Book Summary: Western Foundations of the Caste System- I

Book Summary: Western Foundations of the Caste System- I

One of the most important books in recent times is the book, ‘Western Foundations of the Caste System.’ The book consists of eight strong chapters on the ‘caste system’ of India based strongly on the pioneering work and research of S.N. Balagangadhara, professor at the Ghent University in Belgium, and director of the India Platform and the Research Centre for ‘Comparative Science of Cultures.’

It is quite clear today that colonial rule stripped us economically. But what is not yet evident is how the colonial ideas continue to strip and divide us in the name of religion and caste. Unfortunately, the strongest wedges dividing people in Indian society today are religion and caste; and Balagangadhara has clearly shown that both are a result of Western narratives and Christian themes. The narratives are now secular, but the roots are clearly different. Balagangadhara handles religion in his other classic, ‘The Heathen in His Blindness.’

We, as Indians, have perhaps never thought of caste the way it gets a description in the book. Every English knowing Indian must read this book to understand how the present caste discourse plays at several layers of deep distortion. A new paradigm for thinking about caste comes forward, and I would feel there is a strong need to translate this book into every single Indian language. Caste affects each one of us deeply. The distorted ideas lead to emotions ranging from extensive pride to extreme shame and anger; and the irony is that most of these ideas have western roots.

This book has deeply influenced me. I must acknowledge Dr Saumya Dey’s brilliant review of the book which started me off. As I now try to come out of a lifetime fed narratives, I feel that this book should reach out to everybody. This is a humble effort to summarize the contents of the book to help in the initial understanding, and in motivating readers to undertake the full journey. It will not and cannot replace the original book, because many of the contexts would be clear only by reading the main book. ‘More than many’ are direct quotes from the book, and I absolutely claim no originality in these series of articles. I have taken permission from Balagangadharagaru himself to do the summary. The article belongs to all the authors. Any mistakes or problematic interpretations are totally mine, as there is no scope for such in the main book. I have also slightly altered the ordering of the chapters from the main book in the notion that it may help a better understanding of this ‘caste system.’

The Difficulties in Defining and Describing Caste

 Martin Fárek, Dunkin Jalki, Sufiya Pathan and Prakash shah

Since the 16th century, the study of India has been significantly shaped and driven by the study of caste. Scholars are very clear on three matters: the existence of the immoral caste system across India; the failure to eradicate it despite strong attempts by the state, NGOs, and social reformers from Buddha till now; and its negative impact on several parameters of social justice.

There is however no consensus from this understanding of the caste-system on issues like (a) how castes are different from other kinds of human groups and how they are to be classified; (b) how the caste system came into being and what sustains it; (c) the relation of the caste system to ordering social hierarchy; (d) the constitutive and necessary properties of the caste system; and (e) its relationship to social conflict.

Classifying Caste-problems With Varna and Jati

The problems over caste classification are at least as old as the first censuses conducted by the British government in India. The census officials of the nineteenth century found it impossible to distinguish between caste, tribe, occupation, and nationality, and the census takers often incorporated all these categories as variations of caste in their data collection. It was impossible to map the innumerable caste divisions in any coherent fashion along the line of the four divisions- ‘principal castes’ or varnas. Things have not however improved as we still debate to understand varna and jati. We are yet to decide upon the proper unit of caste. Is it caste or sub-caste?

In vernacular Indian literature, jati denotes professional, regional, linguistic, religious, only locally recognisable, and even gendered communities, thus referring to an entity that is neither discreet nor homogeneous. Those who favour varna as the mode of classification fare worse since it is impossible to get any clear correlation between sets of jatis and varnas, with jatis constantly disputing which varna they belong to. We also have no consensus on the status of textual sources, like Manava-dharmashastra, which are supposedly the source of the theory of varna.

Propagation of Caste System- a Mystery

S. N. Balagangadhara says that it is a sociological impossibility that the ‘caste system’ emerged as a full-blown social system, simultaneously all over India, some 3500 years ago. Just as it is an impossibility that it originated at different places and later converged. The only reasonable hypothesis is to assume that it emerged in some place at some time. In which case, how did it propagate itself?

If we now consider India of some 4000 years ago with vast distances, and huge differences in languages, it is a prerequisite that some central political, or administrative system imposed this system on society. We know this was not the case. Without such an imposition, however, there is no way that a system with the same four varnas, with the same four names with an identically structured set of practices could come into being across the length and breadth of the country. It is impossible to conceive this based on what we know about human beings, societies, and social organisations.

