When thinking of India, it is hard not to think of caste. In academic and common parlance alike, caste has become a central symbol for India, marking it as fundamentally different from other places while expressing its essence. Nicholas Dirks argues that caste is, in fact, neither an unchanged survival of ancient India nor a single system that reflects a core cultural value. Rather than a basic expression of Indian tradition, caste is a modern phenomenon--the product of a concrete historical encounter between India and British colonial rule. Dirks does not contend that caste was invented by the British. But under British domination caste did become a single term capable of naming and above all subsuming India's diverse forms of social identity and organization.
Dirks traces the career of caste from the medieval kingdoms of southern India to the textual traces of early colonial archives; from the commentaries of an eighteenth-century Jesuit to the enumerative obsessions of the late-nineteenth-century census; from the ethnographic writings of colonial administrators to those of twentieth-century Indian scholars seeking to rescue ethnography from its colonial legacy. The book also surveys the rise of caste politics in the twentieth century, focusing in particular on the emergence of caste-based movements that have threatened nationalist consensus.
Castes of Mind is an ambitious book, written by an accomplished scholar with a rare mastery of centuries of Indian history and anthropology. It uses the idea of caste as the basis for a magisterial history of modern India. And in making a powerful case that the colonial past continues to haunt the Indian present, it makes an important contribution to current postcolonial theory and scholarship on contemporary Indian politics.
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Princeton University Press
January 01, 2001
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Excerpt from Castes of Mind by Nicholas B. Dirks
Caste as India
When thinking of India it is hard not to think of caste. In comparative sociology and in common parlance alike, caste has become a central symbol for India, indexing it as fundamentally different from other places as well as expressing its essence. A long history of writing--from the grand treatise of the Abb� Dubois to the general anthropology of Louis Dumont; from the piles of statistical and descriptive volumes of British colonial censuses starting in 1872 to the eye-catching headlines of the New York Times--has identified caste as the basic form of Indian society. Caste has been seen as omnipresent in Indian history and as one of the major reasons why India has no history, or at least no sense of history. Caste defines the core of Indian tradition, and it is seen today as the major threat to Indian modernity. If we are to understand India properly, and by implication if we are to understand India's other core symbol--Hinduism--we must understand caste, whether we admire or revile it.
In The Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote that "Almost everyone who knows anything at all about India has heard of the caste system; almost every outsider and many people in India condemn it or criticize it as a whole." Nehru did not like the caste system any more than he admired the widely heralded "spiritual" foundations of Indian civilization, but even he felt ambivalence about it. Although he noted that caste had resisted "not only the powerful impact of Buddhism and many centuries of Afghan and Mughal rule and the spread of Islam," as also "the strenuous efforts of innumerable Hindu reformers who raised their voices against it," he felt that caste was finally beginning to come undone through the force of basic economic changes. And yet Nehru was not sure what all this change would unleash. "The conflict is between two approaches to the problem of social organisation, which are diametrically opposed to each other: the old Hindu conception of the group being the basic unit of organisation, and the excessive individualism of the west, emphasizing the individual above the group."2 In making this observation, Nehru neatly captured the conceptual contours of most recent debates over caste: he evaluated it in relation to its place as fundamental to Hinduism, as well as in terms of a basic opposition between the individual and the community, an opposition that has provided the bounds of most modern social theory and political imagining. This opposition constitutes the basic limit to most understandings of caste, both in the West and within India itself.
