Caste is the key category in contemporary Indian social thinking. Discussed and analysed by historians, sociologists, and political scientists, it has produced controversies in equal measure. The historical literature on caste from colonial times to the present is vast.
This anthology picks out some of the best essays on the subject in order to explore specific aspects of modern caste: how the issue of caste was understood in colonial times, how it was re-created under conditions of modernity, and how various castes came to relate to one another and to themselves in new ways. The essays also engage in debates that were first raised in these fields. Dumont’s notions about purity and power are questioned, while fresh perspectives are offered on jajmani.
For a long time, historians of modern South Asia have been trying to ascertain how far caste was invented, exaggerated, colluded with, and opposed. These two volumes provide the most essential and thought- provoking pieces on the subject.
Sumit Sarkar has been Professor of History at the University of Delhi. His many books include The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal 1903-1908 (1973; new edn 20100, Modern India 1885-1947 (1983), Writing Social History (1998), Beyond Nationalist Frames (2002), and Women and Social Reform in Modern Indian (2007; coedited with Tanika Sarkar).
Tanika Sarkar is Professor of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has been a visiting professor at Yale and Chicago. Her several books include Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation (2001), Rabels, Wives, Saint (2009), and Women and Social Reform in Modern India (2007; coedited with Sumit Sarkar).
Caste has emerged as the key discursive category in contemporary Indian social thinking, dislodging the earlier emphases on class and nation to a considerable extent, and producing scholarly explorations and polemical controversies in equal measure. The historical literature on caste in colonial times is, therefore, vast and rich, and arriving at a reasonable selection from the corpus proved exceedingly difficult. We will briefly explain the organizational scheme that we have followed in planning these two volumes.
The essays explore certain specific aspects of modern caste: how the issue of caste was variously understood in colonial times, how it was re-created under conditions of modernity, and how various castes came to relate to one another and to themselves in new ways. The volumes exclude, therefore, sociological studies of the structure of castes, as well as social anthropologies and ethnographies of lives of castes on the ground. However, the essays reproduced here have considerably absorbed the insights that such writings have produced. They also engage in debates that were first raised in these fields, there- by adding important dimensions to them. Dirks, for instance, questions Dumont's notions about purity and power, while Breman and Guha argue with the literature on jajmani-to mention just two instances.
For a long time, historians of modern caste have been trying to ascertain how far caste was invented, exaggerated, colluded with, and opposed by discourses of colonial social knowledge and administrative policies. In fact, the dominant strand in post-colonial historiography tended to focus almost exclusively on colonial and Western knowledge that sought an Othering of India, a stigmatization of the culture of the colonized on account of their emphasis on caste. Administrative concerns have, on the whole, been neglected. The first set of eight essays under the theme 'Caste in Colonial Times' reflect on colonial sociology as well as on the governance of caste, but also go beyond them. Washbrook and Dirks trace aspects of the transition from pre-colonial to colonial times and discuss how this affected possibilities of 'low caste' mobility in the political domain, in labour markets, and in temples. Bayly queries Inden's view that caste was essentially a colonial imaginary. She points out the many strands of colonial opinion on caste, all of which were profoundly influenced by brahmanical advice. Metcalf describes the emergence of colonial ethnography from the mid nineteenth century, focusing especially on photographic techniques, even while he points out Indian discomfort with such uses. Caton diversifies the practices of colonial sociology by exploring the theme of Punjab exceptionalism since classificatory categories were significantly different in that region. While Bayly, Metcalf, and Caton point out pluralities in colonial knowledge and classificatory practices, Guha explores the jajmani-balutedari system in western India over 300 years. He suggests that the small scale of local markets which conditioned the system had its own specificities, making division of labour and status ascriptions more complex and flexible than suggested by Dumont and Wiser. Roger's article on caste in colonial Sri Lanka may appear out of place as it goes beyond British India and the Hindu socio-ritual context. But the essay is important precisely because it looks at caste- like formations among Sinhala Buddhists, and also because in both countries colonial officials engaged in understanding and classifying social categories in similar ways. Constable's article discusses colonial policies on caste segregation in the supposedly neutral space of modern schools in western India. He finds that they were uncertainly forged under contrary pressure from missionary educators, upper-caste Hindu parents, and untouchable students.
The second set of essays, under the theme 'Caste and the Census', elaborates the specific domain of decennial censuses which have long been regarded as the terrain where social categories were formed. Samarendra, through arguments with Dirks and Bayly, invokes the peculiarity of the word 'caste' in colonial usage and discusses what it does to Indian categories of varna and jati in the making of censuses. He points out, in the process, the mutability of all categories from one census to another. Conlon looks at different censuses to recover small but important shifts and variations across time and space, even as he ponders on the interlacing of the two dominant classificatory categories of religion and caste. Cohn looks at changes between pre-census and census modes of enumeration, points out various levels within census activities, and identifies the precise areas where Indian voices-of ritual specialists and enumerators-enter and influence classificatory models.
