PUCL Bulletin, August 2001

Race and caste: A Response to Andre Beteille
-- By Kalpana Kannabiran



Andre Beteille's article, "Race and Caste" (The Hindu, 10 March 2001) is useful in that it provides us with an excellent opportunity to broaden the national debate on the issue of race and its relevance to an understanding of caste, particularly in the context of the UN Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

This debate, which has been initiated by Dalit human rights groups across the country and by the National Federation of Dalit Women, has till now been restricted to rights based struggles in the country, and the Dalit intelligentsia. The debate therefore, has centred on the articulation of caste as discrimination, and the various forms of that discrimination - exclusion, untouchability, denial of constitutional rights and guarantees, violent subjugation and histories of slavery - as resonant of internationally recognised forms of racism. This articulation of caste has its intellectual history, not in the "scientific" work of anthropologists of European origin and their "native" heirs, but in the political work of Indian ideologues who were committed to the establishment of an egalitarian social order, and who in that endeavor saw caste as the single most powerful obstacle to the realisation of that commitment - Jotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Pandita Ramabai, Periyar, and Ambedkar, to name the most influential ones.

Although Beteille argues that "[b]y treating caste discrimination as a form of racial discrimination and, by implication, caste as a form of race, the U.N. is turning its back on established scientific opinion" and further that the very analogy is "scientifically nonsensical", anthropology tells us that the word caste is derived from the Portuguese "casta", an early sixteenth century word which embraced several meanings, not the least significant of which was "purity of blood". Scientific opinion has not to date refuted the interpretation of the word casta. The science of anthropology has also actively applied this term to describe the specific form of institutionalised discrimination on the sub continent, as well as its application to the two levels of groups in the Indian sub continent: the jatis, roughly about 3000 or more and the four varnas. Debate on caste, in anthropology has focused primarily on whether one should use caste to designate the first, more local category, or whether caste more effectively signified varna, while the term sub caste described the jati more closely. But there was no disagreement on the use of the word caste itself. The debates on race with reference to the Indian subcontinent that Beteille speaks about are predicated on an unquestioned acceptance of caste as a social group. Not jaati or varna, but caste as the quintessentially Indian social grouping.
Setting caste aside for the moment, how "scientific" is the notion of race? Referring to the shifts in the semantic field of race in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe, Colette Guillaumin argues that Gobineau's work [which Beteille alludes to in passing] on race not only does not define race, but also "makes no attempt to establish any causal link whatsoever between physical phenomena and mental or social ones". Brain weights of blacks and whites for instance, she says, are equated to degree of intelligence. Even prior to its use alongside caste, race theory was part of a larger exercise of domination, cultural, political, hence natural, with the dispenser of scientific judgments inevitably belonging to cultures of dominance, race and racism constantly fusing into one another, the former in fact deriving from the latter.

The act of naming a race projected homogeneity onto an entire people and by the same process homogenised the relationship between the dominant and the subjugated. Given racism's history of apartheid, slavery, lynching, colonisation and indentureship, and the power of racism today, surely Beteille cannot dispute the indispensability of an international instrument to combat racism.
The contentious area, clearly is the application of the term race to caste. Problematic for Beteille ["scientifically nonsensical", "politically mischievous", "moral irresponsibility"], and also for the Indian Government, which is resisting the analogy along curiously similar lines. India's Report on the CERD dated 29 April 1996, while celebrating racial diversity as the quintessence of Indian society, states that "the term 'caste' denotes a 'social' and 'class' distinction and is not based on race. It has its origins in the functional division of Indian society during ancient times… Measures of positive discrimination have been incorporated into the Indian Constitution to enable Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, who tend to be among the economically underprivileged classes, to enter the mainstream of national life and to facilitate their intermingling with the rest of the Indian population" [emphasis added]. Further, the Report states that although Article 1 of the CERD includes the term "descent" in the definition of racial discrimination and although both castes and tribes are descent based systems, "[i]t is obvious…that the use of the term 'descent' in the Convention clearly refers to 'race'. Communities which fall under the definition of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are unique to Indian society and its historical process." Both Beteille's dismissive condemnation and the Indian Government's attempt to remove caste from the broader matrix of descent based systems are unexplained and unsubstantiated [unscientific, if you like].

