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Caste and Race

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The efforts of dalit groups in India to raise the caste and race issue and lobby for support to get recognition as a separate race before the United Nations has once again generated discussion on caste and race. Caste is a social category; race as a category had a specific connotation at least for the anthropologists who used it to classify people according to their physical (Nordic, Mongoloid, for example) and social characteristics. The categorisation of races was put to horrendous use by fascists like Hitler to kill millions of Jews; leaders of social movements also used it for their own purposes. During pre-colonial times, the varna hierarchy had rigidity, but caste (jati) has never rigid thanks to the avenues for mobility in the system. It is perhaps well known that many peasant castes who were dominant and owned land tried to get away from their shudra status by sanskritising their customs. It was not uncommon for kings of low origin to claim a higher status in the varna hierarchy through exercise of power and by patronising brahmins. Besides mobility in the system, Hinduismintegrated a number of tribal and foreign groups who came to the subcontinent from outside. The social and physical segregation of the dalits in rural India made their integration into Great Traditional Hinduism difficult even when they sanskritised. The Bhakti movements of medieval times with their egalitarian ideology did try to integrate the dalits into mainstream Hinduism but they were unsuccessful.

Colonial rule and after end of the Raj, the democratic polity of independent India changed in some ways radically the methods and strategies for upward mobility. The British Raj in its own interest was ready to listen to the populist demands of aspiring sections of society who wanted a share of the cake. Since only collective action and pressure tactics could yield dividends, a number of movements were launched to get concessions from the rulers. The Dravidian movement in south India is a telling example of the use of race as an ideology by a social movement. Since this movement achieved its goal of displacing brahmin dominance, its ideology of a Dravidian race as distinct from an Aryan race lost its relevance. Though the leaders of the Dravidian movement claimed to speak for the Adi Dravidas, nothing much was done for them. It was largely a movement of and for non-brahmin caste Hindus. It is pertinent to recall here that the foremost leader of the dalits,B R Ambedkar concentrated his energies on getting concrete concessions for his community from the British and later as a member of the constituent assembly he saw to it that specific provisions relating to reservations for dalits were incorporated in the Constitution. Things like change of heart among caste Hindus (which Gandhi emphasised) and semantic arguments on whether the dalits were a separate race were less important to him. In his view the main culprit responsible for the shabby treatment of dalits was brahminical Hinduism.

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