About one-sixth of India is Dalits, or “Untouchables.” And while Western criticisms of caste segregation are a long-standing observation about India, I hardly hear serious complaints over the last two decades or so. In contrast, the apartheid system of South Africa met with demonstrations, boycotts, campus activism, frequent dialogue, and so on. Why don’t we see some modified version of the same for the Indian caste system? No matter how you compare its relative oppression to that of South Africa, it still seems like a massive system of unjust and opportunity-destroying segregation, and an efficiency-loser as well. Here are a few hypotheses, not intended as endorsements but rather speculations:
1. The caste system is simply too difficult for most Americans to understand, whereas apartheid could be represented more readily in what I dare not call simple black and white terms.
2. Most of the Indians who migrate to the United States are higher caste or at least middling caste, and they sway American opinions of India in a way that South African migrants to the USA never did.
3. Libertarians don’t want to focus on the caste system because it persists without active government support being the main driver. Democrats don’t want to focus on the caste system because Indian-Americans are often leading supporters and donors. It doesn’t feel like a Republican issue either. So who is there to push this one for domestic ideological reasons?
4. Talking about the caste system makes harder the (justified, I should add) program of raising the status of non-minority whites in America.
5. Talking about the caste system would focus light on caste-based discrimination in the United States, and distract attention from other domestic issues.
What else? Overall I find this a disappointing topic to ponder. Perhaps all politics, like envy, really is local after all.
I am indebted to Sujatha Gidla for a useful conversation on this topic. My formal Conversation with her will be up in a bit, I still recommend her book on caste, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India.