The analogy between race and caste, I would argue does not date back to Ashley Montague or to Franz Boas, as Beteille argues, but more than a couple of centuries earlier to the original application of the term casta itself, a term that recognised the kinship between race and caste.

The word asprsya [literally "untouchable] was first used in the Visnusmrti, which prescribes death for any member of these castes who deliberately touches a member of a higher caste. However, the sexuality of untouchable women belonged to the "upper caste" men, and was an indispensable part of the labour provided by slave women. Romila Thapar argues that although brahmanism was constantly challenged by the heterodox traditions, and metaphysical ideals of rights did make their appearance intermittently in legal codes two thousand years ago, these rights were extended only to elite groups. Slaves, sudras and serfs did not enter the account. Phule's accounts of caste in the nineteenth century are even grimmer. Ambedkar's concerns in the twentieth century centred on finding ways in which Independence could bring freedom to the oppressed, affirmative action and positive discrimination being an important first step.

At the time that Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar were articulating an understanding of caste in terms of lived experience and political reality, Risley and Guha were attempting in their own ways, a "scientific" racial classification of caste, from their respective locations within colonial administration, a fact that must enter the account.

The assertion of the conclusiveness of Boas' findings on the clear separability of race as biology from social grouping is questionable, and contrary to Beteille's claim, far from settled. Guillaumin gives us a radically divergent and more plausible view, one that is strengthened and validated by the recent findings of the Human Genome Project that variations in genome sequences between ethnic ["racial"] groups is negligible. The physical differences between races can perhaps be accounted for by reference to environment and habitat, not biology. To restate the case, race is a social, not a biological construct. And race is not the province of anthropology alone, but of social theory and of basic science.

It is true that theories of race had disastrous consequences in Germany. Three centuries prior to that it had already provided the ideological justification for slavery, indentureship, and colonisation. The application of race as a category to understand social reality within the Indian sub-continent, came much after its use in colonisation. Already by this time, race was no longer the Boasian biological category, even in anthropology. It combined, as Beteille recalls, physical features with social customs, and was largely inconclusive. It was inconclusive, I would argue, not because race did not exist in India, but because race is centrally about ideologies of domination, so that any effort to construct equivalent/equal biological types [Aryan, Dravidian, Aryo-Dravidian and Mongolo-Dravidian] in an otherwise "homogenous" non-white culture is bound to fail. If instead, one looked at the use of the word casta, and its semantic field in comparison with the semantic field of race historically, the similarities between caste and race would be more than obvious.
No social group is completely homogenous across region and time. The Scheduled Castes are no exception. However, it is perfectly legitimate to assert the commonality of experience across cultural, linguistic, regional, national and ethnic diversity. Ambedkar's coining of the word Dalit was part of this exercise in unifying the oppressed and forging a common cause. The current move to bring caste within the ambit of the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is not a move by the United Nations alone. It is far more importantly an assertion by Dalit groups across the country, part of an effort to realise the visions of anti caste movements in the earlier part of this century.

Is it political mischief to say that Blacks and Dalits share a history of subjugation, slavery and social exclusion, that has changed only in form and continues untrammeled even today and that both must have recourse to common instruments of redress? Or is it invidious neo-conservatism to say that the assertion by Dalit groups to bring caste-based discrimination under the ambit of international instruments is no different from the assertion of superior rights by some groups claiming Aryan blood? As to what makes scientific sense and what nonsense, surely we know by now that science itself is a deeply ideological enterprise, and both the practices of science and its uses are far from neutral and objective

[The author works with Asmita Resource Centre for Women and teaches Sociology and Human Rights at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad].

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