Together, the first two sets of essays ponder on whether all colonial administrators, throughout British governance, were united by similar concerns and strategies, or, if their approaches varied, were multiple and shifting according to changing contingencies: how large was the space in this for Indian interventions, especially of brahman informants who advised puzzled administrators about the intricacies of caste; and how far was caste refashioned by Indian discourses and initiatives, competitions and conflicts, irrespective of the stances of the state?
With the third theme, 'Caste, Sect, Religion', we transit to the domain of Indian initiatives to explore how castes negotiated with the modern world through the prism of new religious imaginaries and sectarian practices. 'Low-caste' sectarianism is thought to lead, un- wittingly, to a congruence between caste and sect. The six essays under this theme explore somewhat similar processes in different temporal and regional contexts whose social-material specifics are carefully laid out along with the new religious worlds they articulated. Three of these 'low-caste' sects-the Satnamis of Chattisgarh, the Matuas of Eastern Bengal, and the Tiyyas and Ezhavas in Malabar-created modes of resistance to upper-caste exclusionary measures and religious injunctions which came to be resented in conditions of relative economic solvency. However, each of these religions of protest, nonetheless, re-creates the symbolic universe of upper-caste temples, shrines, and festivals, as well as their internal authority structures. The sect activities under discussion, are, therefore, neither the mimicry of upper-caste forms that Moffat had suggested, nor are they an exact reflection of Srinivas's Sanskritization thesis. The essay on Balakdashis, by contrast, studies a 'low-caste' sect in Eastern Bengal that was explicitly conformist with brahmanical authority. Yet the mythology and hagiography of the sect are scored over with vulnerabilities as well as with new possibilities of mobility that the subaltern founder and followers of the sect lived with.
Geetha looks at the re-emergence of Buddhism from the late nineteenth century in association with organized caste protest in Madras and Bombay, examining Iyorhee Thass's re-creation of a socially marked Buddhism and contrasting it with Ambedkar's strident egalitarianism and its theological form. Venkatachalapathy considers a similar situation in early-twentieth-century Madras, where political movements intermingle closely with theological debates, and complex and unstable alliances are formed among Saivites, non-Brahman politics, and anti- Hindi, anti- Vaisnav, and anti-Congress movements. He shows E.Y. Ramaswamy Naicker weaving all these divergent interests together and then destabilizing them with his caste radicalism and defiance of faith.
The fourth theme, 'Caste and Forms of Labour', begins with three essays which constitute a single unit, based on an important debate about 'agrestic slavery' and landlessness in the South. S.]. Patel used census data to suggest that landless labour- among 'depressed classes' or 'low castes'-grew exponentially under British rule, dictated by new revenue settlements and market conditions. The economic vulnerability of 'low' castes, he says, was thus a British creation. Kumar differs sharply, on the grounds that since both landlessness and caste discrimination were most acute in the South, there would have been a cause and effect connection between social and economic vulnerability. She finds confirmation of her view in early colonial pre- census data which shows an identical intertwining between 'low' caste and landlessness, pre-dating colonial economic policies. Krishnamurty adds to the debate indirectly by pointing out problems in Patel's use of census data, thereby strengthening Kumar's conclusions. Breman studies halipratha, a master-servant relationship between brahmans and untouchable labourers who are attached to their masters in a form of debt bondage. He contributes significantly to the debate about jajmani, or ascribed labour forms, along caste lines in rural situations: a debate about whether such unfree labour signified security or exploitation. He shows how both are interlaced as their masters' honour and status depend on the possession of attached servants whose survival, albeit in conditions of extreme unfreedom and exploitation, depend on the subsistence provided by masters. Gooptu looks at the twentieth-century labour migration of untouchable castes to UP towns and the implications of urban existence and labour for them. She sees it as a combination of freedom from everyday direct domination and discrimination from rural caste relations along with degraded occupations and a marginalized existence. She then traces this commingling in new untouchable urban sects.
