Where There is No Caste: Utopia

In the winter of 1959, Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife, Coretta, visited India. When they arrived in Mumbai, King told reporters, “To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India, I come as a pilgrim.” King was fascinated by the non-violent struggle of Gandhi against the British and had long dreamed of going to India. The couple stayed back in India for an entire month. One afternoon, King and his wife visited a high school where the children belonging to Untouchable castes were taught. The school principal made an introduction: “Young people, I would like to present you a fellow of untouchable caste from the United States of America.” King was appalled at the comparison. He never expected himself to be addressed as untouchable for he was an alien to the system. When King began to think about the reality of the lives of 20 million African Americans he was fighting for, he said to himself, “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is untouchable.”

The Lies That Divide Us

Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, in her bestselling book Caste: The Lies That Divide Us, introduces caste as a guiding framework to analyse racial hierarchy and stigmatization that holds African-Americans at the bottom of the ladder. Caste is broadly divided into seven parts, each addressing the broad contours of caste, and the interplay between caste and race in the United States. Her work is lyrically absorbing with its brilliant use of anecdotes, allegories, and metaphors about “an old house.” Throughout her work, Wilkerson uses words such as ‘dominant caste,’ ‘middle caste,’ ‘disfavoured caste’ or ‘lowest caste’ instead of, or in addition to, ‘white,’ ‘Asian or Latino,’ and ‘African-American’ to refer to the American caste system. 

Wilkerson defines caste as the “architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions” for sustaining social order. A caste system “is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of the other,” she writes. In her thesis, Wilkerson notes that the caste hierarchy is “not about feelings or morality”, but it is about power, resources, authority and respect — which groups have it and which do not, who gets to acquire and control them, and who does not.

To understand caste and its implicit use of unconscious ranking of human characteristics “used to justify brutalities against entire groups within our species,” Wilkerson draws stark parallels between the “tragically accelerated, chilling, and officially vanquishing caste system” of Hitler’s Germany that exterminated millions of Jews, lasting 12 years; the “lingering, millennia-long caste system of India” that continues to stigmatize Dalits — the former untouchables — even to this day; and the “shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the US,” that has been dehumanising the African-American community for centuries.

Race and Caste in the United States

Wilkerson, in her work, analyses the interplay between race and caste in the United States. For this purpose, she explores the writings of Ashley Montagu, Gunnar Myrdal, Allison Davis, and W.E.B. Du Bois among others. Allison Davis, an African-American social anthropologist, in his path-breaking work Deep South (1941) that examines the parallel between the African-Americans under the Jim Crow South in the United States and Dalits in India. Social economist Gunnar Myrdal, in his 1944 comprehensive report on race in America titled: An American Dilemma concludes that “the most accurate term for American society is not race, but caste.” 

Drawing from their works, Wilkerson contends that “caste and race coexist in the same culture” and they serve to reinforce one another. In the American caste system, the signal of rank in the form of one’s colour and appearance are known as race. And in the language of race caste as the underlying grammar defining it. Race is what one sees — the physical traits with arbitrary meanings — and caste is the “powerful infrastructure” that holds each group in its place. In Caste, Wilkerson identifies eight “pillars of caste” — divine will, heritability, endogamy, occupational hierarchy, dehumanization and stigma, terror as enforcement and cruelty as means of control, and inheritance of superiority and inferiority — that underlie the working of caste across societies. She illustrates these features using examples from India, Nazi Germany, and the United States.

Tentacles of Caste

In the “tentacles of caste,” Wilkerson describes various ways in which caste permeates in a society that is infected by it. She goes on to address the “unconscious bias” embedded deep within one’s culture and its function of perpetuating caste. And the role of lower castes as “scapegoats” of the caste system. Wilkerson notes, “As scapegoats, they are seen as the reason for societal ills.” She, further, adds that the “caste system thrives on dissension and inequality, envy and false rivalries” that builds up as a result of scarcity in societies. In another chapter, Wilkerson talks about the inherent “narcissism” that sustains the caste system.

The dominant caste acts as “the sun around which all other castes revolve” and these castes are ranked in “descending order by their physical proximity” to the dominant caste. “Caste behaviour,” Wilkerson writes, “is essentially a response to one’s assigned place in the hierarchy.” And the culture enables one to take instructions from dominant castes — follow them, revere them, and not argue with them when they are wrong. Although Wilkerson’s work elaborates on race in terms of the caste hierarchy, she doesn’t explicate on class privilege in terms of one’s inheritance of intergenerational trauma and post-memory among African Americans.