Louis Dumont, the author of the most influential scholarly treatise on caste in the last half of the twentieth century, believed that the West's excessive individualism was the single greatest impediment to the understanding of caste. Dumont began his book, Homo Hierarchicus, with a critique of individualism, claiming Marx and Durkheim as his sociological ancestors. For Dumont, "the true function of sociology is to make good the lacuna introduced by the individualistic mentality when it confuses the ideal with the actual To the self-sufficient individual it [sociology] opposes man as a social being; it considers each man no longer as a particular incarnation of abstract humanity, but as a more or less autonomous point of emergence of a particular collective humanity, of a society."3 Dumont based his suspicion of modern individualism on Tocqueville's analysis of American democracy, in which he noted that "individualism . . . disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellow-creatures; and to draw apart with his family and his friends; so that, after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendents, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back for ever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart." Dumont thus began his study of caste in India by placing it at the center of the sociological endeavor, and aligning himself with Tocqueville's critical lament about the rise of the "novel idea" of individualism.4
For Dumont it is this same commitment to individualism, even within the sociological space of theorizing the social, that rejects the possibility that hierarchy, the core value behind the caste system, has not only been foundational for most societies but is naturally so. Dumont wrote that "To adopt a value is to introduce hierarchy, and a certain consensus of values, a certain hierarchy of ideas, things and people, is indispensable to social life No doubt, in the majority of cases, hierarchy will be identified in some way with power, but there is no necessity for this, as the case of India will show In relation to these more or less necessary requirements of social life, the ideal of equality, even if it is thought superior, is artificial."5 Dumont made this point here in the service of a straightforward epistemological assertion, namely, that a Western audience (and as his prose makes clear, he could imagine no other) will misunderstand caste, and hierarchy, because of the modern denial of principles that seem opposed to individualism and equality. But his claims about the ideological foundations of hierarchical values in India--that India has always been mired in spiritual and otherworldly concerns--are not only deeply problematic, they are as old as Orientalism itself. For Dumont, caste is seen to express a commitment to social values that the modern world has lost, and it is hard not to read Dumont's scholarship as a peculiar form of modern Western nostalgia, if with a long colonial pedigree. Dumont's faith in a communitarian ideal may have little in common with Nehru's anxiety about the demise of caste, but it asserts the view, largely shared in India as well as in the West, that caste is the sign of India's fundamental religiosity, a marker of India's essential difference from the West and from modernity at large.
This book will ask why it is that caste has become for so many the core symbol of community in India, whereas for others, even in serious critique, caste is still the defining feature of Indian social organization. As we shall see, views of caste differ markedly: from those who see it as a religious system to those who view it as merely social or economic; from those who admire the spiritual foundations of a sacerdotal hierarchy to those who look from below and see the tyranny of Brahmans (all the more insidious because of the ritual mystifications that attend domination); from those who view it as the Indian equivalent of community to those who see it as the primary impediment to community. But an extraordinary range of commentators, from James Mill to Herbert Risley, from Hegel to Weber, from G. S. Ghurye to M. N. Srinivas, from Louis Dumont to McKim Marriott, from E. V. Ramaswamy Naicker to B. R. Ambedkar, from Gandhi to Nehru, among many others who will populate the text that follows, accept that caste--and specifically caste forms of hierarchy, whether valorized or despised--is somehow fundamental to Indian civilization, Indian culture, and Indian tradition.
This book will address this question by suggesting that caste, as we know it today, is not in fact some unchanged survival of ancient India, not some single system that reflects a core civilizational value, not a basic expression of Indian tradition. Rather, I will argue that caste (again, as we know it today) is a modern phenomenon, that it is, specifically, the product of an historical encounter between India and Western colonial rule. By this I do not mean to imply that it was simply invented by the too clever British, now credited with so many imperial patents that what began as colonial critique has turned into another form of imperial adulation. But I am suggesting that it was under the British that "caste" became a single term capable of expressing, organizing, and above all "systematizing" India's diverse forms of social identity, community, and organization. This was achieved through an identifiable (if contested) ideological canon as the result of a concrete encounter with colonial modernity during two hundred years of British domination. In short, colonialism made caste what it is today. It produced the conditions that made possible the opening lines of this book, by making caste the central symbol of Indian society. And it did its work well; as Nehru was powerfully aware, there is now no simple way of wishing it away, no easy way to imagine social forms that would transcend the languages of caste that have become so inscribed in ritual, familial, communal, socioeconomic, political, and public theaters of quotidian life.
