Race and caste are perhaps two major themes that have engulfed most part of the pandemic year. There are several reasons for this. The first is the sudden rise of covid cases, which in effect evoked an unstimulated response from western countries calling out the Chinese role in the pandemic, which in turn was held as a racist charge by the defenders of liberalism. The second is the gruesome and unforgiving cold-blooded murder of an unarmed black man in Minnesota by a white police officer with a complicity of a Hmong Cambodian—an Asian officer. The third is the case of caste discrimination in technology giant CISCO at California. Fourth, publishing of Isabel Wilkerson’s best seller Caste. And fifth, the brutal gangrape of a college going Dalit woman and later cremation of her dead body without her parent’s approval in Hathras, UP.
These incidents in chronological order can be summarized as some of the turning point incidents that galvanized a public outcry. Much of these issues have been on the mind of people as they were undergoing depressing state of affairs in the Trump, Modi, Johnson’s era. These conservative, neoliberal middlemen of crony capitalists unleashed anti-poor policies via their communal, casteist agenda in their respective countries. Much of Europe has expressed its anxiety through an odious response to the distribution of resources in a welfare state, which is in sync with anti-immigration politics. This gets a twisted turn in Islamophobia, and anti-Arab, anti-black sentiments.
In this article, we shall briefly cover the broader politics of anti-caste and anti-racism activism, its correlation, differences, history, present, and a possible future. By looking at the potential ramifications, we shall underscore some anticipations that, if addressed now, would be able to contain these problems. If not, we shall witness an evolved form of the current crisis to our society’s peril.
Many would not know that the Iberian Peninsula is responsible for articulating race as a form of difference in the sixteenth century. Its origin and eventual spread through colonization is attributed to the seafaring Portuguese and Spanish slave traders. Iberian Peninsula is also the originator of casta—or “caste,” which was identified through the existing catholic divisions of society around the same time. Thus, race and modern caste have in many ways a similar purpose—that of identifying the Other with an irreplaceable order. And it worked quite well.
Race has had a definitive career ever since, and it continues to be one of the most reliable distinctions upon which much of society’s social division is contested. Caste continued to be carried with the Iberian colonial empire in South America. Castas — as forms of color, social, and ethnic distinctions –made it into the colonial registers and was eventually legitimized in a novel form as select South American society’s lingua.
However, what is often not known in popular views of history is that slavery in America was not identified as a race-based system but as a hierarchical labor-intensive caste order. The social structure of slavery enmeshed with economic exploitation had a language that captured the rigidity and immovability of the individual in the system. Caste satisfied an extremely complex system of hierarchy. Incidentally, the caste concept that was well known in the American southern states was compared with the Hindu caste system.
Several prominent works were published in the twentieth century by sociologists, anthropologists, educationists, and economists who looked at the Jim Crow era as a continuation of slavery era practices of the caste system. Gunnar Myrdal’s most famous text, An American Dilemma (1942), surveyed existing literature on the American socio-economic system and produced a legendary treatise that presented to the world a color-caste system operating in America that was not restricted to the American South. It was also a problem of the American North and in effect a world problem through a color marker of caste differences. This stylized a global order through the innate human desire to subjugate others on untrue and irrational logics. Caste provides a shape to the undefinable trait of societal order. This is well deployed by the owners of the resources who design newer agendas to reassert their dominance. This can be seen through capitalist exploration, colonialism, and cultural motifs of supremacy.
Race is an incomplete form to establish the structure of discrimination, exclusion, hierarchy, and violence. Since race continues to be assumed through biological differences, it doesn’t sit well with science whose hard calculated results do not provide any evidence for the biological differentiation as natural difference. Thus, biology as a marker of inferiority or superiority is dusted by the scientists as well as social science scholars. Hence, a color-based identifier that naturalized discrimination as a trait of low aptitude amongst a certain caste group was promoted. This helped the poor as well as rich white caste groups to materialize their fictitious supremacy on grounds not proven by anyone. Notwithstanding, race as a marker of difference provided support to the biology-believing supremacists.
This was then solidified by pseudo-scientific investigations that relied on unscientific hypothesis and methodologies. Nevertheless, with the support of state and supremacist groups that were in power during the nineteenth and twentieth century, a propaganda was in practice that used science, religion, and space (Europe) to justify brutality and the colonization of non-European people. This rationale was justified not just by Christian theologians but also by the custodians of knowledge in university spaces.