Instead of asking the question about the origin and propagation of ‘the caste system,’ the mainstream opinion on ‘the caste system’ simply assumes that ‘the caste system’ somehow came into being, somehow propagated itself, and that it holds the Indian culture as a hostage. The current theories of the origin and propagation of the caste system in India are simply untenable, but questioning them seem unthinkable now.

In defence, Orientalists systematically dated every reference to what they saw as the caste system in classical Indian texts as an extrapolation, which must have come at a much later date than the original dating of the text itself. Preferences for the dating of the extrapolations usually then went to periods of more consolidated pan-Indian sovereignties to ascribe to the reigning political class the power of the central authority for creating and upholding the system.

Caste and Social Categorisations- a Selective Framework

Some propose that the Portuguese and later British colonial categories of caste overlaid on to existing social categories. These were ‘rigid birth derived categories’ with ‘mental and physical traits associated with them’ that were native to the land and extremely ancient. Such a hypothesis does not explain how birth-derived hierarchies (or the caste system) make their appearance even within the Semitic religions as they developed in India, especially Islam.

There is, however, ample evidence all over the world for social categorisations based on birth in the same period. What makes such categorisations evidence for caste system exclusively in India, but not in England for instance? Again, this question did not preoccupy the nineteenth-century writers on caste. This is still to find adequate answers and yet disappears in the current discourse on caste. In widespread social discrimination all over the world, why did colonial officials not recognise the caste system in any form back home but saw it in clear terms in India? This is either cognitive deficiency or dishonesty of Western authors.

Properties of Caste System-slippery Eels

How do we establish that a particular property found in Indian society, present also in other societies across the world, is the result of the caste system and not of any other multiple social forces or organisations? How do we distinguish the caste system from other social systems in other parts of the world? Mostly by saying – the caste system is a social system; the social system of the South Asian region is the caste system- the fallacy of petitio principii (a conclusion taken for granted in the premises).

Of all the properties ascribed to the caste system, none of them are unique to it. This is a major hurdle. Hierarchy, purity-pollution, endogamy, occupational communities and any such properties have been and continue to be properties of several human social systems across the globe and continue to be produced in multiple social settings (even within India itself), that do not seem to have anything to do with the caste system.

Muslims, Christians, various ethnic groups, national groups, and various class groups across the world are just as endogamous as any caste groups. Similarly, the idea of a hierarchical caste system based solely on birth is difficult to prove or disprove as presently some of the groupings referred by the term jati are birth related, others are not. Besides this, sociologists have long noted that even where the categories are birth related, they do not mark a static designation in hierarchy.

Some scholars solve this problem by characterising the caste system as the only system that brings these properties together. However, this does not solve the problem because scholars are hard-pressed to show that these properties do indeed coexist wherever the caste system purportedly manifests itself. Thus, most scholars have a cafeteria approach whereby any and every property may be primary or secondary, depending only on the scholar’s preference.

Caste and Narratives of Social Conflict

Balagangadhara says that almost all the discussions about the ‘caste system’ refer to or narrate (i) stories of discrimination about water wells; (ii) physical beatings; (iii) denial of entry into the temples; and (iv) ‘untouchability’. In discussions it is never clear whether the above four aspects are the empirical properties of ‘the caste system’ or they are the consequences of ‘the caste system. Only if they are primary empirical properties, and not secondary properties, only then we can condemn the ‘caste system’. Else, the discussion will have to take an entirely different route. If they are the consequences, we need to know whether they are necessary consequences of ‘the caste system. If these are not the necessary consequences of ‘the caste system’ or that other things generate these consequences severally, again, the discussion takes a different route.

The confusion comes from a clear conviction that a relationship between caste and social conflict necessarily exists and therefore this relationship must be fundamental to understanding caste. Yet, it is impossible when no consensus exists in relation to the properties of the caste system, to say whether conflict is a property or a consequence of the caste system, let alone examine which property of the caste system leads to the consequence of social conflict.

Complex Definitions and Explanations With Persisting Questions

One set of answers to the dissatisfaction raised in relation to the status of caste studies proposes that the caste system is such a complex social structure with so many regional variations and with evolutionary patterns that are so unpredictable, that it is impossible to reach a consensus about the fundamental properties of the caste system or caste relations in India. However, if there cannot be a consensus in relation to fundamental properties of the caste system or to a story of how it evolved across India, how can we have reached a consensus on the first set of ideas: that there is a caste system in India, that it is oppressive towards the lower castes, and that it has been practically impossible to eradicate?

