Within social science discourses, it is often acknowledged that the colonial state invented and restructured caste categories in India. British institutional processes, especially that of the judiciary through its various legal enactments, redefined caste as the essential identity of the individual that would define their political roles and institutional rights.
Caste Pride: Battles for Equality in Hindu India
Context Westland Books, 2023
There may be some truth to such arguments, but Manoj Mitta’s new book, Caste Pride, argues, with empirical data, that the British state was hesitant to engage with caste questions in the beginning and acted in favour of marginalised social groups only after the rise in legal claims. Importantly, the author has demonstrated that social elites, especially Brahmins, were at the forefront in challenging legislative orders, reformist movements, and policy initiatives drafted to empower the socially deprived communities.
Modern India has witnessed impressive struggles by non-Brahmin communities to emancipate themselves from the thrall of orthodox rituals and customs, and the authority of Brahmin priests. The Satyashodhak movement in Maharashtra, the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu, the reformist awakenings by the Arya Samaj in north India, and the powerful Lingayat traditions in Karnataka registered a substantive opposition to the structures of power, challenged the authority of Brahmin priests, and wanted to replace them with new learned people from the oppressed castes. Although such efforts challenged the domination of social elites, the hegemony of the elites remained intact and was perpetuated through various means. The author shows how the judiciary contributed to legitimising the domination of social elites, especially in cases of caste atrocities, gender violence, rapes, and the demands of oppressed castes for equitable participation in state bodies.
The way caste works
This book examines the mechanism, networks, and influences that the social elites have produced in the modern age to retain their influence on the social structure and the new institutions of power and privilege. The book is particularly important as it focusses on the legal conundrums; the judicial process changed caste relationships but left the structural values of caste largely untouched.
Although modernity arrived in India through colonial expansion, the British ruling classes had little zeal for social reforms, especially providing equal rights to socially marginalised communities. Instead, Mitta argues, caste inequalities were preserved under the pretext of safeguarding traditions, customs, and rituals in order to win the trust of the social elites.
The British claimed that the application of legal codes was universal, but certain legal orders for punishments reinforced conventional caste hierarchies that safeguard the privileges of Brahmin elites (even if they were dreaded criminals) and put oppressed caste offenders behind bars (even for a silly verbal abuse).
Such biased legal provisions were challenged from inception, and progressive reforms were introduced to make the judicial system more egalitarian, but their applicability in delivering justice to the depressed classes was a tough legal battle. The book offers the hope that the modern legal process will bring a greater measure of social justice to the most marginalised social groups.
The author showcases the deep abjuration of the social elites to engage with the problems of the deprived classes, including the hesitation to allow them basic human entitlements. The chapter “The Prerogative to Cover Breasts” uncovers the brutal social custom in the former princely state of Travancore that did not allow Nadar women to cover their upper body. When the new British administration reprimanded the state for such a horrifying practice, it half-heartedly initiated reforms while keeping the privileges and powers of the social elites intact. The villain of this episode is T. Madhava Rao (who was the Diwan from 1858 to 1872), the Brahmin Diwan of Travancore, who resisted any reformist moves.
The influential dominant castes practised not only caste-based social norms but also defended sati and other such evil social practices. The author demonstrates that the custom of burning the widow on her husband’s pyre was practised among the social elites (including Brahmins), and when the British state brought legislation against the brutal practice, Brahmins were the first to oppose it. Shockingly, the author reveals that the defence of the practice was promoted by none other than Motilal Nehru, who put up a fierce argument in court to defend the four accused booked under the charge of abetment to suicide.
A history of denying rights
The author reveals that in two major legal battles in 1845 and 1857, Brahmins tried to evoke the Parshuram legend to deny conventional religious rights to Vaishyas and Kshatriyas. Earlier, too, similar apprehensions were voiced by Brahmins against Shivaji’s claim that he was a Kshatriya. The British court responded in favour of the non-Brahmins’ rights, and eventually opened a Pandora’s box when multiple castes decided to lay claim for Kshatriya status (including the Mahars of Maharashtra). Furthermore, the judiciary defined the caste order not on the basis of perceived occupation but on birth status. Claims were especially denied in cases where a non-Brahmin demanded inheritance rights from a deceased Brahmin.
