Featured Philosopher: Meena Dhanda

Meena 19 Jan 2016  (2).jpg

Dr. Meena Dhanda is a Reader in Philosophy and Cultural Politics at the University of Wolverhampton. She migrated from the Indian Punjab to the U.K. as a Commonwealth Scholar at Oxford University in 1987. She has published two books: a monograph, The Negotiation of Personal Identity (Saarbrüken: VDM Verlag, 2008) and Reservations for Women (ed.) (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2008). From 2007, Meena has engaged in transdisciplinary studies connected with caste/race, publishing several papers including: ‘Punjabi Dalit Youth: Social Dynamics of Transitions in Identity’, (Contemporary South Asia, 2009); ‘Runaway Marriages: A Silent Revolution?’, (Economic and Political Weekly, 2012); ‘Certain Allegiances, Uncertain Identities: The Fraught Struggles of Dalits in Britain’ (Tracing the New Indian Diaspora, 2014); ‘Do only South Asians reclaim honour’? (‘Honour’ and Women’s Rights, 2014); ‘Anti-Castism and Misplaced Nativism’ (Radical Philosophy, 2015). She has been an active member of the Society for Women in Philosophy UK for more than 25 years.

Doing Socially Engaged Philosophy

Meena Dhanda

[The following is a revised extract from two Keynotes presented at the Women and Minorities in Philosophy conference, University of Edinburgh, 21st April 2016 and the annual Ratio and 7th Experimental Philosophy as Applied Philosophy international conference, University of Reading, 24th April 2016. Many thanks to the organisers for the occasions to voice my views then, and now to Meena Krishnamurthy, for inviting me to publish on her blog.]

When I arrived from India in the U.K., I had assumed that caste was not likely to be an issue in the U.K. I was wrong. My awareness came from chance conversations with students. I also realised that there was little empirical work on caste in the U.K. I was intrigued that, despite the possibility of erasing caste identity and living as ‘equals’ in the U.K., South Asians seemed to maintain their caste enclaves. As a philosopher, it was a big step for me to find out through primary research what kind of caste awareness existed in the U.K. In 2007-8, a research award gave me the opportunity to work on a comparative pilot project interviewing young people in Wolverhampton as well as the Indian Punjab about caste-identity. From 2010-2012, the award of a Leverhulme Research Fellowship gave me further opportunity to engage with the South Asian Dalit communities in Wolverhampton and elsewhere. My initial interest in Untouchability (Dhanda 1993), caste-identity, inter-caste relations and caste-based prejudice, extended to understanding caste discrimination too.

The stories about caste prejudice I heard shocked me. Young Dalits told me that when friends discovered their caste, their behaviour towards them radically changed. They said that as professionals they would prefer to move away from residential areas of high South Asian concentration, because they did not want to face questions about their caste, questions that would inevitably be raised if they stayed within South Asian communities. All this was terribly disturbing. I learnt, that often young people experience caste labelling without having any framework within which to locate this denigration. They may get called a name, be insulted, or joked about, but they don’t understand: why? They may begin from a vague sense that there are divisions between South Asian groups, but sooner or later, especially by the time they are of marriageable age, a full-blown, birth-ascribed, caste-identity catches up. Even those who do not identify with their caste, ‘high’ or ‘low’ (and there are many such people) they too end up being identified by community members as belonging to a caste grouping. There are several caste-based organisations, U.K. charities, which have the purpose of protecting the social and cultural interests of certain caste groups. So, if someone says caste is dying in the U.K. we need to ask them when will this come to pass? Caste is not about to be to eliminated in the U.K. any time soon.

What is the link between the practice of caste, and the existence of caste discrimination? What must a responsible philosopher do about caste discrimination? Can some kinds of caste discrimination be lawful? If caste discrimination is to be eliminated, must we use the law, or address public opinion alone? Are these pragmatic considerations or are there matters of principle at stake here? These are questions that political philosophy ought to consider. There are real people, victims of caste discrimination, demanding that the law should be used to protect them. The law makers are dillydallying, under pressure from powerful lobbies resisting change.