In the pages that follow I will trace the career of caste from the medieval kingdoms of southern India to the textual traces of early colonial archives; from the commentaries of an eighteenth-century Jesuit missionary to the enumerative obsessions of the late nineteenth-century census; from the ethnographic writings of colonial administrators and missionaries to those of twentieth-century Indian scholars. I will focus on early colonial efforts to know India well enough to rule it and profit by it, as they brought together the many strands of scientific curiosity, missionary frustration, Orientalist fascination, and administrative concerns with property and taxation in the service of, among other things, colonial governmentality.6 I will follow these conjunctural imperatives as they increasingly substituted statistical and ethnographical techniques for historical and textual knowledge, as they drew from an ample inheritance of Orientalist generalization to articulate the justifications for permanent colonial rule, and as they took on the racialized languages and conceits of late nineteenth-century imperial world systems. And I will illustrate some of the ways in which this history provided the frame for an alternative history of social reform and nationalist resistance which worked to throw out colonialism while absorbing from colonial encounters many of the terms and arguments of self-determination and self-government. I will also survey the rise of caste politics in the twentieth century, focusing in particular on the emergence of movements that threatened to fracture nationalist consensus even as they revealed the problematic charters, and entailments, of anticolonial nationalism. For the purposes of this book, this history will attain its apotheosis in the debates over the use of caste for social welfare in the postindependence contexts of "reservations," quotas, and affirmative action.
Specters of Caste
It is impossible to write about India today, particularly when addressing issues concerning community, without referring to the current crisis over secularism and religious nationalism. The rise of Hindu fundamentalism has made it necessary to engage explicitly with the ways that Hinduism, as a set of ritual practices, a "world religion," and an ethnic identity, has increasingly claimed India as its own. The uses of Hindutva as a political call to arms, and the demise of secularism as a legitimate national ideology, have led to a crisis that might make a book on caste seem beside the point. But it is in part because of the crisis around communalism that it is well worth directing some attention to the ways in which caste haunts discourses of community and nation in India today. This study will perforce address a range of concerns relevant to the current crisis. First, there is now general acceptance of the fact that the bitter debates over caste reservations were triggered by the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report by V. P. Singh in 1990. Once caste started to be used as the basis for denying rather than conferring social privilege, Hindu nationalists captured ground by calling for a notion of religious community to replace one of caste. Second, one of my arguments in this book will be that caste was configured as an encompassing Indian social system in direct relationship to the constitution of "Hinduism" as a systematic, confessional, all-embracing religious identity. Indeed, caste has generally been seen as fundamental to Hinduism--a curious irony in a context in which the problems of caste are today being used to justify the necessity of Hinduism as a noncontestatory form of community to cushion the turmoil of political modernity in India. My examination into the colonial history of caste will complement any investigation of the affiliation of religious identities with political communities in the current geopolitics of South Asia, even as it builds on the important suggestions of Gyanendra Pandey that religious communalism was also in large part a colonial construction.7
It is not as if the Hindu nationalists, any more than either fundamentalist or secularist reformers in days past, have managed to wish caste away. Caste continues to dominate Indian social worlds, even if in some larger political contexts it has been effaced by the conflict between Hindus and Muslims. In regions of India that witnessed particularly significant anti-Brahman (and by implication anticaste) political movements, as for example in what are today Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, as well as in regions where caste provided the basis for "lower-caste" political mobilization, as for example in parts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, caste seems to be as prominent a fact of social life as ever. Increasingly, all-India forms of Dalit ("untouchable") politics carry on B. R. Ambedkar's insistent identification of caste as the most powerful vehicle of dominance--ritual as well as political and economic--in India. At the same time, the process of what has been called the ethnicization, or substantialization, of caste, heralded by many social scientists as the necessary death of the old caste system (based as they thought it was on interdependency rather than conflict) has provided new mechanisms for the strengthening of caste identity. Caste may no longer convey a sense of community that confers civilizational identity to the Indian subcontinent, but it is still the primary form of local identity and, in certain contexts, from Dalits to Brahmans, translates the local into recognizably subcontinental idioms of association far more powerful than any other single category of community.
