Syllabus overview

Caste is a social disease.

Caste determines social hierarchy and divisions of labour and restricts people’s access to fundamental human rights; it is a form of social stratification with graded inequalities assigned at birth. Endogamy—marriage only within the same caste group—is a precondition of caste ascription (Ambedkar, 1916). Caste produces social, political, and economic dispossession and the denial of opportunities wherever the practice is prevalent—South Asian countries as well as the global diaspora—and cannot, therefore, ensure social justice, equality, fellowship, fraternity, or fairness.

Today, those who most benefit from the inequities of a globalized caste system argue that the modern world, through its embrace of social networks, capital and technology, has effectively become “casteless.” They proudly observe how the “disruptions” of digital networks are putting the question of caste oppression to rest, a relic of older times.

Critical Caste and Technology Studies (CCTS) discards the veneer of a “casteless” modern India and South Asian diaspora —an ideological myth that enables Brahminism, coloniality and tech-driven global capitalism, in much the same way that “post-racial” rhetoric props up racism and racial capitalism. Decades of locally rooted anti-caste activism in the UK and US as well as caste-ist experiences in Africa and Latin America demand the need for a global caste theory akin to critical race theory.

This is where the Critical Caste and Technology Studies syllabus comes in: as a new attempt to organize the field of anti-caste scholarship around a fundamental consideration of communicative practices.

This syllabus offers a communication-, media-, and technology-based critique of contemporary caste narratives. It does so by examining the everyday caste practices of India's present, its economic growth and the rising authoritarian, communal, and Hindutva (Hinduness) political power in India and recently in the UK, Europe, and North America.

This syllabus introduces an account of contemporary caste narratives to counter the growing narratives of “castelessness” and dominant religious identity in the public domain that marginalise Dalits and other oppressed castes by erasing or obfuscating real caste issues. In addition, it aims to unravel how and in what ways caste is embedded in the field of technology influenced by dominant caste origins.

Caste is tethered by the twin notions of varna (social hierarchies classified in Hindu Vedic scriptures) and jati  (a native—south Asian—basis of caste ethnology). The most inferiorised category of the people, a collection of various jati/caste groups who came to be termed the “Untouchables” (Charsley, 1996). Later they self-identified themselves as Dalits (broken people). The Dalit leader Babasaheb Ambedkar also acknowledged the existence of two further "classes" (Ambedkar & Moon 2014: 92) of extreme inferiorisation.

They were "Unapproachables", those who can cause pollution from a distance and the "Unseeables", those who are not allowed to be seen during the day as their sight can cause pollution. Dalit is a political category of most oppressed caste groups, comprising untouchables, unapproachables, and the unseeables.

Caste and Race, Side by Side

Since the very first Census of 1871, the colonial state incorporated caste and religious categories into the enumeration. Caste and tribe were loosely used in the censuses. For example, jats and rajputs were often treated as tribes (Bhagat, 2007, p. 1903) .

The colonial British Empire reified caste through a biological, colonial, and Eurocentric lens (Cháirez-Garza et al., 2021). Herbert H. Risley, one of the earliest Census Commissioner of the British Raj in 1901, inspired by the French anthropologist Paul Topinard, categorised caste with the anatomical characters of the human body. Risley’s measuring of skulls and noses concluded that the “upper caste” (Risley, H. S. H., 1915, p.35) belonged to Aryan/European composition and the “coarse” natives were Dravidians.

Risley’s racialised enumeration of the caste census was one of the earliest big data projects executed by “the state.” However, the Empire's big data project was deeply, fundamentally biased: it “de-notified” and “criminalised” caste groups (Devy, 2000), groups that continue to pay the price in independent India today.  [1]

Fast forward to 2001—the World Conference against Racism in Durban intensified the caste and race debate. The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), an Indian NGO, made an influential—yet unsuccessful—effort to demonstrate that caste discrimination was equivalent to racial discrimination and to therefore seek solidarity from anti-racist activists. It is important to note that the strategy pursued by NCDHR to equate caste with race was a moral claim not a biological one (Erik 2007, p. 6).

Caste Remains as Contemporary Social Privilege

Caste is constitutive of and constituted by social communication that encompasses cultural, political, economic, and developmental aspects of society in India (Shanmugavelan 2022). Caste can be either the pervasive glue or the rupture, depending on one’s caste rank-based perspective, without which social interaction is incomplete in any caste-affected societies.

Manifestations of caste are constantly changing in contemporary societies, but these changes do not mean the annihilation of caste, but rather that caste practices have become “subtler than ever before” (Guru 2009). The inequalities and hierarchies of the caste system affords broad social privileges to those assigned to dominant caste groups. However, for others, especially Dalits, caste can cause humiliation, dehumanisation, and subordination in everyday life.