However, this position was challenged by anti-caste, antiracism advocates of diverse colors and castes. The twentieth century saw heightened opposition to imperial, capitalist, and communist advances. The majority of countries chose a liberal document as their foundational text to begin a new journey as a nation. Postcolonial states adopted a mixture of socialist and liberal capitalist framework. This put them in two overarching divided camps run by the imperial logic masked under the ideologies of freedom on one hand, and socialism on the other. From these two polar points, the USSR and USA formed two contrasting major blocs. However, many in the postcolonial world chose not to side with either and instead formed a new global alliance under the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which now stands as a largest confederation of 120 states after United Nations.
This phase of NAM activism and political statement on internationalism launched new solidarities with renewed focus on addressing white man’s ills via extensive attention to the attitude of racism and not its character per se. The policies of controlling the labor of subaltern castes and exploiting them didn’t go anywhere, and the conditions of the oppressed caste people around the world remain tied to the hierarchical caste order. To accommodate a wider constituency, the definition of racism had to be evolved from being a binary opposition of white and black, or white and non-white. The term racism underwent bureaucratic changes, thereby opening a pandoras box of oppressed people in purview of the internationalist order. This eventually placed an inter-state focus on racism as opposed to the intra and within-the-state complexities of discrimination and inequities. That is how race as a paradigm became adjusted alongside color and ethnicity.
Using the same logic of fighting against supposed global racism, civil rights groups and NGOs took a similar argument and converted it into a movement for securing rights under the liberal framework of international constitution—United Nations Charter, and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. This document, ghost written mostly through the Judeo-Christian accent of benevolence of rights, conspicuously ignored the cultural and religious perspective of the Other worlds. To amend this, regular interventions were offered to correct the order of things.
Civil societies pushed for an inclusive agenda. In this struggle, the Indian anti-caste civil society groups took to the UN to make a case for the 200 million untouchables who were victims of the caste system. The United Nations does not have a program exclusively aimed to support the struggle of caste-oppressed groups. The active UN-based lobby for the abolition of caste has a history since the 1960s. However, it began in the 80s with a resounding attention given in the 90s and early 2000s. A struggle of half a century did not produce many results while locked in the carapace of United Nations’ flawed decorum. Nevertheless, it did offer an opportunity for leaders from the NGO world to establish connections with other activists of the world. Eventually, caste made inroads in the UN human rights framework as a protected category under “Work & Descent based discrimination.” However, this did not produce an active, social movement based political solidarity. It remained confined to the tables of high level annual convenings and conferences.
In the twenty first century, with a renewed attention on science and technology and heightened attention to inequalities and racial biases, the responsibility for the struggles has shifted from activism of the oppressed to the responsibility of the oppressor. Claims of biological differentiation have been decentered, and a socio-economic argument has been advanced. Under this rubric a taciturn response to caste is being contested to a sustained dialogue on caste-based discrimination.
The differences between race as a prefix of colored differentiation and caste as non-color discrimination has distorted both identities of differences. Race is not only color discrimination, and caste is not only a Hindu, Indian problem. Although, one can see the attraction to the theories of the color and caste distinctions as contradictory to each other due to the apparent misreading of physical characteristics. However, race in a global sense is about the conflict with modernity, and neo-imperial control without colonization. Caste in similar sense connotes differences evoking from birth that continue as stigmatized identities of the outcastes.
The position of caste and race is not different, and its targets are also not dissimilar. However, what makes them stand out as different is the space of contestation and investment in the temporality. Caste is a much older and sophisticated form of discrimination. However, race is an outcome of colonialist modernity. What unites these two unique strands is the conviction to resist and unsettle attitudes and policies of hierarchy.
Standing opposed to the program of racism and casteism evokes a violent response from the believers of supremacist ideology, and this has rendered the struggles an epochal responsibility. These struggles have galvanized handsome movements with a targeted attention and firm commitment to tear down system of oppression that have been institutionalized into hardened structures. The fight is therefore against ideologies that have been recorded into formalized decorums of knowledge, practice, policy, and nature of things. That is why the struggle is monumental and urgent. More importantly, these struggles are highly complementary and deserve a collective global response in thought and action.
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Suraj Yengde is an Indian scholar and public intellectual with a doctorate from South Africa and currently a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and research associate at the department of African and African American Studies. As a scholar-activist, he writes and speaks about caste oppression and critical theory in Dalit and Black studies. He has collaborated with American philosopher and public intellectual Cornel West to discuss Dalit-Black alliances in light of historical and contemporary politics of difference. His extensive publications include the bestselling Caste Matters (2019) which was voted as the best non-fiction book of the decade by The Hindu. Caste Matters is undergoing translation in 7 languages. He is also co-writer of award-winning anthology The Radical in Ambedkar (2018).