Does Europe have a civilizing mission in India?

[Appeared in Neurope on June 16, 2008]

Recently, the European Parliament hosted a meeting on “caste discrimination in South Asia”. At the meeting, participants stated that “India is being ruled by castes not by laws” and that they demanded justice, because there “is one incredible India and one untouchable India.” The EU was urged to come out with a policy statement on the subject. One MEP, referring to the caste system, said that “this barbarism has to end.” This is not the first time. However, before the EU decides to publish policy statements on caste discrimination in India, we would do well to reflect on some simple facts.

First, the dominant conception of the caste system has emerged from the accounts by Christian missionaries, travelers and colonial administrators. Rather than being neutral, these accounts were shaped by a Christian framework. That is, the religion of European visitors to India had informed them beforehand that they would find false religion and devil worship there, and that false religion always manifested itself in social evils. Especially the Protestants rebuked the “evil priests” of Hinduism for imposing the laws of caste in the name of religion. They told the Indians that conversion to Protestantism was a conversion to equality. Thus, Indian souls were to be saved from damnation and caste discrimination.

Second, this Christian account of “the Hindu religion” and its “caste system” informed colonial policies in British India. Building on the theological framework, scholars now wrote “scientific” treatises on Hindu superstition and caste discrimination. The Christian mission found its secular counterpart in the idea of the civilizing mission, which told the West that it had to rescue the natives from the clutches of superstition and caste. One no longer promoted religious conversion, but the colonial educational system harped on “the horrors of Hindu society.”

Third, the colonial educational project had a deep impact on the Indian intelligentsia. Hindu reform and anti-caste movements came into being, which reproduced the Protestant accounts of Hinduism and caste as true descriptions of India. Their advocates did not adopt these descriptions as passive recipients, but actively deployed them to pursue socioeconomic and political interests. Political parties and caste associations were created to safeguard the interests of the “lower castes.” The elites of these groups united in associations and received financial and moral support from the missionaries and other progressive colonials.

Fourth, the “Dalit” movement of today is the product of these colonial movements. The notion of “Dalits” makes sense only within the colonial account of India, which had postulated the existence of one single group of “outcastes” or “untouchables” that was supposedly exploited by the upper castes. In reality, it concerns a variety of caste groups, with no criteria to unite them besides the claim that they are all “downtrodden.” Indeed, many of these groups are poor and discriminated against by other caste groups. However, their socio-economic interests have been hijacked by some of their western-educated elite members. In the name of the downtrodden, these elites establish NGOs and then travel from conference to conference and country to country in order to reveal the plight of the “Dalits” to eager western audiences and secure funding from donor agencies.

Fifth, when present-day Europeans rebuke Indian society for the “barbarism” of caste discrimination, they are reproducing the old stanzas of the civilizing mission. Such a stance of superiority perhaps worked in the context of colonialism. But today, at a time when Indians buy some of the European industrial giants and Europe is in need of more collaboration with India, it is ill-advised to continue this type of civilizational propaganda.

In fact, such propaganda derives its plausibility from a series of assumptions that no one would be willing to defend explicitly. It attributes all socioeconomic wrongs of the Indian society to its structure and civilization. The implication is that there is only one way to get rid of socio-economic wrongs here: one has to eradicate both the social structure and the Hindu civilization. It is as though one would blame the racism, binge drinking, pedophilia, poverty, homelessness and domestic violence in the contemporary West on its age-old civilization.

The times have changed. As Europeans, we need to reflect on our deep-rooted sense of superiority and how this informs our moralizing discourse on human rights in other parts of the world. To appreciate the impression we give to Indians with our statements on caste discrimination, just imagine a possible world in which the Indian government regularly castigates the US for its racism against African-Americans and the disproportionate death penalties, and the EU for the treatment of South Asians in England, Turks in Germany, women in Romania, the Basque movement in Spain, gypsies in Italy … just imagine Indian members of parliament consistently blaming the very structure of western societies as the cause of all these wrongs. Europe needs to wake up fast. The time of colonialism is over. If we do not change our attitudes, the irritation towards the EU will grow in countries like India and China. So will the unwillingness to collaborate. In the fast-changing world of the early 21st Century, Europe cannot afford this.

From New Europe, Issue 786

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