Roots of Racism

Southasia - - Contents - Il­han Niaz is the au­thor of ‘The Cul­ture of Power and Gov­er­nance of Pak­istan, 1947-2008’ and ‘An In­quiry into the Cul­ture of Power of the Sub­con­ti­nent.’ He teaches his­tory at the Quaid-i-Azam Univer­sity, Is­lam­abad.

Pak­istani Chris­tians’ strug­gle for hu­man rights is one steeped in

an­cient roots.

John O’Brien’s ‘The Un­con­quered Peo­ple: The Lib­er­a­tion Jour­ney of an Op­pressed Caste’ is a valu­able and timely con­tri­bu­tion to the his­tor­i­cal study of Pak­istan’s Chris­tians. Draw­ing upon an im­pres­sive com­bi­na­tion of field ex­pe­ri­ence, archival and doc­u­men­tary sources, and care­ful anal­y­sis of mytholo­gies and lit­er­a­ture, ‘The Un­con­quered Peo­ple’ is an in­for­ma­tive and en­gag­ing nar­ra­tive that mer­its a broad read­er­ship. There are three crit­i­cal lessons that can be learnt from this re­mark­able book.

The first is that all re­li­gions in South Asia, what­ever their the­o­ret­i­cal as­pi­ra­tions, are in prac­tice caste based. Of to­day’s 2.8 mil­lion Pak­istani Chris­tians, O’Brien notes that an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity are descen­dants of a tribal caste of the abo­rig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants of South Asia. Dur­ing the for­ma­tive phase of the Hindu caste sys­tem, they were forced into un­touch­able sta­tus by the fair-skinned Aryan higher castes. The pu­rity of the high caste was thus built upon the sys­tem­atic and pro­longed degra­da­tion of the orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants they dis­placed and sub­ju­gated, so much so that the lat­ter in­ter­nal­ized their hu­mil­i­a­tion.

The un­touch­able tribal-caste group an­ces­tors of the Pak­istani Chris­tians were as­signed tasks “such as the clean­ing of la­trines and sew­ers; the re­moval of the car­casses of dead an­i­mals; and the re­moval of corpses…” and con­se­quently re­duced to a “sub­hu­man sta­tus” (8) by the Brah­manic law. So pow­er­ful was this an­cient legacy, re­in­forced by rep­e­ti­tion over many mil­len­nia that the con­ver­sion to Chris­tian­ity had prac­ti­cally no im­pact on their oc­cu­pa­tional role in the caste hi­er­ar­chy.

The sec­ond les­son is that the op­pressed, among them­selves, have their own in­ter­nal sys­tem of op­pres­sion. In the case of the tribal-caste group of un­touch­ables, this sys­tem was a very ef­fec­tive means of neu­tral­iz­ing re­sis­tance to out­siders by di­rect­ing vi­o­lence and ag­gres­sion in­wards. De­prived of the re­spect of so­ci­ety at large, rel­e­gated by mil­len­nia of bru­tal­iza­tion and marginal­iza­tion to oc­cu­pa­tions viewed by oth­ers with con­tempt, their very ap­proach was suf­fi­cient to in­vite ridicule and cause wari­ness among higher castes. The un­touch­ables, be­fore and af­ter con­ver­sion to Chris­tian­ity, re­mained deeply frac­tured and locked in an in­ter­nal strug­gle for Iz­zat.

This strug­gle, of course, is not unique to any par­tic­u­lar group in South Asia. Iz­zat, how­ever, should not be con­fused with honor in the West­ern or Ja­panese sense of the term.

Iz­zat is about the as­ser­tion of dom­i­nance and forc­ing oth­ers to rec­og­nize one’s greater power and/or wealth. Honor, as un­der­stood in the West and Ja­pan is the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the dig­nity of oth­ers based upon self-re­spect. The dif­fer­ence can be il­lus­trated by con­trary ap­proaches to­wards punc­tu­al­ity. In South Asia, punc­tu­al­ity is typ­i­cally pun­ished and the abil­ity to show up late to an event or a meet­ing is a way of sig­nal­ing our in­dif­fer­ence to the re­quire­ments of the host and thus as­sert­ing, of­ten sub­con­sciously, our dom­i­nance. In the West as well as in Ja­pan, par­tic­i­pants in a meet­ing or guests at a func­tion, by be­ing punc­tual sig­nal re­spect for the host as well as oth­ers in­volved thus con­vey­ing a sense of their own dig­nity.

