Caste and Race: Discrimination Based on Descent

In 2001, Dalit non-governmental organisations pushed for the inclusion of caste-based discrimination in the United Nations conference on racism and other forms of descent-based discriminations. How did the Government of India respond to the internationalisation of casteism? Why did Dalits want casteism to be treated on par with racism in the first place? Did they succeed? And above all, is caste the same as race?

History, wrote Kanthi Swaroop and Joel Lee, has taught us that epidemics are provocateurs of “extraordinary collective action,” which, more often than not, translate to “scapegoating and mass violence” against the marginalised. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is a case in point. The pre-existing marginalisation and discrimination faced by Dalits, especially Dalit women, are increasing during the pandemic with several states witnessing a rise in caste-based atrocities.

Smita M Patil noted that just five months into the lockdown, there were 81 caste-based atrocities reported in Tamil Nadu. Multiple cases of caste-based atrocities against Dalit women were also reported in Uttar Pradesh, with one such incident making headlines for how the state government handled the crime.

On 29 September 2020, India once again failed Dalit women and girls in upholding their rights and safety; we have lost another young life to a savage, brutal gang rape and murder. This barbaric incident occurred on 14 September in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and once again exposed the harsh realities of caste-based sexual assault faced by Dalit women and girls in this country.

V A Ramesh Nathan and Vimal Thorat wrote that in Hathras itself, between August and September 2020, “more than six atrocities were reported in the district against Dalit women and minor girls.”

Every case reveals that the state machinery has turned a blind eye towards the cases through its apathetic response, violated rights of victims to access justice and has nullified human dignity. In the Hathras case, the victim’s brother mentioned that no arrest was made by the police even after 10 days of the incident being reported.

Atrocities against Dalits continue to be underreported, underestimated and sidelined. Even in 2001, Shiv Visvanathan wrote how the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report ranked India as a “progressive” country as “growth in information technology” was a factor it considered in its ranking system but atrocities against Dalits was not.

For every Dalit atrocity (sic), maybe there is a story of mobility or a happy narrative on electoralism. But, the politics is clear. The way one tells the story is the way of one’s political choices. But, there is another question. Is internationalising caste only ‘political mischief’? Is it a form of disgust for the nation or can one love one’s country and still go to the UN.

But why internationalise caste? As Visvanathan wrote, in Indian politics, there is “little” space for Dalit discourse. He explains further: 

Maybe what Dalit discourse needs to do is distinguish between a Dalit and a Mandalist perspective on caste exploring similarities but more importantly differences. One is forced to manoeuvre for international attention because only external politics might be able to leverage current paradigms.

The “international attention” that Visvanathan was referring to is the 2001 United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, where Dalits claimed that caste should be treated like race as “caste is race in India.”

A S Narang explained that the Durban conference, as the event came to be called, was the third UN World Conference to focus on the issues of racism, xenophobia, and religious and ethnic intolerance. The first two conferences, held in Geneva in 1978 and 1983, focused on “ending apartheid in South Africa,” and the Durban conference was about developing strategies to combat “contemporary forms of racism and intolerance.”

In the previous conferences, India considered itself the “official advocate condemning racism, colonialism, apartheid,” a role that Visvanathan wrote, was “threatened” from within when Dalit groups claimed that “caste should be treated like race.”

As the conference focused on the various manifestations of racism, Dalit groups stood up against caste-based discriminations and, in Ambrose Pinto’s words, “attacked the present fundamentalist and fascist Hindu government that is bent upon perpetuating the caste system in the name of Hindu revivalism.” The government in question was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government.

Why did Dalit activists want caste to be legally seen as an element of race? Is caste-based discrimination the same as racism? Is casteism an element of racism? Or is caste “race plus”? This reading list looks at the multiple debates on the issues of caste and race that were featured in the pages of EPW before, during and after the 2001 Durban conference.

Caste is Race

As a member state of the United Nations, India signed agreements to eradicate discrimination on the basis of race, descent, and occupation. Thus, wrote Pinto, it was only natural that the issues of caste-based discrimination be raised and addressed in the Durban conference. 

