IS CASTE A SUBSET OF RACE ?? or is it vice versa ???

All these issues came to the fore at the time of the World Conference Against Racisim Conference held at Durban between 31st Aug - 07 Sept 2001.

For a review of an anthropological and sociological perspective, an European and Brahminical perspective and a Dalit and an alternative perspective, visit these DOCSWEB pages with links to the original articles and pertinent websites.


Dalit organisations in the country argued that `casteism is racism and worse' and made a determined effort for the question of caste discrimination to be included on the agenda of the third UN World Conference against Racism (WCAR) at Durban, South Africa. This initiative sparked off a debate with the Indian government opposing the inclusion of caste at the Durban meet. A glimpse of the debate is provided at the PUCL (People's Union for Civil Liberties) website. Amongst the collection of articles is one by Soli Sorabji, attorney general of India, who defends the Indian government's stand, and the replies are from Basil Fernando (Asian Human Rights Commission) and Smita Narula. The last article of this collection, by former Justice P. N. Bhagwati gives a history of UN resolutions to combat and end racism. For an understanding of the issues of the debate and the conference, see Sorabji's "Official Position" and Narula's "Caste discrimination" in Seminar of December 2001.

The Government's stand is three-fold. National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) states them as below and then provides a detailed refutation:

The Government of India argues to the UN human rights bodies, including the WCAR, that caste discrimination is not an issue relevant to the evaluation of its performance vis-a-vis the human rights conventions to which it is party. This argument is based on three main premises:

1. Caste is not Race: The term 'caste' does not denote race or racial grouping and even the term 'descent' in Article 1 of the CERD Convention refers solely to racial descent. Therefore, does not fall within the ambit of racism, racial discrimination or related intolerance.

2. Use Internal Mechanisms, not External ones: Numerous laws and government schemes exist already within the country to promote the welfare, rights and socio-economic conditions of the Scheduled Castes. These are adequate to protect the Dalits from discrimination and to promote their socio-economic advancement; therefore, there is no need to utilize international human rights mechanisms and bodies to strengthen these laws.

3. Change takes Time: Change is a slow process and respective countries are doing all they can to solve the problem

This NCDHR document says in reply that "Similar to its predecessors in the Nationalist Movement who opposed Dr. Ambedkar for raising the specific concerns of the Dalits with regard to Independence in the Round Table Conference, the Government of India (GOI) today is also opposed to the efforts of Dalits who seek the support of the United Nations in the context of the World Conference Against Racism in strengthening India's own constitutional obligations to abolish 'untouchability' and caste-based discrimination." Then it goes on to take each of the points the Indian government is making.

First of all, "Caste may not be race, but  caste discrimination, like racism, is a violation of human rights." So the important premise is to recognize "caste as a fundamental basis for human rights violations against Dalits in South Asia". Therefore, the argument put forth by the GOI that caste is not race has no relevance and is meaningless as it is based merely on semantics. Whether or not caste is the same as race, the reality is that caste is a basis for discrimination on par with racism and apartheid and severely reducing the quality of life for at least 160 million of India's own citizens."

The argument that caste is an internal matter is far from acceptable, because if the Indian Government recognises the international conventions regarding human rights, and the constitution guarantees it, then there is no reason why one can not appeal to these international conventions and bodies (which are entrusted with the task of implementing and furthering human rights) for caste based attrocities . Fali S. Nariman makes the same argument in his article in Indian Express of 24th August, 2001 titled "Washing Linen at Durban" [See the file Q14 at CED]. The NCDHR goes on to analyse the laws regarding dalits in India and document their failure with respect to scavenging, bonded labour, land reforms, livelihood, education, reservation, atrocities etc.

Some of the unspoken strands of the stand of the government can be seen in the article by R. Upadhyay "Politics of Race and Caste (We do not need to go to the UN to solve our internal problem).  According to this article, "to include caste in WCAR is an attempt to alienate the SC and ST from Hindu society. This effort is being carried out by forces hostile to Indian civilisation and NGOs promoted by them." The view being pushed is that caste is a social evil like dowry for instance and Dalit organisations should educate the discriminated sections of the Indian population to avail the opportunity provided by the government.The accusation is that these Dalit organisations are connected to Christians and to the same international forces which want to declare `Zionism a form of racism'. The article quotes a prominent Indian sociologist Andre Beteille:  "Citing the ineffectual attempts made in the past to identify and define race in India, Beteille says, "I am now convinced that identifying the races in the population of India will be an exercise in futility..."  Beteille further said: "We cannot throw out the concept of race by the front door when it is being misused for asserting social superiority and bring it again through the back door to misuse it in the cause of the oppressed" ( "Race and Caste", The HINDU, March 10, 2001)".[CED file Q14]


