Books

A Groundbreaking Work That Will Open New Avenues For Indic Research

People from Dalit and tribal communities protest against atrocities, and demand for justice at Parliament Street in New Delhi. (Sushil Kumar/Hindustan Times via GettyImages) 
Snapshot
  • ‘Western Foundations of the Caste System’ is an oasis in a centuries-old desert dominated by narratives of Indian history, culture and society that are bereft of rationality or evidence-based scientific enquiry, and which have contributed little knowledge about the subject.

    In years to come, this book will be recognised as a seminal work: it offers a unique research pathway that can enable a clearer understanding of Indian society and culture.

Western Foundations Of The Caste System. Edited by Prakash Shah, Dunkin Jalki, Sufiya Pathan, and Martin Farek. Springer International Publishing. 274 pages. Rs 7,131.

I am a simple man; my DNA is mathematical and scientific. Years of professional practice have rendered proof that no statistical or wordplay magic can conjure numbers or facts where none exist.

Reading much of the academic output on Indian culture and Hindu civilisation thus evokes what mathematicians refer to as Truthiness (a term coined by comedian Stephen Colbert in 2005): that fictional quality characterising “truth claims” which stem “from the gut” or because they “feel right” but which are without evidence, logic, or which cannot pass intellectual examination (Howard Wainer (2016), Truth or Truthiness: Distinguishing fact from fiction by learning to think like a Data Scientist, Cambridge University Press).

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In this context, Western Foundations of the Caste System, edited by Martin Farek, Dunkin Jalki, Sufiya Pathan, and Prakash Shah, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) is an oasis in a centuries-old desert dominated by narratives of Indian history, culture and society that are bereft of rationality or evidence-based scientific enquiry, and which have contributed little knowledge about the subject.

In years to come, this book will be recognised as a seminal work: it offers a unique research pathway that can enable a clearer understanding of Indian society and culture.

The book cover The book cover

The introductory chapter critically examines the field of caste studies and the apocryphal elephant in the room. Issues which the caste field has failed to find adequate answers to are identified: what is the nature of caste, its properties, its origins, how and why it is related to social conflict, what sets it apart from other discriminations, and how is it unique to India?

This exposes the illogicality of the prevailing dominant academic accounts of the caste system as oppressive and uniquely Hindu, but which, at the same time steadfastly avoid inconvenient questions about its definition, its sources of sustenance or how it evidently resists every attempt to destroy it.

Offering compelling arguments and supporting evidence that the Western Christian theological framework is responsible for this dominant account which informs “knowledge” about India, this chapter offers a unifying umbrella for the various themes addressed in the rest of the book. The authors do not deny the existence of jaatis, baradari, varna, caste and other “facts” about Indian culture, however they boldly challenge the anomaly-riddled Orientalist framework that aggregates them into what is claimed to be a “caste system”.

Professor Balagangadhara, whose research programme on the Comparative Science of Cultures focuses on cultural differences between India (Asia) and Europe, grapples wittily but firmly with the important issue of facts and reasons as cornerstones for academic research. Presupposing an intelligent audience with some moral and intellectual integrity, he challenges the premise that reservation policy in India is founded on a normative morality.

Balagangadhara pointedly asks: “on what grounds do the Indian judiciary, intellectuals and Ambedkarites in India claim that their normative notions [about reservations] are justified in the [Indian] constitution?”

Analysing Catholic doctrine, Balagangadhara finds the notion of “social justice” to be a Christian concept that is rooted in, developed, and publicised in the early twentieth century as a normative tenet of Christian moral theology. Analysing the speeches on reservation policy in the Indian Constituent Assembly debates and the drafting of the Constitution, he determines that these Christian notions of man and society could not have made sense to those outside that culture. As such, the framers of India’s Constitution, who introduced reservation, could not possibly have justified reservation on theological and moral grounds, but only as an instrument of political expediency or a tool to allay suspicions of some sections in Indian society.

Balagangadhara says that to think otherwise would be to imply that the framers of the Indian Constitution were duplicitous, deceptive, and immoral. He argues that those who claim that the framers of the Constitution used social justice to morally justify caste-reservation cannot be telling the truth: it is they who are being immoral and dishonest.

