Journalist Manoj Mitta’s book Caste Pride: Battles for Equality in Hindu India is a distinguished account not only because it inspires debate and discussion about one of the most crucial and oft-ignored aspects of the Indian society – caste – but also because it offers archival material at the intersection of law and caste previously missing from any cohesive narrative on caste-based atrocities.

Winner of the 2023 Atta Galatta Book Prize in the nonfiction category, the writer was in a conversation with fellow journalist Smita Prakash in January at the seventh edition of the Kerala Literature Festival. From highlighting what made Swami Vivekananda call the erstwhile Malabar district in the Madras presidency a “lunatic asylum” to underlining how markedly different and easy accessing material on racial injustices in the US is compared to finding texts on caste-based inequalities in India, he covered an array of incidents and legalities in his responses to Prakash’s questions.

Of course, that’s but a summary of what forms his deeply immersive, magisterial book. In an interview with Scroll, he explained what made him make the US-India comparison, the failures of nationalist leaders, and more. Excerpts from the conversation:

You’ve previously written on mass violence When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and its Aftermath (with HS Phoolka) and The Fiction of Fact-finding: Modi and Godhra. You’ve said in the past that you wanted to complete the trilogy with another book on mass violence. So what made you write Caste Pride?
Yes, the original idea for the third book was mass violence targeting Dalits, especially the major instances that I had dealt with during my journalistic career. But when I got down to revisiting those instances and delving deeply into them, I was struck by the intensity of the structural bias betrayed by the Indian state in denying justice to erstwhile untouchables. To my surprise, I found that the existing literature on caste shed little light on why there was such a gap between the rhetoric and reality. Hence, I widened the ambit of the book to tracing the legal history of caste. The book brings out a wealth of archival material on legislative and judicial battles fought over two centuries on different aspects of caste.

In your book, you also underline the fact that when it came to caste, the freedom fighters and liberal icons were reluctant to work around their blind spots. Among an array of such incidents, what was the most revelatory or perhaps shocking for you in that aspect?
During the colonial period, the Hindu mainstream, as embodied in Congress, was unconcerned about the oppression of untouchables even as it strove for political reforms. So, the one who broke the silence on untouchability in the Imperial Legislative Council in 1916 was neither a Hindu nor a Congressman. It was a little-known Parsi legislator called Maneckji Dadabhoy.

What’s perhaps even more revelatory is the pushback from within Congress two years later against a reform meant to benefit Hindus across all castes. It was a Bill seeking to legalise inter-caste marriage and to confer legitimacy on the children born to such union allegedly forbidden by scriptures. The Bill was introduced in 1918 by Vithalbhai Patel, the elder brother of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Far from being welcomed, it was met with vehement resistance from the two most prominent Congress leaders in the Legislative Council, Madan Mohan Malaviya and Surendranath Banerjee. Shockingly, from outside the House, even Gandhi opposed the move to allow inter-caste marriage.

Would you say that the unwillingness of our leaders Motilal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, and Jawaharlal Nehru to engage with the everyday reality, in which they were obviously oppressors, resulted in the present state of caste inequality? What do you feel they could have done differently?
Indeed, when it came to caste, it was difficult to say who was progressive and who was conservative. The prejudice was so deeply ingrained that it surfaced in the most unlikely persons in the most unlikely situations, as detailed in the book. The folly lay in their adoption of the line of least resistance to caste, in neglecting or sidestepping the question of equality within their society while fighting for liberty from colonial rule. These unresolved social battles of colonial vintage [are] a major reason why postcolonial India is still so steeped in caste.

You also highlight a crucial miss on the part of Dr Ambedkar, too. (He wasn’t aware about the repealing of Section 10.) You relate this miss with the relevance and importance of your work. Tell us what led to this lack of accessibility and socialisation of crucial legal discussions and judgments. And how were you able to excavate them?
Your reference is to the mistake made by Ambedkar in a statement as an opposition leader in the Rajya Sabha in 1954. It was about a barbaric form of punishment that Madras had introduced in 1816 reserving it expressly for lower castes. The rationale was that it would not be demeaning to a lower-caste person to be “confined in stocks”, meaning for his legs to be clamped in the holes of a wooden frame installed in a public square. Though the provision for confinement in stocks had been repealed about a century later in 1919 at the instance of Indian reformers, Ambedkar talked about that form of punishment in 1954 as though it was still in force. If the greatest thinker on caste made such a mistake, it was obviously because, unlike me, he did not have an opportunity to look up Madras archives. This is illustrative of the kind of new material that the book offers on the intersection of law and caste.

At this year’s Kerala Literature Festival, you compared the situation of gross negligence – advertently or inadvertently – when it comes to caste-related atrocities in India with the abundance of legal documentation in the US when it comes to racial crimes. Why is there a big gap here and what would you recommend to address it? Was this one of your prime reasons to work on this book, and do you feel it stands as a correction against historical misses?
What kept me going through seven years of research and writing was this contrast between India and the US. If I had attempted a book on the intersection of law and race in the US, I would have struggled to find anything substantially new to add to the existing literature. But on the intersection of law and caste, the state of the research could not have been more different. By default, purely by default, each one of the 18 chapters in my book makes quantum leaps in terms of new information on the intersection of law and caste. This gap arose from the fact that nationalist historians were content to focus on the freedom struggle against colonialism as the villain was the foreign ruler. The parallel struggle against social evils, particularly the different manifestations of caste, received little attention as the villain was the elite of Hindu society. Freedom fighters were not necessarily equality champions.

It’s heartening to find that your book highlights the importance of looking at the intersection of caste and gender by sharing several practices like Sati and marriage-related inequalities. Over the years, how would you say the situation has fared? People continue to get into trouble when the marriage happens to be inter-caste. There’s a seemingly liberal outlook towards marriages and now that queer people are fighting for the right to marry, what issues are faced with us as a society? Do you anticipate such marriages mimicking the caste-heteropatriarchal script?
Many of the battles for equality covered in my book do have both caste and gender undertones. The concept of Brahminical patriarchy popularised by Uma Chakravarti comes through most vividly in the debates that raged over 30 years to enact the law on inter-caste marriage in 1949. Though I haven’t followed closely enough the recent debates on same-sex marriage, I am afraid this reform too, if and when it is enacted, will take a long while to gain social acceptance. Though Vithalbhai Patel initiated the legislative process for inter-caste marriage more than a century ago, endogamy is still the norm among Hindus. Even in progressive states like Tamil Nadu or Kerala, there are still instances of inter-caste marriage triggering honour killings.

With a book like Caste Pride, one is always faced with the question of what to keep and leave out. Could you let us know if there were a few things you felt could be rendered in more detail or perhaps be included?
I am luckily spared such a dilemma because a lot of the stuff that I could not accommodate in Caste Pride will be coming out in a sequel that I am currently working on. As you know, this book is thematic. The next volume will have themes that do not figure in Caste Pride. Such is the extent of the academic neglect of the legal aspects of caste that I promise that the next volume will also be bursting with new material.