Caste, race, politics


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THE arguments in this paper are set out in two stages. I will first point out why caste should not be seen as another variant of race. If this position is sustained then it follows that casteism is not racism under a different name. In the second section I hope to demonstrate the political consequences, some quite damaging, if caste were to be equated with race.

For a long time anthropologists and sociologists felt that the ‘caste-is-race’ thesis was dead and buried. Obviously, it was not given a decent enough burial for it surfaced again in the context of the United Nations conference on racism held in Durban in August 2001. The heat and dust raised during the Durban conference necessitates a return to some of the points made much earlier in scholarly contributions on caste. Though, on occasion, the professional academic might get a sense of deja vu while going through this paper, the fact that the parallelisms between caste and race are still compelling enough for many political activists demonstrates that something was obviously missing in previous presentations. In my view, the best way to nail down the caste-is-race thesis is to logically show how this equation is politically misleading if not, in fact, dangerous. To do so it is ineluctable that the distinction between caste and race be made more fulsomely than before, keeping in mind all the while that this exercise has clear political implications.

Why is caste so often mistaken to be another kind of racism? There are two reasons for this. One is a misreading of Vedic texts inspired by the distinction made by early Indologists between fair Aryans and dark Dravidians. The other reason for equating caste with race comes about because there are some similarities between the ways blacks were treated in southern United States, or in apartheid Africa, and the treatment meted out to so-called ‘untouchables’ in caste Hindu society.



There is no doubt that people known as the Aryans came to India around 1,500 B.C. in successive waves and settled down in the Indo-Gangetic plains. But there is no unambiguous evidence to suggest that these in-migrating Aryans were physically of a different sort from those who were already living in this region. What is clear, however, is that the Aryans who came across the mountains brought in a different language that was quite distinct from the families of languages spoken by the people who were earlier inhabitants in the land mass which we now identify as India.

There also appears to be good reason to believe that Aryans met with some resistance from autochthonous peoples of this region. It is, however, far from clear whether Aryans overcame such opposition by superior military might, or by ideological warfare, or by hard-nosed diplomacy. The evidence seems to suggest a combination of all three.

Early European Indologists took a shine to the notion that fair Aryans conquered dark Dravidians in remote history probably because it justified such a re-enactment in colonial India. But what is more surprising is the alacrity with which some Indian intellectuals internalized this position and began to draw racial lines of distinction within Hindu society.

There is a well-worn sociological clichˇ which says that the dominated people often appropriate aesthetic standards of the superior community. This seems to have happened in India as well. Thus, those from Punjab and the northern regions proudly took on the mantle of being Aryans and distanced themselves from the darker people of the southern provinces of India as they considered them to be Dravidians. Even a staunch Hindu nationalist like Bankim Chandra felt a sense of pride in the belief that superior Aryan blood coursed through his veins.

Those from the South, not to be undone by all this, began demonizing Aryans and all those who claimed ancestry from them. This was how the Dravida Kazhagam and later Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam rationalized their demands for secession from the Indian union several decades ago. So the caste is race thesis played a politically divisive role during the years of our nationalist struggle against colonialism. If left unattended it will continue to be divisive, though ‘racial’ opponents may be arraigned differently at different times. But we are already jumping ahead of our presentation.



In terms of empirical detail a lot more is required than has been provided so far if the theory of the racial origin of caste is to be made convincing. The factual evidence given in favour of this point of view is exceedingly exiguous. In fact, the manner in which dark skin and fair skin have been read into Vedic texts is itself highly disputable. What is interpreted as ‘fair skin’ in the Vedas could easily mean, and most probably did mean, ‘light’, in which case it was not a matter of skin complexion but of knowledge. The Aryans then distinguished themselves from others not by their complexion, but by their belief that they were in possession of superior knowledge and wisdom. They were the carriers of light, and that is how they dispelled the darkness and ignorance that reigned during pre-Aryan times.

Further, there is only one passage in the Vedas that purportedly depicts the Dravidians as being ‘nose-less and bull-lipped’. The Sanskritist, Hans Hock has convincingly demonstrated that this particular sentence in the Vedas has been translated and interpreted in a highly dubious fashion. The same word, viz., anas, can also mean a person of poor speech and not someone who is nose less.



