Academic Report Minds of Caste

Academic Report
Minds of Caste
An interdisciplinary seminar on how Caste identities shape the
held on 4 September 2015, 5.30-8 pm at
University College London,
Ned Dostaler, Assistant Editor, Anthropology & Medicine journal
Sushrut Jadhav, Division of Psychiatry, University College London
17 October 2015
U C L - V i c e
P r o v o s t
I n t e r n a t i o n a l
This event was supported by UCL's Grand Challenge of Inter-cultural Interaction, UCL Office for
International Affairs, UCL Science, Medicine and Society Network, & Research Councils UK
India. Convened by Sushrut Jadhav, UCL Psychiatry and facilitated by David Mosse, SOAS and
Caroline Selai, UCL Institute of Neurology. The event formed part of the UCL Cultural
Consultation Service Grand Rounds (
“Freedom of mind is the real freedom.
A person whose mind is not free though he may not be in chains, is a slave, not a free man.
One whose mind is not free, though he may not be in prison, is a prisoner and not a free man.
One whose mind is not free though alive, is no better than dead.
Freedom of mind is the proof of one's existence.”
― B.R. Ambedkar, Writings And Speeches
In 2012, Murali Shanmugavelan spent 15 months living in a village researching
everyday communicative practices of the Arunthathiyar, a Dalit1 community in
Tamil Nadu. During his fieldwork, Murali met Veerachami, a leader of the
Arunthathiyar community and respected interlocutor amongst and between all the
different caste communities in the surrounding localities. Over time, as a bond of
trust, camaraderie, and solidarity was built between the two of them, Veerachami
confided in Murali that, despite the respect he had come to attain from maravar
caste groups in the village, he was deeply scared of the upper caste
communities. "They are okay with me as long as I am useful to them,” he told
Murali. “This whole thing is an arrangement. It is like grooming a stray dog. As
soon as they do not need me, they will finish me.”
Needless to say, Veerachami’s caste identity affects his ‘mind’. Living in a state
of constant fear takes a toll on his mental well-being. Indeed, he once told Murali,
“Talking to them [marvar caste group members] is like shaking hands whilst
holding an egg in your armpit,” an analogy that speaks to, even allows one, if
they are willing to use their imagination, to understand the embodied fragility of
Veerachami’s everyday existence. Over his thirty plus years studying caste in
India, Professor David Mosse has witnessed a similar trend: with the social
sanction and criminalization of public expressions of caste untouchability his Dalit
informants tell him that caste has turned inward, now residing as a “feeling inside
the mind/heart”. In Tamil Nadu, these relations – the social, political, economic,
and religious relations – that shape how caste influences individual and
Dalit is a self-chosen political name of the castes South Asia who were formerly considered
"untouchable" according to the Hindu varna system.
communal minds is captured by the Tamil phrase caathi puthi or ‘caste mind’.
Professor Mosse suggested that in the era of human rights, earlier forms of
‘honour humiliation’ in caste orders are replaced by ‘dignity humiliation’ – that is
the violation of claims to equal rights.2 He raised the question of how such
humiliation impacts on mental health, particularly, noting the experience of ‘social
defeat’, which threatens many Dalits in elite institutions with ‘intolerable distress’.
But what is this “caste mind”? Caste has been a topic of study for centuries.
However, the critical relationship between caste identity and mental well-being is
curiously unexplored. It was just this gap that the ‘Minds of Caste’ seminar,
convened by Dr Sushrut Jadhav, on 4 September 2015 at University College
London, sought to investigate3. The unique inter-disciplinary seminar, chaired by
Roland Littlewood, Professor of Anthropology and Psychiatry, and Jonathon
Wolff, Professor of Philosophy, UCL, was made up of a critical mass of scholars
from the UK and India, including Murali. These scholars – Dalits, Brahmins, nonbrahmins, white Europeans, development practitioners, and a clinician
anthropologist among them – have been at the forefront of studying caste in India
and abroad. This international academic event, attended by over three hundred
people, followed the first ever seminar on this topic held in Pune 2002, also
convened by Dr Sushrut Jadhav in collaboration with Dr Bhargavi Davar.4
A range of issues was debated.
What are the psychological dynamics between
victims and victimisers of caste based discrimination? How does caste shape
individual minds and determine collective mentalities? Why and how does caste
discrimination impact the inner lives of both the perpetrators and their victims?
The terms ‘’honour humiliation’ and ‘dignity humiliation’ come from the work of Evelin Lindner, a
scholar whose research focuses on human dignity, and she believes that the humiliation of honor
and dignity may be among the strongest obstacles on the way to a decent world community.
