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A Publication
on The Status of
Adivasi Populations
of India




Revisiting The Caste Question

By Priyanka Dass Saharia

27 March, 2015

How is modern form of caste in contemporary times? Nicholas Dirks had argued on colonial power knowledge complexes instrumental in reifying it within bureaucratic structures and discourses. The various institutions of caste were used as tools to manage the divide and rule policies perpetuated by the British. The question then becomes as to what form did these changes take? In what ways did the imported modernity of colonialism changed the ‘registers’ of belief and social reality in India?

The problem with asking questions like these is the lacunae of historical documentation to support a sociological argument which could then easily be critiqued to harness political bias into a historical point. To think of caste being definitive or in functional terms of a division of labour (W. Crooke) which was a common trend in the colonial times was a fallacy, as Dirks asserts. In this light it becomes imperative to read the colonial archives, to ‘interrogate’ it ‘along the grain’ as Ann Stoler had put it. Textual analysis presupposes certain indictments which inevitably colours judgements, making the exercise lopsided in its results. To think of ‘colonialism’ being a monolithic entity, all ‘colonial knowledge’ being anachronistic and manipulative, meaning to crush and destroy native culture was a polemic approach to reading history. Let’s not forget that colonial rule didn’t arrive fully formed in the Battle of Plassey, ‘colonial’ as a construct was evidently created by various discourses, some going on to impute spurious ideas of unity between the West and Western ideas as embodying a latent form of moral authority. Through a lack of narratives, it launches into a demonization of colonial minions and administrations in its analysis giving rise to the popular notion of the ‘subaltern’. Various scholars advocate their views under the label of ‘Critical History’ quoting Gramsci popularly as a sonorous, overarching harbinger of a spirit that would give voice to these subalterns assuming that colonialism was a definitive monolith. The problem with subaltern history was that it was riddled with a rhetoric that presupposed more than recover. It was meant to recover lost voices, reconstruct fragmented and fractured narratives from bottom-up but often it ends up imaging the quotidian experiences of the people themselves and enforcing undue relevance on fragmentary glimpses creating extrapolations which run the risks of being politically guided. If these groups are claimed to have voices, often they are robbed of them in their representations. The British didn’t create caste. They did chart it, record it and use it for their bureaucratic purposes but caste existed right there before them.

What motivations drive people to maintain these caste hierarchies? Were these boundaries fluid? William Pinch in his work on Warrior Ascetics shows that certain caste groups tried to move up the social ladder already around 1800, many years before the colonial census. Through the life of Anupgiri Gosain in the 18th century, he shows an alternate side to the popular imagination of Hinduism being a religion of non violence. Caste distinctions like other forms of power, like race and gender, are policed, are constantly negotiated in social spaces; these boundaries are policed through complex intersections between on the one hand, ideological constructs about people being ‘in their place’, and, on the other hand, socio-economic forces which are marshalled to prop up these constructs.

If ‘difference’ becomes a conceptual category to understand these boundaries what was the nature of this category? One remembers that Ambedkar did not see these categories as essentialised distinctions. Reservations were introduced for certain groups which had suffered from various historical disadvantages, and they were intended to help these groups to overcome these barriers so that they could participate fully in national life. ‘Difference’ as a category also needs to be studied in the context of its conception and practices of a lived reality. Judith Butler saw ‘difference’ as a conceptual category with no natural foundations however it would be fallacious to understand caste dynamics in the light of western theories; as a matter of fact, the majority of Hindus in the past, and arguably in the present, have not thought about caste in this manner – they have regarded caste distinctions as ‘naturally’ inscribed into the social order and these natural inscriptions supported by a theological-Vedic base.

Looking tangentially, at the textual idea of the concepts in some classical Buddhist texts., there is debate over the term ‘Brahmana’; orthodox Hindu strands view this status as ‘naturally’ inherited; others ‘ethicize’ this understanding by claiming that one’s Brahmana status is determined not by birth but by moral perfection. The manner in which one views the relation between guna and karma will determine whether one adopts a ‘mythical’ (varnāśramadharma) view or an ‘empirical’ (jāti) view of caste. Those who argue that caste is determined by guna and karma tend to affirm ‘mythical’ notions of organic social bodies into which human beings are allotted their placed by their inherited karmic dispositions. The problem, of course, is who is going to determine the quality of these dispositions – the individual herself, the higher caste, a council of all the castes, the learned people, the government, and so on? While the Gita’s appeal to guna and karma is often mentioned in defences of ‘democratized’ notions of caste, it must be remembered that the text is a product of its own times – it prohibits any cross-border traffic across the varṇas, viewing such confusion of castes (varnasamkara) as a sign of moral degeneration. The notion of mythic caste was developed in late colonial India to respond to the charge that Hindu social existence lacks deep metaphysical foundations. Mythic caste was projected as an idealised social template that would avoid what were viewed as the excesses of western individualism, and bring together the empirical castes (jati) into an organic whole of interdependent parts to build up a unified ‘Hindu front’ against western imperialism. What is crucial to remember is that mythic caste is an idealised projection of what a social utopia looks like – we do not have any historical evidence that mythic caste has been implemented on the ground in south Asia.

‘Difference’ as a conceptual category can never be studied in isolation. Differences in caste, ethnicity, gender or even disability never exist in a pure form but always in hybridism; knotted up in multiple and often overlapping categories. Ghurye had profoundly commented on the changing and dynamic nature of caste as a ‘difference’, when in action. The disjunction between the ‘book view’ and the ‘field view’ that Srinivas had brought out further proves that these categories are never a given. Our understanding of them is dynamic and relational.

