Contrary to popular belief, the caste system is not exclusive to India nor Hinduism. It is a violently oppressive social classification system that operates across religion, throughout South Asia and its diaspora. Caste deeply structures local and global access to kinship, safety, and capital, yet is often treated as an afterthought (if addressed at all) in Western conversations about racial justice and critical tech. The myth of castelessness conceals how diasporic dominant caste South Asians are beneficiaries of sophisticated power networks.
We spoke to Murali Shanmugavelan, author of the Critical Caste Tech Studies syllabus and researcher based at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. Murali speaks thoughtfully to each of these dynamics and highlights the expertise of Dalits and Adivasi who actually developed the technologies attributed to “exceptional Brahmins.” It’s the very people being written off—by predictive risk modeling, platform governance or high caste chauvinists—that have historically maintained the genetic diversity within agriculture or possessed the craftsmanship skills to suture the small parts within the devices we’re all so reliant on.
Khadijah: Can you hook us up with an overview of what caste is and how it’s reproduced?
Murali: Thanks, Khadijah, for the opportunity to explain this, because it is absolutely vital to explain what caste is. People often talk about caste as a discriminating category associated with India; caste is an endogenous category. It is not an invention of the British Empire as dominant caste Hindus want us to believe. Caste is formally acknowledged in constitutions in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, India, obviously, and Nepal. You have the Banghi (Methors) in Bangladesh, manual scavengers who happen to be regarded as Dalits. The caste system is non-exclusive to India and prevalent throughout South Asia. It is also not an exclusive product of British colonialism and, in contradistinction to dominant narratives, predates the formation of the Indian nation state.
The second thing to note is that caste is not exclusive to Hinduism. I understand and acknowledge that Hinduism, in its Vedic scriptures, has very strong elements of the Varna system, but caste is a very common set of discriminating rituals and practices prevalent across religious communities which is why we see Syrian Christians from Kerala who behave like Brahmins, and also why there are Dalit Muslims and Christians. Having said that, let us not undermine what's going on, particularly in India at the moment, where casteism is being further catalyzed and re-instantiated by Hindutva.
We need to have a non-essentialist approach to the caste system and understand it capaciously, in all its multifaceted dimensions. The essentialist approach is all about purity, pollution, Hinduism— no, no, no. What we are looking at here is a fluid system where caste can express, adapt, re-adapt, manifest, de-manifest and re-manifest its perils in different situations.
Not in any particular order, there are 3 key features of the caste system:
One, endogamy, reproducing a social group by mandating reproduction within same caste marriages and assigning caste at birth. These caste assignments are linked to occupation and designations of human worth.
Two, patriarchy, the way dominant caste people of all genders subordinate oppressed caste women and how men dominate and subjugate women within their caste.
Three, supremacy, extreme social stigmatization including literal untouchability for those labeled either lower caste or outside of the caste system. Dominant caste groups such as Brahmins and Kshatriyas are by contrast deemed spiritually pure, transcendent and deserved thinkers ordained by the gods.
[Bhimrao Ramji] Ambedkar's idea of graded inequality is particularly important when talking about caste because caste is not a zero-one or binary system within a vertical social hierarchy. The caste system is particularly poisonous because each hierarchical group maintains their position, maintains the boundaries of that social location, by kicking out anyone that doesn’t belong. The other key element that both Ambedkar and Periyar emphasize about the caste system is that it is attached to the division of laborers as opposed to the Marxist conception of a division of labor. Within the South Asian historical and political context, if you do a certain kind of labor, if you do a certain kind of work, then you're considered menial as a human being.
Division of laborers is a very important concept in understanding how the caste system uniquely operates beyond a set of financially exploitative labor practices. Labor is attached to the caste system. That is why Gandhi said “the ideal Bhangi,” the ideal manual scavenger, should perform his or her tasks and that's essential to the society, which is also reflected in Narendra Modi’s narrative. In a sense, I would argue the caste system is pervasive and is the social glue that joins the dots from Gandhi to Modi.
Khadijah: I always reflect on Tapan Parikh, the Savarna tenured professor who fired me from Cornell Tech(nion).1 One day, he said something along the lines of “white people, they've been on this oppression shit for like 400 years, they don't really understand how to create a society of control. India, they have a very, very sophisticated form of social classification that has anticipated all potential scenarios and in which everyone knows their place. You can make judgments about whether this form of social classification is egalitarian or not, but these white people who claim that there is some kind of meritocracy have a public script that no one even believes in. White supremacy has not offered a set of social practices and classifications that is as fine-tuned as India.” Within this exchange he evangelized Marxism as the only accurate theory of social classification and the economic base underpinning it.
