Monday, December 19, 2011

Caste, Society and Politics in India


Title: Caste, Society and Politics in India – From The Eighteenth Century To The Modern Age
Author: Susan Bayly
Publisher: Cambridge UP 2002 (First published 1999)
ISBN: 0-521-79842-6
Pages: 387

Suan Bayly is a Lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology in the University of Cambridge. This book is volume IV.3 of the New Cambridge History of India and covers the aspects related to caste, society and politics from the eighteenth century to the modern age. Not free from the traditional shackles binding English authors assessing Indian merit, this book demonstrates attempts to gauge India from the writings of European scholars alone. Not surprisingly, the author struggles to perceive the reality in the Indian social kaleidoscope. Bayly begins by declaring that casteism was not a byproduct of the colonial rule. Okay, who argued it was? She then shifts blame to post-Mughal and pre-colonial states in raking up caste and jati groups to the fore. The reasons given out in favour of such a hypothesis leaves an Indian reader very much in the know of how caste is such an overarching feature of Indian life wondering how all this could have materialized in one or two centuries. It is not clear whether the author has ever visited India, but nothing prevents her from spinning out fantastic theories and pointless assertions.

The social milieu in India is a caste-stratified social hierarchy. Many aspects of today’s caste society was developed in the 18th century, asserts the author. Origins of caste can be traced back to Purusha Sukta in the Rig Veda, which was compiled around 1500-1000 BCE. Even non-Hindu populations in India are afflicted with the notions of caste, as many of them claim to be converts from upper castes. Caste, or jati, is a concept not seen anywhere else in the world, making western thinkers struggle hard to reconcile this inconvenient phenomenon among their tools. Louis Dumont characterised Hindus as belonging to Homo hierarchicus, meaning that the individual has no place in society, on the face of customs and practices belonging to the hierarchical caste structure in which he is a member. In contrast, the Euro-Americans are classified as Homo aequalis. According to Bayly, caste assumed solidified usage in the aftermath of Mughal collapse when regional chieftains and powerful retainers of the courts divided the country among themselves and each desired to espouse legitimacy by asserting that they and their subjects belong to specified castes with notions of purity and deferential behaviour expected among inter-caste relationships. The Bhakti movements abhorred caste norms, but its followers firmly continued to be members of castes. This transition is said to be particularly exemplified in the case Shivaji Bhonsle (1630-80), who was not a dvija (twice born), but who deftly manipulated the priesthood to confer on him the title of a Kshatriya. In 1674, the title Chhatrapati was bestowed on him by a group of brahmin priests. After this dynasty was removed from power due to the machinations of his brahmin chief ministers, titled Peshwas, the Chitpavan brahmins continued to enjoy immense power as rulers as well as priests of vast domains of land. Brahminisation of royal service ensued in its wake.

Removal of peshwas and putting kshatriyas of Shivaji’s lineage in their place caused rift between Brahmins and the British in the early 19th century. Priests in holy places such as Banaras were seen to be plotting against the British and they are designated as conspiratorial brahmins, unworthy of service under the East India Company. This community also helped to bring out newly attired versions of old texts, linking dharmic practices to everyday actions of a social being. The origin of the word ‘caste’ to denote the particular custom of India has been narrated in detail. “The word’s origins are usually said to be Iberian. In the sixteenth century the term casta (apparently derived from the Latin castus, chaste) was used in Portuguese and Spanish to mean species or breed in both botany and animal husbandry; it seems though to correspond to the English word cast or caste which had the same meaning and apparently predates the British connection with India. Casta came to be used in the Iberian New World colonies to refer to Amerindian clans and lineages. In India, casta was used by early European travellers as an ambiguous term for community, bloodline or birth group.” (p.105-106). British writers like Risley and Hunter related it to racial theories while Ibbetson sought individualist and economical reasons behind its origin.

