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11 Books to Read if You Want to Understand Caste in India

In Lithub, S. Shankar, author of ‘Ghost in the Tamarind’ lists 11 representative books that “serve as an introduction to caste”, that explore the intricacies and the indignities of caste in India.

Caste is not unique to India, and no country should be reduced to a single social category, no matter how intrinsic a part of its reality. Nevertheless, to understand India you have to understand caste, whose intricacies are unarguably difficult. It is not just one of the most prominent social features of India; it is at the heart of many of the past and present fissures of the country.

I grew up in India living the reality of caste every day. Even so I had to learn, and unlearn, many things about caste while completing my two most recent books: the novel Ghost in the Tamarind, which narrates an inter-caste romance between a Brahmin man and a Dalit woman against the backdrop of powerful anti-caste movements in southern India; and a co-edited collection of academic essays on caste and life narratives.

What exactly is caste? You might have heard somewhere (perhaps in a high school or college classroom) that there are four ancient and unchanging castes in India ranging from Brahmins at the top, through Kshatriyas and Vaishyas in the middle, to Shudras at the bottom, with a fifth group of so-called Untouchables—the preferred term now is Dalits—even further below. These, though, are only partial truths, for history is replete with examples of the changeability of caste, and in practice there are thousands of castes. One truth about caste, however, is undeniable: in all its manifestations through history it has been the name for a monstrous and irredeemable system of social hierarchy and oppression based on horrific notions of ritual pollution and exclusion.

The various social groups collected most recently under the name Dalit have felt the power of this irredeemable system with the greatest force. The Indian constitution, adopted in 1950, acknowledged in an enlightened moment that the historically disadvantaged Dalits needed special support to advance socially and economically, and then set out to provide it. Since then, India has had a Dalit President and a powerful woman Dalit Chief Minister of a state. Nevertheless, the oppression of Dalits, ranging from daily humiliation (such as the maintenance of separate glasses for Dalits in some village tea shops) through sexual violence to outright massacre (alas, so many that the name of Khairlanji, where in 2006 four members of the Bhotmange family were brutally murdered, must suffice as stand in) continues till today. Reality is never neat or singular.

This is one reason “the Boom in Dalit literature”—as some have called it—of the last few decades is so important. The Boom represents the entrance of new and vital voices onto India’s literary stage—that is into forms of artistic production from which they had formerly been excluded (of course, Dalits, often musicians and performers, have had their own powerful expressive forms going back centuries). Many trace the origins of the Boom back to Dalit writing in Marathi, which began to gather force in the Seventies. From there, the Boom spread to other languages, and now there are significant bodies of work in Tamil, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and other languages.

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Excerpts: The Essential Ambedkar by Bhalchandra Mungekar

ambedkarIntroduction

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the tempo of the world has been accelerating forward at a breathtaking speed. However, in India, an indigenously created caste-based segregation, our version of racism, a minute and comprehensive form of discrimination and oppression that has existed for millennia, has been at work with the same speed, but unfortunately in the opposite direction. For the section classified as the Depressed Classes, day-to-day life is in itself a grave struggle, a manifold fight for survival.

In every modern, democratic nation, people want to feel fully alive rather than merely survive. In order to for them to do so, the polity is required to imbibe a sense of socio-economic and political equality, as well as liberty. However, in India, this is not, and has never been, the case, and there is no way to know how long, in the ongoing civilizational process, this human greed for adoring and enjoying certain privileges over others is going to last. But as long as inequality and discrimination exist, a struggle to get rid of this yoke by the deprived masses will certainly continue to be part of the socio-political fight for generations to come.

The nature of the struggle by the sieged population fighting to annihilate these caste fortifications has always been defensive rather than offensive. The credit for this civility goes to  Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, one of the tallest, yet most neglected and often misunderstood intellectual-political leaders in the mainstream socio-political discourse of modern India. Perhaps because he fundamentally challenges the iniquitous Hindu social order, he has been rendered the most controversial of the mass political leaders in India. However, the fact remains that his key text, The Annihilation of Caste, contains persuasive arguments, heavily supported with solid facts, as well as a sophisticated, logical tone. This seminal book on the one hand depicts a rebellion against caste and untouchability and wants to destroy it; and on the other, it advocates non-enmity with coercion towards the tormentor, implicitly advising that there are always other practices available to push forward a struggle for justice responsibly rather than indulging in punitive violent measures. So the epoch-making approach Ambedkar adopts, though corrective and hence confrontational, is both a peacemaking as well as peacekeeping one.

