Published On: Tue, Nov 15th, 2016

Indian caste system is a western construct, says scholar at ICHR lecture: Indian Express

prakash-shahIndia has castes, but not a caste system. The latter is only a western construct, which helped Europeans come to terms with their experience of Indian culture and society, Dr Prakash Shah told his audience at the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) on Wednesday.
His questioning of the existence of a caste system in India was part of a lecture series organised by ICHR, which is the apex body for funding historical research in the country.

Shah, a reader of culture and law at Queen Mary University of London, said the caste system and the rules of hierarchy, endogamy, ritual purity and untouchability associated with it were only a “grand assumption”, as there is ambiguity about the origins of such a system in India. His lecture was based on his upcoming book ‘Western Foundation of Caste System’, which he has co-edited with three other scholars

Referring to a chapter on caste violence in his book, Shah questioned the idea of oppression that is associated with the caste system. He claimed that official data on caste-related violence in the country showed the proportion of SCs and STs who experience atrocities (against each other or by members of another group) is disproportionately less than the violence experienced by members of other groups.

When asked how he would explain the violence or discrimination directed at Dalits if there is no caste system in India, he said, “I am not neglecting or dismissing claims that there are injustices in Indian society… Don’t all societies have injustices? Let’s go and research them. But let’s not assume that the caste system is a necessary explanation for the kinds of ills we see.

As for Indians who believe in the caste system, he said, “I would say that is part of the acceptance of the colonial story. (SN) Balagangadhara (of Ghent University, Belgium) describes it as a form of colonial consciousness which underwrites the claim of immorality. We generally accept that. It’s not an inferiority complex. Because the European cultural claims about the Indian society are essentially normative in nature, they are bound to put Indians in an inferior moral position. They also put the westerners in a morally superior position. That’s part and parcel of the baggage that we’ve been made to accept since colonial period. We have accepted this story because of the force of the colonial violence.”