He thus shows that a conceptual impossibility has become an “empirical fact” and the proving of its truth has become an academic pursuit, there being no answer to the question: “What, if any, are the conceptual relationships between social justice and caste-based reservation?”

In short: there are no “moral facts”; there can only be “moral opinions”.

Dunkin Jalki and Sufiya Pathan’s chapter offers insights drawn from a sizeable literature on the almost axiomatic, received wisdom of “caste violence” and find that such “atrocities research” offers minimal field data and that instead, it is often limited to mere anecdotes. When available data is used, it is grossly distorted.

Could this be the aforementioned “truthiness”, or is it ignorance of the science of statistics?

Significantly, Jalki and Pathan analyse hard data compiled by India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) and apply elementary statistical methods to explode long undisputed a priori claims which presume that caste violence is widespread and that “lower castes” are most likely to be its victims.

Besides, Jalki and Pathan expose anecdotal stories, like those heard from “a senior police official…” or of the “here’s some data I found on the street” variety, which caste activists regularly extrapolate into “evidence” for their reckless claims.

The authors’ analysis reveals several anomalies missed by researchers who sensationalise “caste atrocities”:

Neither the NCRB data, nor any meaningful interpretation of it justifies claims that lower castes face greater violence than any other groups, and in fact, contrary to popular myth, the rate of crime against lower castes have decreased in the past decade;

Taking all crimes such as murder, rape, robbery, those filed under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atorcities (POA) Act, the Civil Rights Act, and the SC/ST Act into account, they find that the non-SC/ST population have a 30 times higher risk of facing crime incidents as compared to SC/ST sections;

Statistics do not report the perpetrator of “caste crime”, nor is data collected about crimes against non-SC/ST sections of society, and therefore it is impossible to justify claims about incidents of “caste crime”;

Brahmins do not feature as perpetrators of violence in any research, and yet this minority is presumed guilty without evidence;

The liberal use of “Brahminical caste system” and “Brahminism” proliferate the atrocity literature. In any other context, such singling out of a group would be considered racist and discriminatory.

This is a damning indictment of caste atrocity literature which persistently ignores both the violence against Brahmins as well as the absence of any credible data on caste violence against SC/STs, but makes claims of the latter’s existence on the premise that “there is caste violence, it is under-reported, and that this presumed under-reporting of it is the evidence for its existence”.

In other words, claims about caste violence occur independent of any data. What should be considered as bad science or outright fabrication is projected as “research”.

Jalki and Pathan present a frightening aspect of the calumny against Indian society: caste research is steeped in such dogma that the statistician’s rules are broken with impunity. Their analysis shows that the literature is thin on evidence of cause and effect: every social problem in India and only in India is seen through a caste lens. It is so devoid of understanding of statistics and causal inference (Paul W. Holland (1986), Statistics and Causal Inference, Journal of the American Statistical Association, Vol 81, No. 396, pp. 945-960) that a mathematician would be compelled to turn to fundamental axioms and conclude that:

The effects of causes must be studied before any attempts at making judgement about the cause: The atrocity literature makes no attempt to study the effects of causation like it should be done;

The effects of causes are always to be investigated relative to other causes – it takes two (or more) causes to define an effect: The atrocity literature simply dismisses the scientific method which requires this important condition to be satisfied;

A student of statistics would know that attributes can never be causes: The atrocity literature merely points to attributes, in this case being Hindu, and claims the “high caste” bogeyman as the cause of “caste violence”

Jalki and Pathan highlight the fact that caste atrocities narratives are invariably accompanied by social justice pressure for yet more legislation to curb supposed caste-motivated violence, but consistently fail to offer any meaningful insight or knowledge of the so-called caste system, and the violence it supposedly causes, nor do they offer pathways as to how to stop it. Such narratives continue to push dubious and divisive “social justice” agendas to the detriment of Indian society.

Prakash Shah’s chapter offers a poignant picture of caste advocacy in the United Kingdom. A central claim of the book is highlighted here: that the normative Christian theological conceptualisation of the caste system also acts as the explanation of facts about Indian culture and society, both in India and the diaspora.

