Dialogue October- December, 2007, Volume 9  No. 2


Caste, Census, and the Colonial Interpretations


Shashi Shekhar Sharma*



EVERY PROBLEM AND CRISIS OF THE INDIAN SOCIETY, INCLUDING brutal assaults on its people and the occupation of its territory by the use of force, fraud and technology has been attributed to the inherent failings of the Hindus themselves. Two of the most important handicaps of the Hindus have been universally proclaimed to be: i) their alleged brutal brahmanic core, and ii) their pernicious caste system. Most failure of the Indians have been explained on the basis of these twin principles or essences which have also been projected as the reasons why Indian society has not progressed sufficiently and remained mired in conflicts and crises. “Scholars did this”, suggests Ronald Inden, “by imagining an India kept eternally ancient by various essences attributed to it, most notably that of caste”.

The various essences of India are primarily located in its allegedly defunct religious ideas, incorrigibly hierarchized social structures, and a woolly sense of philosophical rationality. The construction of Hindu ‘essences’ was executed by resorting to alternative naming strategies that ascribed to local ideas a patina of meaning that corroded their traditional connotations. The intention, as we would soon see, was to disrupt the Hindu philosophic and cultural consensus by splitting its discourse into an assumed ‘brahmanic orthodoxy’ and a plethora of ‘protestant’ and ‘heretic’ schools who consistently challenged we are told, the hegemonic authority of Brahmanism. Associated with this philosophical critique, in fact, emerging from it, was the notion of the Hindu society as a congerie of irredeemably antagonistic units whose identities were mostly ascribed, and in many instances a product of their split from brahmanic Hinduism.


*The author is a senior IAS Oficer, presently a Secretary to the Govt. of Bihar. Address: Dr. Vishveshwaraiya Bhawan, Bailey Road, Patna-800 015.           


The cultural worldview based on the Vedas, the Upanisadas, the Gita, and various schools of darœana was called Brahmanism or Brahmanic Hinduism; the tradition enunciated in the Puranas and the Epics was shown to be popular Hinduism; the tradition of the Hindu saints and savants came to be represented as ‘protestant’ Hinduism and ‘rebellious’ democratic departures from Brahmanism. The traditions, the teachers, and the sects which were subjected to alternative naming may not themselves have claimed to embark on an exercise of rebellion, but that does not seem to have mattered to the modern interpreters. The history of Hinduism, according to them is primarily a series of splits, rebellions, departures and schism from a supposed core of orthodoxy whose parameters few commentators were able to fully locate, and in awareness of this failure conveniently named it as Brahmanism. One of the explanations for this attitude can be found in the historical experience of the Abrahamic religions, to which most European scholars, orientalists, and early Indologists belonged. In the Abrahamic worldwide alternative interpretations of a religious dogma, and recourse to individualistic quest for transcendent meanings was treated as heretical doctrinal split and group rebellion. Anyone who wanted to persue a spiritual life based on his own personal apperception of reality, was branded a heretic, apostate or a murtad and was hounded, harangued, harassed and frequently hung. The notion of a religious or philosophical orthodoxy is an Abrahamic idea. The Hindu tradition has revelled in the fecund manifestation of man’s capacity to explore and understand spiritual truth without reference to a presupposed master-dogma. The orientalist scholarship applied the Abrahamic paradigm to the pluralistic Hindu tradition, but with a unique inversion of meaning. Whereas, in the Abrahamic tradition the slightest departure from the officially proclaimed dogma was regarded as a criminal heresy and schismatism and was meted with brutal repression, in India the same trend was declared to be progressive, egalitarian, democratic and left-leaning.

        A second major aspect of an Indological critique of the Hindu tradition, later also of modern historiography and liberal sociology, was to create a contrived split between ‘brahmanic’ Hinduism of Aryan, upper caste provenance and an imagined ‘protestant’ Hinduism subscribed by the majority of backward communities whose cultural ideas said to have always expressed inveterate hostility to the orthodoxy of the brahamans. Hindu society, according the them, was fundamentally a congerie of innumerably hostile identities, whose only certainity consisted in the disharmony between the brahmanic Hindus on the one hand, and the grand alliance of other egalitarian and progressive Hindu forces on the other. All that was wrong, has always been wrong in India’s sociopolitical sphere, was the doing of the ‘brahmanic’ Hindus; all that was progressive and modernist was located in the assorted subaltern groups ranged on the other side of the Hindu divide. This tradition of interpretation did not emerge in the world of the Indian academician and the historians. Its initial stirrings can be discerned in the polemics of the missionary literature of a number of evangelical corporations. The early Christian literature is spitefully hostile to the whole brahman community because many of them saw in this community of teachers, philosophers and cultural mediators, a great impediment to the spread of the religion of Christ in India. Many of them plainly recognized the important leadership role of the brahman community and believed that no progress can be made in proselytizing the Hindu unless the brahmans are made to look guilty, and it is established that the other castes were different from and hostile to them and their Hindu cultural worldview.

