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Caste and the irresponsibility of intellectuals

by Dr. Prakash Shah
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When I read it for the first time, the article ‘Caste discrimination is a global problem’ by Saikat Majumdar in Times Higher Education (THE) (January 7, 2021) appeared to me to make rather unsustainable claims, seemed full of errors, and was silent on issues that one would expect should have been raised if only to lend some balance and context. But what if that was a mistaken assessment? After all, in his email round up, THE’s Deputy Features Editor, Jack Grove, recommended it to readers as a “powerful account”. In correspondence, Grove didn’t agree with me that a distinguished novelist and professor at an Indian university could lack knowledge of what he writes.

Majumdar’s chief claim is that caste discrimination is now a global problem and that is because of the Indian diaspora’s concentrated presence in countries such as the UK and US. He is quite sure of this: “There is clear evidence that the vast Indian diaspora has led to the globalisation of caste discrimination, notably to countries such as the US and UK, where there is a high concentration of people of Indian origin but where caste oppression has struggled for legal and social recognition.” This discrimination will be augmented, he feels, because the number of students from India studying abroad has vastly expanded. Not only is he concerned that the presence of the Indian diaspora leads to caste discrimination but he pegs the urgency of the issue upon Indian students abroad. Besides its general dissatisfaction about available legal remedies in the UK and US, at some level the article is an attempt to persuade the reader that the higher education sector needs to take notice of the issue even if it isn’t entirely clear what measures Majumdar thinks the sector should take.

The elusive spectre of caste discrimination

One of the ways in which Majumdar marshals evidence for his claim of the prevalence of caste discrimination or oppression is by using the presence of Dalits in the incidents he describes. We are called upon to read certain events as explicable by the caste factor merely because of this presence of Dalits although it remains difficult to understand exactly what took place and why. Relating stories in this manner does not enlighten the reader as to why the events he cites, either in India or among Indians abroad, are indeed incidents of discrimination. In other words, Majumdar does not help the reader to understand what caste discrimination is. Given that one of the things he aims to do is convince readers of the necessity of legislation against caste discrimination, not being able to identify what type of incident such a law should capture seems like a serious lack.

Among the incidents Majumdar cites as “institutional murder” is Simple Rajrah’s description, which may be drawing on the same description given by poet K Satchidanandan, of the death of Hyderabad PhD student Rohith Vemula. It is unclear what any of them mean by institutional murder, though, and why they all use such an epithet. Given the understandable lack of legal knowledge Majumdar shows, I don’t suppose it is meant as a term of art, but should perhaps be read as a sort of rhetorical device. As far as we know, Rohith Vemula took his own life and his suicide note did not cite caste oppression as a reason. Telangana police have said at one point that he wasn’t a Dalit, which puts in doubt his position in any claimed caste hierarchy. It is difficult to see then why Majumdar should cite this case at all in his general account of caste oppression. India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) recorded 10,159 deaths of students by suicide in 2018, higher than in previous years, and so it is not that student deaths should not be a legitimate area of concern. While caste may well be one among other factors in some of these deaths, can it be said that it is the only factor and are there other explanations for so many suicides among students? Clearly the issue of student suicides is important, but making assumptions as to their cause by merely tagging them by their caste is surely misleading. This style of discussion makes the basic error of mistaking any correlation to caste (not itself established) for causation.

Citing one ambiguous case may be unfortunate, but Majumdar has further examples. Majumdar, a Professor of English and Creative Writing, says that “India sits at the pall of the brutal rape and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit (“untouchable” in the caste system) woman” in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. Although four persons have been charged for rape and murder, the facts are disputed at this stage even as between the police, the administration and the CBI, and various accounts of the incident are in conflict with each other. As with the cases of student deaths, there is no certainty regarding what role caste discrimination played in the murder. Majumdar nevertheless enlists the case for his general account of caste oppression in India without citing the obvious uncertainties about the case.

Caste abroad

For evidence that caste has reached American and British universities, he cites three cases. One is a case of a (now) senior fellow at Harvard, Suraj Yengde, who claims to have been a victim of a hate crime while a graduate student in England which the police apparently did not understand. In another case there is an allegation of how a former Boston student was excluded from a house share by college room-mates after his low-caste origin became known. The third is a case of the rejection of an applicant from a doctroral science programme at the University of Alabama after a ‘caste-check’. As with the cases he talks of in India, we aren’t told by Majumdar exactly what role caste played as the explanatory factor which led to the complained of incidents and in what way they betray caste based discrimination or violence. Although ambiguous, there is a sense in which Majumdar wants to use these cases to persuade the reader that universites in the West need to attend to caste and that there needs to be legislation so that law-enforcement agencies can fully understand caste-based violence.

