The Touchy Topic of Caste

June 15, 2013 § 2 Comments

caste societyCaste, Society and Politics in India (Bayly, Susan)

“The Pulayans look generally dirty. It is doubtful whether they take bath even once a week…The social rank of the Kolhatis is very low…they eat…the flesh of carrion and are addicted to strong drink… The Dukkar Kolhatis are reported to be inveterate criminals and are vigilantly watched by the police.”
–       1971 Indian Census

Susan Bayly’s socio-political study of caste contains an account of various academic theories, history, Hindu thought (some liberal, some racist, some a curious combination of both) and Western commentary (both serious research and Orientalist nonsense). The variety of sources is necessary, because caste has always meant different things to different people. I was able to glean 15 definitions of caste from the book, some complimentary, some denunciatory, others neutral and analytical. Depending on source, caste could be:

  • An ancient and immutable system based on Hindu religious principles and dividing the entire Indian population into four varnas
  • An institution that had brought great good to the peoples of the subcontinent, uniting them and teaching them pious ideals, providing them the means of assimilating the ‘foreign hordes’ that had so often invaded the Hindu homeland;  a golden chain which Hindus had ‘willingly placed on their necks…’ (Jogendra Nath Bhattacharya)
  • The ideal basis for Hindu society, a hierarchy resting on an ideal of collective moral affinities, though not necessarily hereditary (Swami Dayanand Saraswati)
  • Fixed social units with specific names or titles, representing something broader than the notion of a common kin or blood type
  • Self-regulating and law-making constituencies with the power to generate values, moral standards and norms governing marriage, divorce, inheritance and adoption.
  • A shared notional tradition of common descent as well as a claim of common geographical origin, and a particular occupational ideal
  • Possessors of shared resources, including collectively managed capital and other material assets, shared occupational expertise and information and other intangible assets
  • Not a unique moral or religious system, but a post facto rationalisation for the realities of material advantage and disadvantage; merely a more elaborate form of the social stratifications to be found in many other societies; the true basis of the distinction between those of low and high caste being differential access to political and economic resources
  • The reference points of purity and pollution which provide the important measurements of rank and status for the ‘caste Hindu’ – according to Louis Dumont, who maintains that only modern Western society has a genuine concept of the individual. The Hindu, he says, derives his social identity from collective rather than individual bonds and claims
  • Specialized occupational groups – urban artisans, fishermen, ritualists, barbers and washermen – treated as collective entities for the purposes of revenue collection, somewhat like guilds or corporations
  • A creation of relatively recent race history, a manifestation of race war, that is, the product of the opposition of high and low races,      the conquerors and the conquered, the embodiment of differentiation and irreconcilable revulsion between radically unlike races (WW Hunter, Annals of Rural Bengal)
  • Symbolic of a deep and permanent split between ‘Aryan’ tyrants and those who had been allegedly enslaved by this supposed race of foreign oppressors in ancient times with the villains being the Brahman law-givers (EV Ramasamy Naicker)
  • The limits beyond which a Hindu’s public spirit, charity, sense of responsibility, loyalty, morality, sympathy and appreciation does not extend (Ambedkar)
  • Not a matter of blood or fixed ethnological fact, nor a response to universal Brahman scriptural mandates inherited from an ancient past, but a fluid representation of status as claimed by men of power. (Ibbetson)
  • A temporary affliction of the entire nation that had ‘hindered popular progress and the growth of popular freedom’ and which modern society would shake off (Rained)

It is the last-named school of thought that gave rise to the conspiracy theory that caste was either non-existent or a theoretical construct until the advent of the meddlesome British; that its long-standing existence in Hinduism was a British myth,  concocted to put Indians down and to divide them.

Bayly argues against this notion throughout the book. “The pronouncement of sweeping generalities about other people’s essences was not an invention of white men, or of the colonial state,” she repeats multiple times, until one wonders if the establishment of that statement as fact is her primary objective.

Yet Bayly does not deny that the emergence of caste society as we know it was a comparatively recent product of transformations in Indian life, much of which took place in colonial times. Colonial policy helped shape Indian caste identity by influencing the way Indians came to understand and to experience the phenomenon. But, she says, it wasn’t an act of deliberate mischief. The British didn’t make caste up. They consulted the first Indians to schmooze them, the scribal and commercial groups who professed to be authoritative informants on local customs. Their advice was shamelessly self-serving, and the resultant iniquity was perpetuated by British law and policy. This, according to Bayly, was how it came to pass that the ‘high-castes’ were put at the helm of affairs by the gullible but well-intentioned British.

Intentions are an opinion; actions are a fact. In an attempt to understand their subjects better, the British government mercilessly counted,  classified, ranked, and cross-referenced the subcontinent’s peoples through surveys and censuses, calling on them to report themselves as members of specific categories, each supposedly possessing its own ‘essences’, qualities, purity, occupational origins and collective moral worth. No Indian authority, lay or religious, had done so in the preceding forty centuries. Indian communities reacted to this novelty, and tried, not unnaturally, to make the best of it. The effect was a distorted and simplistic view of Indian society as highly hierarchical and purity-obsessed.

