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RECONSTRUCTING NARRATIVES AND HISTORICTY OF CASTE

Shalina Mehta

Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology (retd.)

Department of Anthropology

Panjab University

Chandigarh


Many a doctrine is like a windowpane. We see truth through it but it divides us from truth.
Khalil Gibran

On opening first few pages of N. K. Vaid’s recent publication titled Truth about Caste (2022), Khalil Gibran’s famous quote about truth echoed in my ears. Is it that we learnt and taught ‘truth about caste’ seeing it through a windowpane? Did this gaze divide us from the truth?

This small book that challenges dominant discourse of ‘caste in India’ is likely to be dismissed by elite academics for being brash and subservient to the dominant political discourse of the decade. But before distinguished intellectual elite decide to dismiss it for being crass and endorsement of dominant political discourse, there are few important lessons that each one of us must ponder over:

For decades, we decried Manusmriti for being the genesis of Hindu social system’s most acknowledged nemesis. But most of us never ventured into reading the original text in its entirety. Few may have used translations, but most others cited from frequently cited readings on Hindu social system. In academic terms, there is hardly any reference that tells researchers not to use secondary sources for endorsing or developing rationale for research. But in what context these interpretations are offered remains in abyss.

There is no rationale in denying that the imposed identities of caste, associating it with birth and tragically responsible for annihilating a section of our social fabric is a bitter reality, that we must confront upfront. What this text is trying to debate is not this fact but blind acceptance of its origins in versions to which most of us had no first-hand access. Arguments that were reiterated in support of the incorporated interpretations were invariably drawn from secondary sources. How authentic these transliterations/translations are-is anybody’s guess!

The author of this small text largely holds historians of the pre- and post-independence era responsible for creating the windowpane through which we have continued to view ‘caste system’ for hundreds of years now. Citing ancient Indian texts, he argues that Manu never ascribed varana identity to anyone because of their birth. Vaid writes:

“According to Manu (2:146)[1], the Guru assigns Varana to the student after he has completed his education and becomes a Sanatana”-thus dismissing the commonly accepted view that ‘caste always had an ascriptive status designated by birth’. To substantiate his argument, he cites Bayly’s (1999/2007(online publication) contention:

Until well into the colonial period, much of the subcontinent was still populated by people for whom the formal distinctions of caste were of only limited importance even in parts of the so-called Hindu heartland ---The institutions and beliefs which are now often described as the elements of traditional caste were only just taking shape as recently as the early 18th century.[2]

Vaid is not alone in his search for seeking ‘authentic origins of caste’[3]. There are unending arguments in favour or against two diametrically opposite position on interpreting genesis of caste in India.

His other argument to which two eminent anthropologists in two separate forewords to the book effectively agree, that in post-colonial India, we continued to live with social constructs that imperial powers construed for ‘colonising the other’. They both cite construct of ‘tribe’ and the colonial hangover with which we continue to preach policies and lessons to ‘primitives’[4] in modernity, morality, wisdom, and ‘so-called development’. For centuries the most enduring civilizations with distinctive ethnic and cultural diversities and enriched knowledge systems were described as ‘primitive’ and static, initially by European adventure travellers and later by colonial administrator ethnographers.

In author’s considered opinion, ‘Caste was deliberately thrust upon India in the first ever census of 1881” (2022:43). To support his argument, he cites comments of British Superintendent of 1921 census:

“We pigeonholed everyone by caste and if we had no true caste for them, labelled them with the hereditary occupation. We deplore the caste system and its effects on social and economic problems, but we are largely responsible for the system we deplore. Left to themselves such castes as Sonar and Lohar would rapidly disappear and no one would suffer---"[5]

Several other British officers[6], involved with the census of India during British regime raised similar concerns. Researchers working on the subject trace this argument to Bernard Cohn’s work on role of Census in categorising Jati identities. Cohn (1987:241)[7] believed,

It would not be an exaggeration to say that down until 1950 scholars’ and scientists’ views on the nature, structure and functioning of the Indian caste system were shaped mainly by the data and conceptions growing out of the census Operations. The census was the necessary prerequisite both for the Imperial Gazetteer and for the Tribes and Castes series.