        Early anti-brahmanism was mainly the handiwork of the Christian missionaries who believed that by desecrating the authority of the brahmans they may begin to gradually wean away a few communities from within the confused and unsure family of the Hindus. Their second obsessive preoccupation was with the caste system. This obsession did not emanate from a concern for communal homogenisation among the Hindus, but from a realization that the organization of jatis, and the securities and collective identities that it gave to its members, was a great impediment to conversions. The initial diatribe against caste, was not inspired by a desire to achieve equality of status and distribution of power markers, but to free individuals from the benefits, assurances as well as penalties of the caste structure. The demand for abolition of caste was mainly the articulation of the desire to withdraw from an individual his group identity by highlighting his personal and isolated existence as a hallmark of his moral advancement. Jati cohesion was portrayed as primordialist and pre-modern, a morality of the pigsty, from which the modern man must be liberated as a free-willing, uprooted and convertible individual. Louis Dumont has rightly pointed out that West’s excessive concern for individualism was the greatest impediment in the understanding of caste. One of the first ‘progressive’ anti-caste colonial legislations was the Caste Disabilities Removal Act of 1850, which first and foremost, facilitated religious conversions in a big way by ensuring property and inheritance rights to a person who abdicates his jati identity and responsibilities or converts to another religion.

        By the end of the nineteenth century the caste question transmuted itself into a political question which had two major dimensions: i) desire of the colonial regime to manage a vast  Indian population through its debilitating segmentation and ii) using, what they believed was, the ‘caste system’ for the purpose of emasculation and manipulation of social space. The background note for administrative reference and consideration was already provided by the polemical discourse of missionary organizations and scholars of Indology, who insisted that caste must be recognized as an iniquitous institution located at the very heart of Hindu religiocultural discourse and socioeconomic practice. British interface, therefore, with Indians, especially the Hindu part of it, was not supposed to proceed on the basis of their entitlement to citizenship, but on the principle of their ethnic componentization. Identities that hitherto had remained confined to providing a sense of kinship affiliation, social security, community succour, and group cooperation in the performance of a member’s or a family’s social obligations, were encouraged to become politicized and antagonistic. Even by the time British rule was fully entrenched in India after 1857, jatis had not become rigid ghettoes of specific occupational and social groupings. Bernard Cohn has argued cogently that colonial knowledge and census operations were significantly responsible for the modern version of caste.

        If the British wanted to know about the nature of the jatis and varnas in India, they should have just referred to the Manusmrti, which in their view was, the basic Hindu manual of the castes, or they should have ascertained the opinion of the learned brahmans living within various communities ¯ and not paid employees ¯ who by common consensus were the guardians of the ‘caste system’ and knew all about it. But the colonial state and the oriental scholars did nothing of this sort because they must have realized that reference to the Dharmasastra tradition and the voice of its native interpreters would spoil the whole purpose of the caste discourse and put a lie to the propaganda that caste was a rigid religious institution, hierarchized on the basis of sastric injunctions by the brahmans. The reason for the avoidance of any reference to the indigenous mediators was that the colonial regime was less interested in understanding and explicating the meaning of the idea behind the organization of jatis, and more in converting them into prefabricated castes. For so many years European scholars and colonial administrators have been crediting the Dharmasastra  and the brahmans for creating and perpetuating the caste system, but when it came to understanding its current position they surprisingly forgot these brahmanic authorities and relied on missionary polemicists, colonial ethnographers, phrenology experts, and field enumerators. The colonial state proceeded to understand the reality of castes and their inter se seniority on the basis of government proformas designed by the superintendents of censuses. The ethnographic theories, sociological formulations, and the pre-designed official questionnaires were the instruments with which the British invented caste in India.

        For a European man, the communitarian idea of jati appeared highly perplexing and, enamoured as he was of his own modern individualism, he regarded a sociologic mode of existence as primitive. Within the jati nexus, on the contrary, it is possible to operate as an individual as well as a part of a sociological space and still find effective methods to relate to an overarching political dispensation. Although Dumont insisted that hierarchical values were an important ingredient of Indian social thought, he refused to acknowledge that these values led to compulsory ascription of inequality and socioeconomic subordination. He wrote that “To adopt a value is to introduce hierarchy, a certain consensus of values, a certain hierarchy of ideas 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”.

