Through the month of June Hachette India has orchestrated a masterly marketing campaign to launch and promote the latest book by the geographer and US academic, Sanjoy Chakravorty. All this for a book that merely updates and popularizes the post-colonial “caste-as colonial-construct” thesis. Aside from the author’s own articles (BBC website, The Times of India, etc) and excerpts (Scroll.in, etc), there have been a few book reviews, mainly in the English press, one of which (The Wire), by another US academic, Ananya Chakravarti, is particularly noteworthy.
Forward Press would like to launch a critical discourse on not just this book but the whole post-colonial “caste-as-colonial-construct” school of academic reconstruction. We asked Braj Ranjan Mani, author of Debrahmanising History (2005, 2015) and Knowledge and Power (2014), to get this discourse started. – Editor-in-Chief
In the brave new age of post-truth, if you have the power of playing with words, you can go a long way by making waves of fake news and views. The multiplicity of ways of compelling language to mislead is one of the defining characteristics of our age. This is not confined to the free-for-all social media, but also extends to high academia that produces and disseminates advanced knowledge – knowledge that can be truthful or misleading, liberating or oppressive, or a messy mixture of the two. Long ago and vividly, American founding father John Adams laid bare this duality of knowledge, “Bad men increase in knowledge as fast as good men, and science, arts, taste, sense and letters are employed for the purpose of injustice as well as for virtue.” Since our knowledge, especially social and political knowledge, can be fake or fabricated, it is important to have a critical and cautious relationship with all received knowledge. Especially because those who possess power are in a position to generate and circulate self-serving knowledge that safeguards their power. This knowledge-power nexus variously bolsters the established power, privilege and social hierarchies and, in a caste-ridden country like India, as I have argued extensively in my two works Debrahmanising History and Knowledge and Power, this menace is extremely entrenched because of the longstanding brahmanic control of knowledge which works effectively for maintaining caste hegemony.
However, like all dominant groups, the brahman and allied castes cannot continue to enjoy their privilege without eventually reaching out for rationalization to cover their privilege in the garments of righteousness. Rationalization, self-deception and the continual search for scapegoats and false stories are the psychological ploys that bind the privileged literati-culturati to their power politics. Such brahmanic power politics perpetually creates knowledge, and the false knowledge and false stories thus produced – and often repeated – perpetuates this brahmanic power.
To take but one striking example from recent years, South Asian postcolonial studies has emerged as an intellectual haven for the caste elites who hold British colonialism responsible for everything gone wrong in Indian society and culture, including the menace of caste as “it is perceived and practised in modern-day India”. It is worth recalling that many pundits extolled caste in the 19th century as “our cultural glory”, which their descendants were compelled to modify in the next century – which witnessed the spread of anti-caste movements across the subcontinent – as “our cultural compulsion”. And now, increasingly under the democratic heat from the subjugated majority of Dalitbahujans, their worthy heirs have discovered the magical theory of caste-as-a-construct-of-British-colonialism that miraculously absolves them of all complicity in the construction and maintenance of caste. With their epistemic power, the postcolonial pundits are shouting from the rooftops that they are victims, not perpetrators, of caste.
An instance of this which is doing the rounds these days – and misleading a lot of gullible people in India and abroad – is a book by a pompous geographer Sanjoy Chakravorty, The Truth About Us: The Politics of Information from Manu to Modi, which propagates the ludicrous thesis stated above – that caste, as we know it today, was created during British colonial rule. Although exuding an air of originality, this author is merely rehashing for the wider readership a worn-out thesis that has been in academic fashion for at least three decades in South Asian postcolonial studies, and which hundreds of other globalized desi pundits have over the years been fervently reformulating and reiterating in their academic works.
