The question of caste

The debates about caste and class in India go back many decades, but they remain relevant today, writes Steve Leigh in a review of a new book by Arundhati Roy.

Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar (left) and Mahatma Gandhi

IN THE Doctor and the Saint, writer and political activist Arundhati Roy invites readers to take a new look at the "saint" M.K. Gandhi alongside a less-talked-about fighter for Indian independence and justice, Untouchable leader and intellectual Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.

This book is based on an introduction that Roy wrote in 2014 for The Annihilation of Caste--a pamphlet of a 1936 speech by Ambedkar that he was never allowed to deliver. "When I first read it, I felt as though somebody had walked into a dim room and opened the windows," writes.

After Ambedkar's speech was canceled by the Hindu reformist organization that had invited him, it was printed as a pamphlet, and though the publishing houses were modest, it sold in the millions, becoming the source of great public debate over the question of caste in India--and social discrimination on the basis of caste. Gandhi was included among the opponents to Ambedkar's views.

In The Doctor and the Saint, Roy uses this historic debate to underscore the centrality of caste in the past and present--and to take a deeper look at the myths about Gandhi.

Roy points out that the institution of caste continues today, as she outlines the brutal oppression suffered by the "scheduled castes" continues, not only in India but also in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and beyond.



Arundhati Roy, The Doctor and the Saint: Caste, Race and the Annihilation of Caste, The Debate Between B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi. Haymarket Books, 2017, 184 pages, $15.95.

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CASTE OPERATES throughout the population, but is, of course, especially onerous for the scheduled castes at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Estimates put this group at 17 percent of the population.

Besides Untouchables, there are Unseeables and Unapproachables--these are the scheduled or avarna castes, known as Ati-Shudras or subhumans. Other castes are grouped into four "varnas": Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (soldiers),Vaishyas (traders) and Shudras (servants).

Roy explains:

Untouchables were not allowed to use the public roads that privileged castes used, they were not allowed to drink from common wells...not allowed into Hindu temples...not allowed into privileged caste schools, not permitted to cover their upper bodies, only allowed to wear certain kinds of clothes and certain kinds of jewelry.

Some castes like the Mahars...had to tie brooms to their waists to sweep away their polluted footprints, others had to hang spittoons around their necks to collect their polluted saliva. Men of the privileged castes had undisputed rights over the bodies of Untouchable women. Love is polluting. Rape is pure. In many parts of India, much of this continues to this day.

Roy gives examples of horrendous attacks and murders still carried out today, based on and reinforcing caste.

There have been some attempts at "positive discrimination," or affirmative action, so that some of the scheduled castes have made it up the social and economic hierarchy. But these efforts are extremely limited, Roy says, and have been resisted by right-wing movements that want to reinforce caste hierarchy, often leading to violence.

In spite of efforts at positive discrimination, the class structure lines up very well with the caste structure. Roy illustrates this with a list of the CEOs and billionaires who come from the upper castes. She goes on to explain the heavy overlap between lower castes and the poorest sections of the population.

Many lower caste people try to escape caste discrimination by converting to Christianity or Islam. But Hindu society treats the converts as if they are still in their hereditary caste. There are even cases of other religions in the subcontinent enforcing caste. "Though their scriptures do not sanction it," writes Roy, "elite Indian Muslims, Sikhs and Christians all practice caste discrimination. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal all have their own communities of Untouchable sweepers."

Thus, caste has a basis in religion, but the system of discrimination and privilege is embedded in society at a deeper level. In fact, Hinduism was at first the name given to caste society by outsiders. The promotion of Hinduism, and later Hindutva, was a political project.

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OF PARTICULAR interest to those on the left will be the section of the book looking at the Communist Party (CP) leadership's disappointing view on the politics of caste. Under the guise of focusing on class divisions, they dismiss the importance of caste discrimination.

For example, CP leader E.M.S. Namboodiripad, the former chief minister of the state of Kerala, denounced Untouchable leader Ambedkar for focusing on caste, calling it "a great blow to the freedom movement. For this led to the diversion of peoples' attention from the objective of full independence to the mundane cause of the uplift of the Harijans [Untouchables]." Harijan, or "Children of God," was the condescending name that Gandhi gave the Untouchables.

Other political formations grew out of the fight against oppression, including Ambedkar's Independent Labor Party and the Dalit Panthers in the 1970s. The Dalit Panthers descended in part from Ambedkar's politics, but also from Marxism. They used the Marithi word "Dalit," meaning oppressed or broken, to embrace all the oppressed of India. Unfortunately, the Panthers disintegrated, with some actually going over to the Hindu right.

According ...
4 Published By - socialistworker - 2017.06.19. 07:00
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