        Caste occupied the centerstage of colonial and orientalist discourse because it became, on the sociological plane, a counterpart of the “disorderly imagination” of the Hindus and their confused and irrational negotiation of objective world reality. There was nothing overtly ‘rational’ about the Indological critique of caste, apart from an expression of their cultural biases, hence Ronald Inden had no hesitation in stating that “the idea of an India lost in dreams and divided into castes is not an isolate based on empirical research. It exists as part of a wider ‘orientalist’ discourse…” Caste was responsible for India’s stagnation, caste fragmented Indian polity, and most importantly, caste led to India’s repeated subjugation by outsiders. This is the near unanimous opinion of orientalists, colonial authorities, modern historians and anti-caste activists. But facts point in another direction. Firstly, one major ‘invasion’ (assuming for argument sake) and occupation of India, which a powerful group of modern historians insist took place, namely of the Aryans, cannot be attributed to the incidence of caste, because caste, the same historians believe, was an invention of the Aryans themselves. So it was possible for India to be invaded, conquered and subjugated even in the absence of brahmans and the caste system. Secondly, throughout the recorded history of India we have no evidence that India had a bania state or a koeri state, or the like and implacably hostile to each other. 

        This whole theory of caste as a reason for India’s political defeat is so decrepit and bogus that one is surprised historians even deign to contemplate it seriously. It is not worth a dime because it is based not on facts but prejudiced imagination conjuring up visions of ‘caste kingdoms’ and political scenarios where specific ‘caste-nations’ failed to muster the collaboration of other caste-nations in their defensive enterprise. If caste was not a factor in the defeat of the Arab world, how could it have been so in the case of the Indians. When Ghazni came, what confronted him were the principalities of Thanesar, Kannauj and Mathura not the brahmans, yadavas, and banias of India unless, of course one is persuaded to belief that thanesar was a jat kingdom and therefore the kingdom of the ahirs and the rajputs did not cooperate, but that would be silly.

        Most Muslim historians including Prof. K.A. Nazami would not hesitate to aver that caste has been the cause of all Hindu misfortune. Even Prof. Habib, in his comment on Muslim success in India, has chosen only those textual passages for citation which reiterate the political disadvantages of having a caste-based system. Dr. Parmatma Saran finds the “iniquitous system of caste” as one of the probable causes of Hindu defeat, which is rather surprising because only a few paragraphs earlier, in the same work, he had informed us that the Ghurid and other Islamic successes “cannot be attributed solely to the social and religious peculiarities of the Hindus, for our ideas about them are also vague and indistinct and based on no sure knowledge of facts”. Caste as an explanation of defeat is only due to the fact that historians borrowed the colonial orientalist depiction of caste and used it as a readymade explanation in such cases where no explanation was readily available to them. Caste became the symbol of collective hermeneutic incapacity and the pusillanimous excuse for our defeatist paranoia. Ultimately, it only reinforced the oriental depiction of Hindus as irrational, impulsive and wolly-headed.

        European scholars like Senart, Mill, Roland Inden and even Hegel, held caste system for alleged primitivism, and socio-political backwardness of Hindus. Louis Dumont believed that the hierarchy of the Hindu caste system is maintained by the equation of ‘purity’ with ‘power’ in the social sphere, which in other words was merely a Weberian reformulation of the old thesis that in India the sacredotium used its power to stultify the regnum and thus dyke secular rationality to assume its logical progress. This insistence on the role of the sacred in the sociopolitical sphere of the Hindus, occludes the centrality of the king’s position in the secular sphere of man. The king was the protector of his realm, the master of all, the upholder of danda, (penal power) and the most vital cog in the political machine. The central role of the king or the political state, however, was not allowed to assume legal stranglehold of civic society as it would eventually happen in western ideology and practice. The Hindu state had a very limited sociocultural role. The king was the protector of the rights and conventions of the sects, jatis, varnas, and tribal groups, which gave to these entities an expansiveness, structural elasticity and access to externalized diffusion, so that clannishness in the name of a caste or a sect held no significant emotive value. As long as the king and the state provided protection, curbed the errant, and enacted the ritual of inclusive communitarianism, there was no reason for a varna or a ‘caste’ to mark itself in closed, internally defined and hierarchised idioms. The king did not set social norms he merely enforced such norms that were established in the society on the basis of the consensus of the members of that society.