Indian reform movements sprang up after the tragic end of the first war of independence in 1857. National Social Conference was one such organisation founded in 1887 by M G Ranade and Raghunatha Rao, which opposed caste concepts. Conservatives like B G Tilak opposed their social agenda. Indian scholars espoused three views on the existence of caste. They are 1) The Incubus view: ‘caste’ in all its forms as a divisive and pernicious force, and a negation of nationhood; 2) The ‘Golden chain’ view: ‘caste’ as varna – to be seen as an ideology of spiritual orders and moral affinities, and a potential basis for national regeneration; 3) The idealized corporation view: ‘caste’ as jati – to be seen as a concrete ethnographic fact of Indian life, a source of historic national strengths and organised self-improvement or ‘uplift’ (p.155). The landed aristocracy suffered decline by the mid-19th century and commercial classes like mahajans, agarwals and such marwari castes shot into prominence. These new upwardly mobile communities assumed strict morals of caste, bringing into focus vegetarian diet, extensive social gatherings during festivals and strict performance of rituals at home. They were also devotee of Vishnu. These communities gradually got promoted to the rank of Vaishya, the third varna. The colonial establishment also found it convenient to dance to the existing social tune, by employing untouchables like Chamars and Doms as cleaners, scavengers and nightsoil removers. Movements offering resistance to Brahmin supremacy also gained ground during this period, resulting in reservations of 50% of royal service seats for non-Brahmins in Mysore (1895) and Kolhapur (1902).

Gandhiji made eradication of untouchability a campaign of national priority in the 20th century, but without trespassing the limits of the Hindu fold. Dr B R Ambedkar opposed him, often virtually by tooth and nail, demanding separate electorates for lower castes like what the British had sanctioned for Muslims. The consensus came in 1932 in the form of ‘Poona Pact’, which provided reservation in the legislative assembly for people of depressed castes origin, but no separate electorate for them. The scheme was carried over in the 1935 Government of India Act and scheduled lists were prepared for the castes and tribes for determining the percentage of seats. Thus originated the term, ‘scheduled’, when referring to depressed castes. Even in post-independent India, caste assumes a larger than life image, evidenced by the People of India Project, an ambitious government-funded programme to collect details of 4635 castes along with DNA sampling. This move assumes racial basis for divergence of castes. Reservations for other backward classes (OBCs) by Mandal commission’s recommendations have also ensured propagation of casteism in the minds of people moving forward to the 21st century, as Bayly says as she is shrewd enough to observe that “Malabar, lowland Bengal and other ‘torrid’ locales were regions where significant numbers of people did display a strict and ‘unhealthy’ concern with concepts of ritualised rank and purity” (p.115).

This book was a disappointment by any parameter. The language is out and out academic and terse. On some points, it looked like a doctoral thesis presented with scant camouflage to the public eye. Totally out of touch with realities in the post-independent period, it doesn’t even allow a way out for Indians to get rid of the casteist spectre. Banes of untouchability, shared though in a lesser form by the OBCs doesn’t deserve mention in the skewed judgement of the author. Violent anti-Mandal reservation agitations held in North India are portrayed as rightful “protest against punishing the upper castes” (p.296). It also contains factually incorrect statements like the left parties espoused Mandalite reservation schemes (p.297). You can see unfounded allegations like the Sangh Parivar tried in 1990s to scrap the Constitution and to replace it with one which assured supremacy of Brahmins (p.300). Bayly might have used anti-Mandal propaganda as her reference material for this period is clearly evident by her terming the commission’s recommendations moribund (p.301), without analysing its salutory effects on a half of the country’s population. The tone of the book is so nauseatingly favouring upper castes that she has always put in apostrophes the terms like ‘forward oppressors’ and ‘backward uplift’. The book asserts that caste conflicts in the 1970s, also termed caste wars was sensationalized by the media (p.306), thus belittling the event and negating natural justice. The most laughable comment appears in page 321, as “people of high-caste origin in senior posts in government service lead secular and partially casteless lives”! How isolated the author is, from the harsh realities of actual Indian life! Bayly seems to have no idea of who are the members of OBCs, when she claims that Mandal commission’s recommendations made relaxed admission norms for ‘tribal’ students for courses in medicine (p.355). Who is going to convince her that tribals do not belong to OBCs?

The book is practically silent on Kerala and its revolutionary reform movements which pre-dated many in other parts of India. Apart from a cursory remark about the satyagraha at Vaikom for the right to travel on the perimeter road of the temple for the backward classes, nothing worthwhile is mentioned. The bibliography is heavily biased towards European authors. Altogether, the book can only be described as an opportunity wasted.

The book is not recommended.

Rating: 1 Star

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