More can be found about Britain’s caste wars elsewhere (Prakash Shah (2015), Against Caste in British Law: A critical perspective on the Caste Discrimination Provision in the Equality Act, 2010, Palgrave; For a review of this book, see Jay Jina’s How the Distorted Views On ‘Caste’ Are Affecting British Hindu Society, Jan 22, 2017) wherein parliament legislated on the assumption that the problem of caste discrimination exists, making Hindus guilty by presumption. Shah’s focus here is on how caste activism in India mirrors that in the UK: the immoral caste system is pre-supposed, British caste atrocity authors and activists continue to scurrilously accuse Indians of practicing apartheid.

Shah points out the Christian theological accounts of the roots of caste which latter chapters by Farek and by De Roover explore more deeply. One is thus led to ponder how, without intimate knowledge of India, there arose a marriage of common interest in “Dalit” rights between the usually mutually antagonistic god-fearing Christian social justice pressure groups and the anti-god National Secular Society? How is it that UK legislators have taken as true the inherited narrative about “caste” and the presence of caste legislation in India, to justify using this as the pretext for anti-discrimination law in Britain?

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Citing several parliamentary debates, Shah draws attention to the connections between Christian proselytism and Dalit activism. He also makes further startling observations which underpin the problems about the dearth of or misrepresentation of facts, biased opinions, and false causation raised in earlier chapters:

Academics persistently dodge awkward questions;

There is an absence of any agreed definition of caste other than that it is uniquely Indian, inherently discriminatory and immoral;

Though claiming that anti-discrimination activism is not directed at any particular groups, the consequence of legislation would be to target Indians, specifically Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs;

Though research of “caste discrimination” in the UK has abjectly failed to find any meaningful evidence of its existence, academics persist in promoting a lie which paints British Hindus as racists.

Shah points out the dominant stereotype of Indians and their culture in the UK Parliament and the media as founded on the classical conception of the immoral “Hindu caste system” which is treated as a defining feature of the community. He cautions that the legal precedent arising from the Tirkey-Chandhok case means that “Indians in the UK legal system facing charges of caste discrimination will be treated as presumptive discriminators”.

Martin Farek looks within various Indian traditions and challenges two additional inherited presumptions about India.

First, Farek demonstrates via historical evidence that the notion that Indian traditions, whether Buddhist, Jain, or the Bhakti and Yogic schools, were forerunners to modern egalitarian anti-caste movements, is untenable.

He provides ample evidence to show that the Bhakti movements not only did not promote an anti-Brahmin bias, but that such philosophies, rooted in Vaishnava traditions, enjoined spiritual equality among followers, and not any form of “social equality” as propagated by Christians.

Farek also points out that original source literature shows that both the Buddha’s Shramanas and later Bhakta traditions supported Varna-dharma based on qualities and natural inclinations or the concept of adhikara. Thus, one can only conclude that the truth is the exact opposite to the dominant “reform, revolution, anti-oppression” narrative with which these movements are falsely associated.

Second, Farek argues that unless the dominant ideas about caste are cast aside, there can be no progress towards understanding Indian culture. In this regard, his chapter identifies the foundations of “caste” in India.

Iberian visitors to India of the fifteenth to sixteenth century, overlaid their understanding of their own endogamous social group structures which they called casta that had arisen as a consequence of the Christian Reconquista (the defeat and driving out of Muslim Moors from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492) and the Catholic Inquisition, onto what they saw among Indians. This Christian theological basis was used to understand the Indian heathen and his social structures, which to this day continues to be used by theologians and social scientists to understand and discuss endogamy observed in India.

Raising provocative questions around ambiguities of definitions of terms used by experts such as jaati, varna, class, and caste, Fárek argues that it is not a problem of definition but a problem of ideas that formed (our) understanding of society in India”. He advocates that to understand Indian culture, it is vital that ideas which make sense and have meaning to Indians themselves, such as guna, adhikara, and svabhava, must shape the framework for research questions.

For this, Farek advocates use of the framework from Balagangadhara’s Comparative Science of Cultures research programme for generating new hypotheses and unravel answers to important questions like “What is the Indian framework of understanding of varna, jaati? How do Indians decide on the status of different people?”

Farek concludes that such a framework can enable examination of the relationship between theories and observations and aid researchers to address the question of how the culture of the observer is reflected in the descriptions of the observed culture.

