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Moral Insights into Caste Wars

Narendar Pani

By David Edmonds
Routledge, London, 2006, pp. 145, price not stated.


Every once in a while we come across a book whose value is greatly enhanced if seen in a context other than the one for which it is explicitly written. David Edmonds’ ‘Caste Wars’, claims to be no more, and no less, than a philosophy of discrimination. It focuses on the ethics of treating people as if they are parts of groups. Despite its provocative title, it has little time for caste wars that are a part of Indian society. The closest India gets to the book is a passing reference to VP Singh’s Mandal adventures. And yet it is only when seen in the context of the course caste wars have taken in India that the basic arguments of the book come alive.   The arguments for and against reservations in India have developed a rather painful predictability. Once we know a social group a person comes from it does not require great insight to predict which side she will be on. A Westernized upper middle class Indian is almost always on the side of merit against reservations. An upper caste rural Indian is equally strongly against the current practice of reservations, but would be willing to change her mind if she was included among those who benefit from the experiment in affirmative action. And the Backward Castes and Dalits, especially in rural areas, are determined to strengthen reservations and even extend it to the private sector.   This near total identification of individuals with a social group raises questions that go beyond the specific Indian context. Can we have a society in which no groups exist? If groups do exist, are all of them equally reprehensible? And, what must be the role of affirmative action?   Edmonds addresses these issues from the realm of ethics and moral theory. It is a route that relies less on historical example and rather more on critical reviews of Rawls, Kymlicka and Dworkin. This route also ensures that his concepts are characterized both by rigour and a degree of inclusiveness. Nowhere is this more marked than in his definition of caste. He prefers to ‘define a caste as a group of people who have a characteristic in common that affects their lives in important ways, and where this characteristic constitutes an important part of their identity’. This definition clearly includes race as a caste and does not rule out the possibility of individuals having ...

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