If the Aryans indeed brought in a new language then it is only natural that they should emphasize proper speech and pronunciation (uccharan) to differentiate themselves from those others over whom they ruled, or with whom they had an uneasy relationship. The term bull-lipped can also have a variety of meanings. Remember, the bull is not really looked down upon in India as it is in many European metaphors (see Hock 2000). The bull in Indian tradition is not seen as dumb and obdurate but strong and determined. So the evidence from the Vedas is far from conclusive. Moreover, what is most striking is that this description of the autochthonous original inhabitants is to be found in only a single passage in the Vedas, and yet so much has been made of it.

It should also be noted in this connection that the term Varna in the Vedas need not necessarily mean skin colour. Varna can also refer to order. Therefore, if there were four Varnas, or two (as in the early Rg Veda), then it signified that the society was stratified along four orders, or two orders, as the case may be. Each order was supposed to have a colour pennant of its own as they represented different phases of the sun’s journey around the earth.

The rising sun, the grandest of all, was red, and this was the colour given to the ruling kshatriyas. Brahmans were signified by the colour white because that was supposed to be the colour of the sun at noon. Vaishyas were yellow because that is the colour the sun took in the East, and finally sudras were blue, for that was the hue of the setting sun. To extrapolate racial segregation from factual material of this order is indeed far-fetched.

It will then have to be admitted that even the Vedas concede that kshatriyas are superior to brahmans as they represent the rising sun. Further, from where does the colour yellow get any material substantiation? Why have yellow or red not received any attention from those who argue in favour of the racial origins of caste? Why are many of us committed to a two race theory and not a four race one? Quite clearly the thesis that caste originated from race is flawed as it is based on flimsy evidence.



The race argument takes a further beating when we study gene distribution and racial measurements along caste lines. Once again no clear pattern emerges between different castes on the basis of the distribution of heavy gamma chains and light kappa chains in their genetic makeup. It has also been pointed out in this context that the presence of African haplotype among some people of North India obviously means that the term ‘African’ is a misnomer (see Field, Surje and Ray 1988: 34).

Much earlier in 1960, Majumdar and Rao conducted a statistical study of so-called race elements in Bengal and came to the interesting conclusion that there were overwhelming physical similarities between high and low castes within the same geographical region. But the story was different between different regions. Upper castes in one area differed a great degree from upper castes in a different geographical locale. The same held true between lower castes in different regions of the country (Majumdar and Rao 1960).

In an influential paper published in 1990 in Current Anthropology, an international team of scholars undertook anthropometric exercises and found no differences between different castes. They took three important measurements, viz., head length, head breadth, and bizygomatic breadth. After examining a wide range of material they came to the conclusion that all efforts ‘at typological/"racial" classification should be abandoned’ (Majumder, Shanker, et al.).



Interestingly enough the various smritis, like the Yagnavalkyasmriti and the Manusmriti strongly disapprove of marrying outside one’s caste. Out of such cases of miscegenation, the smritis argue, that new and despicable castes are formed. Thus the chamars were born out of the union of a vaideha and a nishada. In the case of the lowliest of the low caste, the chandals, something much, much worse is said to have happened. A brahman woman had sexual relations with a sudra man and, not surprisingly, therefore, a monster in the shape of a chandal was born (see Gupta 2000: 71-2).

Note, no matter how fanciful and spiteful such origin tales might be, nowhere is it said that the child of such unions is half a vaideha and half a nishada, or half a brahman and half a sudra. The miscegenes of such highly despised unions belonged to a different breed altogether, to a completely different caste. Mixed marriages, in such cases, do not result in mixed off-springs but in dangerous and impure outcastes.

This situation changes when we move from caste to race. Children born out of inter-racial unions, however, are socially recognized to carry the strains of both parents and are thus classified as hybrid, mulattos, octoroon, quadroons, and so on. In many racist societies, mulattos and mestizos have greater privileges and occupy a higher rank than other blacks. We will have occasion to return to this when we discuss the differences between the politics of caste and race.

It needs also to be mentioned that it was commonplace to have a black cook or wet nurse in white homes in racially segregated ante bellum southern United States. While blacks were despised they were not considered polluting. Imagine the horror that would be aroused in the home of a traditional privileged caste in India at the very suggestion of an untouchable cook in the kitchen. Thus, while racism at its height might consider blacks to be despicable, it did not regard them as polluting.