In a chapter which is sure to elicit howls of protests from religious egalitarians and interfaith activists, Jakob De Roover argues that the dominant caste narrative about India does not merely make fact-free claims that caste is central to Hinduism, but its proponents also exploit this to pass moral judgements of Hindus to assert the additional claim that discrimination against “lower castes” is in fact an obligation founded upon an immoral Hindu religion.

Equating the treatment of Brahmins with that of Levites, De Roover provides evidence of how biblical accounts and post-reformation Protestant Christian commentary on the Jews and the priests of their religion were used to construct a heathen Hindu nation with a religious hierarchy dominated by an immoral and powerful Brahmin priesthood that imposed caste discrimination as a religious obligation upon Hindu society.

It is noteworthy that in an era where racial, religious, and gender identities are sacred cows, Hindus and Jews alone stand apart: contemporary anti-Semitism and anti-Brahminism ensures that Jewish and Hindu identities are steadfastly exempted from any “MeToo” movement.

Echoing Farek’s call for a radical change of the academic framework with which to develop hypotheses and define paths that enable understanding of Indian society and culture, De Roover notes that the dominant view of India says more about the constraints of the western cultural framework than it does about Indian society.

In doing this, De Roover’s points to copious records of judgemental impressions of Victorian Christians about Indians, which today would be considered racist. What makes for grisly reading is that these records are but a forerunner to the equally derogatory fallacies that have been presented as fact in contemporary caste debates in the British Parliament.

It would seem as if, in the case of Indians, Christian theology is impervious to charges of racism and can adeptly morph into human rights activism with such ease that presuppositions of this theology can affect domestic law making not just in India or the UK, but also to mount international campaigns in the UN.

The chapter by Marianne Keppens addresses the abuse of history as a foundation for the “caste” narrative. The Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT), for which there is scant literary or archaeological evidence is construed as the harbinger of the immoral “caste system”. The imputation is that this “caste system” was part of the Hindu religion introduced into India by marauding Aryans who subjugated the “native” Dravidians.

Keppens exposes this AIT myth as founded on Christian theology. Victorian Protestants and continental Indologists simply used biblical narratives and Christian theology to develop AIT as a prop with which to justify claims of a caste ridden Indian society. Keppens challenges the paradigm that enables this theological narrative to persist, and highlights that despite nearly two centuries of searching, the AIT literature has produced meagre evidence for any Aryan invasion. One may add that, meanwhile, more plausible alternative theories and research are largely shunned as “outcaste” by the “inner circle” of entrenched academics and activists in India and the West.

Keppens further develops the critique in earlier chapters of what is fundamentally the Orientalist lens through which India continues to be studied. Presented in context with pin sharp focus, one can see examples of the ridicule with which some eminences like Wolpert, Kulke and Rothermund should be treated: for example, Keppens points out that Wolpert claims that “The Ramayana may be read as an allegory of the Aryans conquest of ‘uncivilised demons’ who inhabited southern forests and disturbed the meditation of sadhus…”; and Kulke and Rothermund write that “immigration and settlement… of semi-nomadic… Indo-Aryans as a ‘major historical event’”. That these acclaimed historians write this without evidence or clear rationale necessary for making such claims are evidence of the paradigm of the entrenched framework of scholarship.

This book challenges the Orientalist, and some would say racist narrative which still dominates in academe as well as in public about India. Though not claiming that specific descriptions of India is false or misleading, the authors present robust arguments to show that the Orientalist narrative of India, whose foundations were authored by the West on the basis of a diverse collection of “facts”, is merely the West’s experience of Indian culture, and that this has gained a false status of a scientific theory about a civilisation. In other words, the West’s cultural experience is erroneously projected as truth.

A constant theme is the questioning of how social science knowledge is created and critiqued, and that practitioners should be held accountable to scientific standards.

This is an important book: it raises fundamental questions about prior research and claims, and it outlines several avenues for rigorous study and research to look afresh at received notions about India.

Such fundamental research is vital; constituting, in the reviewer’s opinion, a basis from which Indians can examine and reflect upon their past, their story and their place in a world of civilisations. It has the makings of a seminal path breaking research manifesto that can enable better understanding of Indian civilisation and the trajectory of a sixth of humankind.

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