Five essays come next, to discuss 'Caste, Gender, and Identity'. Four of them look at new processes of caste identity formation among dalit communities of northern, western, and eastern India. Unlike some of the earlier essays, which trace continuities and breaks from pre-colonial conditions, Rao begins with a 1963 legal case of sexual abuse of dalit women and traces its implications back to Ambedkar's times to see how a caste-gender system emerged variously in upper- and lower-caste discourses and practices. Deshpande develops a long-term historical perspective on caste competition over the term 'Maratha' and the varied interpretations and connotations that came to accrue to this rather open category. Significantly, notions of a martial masculinity of kshatriyahood were crucial components of the claim. Gupta looks at the urbanization of dalit communities in North India, and at the images and self-images that social change wrought. While upper- caste, missionary, and colonial records depict them as docile, they also contain anxious subtexts about a potentially violent masculinity and a promiscuous female sexuality that could threaten caste boundaries. Sumit Sarkar develops a close study of a set of early-twentieth-century treatises written by a dalit group which sought to transform their caste name from Chandal to a more respectable Namashudra. As the census provided the conditions for a new status, their Namashudra identity had to be competitively constructed in conflictual relationship with other social groups.
Ambedkar had once identified endogamy as the basis of caste, and its centrality in Hindu marriage and kinship continues in con- temporary times. Yet it is precisely this sphere of caste functioning that is most neglected in caste studies. Majumdar's discussion of the modernization of Hindu arranged marriage forms in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Bengal looks at a shift away from older custodians of caste genealogies to new caste journals which largely took over the work of aligning marriage with status.
In the sixth set of essays, on 'Caste and the Nation', Jaffrelot compares Ambedkar's analysis of caste with later sociological scholarship and points out how much Ambedkar anticipated the insights of sociologists. He then reads Ambedkar's text to identify how his scholarly analysis was intertwined with his political aim of exposing the non-viability of the entire system. Nagaraj revisits the epic combat between Gandhi and Ambedkar in the 1930s from a very different perspective, arguing that behind the more obvious contentions lay a deeper process of unacknowledged learning from each other. Pandian begins with the ways in which caste is simultaneously invoked and nullified in upper-caste memories, counterposing this to the overwhelming power of caste for dalit recollections. Contra Partha Chatterjee, he argues that even though the cultural sphere of the colonized is seen as a space of sovereignty, it is more important to problematize that excess as constituted by power relations within Indian society. Until dalits unsettle the public-private divide by articulating the repressed areas of nationalist discourses, caste will always be seen as a matter of private predilections.
This brings us to the last set of essays, on 'Caste and Resistance'. O'Hanlon traces the beginnings of modern caste protest in the practical activism and polemical writings of Jyotirao Phule. Hardiman looks at the relationship of dalits and adivasis-subaltern groups whose dividing line is not always clear-with Gandhian nationalism and its hegemonic aspirations to re-create and control the politics' and lifeworlds of both. Rawat studies the dalits of UP and identifies three critical moments in the development of an autonomous and organized dalit politics which evolves from resistance to an abusive and degraded nomenclature to a caste federation.
It is clear that the thirty-three essays which follow speak to one another, sometimes exploring the same historical narrative on different registers: those on dalits of UP, Bengal, western, and southern India, for instance. Sometimes they argue with one another: Jaffrelot and Hardiman on the one hand, and Nagaraj on the other, have somewhat divergent views on the relationship between Arnbedkar and Gandhian nationalism. At other times, several essays address shared debates: with Dumont, Wiser, or with nationalist historians. We were careful to select writings that are mutually inter-animating.
We also tried to preserve the integrity of the writings by reproducing entire chapters and articles in order to avoid cutting and pasting, but we cannot claim hundred per cent success: three or four pieces could not be reproduced in their entirety. In several essays, caste gets reframed by various other horizons: gender, class relations, nation, systems of knowledge. We did not try to cull the specific matter of caste out of them as we believed that no social category is a standalone, each being relational rather than exclusive or substantive.
The literature on caste is so voluminous that, in order to manage within two fat volumes, we had to our great disappointment to leave out much that we would have liked to include: much more, for example, from Bayly, Constable, Rao. We could not include essays by Valerian Rodrigues (on Ambedkar) and Neeladri Bhattacharya (on the codification of custom) which would have added greatly to the value of this collection. We were deeply disappointed at failing in all our efforts to contact Lucy Carroll or her publisher for permission to include her masterly study of caste associations. And much as we would have liked to include the work of Marc Galanter, the subject of caste, law, and reservations merits a volume by itsef.
We are extremely grateful to all the authors and to their publishers for their generous consent to be part of these volumes. Rukun Advani has been a silent co-editor; and we thank S. Ghosh for securing permission from authors and publishers, many of whom expressed admiration for her efficiency. Anirban Bandyopadhyay helped us with assembling all the various contributions. Copyright details and acknowledgement of reproduction permissions are provided, whenever required, and in the form specified by the copyright owner, within the first footnote of each essay. Citation methods vary across the essays: efforts to standardize the variety would have required time and effort out of all proportion to the value.
We dedicate this collection to the teachers and students of Delhi University who are struggling, against impossible odds, to save their institution from imminent and brutal destruction.
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