Author Discusses Caste and Democracy in IndiaBeyond UCF, Culture, Economy, Health, News, Politics — By Melissa Colon on September 14, 2012 at 9:23 pm Tweet
If you ever asked yourself where the idea of equal rights stemmed from, and its relation to democracy in India, Indian author and historical anthropologist, Anupama Rao, addresses these questions.
“All modern society’s face this kind of dilemma, or dichotomy, which means protecting people’s individual rights on the one hand and having commitment to social responsibility, to also enhancing the rights of particularly culturally, marginalized groups,” Anupama Rao said.
Indian author Anupama Rao addressed caste, violence and democracy in a speech to 125 people in the Pegasus Ballroom in the Student Union on Thursday, Sept 13.
India is the largest democracy that views cultural rights, individual rights, and group rights differently than what we see in the United States because of a caste system that is central to affirmative policies.
“The idea of equal citizenship was always constrained by the practice and experience of inequality, this is another dilemma that you have the idea of equal citizenship but is constantly confronting historical practices and experiences of inequality,” Rao said.
Her speech, “India and the Caste Question”, was sponsored by the UCF Global Perspectives Office.
Rao’s academic background is in anthropology and history, and she is an associate professor of South Asian history at Barnard College, Columbia University. She has served as president of the Society for the Advancement of the History of South Asia. Currently, Rao is working on a project titled Dalit Bombay, which focuses on the relationship between caste, political culture and everyday life in colonial and postcolonial Bombay.
Rao said she tells her students that India’s affirmative action regime, dating back to the 1880s, in which “princely states in southern India used the argument that proportionally representation to provide jobs and education to lower castes had been excluded by the British Bureaucracy”.
India tried different methods to manage the country’s complex and repeating forms of diversity by presenting the idea of equality through multifaceted multi-religious, multi-ethnic and deeply hierarchical social order. In other words, producing social revolution through legal means.
India has a large demographic of lower castes and dalits, or ex untouchables in which they have been challenging the control of schools, jobs, government and representation of media by the social elite and upper caste.
“In order to understand Indian democracy, you have to understand the caste. The caste has been central to the way that Indian democracy has worked, caste has been central to the way that people have tried to produce democracy in India,” Rao said.
Ghandi believed reform required the repent of Hindus against such caste systems, not through political solutions, stating that the practice of untouchability dehumanizes those who practice it, not the individual who endures it. .
“Effort to give the untouchables separate representation in 1932, failed because of the spectacular fast into death undertaken by Ghandi which became a global issue, and everyone, of course, wanted to make sure that Ghandi does not die,” Rao said.
This was opposite to B.R. Ambedkar, one of India’s most radical thinkers, and also an ex untouchable, or dalit, India’s first law minister and chairman of drafting committee of India’s consitution. Anti-caste radicals, the tradition that Ambadker came from, were inspired from new world struggles against racial servitudes.
“Anti-caste radicals draw typologies of race, and argue that the relation between upper castes and lower castes was like a racial conflict between black and white,” Rao said
The language of slavery was also used to describe sexual subjugation, and Ambadker compared life on African American plantations to the caste system. History of emancipation in the Americas gave multi-caste and anti-caste radicals a different approach to the Hindu upper caste cultural nationalism.
“These were global thinkers and global people who may have not traveled physically but they did indeed travel in their thought very widely,” Rao said.
The dalit approach was to take the practice of untouchability outside of religion and into social and political inequality. Unlike Ghandi, activists demanded access to public institutions, such as hotels, schools, water tanks and temples. Arguing that public property enabled these rights, regardless of caste system.
Dalits who participated in protests, would return home to find their huts burned or boycotts on their entire community for participating in acts of protests.
“The activism around public facilities, which is very much like the activism in the United States with access to public sources and government property, shouldn’t obscure the very sophisticated ways in which dalits addressed inequality within religion itself,” Rao said.
Dalits, between 1928 and 1935, began to enter temples claiming that temples were like any other public space they had access to, disregarding the inequality of religious practices. Questioning their own validity as Hindus, since they had been barred from worshipping in temples. Temple entry was an act to make individuals aware of the inequality.
However, colonial law maintained that Hindu temples were private property and were therefore allowed to practice caste segregation.
“Should remind many of us about the history of race, and racial exclusion in the United states, and the way that the legal conversations around important cases around U.S civil rights were perceived in the very same manner in which was happening in India,” Rao said.
Ambedker had written that political democracy cannot last unless there is social democracy.
In 1956, half a million people, along with Ambedker, arrived in Nagpur, clean and dressed in white to symbolize rebirth as they rejected Hinduism and converted to Buddhism.
Rao suggested, that like the United States, the history of inequality in India has produced a story of democracy.
The model of affirmative action in India is distinctive, because the policies are addressed to a majority who has suffered inequality, and the untouchables were also written into the constitution as persons requiring special rights.
According to Rao, “this produces a very different understanding of the relationship between individual rights and group rights, and produces a different model of how society thinks about the project of responding to inequality. This in a sense has been the history of the relationship between caste and democracy”