Andre Beteille resigned from the National Committee which was preparing a draft to be presented at the world conference. This Frontline article  puts together the  various currents of the controversy. While major activists argued that they are not saying caste is race but merely arguing for the inclusion of caste in the WCAR agenda, some went on to assert that the Indian sociologists' understanding of caste itself is a Brahmanical viewpoint. Amarjit Singh in his article "Caste, Race and the Indian Anthropologist" cites certain critical comments by modern scholars on the work of Lois Dumont with whose work Beteille allegedly shares his assumptions."Berreman [an anthropoligist] claims that when he presented his version of the Dumontian model to rural untouchables, they laughed and one of them said, ' you have been talking with Brahmins'." In other words, this variety of the sociology of caste is infused with brahmanical ideology. Amarjit Singh says how Dalits always knew what the anthropological research of recent decades has ponted out. (see Beteille's obituary of Dumont in EPW)

Gail Omvedt in her two articles in The Hindu "Caste, race and sociologists I and II" (The Hindu 18th and 19th October, 2001:  cedbom file L10), gives a brief account of how the three founding fathers of sociology Marx, Durkheim, and Max Weber have dealt with the question of caste and race. Louis Dumont whose book "Homo Hierarchicus"[CEDBOM: L10.D3] expounds that his study of caste was working in the tradition of sociology coming from Durkheim. Gail Omvedt points out that Dumont has not ruled out a comparative study and evaluation of caste and race altogether. ``Racism represents a contradictory resurgence in an egalitarian society of what finds direct expression as hierarchy in caste society,'' (Homo Hierarchus, p. 214). "In other words", she goes on to write, "caste is justified by the inherent values of Indian society; racial discrimination, in contrast, is against modern values of equality of all human beings and so is justified by assuming the oppressed are not quite human. It is an important insight, shared by almost all sociologists." The main point is that even anthropologists such as Gerald Berreman, who analyse caste and racial systems as similar, agree that this point of legitimation is a distinguishing feature."

The overall conclusion made by Omvedt is that "The most haunting lacuna of contemporary Indian sociology remains the lack of data with which to do this [assess the validity of the claim made by Dalit organisations that caste oppression remains very much a reality in contemporary Indian society],and the apparent lack of concern for even gathering data. As Dr. Satish Deshpande has put it in a paper for a Pune University seminar, ``What needs to be emphasised is that unlike other comparable situations, the paucity and poor quality of this data [on caste] is due to wilful if not well-intentioned neglect: the state and academic community refused to collect such data because it was believed that it should not and need not be collected. But, however high-minded the motives, the irony is that the end result is not very different from what might have been the case had there been a conspiracy to suppress evidence of caste inequality''.

Unlike other scholars, Omvedt does not charactersie Dumont's viewpoint as brahmanical. Roland Lardinois in his paper "The Genesis of Louis Dumont's Anthropology: The 1930s in France Revisited"  describes the influence, in particular, of Rene Guenon, an anti-modernist and traditionalist philosopher, and more generally, the atmosphere of thought in France which shaped Dumont's intellectual quest. Dumont's work on caste was especially noted for combining the methodology of anthropological field research with the study of classical Indian texts usually associated with the area of study known as Indology.

Lois Dumont's study presupposed and resulted in a essential duality between the Indian society based on heirarchy and holism and the modern European society based on equality. A challenge to Dumont is posed by Partha Chatterjee in his essay "Caste and Subaltern Conciousness" where he examines the implications of several anthropological studies which show "that the religious beliefs and practices of subordinate caste groups are quite often based on principles that are contradictory to those of the Brahmanical religion." This essay examines popular beliefs and practices of some subordinate castes in Bengal to show that they question the claim of the dominant dharma to unify the particular jatis into a harmonious whole. The contrary claims put forward are also examined. Excerpts from this essay are available on the Saxakali website.

See Shiv Visvanathan's articles for another perspective on the debate on caste and race that was taking place in India at the time.


Dumont's main concern was not race even though he did not rule out a comparative enquiry about race and class as pointed out by Omvedt (above). The question of analogy of caste with race is not even crucial in arguments for the inclusion of caste in the WCAR agenda. So what actually is the relationship between caste and race?

