British Untouchables: A Study of Dalit Identity and Education

Author:   Paul Ghuman
Publisher:   Asghate Publishing Limited
Reviewer:   Vinod Sartape
Designation:   Research Scholar, CSSS II, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Ghuman, Paul (2009) “British Untouchables: A Study of Dalit Identity and Education”, Asghate Publishing Limited, England p. xviii+142, ISBN 9780754648772


Based on the qualitative research methodology, the book “British Untouchables: A Study of Dalit Identity and Education” gives a large picture of the issues of caste and its implication in the host society. Since the area has scarcely been explored by a few, the book however is one of the few pioneering studies which covered the several dimensions of caste in the context of Indian Diaspora. The range of narratives collected in the study itself construct and de-construct the existing theoretical approaches which is the central theme of the book. In other words, the book has underlined the ontological and epistemological investigations. The study has been conducted at two different places; Birmingham and West Midlands in England along with a small scale caste study conducted in Punjab in order to comprehend the stand-point of migration. Moreover, the book represents the life of dalits; the problems and challenges they face with their upper caste counterparts who have migrated to UK in the late sixties and seventies in the twentieth century.

The book has been divided into seven chapters and began with ‘a note on terminology’ which briefly unfolds the meaning of several historical terms such as Dalits, untouchables and valmikis. The first chapter begins with the introduction, stating the plight of Dalits, the erstwhile untouchables who have been a subject of series of caste violations for over millennia. The emigration, however, as author argues, has somehow broken the shackles of caste hierarchy and let the untouchables cross not only their social and physical boundaries but also geographical ones which have been denied by the Hindu scriptures. The caste practices, nonetheless, remained as a whole in the lives of Indian emigrants wherever they flourished. The book, moreover, represents three interrelated themes: ‘the reproduction of caste and its awareness among Indian immigrants in the UK; the role of religious institutions and other agencies in perpetuating caste consciousness; and the role of education and Dalit- led initiatives in counteracting the negative effects of caste prejudice and discrimination (p. 06)’.

In the second chapter, ‘Origin and Theories of the Caste System’, author Ghuman, described the religious interpretation of caste in which he explained forms and practices of caste system derived from the Hindu sacred texts. Despite of its variations based on regional and geographical boundaries, caste practices accelerated in its myriad forms. It, says author, further circumscribes the life of people despite of their different religious affiliations. The doctrines of Sikhism and Islam, for instance, perished by the over-influence of caste hierarchies rooted in the graded chaturvarna system of Hinduism. Moreover, the author sharply analyzes the fundamental difference between caste and class: ‘between different classes’, he argues, ‘there is a social mobility, however limited it may be in practice’. Whereas, referring Deliege (1999) and Weber (1958), Ghuman further pointed out that ‘the origin of caste system was originally akin to class system but became rigid and ossified due to the exploitation by the upper classes of the lower orders’ (p. 09).

The notion of ‘purity and impurity’ described by Dumont (2004) is also observed by the author who interpreted Hindu caste system. Referring Dumont, he argues that ‘in the Hindu scriptures such as Vedas and Manusmriti, the bipolar dimension of purity and impurity, Brahmins are at one end of the spectrum and untouchables at the other’. Moreover putting forward the views of Srinivas (2004), author observed that ‘at a village level the way the caste system works through several sub-castes known as jatis, the term explored by Srinivas. However, jati hierarchy is same as that of the caste: Brahmins at the top and Untouchable at the bottom (p. 11). Stating the basic features and functions of caste system, author further moves on describing the roles and challenges of Buddhism.    

