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Roots of Racism

Written by Ilhan Niaz  •  February 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Roots-of-RacismJohn 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 non-specialists can learn a lot, regardless of whether they agree with O’Brien’s premises and conclusions. 

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


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 is currently an Assistant Professor of History at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

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