Relatedly, what catalyzed his anger and my ultimate termination was that I publicly criticized Abeba Birhane, a prominent scholar of AI ethics, for tweeting an endorsement of the current prime minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, and his genocidal war against the Tigray region. The point that [Parikh] made to me privately, but can also be discerned from the series of publicly released messages he sent leading up to my firing, is that he identified with Birhane and what he perceived to be an unfair demand on the global South diaspora from dominant groups. Not only was the implication that some forms of social domination have legitimacy, but he narrated the links between Ethiopianism, Oromophobia, and a Marxist defense of Brahminical superiority. I don’t think there’s as much public fluency around the contours of Ethiopian politics as compared to Hindutva in India. In retrospect there’s a set of preexisting linkages between Ethiopianism and Gujurati merchants that financed the Indian Ocean slave trade, dating back to the 17th century and rearticulated in many way through contemporary ICT4D (information and communications technology for development) scholarship.
Murali: Karl Marx infamously wrote that the moment we have infrastructure and technology—roads, communication—the caste system will begin to erode. That's what he infamously predicted in his writings on South Asia. The real problem with appropriating Western Marxism to understand non-Western situations is that it doesn’t accurately predict the future in the caste-affected geographies. Marxism doesn't work within South Asia in particular because the primary premise is not work indexed to class. We have a division of laborers, not division of labor. This is sociologically and conceptually different.
If you look at the Indian Marxist Party movement, it’s led by people from very privileged, dominant caste backgrounds. In fact, we have a very popular Marxist intellectual EMS Namboodiripad from Kerala who criticized Ambedkar’s anti-caste struggle as “[leading] to the diversion of people’s attention from the objective of full independence to the mundane cause of the upliftment of the Harijans.” We also have a term called Bhadralok, it’s a term which is used to refer to upper middle class and dominant caste Brahmins in Bangladesh. Also, if you look at Bangla literature, especially coming from the Indian side of Bangladeshi literature, it's mostly written by so-called Marxist Brahmins. Up to the present day, in the Indian scenario, the Brahmins control most of the Marxist party.
Khadijah: This is also mirrored by the Central Committee of the CCP under Mao, which was composed primarily by the Han while never explicitly claiming to exclude other nationalities within China. Thinking about the central committees of Marxist parties in Ethiopia, they were primarily Abyssinians.
Murali: Which is why if anyone tells me that they are a Marxist, I have to dig into that person's identity first before I trust them. I think Marxism in a non-Western society is a kind of privileged option and not always a recipe for social radical movements.
Khadijah: I've been thinking a lot about this comment that Indians have the social classification thing on lock and, relatedly, how caste is central to Silicon Valley without being substantively engaged as such. Can you elaborate a bit more on these connections?
Murali: What has been happening for centuries in South Asia is being reproduced in Silicon Valley. It's a gradual, organic and systematic result of the caste system. First, South Indian Brahmins, with their attendant networks of relationships and capital, began migrating to the United States of America. Second, their relationship to India’s civil servant agency helped facilitate this outward migration to the US. If you talk to someone in the US who happened to be a South Indian dominant caste person, happened to be living there for one or two generations, they would likely state, “Oh, my grandfather happened to be working for the British government.” There's a lineage of social capital that gets narrated as happenstance. Third, part of the impetus for this movement to the US from the postcolonial Indian state is that dominant caste citizens in states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, they felt the heat from radical social justice movements and concluded “oh, we can't do anything here.”
I was talking to a very radical Tamil Brahmin lady several years ago doing a PhD in the UK. After listening to me for a few minutes, she said to me, “Oh, you talk so much like a Tamil politician. What are you doing in London? Why don't you go back home and do the reform?” I responded by asking, “So what do you do here?” to which she answered, “Well, I can support you (doing your work over there).” You can see the mechanism, “you go back home. I will stay here because I'm comfortable where I’m at.” This is just one example that illustrates contemporary diasporic caste politics. When Dalits enter the equation, they disturb Brahmin capacity to conceal the sophisticated networks of power and subordination that make their positions possible.
Khadijah: The move from techno-solutionism to insisting that these machines are socio-technical systems hasn’t been coupled with a discussion clarifying how those of us in this space define the social. What does a critical caste approach have to say about that?
Murali: I'll give you a specific example. The word “pariah” is codified in the Oxford, Cambridge and other English dictionaries as a generic term evacuated of its original social context. The word pariah comes from Paraiyar and its etymological meaning is from Tamil. Paraiyar means drum. If I actually call someone Paraiyar, “Hey Paraiyar” in Tamil, it's actually considered to be caste offensive. It's very humiliating. It's deeply dehumanizing.
