At the height of the pandemic lockdown, a ground-breaking book was released that has left a deep impact on me and that I keep returning to: ‘Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents’ by the American journalist Isabel Wilkerson.
We in India are sadly no strangers to the subject or concept of caste. What intrigued me about Wilkerson’s book was her description of racism in the United States as an aspect of a caste system – a society-wide system of social stratification characterized by notions such as hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion, and purity. Furthermore, she achieves this by comparing aspects of the experience of American people of colour to the caste systems of India and Nazi Germany.
At first glance, India’s caste system, the racial policy in Nazi Germany and the racism in the United States would seem to be worlds apart from each other, with nothing being common between them.
But Wilkerson has identified eight "pillars of caste", or features that can be found in all three: 1. Divine will: the belief that social stratification is beyond human control, it is either divinely ordained or a natural law; 2. Heritability: the belief that social status is acquired at birth and immutable, as codified; 3. Endogamy: the discouragement or prohibition of sex and marriage between castes; 4. Purity and pollution: the belief that the dominant caste is ‘pure’ and must be protected against pollution by the inferior castes, as shown in the segregation of facilities for bathing, eating, education, etc; 5. Occupational hierarchy: the reservation of the more desirable occupations for the superior castes; 6. Dehumanization and stigma: the denial of individuality and human dignity of lower-caste individuals; 7. Terror and cruelty: as means of enforcement of the caste system and control of lower-caste people; 8. Inherent superiority and inferiority of castes: the belief that people of one caste are inherently superior to those of other castes, expressed e.g. in restrictions on clothing or displays of status by lower-caste people.
Although Wilkerson’s book is primarily directed at an American audience, there are many lessons that can be drawn from it which are also applicable to our Indian reality.
Wilkerson uses many metaphors to drive home how pervasive caste can be. As she says in the book, and also in interviews after the book was released, caste is like having a ‘cast’ in a play, where everyone has a defined role, and quite literally knows their place on stage and their lines.
She preferred to discard ‘the freighted language of shame, blame and guilt’ which then allows us to see that this is just ‘an infrastructure that we have inherited’ but whose script we have memorised and live under.
Another analogy that I totally related to, is of ‘the old house.’
India can also be viewed as ‘an old house,’ certainly centuries older than the US. Therefore “we can never declare the work over. Winds, floods, drought and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not.”
To those who quite rightly say “I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past,” she answers with the ‘old house’ metaphor: ‘Not one of us was here when this house was built. But here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now. And any further deterioration is, in fact, in our hands.’
Wilkerson also employs a medical metaphor that resonated with me: “Looking beneath the history of one’s country is like learning that alcoholism or depression runs in one’s family or that suicide has occurred more often than might be usual or, with the advance in medical genetics, discovering that one has inherited a BRCA mutation for breast cancer. You don’t ball up in a corner with guilt or shame at these discoveries. You don’t, if you are wise, forbid any mention of them. In fact, you do the opposite. You educate yourself. You talk to people who have been through it and to specialists who have researched it. You learn the consequences and obstacles, the options and treatment. You may pray over it and meditate over it. Then you take precautions to protect yourself and succeeding generations and work to ensure that these things, whatever they are, don’t happen again.”
Caste is the origin of all our discontents in India too. And as even Wilkerson recognised quite soon in studying our caste system, while identified with Hinduism, casteism is found in all other religions on the Indian subcontinent.
Casteism is the reason why we can boast of being able to successfully send a spacecraft to Mars but also lead the world in the continuance of the practice of ‘manual scavenging’ despite legislation banning it. It is why garbage management and sanitation are such an embarrassment, because of our ‘let someone else beneath us pick up and clean up after us’ mentality.
Caste is what holds us back, keeps us in a state of stagnation in every aspect of life in India, from civic infrastructure to our performance in sport, academia or the performing arts. We are justly proud of the upswing in India’s standing in sport on the world stage, but it is still grossly under-representative compared to other equally populous nations, and the reason is caste. If sport and athletics (to cite just one aspect) were to be a truly level playing field, and given focused investment and training, it stands to reason that a World Cup- worthy football team can be found from a population of 1.418 billion. India would see a quantum leap in advancement in all spheres.
As Wilkerson says in the final line of her epilogue: “A world without caste would set everyone free.”
(Dr Luis Dias is a
physician, musician, writer
and founder of Child’s Play India Foundation. He blogs at luisdias.wordpress.com)