In a 2019 publication[8], Sanjoy Chakravorty rekindled the debate about the colonial construction of caste. He purposes in his BBC interview:

the social categories of religion and caste as they are perceived in modern-day India were developed during the British colonial rule, at a time when information was scarce and the coloniser's power over information was absolute.

This was done initially in the early 19th Century by elevating selected and convenient Brahman-Sanskrit texts like the Manusmriti to canonical status; the supposed origin of caste in the Rig Veda (most ancient religious text) was most likely added retroactively, after it was translated to English decades later.

He also cites anthropologist Susan Bayly and quotes him to support his proposition. In Bayly’s words:


until well into the colonial period, much of the subcontinent was still populated by people for whom the formal distinctions of caste were of only limited importance, even in parts of the so-called Hindu heartland… The institutions and beliefs which are now often described as the elements of traditional caste were only just taking shape as recently as the early 18th Century.

(For the entire write-up, refer to https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india accessed on 6th March 2023).


These opinions suggest that subjugations and atrocities against a section of the society in the name of caste discrimination solidified because of deliberate design of colonial regime. This position is vehemently denied and vociferously opposed by some contemporary historians of caste. In a scathing critique of Sanjoy Chakravorty’s -2019 publication and his interview to BBC, Ananya Chakravarti in an article titled Caste wasn’t a British Construct-and Anyone Who studies History should know that, argues that colonial construction of caste is nothing but figment of imagination of Brahmin intellectual elite who dominate academic world not only in India but also in the United States. To bunk the thesis of colonial construction she cites historical evidence from her study of Caste as an organising principle of social life everywhere and writes:

At the Goa State Historical Archives, I recently transcribed a late-17th-century register of slave manumissions. The vast majority of the freed slaves were from lower castes in the Konkan, such as kunbis and kolis, which still exist today:

(for details refer to https://thewire.in accessed on 6th March 2023)


One is not sure if this is a stand-alone record or there are other historical records to augment this position. Her reference to two poems, one by much respected Saint poet Tukaram and Janabai seeking companionship of God in all ‘lowly’ activities to ward off their loneliness metaphorically explicates their suffering. Transliterations are invariably imbued with the imagination of the translator and are not necessarily substantiated as historical evidence.


I am not getting into controversies of what is the truth[9] or untruth about caste. Whatever the narratives or counter narratives, attempting to personify their respective positions, it is rational to assume that multiple narratives of caste are intertwined in complexities of race, religion, and political power structures. Discernment of Brahmanical dominance was countered by a string of Dalit movements that have carved a space for itself both socially and politically. A cursory survey of caste in India on Google invariably takes one to Dalit literature on the subject. However, there is another perception suggesting that the current political transformations in India, is passing through a period of ‘post truth’[10].


Evidently, there is vociferous demand to trace our rich cultural heritage and lost roots that was deliberately submersed in the era of western construct of enlightenment. Indian intellectuals from several western nations in particular United States of America have evoked persuasive debates to declutter historical texts taught in post-colonial India.



One such attempt is being made since 2011 by Infinity foundation based in the US that has published several best-selling books by its founder director Rajiv Malhotra. Primacy of their arguments is rooted in the belief that there was a deliberate design of communism, responsible for the neglect of India’s rich ancient heritage and knowledge.


POLITICS OF NARRATIVES OF CASTE CONSTRUCTON

Few weeks ago, I was intrigued by the focus that ban on caste-based discrimination[11] in Seattle in the US received in the media. It became first state in the United States of America to do so, indicating probabilities of many other states doing the same.




Seattle becomes first US city to ban caste discrimination.