- Manoj Mitta’s Caste Pride argues, with empirical data, that the British state was hesitant to engage with caste questions in the beginning and acted in favour of marginalised social groups only after the rise in legal claims.
- It shows how the social elites, especially Brahmins, were at the forefront in challenging legislative orders, reformist movements, and policy initiatives drafted to empower the socially deprived communities.
- And how the judiciary contributed to legitimising the domination of social elites, especially in cases of caste atrocities, gender violence, rapes, and the demands of oppressed castes for equitable participation in state bodies.
In 1850, the British introduced the Caste Disabilities Removal Act, 1850, one of the first pieces of legislation against the caste system, that sought to protect the rights of the deprived castes. Though a nascent group of nationalist reformers (such as M.G. Ranade and Hari Singh Gour) defended this, the conservatives (Bal Gangadhar Tilak and N.C. Kelkar) decided to find problems with the legislation. The 1850 Act became a precursor to various caste-related legislations, including the much debated “Hindu Code Bill”, in independent India’s first Parliament. However, the author points out how the Narendra Modi government found no merit in this 1850 law and finally repealed it in 2018 without any challenge in Parliament. The author interprets this as the return of conservative claims, showcasing the continued hegemony of the elite castes and orthodox Hindus over political power.
The Brahmin elites resisted social reforms and challenged any injunction that disturbed their control over religious, social, and economic institutions. Ironically, the privileges of the social elites, especially Brahmins, are preserved and defended by the courts following the ideals of conservative orthodox caste-based Hindu traditions.
The court’s bias is revealed when the author scrutinises cases of mass violence against Dalits. Exploring cases of mass murders of Dalits in Kilvenmani in Tamil Nadu, Tsundur in Andhra Pradesh, Bathani Tola and Laxmanpur Bathe in Bihar, and other cases of rape, violence, and killings, the author demonstrates how Dalits faced deep hatred and prejudices by the ruling elites and had little access to or hope for justice from the courts.
The judicial proceedings in all such cases were prolonged affairs that ignored the claims and concerns of the Dalit victims and overtly protected the interests of the social elite criminals. In the final account that deliberates on the tragic “Khairlanji case” in Bhandara, Maharashtra, where four members of the Bhootmange family were raped, murdered, and lynched by a mob, the author shows how the police failed to register and investigate the case properly, the ways in which the caste angle was suppressed, and how the local media blamed the victims. It is only after mass protests organised by Dalit civil society in Maharashtra that the political class handed over the case to the CBI. Subsequently, the special trial court and, later, the High Court convicted eight men for murder but acquitted them of all charges relating to sexual and caste offences.
A reality check
The book provides chronological details of the legal and institutional practices of the modern state that structure the debate over caste, gender, and the Dalit question today. It will be an eye-opener, as caste issues are often seen as the prerogative of the modern and reformist state, which, it is assumed, will bring solace and improvement to the conditions of the depressed castes. The book is a reality check that showcases the prejudices, biases, and utter disregard for justice displayed by the dominant ruling elites of Indian society.
Although the author also reflects upon Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s contributions to struggles against caste inequalities, his major emphasis here is the discovery of unknown heroes in the battle against the Brahminical caste order, such as Maneckji Dadabhoy, M.C. Rajah, Vithalbhai Patel, and Thakur Das Bhargava. We read of how these leaders and intellectuals initiated crucial deliberations on the problems of untouchability, inter-caste marriage, and the institutional safeguards needed for the empowerment of marginalised castes.
The book is forthright, committed to historical accuracy, and builds a normative argument for marginalised social groups. On the flip side, however, it pays little attention to the heroic Dalit-Bahujan struggles to secure justice outside courtrooms.
The book is a necessary read for legal practitioners, social activists, and scholars who are working on social-justice issues as it pinpoints the historical limits and drawbacks of modern institutions in providing relief, security, and justice to the worst-off social groups.
Harish S. Wankhede is Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.