Caste thus continues, even as it continues to trouble. But despite the tone here--and I will be critical of the British role in the reification of caste even as I am critical of those, Indian or Western, who advocate the values of the caste system--I do not seek to join the chorus of those who view caste as either emblematic of Indian civilization or as opposed to modernity. Although my principal concern will be to unravel the historical process that has worked to naturalize the idea of a (uniform, all-encompassing, ideologically consistent, Indologically conceived) caste system, I am particularly concerned to register my conviction that caste has at times been the necessary vehicle of social and political mobilization, even as it carries as many traces of the modern as the institutions it is said to inhibit or oppose. When figures such as Ambedkar in western India or Periyar in the south organized political movements around caste, they worked to transform both the cultural meanings and the political uses of caste in ways that went well beyond the colonial mandate. On occasion, caste has indeed been a worthy synonym of community in the best of senses, even if political movements have all too often failed to transcend in any way the problematic relationship of caste to exclusion. Nehru observed that "In the constructive schemes that we may make, we have to pay attention to the human material we have to deal with, to the background of its thought and urges, and to the environment in which we have to function. To ignore all this and to fashion some idealistic scheme in the air, or merely to think in terms of imitating what others have done elsewhere, would be folly. It becomes desirable therefore to examine and understand the old Indian social structure which has so powerfully influenced our people."8 More to my point, since I can share neither Nehru's precise pronouns nor his own political project, leave alone his understanding of caste, I would argue that caste endures and is so significant today because it has been the precipitate of a powerful history, in which it has been constituted as the very condition of the Indian social. This book is principally about the historicity of caste, the ways caste has come into being, and as such been conditioned by history to condition (and make conditional) any possibility of a future beyond, or without, caste.
What follows is principally about the colonial role in the historical construction of caste. I argue that the history in which caste has been constituted as the principal modality of Indian society draws as much from the role of British Orientalists, administrators, and missionaries as it does from Indian reformers, social thinkers, and political actors. Indeed, my argument is about the power of the colonial leviathan to produce caste as the measure of all social things, a feat that could not have been accomplished had caste not become one of the most important emblems of tradition (the not-so-obscure object of desire for many Westerners and Indians alike, across the full course of India's modern history) at the same time as it was a core feature of colonial power/knowledge. And yet this is not a simple story of either epistemic domination or of elite collaboration. This book not only culminates in the heroic attempts by Ambedkar and Periyar to change the terms of caste; it builds on the work of critics of colonial modernity such as Ranajit Guha and Partha Chatterjee, who have been as concerned to chart new historical patterns of influence as they have been to find new ways to chart alternative futures. Guha, whose work has ranged from his brilliant intellectual history of the Bengal Permanent Settlement to his more recent studies of anticolonial insurgency and the manifold historical entailments of colonial domination, has both demonstrated the power of colonial rule and the need to write not just against but beyond colonialism.9 And Chatterjee has always insisted on the need to chart the history of colonized negotiations with both the brutality of foreign domination and the spectral hail of the modern. Drawing inspiration from these and many other scholars, I hope to weave an argument far more complicated than that the British invented caste, though in one sense this is precisely what happened. But when I assert the power of colonial history I do so in the wake of the now canonic demonstrations by Bernard Cohn and Edward Said of the hegemonic character of colonial rule on the history of the colonized.10
We now know that colonial conquest was not just the result of the power of superior arms, military organization, political power, or economic wealth--as important as these things were. Colonialism was made possible, and then sustained and strengthened, as much by cultural technologies of rule as it was by the more obvious and brutal modes of conquest that first established power on foreign shores. The cultural effects of colonialism have until recently been too often ignored or displaced into the inevitable logics of modernization and world capitalism; and this only because it has not been sufficiently recognized that colonialism was itself a cultural project of control. Colonial knowledge both enabled conquest and was produced by it; in certain important ways, knowledge was what colonialism was all