SOAS South Asia Institute Conference on Caste – Out of the Shadows

This is the text of an email sent on behalf of the Dharmic Ideas and Policy Institute to Prof. Michael J Hutt, Director of the SOAS South Asia Institute in anticipation of the Institute hosting the conference “Caste – Out of the Shadows” in September 2015.  


Professor Michael J Hutt

SOAS South Asia Institute

SOAS, University of London


Dear Prof. Hutt,

Re: Conference on Caste – Out of the Shadows

I write about the holding of the conference on “Caste – Out of the Shadows” at SOAS on 5 September 2015. I write as Co-Director of the Dharmic Ideas and Policy Foundation (DIPF), which was launched on 4 February 2015 at the Palace of Westminster in the presence of members of both Houses of Parliament as well as a number of dignitaries from Dharmic faith organizations. No doubt a significant event, we do not feel we can wholeheartedly endorse the SOAS conference and, in fact, have significant concerns about it.

Some of the conference’s central themes and presuppositions are given expression on the conference website thus:

“In South Asia poverty persists alongside growing wealth. A disproportionate number of those in extreme poverty are Dalits. Poverty, inequality and caste are deeply enmeshed, yet there is little appetite to address caste oppression in the international development community.

In recent years, Dalits who have protested, claimed their rights, or struggled for dignity have often faced brutal reprisal. The issue of caste injustice has been silenced in wider national and international communities. It is assumed that caste inequality is an internal matter of culture and religion and that it will be erased by the forces of market economy and modernisation.”

Such statements about caste are misleading and ride on the centuries old Western practice of constructing the trope of the caste system pursuant to the Christian polemic against Indian religion, a polemic that has since assumed the status of fact in Orientalist and social science accounts of India. They presuppose a violent sacerdotal core in the Indian religions responsible for the establishment of the caste system, a now secularized idea that remains at the base of theorizing about the caste system in the contemporary social sciences.

It is misleading to claim that there is no freedom of protest or claiming of rights against caste discrimination in India or Nepal. As you will know yourself, protest and claims to political representation and social justice by Dalits and/or members of so called ‘low castes’ are one of the central themes of political mobilization asserted by Western, Indian and Nepali writers. Legal discrimination in India is against so-called ‘upper castes’ in education and public employment regardless of their socio-economic status and so-called Dalits are a powerful political force, periodically ruling India’s largest state. To imply that there is some kind of conspiracy of silence to keep down debates and claims of caste could not be further from the truth. There is no dearth within and outside academic circles on debate around caste, and Dalit lobbies and their Christian promoters have managed to successfully lobby UN and EU organs on caste discrimination, not to mention Western state bodies including in the United States and the UK. The House of Lords held a debate on caste and poverty in India just in November 2014, led by Lord Harries, a former Bishop of Oxford. Academics who promote the idea that caste discrimination is rife in Indian society are regularly invited to conferences (such as the one your Institute is organizing), whereas critical voices arguing that the trope of the caste system has its basis in Christian-Orientalism are ignored or marginalized on grounds of their political incorrectness, obscurantism or association with some imagined fascist or nationalist ideology. Perhaps you might be able to explain then where the claim that “there is little appetite to address caste oppression” comes from.

The website concept note for the conference at SOAS suggests that Dalits are the victims of caste oppression and that the international community has little appetite to address this problem of caste oppression, which is a common claim in the moralizing literature on caste. ‘Dalits’ is a term which means ‘the oppressed’ and ‘the broken’ to refer to particular people. One possibility is that this term ‘Dalits’ refers to a particular caste or jati that we can find in Indian society. Then, one could say that this jati is oppressed and talk of the caste oppression of Dalits. However, we know that this is not the case and that ‘Dalits’ does not refer to any particular jati or even any delineated set of jatis. The second possibility is that the term ‘Dalits’ refers to a collection who call themselves ‘the oppressed’. But then talking about caste oppression of Dalits is a mere tautology. It just says “‘the oppressed’ are oppressed.” This kind of endless reproduction of a tautology is not an empirical claim about Indian society and it is certainly not knowledge. Since the first option is not the case, the second must be the case. This shows how the conference organizers are repeating clichés without thinking. Since the concept note of the conference is conceptually unsound, one has very good reasons to doubt its cognitive and academic value in the study of India. Perhaps, then, if indeed the international community has little appetite to address the problem of caste oppression of Dalits, it is because this entire discourse is based on dogmatic ideology rather than understanding.

Equally troubling is the untold fact that at least two (perhaps more) of the organizations involved in putting up the event with the SOAS South Asia Institute are Christian organizations who have an interest in proselytism in South Asia, and who have used the Dalit question as a means of furthering that agenda in South Asia. We are aware that the UK’s development budget for India comes up for discussion this year and fear that the conference is one means of raising the profile of Dalit lobbies and their Western Christian sponsors that want to continue to milk the trope of caste oppression for their own perceived gains. Their aims are far from being in the interests of India or its people. We can only conclude that, considering the play given to the idea of caste oppression in the publicity material for the conference and the involvement of SOAS in it, that the South Asia Institute is subscribed to the same agenda. This will no doubt impact on the image of SOAS among its Indian benefactors, including those in the diaspora.

The Christian-Orientalist stereotypes mentioned above were replayed recently in the UK during the insertion of a provision on caste discrimination in the Equality Act 2010. These stereotypes played a significant role within and outside parliament, ensuring that the provision on caste became encoded in the Equality Act. This was reinforced by an amendment in 2013, obliging the government to bring the caste provision into force. The passing of that amendment saw the recounting of the same Christian-Orientalist framework that was played out earlier in 2010.

No genuine attempts have been made to investigate the facts about caste discrimination in Britain. Despite that, the official reports all presuppose the existence of the caste system and related discrimination rather than proving it. It has been the first time, as far as we are aware, that a segment of equality law has been passed without adequate justification in the form of research and public debate. Hindu, Jain and Sikh organizations opposing the law were deliberately excluded from the discussions regarding the Act both in 2010 and 2013, their representatives were given false reassurances that the provision would never see the light of day, and today we are on the verge of the provision being implemented with the potential to cause untold harm to the associational and economic freedoms of the Indian, Nepali and other South Asian communities, while they are once again labeled as supporting immoral caste discrimination. We have seen government bodies in the UK such as the Government Equalities Office and the EHRC, as well as prominent non-state bodies such as the National Secular Society and the churches manoeuvring around the Indian communities and imputing mala fides and self-serving agenda to them for standing up against the legislation, warning against the dysfunctional effects the legislation will have, pointing out the way it has been passed over their heads, and deciding their voting behaviour on the basis of the caste provision being brought into law. SOAS was of course complicit in these exercises, given that it hosted part of the research that was pre-designed to support the legislation, which found academic support for it among its faculty.

We regret the step taken by the SOAS South Asia Institute to organise the “Caste – Out of the Shadows” conference and look forward to receiving your response.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Prakash Shah.