Demystifying caste

Print edition : August 07, 2015
The book will appeal to anyone who is interested in understanding the highly complex phenomenon of caste and is prepared to go beyond the “sacred” and look for its “profane” dimensions.

WHILE teaching a course on “Social Exclusion” to postgraduate students of History at Delhi University, one realised how difficult it was to explain some basic facets relating to caste and the gaps between serious scholarship and commonly held assumptions.

The major stumbling blocks ranged from a set of unquestioning beliefs and stereotypes around caste to the lack of any serious exposure to caste-based discrimination in the case of the majority of students.

Nevertheless, the domination of inhuman exploitative practices that question the very existence of the “nation” and its Constitution continues almost unabated even as we talk of post-postmodern areas such as India’s “increasing growth rate” or foreign direct investment that harmoniously coexist with brutal caste practices against Dalits and Adivasis on a regular basis, their criminalisation (although the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 is supposed to be dead today), violence and murders directed at Dalits in cases of so-called transgressions that are projected as “honour killings” and manual scavenging in some parts of the country, to name just a few.

Social exclusion

Although much more research needs to be done in this area, especially the anti-human nature of social exclusion, caste has undoubtedly attracted serious scholarly engagements in the past two decades.

In fact, Hira Singh’s Recasting Caste is a significant addition to this growing interest on the subject. The author’s starting point relates to his growing up as a child in a multi-caste village in eastern Uttar Pradesh. The anecdotal nature of the narrative assumes significance as through this he weaves in the caste-based segregated clusters that he grew up with.

The village “centre” housed a few Rajput and Brahmin families. In between there were gold/ironsmiths, Baniyas, Kayasths, and Ahirs and shepherds and barbers. While the author could move freely in the village and play with the children of different castes, the Chamar cluster was a clearly “forbidden zone”.

The Brahmins and the Rajputs neither performed manual labour nor touched the plough and had nothing to do with agricultural production. Ahirs and Chamars were involved in agricultural production and worked on the lands owned by the Rajputs and the Brahmins. As delineated, this was seen as the “natural order of things”.

Misconceptions about caste

These articulations, and a set of popular misconceptions about caste, coupled with serious theoretical explanations provide the reader a nuanced set of ideas about caste. As formulated by the author, caste is rooted in the system of agricultural production that creates the system of inequalities. He also mentions its hidden association with religion, which reinforced the hierarchies of caste.

The author examines the way caste has been located and explained by scholars and the range of theories they have propounded.

What is laudable is that while discussing serious scholarly arguments on the subject he does not lose sight of some of the basic stereotypes, including the belief that human beings of different castes “were made (by God)”, wherein their karma (that is, the result of their past deeds) and dharma (what they were destined to do in life) determined what they were to do in their “present” life.

In fact, these features have influenced the sociologist in Hira Singh to engage with the making of caste and its reproduction in everyday life.

This is combined with a serious effort to question and critique some of the dominant sociological theories.

Critiquing louis dumont

The book covers a wide range of debates that suggest the manner in which shifting notions about caste have perhaps contributed to its nuanced understanding. The author’s engagement with serious theorists such as Louis Dumont highlights several elementary flaws in the latter’s method. Thus, besides locating both Indian society and caste as frozen and unchanging sites, Dumont sees caste as something independent of the material context and ignores the connections between ideology and practice.

The author stresses the importance of historicising the development of caste and looking at society beyond sacred texts. Thus, his method reiterates the serious inter-connections between land relations and caste and how the latter was marked by shifts and changes. As asserted by the author, hierarchy, status and political power veil the question of economic inequalities. In fact, the author incorporates his rigorous research on the princely states of Rajasthan to illustrate the argument that princely legitimacy was actually dependent on the princely order that comprised propertied landowning castes, rather than on priests.

While agreeing with the argument that legitimation was a political phenomenon, one perhaps needs to be a bit careful about this sharp differentiation that is sought to be made. After all, even though the princes could remove a priest or even the priestly order, their replacement is a metaphor that reflects the importance of the “sacred” and the significance of legitimation. In fact, this interaction between the princely order and the priests (or the priestly order), besides legitimising each other, served to put in place an exploitative system that was rooted in and reinforced inequalities and discrimination on the basis of caste.

Elaborating his ideas about the social division of labour and caste, Hira Singh expresses his opposition to the importance that is attached to the domain of ideas—that is, purity: pollution, and religious: secular. Here, while criticising mainstream sociologists, he emphasises the centrality of ownership and control of land and not the social division of labour. In fact, he critiques the “Subaltern Studies” project for over-emphasising the world of ideas and religion as the constitutive force.

Indentured Indians and caste

Hira Singh also directs our attention to inequalities within castes, in areas such as land rights which made collective mobilisation possible in the princely states of Rajasthan. He also refers to the changes in the structure of land relations and caste with the abolition of the zamindari system in eastern Uttar Pradesh, which saw shifts, with certain peasant castes owning land that was earlier held by landlords. His argument assumes significance especially since he connects the pieces of legislation relating to “Abolition of Landlordism”, which were clearly a response to the movements “from below” and undermined the status and authority of the landlord caste/class.

By incorporating a comparative analysis of agrarian relations and subaltern resistance in the princely states of Rajasthan and his exploration of indentured Indians in the Caribbean, Fiji and South Africa, Hira Singh develops some significant formulations. For example, he asserts that it is inequality and not religion that bound together different castes, which is well taken. He also argues about the withering away of the caste system in the absence of the control of the agrarian system in colonies of the indentured labour.

However, it is difficult to apply this latter formulation universally and across time. Thus, while the new research on the Indian indentured population in Mauritius and South Africa (Natal) does indicate the weakening of the hold of caste, by the second or the third generation certain shifts are observable. These were perhaps conditioned by the settlements becoming “stable” and the idea of retaining connections with their “home”. Thus, there is evidence of efforts to avoid transgressing the boundaries of caste, especially when it comes to areas like marriage among the indentured population of Mauritius and Natal.

Some other problems, of course, remain. Agreeing with the author one can explain the survival of caste in urban India through the links of a large section of the population with both land and the rural world. However, it would be more difficult to attempt explaining this when it comes to certain sections. Here, one can refer to the so-called enlightened Indian middle class that is supposedly cosmopolitan, or Indians who have settled abroad for over two or three generations and who have no links whatsoever either with rural India, land or agricultural production. Perhaps, we need to wait for more research to throw light on some of these issues.

One can conclude by saying that Recasting Caste will appeal to anyone who is interested in understanding the complex phenomenon of caste and is prepared to go beyond the “sacred” and look for its “profane” dimensions. Its greatest contribution is that it engages with and historicises caste.

Biswamoy Pati is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, New Delhi.