Additionally, in a racially segregated society one’s sense of identity gets stronger as one moves from the particular to the more general level. In other words, it does not matter if the person is from Belgium, Germany or Holland, as long as the person is white. Any further sub-classification is not necessary and may indeed take away from the power of racial consciousness. Likewise, to be considered black it is not at all important, or relevant, to know whether the person is from Botswana or from Nigeria. If the person is black then that is enough regardless of where the person comes from.

Caste identity works in a reverse direction. Caste loyalties gain in commitment the more localized and particularized they get. It is not enough to be a brahman but to be a brahman of a certain endogamous jati, such as the kanyakubja brahman or chitpavan brahman or barendra brahman. In many cases this may not be enough either, and further sub-divisions are necessary. The same holds true for rajputs, jats and kayasthas, and indeed for all other caste clusters as well.



This brings us to the crucial analytical difference between caste and race. Strata based on race are arranged along a continuum of colour. Whites occupy one end and blacks the other of this hierarchical ladder. The colours in between are positioned accordingly along this scale. This is why those who are one-eighth black are superior to those who are one-fourth black and so forth.

In Washington, light-skinned blacks set up an organization called the Bon-Ton Society in the 1930s. To be a member of this society was fairly prestigious for mulattos of various degrees, but they had to pass two qualification tests. Their skin colour had to be lighter than the standard brown paper bag, and when a comb was run through the prospective candidate’s hair it was not supposed to meet with any resistance. In Nashville around the same time there existed the Blue Vein Society. This too was formed by light-skinned blacks, and they too wanted it to be quite an exclusive affair. The criterion in this case was that the fine blue criss-cross of veins on the applicant’s wrist should be easily discernible (see Gupta 2000:91-2).

In the Caribbean, in Latin America, and in the United States there are a range of terms to encompass those who are not black but not quite white either. Harry Hutchinson found eight terms in Brazil distinguishing different shades of black (Hutchinson 1957: 120). Charles H. Parrish listed 145 different terms to denote fine shades of colour distinction in the United States (Russel, Wilson, Hall 1992: 60). Malcolm X, the famous Black Muslim leader, confessed in his autobiography that he was favoured over his siblings by his mother because he was lighter skinned than them. Melville Herskovitz studied successful black couples in Harlem and found that as many as 56.5% black men married light-skinned women (ibid: 116). The really successful black men like Quincy Jones, Justice Clarence Thomas, O.J. Simpson, James Earl Jones, and even the revered Frederick Douglass, all had white trophy wives.



The colour continuum is in many senses objective and demonstrable. There is little point in a black person claiming to be white if the person’s skin colour and features do not help to back this claim. On the other hand there are a large number of light-skinned blacks who want to be taken for whites and often succeed in ‘passing’ off as one. This phenomenon of ‘passing’ has been widely noticed and commented upon in the United States. Journals such as Ebony, Jet and Essence, which have a predominantly black readership devote pages to help black women solve their ‘hair problem’. Straightening one’s hair and cosmetically changing the colour of one’s eyes are quite well-known among black people in America (see ibid: 47). In other words, blacks accept white aesthetics and would like to be like them if it was possible. The only way this could happen is through inter-marriage.

This is probably why blacks in America have a low sense of self-esteem, nor have they much use for their heritage. This is also evident in the politics of Louis Farrakan. Farrakan urges blacks to reform themselves, to be caring parents, and to be hard working and diligent breadwinners. If blacks are in a bad way, Farrakan would argue, the prevailing black way of life is certainly not going to help them come out of their misery. The ‘black is beautiful’ phase is now more or less over in the United States. As many as 72% blacks prefer to be called blacks and not Afro-Americans (ibid: 71; see also Gutman 1976: 309).



Caste-based stratification displays very different characteristics. To begin with, it is impossible to construct a uniform hierarchy of caste based on the notion of purity and pollution. No caste would acquiesce to its placement among the so-called ‘untouchables’. No caste would agree that members of other castes are made up of substances better than theirs (Gupta 2000: 72-85; see also Appadurai 1974). No caste would like its people to marry outside the community. No caste would like to merge its identity with any other caste. No caste accepts that it has originated from a shameful act of miscegenation. Any suggestion of being half-breed is dismissed haughtily across the board by all castes (see Gupta ibid).

