//Caste and its Avatars

Caste and its Avatars

Recently, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Isabel Wilkerson – the author of the book, Caste: The Lies that Divide us, published a couple of months ago. Wilkerson is a black scholar from USA who has studied caste in India, USA and Germany. Indeed, she studied race in USA and Germany, but found that the DNA of caste and race was the same. In Germany, the extreme form of caste lasted for just 12 years under the Nazi regime; in USA its existence is 400 years old,  while in India it has been 3000 years old. 

She delineates eight pillars of caste: 1) Its origin is traced to divine will and laws of nature (legitimacy); 2) Heritability, i.e, by birth; 3) Endogamy and the control of marriage and mating; 4) Purity versus pollution (in daily behavior); 5) Occupational hierarchy; 6) Dehumanization and stigma; 7) Terror as enforcement, cruelty as a means of control; and 8) Inherent superiority versus inherent inferiority.

At the face level it strikes that race cannot be caste. Race is based on the colour white versus the rest, black, brown or whatever. Before the blacks came to America as slaves, there was no racism. In Africa too there were no blacks, as no one called them blacks until the white man entered Africa.  In India the caste is again based on varna,  which means colour or Varnashrama dharma… the fairest white, to other shades ending with black – the lowest. Upper castes are dominant castes possessing wealth, status and honour, while the lowest deprived, marginalized, and providing defined services to the rest. The difference is, in India, one cannot go by colour alone, but one’s caste is identified by asking many questions.  Caste is a state of mind and one’s behavior is tailored having located another’s caste first.  In USA the White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPS) were the dominant castes; in Germany those of the Aryan race; and in India the twice-born castes of Brahmins, Baniyas and Kshatriyas.

Caste system based on physical or natural traits is given divine sanction for considering hierarchy, the lowest being the most  impure  and the highest being the purest (in food, dress, occupation) – attaching a stigma to the lower, scapegoating them and  instituting cruelty and violence against them  to make them  appear  inherently inferior.

The consequences of caste were such that the dominant castes could freely hate, denigrate, and revile the lower castes with impunity, so as to keep them in their designated system.  Particularly when some of the lower castes attempted to break loose of the stranglehold of caste, the reaction was severe. In the USA the Bill of Rights alone did not give equality to blacks.  Legally they emerged from slavery, but they entered into a world of being lynched by ‘night riders’ and  ‘Klansmen’ – terrorizing  them to keep them subservient. Slavery is considered as a necessary evil. The whites say that the slaves in USA are better off than the blacks in Africa.  Segregation of living quarters even in middle and upper classes continues. 

 In India though the constitution of India gave ‘one man, one vote’ equality and reservations for lower castes, these were deeply resented by the upper castes. Even today – the Valmikis (sweeper caste) in UP, is not allowed to own farm land; if they flourish, their houses are set on fire; the Valmiki are not permitted to go to school; nor change  their sweeping jobs;  cannot enter upper caste houses; cannot touch hand pumps in the village; but molestation and rape of their women is common.

In Germany, the Jews were scapegoated for the ills of Germans and subjected to physical and social elimination. The Jew to the Nazi German was malevolent, corrosive, and had to be eliminated physically and socially. Six million Jews were eliminated by Hitler’s willing executioners, those who were brainwashed by Hitler’s propaganda machine. 

In India, the Hindu Rashtra ideology which basically has the upper castes who lost their wealth, privileges, perks, services, status, and power after Independence, wants to unite the Hindus on majoritarian grounds and reduce the minorities to second-class citizens who are to live appeasing the majority. The Muslims and Christians are clear targets and, to a lesser degree – the Sikhs and Buddhists.  Especially during the elections, the upper castes co-opt the lower caste Hindus on the Hindu card and win elections. Once the elections are over the lower castes get the same traditional treatment of lynching, rape, atrocities, boycott, hate and molestation, as it is demonstrated in UP these days. 

Germany took the shortest possible period to eliminate this diabolical casteist ideology, and repented. USA – especially the South, is still struggling  to concede equality to blacks, Latinos, and browns. In India there is an effort to undo the achievements of equality, achieved  by  lower castes through education, reservation and urbanization in the last 70 years  and  re-establish the hierarchical caste system, which is not just social, but economic and political in nature. Acquisition of power, wealth to the top and deprivation of the same to the lower, is the logic of the system. 

I have been a student of caste for the last 40 years and still I learn the nuances of caste. The book by Wilkerson broadens our understanding of the nature of caste across the globe. This book also shows how the white race has colonized the world and colonized the minds of people. In India it is the internal colonization of the lower castes and minorities by the upper castes.

It should be particularly enlightening to the priests and nuns who have got out of their social moorings of caste hierarchy, division, stratification, discrimination and have created their own samaj or sangh (order, congregation, communities) where they try to practice equality. There are rumblings among Religious personnel about caste and ethnic discrimination within their orders.  However, these Religious have least experienced discrimination in terms of caste as they join Religious life early in life, and escape the first-hand consequences of caste. Their knowledge of caste tends to be merely notional, tokenistic and caricatured.  

  • Lancy Lobo, SJ

  • Title: Caste: The Lies that Divide us  
  • Author: Isabel Wilkerson 
  • Publisher: Allen Lane
  • Pages: 495
  • Price: Rs 725