Citizenship, Caste, and Equality in Britain

This talk by Prakash Shah, which can be heard (with PowerPoint slides) here, was given at the Roskilde University in Copenhagen on 20 March 2015 as part of its Cultural Encounters seminar series and was chaired by Prof. Prem Poddar.

The received version of multicultural citizenship articulated by British political theorist and sociologist Tariq Modood gives the impression that jurisdictions show their commitment to multiculturalism by bringing dimensions of alterity of new citizens into the public, political or legal framework of a society. The recent legislation in the United Kingdom making discrimination on grounds of caste unlawful as part of its Equality Act of 2010 helps uncover a critique of this received model of multicultural citizenship.

It demonstrates the power of the framework of Orientalism, which lasts well into the post-colonial period and is projected to Indian diasporic sphere. That framework has infested discussion, debate and law-making in the UK to the extent that it appears impossible to articulate any alternative position on caste. It even appears impossible to have it registered that the existing framework is indeed Orientalist and therefore presents only one culture’s experience of another, but cannot grasp the experience of Indians.

The story of the caste legislation also tells us something about how Western law functions in relation to the Indian culture of the diaspora. Although it is one of a number of social structures within Western culture, in its educative role, it reinforces the dominant framework by adding its power to it.

In this presentation Prakash Shah outlines the different aspects of the caste legislation and relevant case law and links them to Orientalism and its framework of the caste system in India, which is itself dependent on a Christian account of Indian culture and society. It helps show that in order to discover the framework governing the way contemporary Britons speak and legislate about caste we have to refer back to the basis of such constructions in Christianity and Orientalism. It also shows how a segment of contemporary Western law depends on the same constructions, reinforcing the claim made by S.N. Balagangadhara that Western institutions of law depend non‐trivially upon the presence and existence of religious (and even theological) ideas to make much sense to a people.

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