        Through the combined efforts to Jones, Mill and Hegel; empirical realists like Risley; and romantic idealist like Schlegel, ‘caste’ got overdetermined, centralized and essentialized in the European mind. The presence of distinctions and differences between various jatis located within a specific political space of a janapada or a village did not distort the notion of their collective citizenship. Even if we take the village as a unit we would see that citizenship rights were available to all communities notwithstanding the differences between them. There are many instances of village councils comprising members of all jatis, including the so-called lowest, being convened to settle local disputes. We know of may instances where disputes between two brahmans was settled by local panchayats whose memberships included sudras and the untouchables. Anyhow, in the voice of the modernist scholar, caste remained in some way, fundamentally related to Indian civilization, culture and tradition, a centrality it never possessed in the pre-modern period. Nicholas Dirks argues 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 phenomena, that it is specifically, the product of an historical encounter between India and Western colonial rule… I am suggesting that it was under the British that caste became s single term capable of expressing, organizing, and “systematizing” India’s diverse forms of social identity, community, and organization… In short, colonialism made caste what it is today”. The orientalists and the colonial regime simplified stereotypified, and distorted the meaning of a complex concept through a project of misrecognition: But ‘caste’ was not the overbearing reality of the Indian situation even on the threshold of modernity. Even many European scholars like Duarte Barbosa, Dirks, Baptiste Taverniel, Abbey (who was contemptuous of Hinduism) do not accord caste a central determinant status, and some even approve of it.

        The problem which the good Abbey Dubois encountered en route his mission for conversion of the Hindus, was also shared by many other evangelists of the era. Their diatribe against caste was not as much prompted by a desire for reform of the Hindu society, as it was on account of the implacable solidity of the system in the face of Christian catechism. Missionary failure to breach the Hindu society during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries impelled many reverends and fathers to focus their attention on caste (as the reason for their failure) for special critical evaluation. Most missionaries politely concluded that caste was “the most cursed invention of the devil that ever existed and began to insist on renunciation of caste”. The failure of their efforts to gain converts, except a few from amongst the lower castes, fuelled their resentment, goading them further to seek destruction of this powerful social body. William Carey of the Seprampore Mission noted that “All are bound to their present state by caste, in breaking whose chains a man must endure to be renounced and abhorred by his wife, children and friends. Every tie that twines around the heart of a husband, father and neighbor must be torn and broken, before a man can give himself to Christ”. The modern apocryphal and contemptuous discourse on caste system draws its inspiration from the critique of the missions whose blatantly partisan narrative was primarily a product of their theological concern for conversions. Dirks says: “Given the preoccupation with, and history of, conversion, missionaries came to hold a special contempt for caste; their ascription to it of a totalizing power was not seen in other contemporaneous British writings”.

        Secular European writings pertaining to our period do not devote much attention to caste practices and make some formulaic presentation when this subject is touched. They do not tell us about the fanciful stories of caste-wars, oppression, subjugation and ‘ascriptive inequalities’, which in the later decades became the staple fare of sociological debate. Many writers believed caste to be a purely civil institution having no religious backing for it; a view initially shared by Bishop Heber and some other preachers. The Missionary Society of Madras believed, vis-à-vis the role of the new convert, that “it cannot be in the power or wish of the Society to abolish all distinctions of ranks and degrees in India”. This nevertheless remained mostly an early minority view, and by the middle of the nineteenth century all hues of envangelical personages came to agree that “caste was an unmitigated evil”. The reasons offered for the evilness of caste was not empirical, sociological, factual, welfarist, or even based on a study of the sastras; the main reason for caste being bad was its resistance to evangelism and the colonial agenda. The Madras Missionary Conference resolved in 1850 that caste “is one of the greatest obstacles to the progress of the Gospel in India”.  

        Apart from early missionary literature, the British writings on India in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century too, “tended to say relatively little about caste and to be formulaic at best…”. This fact must engage our attention, because it suggests two important problematics: i) caste did not exist in India in the manner later literature insinuated it did, and ii) the nature and functioning of the system did not partake of the ills which later scholarship began to associate with it. It also suggests that the reconstruction of caste and the reorientation of the discourse regarding it is a very recent phenomenon, materializing in the world of the colonial administrators and the state ethnographers. Colin Mackenzie had collected a vast number of local texts, oral traditions and histories when he worked as a cartographer and surveyor in south India between 1784 and 1821. His collection was a vast record of local south Indian life and culture. The Mackenzie collection contains little reference to caste and had very few caste histories included in it but soon, all this was to change and later ethnographers, working in the same area as Mackenzie, would draw from the same cultural material very different conclusions ¯ conclusions which slowly began to drag caste center-stage in the narrative of the colonial researcher and interpreter. After the upheaval of 1857, the emergence of new challenges forced the Raj to forge new technologies for dealing with the problems of social control and political co-option, and in the course of that effort “anthropology supplanted history as the principle colonial modality of knowledge and rule. By the late nineteenth century… the colonial state in India can be characterized as the ethnographic state”. Dirks has recorded this shift in colonial emphasis: “The relative silence about caste matters in early official writings as well as in collections of local texts such as Mackenzie’s gave way to new kinds of compendia – from miscellaneous collections and volumes, official manuals and gazetteers, to the census – in which caste figured as the most important subject and classificatory schema for the organization of India’s social world”.  

