Anti-castism and misplaced nativism

Mapping caste as an aspect of race

RP 192 () / Article

From September 2013 to February 2014 I led a project on ‘Caste in Britain’ for the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). [*] It culminated in two research reports. [1] The remit of the project was, first, to review existing socio-legal research on British equality law and caste, and, second, to conduct two supporting events with the aim of bringing together interdisciplinary expertise and a range of stakeholder views on caste, and discrimination on the basis of caste, in the UK. In April 2013, MPs and peers had voted in both Houses of Parliament to enact the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, Section 97 of which requires government to introduce a statutory prohibition of caste discrimination into British equality law by making caste an aspect of the protected characteristic of race in the Equality Act 2010 (EA 2010). [2] Following direction by the government, the EHRC contracted a team of academics from different universities, led by me, to carry out an independent study on caste in Britain. We set out to identify concerns and common ground in relation to the implementation of the statuary prohibition on caste discrimination in advance of and in anticipation of the required secondary legislation that will make caste ‘an aspect of race’ in the EA 2010.

The research for the project, particularly in fulfilment of its second aim of garnering stakeholder views, was quite challenging due to the range of opinions and heightened sensitivities of both the pro-legislation and the anti-legislation organizations whom we brought face to face in a day-long workshop. It took all my skills as a philosopher (listening, arguing, clarifying, mediating, tracking truth and ensuring fairness) to generate an environment for a sustained exchange of views between divergent opinions – from the extreme right wing to the extreme left wing – interspersed with perspectives of a medley of some very seasoned and other rather new campaigners, not versed in any definite political tendency, but pragmatically open to any party that supported their particular pro- or anti-legislation stance. [3] The political multi-logue enacted on the day was fed by many conversational streams and continues in various ways in different forums. Among the academic experts we invited the range of opinions was narrower than at the stakeholders’ workshop; nonetheless, it included a comparable variety of positions of support for legislation on the one extreme and scepticism about the use of law on the other, inflected with varying degrees of political self-consciousness.

The manner of inclusion of caste as an aspect of race in equality law is not yet settled; the outcome of continuing conversations between stakeholders is as yet unpredictable. In this article I will highlight some extralegal difficulties in mapping caste as an aspect of race and point out the pernicious role played by the ethos of multiculturalism in exacerbating these difficulties. Multiculturalism occludes the processes of becoming ‘different’, by naturalizing difference as pregiven. In the context of the experience of what I will call ‘casteism’ the effect of multiculturalism is to layer denial upon denial. To track truth in such circumstances requires attending to the exchanges between multiple ‘other’ voices

One such voice was an academic lawyer of Gujarati Indian background, teaching in a prestigious university in the UK, who, by the time we invited him, had recorded, through his blogs, an opposition to the inclusion of caste in the EA 2010.

He uses the framework of legal pluralism. The blogger writes:

When discussing caste and, more seriously, when legislating on it, a series of confusions occurs about what we are talking of and what we are aiming to do. The emotions stirred by the issue of caste, and a measure of self-righteousness, have a role to play in shaping the level of the discussion but, more critically, there is confusion as between Indian senses of caste and Western understandings of it. … When discussing caste, many Indians too speak as if they operate from within the Western framework.

Here is the charge of Orientalism against us. First, that we are imposing a Western frame on an Indian reality, which cannot be captured within it. …