Ambedkar  and Gandhi

Ambedkar was the pioneer intellectual in the study of caste and untouchability. He delved into such details that with all their possible and conceivable dimensions, he fought caste discrimination at all given levels: social, political, economic and educational. His Annihilation of Caste is both an illuminative as well as a redemptive text. Ambedkar used his writings and lectures to confront a world of indifference and betrayal in order to pursue his reformative agenda, equal in dimension to that of Gandhi’s. The power of his reason was such that Gandhi described him as a ‘challenge to Hinduism’. But unfortunately he did not receive the attention, the critical acclaim, or the adulation he deserves, the way Gandhi did. Ambedkar was of the view that political safeguards for Untouchables were necessary as the Untouchables constituted the largest minority, and that without these safeguards they would not be able to enjoy political and social freedom. This was viewed as a direct challenge to Gandhi’s unchallenged leadership and therefore the conflict between the two was inevitable.

Being a multifaceted personality—an economist, a sociologist, a barrister, an editor, a constitutionalist of the first rank, a professor, an able parliamentarian, an educationist and a commentator on Buddhism—Ambedkar was predestined to engage himself beyond personality conflicts and look into the problems of India from both a macro as well as micro perspective.

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‘Spirituality united Gandhi and Ambedkar’: U R Ananthmurthy’s last interview

Earlier this year, Udipi Rajago­pa­la­charya Ananthamurthy (URA), the Jnanpith award-winning Kannada novelist, educationist and public intellectual, had declared that he would not live in an India run by Narendra Modi. This had provoked lacerating responses from right-wing Hindutva supporters. URA breathed his last on August 22, 2014, before the Modi government completed 100 days in office. Chandan Gowda of the Azim Premji University had interviewed the litterateur for an eight-part Doordarshan series, telecast in June and July. It is possibly URA’s last major interview. Excerpts:

UR AnanthamurthyWhat parts of the Gandhian legacy are important for you?

His suspicion of the modern world system is one. The modern world system will destroy the earth, will destroy the sky, will destroy the balance bet­ween nature and man because it is very greedy. Gandhi’s rejection was sometimes extreme. But extremes can open the gate of heaven, that’s what they have said. So Gandhi exaggerated at times, but in the main you know that. He used trains all the time. But he said we could live without trains. He rightly feared centralisation. Gandhi was also friendly towards nature. There are many valuable Gandhian ideas. The whole idea that small is beautiful comes from Gandhi. So he wanted such ideas to govern the whole country. He didn’t like big buildings. Continue reading


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The Doctor and the Saint

Ambedkar, Gandhi and the battle against caste by Arundhati Roy: Caravan Magazine

arundhati_royANNIHILATION OF CASTE is the nearly eighty-year-old text of a speech that was never delivered.* When I first read it I felt as though somebody had walked into a dim room and opened the windows. Reading Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar bridges the gap between what most Indians are schooled to believe in and the reality we experience every day of our lives.

My father was a Hindu, a Brahmo. I never met him until I was an adult. I grew up with my mother, in a Syrian Christian family in Ayemenem, a small village in communist-ruled Kerala. And yet all around me were the fissures and cracks of caste. Ayemenem had its own separate “Parayan” church where “Parayan” priests preached to an “untouchable” congregation. Caste was implied in peoples’ names, in the way people referred to each other, in the work they did, in the clothes they wore, in the marriages that were arranged, in the language we spoke. Even so, I never encountered the notion of caste in a single school textbook. Reading Ambedkar alerted me to a gaping hole in our pedagogical universe. Reading him also made it clear why that hole exists and why it will continue to exist until Indian society undergoes radical, revolutionary change. Continue reading


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Madiba inspires dalit voice

mandela“How can anyone, especially writers, distance or free themselves from the influence of Gandhi, Ambedkar and Mandela?” asks poet-playwright K Y Narayanaswamy. His words sum up the influence Nelson Mandela and his anti-apartheid struggle have had on the dalit movement and literature in Karnataka. For the writers, the icon stood for selfrespect and humanism.

Poet Siddalingaiah, a prominent figure in the dalit movement in the state, says the South African revolutionary’s life and struggle have shaped his life and literature.

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