The theme of transgression of boundaries between different caste groups, be it antagonistically or paternalistically (where one party is often ‘shown its place’) can be studied taking the case of Khairlanji Massacres of 2006, where it was found that the upper castes weren’t the Brahmans but ‘intermediate’ sections (OBCs) at conflict with the Dalits and dominance was established through numbers and play of power. Knowledge systems are a product of power and maybe that is why Dirks’s argument on caste being a colonial construct through registers of census manufacturing gained much popularity. Now, the question is, how do these knowledge systems gain legitimacy? J. Mencher in her article ‘The Caste System Upside Down’ casts light on some pertinent issues of the ways in which ‘caste’ is addressed. Ethnographic works on Caste talks about the myopia of ethnographers; “Whom you talk to matters in how to understand the system. If you study the system bottom up, then it’s pertinent that we talk to other groups than the Brahmans” says Anindita Bhattacharya in her seminar on Mencher. “If differences are deemed innate then it is a product of knowledge systems and dominant paradigms which again are constructed by and cater to selective interest groups” concludes Dr. Janaki Abraham. She cites from her research work on the Tiyas of North Kerala who occupy the category of OBC in the ‘book view’ but the ‘field view’ presents us with different lived realities, “There are always micro processes of resistance against the groups who try to reproduce the hegemony in varied forms and by different means. They ascribe to alternate theories of tracing their descent from Kyrgyzstan while another theory hinges on a Greek descent.” From these insights we observe the alternative ways in which groups articulate their own conceptions of ‘difference’ and represent themselves in ways counter to the hegemonic interest groups.

The problem with viewing caste through the lens of the ‘organic whole’, a functionalist approach in sociology is that such communitarian notions are not easily situated within liberalism’s commitment to basic civil and political rights. Whether the sociological approach adopted for investigating caste is ‘essentialist’ or functional, they would both collide with a liberal understanding of individuals as primarily citizens with basic rights. Is providing a teleological explanation to the histories of caste hierarchies an alternative to accommodating them? Scholars have argued that indigenous practices in time were to be eliminated should be initially tolerated and this logic lead to the tolerance of caste marks and dietary practices giving way to sanskritisation; a ‘natural’ marking (essence) of a social body tracing it back to a Vedic theological base is often an active part of academic discourses

The ‘discplinarisaion’ of domains often leads to different conceptual constructions of the same issue, which ultimately is incommensurable for working in two different world views. The neat dichotomy between an anthropological vs. philosophical approach to studying caste could lead to bifurcation of the meanings of ‘caste’ emerging from diverging conceptions of ‘mythic’ (the varṇic system based on the Puruṣa-Sukta of the Ṛg Veda) and ‘empirical’ (or jāti) . The precipitating questions thus formulated are whether the former is a form born out of degeneracy from the latter or (like Ambedkar) who rejected the karmic theory of transmigration located caste in the ‘lived realities’ of the everyday placing a greater emphasis on this-worldly socio-economic reconstruction (Barua, 2009).

What comes across through sketching these conceptual terrains are some pressing questions – a). The ways in which one negotiates with the quotidian and exclusivist claims made on the pretext of caste in one’s everyday lived reality if those claims stem from a world view with isn’t shared to formulate a dialogic form of inter-caste traffic, b). The future of caste studies in a backdrop where metonymic indexing of ‘Caste’ to India in South Asian Studies globally identifies ‘Caste’ as a basic form and expression of the Indian society a threat to modernity, c). How does one understand the ‘subaltern’ in today’s time with the plural theories on caste from a theological to a post colonial domain; who is the subaltern? (E.g. where does one put the dalit woman here or the categories with uncertain pedigree, d). Even in the liberal democratic understanding of national development, the caste question would always act like a double edged sword; a barrier to development yet an inevitable reality in the unforeseen future, where even the counterarguments of a self rule are problematic (a teleology of self rule grafted in a future with no absolute temporal reality) could lead to a reconstitution of the social and a reformation of the idea of ‘caste’. In this case who would legitimise the shifting of meanings in these alternative modes of textual analysis?

There are some pressing questions that we need to address as social scientists to these ideas of ‘difference’? How do we evaluate these ‘differences’ in the light of a socio-historical context which has shown us that ‘differences’ are often represented and in turn valued in specific ways by interest groups? How do we translate the ideas of ‘differences’ in a shared language of articulation? Lastly, how do we study the new forms that are created as a result of intersection of these categories? Within the framework of these questions, how do we, then, understand ‘change’ in a linear temporality of a ‘lived reality’?

Priyanka Dass Saharia is a Sociology student in Delhi School of Economics


1. Dirks, Nicholas. 2001. Castes of the Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Princeton University Press
2. Barua, Ankur, 2009. The Solidarities of Caste: The Metaphysical Basis of the ‘Organic’ Community. The Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press
3. Ambedkar, B.R, 1990. Annihilation of Caste New Delhi: Arnold Publishers
4. Gupta, Dipankar. (Eds). 1993. Social Stratification. Delhi: Oxford University Press
5. Beteille, A. 1983. ‘Introduction’, in Andre Beteille (ed.): Equality and Inequality: Theory and Practice (1-27). Oxford University Press. Delhi.
6. Gupta, D. 1991. ‘Hierarchy and Difference’, in Dipankar Gupta (ed.): Social Stratification (1-21). Delhi: Oxford University Press.
7. Mencher, J. 1991. ‘The Caste System Upside Down’, in Dipankar Gupta (ed.): Social Stratification (93-109). Delhi: Oxford University Press.







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