Kalpana Kannabiran in her article "Race & Caste: A Response to A. Beteille" argues that the term caste in fact has been associated with the concept of race right from the beginning. "The analogy between race and caste, I would argue does not date back to Ashley Montague or to Franz Boas, as Beteille argues, but more than a couple of centuries earlier to the original application of the term casta itself, a term that recognised the kinship between race and caste." Further, "The debates on race with reference to the Indian  subcontinent that Beteille speaks about are predicated on an unquestioned acceptance of caste
as a social group. Not jaati or varna, but caste as the quintessentially Indian social grouping." Instead of assuming the scientific validity of the concept of race, Kannabiran sees it as a socially constructed notion - race comes from racism, not the other way round.

A black American scholar Oliver Cox wrote a major work in 1948 titled "Caste, Class & Race". In the introduction to a recent reissue of this book, Adolph Reed Jr. writes that Cox's main brief against            the ?caste school of race relations? was that it abstracted racial stratification in the United States from its origins and foundation in the evolution of American capitalism. In so doing, he argued, the caste school treated racial hierarchy as if it were a timeless, natural form of social organization. The caste approach to the study of American race relations has not been in vogue for several decades; other equally misleading metaphors have long since supplanted it. Cox was interested in showing how racist exploitation and the concept of race itself was built up by defining and redfining social relations between people in the course of the development of capitalism. So race was something `socially constructed' rather than some immutable category inscribed in the body of human beings. (Reed Jr's Introduction was also published in the journal Monthly Review as an essay titled "Race and Class in the Work of Oliver Cromwell Cox")

Gerardo Vildostegui argues for a caste-based understanding of race in his article "The Caste-Race Debate and Its Broader Implications for the WCAR". According to him "those fighting on behalf of the untouchable castes are selling themselves short when they say that caste-based discrimination is merely a form of racism, or that the concept of race should be expanded to include caste. On the contrary, caste is at the very heart of racism". He provides a summary of different positions taken by the WCAR on the issue of inclusion of caste in the agenda.

As examples of the wide range of positions within the pro-inclusion faction, consider the following arguments, drawn from both NGO activists themselves and media reports:

      Pro 1. Caste-based discrimination should be on the WCAR agenda because such discrimination
                urgently needs international attention.  Technical hairsplitting over the precise
                definitions of ?caste? and ?race? should be avoided.

      Pro 2. Caste and race, by implication, are the same because both lead to discrimination.

      Pro 3. Both caste and race are the cunning construct of the socially-dominant forces.

      Pro 4. Caste has become coterminus with race in as much as it defines the exclusion of a
                people based on their descent.

      Pro 5. In both caste and race those in the lowest rung are not only discriminated against but
                cursed to do menial jobs.  Endogamy is another feature of both.  Marriages are rare
                and few both among different racial and caste groups.  Both are stratifications, a
                hierarchical ordering of social categories, supported by social institutions.  Inequality
                is intergenerationally transmitted in caste and race.  Prejudice and discrimination are
                not merely personal but institutional, a part of the structure and processes of whole

      Pro 6. Even if caste and race are completely different, caste-based discrimination should be
                included on the WCAR agenda because ICERD prohibits discrimination based on
                descent and caste-based discrimination is a form of descent-based discrimination.

The Anti-inclusion arguments also vary considerably.  Consider the following:

      Anti 1. Including caste on the WCAR agenda would ?dilute the real thrust of the conference.?

      Anti 2. Caste-based discrimination, at least in India, is a domestic problem, the
                internationalization of which would embarrass India.

      Anti 3. Caste and race are not synonymous.

      Anti 4. [The Indian] Constitution recognises the distinction between race and caste which are
                separately mentioned as prohibited grounds of discrimination.The observations
                of  the [Indian] Supreme Court in the celebrated Mandal case also bring  out this distinction.

The sum and substance of Vildostegui's argument is that both racial and caste-based discrimination are linked to ?essences? based on birthBoth are systems of social stratification, awarding privilege according to "assigned essence".  Both purport to be based on biology, but both lack a scientific foundation. It seems then, that we traditionally call ?racism?  merely a kind of caste-based discrimination that relies on a few, specific factors like skin color and national origin in the assignment of essences.  Caste discrimination appears to be the broader category, "incorporating the assignment of essences based on these racial  factors and also on more far-fetched ones such as the casting of shadows by moonlit necks!".