Wilkerson uses the most enduring caste framework, India’s, consisting of four varnas — Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra — and Dalits, former untouchables. However, jatis, the subset of varna, represent the sustained harsh reality of Indian society. These jatis are not rigid. And some jatis, as shown by several Indian social anthropologists, have climbed up the ladder and several others have slipped down. The postcolonial scholarship on caste has further shown us that British colonialism has imposed a certain rigidity in the structuring of caste as it exists today. 

What captures most of Wilkerson’s attention is the textualized division of caste in its purest form of hierarchy, division, and the normalised stigma — varna. Through this caste framework, she opens up a debate on what constitutes caste in our society. Wilkerson writes, “caste is the powerful institution that holds each group in its place”. When we apply this understanding to our day-to-day living, we see caste everywhere.

In my childhood, I attended a boarding school in Kadapatti — A temple town for the caste crusader, Basava, in southern India. On Sundays and other holidays, we, as children, would stand behind the windows of an unknown neighbourhood, peep through the tinted glasses, and stare at the Television watching dramatic Kannada movies, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), and the Cricket World Cup. As young as nine-years-olds, we knew our positions, roles, and functions as we huddled through those tinted glasses. When I look back, I understand that the mere notion of “peeping through the tinted glasses” and “owning a Television” shows us the caste structure — and the roles and behaviours it elicits.

Where There is No Caste: Utopia

Caste, in its truest sense, is one’s inability to accept the other as ourselves. And this form of caste exists everywhere. It is exactly this inability that enables the rich to look at the poor-in-tatters with a certain disgust. In a rural Indian household, the women — all their lives — are taught that their role is restricted to the four-walled kitchen. In international society, the third-world is looked down upon by developed countries. And the transgender community still faces perpetual stigma in South Asian societies among others. Wilkerson’s very appropriation of caste into western societies — the tendency to define caste in western terms — might blur harsh lived-realities of caste in India.

In the modern capitalist system, a new form of legitimised caste structure has emerged. A factory has a certain structure with foremen, supervisors, the board of directors, and the executive heads — each playing their roles, in their institutionalized hierarchy, with a scalar chain of command. In his Annihilation of Caste (1935), Ambedkar (whom Wilkerson calls the Martin Luther King, Jr. of India) wrote, “caste does not bring about the division of labour; it brings about division of labourers.” The caste roles enable the blue-collared employees to be treated in a certain manner as opposed to that of white-collared employees. It enables the watchman of an organisation ought to behave in a certain manner — and salute the ones that come through those gates. These caste behaviours are inevitably defined and structured in terms of one’s socio-economic and political power.

 What Wilkerson does not, however, delve deep into is the modern manifestations of caste in our society. But, she commences a debate on the term “caste” and its varied existence in human society, with Nazi Germany, America, and the Indian variant of caste as merely some of the many forms. As Wilkerson notes, “Caste, like grammar, becomes an invisible guide not only to how we speak, but how we process information.”

Caste is against humanity. It divides humans based on their, arbitrarily, presumed worth. It does not just assume that all humans are not born equal, but, caste provides the basis for our behaviour, rules of engagement, and encourages stigmatisation of the other. Wilkerson’s Caste enables us to rethink our complacency towards the perpetuating caste in our societies in various forms it exists. 

 In Wilkerson’s thesis, the caste framework helps one to understand “racism” and the “racial stigma” against African Americans in the United States. She concludes her important essay on caste by helping us to recognise caste and then enabling us to dismantle it. It is possible, Wilkerson writes, to create a “world without caste [that] would set everyone free” for it requires both individual bravery and enormous collective will of dominant castes.


Review: Nicholas Dirks’ Castes of Mind

In the Castes of Mind, Prof. Nicholas Dirks documents the centuries of scholarship on caste, colonial intervention in the institution of caste, and its broad impact on Indian modernity. In the work, Dirks, at first, shows us the colonial understanding of caste as an Indian form of “civil-society” through the writings from the early attempts of Abbé Dubois to the late 19th Century scholarship of Louis Dumont. Dirks, then, provides a brief analysis of the colonial obsession with the caste system through its attempts of categorisation in the form of ethnographic censuses. Finally, Dirks analyses the politicisation of caste through the reservation policies, and the subsequent OBC politics.

The book is divided into four parts: “The Invention of Caste,” “Colonisation of the Archive,” “The Ethnographic State,” and “Recasting India: Caste, Community, and Politics.” The book can be categorised into two broad trajectories: first, the early ethnographic formulation of caste, before 1857; second, the post-1857 colonial understanding of Indian in terms of caste through categorisation. Dirks accounts for the colonial construction of knowledge and the institutionalisation of India on caste terms. He writes that colonialism was ‘made possible,’ and ‘sustained and strengthened by both the ‘brutal modes of conquest’ and through ‘cultural technologies of the rule’. By technologies of the rule, Dirks refer to the colonial forms of knowledge as espoused by Bernard Cohn in his “investigative modalities.” Dirks opines that colonialism itself was a cultural project of control. He writes, ‘Colonial knowledge both enabled conquest and was produced by it’ (p. 9).