It is true that castes try to elevate their social status through a process known as Sanskritization. This term should be handled carefully for it can give rise to certain misinterpretations. It is not at all true that those castes that emulate the lifestyle of powerful brahmans, or kshatriyas, or baniyas want to merge their identity with these castes. The viswakarma brahmans have Sanskritized much of their lifestyle but do not want to marry chitpavan or saraswat or any other kind of brahman. They want to stay separate but would claim equality with, if not superiority over, other brahmans and prosperous castes.

Sanskritization does not mean merger with other castes. On the contrary it is a show of defiance and an extraversion of what the caste always believed in an introverted fashion all along. In the past, members of such Sanskritizing castes dare not work out their ambitions, or express them in any way, for fear of being punished by wealthier and powerful castes. But now with democracy and an open market economy such displays of self-assertion are gaining prominence. In Rajasthan till a few decades ago, jats could not wear a turban, carry arms, or ride a horse (see Sharma 1998: 83). Jats today flout all these restrictions against them, but in the 1930s they encountered stiff resistance from rajputs. Now that jats lead a lifestyle similar to rajputs it does not mean that jats want to merge with rajputs, or ‘pass’ off as them.



While Sanskritization may involve some amount of emulation of the powerful caste of the region, it is not as if the upwardly mobile Sanskritizing caste is ready to jettison all its earlier beliefs and practices. Castes always differentiate themselves from other castes on multiple fronts: on how they get married, how they conduct their funerary ceremonies, the cuisines they cook and prefer, and even on the basis of gods that they each castes considers to be special to its members (Gupta 2000: 77-85). Each caste has a clear idea of which caste it considers to be below it and which ones roughly equal.

Endogamy, or marrying within one’s jati, is a strict rule that all castes hold dear. It is not at all true that poorer castes are less punctilious in observing their caste norms. Each caste inspires its own variety of caste patriotism for which reason jati puranas, or origin tales, are such an important aspect of their cultural legacy and heritage. All dominated castes explain their subjugation, not on the basis of purity and pollution, but on the basis of lost wars, chicanery and deceit by kinsmen and fair weather friends. Sometimes the gods too are blamed for being fickle, inconstant and temperamental in bestowing their favours (ibid: 73-78, 116-129).

Unlike the distinctions used to demarcate racial separation, there is no objective indication of which category is to be placed where in the caste hierarchy. As no caste accepts that it is less pure than other castes, though it would easily grant that brahmans are ritual specialists, there are probably as many hierarchies in practice as there are castes. In the past when the economy was controlled by rural oligarchs and petty potentates, the hierarchy on the ground was the one that was ordained by the superior caste of the region.

Other castes had to acquiesce to this or face brutal consequences. They dared not express their version of the ‘true’ hierarchy. With the growth in commercialization, urbanization and democracy, poorer castes are becoming bolder and now have the courage to openly express what they have always held dear but dared not manifest in any form in the past.



The distinguishing characteristic of the caste order is the discrete character of its constituent units that resist being forced into a single hierarchical frame. As these castes are discrete and semaphore their separation on multiple fronts, caste competition is built in at various levels. It is only by accepting the reality of multiple hierarchies that we can conceptually make room for the existence of caste politics. If one were to go by the traditional understanding of a single hierarchy of purity/pollution, with brahmans at the top, then any evidence of caste conflict should have meant the dissolution of the caste order.

Nor is it true that caste politics is a recent phenomenon. All through traditional and medieval India castes have fought and slaughtered each other to gain worldly preeminence. Once a caste is politically and economically powerful it can then live out its own believed-in hierarchy. This is as true of the Gujara Pratihara and Rajput kingdoms in medieval India (Chattopadhyaya 1976: 59-82), as it is of jat supremacy in Punjab several centuries later, and of baniya ascendance in Rajasthan and Gujarat today (see Babb 1998; Shah and Shroff 1975).



The difference between traditional and modern displays of caste politics is not that there were no power struggles between communities in the past, but that the format for such competition and strife has now changed. Democracy and commerce have created new avenues that were not available to caste antagonists even in early colonial India.

If one is to understand caste politics in its vivacity and depth it is necessary to appreciate that in the caste situation there are multiple nodes. Jats are against gujars, together they are against urban castes; kolis are against patidars; thevars oppress pallars or the devendrakula vellalas; the vanniyars torment adi dravidas, even as many of them may be against, or for, brahmans in their local settings (see Radhakrishnan 2001).

