A Conversation on Caste with Dr. Prakash Shah

Postscript from Omar Ali: My apologies to Maneesh and Gaurav, who got very little air time. And my apologies to listeners. I think Prakash and I should have explained more clearly what his argument is. I can see that many listeners expected a description of caste oppression in India, not a discussion of why this description is itself problematic or at least, incomplete..

We may have ended up with a discussion that will fail to get past the existing beliefs of most listeners. I hope we will try again in the future and as is the case with all complicated arguments, it may become clearer with repetition and rejigging. For now, take my advice from late in this podcast and see what happens if you suspend judgment and give the arguments a chance… Also see the articles and books linked at the end.

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Dr Prakash Shah, Reader in Culture and Law at School of Law Queen Mary University of London, talks to Dr Ali on the framework of studying caste in India and it’s colonial antecedents.

A list of publications from Prakash Shah and associates can be found here. 

A long talk from Prakash Shah on this topic may give more background:


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7 months ago

An extremely strange, rambling attempt to pretend caste discrimination is an entirely made up concept. Very strange. One quote I found extremely fascinating was “The people complaining around me about caste aren’t even the low caste people, it’s the Muslims, the Sikhs”. Really just a juicy amount of stupidity condensed into a single comment. How many low caste people does this person interact with? How many low caste people have the opportunity to be politically active? Is the speaker aware that there are low caste Sikhs? “Why doesn’t Nepal have castes”? Nepal literally has castes.

Omar Ali
7 months ago

What we have here is a failure to communicate. At no point did anyone say that caste does not exist or discrimination does not exist. The issue is whether the great mass of facts is best explained or framed in this manner? or some other framing is possible? And the starting point is that Indians themselves did not go around in the 13th century writing books describing a singular entity called “THE caste system”, nor did they go around describing their own society as being divided into oppressed and oppressor exactly on these lines. That does not mean this description is wrong, but it does mean that this description was imposed on an existing reality, and it was imposed mostly by foreign observers, then given legal status and made a central feature of administration by the colonial rulers. This whole process has consequences and there is no a priori reason why this particular framing MUST be the best one.. and so on,. It is a difficult argument to make, but it is one that is not unheard of in academia.. we do in fact sometimes reframe how we see a phenomenon. IN this case, the phenomenon is Indian caste based endogamy and the framing is “4 castes, with Brahmins oppressing everyone else and lower castes living a life of oppressed misery above and beyond what poor people faced or face in any other society. The claim is that this framing was done in bad faith or in ignorance and is not ideal and has had unhappy consequences for Indian people.

Prakash Shah
Prakash Shah
7 months ago
Reply to  Omar Ali

My claim is not that the current framing is not wrong. I believe it is wrong, if wrong means something that does not answer to scientific criteria.
Secondly, I do not say that the current framing is a result of bad faith. It may be but I don’t dwell on that but try to draw attention to cognitive limits of currently dominant descriptions.

7 months ago

In a first past the post system , this was always going to be the case. The thing about caste is about mobilization, inter marriages or lack there of. It lends itself politically, legally towards certain positions than others. If it was not a defining reality, it could easily have been done away with, that did not happen because politics reinforced it and continues to do so thorough increase in quota for obc and now call for further increases even in pvt sector. How does one explain such political mobilisation if it was not a defining reality, Forget about the legal issues or even hierachy, in a real practical world, there would have been exceptions for sure.

Post Independence, one could easily have done away with and can do so even now, did not happen because?. One could argue that without british intervention, a new social contract could have been created, still, without inter marriages, it would have been collection of communities competing with each other politically and that would nonetheless have consequences, perhaps legally things might have been different. Still, there is no way to explain away the success of political mobilisation.
( did not listen)

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