As “clear evidence” of his claim that caste discrimination has been transported abroad, Majumdar brings in the case against the firm Cisco Systems brought by the California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). Cisco is among the top five users of HB-1 visas out of which 70 per cent go to Indian workers. The factual background to the litigation isn’t mentioned by Majumdar, though, and the case is yet to be heard. Cisco’s stand, is that the two internal reviews already made of the complaint were thorough and did not find any caste discrimination. They further claim that the manager against whom the vast majority of the allegations of discrimination and harassment were made, was the same manager who hired, gave leadership opportunities, provided top compensation, including special bonuses, to the complainant, all the while allegedly having knowledge of the complainant’s caste because of their relationship that dated back to their studies together in India.

Rather than read the available facts closely in order to come to his own assessment, Majumdar enlists in support Shubranshu Mishra, lecturer at the UK’s Exeter University, who says: “this case bares open the proximity of upper-caste communities that aspire to whiteness and ally with white supremacy and thereby punctures the tendency to represent the South Asian diaspora as monolithic, homogenous and casteless.” It isn’t clear what evidence Mishra has for the tendency he feels is present. Certainly, plenty of academic work that I am aware of (e.g. here and here) tends to do the opposite, by emphasising differences among South Asians. Perhaps there is another strain in the literature which Mishra is privy to. It isn’t also clear how Mishra knows that the upper castes among South Asians are aspiring to whiteness and allying with white supremacy and how the case against Cisco would lay that open. If upper caste managers at Cisco were indeed discriminating against fellow employees, wouldn’t it highlight their Indian-ness rather than their whiteness? After all, haven’t generations of observers over the last two centuries held the view that caste is quintessentially Indian or Hindu? Even Isabel Wilkerson who tries to make the case that caste exists in the US and did so under Nazi Germany has recourse to the “lingering, millennia-long caste system of India” as its paradigmatic instance.

Then there are some odd absences from Majumdar’s article. The plaintiff’s brief reveals that in the background of the Cisco case is the fact that the complainant may have got admitted to one of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) on the basis of a caste reservation, which the DFEH as plaintiff refers to as “an affirmative action program”. Fellow employees got to know that the complainant was an entrant to the IIT as a beneficiary of a caste quota. This would presumably have meant that he was admitted on lower entrance requirements than non-beneficiaries. Even though the series of events the complainant bases his claim on were sparked off when his caste status was ‘outed’ to his fellow employees, Majumdar’s does not relate the Cisco case to the extensive system of university admissions on the basis of caste quotas operating in India. While he mentions it elsewhere in his article, he does not relate to the Cisco case to this extensive system of favourable treatment of persons who find themselves on certain caste lists and who compete with others on an uneven footing, as they do for government jobs as well as seats in Indian legislatures. Could the Alabama case Majumdar mentions also have been a result of doubts about an applicant’s prior qualifications because he was a beneficiary of the caste reservation? Although based on vaguely conceived justice grounds, in effect, this is a system of discrimination, albeit regarded by its votaries as justifiable because they see it as a ‘positive’ form of discrimination.

As in India, also in the United States, where affirmative action for university entrance is widespread, there is no consensus on its wisdom, it is widely perceived as being unfair to meritorious applicants, and court challenges against the system have been taking place for decades. The recent Harvard litigation has brought to light that Asian students are severely discriminated against by US universities through a system whose main beneficiaries in terms of reduced grade requirements are white Americans (beneficiaries of legacy schemes), African Americans and Latinos. While a candidate may not want it known that she or he is a beneficiary of affirmative action, would it not be in the interests of an university, employer or manager, or a customer to know whether a candidate is or was such a student? There is an inevitable tension between the interests of the two sides. To reduce any resulting educational or workplace frictions to allegations of discrimination or harassment seems quite disingenuous, especially when the background leading to this kind of situation is not discussed openly. On the one hand, Majumdar seems dissatisfied that caste based reservations operate only in publicly funded institutions in India and not private ones, which means he not only favours reservations but would want them extended. On the other hand, he does not declare explicitly that those making decisions about entry to graduate studies or employment in the West should remain blind to the fact that caste criteria were earlier used to reward students differently in India.

