Race and Caste

Race and caste

Online edition of India’s National Newspaper
Saturday, March 10, 2001 | By Andre Beteille

AS A student of anthropology in Calcutta in the 1950s, I was recommended a book written by the well-known physical anthropologist, M.F. Ashley Montagu, some of whose other works we also had to study. The book to which I now refer was entitled “Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race”. Ashley Montagu had overstated his case somewhat, but the basic point he was making, that the widely-used concept of race was politically pernicious and scientifically anomalous, had come to be generally accepted among anthropologists by the middle of the 20th century.

Some anthropologists attended to the political mischief caused by the idea of race while others exposed its scientific ambiguities. The most notable among the latter was Franz Boas, widely regarded as the father of American anthropology. In his book, “Race, Language and Culture”, he established conclusively with a wealth of empirical material the distinction between race which is a biological category with physical markers and social groupings based on language, religion, nationality, style of life or status. Boas’s conclusion may be regarded as the settled opinion on the subject among professional anthropologists the world over.

“Race, Language and Culture”, published in 1940, was the culmination of systematic and painstaking research by two or three generations of anthropologists. In the 19th century, when anthropology was still largely an amateur pursuit, the concept of race was widely and loosely use to cover virtually every kind of social grouping. One read about the Aryan race, the Semitic race and the Irish race. The influential French writer Count Gobineau even proposed that the different social classes in France were composed of different races. In fact, race and class were linked together in Europe even before attempts were made to link race with caste in India. Pseudo-scientific theories of race abounded in late 19th and early 20th century in Europe and America. They made no small contribution to Hitler’s disastrous racial policies in Germany. Although the English, the French and the Americans adopted a self-consciously virtuous attitude after 1945, they too produced an abundance of pseudo-scientific theories of race before World War II.

At about the same period of time, the Indian Civil Service counted a fair number of amateur anthropologists in its ranks. Some of them have left behind valuable accounts of the tribes and castes in India. Others took an interest in race that at times amounted to an obsession. The obsessive ones found evidence of race wherever they looked. Their main confusion was between race and language, and they wrote freely about the `Aryan race’ and the `Dravidian race’. Some treated Hindus and Muslims as belonging to different races, and others expressed similar views about the upper and the lower castes. These views, based on a confusion of categories, are now regarded as worthless from the scientific point of view.

It is not as if there was no serious scientific effort by the ICS anthropologists to study the racial composition of the Indian population. Several of them attended to the problem with patience and care, combining the study of physical features with that of social customs. The most notable was Sir Herbert Risley who produced a comprehensive classification of the races of India into seven types. But the principal `racial types’ in his classification – Aryan, Dravidian, Aryo-Dravidian and Mongolo- Dravidian – were linguistic or regional categories in disguise and not racial categories at all. The subsequent classification by B.S. Guha, made in connection with the census of 1931, was less ambitious, for it did not speak of `racial types’ but only of `racial elements’ in the population of the country.

In the mid-1950s when I was a student of anthropology, most anthropologists had lost interest in the racial classification of the Indian population. Although there were many different racial elements in it, it was difficult, if not impossible, to sort them out into distinct racial groups. In the 1970s, I took some initiative on behalf of Oxford University Press to update Guha’s work on racial elements. I approached a number of physical anthropologists, but they either declined or said that they would do it but failed to deliver. I am now convinced that identifying the races in the population of India will be an exercise in futility.

Despite all the hard work done by anthropologists from Boas onward, the idea of race dies hard in the popular imagination. That is understandable. What is neither understandable nor excusable is the attempt by the United Nations to revive and expand the idea of race, ostensibly to combat the many forms of social and political discrimination prevalent in the world. It is sad but true that many forms of invidious discrimination do prevail in the contemporary world. But to assimilate or even relate them all to `racial discrimination’ will be an act of political and moral irresponsibility.

Not content with condemning racism and racial discrimination, the U.N. now wants to take on `racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance’. It has in its wisdom decided to expand the meeting of racial discrimination to accommodate exclusion or preference `based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin’. In doing so it is bound to give a new lease of life to the old and discredited notion of race current a hundred years ago. By flying in the face of the distinctions between race, language and culture, it is seeking to undo the conclusions reached by the researches of several generations of anthropologists.

Interested parties within and outside the U.N. would like to bring caste discrimination in general and the practice of untouchability in particular within the purview of racial discrimination. The practice of untouchability is indeed reprehensible and must be condemned by one and all; but that does not mean that we should now begin to regard it as a form of racial discrimination. The Scheduled Castes of India taken together are no more a race than are the Brahmins taken together. Every social group cannot be regarded as a race simply because we want to protect it against prejudice and discrimination.

In the past, some groups claimed superior rights on the ground that they belonged to the Aryan race or the Teutonic race. The anthropologists rejected such claims on two grounds: first, on the ground that within the same human species no race is superior to any other; but also on the ground that there is no such thing as an Aryan race or a Teutonic race. We cannot throw out the concept of race by the front door when it is misused for asserting social superiority and bring it in again through the back door to misuse it in the cause of the oppressed. The metaphor of race is a dangerous weapon whether it is used for asserting white supremacy or for making demands on behalf of disadvantaged groups.

If discrimination against disadvantaged castes can be defined as a form of racial discrimination, there is no reason why discrimination, real or alleged, against religious or linguistic minorities cannot be phrased in exactly the same terms. The Muslims and other religious minorities will claim that they too, and not just backward castes, are victims of racial discrimination. The initiative taken by the U.N. is bound to encourage precisely that kind of claim.

The U.N. initiative will open up a Pandora’s box of allegations of racial discrimination throughout the world. The latitudinarian attitude of the U.N. will encourage religious and other `ethnic’ minorities to make allegations of racial discrimination not only in India, but everywhere. The Catholics in Northern Ireland can claim that they too are victims of racial discrimination. The French Canadians, whose grievances are real enough, can also make the same claim. One can multiply examples from every corner of the world. By treating caste discrimination as a form of racial discrimination and, by implication, caste as a form of race, the U.N. is turning its back on established scientific opinion. One can only guess under what kind of pressure it is doing so. Treating caste as a form of race is politically mischievous; what is worse, it is scientifically nonsensical.

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