Race and Caste, revisited

As for the word race, it has so many different meanings, as to be useless in scientific discussion, to very useful for getting members of the same nation to hate one another. — JBS Haldane

A resolution passed recently by European Parliament recognizing caste-based discrimination as a form of racial discrimination reminds one of an article written by the social anthropologist Andre Beteille about a decade ago. Beteille described a similar attempt by U.N. to accommodate caste-discrimination as a form of racial discrimination as ‘politically mischeveous’, and what is worse, ‘scientifically non-sensical’. (Race and Caste, The Hindu, March 10, 2001).

After reading his article, one gets the feeling  that to Beteille, treating caste as a form or race is non-sensical, because ‘it is bound to give a new lease of life to the old and discredited notion of race current a hundred years ago’, and, it is politically mischeveous because it ‘will open up a Pandora’s box of allegations of racial discrimination throughout the world‘ for it ‘will encourage religious and other “ethnic” minorities to make allegations of racial discrimination not only in India, but everywhere’. For if discrimination against disadvantaged castes can be defined as a form of racial discrimination, then it would take little imagination to paint any discrimination against religious or linguistic minorities as “racial”.

Interested parties naturally welcome such a move. One observer in our national daily welcomes it, praising it as a “historical resolution recognising caste-based discrimination and discrimination based on work and descent as a violation of human rights and an obstacle to development” which he finds to be ‘remarkably constructive’ for it ‘circumvents the Indian government’s contention that caste is not an element of race and therefore must be excluded from laws against racial discrimination’ (The EU flexes its muscles on caste, The Hindu, November 5, 2013).

Caste-based discrimination is indeed reprehensible and must be condemned by all; but do we need to paint it as a form of racial discrimination to do so? It is now a well established fact, at least in Anthropology, that there is no such thing as race. One can, if one is so inclined, talk of racial elements. There is only one race and that is the human race. The idea of race dies hard in popular imagination and one can understand why this is so. But what is remarkable is to find the intelligentsia promoting the myth of race. Perhaps it is in their nature to stretch the point somewhat when they believe that doing so will only serve a good cause. But promoting myths in the hope of bringing about a social changes may prove costly in the end, especially when these myths can easily be put to different uses.

One can throw cold water on this established anthropological fact by stating that “race” may be myth for anthropologists but people are conscious of it and see themselves belonging to a particular race; therefore, as far as discrimination based on race is concerned, race is real enough. Starting from here, one can then justify the basis behind this resolution by focusing on what is common to both caste-based and race-based discriminations rather than to the categories called race and caste. Myths are indeed powerful tools but they are dangerous weapons too.

People can be easily moved by myths, for both constructive and destructive ends. Who can deny that millions of Hindus have been convinced that they are indeed backward and inferior than other Hindus. But do we, as a responsible member of intelligentsia, have to build our arguments on populist lines. The progress in knowledge is made in the teeth of popular prejudice; and not by constantly pandering to it. Perhaps more and more people have started taking serious what Ashis Nandy wrote once in preface of his well received essays, “the way to fight the myth : by building or resurrecting more convincing myths”.

In the past, some groups claimed superior rights (and many still do) on the ground that they belonged to a Aryan or Teutonic race. Beteille tells us that the Anthropologists rejected these claims on two grounds: ‘first, on the ground that within the same human species no race is superior to any other; but also on the ground that there is no such thing as an Aryan race or a Teutonic race.’ And he goes on to ask if it is acceptable to ”throw out the concept of race by the front door when it is misused for asserting social superiority and bring it in again through the back door to misuse it in the cause of the oppressed”. He further cautioned us that “the metaphor of race is a dangerous weapon whether it is used for asserting white supremacy or for making demands on behalf of disadvantaged groups”.

The metaphor, the symbol, and the myth, called “race” is both powerful and dangerous like any other myth or symbol can be. Intellectuals do not like to be called populists, it is a term they reserve for those who are object of their disdain and intellectual wrath. Moreover those who have bitten by the calling of “change the world” do not mind inventing their own symbols and myths. They may not do so with evil intentions but it must be hard for them not to feel intoxicated when they feel that their ideas resonate with masses. They must consider the possibilities when symbols and myths created by them put to the uses which are different from the one for which they create them.

Many are welcoming the resolution passed by EU which treats caste as a form of race. Perhaps it is futile to ask them to reconsider their stand. Intellectuals do not like to change their stand unless the evidence on the contrary are overwhelming. Merely because one is not expected to take responsibility for creating myth, one ought not create them. As for me, I can’t see what benefit they expect to get from all of this for caste-based discrimination can be handled no less effectively as it is without painting it as a form of racial discrimination. The benefits are doubtful, if they exists at all, but the risks seems to be real enough to ignore


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