Caste also serves as the means for opportunity hoarding by enabling caste networks (Damodaran, 2008 & Newman and Thorat, 2012). For example, economists who researched the “connections” between road development and bribes in the case of 88,000 rural roads constructed under the Indian Government's nationwide rural road development scheme (the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana) between 2001 and 2013, suggested that contracts were often awarded based on caste networks (Lehne et al., 2018).

A recent analysis (Vaghela et al., 2022) has shown that Twitter, often cited as a “disruption” and inclusion tool, continues to be a casteist space. In other words, privileged caste social networks continue to exert dominance in digital communication networks. Nevertheless, members of privileged caste groups who live outside South Asia, especially in the US (HAF, 2002) and the UK (PGurus, 2017), continue to claim castelessness or merely describe caste merely as a cultural practice.

The Need for Critical Caste Studies

Critical Caste Studies (CCS) is still an emerging field; however, anti-caste scholars have an increasing consensus on the need to create a syllabus on the subject. Ayyathurai, a founding proponent of CCS, has called it time not only for a syllabus, but for an “interdisciplinary field in which caste is seen as an entrenched social crisis.”

CCS is emerging as a cross-disciplinary intellectual and social movement that examines the effects of caste ideology and practices in everyday lives. Conceptually, CCS is committed to examining the ramifications of caste in social, economic, and political functions through the everyday practices of all caste-affected lives in South Asia and beyond.

The origins of caste cannot be traced back to a single source, and it must therefore be “understood in historical, sociological, cultural, psychological, religious, and ideological as well as legal terms” (Waghuray, 2022, p. 11). Therefore, the communicative practice approach is critical to understand contemporary manifestations of caste as it decentres disciplinary-oriented approaches and alerts anti-caste scholars and activists to the specificity of forms and modes of social interactions in each context (Hanks, 1996, p. 233).

This Critical Caste and Technology Studies (CCTS) syllabus reconceptualises caste as communicative practice in technology studies. As the syllabus illustrates, such an approach is a critical extension of the existing—cultural, ideological, social, structural— approaches to caste because it gives a new angle on understanding everyday caste realities. For example, online matrimonial sites, caste-exclusive online spaces, casteist trolls, hate speech and abuse, and casteism in tech corporations show how deeply do caste networks have the power to shape digital life.

The Communication, Media, and Technology Approach

Media and Internet technology studies, in recent decades, have responded to a justified and much-needed set of critiques about the elision of race, gender, and sexuality analyses in its disciplinary, practical, and theoretical remit. However, the same has not been true in its engagement with caste, which affects a fifth of the world's population. There is hardly any theoretical and practice-oriented research on the interconnectedness of caste, media, communication, and internet technology studies; a detailed bibliometric review of Communication Abstracts (indexing 240 top Media and Communication journals with 360,000 records) showed that only thirteen articles considered the subject of caste (Shanmugavelan, 2019).

Communication- (including communication technologies) oriented critiques of “modern” caste narratives are urgent concerning India's present articulation of culturalising and invisibilising caste into Hindutva (Hinduness) narrative amongst the diasporas. Caste continues to re-manifest in everyday digital cultures. This syllabus will show forms of caste-ist practices such as caste-hate speech, caste pride, discriminatory conditions in platform economies, and casteism in public data initiatives that require critical engagement from western scholarship. However, everyday articulation of caste, when viewed through the lens of everyday practices, is revealed to be inherently communicative. I use “articulation” in this context to refer not to the simple enunciation of words but to the various interactional elements that form moments that result in a discourse (Laclau & Mouffe 2014).

The CCTS syllabus brings out the relationship between caste and everyday communicative elements. Whether benign or the so-called exceptional aberration, communicative elements such as codes, signs, verbal materials such as hate speech, sarcasm, rituals, gendered relations, physical walls or abstract spaces have always been the means of transmitting caste authorities and are often a source of triggering violence (Eco, 1978; Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992). As ever, brutal forms of violence erupt when Dalits and other oppressed caste group members challenge caste rules of communications.

This syllabus will provide the reader with and in-depth and interdisciplinary guide to historical and contemporary understandings of caste and its remanifestations in everyday digital cultures.


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[1] For example, in everyday Tamil parlance, Kepmari refers to a rogue or knave – a criminalised caste group according to the colonial census record. In addition, Kepmari shares a kinship with a Telugu-speaking Jebmaris, another criminalised group, meaning “pickpocket”.