Isabel Wilkerson’s book ‘Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents’ is creating a storm everywhere but India. And it finally studies caste as a problem, not a system.
23 August, 2020
Oprah Winfrey’s book clubs are legendary. So, when Oprah sent out a new book to 100 American CEOs and 400 leaders soon after the transformative #BlackLivesMatters protest and called it the most important book club selection ever, the world had to pay attention. And when that book mentions ‘India’ 136 times, it becomes mandatory reading for us. And yet Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent by Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American author Isabel Wilkerson, a book that The New York Times calls an ‘Instant American Classic’ is not stirring up Indian public debate or hitting our bookshelves.
Wilkerson is not the first Western scholar to focus on India’s caste system. She is the latest entrant in the list of Célestin Bouglé, Max Weber, Louis Dumont, Émile Senart, McKim Marriott, Nicholas Dirk, Gail Omvedt, Rosalind O’Hanlon, Susan Bayly, Joan P. Mencher, the Rudolfs and many more. But what sets Wilkerson apart is that she brings her lived Black identity to the understanding of caste as a pathology.
The Washington Post headline says that the author “knows that effective discussions about race require new language”. In The New Yorker, Sunil Khilnani writes that the author illuminates and collapses a complex history of White supremacy in the US and the caste system in India. In The Guardian, Fatima Bhutto writes, “It is a painfully resonant book and could not have come at a more urgent time.”
It’s strange that other than Mumbai Mirror and Swarajya, no Indian media platform has reviewed or published excerpts from the book yet. Similarly, no TV channel (we are actually hoping for too much) has discussed it yet. Let’s hope that this epistemic gap will be fulfilled sooner or later. Especially because the word ‘caste’, which is an Indian construct, finds as many as 1,469 mentions in Wilkerson’s book, including in the title. Our very own Manu, the famous or infamous author of Manusmriti, has been mentioned six times in the book. The book also mentions Jyotirao Phule, B.R. Ambedkar, M.K. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and so on. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent notes how Martin Luther King Jr. was introduced to the students of a Kerala school as ‘fellow untouchables’ from the US.
Combining life and text
If it’s difficult to address caste in the US, it is even more so in Indian academic traditions. The study of caste in India often reduces the concept to a hermeneutic reading of ancient Sanskrit texts. If you do not know Sanskrit, you are not qualified enough to study caste and have to rely on translations of those texts considered ‘sacred’ by twice-born Hindus. So, almost all caste studies carry the burden of quoting from Purusha Sukta of Vedas, this or that smriti and some Puranas.
D.P. Mukerji argues that unless sociological training in India is grounded in Sanskrit, or any such language in which traditions have been embodied as symbols, social research in India will be a pale imitation of what others are doing.
Sociologist Gail Omvedt has started a new tradition of studying caste by looking at the text produced by non-Brahmin authors such as Chokhamela, Janabai, Kabir, Ravidas, Tukaram, the Kartabhajas, Phule, Iyothee Thass, Pandita Ramabai, Periyar, and Ambedkar.
Wilkerson carries this tradition forward and quotes extensively from the works of Ambedkar and contemporary authors such as Suraj Yengde, Anand Teltumbde, Gurram Srinivas, V.T. Rajshekhar, Chandra Bhan Prasad, Kalpana Kannabiran, Yashica Dutt and Mohan Dass Namishray. You will probably not find such a socially diverse bibliography in any book on caste written by Indian masters of sociology.
Wilkerson’s work is also important because she does not depend too much on textual readings, but goes on to study the problem herself and carries out ethnographical work in India. This intersection of text, lived experience and ethnographic study gives her a perspective that makes her work stand out.
Studying caste as pathology
Wilkerson’s book situates caste here and now — and studies its roots and symptoms.
Unlike many Western authors who have looked at caste as an exotic oriental thing, or those sociologists who have seen caste as an ideology (Dumont describes caste as a binary system of pure and profane, Bouglé sees caste as a system based on separation, hierarchy and interdependence whereas Dirk defines caste more as a modern colonial construct), Wilkerson sees caste as pathology, a problem of gigantic proportion that has impacted and is still impacting millions of people and making their life miserable. At the same time, caste places millions of others in a privileged position.
While seeing caste as a pathology, Wilkerson provides a definition of casteism: “Any action or structure that seeks to limit, hold back, or put someone in a defined ranking, seeks to keep someone in their place by elevating or denigrating that person on the basis of their perceived category, can be seen as casteism.”
If we juxtapose this definition with what Nehru said in The Discovery of India on caste, then we can understand the contrast. Nehru wrote: “In the constructive schemes that we may make, we have to pay attention to the human material we have to deal with, to the background of its thought and urges, and to the environment in which we have to function. To ignore all this and to fashion some idealistic scheme in the air, or merely to think in terms of imitating what others have done elsewhere, would be folly. It becomes desirable therefore to examine and understand the old Indian social structure which has so powerfully influenced our people.”
While Nehru and Gandhi also emphasised on not harping too much on the idea of equality, because it is an alien idealistic scheme, they stressed on examining and understanding the caste system. This is exactly what all the masters of Indian sociology — from G.S. Ghurye to M.N. Srinivas and Andre Beteille — have done it all these years. They have analysed and studied caste not as a problem, but as a system.
What caste needed all along was a perspective from below — because it doesn’t exist in sociological petri dishes, it’s all around us.
Perspective from below
Wilkerson has a vantage point on the problem of caste because of her unique location. She gives numerous examples from the past and present to illustrate how she and other Black Americans are being viewed and treated differently, sometimes knowingly and most times, unknowingly. She asserts: “It’s [caste’s] invisibility is what gives it power and longevity.” Unlike Dumont or Bouglé and many other Western authors, Wilkerson has a better handle on the topic because she has a standpoint (the idea of standpoint in sociology has its root in feminism) of the oppressed.
That defines her focus and stock of knowledge, which translates into a narrative that is unique and powerful. She writes: “Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you….For this reason, many people—including those we might see as good and kind people—could be casteist, meaning invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it, but not racist in the classical sense, not active and openly hateful of this or that group.” No Ghurye or Srinivas or D.P. Mukerji could have written these lines — not because they did not have the knowledge of the caste system, but because they do not have the standpoint of a Black or a Dalit woman.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. Views are personal.