The Blog

Caste Not Class Is the Main British Problem, Lords

On 16 April, the Commons will discuss an amendment by the Lords prohibiting an allegedly rampant discrimination in UK. Caste, not class.

The evidence for caste discrimination? Last Labour government commissioned a report from NIESR, National Institute of Economic and Social Research, which gave a new meaning to 'evidence'. Statements making all sorts of allegations, neither tested nor shown to the accused even in anonymised form, have been called 'qualitative evidence'. It seems academia has a different threshold for evidence than English courts.

Labour is keen to fill this microscopic lacunae in English law while ignoring the mega crater of class discrimination. Contrary to its policy, the Labour Government passed over consultation dialogue with accused communities when it introduced caste issue in 2009.

The foundation for this legislative initiative has been theories such as 'Aryans invaded India thousands of years ago instituting caste and untouchability!' And apparently facts such as 'Hindus discriminate against other Hindus!' Aided by pious liberalism, 'no one should suffer discrimination on the grounds of anything that they cannot help (except class).' Not to forgo xenophobia, 'and stop people bringing to this country attitudes that are wholly contrary to the traditions of Britain.'

Trouble is 'castism' as an attitude was promoted by Britain in the first place since 'caste' as a category is a wholly British colonial construction. An elementary fact is that the word 'caste' has no literal translation in any Indian language.

There was untouchability practiced against waste and carcass collectors in some regions of India by some Hindus zealous about hygienic purity. Just as in medieval Europe. It got weaved into a Brahmanic reincarnation theory called Varna theology based on incremental birth cycles before reaching nirvana. This was and is condemned and discarded by Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Muslims and many Hindu traditions too.

Indians do have remarkably long persistent social communities called jatis, which are people with common shared history, ethics, dietary habits, sometimes gods and sometimes occupations. As people moved from one region to another, they often changed jatis. Even early colonialists acknowledged that jati system was fluid. It still remains one of the enduring systems resisting wealth based capitalist ordering of society.

As in Europe, Indian society was witnessing many revolutionary changes in seventeenth century. But colonialism reversed those. Eighteenth century British orientalists found varna, jati and reform movements all too confusing and challenging. They conflated varna and jati and confabulated a then prevalent European term, 'caste'. This is equivalent of throwing Scottish clans, English 'national superiority' and welsh tribes into one formula, 'race'.

'Caste' was introduced in Indian census forms in 1871. Indians were confused particularly as many didn't accept the varna system and their jatis were often interchangeable. No problem. British orientalist were there to help Indians learn about themselves.

Using varna theology as the framework, orientalists squeezed different jatis into a hierarchy with the help of marginalised opportunist groups such as Brahmins who again gained advantage by pushing others into lower status groups.

In nineteenth century an entire horror brigade of missionaries, phrenologists, ethnologists, anthropologists, orientalists and wait for it, eugenicists, set about identifying and classifying Indians like zoological specimens into different castes (now 25,000 of them). They used head measurements (Risley 1901), skin colour (Huxley 1869), physique (Elliot), occupation and a few other mad theories that mushroomed during nineteenth century European sciences.

Risley, the Chief Commissioner of India's census in 1901 came with the definitive identifying marker of an Indian's caste. 'The social status of a particular group varies in inverse ratio to the mean relative width of their nose!'

By 1921, every Indian had a caste. Within a century Indians were transformed from a people with fluid, ever changing complex and plural social systems into a rigid stratified one leaving each individual little option to change. The practices of a few Brahmin groups were universalised in India by colonialism and the achievements of reform movements sunk. India still struggles with this colonial legacy.

Privileges, occupations and rights such as civil service, military, judiciary and land ownership etc were handed based on 'caste characteristics'. Others described by orientalists such as Huxley as lazy, dark skinned, broad nosed etc were left with menial jobs. Where there were porous boundaries, discrimination became institutionalised.

Even the Aryan invasion theory has been debunked by serious academic research as wishful creative inference by colonial orientalists searching for European origins of Indian civilisation.

The British Suprintendent of 1921 Census confessed, ' We pigeon holed everyone by caste and if we could not find a true caste for them, labelled them with the name of hereditary occupation. We deplore the caste system and its effect on social and economic problems, but we are largely responsible for the system we deplore."

Some of these internalised colonial infused habits lingered in early migrants to UK. But much has changed as new research destroys orientalist constructions and individualism undermines group myths.

Can cliché ridden eighteenth century orientalism be the basis of legislation in twenty first century multi cultural Britain? Obviously it can! Labour and Liberal legislators want to reignite a dying issue in UK.

Of course there is some lingering discrimination among handful, but dialogue and mutual action by communities can bring this to an end. Legislation will institutionalise it. The Tory Government prefers dialogue.

Two million Sikhs, Hindus and Jains have been judged on orientalist literature without a hearing by Labour and Liberals. Perhaps Rushdie was right when he said migrants were brought here as subject peoples with whom the British can deal, in very much the same way as their predecessors thought of and dealt with.

The real issue of class prejudice at the work place? 'People suffer prejudice in this country because of their class and we have no legislation on that', reminded Tory Baroness Stowell of Beeston to her fellow Noble members. Labour and Liberal legislators remain in denial.