The video recording of the seminar is available online at
This event was written about in the Times of India (“Dalits beat the drum of pride”, and HIMAL South Asia (“Caste on the couch”)
What might be the cultural and psychological pathologies of the perpetrators of
casteism? What is the nature of the stigma and disclosure of caste identity? How
is caste identity psychologically managed, both individually and collectively? How
is caste merit constructed and perpetuated? Is caste essential to Indian cultural
identity? Does conversion help? To what extent do casteism and racism overlap
or differ in their psychological antecedents and consequences? Can anti-racist
interventions in the clinic (what is generally known as inter-cultural therapy) be
applicable to the Indian context? And for whom?
Professor Sukhadeo Thorat, Chair, Indian Council of Social Science Research,
opened the panel with a presentation that skillfully moved between the personal
and the professional – a theme that was present throughout the seminar,
reflecting the deeply personal nature of caste for all of the panel members – as
he narrated his own experience of caste discrimination as well as some findings
of his research on the socio-economics of caste in India. To those who know
about the reality of caste relations in India, it, sadly, comes as no surprise that,
as an ‘untouchable’, Professor Thorat was harassed as a child his rural village in
Maharashtra. However, even after rising through the ranks of academia and civil
service, the discrimination continued. Indeed, hidden behind the opaque walls of
bureaucracy, his capacity to serve as the Chairman of University Grant
Commission was called into question on the basis of being born into a Dalit
The continual discrimination of individuals like Professor Thorat is, in part, the
result of how Indian society constructs identities based on ‘merit’. Although the
term ‘merit’ conflates academic with social merit, its unpacking remains
surprisingly absent from upper caste discourses on who deserves a higher
status. As Professor Gautam Gawali, Professor of Psychology at the University
of Mumbai shared, numerous studies have demonstrated that if a ‘low’ caste
individual attains success, it is attributed to external factors such as affirmative
action policies; yet if they fail, it is attributed to personal shortcomings and there
is a tendency among the upper caste to naturalize it. Conversely, the success of
‘high’ caste individuals’ success is attributed to individual ‘merit’ whilst their
failures are attributed to external factors.
Prof Thorat’s experience is a humble reminder that caste and class mobility are
inextricably linked; yet even when an individual climbs up the ladder of social
mobility their caste identity stays with them and they often suffer because of it.
What does this do to an individual’s psyche? How does one mentally experience
being successful but still not good enough? While we know it often causes
suffering and agony, little is known about the mechanisms behind or experiences
of it. Yet, as the experiences of Veerachamy and Professor Thorat demonstrate,
it is something that is in dire need of in-depth study.
At the seminar, Professor Ashwini Deshpande of the Delhi School of Economics,
with extensive academic expertise in the economics of discrimination, shared her
new project that seeks to understand the relationship between caste identity,
stigma, and affirmative action policies. Both critics and proponents of affirmative
action policies express concern about the stigma that the recipients of affirmative
action suffer from. Professor Deshpande calls this a “double stigma” as the
recipients are stigmatized both for their caste identity as well as for being the
recipient of affirmative action. There is extensive evidence that shows that, when
made aware of the societal beliefs that recipients of affirmative action are less
competent, the recipients of affirmative action decrease in their academic
performance. This is usually perceived as self-doubt. Drawing upon two
hypotheses – the stereotype content model (SCM) and the stereotype threat
model (SST) – Professor Deshpande seeks to understand why and how selfdoubt manifests amongst recipients of affirmative action in India. The results of
her current study will offer insights on how best to develop and implement more
effective affirmative action policies that reduce the burden of stigma for the
recipients of these policies.
There was agreement amongst all of the panelists that affirmative action policies
are necessary yet insufficient to address caste-based discrimination in its
entirety. But what else is needed? By approaching the topic from the perspective
of a clinical anthropologist, and in attempting to deal with the difficult question
offered by his informants – they asked, “We are happy that you will try to
understand cultural psychological experiences of discrimination, but once you
open up our wounds, what will you do next?" – Dr Sushrut Jadhav offered a
provocative series of reflections on how to practically address the psychological
suffering of the victims of caste-based violence. Drawing primarily upon the work
of Franz Fanon, Augusto Boal, and Dalit resistance movements, Dr Jadhav
suggested that any cultural psychological intervention must consider an essential
dictum ‘the oppressed and the oppressor are within all of us’. This is crucial as
caste related dynamic is a relational category. In fact, in response to a question
of whether the issue of caste conflict could be only resolved through a revolution
in India, Dr Jadhav suggested a psychological revolution was indeed possible
and testable if novel inter-cultural therapies that he hypothesized were piloted. Dr
Jadhav also cautioned against pathologising the ‘victims’ given the trend within
mental health studies that selectively edits out the role of ‘oppressors’ as in the
discourse on the pathologies of ‘post-traumatic disorders’.5
In this contemporary age of globalization, caste related suffering is not confined
within the borders of South Asia nor does it always work in a linear fashion
through which the so called ‘upper-castes’ exert their hegemony over Dalits.