about. Cultural forms in societies newly classified as "traditional" were reconstructed and transformed by this knowledge, which created new categories and oppositions between colonizers and colonized, European and Asian, modern and traditional, West and East. Through the delineation and reconstitution of systematic grammars for vernacular languages, the control of Indian territory through cartographic technologies and picturesque techniques of rule, the representation of India through the mastery and display of archaeological mementos and ritual texts, the taxing of India through the reclassification and assessment of land use, property form, and agrarian structure, and the enumeration of India through the statistical technology of the census, Britain set in motion transformations every bit as powerful as the better-known consequences of military and economic imperialism.11
Most saliently for the argument here, British colonialism played a critical role in both the identification and the production of Indian "tradition." Current debates about modernity and tradition fail to appreciate the extent to which the congeries of beliefs, customs, practices, and convictions that have been designated as traditional are in fact the complicated byproduct of colonial history. Bernard Cohn has argued that the British simultaneously misrecognized and simplified things Indian, imprisoning the Indian subject into the typecast role it assigned under the name of tradition: "In the conceptual scheme which the British created to understand and to act in India, they constantly followed the same logic; they reduced vastly complex codes and their associated meanings to a few metonyms India was redefined by the British to be a place of rules and orders; once the British had defined to their own satisfaction what they construed as Indian rules and customs, then the Indians had to conform to these constructions."12 Edward Said has illuminated the process through which the Orient was "Orientalized" precisely because of the byzantine reinforcements of colonial power and knowledge.13 Partha Chatterjee has called this general process the "colonial rule of difference": referring thereby to the historical fact that colonialism could only justify itself if under the regime of universal history it encountered the limit of alterity, the social fact that India must always be ruled because it could never be folded into a universal narrative of progress, modernity, and, ultimately, Europe. "To the extent this complex of power and knowledge was colonial," he tells us, "the forms of objectification and normalization of the colonized had to reproduce, within the framework of a universal knowledge, the truth of colonial difference."14
It is here that we come up against the special perversity of colonial modernity, for the traditional was produced precisely within the historical relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. The colonizer held out modernity as a promise but at the same time made it the limiting condition of coloniality: the promise that would never be kept. The colonized could be seduced by the siren of the modern but never quite get there, mired necessarily (if colonialism was to continue to legitimate itself) in a "traditional" world.15 On the other side of the colonial divide, the colonized, sometimes in direct reaction to the colonial lie of universality, would appropriate tradition as resistance and as refuge, but under conditions of colonial modernity tradition was simultaneously devalued and transformed. As a result, tradition too suffered from loss, even as it was tainted by its evident historicity. In the case of caste, many Indian social reformers and critics mistook this history as linear decline, the degradation of a noble system into a corrupt structure of power and dominant interests. Only a few, most notably the extraordinary sociologist G. S. Ghurye, blamed colonialism.16 But whatever the argument, attempts at historical recuperation typically took the form of finding an Orientalist golden age, a time when caste was an ideal system of mutual responsibility, reasoned interdependence, and genuine spiritual authority. Only a few non-Brahman and Dalit voices rejected this kind of Orientalist nostalgia, all the while feeling increasingly trapped by the demands of anticolonial nationalism to downplay, and defer, all critiques of Indian culture and civilization.
The Indian Political
Perhaps the most troubling legacy of the colonial idea of a golden age is the disavowal (shared in large part by nationalist thought) of the political forms and affiliations that were an important part of India's precolonial history. It is this last concern that was the subject of my previous study, The Hollow Crown, which took as its focus the social and political fortunes of a small kingdom in southern India from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century. I argued that "until the emergence of British colonial rule in southern India [and by implication India at large] the crown was not so hollow as it has generally been made out to be. Kings were not inferior to Brahmans; the political domain was not encompassed by a religious domain. State forms, while not fully assimilated to western categories of the state, were powerful components in Indian Civilization.