Caste — India’s Brand of Racism?

Finally the U.N. has woken up and is moving towards declaring the  caste system as racist. What is India’s response? Defensive and unconcerned.  Surprise! Surprise!

Some argue it’s just a form of “social organization.” That’s what Gandhi said too. He opposed its abolishment.  But is that so?

The Sanskrit for caste, ‘Varna’ literally means ‘color.’ India’s ancient texts designate caste on basis of color and race.  The supreme Brahmin is ‘white,’ and the lowest caste, also sometime called dasa (slave) is ‘black.’  In between you have the browns and yellows.

Through centuries of mixing India now is a conspicuous brown cocktail (of many hues), but not so to the Indian eye! A Brazilian journalist from the magazine  Super Interessante, while interviewing me last year, for my book Sex and Power, said that some Indians have explained to her how she can identify a person’s caste.  The people of the highest caste are very fair.  The lowest are almost black!  I challenged her to walk into any restaurant in town, randomly pick out a few customers and test that theory.

The only real give away to caste in India today is a person’s last name.  When an Indian politely asks for your “good name,” they are trying to figure out where precisely you fit in the whole caste scheme, and how exactly they want to interact with you.

A few years ago, at the British Council in Calcutta, a very articulate young woman from an NGO that works for the empowerment of lower-caste women, described to the audience, how random strangers who are very friendly towards her at first, immediately turn away soon as they hear her last name. The occasion was the launch of British author, Valerie Mason-John’s book Broken Voices, a personal account of the lives and experiences of India’s “untouchable” women.

“Untouchable” of course is used not as in “fragile” or “delicate,” but as in “I think you are filthy like the rats and vermin” sentiment.  Even today this scourge thrives. The ‘untouchables’ are not allowed into many temples and homes.  People will not hire them.  And in villages if a low caste person drinks from an upper caste well the whole clan is punished through rape and murder and their homes are burnt down.

But how would India’s educated elite respond to caste?  Here I was sitting in the British Council in Calcutta among the crème de la crème of India’s intelligentsia listing to women talk about how they have been treated because of their caste.  When it was the turn of the audience – quite a few asserted they were Brahmins and needed to protect the purity of their lineage through marriage.

And then a discussion ensued that was flabbergasting!  It was on what last names represented the kuleen Brahmins – the highest of the highest.  Many on the panel, academics and their likes, jumped in enthusiastically.  Not one person objected to this highly obscene and insensitive response.  The three women on the panel who had just shared their first hand experiences watched through this proceeding without uttering a word.

Some time ago an ugly little exchange on caste had erupted on my flickr photo site – this was a response from a middle-class, English speaking, internet savvy, Indian.  So given all this, what is my take on caste-based reservation? That will be another blog!

Leave a comment


  1. Very interesting article Rita.
    Funny enough when speaking to indians in India, most of the time, before I never asked anything about their caste, they come up saying “I don’t believe in caste but I am a “Brahmin”.
    I will post this on facebook.

    • Rita Banerji

       /  May 19, 2010

      Thank you Claude. I think caste for the “upper caste” is a form of holding on to self-esteem. And unfortunately part of that self-esteem has to do with putting down other people!

  2. Nice post!

    I hate caste-ism and hence avoid mentioning/writing my surname as much as possible, be it in real life or in email IDs, etc.

    • Rita Banerji

       /  May 19, 2010

      Well actually — maybe all job interviews, school admissions etc. should be done “blind” that is everyone takes a random number and the name and last name are not disclosed! I think we should vote that way too 🙂

  3. smislerse

     /  May 17, 2010

    Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Christian, watch south park online

  4. Shanti

     /  July 23, 2010

    Hi Rita,

    it’s so great to read your blog and learn about Indian Indians. Being the 5th generation in the Indian diaspora in the Netherlands, I still recognize this annoying Indian habit (and others). Even in Indian restaurants or on the street here in NL, (Surinamese) Indians still ask me this question, promptly and out of the blue. And when – occassionally – I do tell them my name, they’ll list all the people they know with the same surname and ask if I’m related…. So although here in NL it’s rather harmless, I never realized this habit may be an echo from the past.

  5. sammy

     /  August 10, 2010

    Caste is not the same as Varna as you misinterpreted. As a side note Varna doesn’t literally mean skin color: You need to re-read your Sanskrit textbook.

