Describing India in his opening remarks on the impeachment of Warren Hastings on February 15, 1788, Edmund Burke said, “In that country, the laws of religion, the laws of the land, and the laws of the honour are all united and consolidated in one, and bind a man eternally to the rules of what is called his caste.” This description of India’s caste system is, perhaps, the best summary of a highly complex social phenomenon for a Western audience.
Can caste be oversimplified? Perhaps, the reams of pages from ancient scriptures to modern social research have fallen short of giving an apt description of caste. But, I was mesmerised by the explanation of caste by Bahujan Samaj Party founder, Kanshi Ram. In his inimitable style, he would hold his pen and explain to anyone willing to listen — from Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani to VP Singh and Left stalwarts, depending upon the situation – that Indian society was organised vertically and his task was to turn it horizontal. He would then turn his pen. “A day will come when we will give you reservation,” he would say. There is no doubt that Kanshi Ram’s understanding of caste is superior to any scholarly treatise written on politics of caste in India.
To borrow a cliché, caste is an enigma wrapped in a riddle. So, a highly readable commentary on it by Isabel Wilkerson in her Caste: The Lies That Divide Us, came as a surprise. The book weaves together the contexts of India, Europe and the United States seamlessly. In fact, Wilkerson expands the definition of caste to include racism and religious/ethnic divide. She draws largely upon the context of the US and Europe where discrimination on the basis of race and religion triggered barbarity of unprecedented scale. Jews have historically suffered humiliation and persecution no less than Black people in the US.
But Wilkerson’s understanding of caste in the Indian context is woefully inadequate. Though, for the narrative’s sake, she refers to many anecdotes that make her story interesting, her conflation of caste with racial or ethnic prejudices is a clever spin to a narrative that would have otherwise looked ordinary. For instance, she writes that when Martin Luther King Jr visited India, a Scheduled Caste leader introduced him as an “untouchable” from the US. She also ignores the reform movements that Hinduism incorporated over millennia. She seems ignorant of the Bhakti movement led by poet-saints like Ravidas and Kabir who steered a subversive spiritualism that attempted to unshackle Hinduism from orthodoxy and placed emphasis on individual freedom, dignity and equality before God in the 15th-16th centuries. Of course, in more recent times, BR Ambedkar’s dissatisfaction with the reforms within Hinduism was perfectly justified, and he emerged as a radical expression of Dalit assertion.
Wilkerson quotes Ambedkar selectively to argue that racial discrimination of the West and caste prejudices in India are two sides of the same coin. There is no doubt that they are all premised on the notion of social hierarchy. But, unlike, religious or racial discrimination, caste prejudices drew their strength from scriptures before becoming rigid social practices. Even Ambedkar didn’t equate caste prejudices with racial discrimination. There is nothing common in the depressed classes of north and south India, just as the Scheduled Castes of eastern India are quite different from those in western India.
So, it seems far-fetched when Wilkerson writes of a US-educated Scheduled Caste student being treated in India in the same way as African-Americans in the US. On the face of it, such instances appear improbable as caste in the Indian urban milieu does not have distinctive physical features like race or religion do.
Perhaps, Wilkerson’s thrust is primarily on highlighting the human suffering such prejudices entail, irrespective of terminology. She says, “Caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. They can and do exist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race is the skin.”
The agony of such prejudices has a common core. Wilkerson recalls Albert Einstein’s words upon hearing that singer Marian Anderson was not given a hotel room in Princeton on account of her colour: “Being a Jew myself, perhaps, I can understand and empathise with how Black people feel as victims of discrimination.”
Wilkerson’s book is, without doubt, an extraordinary compilation of various instances of social prejudices of the rigidly-hierarchised social order of Europe and the US whose modernity has not yet come to terms with the concept of egalitarianism or social equity. She exposes the base instincts that defy modernity and liberalism.
The only problem with the book is its title, which is misleading in the Indian context. The caste complexity in India is far too enigmatic a riddle to be explained from the race perspective. At times it is more oppressive than racial and religious discrimination and perverts the collective psyche of society. Scholars and practitioners of realpolitik in India have dealt with it in their own way. But Kanshi Ram’s pen model of caste hierarchy and his promise to make society horizontal remains profound and impactful. There is a lot more to caste than dabbling in it just to make an attractive narrative.
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