Indian caste system is a western construct, says scholar at ICHR lecture

He said that the caste system was only a "grand assumption", as there is ambiguity about the origins of such a system in India.

Written by Ritika Chopra | New Delhi | Updated: November 12, 2016 9:19 am

India has castes, but not a caste system. The latter is only a western construct, which helped Europeans come to terms with their experience of Indian culture and society, Dr Prakash Shah told his audience at the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) on Wednesday.

His questioning of the existence of a caste system in India was part of a lecture series organised by ICHR, which is the apex body for funding historical research in the country.

Shah, a reader of culture and law at Queen Mary University of London, said the caste system and the rules of hierarchy, endogamy, ritual purity and untouchability associated with it were only a “grand assumption”, as there is ambiguity about the origins of such a system in India. His lecture was based on his upcoming book ‘Western Foundation of Caste System’, which he has co-edited with three other scholars.

“We cannot say with clarity what a caste system is and, certainly, we cannot say with any clarity what the Indian caste system is. We also don’t know whether these (ritual purity, endogamy, untouchability, etc) are constituent elements or the consequences of the caste system. For example, violence. Do I need to say that violence is an integral element of the caste system or is it an outcome of something that already exists?” he asked his audience.
Indians, he further said, accepted the colonial theory of caste system, which was questioned even by European scholars in the 19th century. “In the 19th century even European scholars were disagreeing about even the possibility that a pan-Indian caste system could ever had arisen… With such a diversity in cultures and languages, how is it possible that a single alleged priestly class could exercise its influence over the length and breadth of the subcontinent to such a degree that it could introduce a singular caste system throughout this culture? They used to ask that question with a great deal of seriousness. But today we the existence of a pan-Indian caste system for granted.”

In another argument to bolster his case for the absence of caste system in India, Shah said that Buddhism and Bhakti movements were not anti-caste movements. “There is one sutra that talks about the Buddha and this discussion he is having on what does it require to be a true Brahmin. When you examine that you realise that this (Buddhism) is not an anti-caste thing at all. Actually the discussion in the ancient days was about who is a true Brahmin. It’s not about destabilising some kind of idea of caste or the caste system that may have existed at that time at all. So we can’t reduce the Buddha as an exemplary anti-caste activist.”

Referring to a chapter on caste violence in his book, Shah questioned the idea of oppression that is associated with the caste system. He claimed that official data on caste-related violence in the country showed the proportion of SCs and STs who experience atrocities (against each other or by members of another group) is disproportionately less than the violence experienced by members of other groups.

When asked how he would explain the violence or discrimination directed at Dalits if there is no caste system in India, he said, “I am not neglecting or dismissing claims that there are injustices in Indian society… Don’t all societies have injustices? Let’s go and research them. But let’s not assume that the caste system is a necessary explanation for the kinds of ills we see.”

As for Indians who believe in the caste system, he said, “I would say that is part of the acceptance of the colonial story. (SN) Balagangadhara (of Ghent University, Belgium) describes it as a form of colonial consciousness which underwrites the claim of immorality. We generally accept that. It’s not an inferiority complex. Because the European cultural claims about the Indian society are essentially normative in nature, they are bound to put Indians in an inferior moral position. They also put the westerners in a morally superior position. That’s part and parcel of the baggage that we’ve been made to accept since colonial period. We have accepted this story because of the force of the colonial violence.”