Caste, critique and colonial consciousness: A response to Meena Dhanda

Foreword The article below is a response to Meena Dhanda’s article “Anti-castism and misplaced nativism:…


The article below is a response to Meena Dhanda’s article “Anti-castism and misplaced nativism: Mapping caste as an aspect of race in the July/August 2015 issue of the British based journal Radical Philosophy. It proclaims itself to be the “philosophical journal of the independent left”. That same journal refused to carry the article below because, they say, they only accept letters to the editors of up to 1,000 words. The editors further required that “within that word limit one should address the main political and/or philosophical points in her article”. They said that the piece below “does not do that, but rather loses its main political and/or philosophical claims in a range of other pointless twists and turns that render it unpublishable.” As I reproduce the same version of that article below, the reader can judge whether that description fits and whether I make “pointless twists and turns”.

As an alternative the editors offered that I submit a “more sustained theoretical intervention into the debate, one which perhaps incorporates a critique of Dhanda’s article”. I did not want to do that as I already have work published elsewhere in which I tackle the problem of the caste legislation in the UK, the conceptual history of the Indian ‘caste system’, and the role played by Meena Dhanda and her colleagues in supporting the introduction of the British legislation on caste. As it stands, the editors allowed Meena Dhanda to publish her article of over 7,000 words, an article that I claim is based on dubious cognitive criteria, but do not allow my right of reply. Be that as it may, the reader will see how I was compelled to reply to her article given that she does not name me specifically but refers to blogs that I have written against the principle of the caste legislation in the UK and its potential impact in practice.

My response to Meena Dhanda

I decided to respond to your article, “Anti-castism and misplaced nativism” in the second person. For reasons known only to you and the editors of Radical Philosophy, academic protocol has not been followed because you do not name me, although it is clear that most of your bile is directed against positions I express in a series of blogs. You do not name me as the author of the blogs but refer to me as ‘the blogger’, a ‘nativist’, a legal pluralist, and denier of caste. These are terms of abuse for, as you use them, no reasonable person answering to those epithets would adopt the positions you attribute to me. Perhaps you want to convey the idea that blogging is not a mark of as high a status as, say, publishing in Radical Philosophy, through whose portals only a chosen few like yourself manage to walk. What you do, in effect, is to reveal how moronically radical philosophers think and talk about India and show that the kind of scholarship that passes muster in the case of India would not be allowed through the first hurdle in other contexts. This is symptomatic not only of radical philosophers but a whole range of writers from academics to journalists who constantly peddle nonsense about India and her traditions.


You try also to convey the message that anybody who disagrees with you and argues against legislating on caste is a ‘nativist’ and that such persons should not be listened to since, by definition, they support oppression and injustice. Beyond the facile name calling you indulge in, you write not in order to convince your readers of a particular case but to an audience composed of persons who you presume already share the kind of prejudices you have of Indian traditions: as a caste-ridden, inherently immoral culture demanding systematic discrimination from those who follow those traditions.

Meena Dhanda

Therefore the only good Indians are those like yourself who see it all and take a distance from such a culture or those Dalits who are by definition oppressed by such a system. In other words, by innuendo and suggestion, you appeal to ideas about India that are already current in Western culture and within an increasing deeper layer of Indian society, particularly those educated in English medium schools. One might even say that they are dominant ideas about India’s culture and traditions; indeed you will be hard pressed to find anybody dissenting from your ideas, in so far as they can be understood, either within popular culture or among the literati. Therefore, all you have to do is to deploy factoids that work to normatively reinforce ideas of systematic discrimination as imported by the Indian diaspora. You do this by reciting innuendos about “residential patterns bordering on untouchability”,“diasporal elites utilizing and profiting from an immigrant underclass”, naming practices that betray caste, and so on.

Such ‘facts’ only work because they appeal to an underlying thesis about caste in Indian culture which is nowhere proven but presupposed by you. That is also how you justify the necessity of legislating on caste in the Equality Act 2010 – by providing no real justification but by appeal to pre-existing biases in the Western culture about caste as an immoral institution. The stabbing in June 2015 by a Pakistani 14 year old of his Nigerian teacher was explained in a BBC Asian Network programme hosted by DJ Nihalas as the result of racism inculcated because of the caste system.[1]Here a set of Muslim spokespersons indulged in a typical attribution of the ills of their society on the ‘Hindu’ caste system, which Islam allegedly rejects.