        The ethnographic state began to dissect India’s social life with a “peculiar colonial intransitivity”, but the more it went on to “refine caste categories to allow the enumeration of the entire population of India by caste, the more it seemed that caste categories were overlapping, unstable and contested”. This, however, was not considered a problem, because ethnographers believed that dense ambiguities prevalent in the ideational as well as practical spheres of caste were not obstacles to objective assessment, but a problem emerging from less rigorous enumeration, scheduling, and codification. The background provided by the missionary polemic on caste was available as a normative ray of hope in case certain incongruent facts, which otherwise did not fit the colonial presuppositions of caste, were needed to be explained. Hence, caste was to be seen in an essentialized mode of social representation, and in this mode we have the ‘wily Brahman’ at the one end of the spectrum, and the degraded sudra at the other. With the antinomies of Hindu society so clearly identified and articulated, reverend M.A. Sherring (1872) had no problems in asserting, “Caste is sworn enemy of human happiness”; “Caste is opposed to intellectual freedom”; “Caste sets its face sternly against progress”. These assertions, and the presupposed conclusions were based not on historical premises but on theological assumptions. The aim of this scholarship was to create split in the Hindu society and incite the so called ‘lower castes by chanelizing their incipient political ambitions into confrontationist religious schism. Sherring advises the ‘non-brahmanic’ groups, whatever it meant, that if they be so inclined they can “destroy Brahmanism root and branch – can utterly annihilate it”.                                          

        This reduction of caste to essentialized discrete identities, swirling perpetually in relationships of antagonism, was in sharp contrast to the historical experience of the Hindus in which social identities were deritualized and liquid. Caste did not act as a disincentive to most socioeconomic vocations and thereby saved itself from the ills of incorrigible ghettoisation. It remained primarily a marker of kinship affiliation. Dirks has rightly remarked that “In fact, caste neither exhausted the range of social forms, functions, and identities, nor provided underlying unit. The only common social facts of caste concerned the codification of kinship relations and, to some extent, the protocols for interdining”.

        Caste was constructed, partly through retrospective textualization of autonomous and diverse traditions by orientalist scholars, and partly under the intense pressure of missionary organizations. They first needed to raise the scepter of ‘caste’ in order to ask for its annihilation. Once the mission authorities were able to raise a coordinated roucus on caste, they began petitioning the government for effective state intervention to neutralize its menace. The colonial administration took heed of these submissions and tried to map the data included in the missionary reports through its own surveys and censuses. The census of India, argues Kevin Honson, was not merely an attempt to count human entities but to define and explain those entities: “As a result, the census became not simply an accounting of what existed but an active participant in the creation and modification of the society”. In the process of enumerating the Hindu society, colonial censuses “forced the Indian system into a schematic in a way that had never been experienced in the past”. Although many like W.C. Plowden, who prepared the general census report in 1872 of the Northwest province, warned against the use of caste as a unit social life, their advice was not taken seriously by the government. Henry Waterfield refuted the assumption that a majority of the members of a particular caste follow the occupation according to which they were arranged in the census. These voices, however, were stifled under the demands of realipolitik. How the modern notions of castes, to prove the fragmentary nature of Hindu society, was created through the methods adopted by the census authorities, can be seen in the figures returned for the Madras province. The number of caste went up from 3208 in 1971 to 19004 in 1981.   

        Interestingly, the proliferation of caste organizations and Jâti Mahâsabhâs coincided with the commencement of the census of India, and historians tell us that a majority of them had come into existence to protect their position and status which they saw as being disturbed by the government enumerators. The old certainties of the communitarian and ecological social life were being undermined by the brave new world of competitive individualism and the equation of social worth with governmental recognition. Castes began to be encouraged to look to the state for settlement of relationships and social identities, rather than let it happen through the deliberation of interactive communities.        The sleight-of-hand was that in the census operations an individual subject was not enumerated as he actually was; he was listed, most egregiously, by first being put in the ambit of an imagined caste. The decennial censuses were less interested in the enumeration of human individuals, than in mapping, creating and returning social and occupation categories.

       The 1871 census proposed to map Indians under six broad categories and sixty subgroups. These ‘categories’ and ‘subgroups’ were fixed a Priori. Indian people were sought to be assigned to one of them irrespective of the violence such assignation did to the actual situation. This antecedent categorization of Hindu society precluded the free and unbiased assessment of ground reality. The enumerators of the 1891 census were advised to use only such caste occupation that had been “assigned to it by tradition, and generally implied in its current appellation”.  This stipulation was enjoined by the census authorities in full awareness of the fact, corroborated by their own sources and reports, that most members of a particular caste have “diverged widely from the means of subsistence from which they respectively take their name”.  Although the 1891 census jettisoned the use of varna as a criteria for enumeration, the colonial fascination for the settled forms of social ordering based on their own reading of certain úâstric texts, did not get completely exorcised.

