cultural nationalism in South India.(page 164).

To be fair to Bettille he does not believe in the harmonious theory of the caste system.

But some others critics are not so mild.

Declan Quigley a well known anthropologist writing in Contextualising Caste (Edited by Mary Searle Chatterjee and Ursula Sharma by Blackwell Publishers/The Sociological Review, Oxford UK) has this to say:

Recently Andre Bettille (1991, 1992) has argued that the Indian urban middle classes are moving away from 'caste' and that the 'family' is becoming more important institution. Apart from the fact that he presents virtually no evidence for this claim, it is clear that there are still limits as to who is regarded as an acceptable marriage partner. By and large Bettille seem to be referring to the intermarriage of members of Brahman and dominant castes... (Page 36)

Bettille argues that [it] can be safely assumed that, in India today everyone is prepared to talk publicly in support of equality but no one insupport of hierarchy or inequality. This conclusion flies in the face of a huge body of recent ethnographic material.

So why are his peers not so happy with the findings of Andre Bettille?

Since Dumont and Bettille have been bracketed together, in order to understand Bettille we have to go back in time and examine the case of Louis Dumont, author of Homo Hierarchicus. Dumont and the then Director of Studies at the prestigious Ecole Pratique des Hautes, Etudes, Paris, France.

Dumont published his 'groundbreaking' work in 1966 and immediately it became the best seller amongst the sociologist community. For well over two decades this book was a recommended reading for students of the caste system, it was quoted approvingly and if you disagreed with Dumont you obviously did not know anything about the caste system. Those of us who had a first hand knowledge about the way untouchability was and is practised, were rather annoyed when we read Dumont and tried to explain that to our anthropologist friends that what Dumont had written was nothing more than the Brahmnical theory of untouchability.

For Dumont the 'idea' of 'pure' and 'impure' was primary. The practice of untouchability was based on the 'idea'. It never occurred to him that the idea did not drop from the sky but it took birth from reality.

We the Dalit Sunday anthropologists were in the minority then and were not taken seriously. After all Dumont was the Director of Studies at a prestigious institute and what did the amateur untouchables know about sociology and anthropology?

But we need not have worried too much. There were other people who saw things differently.

Times changed. During the 70's, 80's and 90's it was no longer passe for anthropologists and sociologists to go and talk to the so-called lower castes and examine their words seriously. Berreman was one of the earliest such scholar. Berreman claims that when he presented his version of the Dumontian model to rural untouchables, 'they laughed and one of them said, you have been talking with Brahmins" '.

During the 90's Dumont began to be criticised. The trickle became a flood and now Dumont stands demolished, an idol of clay.

Those Indian Indologists who like Dumont talk of concepts, but want to ignore the reality and practice of caste system do not wish to discuss u ntouchability, ghettos, bonded labourers and devadasis. These are uncomfortable questions which fall outside the straight line of their social study experiment and these can be explained away by them as some sort of an experimental error known to every school boy.

Their solution to the problems of all types of prosecution is "don't mention it, it will upset our concepts." It never occurs to them that as scholars it is their duty to come to grips with the problems of Indian society, not run away from these.

Indian Indologists often complain that in the West there is access to better academic facilities and hence they do not fare well when pitted against the Western Indologists. But caste is in the homes and backyards of every Indian family, so why are not the Indian anthropologists coming up with better word shaking theories of the caste system?

Ambedkar answered this long time ago. He said that the Hindu society was incapable of producing a Voltaire.

Caste, it is claimed is being pushed into the political arena. But by claiming that caste and race are two different things (they are as every student of sociology knows - but casteism is akin to racism - and this is what is being denied by implication) the Indian anthropologists have voluntarily jumped into the political arena.

Unfortunately what Ambedkar said many years ago is still true even today.

Andre Bettille appears in the middle of the Indian intellectual desert landscape.

Dumont and Bettille have already been bracketed together. Where will Bettille and his supporters be when the whole world starts to condemn caste discrimination?

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Source: In-House
Referred by:Amarjit Singh
Published on: June 14, 2001
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