The paper begins from a working definition of caste as a contentious form of social belonging and a consideration of casteism as a form of inferiorization. It takes anti-casteism as an ideological critique aimed at unmasking the unethical operations of caste, drawing upon B. R. Ambedkar’s notion of caste as ‘graded inequality’. The politico-legal context of the unfinished trajectory of instituting protection against caste discrimination in Britain provides the backdrop for thinking through the philosophical foundations of anti-casteism. The peculiar religio-discursive aspect of ‘emergent vulnerability’ is noted, which explains the recent introduction of the trope of ‘institutional casteism’ used as a shield by deniers of caste against accusations of casteism. The language of protest historically introduced by anti-racists is thus usurped and inverted in a simulated language of anti-colonialism. It is suggested that the stymieing of the UK legislation on caste is an effect of collective hypocrisies, the refusal to acknowledge caste privilege, and the continuity of an agonistic intellectual inheritance, exemplified in the deep differences between Ambedkar and Gandhi in the Indian nationalist discourse on caste. The paper argues that for a modern anti-casteism to develop, at stake is the possibility of an ethical social solidarity. Following Ambedkar, this expansive solidarity can only be found through our willingness to subject received opinions and traditions to critical scrutiny. Since opposed groups ‘make sense’ of their worlds in ways that might generate collective hypocrisies of denial of caste effects, anti-casteism must be geared to expose the lie that caste as the system of graded inequality is benign and seamlessly self-perpetuating, when it is everywhere enforced through penalties for transgression of local caste norms with the complicity of the privileged castes. The ideal for modern anti-casteism is Maitri formed through praxis, eschewing birth-ascribed caste status and loyalties.
Comment: This is a brilliant introductory essay to the problem of casteism which plagues not only Indian societies in India, but also the diaspora abroad. The essay provides a nuanced perspective of how we must understand caste (both in its concept and its practice), introduces us to the 20th century debates which were ongoing alongside the freedom struggle against the Raj, and links the caste debate to the debates around it in contemporary British politics. It is a novel attempt to unearth the philosophical underpinnings of the movement against caste oppression. The timing of the essay seems apposite, given the current political situation in India and its impact in the politics of the countries where Indians constitute a sizeable population.