He describes the basic tenets of Buddhism briefly and argues that the Buddha’s path is to alleviate suffering through the practice of eight-fold path which lead to attain the state of nirvana, the salvation. Citing Keer’s (2005), view author argues that ‘the Buddha rejuvenated and reorganized the social and religious systems of the Hindus by denouncing the ritual sacrifices and priesthood of Brahmins and laid stress on the individual’s own effort to achieve nirvana’ (p.13). However, the decline of Buddhism in later years caused serious damage in socio-cultural and political lives of many. Quoting Klostermaier (1999), Ghuman says that the “Buddhism flourished for about thousand years after its inception but under the patronage of the Gupta dynasty (circa 500 ACE). Brahmins launched a counterattack and eventually Hinduism concurs with this assessment: ‘at the birth of Christ for seven hundred years or more, the predominant faith of India was Buddhism’. It was not until the twelfth century that saints and reformers belonging to the Bhakti movement mounted another substantial challenge to caste organization” (p.13).

The Bhakti movement, Ghuman observed since its initial foundation right from Ramanujan’s era (circa 1016- 1137) to Guru Nanak Dev’s (1469- 1539) contribution to establish an egalitarian society by removing the atrocious nature of caste discrimination. The fundamentals of Bhakti movement built upon professing equality to all and there was no scope for discrimination based on caste and gender. Guru Ravidas, for example, observes author, ‘challenged Brahmins to demonstrate their purity vis’-a-vis’ the impurity of the lower castes’ being born in an untouchable caste (p.14). Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikh religion also advocated equal rights for women. His famous saying, “Women who give us birth, nurture and sustain us should be honoured and not exploited. It is the ignorant who treat them badly” (p.14). But nonetheless, the Bhakti movements, due to its limitation could not sustain for a long and Hinduism overtakes again and continues to exploit lower classes even after post-independence.

The author furthermore describes the British Raj and the forms and practices of caste system. Gandhi, for example, argues author, who was one of the key figures who said to be fought to eliminate the untouchablity. However, he remained a staunch believer and supporter of chaturvarna (The four fold varna system which is the foundation of caste system) and strongly denied the fact that untouchablity is part of the Hindu varna. But notwithstanding this fact, Ghuman quotes Zelliot (1972) who referred Gandhi’s own writing: ‘the law of varna prescribes that a person should, for his living, follow the lawful occupation of his forefathers, but with the understanding that all occupations are equally honourable: a scavenger has the same status as a Brahmin’ (p.17) in which she found that the claim made by Gandhi was ambiguous. Author also mentioned of the other liberal thinkers during British Raj namely Swami Dayanad Sarsawati and Rabindranath Tagore. Like Gandhi, they made some efforts to reform Hinduism, but within its own boundaries- having not questioned about the ‘graded inequalities’ which is the foundation of Hinduism. The former, who established Arya Samaj and become strong supporter of caste divisions (p. 20).

Ghuman also discussed the contribution of Ambedkar, and his legacy further carried by Mangoo Ram, Kanshi Ram and presently by Mayawati. Ambedkar’s conversion along with the huge masses in Buddhism in 1956 was a hallmark of Dalit victory over Hinduism as they found a new ideological and philosophical doctrine which is based on equality for all.

The author also discussed about the contemporary movements who are fighting for the right and assertion of Dalits within and outside of India. Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) whose aim is to unite all the Untouchables, low castes, Muslims and other dispossessed people to challenge the hegemony of Congress government which as treated them as ‘vote bank’ since independence. BSP was successful in its mission when Mayawati became a Chief Minister of Utter Pradesh. This was a historic occasion which inspired Dalits throughout India (p.25).

In the following chapter, Ghuman described a relationship between upper caste Jats and Dalits (Valmikis and Chamars) of Punjab through the several case studies he carried out to investigate the socio-economic situation over a half century, since independence. Through the narratives of Dalit women author reflects upon the plight of Dalit women as they have been a subject of multiple oppressions in the caste inclined patriarchal society.  However, he could observe some sea changes in the lives of Dalits through their struggle of dissociating themselves from oppressive Hindu culture and embracing their own faith and believe system by adopting the doctrines of Guru Ravidas. There are several events that jats and Dalits shared equal platform such as social gathering, etc in which author noticed the decline of caste hatred among them. But nonetheless, Putting Jodhaka’s (2004) observation, author argues that ‘caste continues to be an important marker of social, economic and political life in contemporary Punjab. Caste based segregation is easily evident in the social life in rural Punjab (p.33). 

