Race and Caste: The Story of Its Intertwining, Its Erasure and Its Re-Connections in the Last 200 Years.

Thursday, 19 July 2018: 13:00
Oral Presentation
Sujata PATEL, University of Hyderabad, India, Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, India
Contemporary literature on the caste system has discussed its antiquity and has mapped the varied contradictory ways it evolved in the different regions of South Asia. As a consequence, current studies on caste have decentered the standardised understanding of this system as being unique and frozen in time. Instead historians and sociologists have suggested that the caste system has evolved as a consequence of the changing economic and political processes occurring in the region.How did the idea of caste as a unique system of practising graded inequality emerge? The paper focuses on the way the caste system and hierarchy were conceived in the discourse promoted by colonial administrators and the native elites in colonial India. Using archaeological, archival sources and secondary literature, this paper maps the way the discourses of race and caste became imbricated through the Orientalist epsiteme’ from the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries. It also records the way the consciousness of this imbrication was erased in discursive memories in the context of formalisation of social science literature in India from mid-19th century onwards, initially in the discipline of anthropology and later sociology. By the early 20th century sociological literature had started asserting that caste was a uniquely Indian system of practising hierarchy and that it articulated the civilizational attributes of the region. Today this understanding is gradually erased as the system’s present origin in 19th century colonial South Asia is being acknowledged. In this context, can we argue that contemporary caste system is racist and that caste-ism is a form of racism? Or does one seek to comprehend the specificity of articulation in the region’s histories and social and cultural practices? Can race be used as a universal category to assess and comprehend graded inequalities? The paper concludes by positing some dilemmas facing social scientists in the region.