What no one bothers to ask is that if Hindus are the core group among whom caste is the mode of social organization, why they have not been going around stabbing not only black people but low caste people too? The BBC World Service turns attempts in India to legislate against possession or trading of cow meat into a Hindu plot to deprive Dalits and Muslims of their right to eat beef. The BBC shows no interest in the importance of the cow in the Indian traditions.[2] These ways of harnessing factoids shows that there is an underlying pre-theoretical idea that acts as a meta-explanation for things that Indians and, more broadly, South Asians do. It is like Marxists learned to attribute all contemporary social facts to class war and capitalism, or to some mysterious working out of history.

Let me begin by talking about the legal issues that you raise since they are most pertinent to the question of caste in the UK. After all, you took part in what you refer to as an independent investigation about the caste question in the UK that, you amusingly say, demanded all your skills as a philosopher. As you yourself note, you were asked to head this investigation team pursuant to a legislative demand that caste be made “an aspect of race” in the Equality Act 2010. The original wording of the Act had empowered the government minister to enact secondary legislation to make caste a part of race, but an amendment of 2013 made it mandatory that that be done. On both occasions the relevant initiatives were made through the House of Lords and led by the former Anglican Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries.

Lord Harries


Others of their Lordships joined him, particularly the famous proponent of human rights, Lord Avebury, and the lawyer distinguished for his efforts in promoting anti-discrimination law since the early days of the Race Relations Acts, Lord Lester. Asian peers including Lord Singh and Baroness Flather joined the chorus for legislation. During both legislative initiatives, like you, they appealed to common sense ideas about Indian culture and its inherently immoral, religiously mandated, racially driven caste system. Suddenly we found that there were anywhere between 50,000 to 1 million Dalits in the UK. Jeremy Corbyn, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group of Dalits, cited the latter figure without attribution.[3]

One or two qualifications are in order here to your use of the predicate ‘independent’ to describe your investigation. By the time you accepted the job of putting a team together for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the 2013 amendment making the implementation of the caste provision mandatory was already in place. In other words you were working under the condition that legislation already required the implementation of caste as “an aspect of race”.

You put together a team from different British universities composed of academics who have adopted positions in agreement with the principle of the law, while some had actually worked behind the scenes to have the law on caste discrimination enacted. They also subscribe to the general idea of an immoral and hierarchical Indian caste system. Besides that, the EHRC, the official organization commissioning the investigation you led had already declared itself in favour of thelegislation in 2010. This at a time when, other than those written by partisan, proxy church, Dalit organizations, co-authors of which later became members of your team, no investigations on caste discrimination had yet been made, not even the study by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR)that reported in late 2010.[4]

When organizations within the Indian community (by that I do not refer to the Dalit proxies of the Christian churches) began to stir and suggest that the legislation was in reality connected to an agenda of Christian proselytism in India and nothing really to do with the UK’s Indian population, the National Secular Society joined the ensemble calling for the legislation to be implemented. It has not gone unnoticed that some of the same voices calling for legislation in the Lords were the Society’s Honorary Associates.[5]

I mention this background in order to suggest that there is no way that you could have chosen to recommend that the caste clause not be implemented: the already existing legislation, the attitudes of the legislators promoting the caste provision, the organization commissioning your research, and the composition of the academic team you had assembled all point in the same direction. In fact, one could ask: what did your research add except the nominal imprimatur of an ‘independent’ investigation to something that was already in place? After all, reading the reports your team wrote, as with your article currently under discussion, does not enlighten one at all about the nature of caste. In fact, you don’t know what caste is.

You also lack understanding of how British discrimination law functions and provide no justification for including caste as part of it in your ‘independent’ investigation apart from platitudes about encouraging change and the educative effect of legislation. You also fail to provide an explanation for why equality should be a desired goal and how that could be achieved through legislation particularly given that existing legislation in other ‘equality’ fields has signally failed to do that. Why not have legislation premised on a system of reverse discrimination or quotas as applies in India if you consider your arguments about the seriousness of caste discrimination to hold true? You ridicule my assertion that European judges will be likely to allow claims of caste discrimination if the caste clause is implemented. As already noted, there is a popularly held idea in European culture that India has an oppressive caste system. No judge could escape from that, particularly in light of the fact that academic work, including yours, hardly dissents from this idea but rather goes all out to endorse it.