    Caste = Jati. Each Jati has it’s own dietary habits (veg. etc., no onion/garlic, eat beef etc.), it’s own gods, language, holidays. So that’s why people want to marry within Jati.

    You also conveniently forgot to mention that according to a government survey Brahmins are at the bottom of the income ladder. Please see:

    • Rita Banerji

       /  September 5, 2010

      @sammy — yes varna is color. see the dictionary here There has been debate about the use of the English word ‘caste’ — for the 4 main tiers of classification in the vedas (even though we continue for academic purposes to use ‘caste’) — but those 4 tiers were called varnas and this was a system based on race and color. The word ‘jati’ is used for sub-caste which were determined by how the races intermingled and each jati was according designated a job. Lower the jati — lower the job! And this is not just off the top of my head. It is based on 5 years of solid research and writing for my book Sex and Power (Penguin). Check it out here. It has been reviewed by India’s mainstream magazines and newspapers. Has been cited and reviewed in 9 countries. And is held in 37 University libraries around the world.

  6. “Is the caste system a form of racism?” The answer is no, the worse it is a form of apartheid. The original interior was black, and lived by hunting and gathering. Later came the brown from the Middle East with grain and then came the yellow Chinese rice cultivation. Last came a pale rider from Russia and captured it all. The riders were militarily superior because they could attack faster and escape without being caught. But the riders were a minority, but had to find a way to control the majority. The solution was the same as South Africa: Apartheid. Sanskrit was the riders’ language.

    • Rita Banerji

       /  January 11, 2011

      @ Peter — However apartheid was one of the worst forms of racism!

      • Yes, but apartheid is not history but a part of Indian culture.

        by racism you have a choice. By apartheid that is a part of your society. People have no choice.

        The only way out is to make the lowest caste to the highest caste. What you servant money on is working hard and getting an education. Denmark hatred five classes. Smallholders; Farmers, citizens, Noble and priests. But today all citizens. This is due partly educational system that rewards those innate abilities.

  7. thanks for your interesting information – and political engagement!
    your frizztext, Germany

  8. … “Untouchable” of course is used not as in “fragile” or “delicate,”
    but as in “I think you are filthy like the rats and vermin”
    frizz: I always loved your esprit …
    (you are a good essayist)

  9. you wrote:
    … in villages if a low caste person drinks from an upper caste well the whole clan is punished through rape and murder and their homes are burnt down…
    I wouldn’t believe it, but I saw a documentation in German television NDR-channel, and they told the same, presenting many interviews with witnesses …

  10. Aroup Chatterjee

     /  July 30, 2012

    Honestly i do not think anybody cares abt caste in Kolkata(till it comes to marriage).I find the story of moving away when her name was mentioned quite strange- possibly happened in my grandparents’ generation.My great grandmother refused to tread on the shadow of a Muslim.India these days moolah is everything.If you are lower caste and wealthy (as many are) Brahmins will clean your toilet with glee (but stop at marrying you).

    • Rita Banerji

       /  July 30, 2012

      Aroup — After the event, they had drinks and refreshments like they do at the British Council. Everyone went up to the British author. But other than me, not a single person present in the talk, even walked up to the other two women panelists both of who are dalit and were seated on the same table as equal speakers. I was amazed!!

      • Aroup Chatterjee

         /  July 30, 2012

        I may be wrong but it could be case of rubbing shoulders with a white British person.May be the Dalit women didn’t speak English and many Indians would rather be dead than be speaking in vernacular before others (esp if they went to the same clubs).I meet Bengalis here in Uk all the time who affect a funny Bengali accent in order to tell me (very subtly) ‘look mate i can tell from the way you speak Bengali you didn’t go to a convent school but can’t you see that I did?’

      • Rita Banerji

         /  July 30, 2012

        No the author is Black-British. They started off a conversation during the discussion headed by the British council director where all the memebers of the audience said they were brahmin and then they discussed who the highest brahmins are !!! That was the end result discussion. You had to be there to believe it.

  11. Peter Ole Kvint

     /  July 30, 2012

    A society’s wealth is due to women to discard the men. The men must behave ortenligt because otherwise it out.

    About turn: If a woman has to take the man as the family has taken to her. Can the man behave as he pleases. The caste system make a society by ruthless and corrupt men.


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