        Any statistical enumeration of entities is fundamentally dependent on the criteria selected to be used by the enumerator, and the classificatory categories which are devised to collect, collate, index and eventually broadcast the acquired data. The process of asking questions, the provocation caused within communities by insertions of predetermined but faulty methodology, and the insistence on eliciting response on social as well as individual statuses, not singly but in relationship to others, was bound to pervert responses. The colonial enumerators asked such question and made such entries that would reinforce their presupposed faith about varna and caste acquired under the aegis of missionary, orientalist and racist discourse. The Hindu population was broken into brahmans, rajputs, and “other castes”, the latter again were subdivided into agricultural and artisnal groups. The main purpose of these naming exercise was to devise “practical techniques for standardizing and hierarching caste names”. Spellings were standardized, secondary additions to caste names were removed, and castes were organized “according to hierarchical principles that were seen as providing order and differences between castes are not derived from úâstric injunctions or the historical experiences of the communities. It became problematic when caste, and the numbers associated with it, became an important marker for political action and patronage. If an ‘Untouchable’ caste, for example, defines its identity simply in antagonistic politicized terms, reactive mobilization of other communities would inevitably follow. It is an unfortunate fact of our shared history that the movement for political independence began in an environment which was badly vitiated by colonial anthropology and its construction of segregated and fragmented channels for Indian social life and identity. Competitive caste-based political mobilization replaced the age old collaborative structures of Hindu society and made caste a zero sum game: a gain only at your loss or, at least, in conceiving of myself in antagonism to you. The colonial narrative slowly got mainstreamed in the political negotiation conducted by the nationalist discourse.

        Risley’s writings became normative for most caste organizations, who used his racist and divisive formulations to contest their position and importance by asserting their ethnic segregation. The fact that this theory of racial difference between various Hindu communities was fixed and determined by the colonial scholarship rather than the Hindu úâstras, was not noted in the haste to seek political recognition and pro rata administrative representation. J H. Hutton, the census commissioner in 1931, wrote that “All subsequent census officers in India must have cursed the day when it occurred to Sir Herbert Risley, no doubt in order to test his admirable theory of the relative nasal index, to attempt to draw up a list of castes according to their rank in society. He failed, but the results of his attempt are almost as troublesome as if he had succeeded, for every census gives rise to a pestiferous deluge of representations accompanied by highly problematic histories, asking for recognition”. Dirks adds to this matter by saying: “The first two decades of the twentieth century saw an explosion of writing on the subject of caste, much of it around claims by specific caste groups for higher status in the context of varna classification. In spite of the official decision to cease ranking castes in the census. Risley’s influence was long-lived. Risley had lasting influence on British caste literature …And Risley had dramatic influence on a rise of caste organizations and the exploding production of literature about the caste system and its principles of order by Indians from all over the subcontinent …And when castes asked for recognition, they did so in the vested Brahmanical languages of varna that Risley had done so much to revive and racialize”.

        The law courts set up by the colonial regime did not remain immune for long to the missionary and colonial propaganda about castes. In their Anglo-saxon legal desire to enforce a centralized and uniform law in the whole country, they began interfering with many customary practices of castes and communities. The Bombay High Court in 1876 ruled: “Courts of Law will not recognize the authority of a caste to declare a marriage void, or to give permission to a woman to remarry”. In many temples of south India “the customary practice of widow remarriage within certain castes was discontinued after the government took over the management of temples and outlawed the use of such temples for rituals not deemed to have support from the sastra”. Not only were the úâstras misinterpreted but their indisputed subordination to customary practices and social conventions was forgotten, and a new idea of Hindu social life was reconstructed which stultified many progressive and equitable tendencies inherent in them. Robert Caldwell’s assertion that the Shanars of Tamilnadu were of non-Aryan origin was decried initially by the educated members of the community who claimed to belong to the same Aryan brotherhood as others. The Shanars, later listed in 1921 census as Nadar, “in deference of the wishes of the Nadar community”, made many attempts to acquire kœatriya status in the official records, but their claims were considered to be absurd and based on fictitious claims of Aryanness. When a few Nadars entered the Meenakshi temple to perform rituals appropriate to their social status, a legal dispute ensued and the colonial courts ruled that since the Nadars’ claim to be Aryans could not be sustained, inspite of the Nadars themselves saying so, their status as kœatriya could not be accepted. Many castes who returned themselves as kœatriya owing to their long employment as soldiers in the army were disappointed by the courts which ruled that changes in occupational status cannot be accepted as a marker of the altered varna of a person; a travesty of the dharmasastric and Hindu consensus on this matter.