Dalit groups have refused to accept that caste is restricted only to India. Caste is prevalent all over south Asia especially in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. The Burakumin in Japan and Korea, Osu of Nigeria and similar ‘untouchable’ communities in other west African nations have also been experiencing discrimination. The UN therefore should discuss the issue. 

Documenting cases from across Pakistan, Haris Gazdar wrote that oppressed communities in Pakistan, as well, face everyday discrimination and exclusion. Yet, Pakistani society remains silent about caste-based discrimination.

“Caste” after all implies some legitimised “system” of the division of labour. The Oxford English dictionary calls it “any of the hereditary Hindu social classes; any exclusive social class”. The common translation in Pakistani languages is zaat, which is not about social class but related to ‘nasal’ (lineage), or quite literally, race.

In his article, “The Race for Caste,” Visvanathan wrote that Dalit non-governmental organisations (NGOs) believed caste-based discrimination has the same implications as racial discrimination. He mapped out the similarities between the Dalit experience in India and the apartheid in South Africa.

Untouchability is a “hidden apartheid” and what marks the similarity is the link between deprivation and distance. Segregation is a key characteristic of both. Fundamental to the grammar of “distance” are the notions of pollution, dirt, “touch.” Any form of closeness is repulsive or defiling. A defiance of segregation leads to violence.

A host of articles from July 2001 agree that caste and race are, if not the same, similar. Pinto recounted that several legislative measures relating to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes also equate caste and race.

The different definitions of caste adopted by the several decisions of the Supreme Court of India show that for the purposes of treating caste as a prohibited ground of discrimination, caste is race in the Indian context (K C Vasant Kumar vs state of Karnataka, 1985 (Supp)1 SCR 352). In the said decision, caste is even identified as a race or unit of race, as per the definition of caste accepted by Justice Venkataramaiah in the said case.

Besides, Visvanathan argued that caste is like race because of the lived experiences of Dalits—casteism “feels” like racism. But Visvanathan was also aware that only “narratives of feeling” would not do.

Not in a world of lawyers and bureaucrats. One must seek the right term. The caste/race equation is weak till they discover the third term in the legal text—descent. 

A life saving term. Descent is about blood and blood lines. It is hereditary. It is through descent that caste becomes synonymous with race.

Caste is Race Plus

Pinto, in his article, “UN Conference against Racism,” explained that the central focus of the conference was on “descent- and occupation-based discrimination.” Caste, he wrote, is by descent as “it is the children of SCs/STs and other marginalised communities that are compelled to do all kinds of menial jobs like scavenging, sweeping, bonded labour, etc.”

But, Pinto also mentioned that several academics and representatives predominantly from the Dalit community hold that casteism is “worse” than racism. They made it clear that “caste is race plus” since caste was “inflicted by birth, sanctified by religion, [and] glorified by tradition.”

Further, Anand Teltumbde noted how a system where hierarchical superiority of people is based on the lightness of their skin means that “casteism easily transforms into racism abroad” with Whites being “quasi-Brahmins” and Black being “Dalits.”

P Thirumal, while reviewing Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Lies That Divide Us, wrote that Wilkerson also related caste and race as having a primary relationship with each other. “Caste and race are interchangeable in terms of their potential for human wrongdoing or evil.”

Whether biological, social, psychological, or spiritual, the immutability of caste to penetrate the varied dimensions of being is more elaborate and orders the cultural unconscious in ways that escape the fleshiness of thought.

Wilkerson, Thirumal wrote, goes a step further and holds that caste is not solely based on religious texts and social practices, but it is the “air of superiority” that is at play when dominant castes interact with the lower castes.

Race stands for a mode or attribute of caste and the latter remains the more encompassing, generative and invisible infrastructure that tacitly guides one’s orientation towards ideas, people, and objects.

Or as B R Ambedkar had put it, “caste is a state of mind.”