Caste alliances such as the KHAM (kshatriya, harijan and Muslim) and AJGAR (ahir, jat, gujar and rajput) are made and then cast aside. New alliances come into being with quite different caste friends and enemies. Even as castes may enter into political alliances, however ephemeral, they do not drop barriers of endogamy, though they may occasionally ease up on inter-dining restrictions.

Race politics gets its charge from the bipolar antagonism between blacks and whites. Half breeds, mestizos or quadroons are of no consequence. They have to align themselves with one side or the other. They cannot form an independent front of their own. In America till about fifty years ago the ‘one drop rule’ applied. This meant that if a person had as low as one-sixty fourth black blood, then the person was considered black. This is why many who would like to ‘pass’ as whites cannot easily pull it off. As the Black Panthers put it in America: ‘You are either part of the problem or part of the solution.’ There is no other alternative.

As castes operate on the basis of separation into discrete categories, which then fashions multiple hierarchies, the single hierarchy principle of race would be quite alien to it. Consequently, caste politics would be imbued with a logic quite different from what obtains in racist politics. It is because many members of India’s literati did not quite appreciate this and, perhaps unconsciously, applied the race model to caste politics that they let the Mandal recommendations pass without too much opposition.



In the view of these pro-Mandalites, caste politics in India is really between powerful brahmans and the oppressed rest, just as in race politics it is whites versus blacks. In fact, brahmans do not always occupy the top spot in most hierarchies. And whenever brahmans hold such a position it is because they have economic and political power to match. But this would still be a very small and atypical part of the entire caste and politics scenario. If caste politics is seen only in terms of superior brahman versus the suffering rest then the atrocities that yadavas inflict on ex-untouchables, what thevars do to pallars, and what rajputs did to the jats, would be unnoticed and brushed aside. This would impoverish and distort our understanding of caste politics in India and would allow for the intellectual acceptance of dangerous and retrograde policies such as those recommended by the Mandal Commission.



The distinctions between the politics of caste and race can and should be made if one is interested in fighting casteism in a concrete and meaningful way. While a radical advocacy of some form of inverted racism may seem feasible to some in the United States, such a stance would make no sense in terms of caste politics in India. In caste politics there is casteism at multiple levels and inversions at one level would leave the rest quite untouched.

This is why B.R. Ambedkar saw no future in politics of this sort. He anticipated the limitations of using caste as a perennial political resource and fought instead to extirpate this cultural blot from our society. As there are multiple castes in India, and as many of these castes also occupy, statistically at least, different positions in the economic structure, caste politics often passes off as democratic politics. I have heard it being said that in India we have caste democracy.

It is possible to overlook the inherent drawbacks of caste democracy as there are so many castes occupying different occupational and income positions in society. There is no caste that is dominant in numerical terms, and if the plain game of numbers were to apply then a semblance of democracy may well be arrived at. But at what cost? Caste would be a permanent feature of mobilization, dividing the country on the basis of birth and ascription without giving citizenship a chance to establish itself. Caste then becomes an immutable category.

The reality of caste is, however, very different. Not every harijan is a leather worker, and not every brahman is a pandit. There are more harijans employed as agricultural labourers than any other single caste group in Uttar Pradesh. Today many of them are also moving to cities and have jobs far removed from what their predecessors were forced to commit themselves to just a few generations back.

When an equation is made between caste and race the suggestion often is that these caste categories are fixed and immutable. But many once upon a time low castes have become kshatriyas, sudras have become elite pen pushers and, if the tales of doms and mochis are to be believed, then those who were once in positions of power have now fallen into really bad days. If the ignominies heaped on certain castes arise from the occupations they were forced to follow by tradition, then it can be safely said that such a state of affairs no longer holds everywhere with the same degree of consistency. It is very rarely that one can correlate caste and occupation in contemporary India.



Race politics accepts that blacks and whites are immutable categories. In this situation there are two options: inverted racism, or racial representation. In either case one has to work within the framework of race. Black Panthers advocated inverted racism and it did not work. A small minority cannot overturn a majority. What remains problematic, however, is that in inverted racism it is racism that is still triumphant, albeit of another kind.