The quest for legislation on caste discrimination in the UK is also bedevilled by ambiguity in the THE article. Another unexplained absence from Majumdar’s article is the decided legal case which is somewhat of a precedent in UK law. This is the Tirkey v Chandhok case, in which a case brought on behalf of Bihari Christian tribal woman ended with the finding that her employers, who had hired her in India as a domestic servant, discriminated against her on grounds of caste as well as religion while she worked for them in the UK. The case went through an Employment Tribunal, then on appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, and returned for final decision to another Employment Tribunal. Mishra, whom Majumdar cites in support, is of course correct to claim that after a recent consultation the UK government decided not to extend the Equality Act 2010 to caste. However, both fail to state that the UK government had argued in justification that judicial interpretation in the Tirkey case had already accomplished legal protection for caste-based claims because of the finding that the existing provision on race (ethnic group) covers caste. When announcing its decision the UK government also said that it would support a future case to reinforce the Tirkey judgement.

It is odd that Majumdar fails to mention the crucial Tirkey case. It is not only that it was a key part of the reasoning of the British government’s response to the public consultation, but it has also begun to spur developments that remain somewhat under the radar for want of public debate. As a result of the Tirkey case, the Crown Prosecution Service has extended its prosecution guidelines to caste. This relatively informal development has occurred without any consultation or public debate, but results in a version of the caste atrocities law which exists already in India and imposes criminal sanctions. Majumdar mentions neither this somewhat covert criminal law development in the UK nor the Indian legislation, which is also discriminatory as it allows only members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to bring complaints to the police and rewards them financially merely for reporting.

Along with the Tirkey case, I have extensively discussed elsewhere the British developments on the law of caste discrimination. The Tirkey case has been claimed by some pronouncers as proving the presence of caste discrimination in Britain, and it is odd that Majumdar doesn’t follow suit. Majumdar is not alone in masking the public of the ruling and he falls in line with a pattern repeatedly displayed by anti caste activists. Even though the Employment Tribunal ended up making a finding of caste discrimination, my reading of the case is that it was concocted. The evidence does not justify the conclusion of caste discrimination. Neither is the legal interpretation advanced by the Employment Appeal Tribunal, i.e. that the Equality Act already extends to caste, justified by the ordinary rules that apply to statutory construction. Instead, what seemed to play a crucial role is the pre-existing belief that Indians have a caste system with discriminatory and oppressive features or consequences. However, of primary interest in the present discussion isn’t that the Tirkey case was a legal equivalent of match fixing. Rather, it is Majumdar’s conspicuous silence regarding its existence, despite the fact that the British government cited it as an answer to the claim that legislative extension was required to fill the remedial lack in the UK legal system.

Majumdar does take the opportunity to mention that the British government’s decision was down to “powerful Hindu lobbies … led by caste-privileged Hindus”. This sort of canard has been used by the National Secular Society as it has by the British media in the recent past. Let us leave aside the label “caste-privileged” given that Majumdar would have no way of knowing what role their caste played in the opposition by any Hindus to the legislation or indeed what ‘privilege’ consists in. Without resorting to a vague (and rather insulting) notion like that, as I have tried to detail in my book, one could have quite good and rational grounds to oppose the legislation given its effect on employers, professionals, businesses and community organisations. It is true that extending the legislation was opposed by many Hindu groups but also by Sikhs and Jains, though of course we have no way of knowing how many in any group supported it, opposed it, or were merely indifferent about it. Those Sikhs present at a seminar held on 14 July 2017 in Birmingham University that I happened to address were pretty unanimous about the need to oppose the legislation. The first event I organised to bring light to the problems of the caste legislation back in 2014 was hosted by a Jain organisation. However, many in these groups also supported the retention of the case law discussed above. As a result, the largest group of respondents to the British government’s consultation favoured retention of the case law as the basis of remedy against caste discrimination. No clear cut case can be made, therefore, that only Hindus were against the legislation or that they favoured removing all remedies against caste discrimination.

What kind of entity is the caste system?