        That the Hindu social structure was perverted by colonial administration, was recognized by many administrators themselves. Middleton, a superintendent of the census operations of 1921, remarked on the adverse effects of colonial administration on castes in Punjab: “I had intended pointing out that there is a very wide revolt against the classification of occupational castes; that these castes have been largely manufactured and almost entirely preserved as separate castes by the British Government. Two other strands were woven into the armature of colonial ethnography. First, a sinister design was set afoot to reduce the demographic quantity of the Hindus by the adoption of highly impressionistic and divisive indicators. Second, the enumerators sought to increase the number of such new groups, viz. animists, untouchables, etc., who were gradually proclaimed to be non-Hindus. Till the census of 1901, Indian populations were counted under the heading, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. For the 1911 census a new principle of classification was adopted and for the first time Hindus were asked to be returned under three distinct categories – i) Hindus, ii) animists and tribals, and iii) the depressed classes or untouchables. Dr. Ambedkar has pointed out that this new classification for Hindus was adopted under the pressure of the Muslim League, which in its address presented in 1909 to Lord Minto, apart from seeking special political weightage and separate electorate for the Muslims, requested for a reassessment of the numerical strength of the Hindus by segregating the ‘animists’ and other ‘minor’ religion from the Hindu fold.

        The importance of these divisive measures became more pronounced against the backdrop of the introduction of separate electorates in 1909, whereafter sectarian statistics became of utmost importance. Kingsler Davis pointed out that “another source of error, especially prominent since separate religious electorates were inaugurated in 1909, is deliberate misrepresentation. There had been an increasing pressure on the part of religious groups to swell their number in the census”. P.B. Desai has corroborated this view and said that “the awakening political consciousness extorted a distorting influence on the conduct of census”. Dr. Ambedkar stated that “The Muslims have always been looking at the Depressed Classes with a sense of longing … In 1909 the Muslims took the bold step of suggesting that the depressed Classes should not be enrolled in the census as Hindus”. Through this suggestion was not accepted by the state fully, a subtle way was found to achieve the same results by reducing the gross numbers of the Hindus and slyly augmenting the number of the ‘Depressed’ Classes. During the census of 1911, census superintendents were advised to enumerate separately such castes and tribes who were returned as Hindus but did not conform to certain ritual practices. For achieving this purpose an advisory was circulated to help the enumerators list all those castes separately as non-Hindus which i) deny the supremacy of the brahmans, ii) do not receive the mantra from a brahman, iii) deny the authority of the Vedas, iv) do not worship the great Hindu gods, v) are not served by good brahman priests, vi) have no brahman priests at all, vii) are denied access to the interior of Hindu temples, viii) cause pollution, ix) bury their dead, x) eat beef and do not revere the cow.

        A cursory look at these parameters would make obvious that many of them were designed to elicit expected answers, and some of them were not even acknowledged indicators of Hinduness. Another important feature of the census related activities was the desire to inflate the number of the depressed castes. Various reports showed conflicting estimates of their number but the general trend was towards inflation. The seventh quinquennial review of education in India, 1912-17, estimated the population of the depressed classes at 31,5496 million. After 1917 the “numbers of the depressed classes began to swell” in the official records. The Southborough Committee in 1919 put their number at 42.2 million. The Home Department estimates, prepared in 1920 for submission to the Parliament, put the number only at 29.36 million, but the census commissioner for 1921 put the figure at 43.3 million. In another report prepared by the government in 1924 the number of depressed classes was put at 60 million. Based on these facts, S.K. Gupta contends: “These inconsistencies uphold the nationalist stance that the untouchables were a recent discovery to [sic] the British… It remains further inexplicable as to why the Government believed and even worked out different estimates. Thus it might not be a forced inference that the British Raj had begun to value the number of the depressed classes to check the tide of nationalism”, by promoting political importance to fragment the Hindu society.