Race representation, the other alternative, accepts that races are here to stay as it is not possible to change the colour of one’s skin. Hence, even when there is a question of fairness, the tendency among liberal democrats is to push for a policy that would ensure some kind of proportionate representation in the job market and in educational institutions. In the caste order, how a caste is perceived depends to a very significant extent on what occupation members of that caste follow.

In India it is possible and, indeed, feasible to move from one kind of job to another in one’s lifetime, and with greater facility over two to three generations. Over 13% of Grade A services in the Government of India are today occupied by those whose predecessors were once considered untouchables. This percentage is bound to increase in the years to come. In that sense those who are descendents of so-called untouchables are no longer untouchables today. For them, at least, their caste position has changed significantly.



Caste is, therefore, not as immutable a category as race is. This is why the provisions for reservations in the Constitution could think in terms of extirpating caste altogether in the not too distant future. Reservations for scheduled castes and tribes in India were never envisaged in terms of either compensation or retribution, as is the case with affirmative action in America. In racism a person continues to be black no matter what position that person may occupy in terms of status and wealth. But history has shown that though caste mobility may be much more pronounced today, it was not unknown in ancient and medieval India.

The reservation policy for scheduled castes is based on giving this latent dynamic a greater fillip by unearthing and releasing talents that were hitherto hidden in these communities. In this process it is not just that these historically disprivileged castes would improve their status, but that society as a whole would benefit from a wider pool of talent that would now be available to it. As the question is not of compensation but of a dynamic transformation of the caste order itself, the system of reservation eventually looks towards a state of affairs when it would make itself redundant.



In race the scenario is quite different. Once a black, always a black. This fixity cannot be transposed to caste politics, without doing a lot of damage to empirical reality. Once a chamar is not always a chamar, once a scavenger is not always a scavenger, and so forth. The vahivanca barots of Gujarat earlier called themselves kshatriyas but now prefer to be known as baniyas (Shah and Shroff 1975). Further, as we mentioned earlier, ex-untouchables have never ideologically acquiesced to their own degradation. This is why whenever they are able to improve their economic situation they successfully shed their earlier caste status and moved on.

Once we use the language of race to the caste situation the emphasis shifts from removing the scourge of caste from Indian society to making one’s caste identity a fixed political resource. In which case, quite understandably, castes would tend to be viewed as permanent fixtures and caste identities as political assets. The task would then be not so much to eradicate castes but to give proportionate representation to different castes in educational institutions, in jobs, housing, and so on.

This again closely resembles the Mandal formula. The current Raj Nath Singh government in Uttar Pradesh is making an even finer distinction among the Other Backward Castes (OBCs). According to his formulation from the 27% reserved seats for OBCs, 5% should go to yadavas, 9% to eight Most Backward Castes such as lodhs, kurmis and jats (sic), and the remaining 13% or so to the 70 other OBCs that remain (Bhambri 2001).

Mandalism encourages this game of numbers and proportionate representation. It does not employ reservations to uproot caste identities in public life, but rather to perpetuate it. Those scheduled caste activists who want to see caste as a form of race should then be prepared for this eventuality. Caste identities, in this case, would always be an important mainstay of public life in India, a self-defeating project for any self- respecting activist.



To sum up, if caste were race then caste politics would be salient only when brahmans are pitted against the rest. Ahirs, kurmis, thevars, vanniyars, vokkaligas, rajputs and jats, then do not matter as full bodied entities. If caste were race then the reality and brutality of yadavas marauding in the fields of Bihar would be a bloodless reality and would not have any symbolic energy at all. It has to be a brahman plot, or a brahman inspired one, nothing else is of any significance. Those who have felt the full wrath of non-brahman superior castes, either in the North or in the South, will never accept such a characterization of caste atrocities. Further, if caste were race, then one’s caste identity is fixed, both internally and externally.

There is one similarity, however, between the fight against caste and the fight against race. Ultimately the battle has to be fought and won by those who are victims of such stratified social orders. It is only by empowering the scheduled castes and blacks that casteist and racist prejudices, respectively, are not given the scope to manifest themselves in practice in everyday relations. No amount of consciousness raising can do this job adequately. Only when those that have been hitherto disprivileged have the power and the wherewithal to fight back will sectarian prejudices be halted in their tracks.



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