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THE MOST PERSISTENT OF EVILS

A History of Prejudice: Race, Caste, and Difference in India and the United States By Gyanendra Pandey, Cambridge, Rs 595

Prejudice is so embedded in the attitudes of men and women in all societies that it is easy to think of prejudice as a part of the natural order of things. Yet any conception of a better and nobler world has to be free of the idea of prejudice. This, of course, is easier said than done. But one way to approach the problem is to look at the history and the practice of prejudice. Gyanendra Pandey proceeds to do that in this book, which looks at the experience of Dalits in India and of African-Americans.

Prejudice is rooted in difference — differences of colour, race, religion and so on. On the idea of difference is overlaid constructed conceptions of superiority and inferiority, and thus prejudice always articulates itself as a statement of power. The very name, Dalit, conveys a relationship of power since it literally means crushed.

Pandey locates the manifestation of prejudice at two different but intersecting levels and registers. One is what he calls the “vernacular’’ — the visible and often acknowledged and with local variations — caste prejudice, prejudice against blacks, gays, Jews, conquered or immigrant populations, women and so on. These kinds of prejudices, because they are visible and at times explicit, are often condemned. Because of the condemnation, people have become more cautious and reluctant to make public these prejudices. Anti-Semitism is an example of this tendency. This is not to suggest that such prejudices have disappeared. Far from it.

The other level — Pandey calls it “universal’’ — is more difficult to pin down because, in the author’s telling words, it is “everywhere and nowehere’’. It is universal since it “passes for the common sense of modern society, rarely acknowledged as prejudice’’. It is the language of law and the state.

Pandey elaborates this point since it is elusive and often not accepted. The discourse of the enlightened modern emphasizes reason, order, equality, but understates the role of violence in the establishment of capitalism, empire and the nation-state. It avoids its own discomfort with slavery, racism, untouchability, genocide by “declaring them as aberration or exception, the work of deviants or criminals or of people who are simply not modern enough’’. Modernity speaks of freedom, prosperity and peace but for some people the delivery of this promise is always deferred. The non-modern, the backward and the deviant in their various localities become victims of prejudice.

Pandey illustrates the point about the deferral of the promise of modernity with a telling quotation from none other than B.R. Ambedkar. During the Indian Constituent Assembly Debate on the fifth and sixth schedules for “tribal areas’’, he declared, “The Aboriginal Tribes have not as yet developed any political sense to make the best use of their political opportunities and they may easily become mere instruments in the hands either of a majority or a minority and thereby disturb the balance without doing any good to themselves.’’ The “tribes’’ were thus not ready to be full participants in the project of the modern. The modern, Pandey states provocatively, is narrow-minded.

Pandey looks at the experience of two groups which have not easily been appropriated by the narrative of modernity — the African-Americans and the Dalits. In the retrieval and the reconstruction of this experience, the historian faces what appears to be an insurmountable problem. This is the one pertaining to sources and archives, the two principal scaffoldings of the historian’s craft.

Prejudice is difficult, if not impossible, to document and archive. How does one record the look of contempt and disgust directed towards the untouchable. Since the voice of the latter, till very recently, hardly ever entered the archives, the signs of oppression went unrecorded. Moreover, so much of prejudice is not overt and so many who see themselves as being without prejudice find themselves unwittingly almost implicated in the practice and the system of prejudice.

Space does not permit Pandey’s vivid reconstruction of the lives of the African-Americans and the Dalits. What is more important is that the book is a challenge: challenge to the way we think about ourselves and the world around us: it is also a challenge to what we think to be our history and what that history excludes. He who is without prejudice, let him criticize this book.