You can already see this in the way in which caste was readily accepted as coming under part the notion of ‘ethnicity’within the Equality Act in the Tirkey case.[6] Decided in November 2014 by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (endorsing what the Employment Tribunal had already held), the judges effectively endorsed the argument that caste is already a part of the discrimination law despite the non-implementation of the mentioned legislative provision. Having entered the litigation as an intervener,the EHRC too supported the move. This required a huge amount of judicial discretion and interpretive license about the extent of application of the European Race Directive and its effect in British law via the Equality Act’s ethnicity provision. If such a move had been made with respect to other parts of EU law it would be regarded as highly impertinent and judges would have shied away from doing that; but the judgments at both levels in the Tirkey case have raised no legal eyebrows as far as I can see.

You write, “To imagine an eruption of frivolous complaints is merely scaremongering, not least because the cost of litigation is so high and the chances of success so low.” You don’t show how these claims are true and they are certainly not considered in your research nor, as far as I am aware, that of your colleagues. Besides, is your claim that the law will not be used due to costs and chances of success an argument for or against your pro-legislation position? You could just as easily have said that since the law is not likely to be used there is little point in having it. It is true that some types of discrimination claims (not all types as you seem to suggest), notably those brought by plaintiffs on grounds of race and religious discrimination, are far less likely to succeed than those brought, say, on sex discrimination grounds.[7]

I stand by my prediction that claims based on caste will fare rather differently not least because the usual evidential and burden of proof presumptions will be more prone to being reversed given the kind of prejudices about Indian culture prevalent in European culture. You say that “the concern of the law is with the behaviour that emerges from the beliefs about caste”. In British anti-discrimination law, the intentions or beliefs of an alleged discriminator are not central. All that needs to be shown is that the actions complained of amount to a type of discrimination. While the presence of intention (or beliefs) might go to prove that that was so, it is certainly not an essential component of the British discrimination law. However, you may well be right that, in effect, British judges will be prone to seeing some kind of beliefs behind the alleged discrimination in the same way that the dominant ideas about the caste system, to which you also subscribe, attribute beliefs about caste to explain actions. In making this observation about beliefs you unwittingly contradict your own assertion about the unlikely prospect of claims of caste discrimination being accepted by judges. After all, Dalits and Indian tribals make worthy legal causes, don’t they?

You address the question of defining caste by deflecting that task to the courts: “it is not necessary to have a definition of caste as such for the purposes of legislation, just as ‘race’ is left undefined in the EA 2010.”Delegating the task of defining caste to judges may not be as conclusive an argument as you consider. The two ideas may have completely different weight and intelligibility in Western culture. Even so, race is an unwieldy category and has led to many problems of definition in the courts because, one could argue, there is no theory that helps us to solve the question of what a race is.

For instance, Sikhs are accepted as being a ‘race’ by being considered to belong to the sub-set ‘ethnic group’, but Rastafarians are not. Some consider this as demonstrating that the discrimination law as fleshed out by judges itself discriminates among different groups since I am able to lawfully demand of a Rasta seeking work that he give up wearing his hair covering but not so for Sikhs.[8] It is just not realistic to say that judges will be able to define everything satisfactorily. You are effectively pushing your own inability to be coherent in your claims about caste onto someone else. This is a dishonest way of arguing. You compound the crime by arguing absurdly that, “What matters is not the meaning of the term ‘caste’ but the identification of the pattern of behaviour that can be identified as casteist”[9]although the pattern you would describe as ‘casteist’ must minimally depend on having some clear notion of caste which you claim not to have. Your colleague Annapurna Waughray says: “There is no agreed sociological or legal definition of caste, but a number of salient features can be identified.”[10]

She then goes on to list some of these ‘features’: purity and pollution, non-commensality, endogamy and untouchability, involuntary hereditary membership, (unlike class) permanent and by birth. This is like saying that, although we can’t say what an elephant is, some of the features of an elephant are thick legs, tusks, floppy ears, etc. Worse, with caste, neither Waughray nor anyone else can say whether all or any of these ‘features’ are sufficient or adequate conditions for caste. This kind of thinking leads to endless and irresoluble debates without anyone being any the wiser. In accepting Waughray’s formulation as a definition of caste,the judge in the EAT merely compounds the problem of understanding what caste is by imposing penalties for behaviour that is so unspecific as to lead to all kinds of problems in enforcement and by making the law completely unpredictable in operation.