Furthermore, Ghuman noticed a considerable change in the school educational patterns in a rural Punjab as he found more Dalits are inclined towards education as their prime motivation as they follow the struggle and legacy of Ambedkar through his message, ‘educate, agitate and organize’. The author has also noticed the multiple perspectives on the ‘affirmative action’ from both Dalit and non-Dalit community which has caused a great tussles in the village as well as national level when the Central Government announced fifty percent reservation for the socially deprived (SC, ST and OBCs). Through different narratives from both upper and lower castes, author realized that the village power structure has been changing gradually as most of the Dalits taking part in village administration, and most importantly they are no more rely upon dominant castes for their earning as they were in the couple of decades ago. In this way, ’Dalits have developed self-confidence and belief in their own abilities to undertake major responsibilities in village affairs’ (p. 47). 

Ghuman further points out that family, kinship and biraderi play a major role in Indian Diaspora in order to retain and reproduce the caste traditions in UK. He described the nature of several families through his series of intervention and dialogue with them who settled in UK. He found the practice of caste discrimination is quite common in the religious places, schools, work sites, etc among Indians, especially among first generation migrants. The second generation, he observed, are less exposed to caste issues and they have altogether different experience to pursue caste. Moreover, one of his unequivocal arguments is that, ‘most Dalits expect to have a dialogue and social interchange with their fellow Indians but on equal footing. And it seems that many Jats and other higher caste Indians are changing their traditional held caste attitudes positively, but the process is slow and appears condescending to Dalits’ (p.71).

The issue of identity and education is also a core of Ghuman’s book. He collected scores of narratives from young people of varied social background from different schools in UK. As far as their identity is concerned all children want themselves to identified as either Asian or British or Indian-British etc., no one, as author recorded, want themselves to be identified with their castes. ‘In other words’, author noticed ‘that they do not think primarily as belonging to a caste’ (p.80). However, their responses, author received on certain questions are varied as their upbringing differ. The girls from Chamar caste, for instance, as author noticed, believe that everyone is equal as she follows the teachings of Guru Ravidas. Whereas, girls from Jat community also told that Sikhism is about equality, but they tend to tease their lower caste friends in class on caste lines and they say it is ‘joke intended’.  However, the author takes serious note of this and quoting Allport (1954), he argues ‘that racial jokes tend to reinforce stereotypes of ethnic minority groups and provide rationale for negative prejudice and discrimination’ (p.77).  

In the following discussion author has undertaken teachers’ and parents’ views on caste and educational aspects. Most of the responses author received from upper caste Jat people, they neglected the relevance of caste in UK’s context as they think caste is only prevalent at their native place, India. On the contrary, Dalit teachers and parents altogether have a different experience of caste humiliation in the host society too. In consequence, most of the Dalit parents and teacher believe that education is the only way out to fight for all the odds in the society, especially caste system, and so they are giving a prime importance to education by preferably investing in their children’s education in UK and other countries as well. Moreover, one more crucial observation of author is the growing educational status of Dalits, especially Dalit-girls who are performing as equally well as in their studies with their counterparts from upper caste Indians and also the peers of native country as well.

Last but not the least, the book, provides scholarship on the changing scenario of caste and its reproduction in the host society. However, the study would have been more appealing if the historical trends of caste had been discussed in the Indian Diaspora as caste is prevalent in Indian emigration since its inception, albeit in a sporadic manner. Also, the growing waves of Indian emigration in UK and USA leads to formulate the safeguards for Dalits against caste discrimination which is an historical aspect as far as Indian Diaspora is concerned which is missing in the book. But nevertheless, this works is significant attempt to make a way to generate further theoretical and practical approaches vis’-a-vis’ the caste discrimination in UK. The book, thus acquires a paramount importance not only in the field of Social Sciences in general but also in the areas of Sociology in particular.

Reviewed by Vinod Sartape, Research Scholar, CSSS II, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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