Caste in modern Indian society - contemporary photo of a Brahman agraharam in Triplicane, Chennai, complete with laptops and modern amenities (courtesy The Hindu

Caste in modern Indian society – contemporary photo of a Brahman agraharam in Triplicane, Chennai, complete with laptops and modern amenities (courtesy The Hindu

Of course, to blame the British entirely for the malaise of caste would be equally naïve and self-serving of us. It cannot be denied that caste ideas existed well before the colonial period. Ambedkar saw untouchability as a development arising from struggles between Buddhism and ‘Brahmanism’ during the 4th century Gupta empire. Bayly provides evidence of Brahmans, in the early 1800s, arguing that caste origins are a reliable guide to merit and aptitude, that lowly birth is to be understood as an indication of unmeritorious conduct in past lives, that Brahmanical varna principles are the defining essence of Hindu faith and Hindu social order.

Let us avoid the embarrassing question of blame altogether, and turn to social anthropology, which analyzes caste hierarchies in terms of ups and downs in economic, social and political power of different groups during the turbulent colonial times.

Sociologically, between 1700 and 1900, India saw the combined effects of deforestation, forced sedentarisation, population growth and the spread of commercial cash-cropping. In response, a vast number of mobile pastoralists and ‘tribals’, who had been on the fringes of society, found themselves defined, both by colonial officials and by other Indians, according to their caste. The erstwhile feudal landed gentry, steadily subdued by the British, saw a decline in fortunes. The landlord-warrior was now identified with wildness and profligacy, while traditions of sobriety and industry were seen as the appropriate values for the new India. Correspondingly, the scribal and commercial professions rose in prominence. While this change suited British purposes, it wasn’t their doing alone – something similar was happening around the world. Newly self-made commercial people mushroomed in the new urban centres, and tried to establish their respectability and credit-worthiness, by talking up their caste – in just the same way as upstarts everywhere who run into a bit of money pretend to come from an ancient family. Communities came into contact and vied with each other for power and prestige, resulting in a heightened awareness of caste all around.

In short, Bayly’s hypothesis is that Indian society mutated all by itself in the face of internal and external change, and caste hierarchies and frictions were the result.

It is ironical that caste hierarchies are regarded as ancient, innate and immutable, while in fact they are none of the three. In just the period in question (1700-1900), pastoralists metamorphosed into Kshatriyas, traders into Brahman-like scribes, Brahmans into land-owning ‘rajas’, and descendents of labourers into zamindars. In a matter of ten generations, the Marathas went from humble tillers of the soil, to soldiers under the sultans, to a class of respected Kshatriya warriors. But while communities rose and fell in the league tables, what has remained innate and immutable, unfortunately, is the vice-like hold that caste has acquired on Indian political thought.

As the nation began to take its democratic shape in the 20th century, theories of caste began to colour political language and thought across the nation. Self-professed reformists and liberals spoke condescendingly on the need to “uplift depressed people and make them worthy co-sharers in the moral order of the nation”, to teach them cleanliness and morality. The initial legislators openly declared that they regarded untouchables as innately unworthy beings who could never ‘come up’ to the standard of clean-caste Hindus. But the three most influential and respected political leaders of 20th century India – Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru – weren’t helpful, either.

Gandhi took a while to develop a mature opinion on the subject, finally arriving at the typically whimsical conclusion that the only caste that should exist should be that of the Bhangi sweepers (because cleanliness is godly, and we must all sweep away dirt from our souls, and so on). While there was nothing fundamentally wrong with his position, he did make the oppressed “Harijans” sound like a passive, child-like people with a kind of disability, deserving of our pity and sympathy. Ambedkar was under no such illusions, but he evolved the powerful narrative that India’s untouchables and tribals are by definition poorer and more disadvantaged than other Indians because the injustices inherent in caste have made it so. Nehru was perhaps the earliest to spot the utility of castes and communities as vote banks, particularly when carefully nurtured with preferential treatment in the form of populist social welfare policies. In their clumsy attempts to right its wrongs, independent India’s first leaders brought caste into sharp focus. Far from telling Indians that caste and tribe were an irrelevance to the country’s development concerns, they somehow managed to treat caste norms as universal and permanent. Their opportunist successors, of every political stripe, lesser men than they, continued the tradition with reprehensible enthusiasm.

Whether or not conceptualized by the ancient scriptures, or set in motion by the British, there is no doubt in my mind that it is the Indian political system that has helped harden caste attitudes into something that looks formidably immutable.

Perhaps well-intentioned at the outset, the principle of caste-based welfare schemes rapidly lost its claim to be a politically neutral administrative tool, aimed solely at correcting social injustice. Soon after independence, communities began jockeying for the privilege of being classified as ‘backward’, including some that had been campaigning for movement in the opposite direction just a few years before. Overnight, we became a nation of entitlement seekers, a nation of sulky schemers who perpetually felt that they were owed something by somebody.