Interestingly, many of those who argue that caste and race are different are, at least tacitly, accepting the idea that race corresponds to some biological reality.  Indian Attorney General Soli J. Sorabjee appears to be doing just that when he derides the ?misconceived attempts by some NGOs to equate racism with caste-based discrimination which is based on birth and has nothing to do with the race of a person.?  Andre Beteille does so more explicitly when, citing the work of Franz Boas, he distinguishes between ?race which is a biological category with physical markers and social groupings based on language, religion, nationality, style of life or status.?

Moreover, such an understanding will also help in the fight against racism and casteism. As Vildostegui again says "Affirmative action programs, which may appear ?discriminatory? under a narrow conception of racism, stand on a firmer moral foundation when the goal of anti-racism laws is seen as eliminating the subjugation of a racial caste.  Thus seeing race as a form of caste can help protect the WCAR Declaration and Programme of Action from subsequent charges of ?reverse racism.?

(See for an opposed viewpoint Dipankar Gupta's article in the Seminar of December 2001. In the same issue of the journal D. L. Seth argues for an understanding of racism in terms of caste.)

Despite the diverse assertions made by the three authors we have discussed, the common thread running through them is the rejection of the biological understanding of race and a move towards understading caste as well as race as a social construct. A similar trend can be seen in the understanding of gender by feminist movements and others. Kalpana Kannabiran even cites the results of Human Genome Project which apparently fail to show any biological distinction between `races'. But then we have reports also of recent genetic research which claims that there is a biological difference in the genetic make-up of higher and lower castes proving apparenty that caste indeed is race!


The general impression  got from the newspapers was that the conference was a waste of time. Kancha Ilaiah provides in contrast a different assessment:

"The Durban summit has important implications. For the first time, the meet was organized under a black leadership, under Kofi Annan, and an Irish woman, Mary Robinson, both determined that
whatever the consequences, the victims of racism and discrimination should be brought together to
challenge the victimizer. For the first time in UN documents we see a demand for an apology from        the oppressor to the oppressed".

This World Conference against Racism was charaterised by the attempts to broaden the meaning of `racism' to include other forms of oppression with perhaps mixed results. This is the import of Makani Themba-Nixon's article "Race in the "Post Third World"" taken from the `Colour Lines' magazine on the internet. "In many ways, this "shift," as it's manifesting at the World Conference, is essentially the
de-emphasis of white supremacy and "North-South" tensions and the emphasis of other issues emerging from a broad range of "oppressions" of which race is a part." He writes about the preparatory process in Europe and difficulties that `African descendents' faced. This article brings to the fore how the UN conference itself is part of the social process that is `constructing' a new meaning of racism, race and caste. Three decades ago James Baldwin and Margaret Mead discussed race questions in the US with rare candour. See the record of this conversation in the book "A Rap on Race". Also interesting are  the presentations made in an international conference held in 1991 convened by International Movement against All forms of Racism and Discrimination as a precursor to the Durban conference. This provides the background to the expanded meaning of racism.

But the issues of colonialism and slavery were not altogether absent from the Durban conference. US theatened to boycott the conference on the issue of reparations to be paid for slavery and colonialism and inclusion of zionism as racism. They eventually did so. The final draft declaration and draft plan of action of the conference saw certain compromises and dilutions being made in the texts to accomodate the views of European countries. The E. U. countries finally agreed that slavery, slave trade and colonialism did constitute crimes against humanity after they received legal opinion that such an admission would not open doors for litigation for reparations against countries that practiced these. (We do have report of litigation for slavery reparations in the U.S.). The draft declaration of the World NGO Forum was naturally much more outspoken than the official drafts.

As for the question of where castestood at the end of all the debates, see Prakash Louis' articles on the prospects of the post-Durban dalit movement and an evaluation of what happened at Durban. Martin Macwan outlines the major areas of discrimination and exclusion that dalits face in India and which need to be addressed. (see on the status of landlessness of dalits, which is one of the areas pointed out by Macwan, B.B.Mohanty's detailed research in EPW.) See also the interview of Kancha Ilaiah in Seminar referred to earlier. Amir Ali tries to delineate the task of dalit movement after Durban in situating itself vis-a-vis hindutva and liberalisation. Gopal Guru raises the question of `who represents dalits?'.

One of the significant post-Durban events to hit the headlines was the rallly in Delhi where thousands of dalits converted to Buddhism. The permission to hold the conversion ceremony at the historic Ramlila gounds in Delhi was withdrawn by the government and the venue had to be shifted later. In this case too, there were accusations of christian involvement and the foreign hand.

The site of National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights( and the site, provide a continuous update on the dalit movement and dalit situation in India. People's Union for Civil Liberties PUCL ( and Human Rights Watch ( are other good references.