What has happened to that word now? When the British reified the caste system, they interpreted the paraiyar as a generic signifier for “someone being ostracized.” So now, the UK media states that Ukraine is a “pariah country.” In the academic world, Hannah Arendt essentially stated that the Jew is a pariah. Max Weber wrote of “journalists as a sort of pariah caste,” referring to their conditions in modern media. You can see how this term circulates within the Western academy without engaging with its casteist origins.
This refusal to mitigate casteist violence is de facto enshrined within social media platforms’ discrimination policies and practices as well. These platforms monitor for discriminatory behavior by filtering and labeling keywords that correspond to their in-house hate speech lexicons. While anti-Blackness is a central animating force driving social media, posting the N-word with a hard R is conceived as a keyword that should be automatically flagged, reported, and removed. Clearly that’s not consistently enforced, but the point is that it is legible as a pejorative term specifically targeting Black people, rooted in histories of slavery and racial subjugation.
Whereas the specific social significance and origin of the word “pariah” is not even legible within the logics of platform content moderation. As a result, today, a dominant caste person online can tell someone, “you pariah, you should shut the fuck up.” If the aggrieved party went to the social media platform and said, “Look, I have a problem, someone called me Pariah,” the response is, “So what? There's nothing wrong with it, it’s been a politically neutral term for social outcast in the English lexicon forever.” So the circulation has become more fluid, more intense, and digital cultures are extremely caste insensitive as a result. Dalits and oppressed caste people are vulnerable to unique forms of humiliation and violation, but there are few forms of protections on offer within the digital or offline world.
Khadijah: This reminds me of how when somebody calls and accuses you of child abuse or neglect, the entire household present at the time of investigation (or suspected to be present) is entered into the state central registry (SCR). So the parents, the grandparents, the cousins, the sexual and romantic partners, all of those relationships, are encoded within the SCR. To this day, the number one risk factor within the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST), by their own admission, is “does the mother have child welfare history?” This reflects the hereditary transmission of shattered bonds, as well as the condition of being placed under monitoring, surveillance and so called “prevention services.”
Thinking alongside your critical caste scholarship, another way to rephrase the central question animating family police and their algorithms is, “How do we stop parents, especially poor Black mothers from contaminating the next generation with their pollutant behavior?”
One AFST co-developer, Emily Putnam Hornstein, a white neocon and, horrifyingly, an adoptive parent of two black kids, published a report for the American Enterprise Institute stating that Black people disproportionately are targeted [by AFST] because they're disproportionately dysfunctional, and that to have black children languishing in dysfunctional Black homes would be the real racism. Her partner in crime is Rhema Vaithianathan, a Sri Lankan immigrant to New Zealand and a Health Econometrics professor. I'm not fluent enough to talk about the caste politics of Sri Lanka, but I wonder how we can think about situating [Vaithianathan] in relation to the more recognizable valence of white supremacist neoconservativism.
Murali: Let’s step back for a moment. Predictive tools are fundamentally biased. What are you trying to predict? What results do you hope to achieve? The question itself has social biases in. You know they’re not going to try to predict why rich people are evil, are they?
Khadijah: I love that question. No, they’re not.
Murali: They're not going to predict that. They will be predicting who's burdening the system. This racialized notion of people who burden the system is itself a biased question. So we need to take a step back. Predictive tools are not something new, especially for someone like me coming from a caste system. It’s clear that the desire to predict “deviance” or the hereditary transmission of polluting behavior is deeply ingrained within our social systems. Growing up, my dad brought his salary home around the first day of the month, and by the fifteenth day it ran out, and then we had to run on credit. This is actually a back-to-back situation. My mother had to go to the grocery shop, or send us, to request the items be purchased on credit. She would always assure them that we would pay it back in a week's time. Repeatedly, the grocery shop people would say, “No, we're not giving you any more credit. You're not worthy of it.” That's a predictive tool. That's a predictive tool that categorized our family as unworthy due to our caste location, despite the fact that we actually paid our credit on time when it was extended to us. So my mother had to beg every time, and it was humiliating. I remember very distinctly a time when the guy tried to flirt with my mum and my mum had to leave the place. Predictive tools are a very sociologically biased system. There is nothing neutral about them at all.
So when I read about the Allegheny Family Screening Tool, I said “what the flying F.” How would this predictive model classify the risk my family poses to their children and grandchildren? What are the metrics they’re using? Automated decision systems or predictive risk models are always about racial, gendered and casteist types of metrics. The pre-digital world’s sociologically grounded metrics are simply being transported into the digital world. I was absolutely floored when I read about AFST. These tools should not exist in the first place.
Someone like Rhema needs to be unsettled on a few grounds. First of all, she doesn't represent most people of color. Most brown people in the West love fancy talk about racial equality because it doesn’t require them to reveal their own caste privileges. Rhema reveals herself by being part of this project.