In his Introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Practical Ethics, Hugh Lafollette (2003) notes that to say anything informative, we must make the effort to acquaint ourselves with the facts of the matter. ‘If we do not understand the way people act and the way our world works, we will lack a plausible standpoint from which rationally to evaluate current practices’ (2003:7) and the danger of ill-informed theorising is that the status quo will remain unchallenged. If we want to use ethical theorising to check biases, prejudices, and selfishness, then we must learn to understand how these biases work in the ‘real’ world of people.

If philosophy is taken as the activity of clarification, elaboration or invention of concepts, this activity takes place in the context of problem solving. We start from a given articulation of the problem, say for example, trenchant difference of opinion about the value of a practice (e.g. caste-based endogamy). To make a defensible judgment about the value of that practice, we will need first to understand what the practice means to respective practitioners. We will, therefore, need to gather ‘information’ about the variety of actual positions. For those who want its continuation, the practice may be expressed as definitive of a people’s identity, or seen as necessary to maintain continuity with tradition. It may also be defended as simply a matter of individual choice. For those who oppose that practice, it is equally necessary to their oppositional identity to expunge the practice from their lives. On endogamy, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar wrote that caste causes a ‘division of labourers’ ‘graded one above the other’ (Ambedkar 1936/2002: 263); ‘[a] caste is an enclosed class’ and ‘endogamy is the only characteristic of caste’ (Ambedkar 1916). The defenders of endogamy differ with Ambedkar’s analysis of caste.

I took on a mediating role when setting up a face to face organised deliberation on the value and limits of legal measures against caste discrimination in Britain, specifically on the inclusion of ‘caste’ in the U.K. Equality Act 2010. For this task, I was entrusted with the responsibility of bringing together the fullest range of stakeholder organisations by the U.K. Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) as a part of the project Caste in Britain that I led from Sept 2013 – January 2014, concluding in two published reports (Dhanda et al 2014a and Dhanda et al 2014b). From the start of this project till today, it has been a challenge to maintain the role of a mediator. I have been accused of ‘colonial consciousness’, a charge to which I responded in ‘Anti-Castism and Misplaced Nativism: Mapping caste an aspect of race’ (Dhanda 2015). The U.K. based Alliance of Hindu Organisations (AHO) had conceded in a press release after participating in our EHRC Stakeholders’ workshop that ‘[w]e accept that there is evidence of geographical pockets of discrimination’ (dated 13 November 2013). Nonetheless, after the publication of our EHRC reports, AHO wrote in a letter to the Chair of All Party Parliamentary Group on British Hindus: ‘The word Caste must not remain in Legislation, its continued use is an act of anti Hindu racial and religious violence and prejudice of the highest order’ (dated 20 March 2014).

To untangle the thinking behind such responses to the inclusion of caste in the Equality Act 2010, is a not an easy matter. From regurgitating conceptual muddles, to made-up histories of ideas, to veiled threats of withdrawing political support from their respective mouthpieces in the Houses of Parliament, to personalised attacks on academics arguing for legislation, the opposition to legislation on caste discrimination in the U.K. demonstrates various ploys of power used to subvert orderly discussion. Can a philosopher stand up to such an onslaught? Are professional philosophers equipped to participate in bare knuckle fights? George Yancy’s remark: ‘Only now have I really begun to recognize how discourse designed to hurt can actually leave its mark’ sounds a warning.

‘We desperately need a transformation in philosophy’ as Naomi Scheman said in her dialogue with Kristie Dotson, offering a convincing diagnosis of the straight-jacketing of philosophical practice. Post-second world war professionalization of the subject of philosophy happened alongside a de-politicisation, curtailing engagement with the world beyond the text, and valorising the text as the narrowly defined object of study. This, she argues, in the context of North America was partly a defensive response to McCarthyism and partly an attraction of scienticism. I agree with her Wittgensteinian and socialist bent of mind attuned to looking at the bigger picture, one where: ‘we live in a world of irreducibly divergent perspectives … enmeshed with power and privilege and vulnerability’ (14 April 2016).

