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Review: Caste in History

The book Caste in History discusses how colonialism, religion, politics and nationalism changed the way we look at caste in India today, writes Upinder Singh.

india Updated: Nov 27, 2007 13:33 IST

Caste in History

Edited by Ishita Banerjee-Dube


Rs 695, pp 303

The origins of the word ‘caste’ lie in 16th century Portuguese references to casta. But the roots of the institution go back to much earlier times.

Contemporary debates on caste tend to focus on its colonial and post-colonial history. So it is not surprising that a book titled

Caste in History

does not adequately acknowledge the fact that caste has an ancient and medieval history as well. Sociologists have dominated the rather voluminous discourse on this institution, but a historical approach is essential, as the nature and content of the caste cauldron have changed significantly over time.<b1>

Ishita Banerjee-Dube’s introduction gives a useful and succinct overview of major sociological and anthropological perspectives on caste, underlining the importance of a historical perspective.

The essays and excerpts that follow offer an interesting assemblage of writings on the interpretation, ideology and practice of caste between the 17th and 20th centuries. They raise many thought-provoking issues, including the connections of caste with colonialism, religion, politics and nationalism.

The relationship between knowledge and power is layered, complex and fluid, and the first section of the book shows how caste was understood and given legitimacy by the colonial State.

The reasons why the British were so keen to collect information on caste went far beyond mere intellectual curiosity. They were convinced that caste and religion were the two keys to understanding Indian society. The inquiry also satisfied a practical need to classify the natives and assign them different roles within the larger imperial edifice.

It is no coincidence that many of the men who wrote on caste were census commissioners. Padmanabh Samarendra shows how the attitude of the colonial State towards collecting caste data changed over time. Academic analysis of the institution began in right earnest after 1881, and ethnographic descriptions drew freely on race science, which was very fashionable in Europe at the time.<b2>

H.H. Risley is probably best known for his hypothesis that there is a direct connection between a person’s caste and the length of his nose. But there is something almost prophetic about his observations (published in 1908) that caste would provide political parties an incredibly efficient machinery for whipping up votes en masse.

Caste in practice is the theme of the second section of the book. There is a discussion of how the Saraswat Brahmins developed a corporate identity and an account of caste mobility among the Nadars of Tamil Nadu. Raymond Lee Owens and Ashis Nandy explore how perceptions of self and identity have influenced the entrepreneurial behaviour and business performance of lower-caste Mahisya and upper-class businessmen in Howrah.

Shail Mayaram’s study of the Meos of Rajasthan — who consider themselves both Muslims and Kshatriyas — shows the overlap between Hindu, Muslim, Shudra and Adivasi categories in the identity formation of this community. Kalpana Ram looks at the operation of caste in the lives of the Mukkuvars, a fishing community of Kanyakumari, and argues that the experience of untouchability is not the same for men and women.

Due to the fact that Mukkuvar exchange activities are dominated by women, it is they who bear the brunt of their community’s polluted status within caste society.

The third section of the book deals with the theme of caste and politics. Anand Pandian analyses how the British creation of the category of criminal castes and tribes was grist to the mill for peasants who rose in revolt against the Kallars. Rosalind O’Hanlon examines Jotirao Phule’s ingenious interpretation of the myth of the Aryan invasion and the idea of Vishnu’s avataras to buttress an anti-Brahmin movement.

Sekhar Bandopadhaya tracks how the Namasudras of Bengal managed to position themselves as a ‘backward community’ in the early 20th century to extract special concessions from the British. Of course, the centrepiece of any discussion of caste and the nation is the Gandhi-Ambedkar debate, which forms the focus of two excerpts, those of Eleanor Zelliot and Rajni Kothari. <b3>

These are followed by Ashutosh Varshney’s examination of the relationship between caste-based politics, social equality and democracy, which takes us to the heart of the very issues that are being vigorously debated today.

The last section of the book shifts gear from academic discourse about caste to personal narratives of experiences of caste from the so-called ‘untouchables’ and backward castes.

There are excerpts from the life-story of a woman story-teller, Viramma, Vasant Moon on growing up as an untouchable in Maharashtra, Kancha Ilaiah’s explanation of why he is not a Hindu and an analysis of how the Satnamis saw themselves in relation to their larger social and political universe.

An introductory paragraph giving some basic biographical details about the narrators would have strengthened this section. Nevertheless, as pointed out by the editor of this volume, the raw and yet matter-of-fact accounts of the experience of caste discrimination unsettle complacency and remind us of the urgency of understanding caste in history.

(Upinder Singh is Professor of History, University of Delhi)

First Published: Nov 27, 2007 13:15 IST