Caste is Not Race 

What was the government’s reaction to Dalits internationalising the issue of caste and comparing it to race? Pinto reported:

[D]alit groups across the world backed with support from some international human rights organisations had fought a battle for the inclusion of caste into the official charter on race as a form of descent-based discrimination. They had lost their battle then due to the hostile attitude of the Indian government though they had succeeded in introducing the clause of caste discrimination in the United Nations NGO declaration.

The Indian government believed caste was “purely an internal matter” and that the international community had “no business” getting involved. Its “hostile attitude” has been pointed out by several authors. Some have called it “hypocritical,” stating that discrimination is discrimination and it must be acknowledged; others have called it “dishonest and immoral,” stating that caste-based discrimination fits perfectly in the conference’s focus on descent-based discrimination; still others have called it “nefarious,” stating that the agonising oppression faced by Dalits in India is no different than the racial violence faced by victims of the apartheid in South Africa. Above all, it was believed that the violation of human rights “cannot be an internal matter of any country,” and since the UN is a “world government,” it has the authority to put pressure on a state.

Pinto noted that “internal matter” aside, the Government of India held the position that caste is not race since caste is a social construct while race is a biological one. The extent to which this belief permeated Indian politics can be seen in this line from Mohan Rao’s article, “‘Scientific’ Racism: A Tangled Skein.”

Ideas of race have also insidiously entered the construction of communalism in our country, while ideas of eugenics, the “science” of race, inform a number of policies related both to population programmes and reservations for the Dalits and back-ward classes. 

Moreover, Visvanathan noted that race being “biological” was not an old notion long forgotten, but one that has stuck around till fairly recently.

Eleven major universities in America taught race as a respectable scientific subject till the 1920s. Race has been interwoven with science over the last 50 years.

However, Teltumbde wrote, the very idea of humanity being divided on the basis of physical appearance is a social construct and not a scientific one. The very notion of race is “bogus.”

The idea of biological “race” has been discredited—the US government’s Human Genome Project has shown that there is no distinct genetic basis to racial types. Overwhelming scientific evidence exists to prove that race is not biological.

Pinto also noted that Ambedkarites and progressive Dalit academics have “never equated race with caste” which, according to Teltumbde, is because the caste system “defied” racial categorisation. But the “pseudo-scientific” notions of race and caste were still supported by the state for its national agendas. Rao continued

It is therefore not surprising that in India today Giriraj Kishore can proclaim that the life of a cow is worth that of five Dalits. It is not surprising simply because deeply anti-democratic, anti-poor and anti-women views wrapped in pseudo-sciences can indeed be freely and shamelessly aired.

Caste is an Element of Race

In May 2020, the death of George Floyd due to extra-legal police brutality brought debates on racism in the United States to a fever pitch. Smriti Singh wrote how the words “I Can’t Breathe” came to symbolise the “suffocating” racial discrimination meted out by the establishment and the state towards the Black community.

One hundred and fifty-five years ago, slavery in the US was abolished. However, the 155 years of being colour-blind have not helped the deeply entrenched racial biases and prejudices that still shape the institutions of the state, judiciary, media, medicine and civil society. Slavery might have been abolished, racism might have been outlawed, but the institutions and structures that represent the US have yet to remove the Caucasian-coloured glasses through which their land appears free.

As Singh notes, the structural character of the American establishment is White. Can the same be said for India? Is the structural character of the Indian establishment Brahminical?

In 2015, months after the Charleston mass shooting where nine African-Americans were murdered during Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (EAME) Church, Anupama Rao questioned the parallels, connecting, as we have discussed before, the killings of Blacks in America to the caste-based atrocities faced by Dalits in India. 

Does the conjoint logic of exclusion and spectacularisation that has historically structured the lives of African–Americans bear any resemblance to the political life of caste in India today? Might we speculate that racial injustice in the US, though it is distinct from the peculiar character of caste, also shares something with it, namely, that the repetitive structure of violence against African–Americans, or Dalits is not merely instrumental, but also symbolically overdetermined and purposive in character?