Khadijah: You developed an extremely important resource that otherwise didn’t exist during your time at Data & Society, the Critical Caste and Tech Syllabus. Can you say more about what a critical caste lens requires of us when thinking through technology?
Murali: I will open up with a quote from India's first prime minister, who is widely regarded as a “socialist.” He is a Kashmiri Pandit (Brahmin) scholar named Jawaharlal Nehru. He was responsible for many good things in India, and I'm not going to deny that. But then he also made an interesting statement that I continuously return to, “Dams are India's modern temples.” What does that mean? Indian temples are not inclusive and dams are not inclusive either. Casteist opinions frequently come out in historical analogies and metaphors. If you look at who principally developed technologies, it was mostly Dalits and oppressed caste groups because they are the actual doers. They are the doers, farmers, geneticists, they were the people who actually built dams. They are the people who do everything—cloth weaving, everything. But that's been completely erased by conventional historiography covering the Indian freedom, anti-colonial movement. Meanwhile Savarna will frequently say, “oppressed groups, they know nothing.” So, my quest here is trying to revive the dead—the argument that's pushed below the ground. The reality is that we have been the guardians and custodians of technology for a bloody long time. But right now, the whole narrative is completely twisted.
Khadijah: In Lisa Nakamura's essay about semiconductor manufacturing on Navajo Reservations, she emphasizes how the Fairchild Factory selected the reservation as a site partially because it was exempt from federal minimum wage. Moreso, she emphasizes how Indigenous craftswomen and weavers had the detail oriented, visual-spatial expertise crucial for minute transistor or semiconductor innovation.
Murali: India used to have over 100,000 rice varieties. All coded by natives. All coded and genetically preserved by natives and Dalits. Can you fucking compare that with any other scientific achievement by the so called flawless Brahmins? Now we only have around 6,000. Every time I see this example, it is really mind boggling to me. Dalits, Adivasis, had a gene bank for centuries. I want to put that fact back in the record!
Khadijah: How do you think through race and caste as distinct but in relation to each other?
Murali: I think all oppressed groups share a solidarity plank and that's absolutely natural, inevitable and organic. It’s not unnatural to kind of relate between the problems and challenges faced on the grounds of race and caste. For example, I am humiliated. I am defamed, and I am punished on the basis of caste. Black people are also humiliated, defamed, and punished on the basis of race. When we share similar outcome-oriented challenges, we share that solidarity plank and we can work together. You've been punished? I've been punished. How do we work together? However, there's a big caveat. Triggers are different for Black people and Dalits. What triggers our humiliation? That's quite unique, that's quite distinctive, that's quite exceptional. That has its own history, sociology, political issues and class and gender issues. So I don't think I would for a minute tell a Black person, “Oh, we share the same problem.” No, no, we can share similar outcome-oriented challenges. We are humiliated. But do I know what you actually go through on a daily basis and what triggers you to arrive at places where I too have politically arrived? I don't.
Unfortunately, Isabel Wilkerson's book [Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents] does this kind of flattening between race and caste. She subsumes everything into a kind of a ladder like, ‘let's put caste up as a supra category and then within the supra category you have race, you have the Holocaust, and we have India.’ That's not how it works. I'm not rejecting Isabel, but I'm being respectful of my fellow humans’ misery and their humiliation and their difficulties. I cannot even say I share the same triggers as my Dalit sisters. I have to be very mindful of that. At the same time, I completely understand we share common experiential ground. We are all humiliated. We are all disrespected. Some of us are raped. Some of us are sexually abused. Acknowledging common challenges is what it takes for all of us to unite. To work together to fight against oppressive forces while not disrespecting each other’s important and very distinctive triggers. That's being respectful. I'm so emotional right now.
Khadijah: Take a minute. I appreciate that, because solidarity requires vulnerability. There’s a wariness re: cross-racial solidarity, which we can argue as being right or wrong, that ultimately comes from legitimate grievances…
Murali: I think what you and I do, the way you and I communicate, is a stellar example of being respectful to each other. We have a common solidarity plank, but we do not take each other's triggers for granted. We don't take each other's experiences for granted. I can't simply go to my wife and say, I know what Khadijah is going through. That's fucking bullshit. But, I know the reason why we are together. This is the perfect example of being respectful to each other. With each other, for each other and others.
1. Correction, June 22, 2023: Logic(s) initially misidentified Tapan Parikh's caste. Dr. Parikh, in his June 16th Medium post, stated that he belongs to the Baniya caste, and later amended the word Baniya to the term Vaishya. Dr. Parikh chose not to further comment in response to our fact-checker.