And yet, the really downtrodden, the abjectly poor and oppressed, the losers in the general melee for political clout: their lot continues to be quite possibly the worst in the world, and nobody cared a hoot. These are the communities that P Sainath talks about – the Dhuruas of Orissa, the tribals of Palamau, the labourers of Surguja, the Paharias of Godda – who are still living on less than 1000 calories a day, while the ‘winner’ communities lobby successfully for parliamentary seats, college quotas and preferential land allotments.

The situation has spawned two monster consequences. One is militant rural activism, the Naxal movement, a brutal unending caste war in nasty places one doesn’t speak of in polite society, the resentful and perhaps natural backlash of the ones passed over in the grand Indian political sweepstakes; the other is the strident Hindutva that taps into the insecurities of the country’s fast-growing middle class by characterising Muslims and activist Naxals as members of a turbulent and potentially seditious underclass, and that inverts logic and fact by portraying the political, economic and social winners of the Indian race, the high-caste Hindus, as the victims and the oppressed.

In my opinion, the most ominous statistic is the increasing numbers of well-read, Western-educated families with strong traditions of liberal thought and achievement, who are now disillusioned by caste politics; fearful of a future where affirmative reservation trumps meritocracy, they have fled to the fascist fringe, and have thrown in their lot with the custodians of Hindutva.

The well-heeled Saffron brigade with their sophisticated politics of hatred, and the shoeless Naxal with his crude country bombs: the nation is in serious danger of splitting into two undesirable halves. Whatever happened to the middle?

I, for one, am the middle. I was raised to despise untouchability as a crime and caste as an evil, but also to respect and uphold cultural traditions, due democratic process and the law of the land. Who is with me?


When I bought this book – from the Landmark bookshop in Chennai – my sister, who was present, looked askance. Why would you want to learn about caste from a British academician? she said, and it is a question that needs to be addressed.

Implied in her question is not merely the factual statement that I, with my Hindu Brahman upbringing, and surrounded all my life by Hindus, ought to know far more about the subject than a white academician from far away. I read in her tone a sharp rejection of Orientalist essentialism, against the reduction of our institutions to contemptible caricature, against the moralizing, racist condescension of a member of a master-race that once ruled over us. I heard reproach – for far too long, a certain kind of Indian has unquestioningly accepted Orientalist criticism of India and made us defensive about our identities, when there is much for us to be proud about. I think I also read some of that defensiveness, because caste is not Hindus at our brightest best, it is the part of us that we wish most to keep hidden from view, and the one aspect that we do not wish the world to talk about. How would this Ms. Bayly like it if an Indian academician from an Indian university were to write about class issues in British society? And why is it that the British would simply ignore or laugh off such an Indian book, but we get all het up about Ms. Bayly’s book?

Having read the book, I have three things to say in response.

One, that Ms. Bayly’s book isn’t a surface-skimming Orientalist book, but an academic effort of some merit. I did learn a great deal about the history and anthropology of caste from it, though the historical range she covered (the late Mughal period to the end of the 20th century), was too narrow for my liking.

Two, unfortunately, caste may be entirely too touchy an issue for a Hindu to write about objectively, or a Hindu to read without suspecting a self-serving angle in the author’s arguments; in short, without his or her own identity and prejudices creeping into the text or the reading. Of course Bayly is not entirely disinterested, given her exaggerated protestations about the non-culpability of the British. But her biases are easily isolatable, and there is much more to the book than her biases. An external perspective isn’t perfect, or even the only valid perspective, but it is surely not an irrelevant perspective.

Finally, this: like in the case of racism or sexism, there is only one objectionable thing about casteism, and it is not the mere existence of cultural and physical differences between groups of people. What is objectionable is the attribution of certain qualities or lack thereof to someone, based purely on considerations of identity and birth, and unfair discrimination on the basis of such attribution.

If we were, then, to believe that a British academician will have nothing intelligent or important to say on the subject of caste merely because she is British, would we not be committing a similar error?


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§ 2 Responses to The Touchy Topic of Caste

  • […] ‘Pakistanis are terrorists’,  ’mini-skirted women are sluts’, or ‘the Dukkar Kolhatis are inveterate criminals‘) that the nastiness really sets […]

  • […] “Caste, Society and Politics in India by Susan Bayly,” I’d say, enthusiastically in the old days, or “The Conquest of Peru by William H Prescott”, or “a little novel by E Phillip Oppenheim”, or much worse, “the first volume of Radhakrishnan’s Indian Philosophy.” The crowd would part with astonishing rapidity, stampeding like wildebeeste at the scent of a lion, and the host would eye me with the reproach of the righteous wronged. You have failed me, the look would say; you do realize, don’t you, that I am now tainted by your extreme uncoolness? […]

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