Casteism as racism:
anthropologically sound?

While Dalit organisations are making a strong case for a UN endorsement of the definition of casteism as racism, anthropologists are worried about the implications of such a definition - they say that while both concepts are based on discrimination, the caste system is not based on race and physical attributes, says Rinku Pegu

New Delhi, May 28

The effort by various Dalit organisations to redefine the caste system as a form of racism and get the redefinition endorsed by the United Nations (UN) has opened a Pandora's box of anthropological controversy. While the government has opposed the whole concept as unjustifiable, it has been hijacked out of the ambit of anthropology and into the political arena: the broad political opinion is opposed to the notion of caste and racism being kissing cousins, ostensibly for fear of getting India a questionable reputation.

Anand B Bardhan, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), does not agree with the above contention. "My reading of the caste system is that it cannot be equated with racism. I agree that both are concepts based on discrimination, but racism has to
do with physical attributes, unlike the caste system,"
he says.

Bardhan expresses his scepticism about any caste specific activity by UN by saying that "even if caste is equated with racism, can you run away from the fact? Even if it is recognised by UN, it will only mean endless debate without achieving anything fruitful.

Politicians argue that the caste system cannot be a
form of racism, because it exists only in India. (It doesn't - it is also prevalent in the entire South Asian region, including Bangladesh and Nepal.)

BSP leader Arif M Khan says the
issue of Dalits is not about names and
renaming "but about discrimination"

Noted writer Rajendra Yadav says that the "discriminatory caste system" is equivalent to racism
"as it is based on notions that some people are superior and others inferior".

Arguing for recognition of the Dalit cause by the UN,
Paul Diwakar, convenor of the National Campaign on
Dalit Human Rights, explains that the term "descent" used in Article 1 of the Convention of the UN against Racism does not solely refer to race.

The question is - does the present reality add up to a damning case against caste? Weighed in terms of the benefits that freedom brought Indians, the Dalits are still a deprived community in India.

Bardhan says - anthropologists would say simplistically - that the claim of the Brahmin caste that it belongs to the Aryan race has been disproved by the fact that most South Indian Brahmins belong to the Dravidian race.

He points out that even B R Ambedkar, the most prominent Dalit leader and crusader, refrained from equating caste with race in his definitive analysis of the caste system. "Do you mean to say that all the various castes belong to different races?" asks Bardhan.

The Congress, on its part, is yet to decide on the issue. Congress spokesperson Jaipal Reddy explains the absence of an official view on the issue saying, "Unless
it is electorally imperative, we will not take up the issue." When pressed further, he admitted, "Sensitivity to such issues is limited to electoral pressures."

Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Arif M Khan says
that the issue of Dalits is not about names and renaming "but about discrimination". Khan points to the fact that the emancipation of Dalits from oppressive social stigma remains a distant dream. The most important concern is the lack of avenues for upward mobility for most of the 160 million Dalits in the country.

The word Dalit is Marathi for "crushed". Social activist Madhu Kishwar says, "I do not have any problems
about whatever name Dalits are called, so long as it brings them out of their oppressive condition." Kishwar believes that the greatest barrier to the development of Dalits is the English language, which, she says, is "the new caste system" that is depriving the non-English
speaking people.

Legislations which are meant to protect Dalits, like the Prevention of Atrocities against the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, are rarely implemented, says Diwakar.

Also read, Is Caste Racism or What?

Print this Page
Print this Page
Referred by: Sashi Kanth
Published on: June 1, 2001
Send e-mail to with questions or comments about this web site.
No Copyright: dalit e-forum