Generalizing Caste: Activist and Scholarly Challenges to the Geographic Specificity of Caste

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 11:50 AM
Washington Room 2 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Purvi Mehta, Colorado College
Human rights activists at organizations such as the Delhi-based National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights and the Copenhagen-based International Dalit Solidarity Network argue that caste is not unique to South Asia, but rather, is a global phenomenon. Conceptualizing caste as a form of inherited equality in which people are divided into fixed and hierarchal groups maintained through threats of social and economic penalties, Dalit activists have identified “caste-like” phenomena and “caste-affected” populations in countries including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Japan, Yemen, Senegal, Nigeria, Mauritania, Niger, Kenya and countries with immigrant communities from these areas. By severing caste from its conventional associations, namely India and Hinduism, this conceptualization departs from most contemporary historical and anthropological scholarship. It also, however, corresponds with an earlier usage of the term: from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, caste has appeared in the works of scholars and activists as a category of social and historical analysis used to understand inequality in societies across the world. In these works, India provided but one example of caste. This paper analyzes the history of caste as a term not specific to India and as a generalizable category of social and historical analysis. A genealogical approach to the term reveals the historicity of “caste” as a category in a typology of structures of inherited inequality. This approach also contextualizes the conceptualization of caste in Dalit human rights activism and sheds light on contemporary anti-caste struggles for social justice.
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