        The point that emerges from the study of missionary literature, orientalist writings, colonial ethnography and the enumerative strategies of the British government, forces us to critique the monological diatribe that goes on harping upon caste, as we know it today, being a perennial institution of the Hindus, created, crafted and fixed in an unchanging matrix by their Dharmaúâstras. The Dharmaúâstra did not index or hierarchise jâti; they never undertook a census operation nor defined what the role, relevance or status of a jâti would be. The inter-jâti relationships were left to be regulated by autonomous civil contracts under varying circumstances that included incidences of conflict. The Dharmaúâstras merely record their perception of social reality based on a structural as well as functional understanding of their purpose. The ordinal positioning of the varnas may have had a certain value-judgement attached to it, but in the case of jâtis (perversely called castes) no role ascriptions are assigned. The texts merely say that a particular jâti seems to have come into existence in a particular cognate manner, or that they seem to occupy a particular territory and pursue certain similar vocations. The association with vocation was also mostly stylistic, or at best based on what obtained at the time of its recording. The Mâgadha who was said to perform servile or sychophantic roles for the kings, we knows was also a trader, builder, agriculturist and king.

        Jâti identities were internally determined and remained non-ascriptive, free and constantly evolving. It was possible for the members of a guild of weavers from Mandsaur to migrate to north India and split into many groups by adopting professions as diverse as of soldiers, sannyâsi and astrologers. No text was thrown at them, nor a roster of castes consulted, to stop and prevent the emergence of new castes and professional identities. In reality, no one bothered as to which community did what; there was no mechanism to ensure observation and enforcement of jâti identities. One of the reasons why jâtis became castes in India can be found in the worldview of the Abrahamic religions. The Abrahamic religions believe in fixed, regulated and unchanging identities that are scripturally defined ¯ a faithful, a momin a believer, a kafir, an infidel, a mushrik, a heretic ¯ and are eternally immutable; departure from classified identities are seen as great cataclysm, a fitna, a disruption of order. When the Muslims and the British looked at the Indian society, they viewed it through their Abrahamic, monotheistic, and scripturalist perspective.

        The Abrahamic background of the European narrators forced them to find a ‘religion’ for those Indians who were not Muslim, Christian, Jew or Zoroastrian. In their initial writings they include all other categories under the heading ‘Hindu’ ¯ It was much later, under the compulsions of evangelism and running a colonial empire, that various groups, who were seen earlier as Hindus and whose practices were bandied about to castigate Hinduism, were treated as ‘rebellious’, ‘protestant’, non-brahmanic’, ‘animist’, ‘heretical’, and even ‘non-Hindu] categories by the colonial scholars and mission academicians. To be a ‘heretic’ in Christianity and Islam is a decadent, sinful and dangerous avocation; in the Hindu world a ‘heretic’ was declared to be a progressive rebel against brahamanic and debauch Hinduism’ ¯ a progressive sage or a sect. This Abrahamic perspective created a ‘Hinduism’ which never was, and in the process tried to split so many integrated communities who shared a common cultural vision.

        Please remember that Hindus believe, even the most orthodox one, that god can be apprehended in three hundred any thirtythree million ways, so there was no question of prescribing which was a big or small god; which was a brahman god and which was a úûdra’s or an ‘animist’s’ god. But the colonial regime and the census operators did precisely that. A Christian and a Muslim can not even comprehend that the same person can be very fond of one manifestation of god, but be equally reverential towards another; that a Hindu does not subscribe to an either-or spirituality which would suggest to him that you are a follower of Christ you must necessarily be hateful of Rama; that it is possible to have access to wide range of spiritual insights simultaneously.

        How the tribal communities of India viewed their identity vis-à-vis the larger cultural world in which they lived is eloquently exemplified in the response of the Korku tribe.  Kitts records: “when the hill people were pressed for a reply as to what their religion was, sometimes after much parleying, they said either they were Hindoos, or that they knew nothing about religion; that they were arani log, ignorant people [sic]. All they knew was, they were Korku by caste. Nowhere, as far as I can discover, did a single individual assert that there was such a distinct and a separate thing as a Korku religion; he merely answered to the effect ‘I am a Korku, but I do not know what my religion is called. I worship Mahadeo, Hanuman, Byrambai, Chand, Suraj and Bhagwant who is author of my religion, call it what you please”.  But from the above we must not get the impression that Hindus did not have a sense of community feeling based on certain shared cultural ideas and civilizational norms. If the tribal people shared Hanuman and Mahadev and Bhagavant, the orthodox’ brahmans worshipped the banyan, and the peepal tree; spirits, omens and a great assortment of local animist deities were the main objects of reverence of many grand brahman ladies. An impervious ‘religious’ boundary between a brahman and a tribal did not exist and both understood one another well when they met; after all, Œabari could discourse with Rama on many common cultural issues apart from sharing her food with him. The problems caused by gentoo scholarship and the colonial regime in the Hindu society were ascribed to a few didactic texts of traditional value. Rene Guenon has rightly warned us that “when it is a question of traditional institutions, a uniquely ‘sociological’ point of view proves insufficient to get to the depths of things, since the true foundation of these institutions is really of a ‘cosmological’ order”.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

              Astha Bharati