Reflection on ‘real’ world problems can generate surprising conceptual connections. I have begun to make one between racism and casteism. I also want to recall a historical connection. The racial division and segregation of the American South was in the 1930s described in terms of two ‘castes’ — ranked, endogamous, ascriptive racial groups— before the language of ethnicity and race itself overtook this (Fuller 2011). For India, there are studies of the racialization of caste both in colonial times and in contemporary attitudes towards Dalits; and the language of racism (or ‘hidden apartheid’) has been promoted by Dalits mobilising to bring international attention to caste discrimination through United Nations forums (initially at the UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance at Durban in 2001).

The opposition to the U.K. caste legislation objects to the comparison between racism and casteism. But there is a historical connection between racial purity and caste purity rigorously argued by Dorothy Figueira (2002). Racism in Europe, took its vicious form of Aryan supremacy, through the imperialist foraging of ancient Indian texts. There are echoes of the racial script of Aryan supremacist thinking within Indian nationalists too: Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) worried that caste Hindus mixing with non-castes, leads to Aryan degradation (Figueira 2002: 137). The idea of racial purity is historically tied to the idea of caste purity – to promotion of ‘breeding’ and to a fear of miscegenation. In the U.K., Casteism is experienced most intimately in the personal domain, but it spills over into the public domain of education, work and services, covered by the Equality Act 2010.

Relying on the comparative analysis of race and caste made by the anthropologist Gerald Berreman I support the advantages of juxtaposing the structural oppressions of racism and casteism, albeit, by spelling out as fully as possible their respective manifestations in the lives of the oppressed. Berreman (1968) warns, that ‘Our silence…. leaves to politicians and journalists, to entrepreneurs, scoundrels….but especially to the powerful – the interpretation and manipulation of matters about which they frequently know little…’ and ‘to shrink from value, from passion, or commitment, is as inappropriate as to shrink from reason…we must seek to apply our knowledge and skills to real problems, defined by us…’.

For me, the real problem is making sense of contested practices of caste. Are caste differentiations and divisions about inequality or are they fundamentally about domination? We cannot hope for a consensus on our understanding of caste discrimination and convincingly establish the point of using the law in protecting victims of caste discrimination, without filling out the ‘bigger picture’. This, for me, is doing socially engaged philosophy.


Ambedkar, Bhimrao R. (1916) ‘Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development’. In Valerian Rodigrues (Ed) (2002) The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Ambedkar, Bhimrao R. (1936) ‘The Annihilation of Caste’ in Rodigrues (2002).

Berreman, Gerald (1968) ‘Is Anthropology Alive? Social Responsibility in Social Anthropology’ Current Anthropology. Vol 9: 5; 391-396.

Dhanda, Meena (1993) ‘L’éveil des intouchables en Inde’ (translated by Isabelle di Natale) in Catherine Audard (ed) Le Respect : De l’estime à la déférence: une question de limite. Paris: les Éditions Autrement – Série Morales Nº 10 – Février 1993 – 120 F. Pp. 130-145. ISSN: 1154-5763.

Dhanda, Meena (2008) The Negotiation of Personal Identity. Saarbrüken: Verlag Dr. Muller. Pages 231. ISBN: 978-3-639-02931-4.

Dhanda, Meena (2015) ‘Anti-Castism and Misplaced Nativism: Mapping caste as an aspect of race’. Radical Philosophy, 192, July-Aug, 33-43, ISSN: 0300-211X

Figueira, Dorothy M. (2002) Aryans, Jews, and Brahmans: Theorizing Authority through Myths of Identity. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Fuller, Chris J. (2011) ‘Caste, race, and hierarchy in the American South’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 17, 604-621.

Lafollette, Hugh (2003) The Oxford Handbook of Practical Ethics. Oxford: OUP.

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