Caste is a hot topic again in India, the country with alleged caste system and UK, the country that invented it for the Indians. Much has been written about the caste of the new President of India. The UK on the other hand has decided that to give ‘caste’ permanency, Parliament will put it in the statue books. The colonial power fears that India might give up the phenomenon of ‘caste’.

The word ‘caste’ is used with abandon in India without anyone having defined it properly. It is assumed that just as everyone knows the word ‘air’, caste is also self evidently understood. The Supreme Court has never defined it but uses it and even adjudicates on it. The Constitution does not define it, but contains rights and legal sanctions on it and even lists ‘castes’ in different category schedules. Social scientists use it, but every social scientists seems to have a different meaning of it. One UK specialist on caste even says, caste means different things in different regions of India! Even religious priests don’t get away with that degree of overarching vagueness. Surely if a word is so popularly used, it must have some cognitive meaning.

Not to worry, the masters have come to the rescue again and they have defined it, since they manufactured the word and the phenomenon. Yes the British have defined caste. It is ‘The term “caste” denotes a hereditary, endogamous (marrying within the group) community associated with a traditional occupation and ranked accordingly on a perceived scale of ritual purity.’

It is quite possible that within Rashtarpati Bhavan there is ranking practiced on a perceived scale of ritual purity. We wouldn’t know. Indian news editors might know since they have written about the President’s caste and many must have been to Rashtarpatti Bhavan. After all editors don’t write something they have not fact checked or do they?

To write in newspapers that the President is from a lower caste and that India has made strides, is to suggest that he still has a caste. Consequently he must be  subject of some ranking according to ritual purity in the Government.  Or perhaps, as the British based social scientist suggests, it may be a morphic definition depending on how many steps he takes from Rashtarpati Bhavan. Admittedly the Government hasn’t mentioned his caste

The word caste has no literal meaning in any Indian language. Incredible that a word is used to make policy, bring criminal charges and study society in a region of the world which for 5000 years has had no word to describe this phenomenon which is supposed to be universal in Indian society!

Civilisations in South Asia are highly sophisticated and the languages very developed. Yet the one feature of South Asian society that every body seems to know has never been defined in any Indian language! Did ancient Sanskrit scholars like Panini miss this phenomenon amidst them?

Ask any Indian, and he or she will be against caste! People are allegedly against discrimination and prejudice based on caste. Inspite of all this opposition, it allegedly exists widely, in every sinew of society, every religious community and every regional community. But ask any of the veterans of anti caste campaigns to give it a meaning,  no one seems to be able to define it! It is a puzzle. What are they campaigning about?

Surely there can’t be collective ignominy; Of using a word but not knowing what exactly it means, a word which no two people define the same, and which no court has dared to define. The obvious question is, does ‘caste’ actually exist or is it a phenomenon that exists in a mythical colonial reality because the British bestowed it to the Indians.

Does caste mean jaati? Does it mean untouchability? Does it mean a particular interpretation of the ‘varna’ order based on a hierarchy tied with reincarnation? Does it mean biradari? Or is it gotra? All these words have different meanings in Indian languages and Indian culture. A jaati is not  anything like a birdari and a gotra has nothing to do with varna in most of the Indian communities. How can words with very different meanings be categorised into one category called ‘caste’?

Perhaps the answer is in the limitations of the English language. It is after all only 700 years old as compared with some Indian languages that are more than 3000 years old.  English still has only one word for mammu, chacha, taya etc. They all have different relations and functions in the extended Indian family. But in English they are all uncles. If some one starts a sentence in India, ‘my uncle’, immediately the listener wants to know ‘what type of uncle’. English will get there one day.

Similarly the word caste seems to have a very wide remit, even contradictory in some cases.  It incorporates every conceivable community association, as long as it is South Asian. It is a word whose domestic equivalent may have existed in pre civilisation India when language was less developed to describe different community associations. But in modern India, caste is a lazy word coined by a language (English) that is thousands of years behind Indian languages.

‘Caste’ comes from Portuguese. It was used by European missionaries in India as they did not understand the myriad of different community groupings. It is a word reeking of racism and colonialism. It makes no effort to look at different social groupings in the context of the larger society.

When Europeans came to India, they decided to call every social grouping ‘caste’ without bothering to find out the different social groups, the different functions that different groupings had, such as Jaati or Biradari.  Lumping them all under one word is not just evidence of ignorance, but also colonialist as the ‘white’ European’ decided that one word will be sufficient to describe all the complex different associations of ‘native’ South Asian society. It is equivalent of ‘all natives look alike, dont they!’

The British anchored the word caste to the extreme association of a marginal religious ideology with hierarchical practice found in some  or other part of India and universalised it through census and Government forms.  ‘What is your caste?’ every Indian  was asked and is still asked.

The British did the same with the Africans by using the word ‘negro’. They found some Africans who fitted their description of a ‘negro’ and then generalising all Africans with it. This is a British speciality. They have a derogatory word for every community in the world, ie Krauts, Frogs, Chinks etc. It is one way of feeling superior.

The Africans woke up to the use of the word ‘negro’ and its implications They condemned its use. It is no longer used

It is in the colonialist’s nature to believe that only their own complexities have justification and context as civilised where as those of all others are simply frivolous and unnecessary. So Indians social groupings were all dumped into one meaningless word ‘caste’ which came from a particular social grouping in Portugal and Spain.

How can India do away with caste. Simple, banish the word just as the Africans banished the word negro. The Africans did it themselves. But colonialism and orientalism may be too deeply entrenched in Indian society. It might need a white man to finally say, ‘Hi guys, we invented this phenomenon to divide you and make you look nasty. Its gone sell by date so lets square up.’  Or an Indian with mettle might do it, It’s a choice.


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Mukesh Naker

Jasdev many good points. Question is which Indian will stand up and challenge the C word?