You let yourself down again when you say, “If there are identifiable patterns of behaviour that spring from the belief ‘as if’ caste has the fixed meaning of superiority of some when compared to others, then it makes sense to address such casteist behaviour as a systematic expression of caste prejudice.” This seems to be your way of providing another kind of justification to legislate for caste. However, it is a question-begging claim about what such “identifiable patterns of behaviour” could possibly be and whether it exists. Neither you nor your colleagues have been able to demonstrate such patterns and nor did the NIESR report. You claim in your article that there are such patterns but the attribution of behaviour to a belief only works if you impute such beliefs to people as you try to do –using some implicit underlying meta-explanation for collected factoids.

Not only do you have to assume that there are patterns of behaviour that can be attributed to some belief about superiority, but implicit in your account is the notion that such beliefs must also be morally blameworthy. Without such an implication, your justification makes even less sense. But then you must also answer the question why an act done out of a belief about superiority is necessarily blameworthy. What is it that transforms such an action into a moral one and, then, into one that merits legal action? Surely you can answer that only by having some version of a story about the inherent moral depravity of the Indian traditions. From where does such a story come?

Although I presume that you consider me to be a proponent of multiculturalism, I will hold back my own assessment of it for now. I suppose the experience of leading the EHRC investigation on caste further entrenched your views about multiculturalism since one could regard it as an exercise that belongs to the broader realm of how the state engages with multiplicity of communities in Britain. The exercise obliged you to sit at the same table with persons you consider to be deniers of caste hierarchy and compelled you to listen to their objections. This must have been a grating experience particularly because they told you things that your preconceived framework about caste could not filter or tolerate. It is no wonder that you prefer the method of legislating over the heads of the target communities. In any case, you appear to have largely ignored what your interlocutors were telling you during the EHRC investigation when it went against your already formed ideas and predilection for supporting the legislation.

Although you have a general problem with the way differences are celebrated by multiculturalism, perhaps your most interesting objection to it is when you say, “Multiculturalism occludes the processes of becoming ‘different’, by naturalizing difference as pregiven.” I take the license to read such an opaque allegation to mean that multiculturalism promotes differences according to which, say, recognition is conferred by a state fixes categories in such a way that it somehow prevents persons grouped around other identifiers to emerge. But this seems to contradict what we know from students of multiculturalism who are easily able to point to its character as a negotiated process through which different identities do emerge, albeit at the cost of bargaining,while some constraints do apply, even distortions occur, in what they might achieve in terms of recognition. While I confess to finding it impossible to understand your claim about the property of “naturalizing differences”, such processes are not necessarily “pregiven”, the constraints that inevitably apply depend inter alia on the kind of surrounding dominant culture and the groups seeking recognition.

It is those very processes that I find extremely important to study in so far as they tell us something about both the dominant and non-dominant cultures.There is a signal failure of the accounts articulating the objections of the Hindu groups opposing the caste legislation to emerge from the multicultural process that you led. Those accounts remain largely muted in the reports your team produced.But I daresay that this is not what you have in mind when you complain about multiculturalism. In your stereotyped view, such groups had to always already be deniers of caste and supported in their denial by multiculturalism. And so your predetermined agenda had to lead to the muting or distortion of their voices.[11]

But let us go deeper to examine why your account exhibits the problems it does. We can begin by examining the senses in which you use the word ‘critique’ (or its cognates). You appear to target your critique against (1) Indian social practices and (2) what you consider are the dominant notions about caste. You are misguided on both counts. The first way of using critique, i.e. targeting your criticism at Indian social practices is reminiscent of and derives from the Christian polemic of pagan traditions going back to the first centuries of Christianity. In that pattern of criticism, Christians argued that traditional pagan practices were expressive of the beliefs or doctrines that they held to. Pagan practices were false because the beliefs or doctrines on which they were based were false. Christian practices were true because the Christian doctrines upon which they were founded were true.[12]

While you may not be a Christian, you adopt a secularized equivalent of the same framework. You claim that caste practices are odious and morally culpable, and they should therefore be legally stamped out, because of the underlying beliefs they evince about caste superiority. Your critique of caste practices is dependent on what those practices signify to you about beliefs. Your account via Ambedkar indicates that these beliefs must refer back to or originate from Hinduism; the claim of the falsity of Hinduism remains implicit.

This leads onto the second type of critique you offer with respect to what you consider are the dominant ideas held about caste. You take us through Gandhi and Radhakrishnan and incorporate in your short tour something about the Indo-philic Orientalists. In effect, you invite us to dissent from the justification that the former provide for the varna order while attempting to distract us from a critique of Orientalism by arguing that Indophiles too rank among the Orientalists: how then could I possibly want to argue against the Orientalists with my ‘nativist’ hat on? The fact is that both Gandhi and Radhakrishnan appear to derive their standpoints from ‘Romantic’ Orientalist accounts of varna in a Hindu golden age.[13] However, not only do you criticize their standpoint but you do so on the assumption that what they talk about represents dominant claims about caste, against which Ambedkar too rails, in your view rightly. However, what you don’t disclose or admit is that Ambedkar’s and your account of caste also derives from Orientalism and is indeed one that remains dominant. It is therefore not clear how your stand on caste can possibly be a critique since it constitutes part of, and in turn reinforces, the currently dominant story about India’s caste system. You don’t seem to be aware that critique requires being able to argue against a dominant accepted account,showing why it is wrong, and why yours is better, and not merely going along the grain of what is already the dominant trend.[14]You merely endorse a dominant (albeit crumbling) account of the caste system and insist that a community that lives by its traditions as adapted in the diaspora must annihilate them (“the project of annihilation of caste” as you describe it).Like Ambedkar, you have no qualms about the use of state violence to so achieve (“by using legal means if necessary”).

While I do claim that your account derives from Orientalism (“a real enemy” as you characterize it), I do not claim that you are an Orientalist (“am I being an Orientalist…?”). I rest content in saying that your account derives from, and is parasitic upon, claims made in Orientalism. This requires explication. Orientalism is how the West makes sense of its experience of the Orient. It says nothing of the reality of India or any other non-Western culture. In this sense, Orientalism cannot make any claim to knowledge as such. Rather,in revealing how the West makes sense of its encounters with the Orient, it tells us something about the Western culture itself. For example, Western thinkers have brought together unrelated phenomena and said that there is something known as ‘Hinduism’ or the ‘caste system’. But this only tells us about how the West experiences these things; ‘Hinduism’ and the ‘caste system’ are units in the Western experience.[15]

What you exemplify and suffer from is a form of ‘colonial consciousness’. You consider that you understand Western culture and how it is different from, say, Indian culture, although it appears that you have no access to either. Instead, you imitate or mimic Orientalism, or try to decorate its accounts, without having access to the culture that produced Orientalism. You go on being an inauthentic imitator divorced from your own experience. You exemplify something that is prevalent in the layer of the Indian population exposed to English language education, who have acquired a way of thinking and talking about Indian society which they want us to believe tells us something ‘real’ about it.[16]

Colonial consciousness reveals how the colonial account of Indian society and culture was inserted into the mind of the colonized through violence, which made a cognitively inferior account of their culture acceptable to the colonized. It is perpetuated after formal decolonization by means of all kinds of violence. Your (and Ambedkar’s) obsession with Brahmins and Brahmanism is a telling signature of your colonial consciousness. The early Christian accounts of India already show that they saw the Brahmins as the priests of the false Indian religion. This is how the trope of Brahmanism as a religion was constructed by Christian-Orientalists and spread through Western culture, but also recited by Indians today as if it is a mantra. Not only that; the Protestant accounts of the 19th century onwards said that the Hindus had a caste system and that system was mandated by the religion of Hinduism of which the Brahmins were the priestly caste. For Protestants it was anathematic that individuals were not free to choose their vocation and they saw the Indian caste system as a variation of the Catholic social order they had been criticizing on grounds that it separated people into different stations and did not allow them freedom to choose. The trope of sacerdotal violence was part of this package and explained how the Indian caste system must be oppressive – because it was held in place by a violent priestly class.[17]

Some words need to expended to appreciate just what we are saying when we claim that there is a social construction of caste by the missionaries, Orientalists and the colonial state, which went on to conduct census by classifying groups in India by caste, which have left a legacy of thinking about caste that lasts up to today. You cite Nicholas Dirks’ warning about mistaking the ontological consequences of such construction: “The assumption that the colonial state could manipulate and invent Indian tradition at will, creating a new form of caste and reconstituting the social, and that a study of its own writings and discourse is sufficient to argue such a case, is clearly inadequate and largely wrong.”

I do not disagree with Dirks here although he has been inconsistent about this. In his book, Castes of Mind, he makes claims that actually contradict this one, effectively saying that the social construction of caste during and since colonialism reconstituted caste itself.[18] The argument of his that you cite is of course important but it is not relevant to our discussion. If anything, it reinforces what I am trying to get across. My contention is not that some social construction occurred during the colonial period that resulted in an indelible influence on the structure of caste; although I do argue that how caste is understood, certainly among Indian intellectuals, has changed unrecognisably because of the colonial impact.

The West simply could not grasp Indian social structures but through its framework of Christian-Orientalism developed its own way of coming to terms with its experience of India. Your position amounts toan effective claim that the Orientalist account is how we must understand caste, not recognizing that neither you nor I have access to that Western account in any experiential sense. Our difference lies in the fact that I recognize that but you do not. Worse, you take a morally superior stance in spite of your ignorance and attempt to pass off a Western fake as the real thing.

The way you (and Ambedkar) talk about Manu shows the problem clearly. You refer to “the centrality of this text [Manusmriti] in the lived experience of Hindus”. In what way is this text ‘central’? Would it have been legislated? How is it well known? Writers tend to agree that no central legislative body existed in India (although you say Manu is a “lawgiver”),and rajahs were not known for exercising such legislative powers. So by what social process does such a text become central so much so that Indians at large imbibe its nectar for centuries on end to justify engaging in the most atrocious practices against other humans? To take the problem in another way, would you agree that the Bible, the most sacred text of Christians for something like two thousand years, tells us something about Western social structures some time in the past or even today? Although Manusmriti is not the Bible, this is precisely the kind of argument that you expect us to accept about India. You have no idea of the role Manu plays in Indian culture but yet proclaim his centrality to India. You cite Ambedkar approvingly: “What does Manu Smriti show? It shows that the caste system is a legal system maintained at the point of a bayonet.” This chimes very well with the suggestion of priestly violence at the heart of the system that Ambedkar had already internalized.

The Christians knew precisely why this idea made sense to them – their theologies provided a framework to make such ideas intelligible. By the time you received the ideas of Hinduism, its violent priestly order, and the caste system it mandated, these already existed as secularized claims, implicit or explicit, within the social sciences. However, these Christian-Orientalist accounts as subsequently secularized in the social sciences,I suggest, make no sense to you, as a mere imitator of Orientalism, a mimic, and one who does not have the sight nor the courage to challenge such ideas about the Indian traditions. You say you do not accept Orientalism but you end up imitating its claims in the most unauthentic way, reinforcing what the colonizers said about Indians – that they are liars and inauthentic beings.

Not only do you want to pass off the Orientalist take on the Indian traditions as authentic, your account layers distortion upon distortion about those traditions. You say: “Indeed there are many historical examples of precolonial protests against caste.” And then you borrow from Arundhati Roy’s recitation of a list of sants as examples of such protests, adding the Sikh gurus to that list. Although you are confident that they too spoke of equality, their limit, according to you, was that they offered merely “spiritual equality as an antidote to caste prejudice”. How do these sants lead “precolonial protests against caste”, and as you appear to want us to believe, prepare the ground for the Western ideals of social equality to reach India? As far as I understand it,these santsare principally concerned with adhyatma (experience of reality). The subsequent reading of their teaching as protests against caste, I would submit, are a distortion under the influence of the Christian-Orientalist framework. Of course, theGautama Buddha is also looked upon as a protestor against caste and preacher of equality, underlining the influence of the Protestant Christian framework in viewing the Buddha as the Martin Luther of India. And to whom would these teachers, from the Buddha to the Sikh gurus, be targeting their polemic? Against the Brahmins,of course, as the priests of the false religion, Hinduism.

Your socialization has made you shamefaced and fearful of challenging these tropes about caste in Indian culture. You are fearful that caste identity may appear “a benign phenomenon” and think that in making such a move (which you think I do) one exhibits “misplaced ‘nativism’ that de facto reinforces the hierarchical status quo.” I’m not sure what nativism is and why, alongside being a denier of caste, I should be ashamed of that label. I have no access to that term – perhaps you could enlighten me on it further. And let’s forget about how I makecaste into a benign phenomenon. My plea minimally is for an understanding of what the sense of caste is in Indian culture, which is pervaded by jatis as a social structure.

It is the Christian missionaries who began the process of linking that structure to the religion they called Brahmanism or Hinduism; units which made sense in their experience not ours. They so distorted the framework of the Indian traditions, entirely consistent with what we know Orientalism to be, that today it seems impossible to speak about caste in any affirmative sense. Why the shame of jati and why is only shame of jati legitimate in your eyes? You might couch your shame in claims about wanting revolution but that too is a way of disguising your secret longings shaped by Semitic theology. The shame betrays your colonial consciousness, and it tells me that you know nothing of the Indian traditions. Instead, you try to defraud us by arguing that we should accept the distortions of the Orientalists as facts about our traditions. You want us to participate in your shame about the Indian traditions and to support the use of legal violence to inculcate such shame on others. You have nothing substantial to contribute to a new thinking about Indian traditions.

Prakash Shah is a Reader in Culture and Law at Queen Mary University of London. He is author of the book, Against Caste in British Law: A Critical Perspective on the Caste Discrimination Provision in the Equality Act 2010 (Palgrave, 2015).




[2]See the programme India: Faith, Food and Politics, broadcast on BBC World Service Radio, 30 August 2015,

[3]For the discussions in Parliament on the caste provision, see Prakash Shah, Against Caste in British Law, Palgrave, Basingstoke, 2015, pp. 27-35.

[4]Hilary Metcalf and Heather Rolfe, Caste Discrimination and Harassment in Great Britain, December 2010

[5]For the involvement of the National Secular Society, see Shah, Against Caste in British Law, Palgrave, Basingstoke, pp. 35-40.

[6]Chandhok & Anor v Tirkey (Race Discrimination)[2014] UKEAT 0190_14_1912.

[7] Bob Hepple, Equality: The New Legal Framework, Hart, Oxford, 2011, p. 158.

[8] Werner Menski, ‘Race and law’, inPaddy Ireland and Per Laleng (eds.),The Critical Lawyers’ Handbook 2, Pluto Press, London and Chicago, IL, 1997, pp. 61-75 at 68-69; Richard Jones and GnanapalaWelhengama,Ethnic Minorities in English law, Trentham, Stoke on Trent, 2000, pp. 35-41, 50-53.

[9] Dhanda uses both the spellings ‘castist’ and ‘casteist’ so I use them as she does.

[10] Annapurna Waughray, ‘Capturing Caste in Law: Caste Discrimination and the Equality Act 2010’,Human Rights Law Review, Vol. 14, pp. 359–379 at 362.

[11] See Shah, Against Caste in British Law, pp. 44-63 for a detailed assessment of the two reports produced out of the EHRC investigation that you led.

[12] For details of this discussion see S.N. Balagangadhara, The Heathen in his Blindness: Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion, Brill, Leiden, 1994, pp. 39-53.

[13]Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2001, e.g. p. 10; Ronald B. Inden, Imagining India, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990, pp. 72-73.

[14] On critique see S.N. Balagangadhara, Reconceptualizing India Studies, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 90-94.

[15] On this reading of Orientalism, see Balagangadhara, Reconceptualizing India Studies, pp. 34-59.

[16] On colonial consciousness, see Balagangadhara, Reconceptualizing India Studies, pp. 95-120.

[17]Shah, Against Caste in British Law, pp. 4-9, 18-25.

[18] See Shah, Against Caste in British Law, pp. 22-23.