California considers ban on Caste Discrimination.


My immediate reaction to the news could best be described as that of a confused layperson. It brought back memories of sociologists Nathan Glazer and Moynihan’s book titled Beyond the melting pot published in 1963. Though the book did not cover Indian diaspora, but it did emphasize primoradial identities remaining unfazed even in dream destinations.


I also vividly recall ‘American dream’ that every young college student in India visualized as its future in the first decades after India became independent. Many continue to do so but after the opening of economy, it seems to have ebbed a little. American calling card in early 50s and 60s was vision of its being a ‘melting pot’[12] that claimed to absorb people from diverse nationalities in a common pool of economic aspirations giving them a new identity. Today, when there is a woman vice president and nearly 60 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies of Indian origins, there seems to be a discernible contest for a distinct political identify by a section of the Indian diaspora.

If one goes by the narrative of caste discrimination in the academic business circuit of US, then it appears that competition and space for opportunities is shrinking. To assume that all successful business heads in the US are of Brahmin origin appears absurd and parochial. It undermines their hard work, commitment, and intellectual acumen. Social construction of caste was always a political narrative immaterial of the fact who the narrator was. Legitimizing it in the name of religion and locating it in the ancient texts and scriptures associated with polytheistic Hinduism is an instrumentality for substantiating power equations. Dominant power structures usurp the narrative and give it contours that defends the boundaries they create. It could be Brahmanical narrative or colonial reconstruction or Dalit rescripting, tone and tenor may change but the narrative was, is and will always remain political.


REFERENCES

  • Bayly, Susan. 1999. Caste, Society and Politics in India. Cambridge: Cambridge university Press

  • Cohn, Bernard; 1987; The Census, Social Structure and Objectification in South Asia; An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays; New Delhi; OUP; 224-254

  • Chakravorty, Sanjoy. 2019. The Truth About Us-The Politics of Information from Manu to Modi.

  • Dirks, Nicholas B. 1992b ‘Caste states of Mind’ Representations 37: 56-78. Google Scholar.

  • Glazer, Nathan, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. 1970 (2nd edition) Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1970. This second edition includes a noteworthy introduction written by Glazer ten years after he initially undertook the project.

  • Glazer, Nathan. We Are All Multiculturalists Now. 1997. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


[1] I have not read original text of Manusmriti and thus not able to either endorse or negate its contextual construction.

[2] Page number for the citation is missing and I have not read the book to infer the meaning in its entirety.

[3] The debate is not new, and some scholars have traced it back to the writings of sociologist Ghurye and anthropologist Bernard Cohen.

[4] These narratives are vehemently challenged by native scholars from the communities and progressive researchers are constantly emphasizing absurdity imbued in calling them ‘primitive’. Inherent ludicrous connotations of this phraseology are truly condemnable. There is growing consensus among the anthropologists that the term ‘tribe’ was coined by colonial rulers to justify their ruling strategy and desire to control fiercely independent communities. All these communities have distinct identities, most of them have dialects, some even written scripts and enriched knowledge systems and cultural fabric.

[5] Reference for the citation is incomplete and one is not made aware if the statement was duly checked from its original text and analysed in the given context. What is given at the end of the statement is a footnote that takes reader to Susan Bayly’s 1999 publication (that was put online in 2008 and is incorrectly cited as 2005, her online biodata has no reference citing any 2005 publication) and a citation from there without the page number. This in my opinion defeats the highpoint of the book that insists on the reading of original texts before propagating doctrines or theoretical constructs.

[6] W.R. Cornish while conducting census operation in 1871 in Madras Presidency, and C.F. Magrath, author of Bihar Census 1871 made similar observations.

[7] Every student of caste must read Bernard Cohn’s extensively researched paper published in 1987 The Census, Social Structure and Objectification in South Asia in An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays; New Delhi; OUP; 224-254.