Though the origins of this postcolonial thesis can be found in the writings of brahman sociologist Govind Sadashiv Ghurye (1893-1983), as we shall see shortly, the serious academic game of blaming the British for caste-as-we-know-it-today began with American anthropologist Bernard Cohn (1987; 1996) and was taken forward by his two mentees – Ronald Inden (1991) and Nicholas Dirks (2001). Linking the colonial information-gathering, colonial laws and attempts to codify caste and census with the study of India and caste, their works come to the conclusion that British colonialism politicized caste and created an altogether new meaning of caste that unsettled the traditionally settled issue of caste. Dirks, who has written the most famous work of the genre (Castes of Mind, 2001), sees caste as a modern phenomenon that was fabricated by the British:
“Caste (as we know it today) is a modern phenomenon, that it is, specifically, the product of a historical encounter between India and Western colonial rule. By this I do not mean to imply that it was simply invented by the too clever British … But … it was under the British that ‘caste’ became a single term capable of expressing, organising, and above all ‘systematising’ India’s diverse forms of social identity, community, and organisation … In short, colonialism made caste what it is today … making caste the central symbol of Indian society.” (Dirks 2001: 5)
This thesis has become part of postcolonial folklore, but what is little known (even in the academia) is that the seed of this far-fetched thesis was sown long ago by Ghurye, the doyen of brahmanical sociology. Dirks frankly acknowledges this, but the wily desi pundits keep this under wraps for the reason that Ghurye was a legendary casteist and committed to ultra-nationalism and Hindu revivalism. No wonder, his sociological writing was driven by the supposed ideal of caste harmony and brahmanical model of Indian society. The caste system, he says in his celebrated work Caste and Race in India ( 2000), was made up of many parts, but it was characterized throughout by social harmony under the brahmanic priesthood. Ghurye was alarmed by the colonial policy of bringing caste out into the open through the caste census and data collection, along with other “dangerous” decisions such as the policy of reservations (for Dalits and other backward castes), which he saw as “opposed to the accepted criteria of nationality and the guiding principles of social justice”. He lambasted these colonial measures and linked them with the perilous politicization of caste and the rise of caste enmity and conflict that he saw in the emergent non-brahman movements in south India and his native Maharashtra.
As Dirks acknowledges gushingly and gratefully, “Ghurye may not have been the first to argue against the policy of reservations and the effects of politicizing caste, but he made the most eloquent, and academically sound, critique of the contemporary relationship of caste and politics in the decades surrounding independence. … Ghurye was perhaps the first serious scholar to suggest that the politicization of caste was not merely a natural outgrowth of the traditional institution but a conscious design of British colonial policy” (2001: 249).
Dirks goes on to admit that “Ghurye thus anticipated by years the critical anthropology of Bernard Cohn and others who have, in turn, anticipated and influenced the argument of this [Dirks’] book” (ibid). Applauding Ghurye’s critique of colonialism as “both prescient and profound”, Dirks also underlined Ghurye’s national agenda at the heart of which was his great concern about “the loss of Hindu community in the face of attacks on the sacred charter of brahmans and brahmanism” (ibid).
This leaves little doubt that it was Ghurye’s regressive brahmanical perspective on caste, politics and colonialism that guided Messrs Cohn and Dirks to develop the thesis that the colonial census and information-gathering effectively created the categories of religion and caste, as we know them today. Add to this a lifetime of their learning, researching, interacting and wining-dining with a large number of desi pundits, the worthy heirs of Ghurye (as their acknowledgments implicitly suggest) and the prospect of mesmerizing the desi pundits (who have a near monopoly of the Indian knowledge factory) and earning profitable popularity among them. It then becomes clear how these white pundits came to their wonderful discovery that caste hierarchy, the four varnas and the brahmanical authority were more or less manufactured by the British. Their roguish thesis implies Indians had no identity in terms of caste and religion prior to the colonial period, and that the toxic socializing of caste-based prejudice, discrimination and conflict in Indian society emanated from the caste census and colonial knowledge. Emulating Ghurye’s formulation, these blessed merchants of knowledge would like us to believe that everything was just as it should be with the caste and brahmanical social system before the British landed here.
Their argument that the caste system took on a new meaning and underwent significant changes – from non-hierarchical and harmonious to contentious and discriminatory – after the British codified and counted caste, is hollow and does not hold water. As I have pointed out in my book,
“Even if colonialism transformed caste by giving it a greater institutional prominence, as stressed by Dirks, Inden, and their privileged-caste applauders, caste had to be there is some form or other to be transformed, as A. Ahmad (1992) and S. Sarkar (1996; 1997) have argued. Graded hierarchy of caste was not a construction of the colonialists; it had its pre-colonial forms; it was not simply one among many forms of identity, it was the basis of social identity. Caste had percolated every core of social and political life in India when the British established their rule.” (Debrahmanising History, p 198)
Above all, the postcolonial thesis ignores the ugly reality of discrimination, exploitation and violence entrenched in the very structure of caste and lived experiences of the caste-oppressed as well as the considerable Dalitbahujan alienation and antagonism against brahmanic social order that find vivid articulation in the writings of anti-caste radicals like Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar. