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Back | Programme Area: Identities, Conflict and Cohesion (2000 - 2009)

Cataracts of Silence: Race on the Edge of Indian Thought (Draft)

This paper discusses how 'race' thought entered South Asia with colonialism, how 'caste' is not identical to 'race'-even if it became similar after much reworking of the concept during the colonial era, and how the fight against 'caste' is structurally similar to that against 'race'-even if there are substantial differences.

One of the dangers of US hegemony is that the anti-racist programme for organizations and activists from across the global might replicate the terms of the US movement against racism. Race, then, as a central category of the struggle for equality may be self-evident in the US context, but it may not be as useful in other settings. To create a genuine international response to the problems of discrimination, how does one deal with the translation from one context to another, and with the need to draw links between movements without hastily drawing parallels between the forms of oppression that entangle the lives of people in different settings? A discussion of caste in a conference on race, therefore, must tread first into the domains of method and of the construction of political categories. This is the first task of this paper.

Yet caste is not a term so very alien to the idea of race, for both have their emergence in the crucible of modern imperialism, during the century that led to the French Revolution. Caste is a Portuguese word used to describe a very complex set of social formations that dot the Asian subcontinent. The discourses of race and caste (as well as tribe) emerged simultaneously, with attempts to justify the expropriation of values from certain parts of the world to what was to become the centre of the world economy: Europe. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, European conservatives justified their ill-gotten gains on the basis of race/caste, rendered in terms of biology, and they continued their reliance upon military force on the basis of their imputed racial superiority. Caste and tribe became the words used to index the lesser forms of social organization in India and Africa, social forms used by racial inferiors. Caste and tribe provided European imperialism with the means to select native leaders who were to be loyal to their European overlords. The second task of this paper will thus be to show the complex relationship between race, caste and tribe-not as abstract sociological terms, but as historical weapons in the race war of modernity.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Jan 2001
    From: UNRISD