The colonial effort to understand India, before 1857, could be seen in the writings of Alexander Dow, Robert Orme, Charles Grant, Mark Wilks, and James Mill. One of the earliest British efforts at the recording of Indian history emerged like a treatise by Alexander Dow, an officer in the East India Company’s army, in the form of History of Hindostan in 1768. Nicholas Dirks observes that ‘Dow [however] relied on the tutelage of a Brahmin pandit in Banaras and adopted a textualist and Brahmanic view of Indian society’ (p. 22). Dirks observes that the early colonial efforts of writing the history of India looked at caste, not the state that held the society together with villages and communities as its major constituents. Its impact, Dirks notes, could be seen in the writings of Louis Dumont as late as the 1960s.

Dumont (1966) in Homo Hierarchus held that the ‘political and economic domains of social life’ in India are encompassed by regions domain. Brahmana, to Dumont, was both a religious principle as well as the highest form of purity of a Hindu. However, Dirks counters Dumont’s views on caste as highly problematic as the kings were not inferior to Brahmanas. And that Indian society was shaped by political struggles. Identities, Dirks writes, were not restricted to caste itself. He shows us that there existed regional, village and residential communities, kinship groups, chiefs, factional parties, etc. that formed the basic character of pre-colonial Indian society.

The early colonial efforts at understanding India, as Dirks accounts, in the writings of the historiography of Abbe Dubois to ethnographic enthusiast Colin Mackenzie, in his efforts at mapping and surveying the southern states of India. There is not much mention of “caste” in both their accounts and those produced by the missionaries. But, with the 1857 revolt, the British begin their quest for understanding India with enthusiasm. However, the colonial efforts at understanding India drastically restructured society, in which the subjects became a mere tool for governance. The colonial administrators recorded censuses, wrote reports and conducted surveys based on caste, race, ethnicity, religion and colour. Such processes of categorization, Dirks notes, did not only reify the community but also created an entirely new form of communities.

In the Castes of Mind, Dirks writes, the British, soon after securing their hold over India, began to use caste [in Varna terms] as a tool to enumerate the population. The colonial ethnographic interest began from the 1870s, with caste as a primary object of social classification and understanding. The census of 1871 generated all-India procedures, standards, and categories for its enumeration. One of the general trends in the colonial caste census was its intolerance for multiple, blurred, at times changing identities. The colonial census fixed a particular category for the people. Several census officers, time and again, have written, as Dirks shows us, that the question of caste was inaccurate and conflicting and such a process would lead to a flawed understanding of the communities. Mr Prinsep, an officer who conducted the census of Benaras in 1843, accounts for not less than 107 distinct castes in one city alone (p. 202). In 1891, the Varna was formally abandoned as the basis for the census.

Herbert Hope Risley, a census commission of 1901, made it pertinent that he would return to the use of Varna for enumeration and classification. To the British, caste became a civilisational factor for India’s backwardness. As a result, Dirks shows us that, caste itself became a civil society of India. Caste was reformulated into the rigid Varna categories, while discounting for multiple identities, at times, politicising such identities. The Castes of Mind shows us that with the caste becoming a major category for understanding India, the process of politicisation of caste began as early as the 1930s with caste associations sprouting all across India trying to mobilise people on their caste lines. Dirks, in this well-structured essay, shows us that caste displaced every aspect of Indian social life. Caste, to the British, represented India as a whole. It was only the caste that represented India. It was also what the British thought was the caste system, that would represent India. Furthermore, it was the British alone that could determine to classify and reinstitute caste in a manner that would perfectly represent itself as a civil society.

In the final section of the work, Dirks argues that caste has taken a new shape in its influence on politics. He accounts for reform movements of Periyar, Gandhi and Ambedkar that helped in the uplifting of Dalits. In another chapter, Dirks talk about the politics of caste and the caste politics, providing multiple facets of the caste debate in Indian sociology, with Rajni Kothari at one end and Srinivas and Ghurye at the other. The caste system that took a new form of civil society did not fade away after independence. With upper castes resorting to violence to avail preferential treatment and its subsequent culmination in the OBC violence and its aftermath. Dirks, in Castes of Mind, argues that caste is a major threat to Indian modernity, even if it had helped in its process. Over the years, the caste system has reshaped itself as an important aspect of Indian society. Today, caste remains as resilient as it could have even been. Castes of Mind shows us that caste, as we know it today, is a colonial construct and it was perpetuated through colonial forms of knowledge.

Reference: Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, Princeton: Princeton University Press: 2001