[8] Titles of Vaid’s and Chakravorty’s book have uncanny similarity. Vaid’s book is titled Truth about Caste (published, 2022) and Chakravorty’s 2019 publication is titled The truth About us: The Politics of Information from Manu to Modi. While I have read the former, I have not had access to Chakravorty’ book but read his lengthy interview to BBC and excerpts from the Book Launch event at Delhi and several reviews of this publication.

[9] Truth is socially and administratively constructed narrative that as Chakravorty portrays in his work is marketed through hegemonies of information.

[10] The term post-truth was coined as the word of the year by Oxford dictionary in 2016. Wikipedia (accessed on 23.03.23) explains it as, “---a term that refers to the 21st century widespread documentation of and concern about disputes over public truth claims. The term's academic development refers to the theories and research that explain the historically specific causes and the effects of the phenomenon”. There are innumerable arguments contesting its theoretical meaning and premise of philosophy of post-truth. Some would argue that it is akin to past debates on morality, relativism and post modernity and dishonesty in politics. Many locate it in the context of information technology boom and prevalence of hegemonic discourse on techno-science being the ultimate truth. There is general concurrence among scholars that its theoretical construction is influenced by western imagination of knowledge societies (for details refer to Kjetil. Rommetvelt. Post-Truth Imaginations: New Starting points for critique of politics and Techno science. 2021, Routledge Publications.)

[11] The declaration was made on 21st February and on 22nd every newspaper in India, most news channels and social media were flooded with discussion and debates on the subject.

[12] The concept of melting pot was given by French immigrant J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735–1813) in his work titled Letters from an American Farmer implying, “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men”.

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28 Comments


Misra P K
Misra P K
Apr 12, 2023

Misra P K <pramodkumarmisra@gmail.com>Apr 5, 2023, 1:29 PM (7 days ago) to shalina I have read your blog with interest. It is brilliant. I am refraining from making any detailed comments on your blog for several reasons. One should not make any hurried comment on caste. It is of very ancient origin.Enormous amount of literature exists on it. It is continuously adapting to the local ecosystem-geographical, historical, political, economical and what not. All categorical and generalized statements about caste have huge pitfalls. The only safe and scientific way of handling this subject is intensive study of a focussed region, rest we can leave it for politicians and others who enjoy instant appreciation. In my experience the Andhra dolls exemplify what I have in my…

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UIAF Office
UIAF Office
Apr 09, 2023

Good analysis. Caste is a Portuguese word so its clear that it was introduced by them when they entered this country. Now, Jati in this country were classifications mostly on the basis of professions, one was involved in . Then THOSE, responsible for coversion of deprived people to other religious faith by luring them and created antibrahmin narratives . Brahmins were hinderence in their aims of converting Indians to their faith.


-- Prof. Vijay Prakash

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UIAF Office
UIAF Office
Apr 08, 2023

I am too naive to comment on the scholarship of Prof. Shalina Mehta. I am thankful that she has given her fair evaluation of my book.

The objective of writing the Book was that I have been frustrated by most of the writings on Indian Social System even by Anthropologists. As pointed out by her, most books on the issue are based on secondary sources. Without knowing ourselves through primary sources, all writings on social change are fictitious account of ourselves. Therefore, I have taken up on myself to 'Indianize' Indian Social Sciences. But I cannot achieve it single-handedly.

It is no use blaming only the historians. There are many 'breaking India' forces working and they form just one group....


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UIAF Office
UIAF Office
Apr 08, 2023

It shows how we have been looking at ourselves through other's lens, justifying what we saw. But I dare our intelligentsia to delve deep to understand ourselves in right perspective.

Congratulations.


Dr. M.C. Behera


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UIAF Office
UIAF Office
Apr 08, 2023

Truely said .....

" STATIC UNDERSTANDING".

A very bold statement from a dynamic and a veteran anthropologist.

Thanks Shalinaji for your motivational and inspirational remarks.


Rahim Mondal


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