The Persistence of Caste; The Khairlanji Murders & India’s Hidden Appartheid. Anand Teltumbde, Zed Books, 2010

Reviewed by Graham Mulligan

The introduction section of this short book (192 pages) is important. It is a condensed history of Caste in India. The word ‘caste’ is from Latin castus, and in Portugese means ‘pure’ or ‘chaste’. The early Portugese explorers thought it was like ‘race’ or lineage (blood based). They were wrong; but it is a form of social stratification, which this book explores in detail with respect to how history now shapes the idea and reality.


The Indian word for caste is jati, which is often confused with varna. Varna refers to the four classes of Hindu scripture. They are professional orders: Brahmins (priestly castes); kshatriyas (warrior castes); vaishyas (business or trading castes); and shudras (working castes like artisans, agriculturalists, hunters, fishers and the like). However, there are thousands of jatis.


The three upper varnas were called dwija, the twice born, denoting the ‘second birth’ of the ceremony upanayana, which marks entry into the world of formal learning – education. Only men could do this! Shudras could not participate. In addition, those excluded form the caste system, the ‘outcastes’ (dalits) could not participate either. Nor did it include the tribes people. The ‘unclean’ jobs of Indian society (everything to do with decay and death) were done by these ‘untouchables’.


The ideology of the Hindu religion and philosophy underlies this belief in privilege and oppression. The ideas of karma (one’s status in this life is based on previous deeds and reincarnation), and dharma (religious duty) meant that discharging one’s caste obligations was paramount. Interestingly, caste boundaries (who’s in, who’s out) are elastic. Contemporary caste reality, therefore, is a product of many historical and current realities.


The Indian Constitution (1950) listed Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes and sought to be progressive in protecting groups from oppression, yet it has not succeeded. Under British colonialism several movements attempted to modify or eliminate caste distinctions but were really only focused on the notion of untouchability. Yet some movement did occur through opening opportunities for economic betterment and education. Jobs in the army or as servants were often better than life on the margins in villages.


Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956) was born dalit and untouchable but rose through education (Columbia University and London School of Economics). He was law minister in the all-party government that took power in 1948, but soon resigned. He had hoped to transform Indian politics to a ‘politics of class’ away from a ‘politics of identity’. Dalits and other working people would be united in a party of workers. The movement fragmented into sub-groups, but did succeed in one constituency, Uttar Pradesh, as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), in 2007.


Today, the caste system looks very different but appears to have one highly disturbing feature, the human rights violation directed toward the lowest group, the dalits. Too often this takes a vicious form with mass murder and torture but somehow remaining immune form the law, particularly at a village level or state level.


The author points to the self-congratulatory narrative of globalization as a significant cause of this disturbing trend. Pitched as a triumphal force for democracy and capitalism, responsible for integrating all and everyone into a ‘global village’, globalization promotes neoliberal values that are supposed to weaken the caste system. Everywhere, however, we see it as working only for the elite and dominant in societies across the globe (Europe, USA, and China all show similar effects of distorted economies). The narrative goes on to say that the weak and the poor are where they are by their own choice, an outcome of their own individual action or inaction. This is a “reiteration in modern idiom” of the Hindu metaphysical doctrine of karma and dharma.


In India, the lower classes, whether in cities or villages, face a crisis of livlihood. Closure of small-scale industries (artisans) and downsizing, outsourcing, contractization in capitalist industries has made jobs informal and income uncertain. Communal identity (Hindu, Muslim, etc) has strengthened and with it caste and religious prejudice. In periods of great uncertainty like this people turn to gods and godmen.


The economic and political effects of caste is far-reaching. Professions still align with castes with only minimal blurring at the edges. It is possible to find a dalit who, through education, has advanced socially and may hold a high office, but it is unlikely that a Brahmin, though poor, would do a menial job traditionally reserved for dalits. Caste also has an economic reach that touches enterprise at its heart. 80% of Indian enterprise is not financed by bank credit, but by caste networks.


The central event of this book is an atrocity committed against a dalit family group in a village called Khairlanji, Maharastra State. The author retells the events of the killings, the police response, or lack of response, and the overall society response, political and civil, including the lack of response by the dalit leadership. It was a protest led by dalit women that finally brought the murders to the spotlight of national attention.


The police and state response was to link the protests to ‘Naxalite conspiracy’. To call something ‘Naxalite’ had become in India, since 2006, an excuse for police brutality against anyone they perceived as ‘left leaning’. In 2006 the Indian prime minister, Mohan Singh, called Naxalism the biggest threat to internal security in India. Widespread protests were met with fierce police suppression and media denials or misrepresentations of the facts. “Discussing caste crimes and the everyday murders of dalits does not offer the consumers of television any pleasure. On the contrary, it reduces the pleasure factor by inducing guilt”.


As it has in the West, India is funneling huge amounts of funding into ‘anti-terrorism’ under the pretext that the Naxalite threat justifies such expenditure. At the same time the economic growth that is enriching the top 20% of society is attributed to the free market economy, while 77% live on less than 20 rupees a day (about 40 cents, US). Dalits have long been active in resisting social inequalities, even prior to the beginning of the Naxalite movement in 1967.


In the final chapter, ‘Exploding Myths’, the author explains how the Indian system of ‘representation’ or reserved quotas for OBC’s (Other Backward Castes) and ST’s (Scheduled Tribes) in the civil service has not produced the desired ‘uplift’ of these groups. Many of the government and police officials in the Khairlanji case were dalit. The pressure to uphold ‘the system’ kept them form assuming any kind of pro-dalit posture.

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