O’Brien’s ac­count, how­ever, leaves lit­tle doubt that even the most op­pressed seek to in­jure each other in the pur­suit of recog­ni­tion within the group. Among other ef­fects of the pur­suit of iz­zat, the poor are caught in chronic in­ternecine con­flict and

chronic in­debt­ed­ness. Both of th­ese re­in­force the sub­ju­ga­tion of the un­touch­ables who are thus driven to squan­der their mea­ger re­sources on pur­su­ing iz­zat within a group that is gen­er­ally de­spised.

The third les­son is that since 1947 the grad­ual dis­man­tling of the sec­u­lar char­ac­ter of the state in­her­ited from the Bri­tish has led to the wors­en­ing of con­di­tions for re­li­gious mi­nori­ties in Pak­istan. The Pak­istani Chris­tians have, un­sur­pris­ingly, been at the re­ceiv­ing end of this trend. De­te­ri­o­ra­tion in their le­gal stand­ing, the grow­ing hos­til­ity of state func­tionar­ies to their needs and as­pi­ra­tions, the free­dom with which peo­ple can tar­get them by us­ing re­li­gious laws, have all eroded the small gains made dur­ing the last 70-80 years of the Bri­tish Raj. The grow­ing so­cial ac­cept­abil­ity of re­li­gious-fun­da­men­tal­ism among the Mus­lim ma­jor­ity has also had the ef­fect of re­duc­ing the pub­lic space avail­able to mi­nori­ties – a point driven home by high pro­file as­sas­si­na­tions of pub­lic fig­ures who dared to speak out against one-sided re­li­gious leg­is­la­tion. O’Brien con­tends that Is­lamiza­tion has pro­vided le­gal as well as so­cial means to im­pede so­cial mo­bil­ity for Pak­istani Chris­tians. This re­in­forces dif­fer­ences in so­cioe­co­nomic devel­op­ment orig­i­nally rooted in the caste sys­tem. It also fans sec­tar­i­an­ism within the Mus­lim ma­jor­ity.

Through­out ‘The Un­con­quered Peo­ple’, O’Brien tries to present the ex­pe­ri­ence of the Pak­istani Chris­tians and their un­touch­able an­ces­tors as a long strug­gle against op­pres­sion sanc­tioned by a com­bi­na­tion of racism and re­li­gion. The very per­sis­tence of a sys­tem of dis­crim­i­na­tion and its re­newed vigor un­der an Is­lamic cover post-1947, in­di­cates that such re­sis­tance as has been of­fered was, and is, woe­fully in­suf­fi­cient and that the lib­er­a­tion jour­ney never really got off the ground. O’Brien’s em­pa­thy with those he stud­ies per­haps leads him to as­cribe qual­i­ties to a strug­gle that, even if it ex­ists at some level, is most re­mark­able for its in­ef­fi­cacy.

Over­all ‘The Un­con­quered Peo­ple’ is worth read­ing for while it reaches deep into South Asia’s an­cient past it also con­nects with im­por­tant con­tem­po­rary is­sues af­fect­ing Pak­istan. The book un­der re­view is one from which spe­cial­ists and non­spe­cial­ists can learn a lot, re­gard­less of whether they agree with O’Brien’s premises and con­clu­sions.

Re­viewed by Il­han Niaz

Au­thor: John O’Brien Ti­tle: The Un­con­quered Peo­ple: The Lib­er­a­tion Jour­ney of an Op­pressed Caste Pub­lisher: Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, 2012 Pages: 352, Hard­back ISBN: 9780199063543 Price: PKR 995

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