The footloose way in which events are commandeered by Majumdar to give a reading that isn’t justified by what is known of them, and the THE’s endorsement of his reading as “powerful”, surely needs some explanation. His account, and those upon whom he closely relies, may be said to be economical with the truth, but can it be contended that Majumdar’s is only a carelessly written article? Have standards declined so badly in Britain that its leading paper of higher education matters would allow through such poor coverage while presenting it as important? One way of looking at way in which Majumdar has used the set of examples he does is that for him (and for the THE) they confirm something that he already has a strong belief in. Such an attitude is described as ‘confirmation bias’:  the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs.

Despite an immense amount of writing, one of the remarkable aspects of caste in India is that we have no knowledge of it. It is more than two hundred years since the British spoke about India’s religion as ‘Hinduism’ and the social structure to which it gave rise as ‘the caste system’. Yet just as with Hinduism, no-one can provide a seriously defendable theoretical account of the caste system. “[C]aste changes avatars in keeping with the changing sociopolitical scenario” says Ishita Banerjee-Dube in Caste in History (p. xv) but this merely disguises the problem in obfuscating language. Dunkin Jalki and Sufiya Pathan have even argued that no amount of checking the facts against theories of the caste system has achieved anything in terms of advance in terms of our knowledge of it. They locate the reason in the nature of the entity the caste system is, and confirm SN Balagangadhara’s description of it an ‘experiential entity’ of the West. In other words, it is an entity that helps the West make sense of its experience of India while telling us nothing about India. That is why it is possible to argue through different routes that the caste system does not exist.

This sounds like a very odd claim when made to Indians, especially because jatis are a regular part of experience in their culture. They mistake the Western description of the caste system as a depiction of their experience because they wrongly assume that the Western experience is continuous with their cultural way of living with jatis. One test of the difference between the Indian and Western experience is to ask whether Indians feel they are immoral because they live in and with jatis. Other than some of those who have been through the Indian university system (though not all of them by far) as well as those who have experienced university education in the West, hardly any Indians will consider themselves or their fellow Indians immoral because of this fact.

The experience of the West is diametrically opposite. The Western descriptions of Hinduism and the caste system that emerged and became dominant as British colonialism took root were embedded in a protestant Christian religious framework. They saw Hinduism as a false religion that provided a foundation to the caste system and, given their inherent immorality, both were better brought to an end even if they had to be tolerated temporarily. The caste system therefore became part of a larger conceptual cluster through which the West understood India, which cluster does not exist in the Indian culture, except perhaps in small circles and then only in imitative rather than experiential form. Today these themes remain present in secularised form. The existence of the caste system is a ‘fact’ in the theories about India without which India seems incomprehensible to Westerners. This explains how all concerned British public institutions have taken to declaring the immorality of caste and argued for legal measures to be taken against it, even when it was otherwise obvious that they cannot identify what caste and the caste system are, and that evidence to justify legislation was lacking.

Because Majumdar’s piece is concerned with education, which is also the THE’s raison d’etre, it is worth directing our attention to the link between caste and education in the colonial context. Among the groups of protestant missionaries, the Scots under Alexander Duff seem to have been the sternest (they were Scottish after all!). Duncan Forrester tells us (in his book Caste and Christianity) that Duff arrived in Calcutta in 1829 and, with the Scottish Missionary Society, “quickly established an extraordinary ascendancy in the area of missionary education” (p. 28). Forrester (pp. 32-33) goes on to describe the rationale behind the schools Duff and his mission had established:

The schools also had a more direct, if preparatory, evangelistic function, the undermining of Hinduism as a coherent and credible system, and it was because of this that the attack on caste allowed of no compromise. Caste, Duff believed, was ‘not a civil but a sacred institution’, its overthrow would be simultaneous with the destruction of idolatry: ‘Idolatry and superstition are like the stones and brick of a huge fabric, and caste is the cement which pervades and closely binds the whole. Let us, then, undermine the common foundation, and both tremble at once, and form a common ruin’.

Forrester’s assessment (p. 33) of the impact of Duff and his mission is interesting:

Duff was one of the most able and convincing apologists for the missionary onslaught on caste and it is arguable that the educational tradition that he set up did more than anything else to spark off the widespread questioning of caste so characteristic of modern India.  