There are scholars who have raised similar suspicions about the premises of caste studies, but for the wrong reasons. Some suggest that Orientalist/colonial scholarship constructed the notion of the caste system as understood today. There are two problems with this assertion. One is its implausibility.

How could the census, using ‘caste’, which did not last longer than 60 years (1871 to 1931), successfully ‘create’ the caste system in India? The second problem is the lack of clarity about the implementation of what? The states constantly invent and discard the State classifications, like poverty lines. Thus, state categorisation has the power to change social reality in this specific and limited sense. These claims unbelievably say that a state classificatory scheme, flawed as it was, short-lived as it was, created a social order in India which has been extremely tenacious and extremely resistant to change. This brings us to the same kinds of logical questions about what sustains the caste system.

What is the ‘caste System’?

There is no denying the existence of ‘jatis’ like Lingayat, Paraya, Kamma, Jaat and innumerable others. Denying the existence of the notion of the caste system does not imply that those facts (beliefs, practices, texts, etc.) that went into the construction of the ‘caste system’ do not exist. What one denies is that these (taken together) constitute a phenomenon called the ‘caste system’.

Balagangadhara proposes that the ‘caste system’ names the structure that the British tried to develop using different criteria, none of which worked in ordering and classifying the data they assembled. That is to say, the British failed in classifying data (which they collected) about marriage, commensality (practice of eating together), profession, entry into temples, accepting water, etc. into a single structure, whose units carried indigenous jati names.

He also proposes that, the caste system, the phenomenon constructed by the West, is an experiential entity only to the West and not to Indians. In this sense, the caste system has no existence outside of the Western experience of India. The West, because of their specific cultural experience, tied together a series of discreet elements and transformed them into one distinct and unified phenomenon. In fact, the dominant descriptions we have today are results of originally Christian themes and questions; they reflect European historical experiences and European thinking about society much more than the real state of society and its domestic understanding in India.

All attempts to give a better description of the caste system have failed to answer some of the most fundamental questions: why do Indians not know the caste laws? How can the caste system exist if no central authority exists to ensure its survival? How come no one can empirically show the existence of a clear-cut caste hierarchy across the length and breadth of the country?

Caste-based Reservation and Social Justice in India

S.N. Balagangadhara

Was Social Justice a Normative Concept?

Balagangadhara says that the strangest statement in India is, ‘caste-based reservation is a socially just policy’, because he notes very tenuous conceptual relationships between social justice and caste-based reservation.

He looks deeply at the Constituent Assembly debates to answer whether it was possible to discern that ‘social justice’ used in those debates were normative or not; and whether the framers of the Indian Constitution use the notion of ‘social justice’ to morally defend the caste-based reservation system. He feels the answer is a distinct no.

There is some prima facie evidence for suggesting that the notion of ‘social justice’ is normative (matter of opinion, ethics, or morals which cannot undergo testing) in nature or that such a moral dimension is present in the term ‘social justice’, but for most part of the debates, such evidence is thin and inconclusive.

The normative statements might express things like disapproval, or emotions. But they could not describe anything in the world. In short, there are no moral facts but only moral opinions. Thus, normative statements are moral opinions and statements which are beyond evaluation. For most Assembly debaters, social justice was a practical goal and not a moral ideal. In fact, even though most of them endorsed the term ‘social justice’, there was no detectable consensus about what that term meant or how it was related to caste-based reservation.

For most, social justice meant instituting policy measures that, taken together, constitute a social security system. This makes it very clear that (a) there is nothing normative in his notion of social justice and that (b)there is no postulation of any relationship between social justice and caste-based reservation. Whatever the case, we find no evidence here that caste-based reservation had anything to do with social justice; or that social justice is a ‘normative’ term, denoting an ideal.

Caste based reservation seems to have the eminent function of allaying the suspicions of a set of communities. For all political purposes, it is a happy decision to give a section of the people what they want, provided what they want is ‘social justice’, as they ‘understand’ the term. The framers of the Constitution of India found it normal to allow some group or another to enjoy the fruits of the reservation system on grounds of political expediency too.

Even Dr. Ambedkar’s interventions in the Assembly follow the same trend. He wants ‘to make economic, social and political justice a reality’ and recognises that ‘doing justice socially, economically and politically’ is important. It must have been a practical, realisable, and non-normative goal achieved in 10 or 60 years at the most.