Meena Dhanda, Reader in Philosophy and Cultural Politics at the University of
Wolverhampton with a track record of leading research on caste related issues in
the United Kingdom, including the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission
project on ‘Caste in Britain’ with Prof David Mosse as co-investigator, was forced
to confront this reality in June 2011 when she received an email from a young
British Punjabi man in distress. He wrote, “I would like to share my appalling
experience with you.” He was the son of devout Sikh parents (from an Other
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can develop after a person is
exposed to one or more traumatic events, such as major stress, sexual assault, warfare, or other
threats on a person's life.
Backward Caste community according to the Indian categorization) and was in
love with a woman from a Scheduled Caste community. Their parents reluctantly
agreed to meet to discuss the proposal of marriage but all communication broke
down due to a heated exchange of words, fuelled by specters of Caste
incompatibility. In exasperation, the young man wrote: “Not only are we the same
skin colour, but we speak the same native tongue, eat the same food and have
shared the same stereotypical Indian experiences.” Dr Dhanda replied to his
email within an hour of receiving, but she never heard back again from him; he
had not read her reply. Three months later she received an email from his sister
that contained the horrific news: he had committed suicide. His last message to
the world, written in an email to Dr Dhanda, was this: “I would like to emphasize
that it is not only those who belong to the lower tiers of caste segregation (or as
you like to refer to them SC) that suffer from the injustice. Whether you are
viewed as an exclusive member of this bogus society, or whether you are
considered as an untouchable, we are all victims!”
Dr Dhanda’s evocative story draws attention to the need to study the entire caste
hierarchy, rather than, as has been done to date, focus on Dalits alone. It is just
this that, Nilisha Vashist, a PhD student at UCL who spoke at the seminar, seeks
to understand through an ethnography of caste and pedagogy on the campus of
an elite Indian university in India, which she will undertake starting in Autumn
Following presentations from all of the panel members, the seminar continued
with a lively, seventy-minute Question and Answer session that delved into topics
relevant to the public, academic, and policy spheres of caste. Questions were
raised about the past – i.e. what are the historical roots of “caste mind”? – and
the future – i.e. how do we practically deal with the often devastating effects of
caste on individual and collective minds? Questions were posed, and comments
made, by students and professors, victims and beneficiaries, NGO workers and
academics. The underlying tenor of dialogue, a question felt equally by the
panelists and audience, was: So, what’s next? What research needs to be done?
Who should be doing that research? (E.g. Should a white, British male study
caste?) What are the implications for the currently fashionable global mental
health models that gloss over the landscape of local landscapes of suffering?
How do we take the insights from the academy into the boardrooms of policy
makers and, ultimately, towards the benefit of those who face caste
discrimination. The seminar raised many questions, and opened many doors to
the possibility of future research on this topic.
The seminar concluded with a reading of a gripping poem, Overcast, by award
winning British poet and author Ruth Padel, building on insights from S. Anand,
Caste on the Couch: Do Brahminical Ideologies Permeate Indian Psychological
Theory?6 and Gopal Guru’s paper ‘Archaeology of Untouchability,’7, and alluding
implicitly to the May 2015 murder of a Dalit nursing student in Maharashtra for
saving Ambedkar songs to his mobile’s ringtone.8 The poem imagined, from an
outsider’s perspective, a perpetrator reacting to contact with a Dalit. It offered an
ironic corrective to his thoughts in the voice of a so-called Brahmini kite (a
scavenger species in India) and ended with the idea that the
perpetrator, as well as victim, is shadowed, or ‘Overcast’, by the caste system:
But no, the wildlife keep quiet
and the cowherd, in his flip-flops, switches one last
bony rump. The day’s begun. But the split
anxious purifying is never done.
The buffaloes have passed.
You walk on home
but the toxicities, swirling
Himal, April 24, 2003
Economic and Political Weekly 2009
See article in The Indian Express titled ‘Dalit youth brutally killed in Maharashtra for saving
Ambedkar song as ringtone’ (
at the bottom of the self, won’t go away
and you feel, now and always, over-cast.
The experience of many affected by the caste system is, indeed, over-caste. And
if we are to get over caste then we need to acknowledge, study, and act upon the
circular relationship between caste and mind. This engaging seminar was one
more step towards addressing a ‘Holo-Caste’ that is deeply pervasive yet ignores
a social pathology that infects over 1.2 billion people in the Indian sub-continent,
of which approximately 300 million are Dalits.
Jai Bhim!9
Jai Bhim, which literally means “victory to Bhim” (in honor of Dr Bhimrao R Ambedkar), is a
greeting phrase used to express solidarity with Dalit communities.