This brief observation provides a clue of the massive spread of theological ideas that colonialism entailed. In his book Reconceptualizing India Studies, S.N. Balagangadhara argues that if our account of India, which presupposed the civilizational superiority of the West and the commensurate inferiority of India, is essentially continuous with that of the coloniser’s then something must be wrong with our contemporary experience. It would mean that ours is basically a colonial consciousness. Our talk of the caste system is an index of such a colonial consciousness. Majumdar exemplifies the colonised situation of Indian intellectuals. He tries to make his own the Western experience of Indians as immoral. The publication by the THE of his poorly substantiated discussion, and its (for us) counterintuitive description as a “powerful account” exemplifies the colonial consciousness of the British. This persistence of the colonial account goes some way to explaining what Majumdar writes and the THE publishes. The article hangs together only because of the presupposed existence of the caste system in India.

The quest for legislation on caste discrimination  

As seen, the individual stories Majumdar tells can only support an account of the discriminatory features or outcomes of that system if they are contorted out of shape or rent from their contexts. Had he been interested in presenting knowledge of India or of Indians abroad he would have had reason enough to doubt whether the events he relies upon are really capable of supporting his overall account. Increasingly, proponents of the story of India’s oppressive caste system have to resort to such contortions because, otherwise, their immovable beliefs would collapse as a result of the weight of the cognitive dissonance under which they labour.

Such contortions were already present in the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights of the Commission on Human Rights when it began, in the mid-2000s, to refer to the export of caste from India to its diaspora particularly in Britain and the US. Close examination makes evident the threadbare nature of the research and the dubious methodology such claims were based on. Nevertheless, they were enough to signal that lobbying should begin in earnest to get legislation on caste discrimination enacted in the UK. As seen, so far, this attempt has not succeeded in the way expected by the anti-caste activists, which include an array of church and secular bodies, despite their ability to perform institutional capture. Although they managed to get a mention of caste inserted into the Equality Act 2010, as discussed, they could not (yet) succeed in having it implemented. However, a very small and inconsequential number of people in Britain, myself included, have opposed the development of laws on caste discrimination.

Notable in Majumdar’s article is the persistent reference to the need for legislation, not merely in the UK but also in the US. With this aim in mind, he seems aware that existing legal strategies, exemplified by the Tirkey case in Britain, have not had unambiguous results. A different strategy and a diversity of locales is required. Why not go through the universities instead? From the point of view of his camp it seems perfectly sensible to do so. It is after all in the UK and US that they will find students, as well as academics, most open to the kind of claims he makes about India’s caste system. Such claims will be supported not only by some Indian students in these countries but also by a coalition of others. Taken in this light, we can read Majumdar as effectively announcing the next stage in the longer term campaign to have legislation against caste discrimination eventually passed in both the UK and the US and perhaps other countries. As far as I can see, the anti-caste activists are not looking to win the Cisco case on factual grounds; it is as though the merits of the case are irrelevant. Rather, it is critical for them that the Cisco case results in a legal ruling that declares that the existing provisions of California law do not extend to caste discrimination. In other words, they need to aim for a ruling which says that, without legislation on caste, courts cannot act on their own. In this way, they can avoid the kind of trap that Tirkey created for activists in the UK. This will set them up to be able to argue that legislation is required. Further down the line would be the kind of legislation a draft of which has already been produced by Oxford scholar Tarunabh Khaitan and introduced in 2017 as a Bill into India’s Lok Sabha by Shashi Tharoor. Thus, India too would have anti-discrimination law, covering caste, among other things such as food preferences.

Majumdar’s claim about the supposed power of upper caste Hindu lobbies are as insupportable as his other claims. His pushing the story of the dominance of the Brahmins at the top of the caste hierarchy, obscures the magnitude of institutional capture by Dalits and their supporters. Not only have they managed to get hold of the human rights bodies of the United Nations as well as the UK’s governmental and law-making institutions and media, they are already preparing to capture universities in the US and UK, which they can groom to take their plans further. If there is a global caste problem today, it isn’t captured by the Christian view that Brahmins spread false doctrines and hold everybody else in a state of oppression. Rather, it is the way in which Dalits are assuming the apex of a global caste hierarchy in which self-deception reigns and knowledge is undermined. Since Majumdar and others are now posing the issue of caste discrimination as an important one for educators and institutions of higher education, who are already so prone to adopting the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ in their pandering to certain favoured victim groups, it is important that they don’t accede to the same self-deception.

The writer is a Reader in Culture and Law at Queen Mary University of London