Thus, the conclusion must be: caste-based reservation is either an expression of political expediency or a psychological tool to allay suspicions of some communities or both. There was no defence or invoking of moral grounds.

The lack of consensus about the meaning of that word and our ambiguity in knowing how they understood the relationship between caste-based reservation and social justice opens a huge question: on what grounds do some in the judiciary, most intellectuals, and all the Ambedkarites in India claim that their normative or moral notions find their justification in the Indian Constitution? There is no view from the inside that allows any kind of normative association between social justice and caste-based reservation.

Were the Framers of Indian Constitution Immoral, Inauthentic?

If now the claim comes that the framers of the Indian Constitution used a normative conception of social justice, then almost all the framers of the Indian Constitution become inauthentic, deceitful, and immoral. This because if we look at the intellectual currents involved in the debate on social justice during the period under consideration, we discover only one dominant force in the first half of the twentieth century discussing social justice as a normative concept. They were the Christians in general and Catholic Christians in particular.

In fact, the normative notion of ‘social justice’ and the way later used by all and sundry was first by a politically conservative Italian Jesuit priest, Taparelli, in his five-volume work published from 1840 to 1843. Taparelli’s students included Pope Leo XIII, who authored the famous encyclical, ‘Rerum Novarum’ (On the condition of the working classes),hailed as the first official Catholic statement on the ‘social question’.

Equality consists here in equalizing the office to the person’s capacity, the recompense to the merit, punishments to demerit, and the real order to the ideal proportions of means to end. And each person should be content to make the same contribution as every other to the common purpose. (cited in Burke 2010, 102–103)

Leo Shields, in ‘The History and Meaning of the Term Social Justice’, gave the precise meaning of social justice.:

Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1993. Chap. 2, Art. 3)

Which normative conception of ‘social justice’ was available to the framers of the Indian Constitution in the late 1940s and early 1950s? Only the Christian notion of ‘social justice’. It is Christian for an entirely different reason: this notion of social justice made absolutely no sense outside the Christian notions of man and society. Whatever we might think about the term ‘social justice’ today, until the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century at least, it made normative sense only in the presupposed truth of Christian theology.

We have positive evidence from the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly proceedings that the framers of the Indian Constitution did not use ‘social justice’ normatively. There is positive evidence that the only available normative notion of ‘social justice’ was Christian in nature. Not all members of the assembly who intervened in debates about ‘social justice’ were Christians. There is finally no evidence at all for a secular notion of ‘social justice’ in those times which members could know about. Hence, using a moral conception of social justice would make the Constitution framers as secret Christians and they were doing something which was deceitful or immoral. Clearly, we know that is not the case.

Other Alternatives on the Social Justice Narrative

Today, a lot of people use the term samaja nyaya around as if it translates the normative notion of ‘social justice’. However, this situation tells us more about the ignorance of such people regarding the meaning of these words and indicates that it has become an empty slogan without any content. The author shows that the term samaja nyaya could maximally mean a ‘social rule’ or a ‘social model’.

Amartya Sen makes a distinction between niti and nyaya‘niti’ is about rules and institutions; and ‘nyaya’ is about their realisation’. His distinction completely undercuts that samaja nyaya could be translating the term ‘social justice’. In his words:

Reservations as a policy cannot be justified on grounds of redressing the past. It would be justified in terms of improving the present. Therefore, we have to judge reservations as a ‘niti’ in the light of what it actually does rather than what it is theoretically expected to do.

One cannot hence appeal either to the word meaning or to the Nobel Prize to justify the claim that the framers of the Indian Constitution spoke normatively, i.e., morally, and idealistically, when they used the term ‘social justice’.

Hence, those claiming that the framers of the Indian Constitution used the notion of social justice to defend caste-based reservation system ‘morally and ethically’ are not telling the truth. They are dishonest when they propagate constantly that the caste-based reservation policy was a moral redressing of an unjust past by the framers of the Indian Constitution.

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Dr Pingali Gopal

Dr Pingali Gopal is a Paediatric and Neonatal Surgeon practising in Warangal, Telangana. He has a keen interest in Indian culture and does his little bit to correct the many wrong narratives which hurt India at many levels. Opening his eyes rather late to the wonder called India, it is now a continuous journey for him to sip bits from the oceanic nectar of Indic Knowledge Systems.