Tuesday, December 21, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Recognising caste discrimination will improve life for Britain's Dalits


Recognising caste discrimination will improve life for Britain's Dalits

Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns helps to reframe the
debate about the relationship between race and caste

Nina Martyris
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 21 December 2010 15.34 GMT

One of 2010's most feted books has been The Warmth of Other Suns by
Isabel Wilkerson, a powerful history of the 20th-century migration of
African-American families from America's deeply segregated south. Epic
in the scale of its hurt and hope, it tells the largely untold story
of a people fleeing a society of segregation and lynchings to start
more fulfilling lives in Chicago, New York and the west coast. In
these anonymous sprawls, racial prejudice may have been alive and well
in people's heads but the crucial difference was that it wasn't
sanctioned by policy and pulpit.

I watched the Pulitzer prize-winning Wilkerson talk on television
about her book and was struck by the number of times and the
deliberation with which she used the term "caste system" to describe
the purist infrastructure of Jim Crow country, whose codes were as
repugnant as the pollution laws of untouchable India. I phoned her at
Boston University and she confirmed something that, strangely enough,
has escaped reviewer attention: nowhere in the 622-page book does the
word "racism" occur. Wilkerson even did a word search to make sure it
wasn't there.

"Racism is such a divisive, loaded word that it has become shorthand
for all kinds of things," she explained. "Using the term 'caste
system' not only forces readers to challenge notions of how race and
class play out in the US, it also places an ethnic equation in a
larger historical structure. I prefer caste system because I believe
it better characterises the larger forces at work. It focuses on
structure rather than emotion, it answers so many questions about the
behaviour of people at all levels of the caste system and explains why
those perceived to benefit from it will work so hard to maintain it,
and why those at the bottom of it would be driven to do whatever it
takes to escape it."

In a timely coincidence, her decision shines the searchlight on that
contentious human-rights nettle of whether caste can be included under
race law. An issue of political significance now, with Britain on its
way to being the first western country to do so with the Equality Act
2010. Last week, the National Institute of Economic and Social
Research (NIESR) published its long-awaited study, which states that
caste discrimination does exist in the UK among people of Indian
origin across religions, who comprise 5% of the population.

Several British-Indian forums have opposed listing caste as an aspect
of race (as, historically, have the Indian government and several
distinguished scholars) on the academic point that a caste-race
conflation is scientifically false and that education, not
legislation, will change mindsets.

Britain's Dalits, who have lobbied hard for the law, say that the
debate is wrongly framed. Even if caste and race are not the same, the
experience of being inferior meted out by castism and racism is unique
and like no other. Which is why civil rights leaders like Martin
Luther King Jr have compared the status of African-Americans to
India's untouchables and Dalit literature (Dalit means "broken
people", the earlier term was "untouchable") has drawn inspiration
from revolutionary black literature and the civil rights movement.

The Warmth of Other Suns helps reframe the debate. Wilkerson does not
glibly seek to substitute race with caste – she readily points out
that it is a false equivalence. Instead, she uses terminology to show
that the two are complementary systems of oppression that feed off and
belong with each other. As fellow-travellers of feudalism, they are
"bound up inextricably in society's DNA" with race being used to
justify a caste system whose imperatives are essentially economic – to
perpetuate a workforce to carry out the odious and difficult tasks of
society (whether it is scavenging or cotton picking) for little or no

For the African-Americans in Wilkerson's narrative and for many of the
UK and US's Dalits, migration was an act of secession from an
oppressive social order. Of course, these families soon found that
prejudice is a nifty migrant, too, and that old customs quickly take
root in unaccustomed earth. One well-known Dalit writer from Mumbai
recalled how he had dropped into a pub in Southall in 1992 and found
scribbled on the wall: "Chamars (untouchables) and dogs not allowed."

And while it may be impossible simply to legislate caste
discrimination out of people's memories – India has progressive laws
but prejudice persists – parliamentary cognisance will not only
provide protection in the workplace and schoolroom, it has effectively
pulled the shroud off the elephant in the room. The Equality Act's
specific listing of caste is a brave step toward acknowledging the
persistence of an ancient affliction and an affirmation to Britain's
Dalits that their new country, however watery the warmth of its fitful
sun, cares about their freedom.


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