At the time when “Black Lives Matter” became the battlecry for racial justice in the West, in India, “Dalit Lives Matter” became its demonstrative equivalent. As Ujithra Ponniah wrote, “Closer home, Dalit Lives Matter, though in its nascent stage, is enabling conversations that do not end up ghettoising the caste identity around Dalits.”

As we have seen before, even Wilkerson, in her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, argued that race is built on the origins of caste. R Srivatsan recapitulates her arguments in his reflections on the book, writing that “race is a skin phenomenon, but caste is an infrastructure.” 

For her, race is a skin affair (“skin” also puns into a metaphorical sense meaning surface and not depth), but I think it should be conceptualised more precisely as a marker of difference, a rather obvious one. And if marking the other is one essential part of a caste stru­cture that generates/foments/condones/normalises oppressive conduct, colour of skin is one simple, direct, primitive signifier of caste just as birth or religion or gotra would be other non-obvious ones. 

P Thirumal’s review of Wilkerson’s book also ended on an appreciative note. “The replacement of Whites by dominant castes required exemplary creativity and forethought.” 

But this stand has been contested.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, reviewing Wilkerson’s book, wrote that, if race is like caste, it may be because, in fact, it is caste that descended from race.

Even in American and British anti-discrimination and equality laws, caste-based discrimination is not explicitly mentioned. In their provisions, caste is treated as an aspect of race.

Charisse Burden-Stelly, in her critique of Wilkerson’s book, argues that the caste analogy for explaining race is “convenient” as it can be used as a “shorthand” for any form of subjugation.

As Anupama Rao reiterates Wilkerson’s argument in her review of the book, laws against racial discrimination deprived the term “racism” of “analytic purchase,” and as a result, the term was now denied and feared. Therefore, by renaming race as caste, systemic racism is rendered “unfamiliar” and made available for inquiry.

This begs the question, does not naming the enemy or renaming the enemy render it less unscrupulous? Does it undermine the grotesque horrors of what a people were subjected to, and are continued to be subjected to, by comparing it to another form of descent-based discrimination?

In his concluding passage of reviewing Wilkerson’s book, Srivatsan wrote that instead of merely seeing caste as skeleton and race as skin, we need to understand how, throughout history, the dialectic concepts of discrimination, exploitation and oppression have worked in tandem. 

Learning to unravel the tight braids of race as a form of describing difference and caste as a power hierarchy in our history may perhaps free the concept of race as a scientific category with a benign intent of describing more precisely propensity to illness, health, etc. This would permit critical evaluation of its validity without confusing it with immediately with caste oppression. For this to happen, the problem to be solved by the history of civilisation of course is this: how to signify difference without fear, resentment or arrogance?

The Debate of Decent-based Discrimination 

Coming back to the Durban discussion, until 2001, while committees under the UN stated that, in theory, caste would come under the purview of the Durban conference, they never actually used the word “caste.” Pinto explained why. 

One of the major obstacles for gaining international recognition to the Dalit cause is the language of the UN. Being dominated by the West, the language, concepts and terms of the UN bodies have been europo-centric. The need is not only to bring the caste issue into the UN, but to put pressure on the UN to change its language so that the UN becomes representative of all countries and people. 

But in 2002, that changed. The United Nations Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) “strongly condemned” the practice of caste. Pinto believed this was due to the success of Dalit groups, using the publicity they received from the Durban conference, associating themselves with other discriminated groups from across the globe and fighting for their rights.

Teltumbde, however, believed that “quibbling” over racism or casteism “only serves to deflect focus on discrimination” and that basic issues concerning human lives cannot and should not be “prevented from being internationalised.” 

It is not important to know in which precise way the human rights of certain people are being structurally violated; the issue is that they are violated.

A week before the Durban conference began, Pinto wrote that the Government of India “may scuttle the attempts” to raise the issue of caste in the UN conference. He was right. In conclusion, he wrote:

While Africans and Palestinians may demand compensation from colonisers what the Dalits in India need to assert is compensation from their caste masters who have oppressed them for centuries and continue to do so in the name of god and religion. 

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