Is Caste Racism or What?

Amarjit Singh

Tehlka has carried an article on the caste as race controversy. Apparently the anthropologists are worried that their concept has been hijacked into the political arena. They are also worried about the implications of such a definition. However Tehlka does not mention which anthropologists are worried.

The concept of race itself is anthropologically or scientifically untenable. There may be certain genetic markers in a group of people but these as such do not constitute a "racial" grouping. What the common man or woman understands by race is no more than physical characteristics e.g. colour of skin, shape of nose, hair etc. i.e. race like beauty is skin deep. So does it mean that there is no such thing as race. The answer is yes, there is no such thing as race, scientifically speaking. But everyone understands what is meant by the term racial discrimination-especially if you suffer from it.

Also anthropologists, sociologist, historians etc. find it difficult to define the concept of caste itself. It is true - but is a fact. Caste is such a complex phenomena that to define it is to enter into all subjects under the umbrella called Indology. Dalits however have no such problem. They know what caste is.

Hence for many so called high-castes Indian people in the UK caste is not an issue, but racial discrimination is definitely an issue.

So if caste and race can not be defined how can we talk about casteism being worse than racism?

Is it the problem of definition or concepts ?

Fortunately some scholars are more understanding than the others.

According to Mary Searl Chatterjee in the book Contextualising Caste (Blackwell Publishers -UK) - referring to the testimony of a Dalit in that book, "Caste is not something that you do but something which is done to you" or the words to that effect. This sounds very similar to a lay-person's definition of racism.

It is instructive what the General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI) has to say about it. I quote from Tehlka

"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 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."

This is highly surprising to say the least !

What Bardhan says about Ambedkar's view on caste and race is true. The Arya/Anarya-Dravida debate of his times was coloured by the race question which itself was prominent because another "race" was ruling India then. To his credit Ambedkar did not go by his emotions but intellectual understa nding of the question. So rightly he did not equate caste with race. Since then medical science has proved that the concept of a physical race is untenable.

It appears that Comrade Bardhan has read Ambedkar in a somewhat selective manner.

In terms of discrimination, Ambedkar did not consider the caste question as any less important than the "race" question. Quite the contrary.

Is it a co-incident that the very word Dalit was popularised by the Dalit Panthers who proudly modelled themselves on the American Black Panthers ?

There are obviously very many differences between the two groups of people. But there is one similarity which is at once fundamental to the question but many people do not like to discuss it because the subject matter is no longer fashionable but is considered obsolete. This subject is called colonialism.

Just as the Africans found themselves sold into slavery during the period of Western colonisation, Dalits too found themselves found at the bottom of the Indian society. Whether the Indian masters were Aryans or a mixture of Aryans and partly indigenous groups is immaterial. It is the process of internal colonisation which is important.

So as a system of discrimination, just as racism is the legacy of western colonisation, casteism is the legacy of the internal colonisation in India which produced Ambedkar's "broken people" or Dalits. In the 21st century we talk in terms of discrimination, but the roots lie in exploitation.

Many who do not suffer from casteism would like to forget history because it is so inconvenient. In the case of Comrade Bardhan he may actually have to do something about it, hence his omission of such concepts as internal colonisation and exploitation and selectively quoting from Ambedkar.

The Government in India is fighting a loosing battle in denying that caste is akin to racism (Dalits think it is worse - they think it is the largest Apartheid system in the world - Apartheid was built on a non-scientific concept of race) . In less than 20 years, probably in an even shorter period, people all over the world will be condemning it. Therefore denying it is likely to make the matters worse in the long term.

Just as race can not be taken out of the political arena, neither can caste. These concepts have not been high-jacked into the political arena. They were there from day one.

Anthropologists therefore should not worry about concepts. It is reality which is more important. Concepts are after all convenient labels to describe a phenomena or in this instance a process and it is the process which produced the results which is more important.

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Source:Dalit E-Forum
Referred by: Amarjit Singh
Published on: June 1, 2001
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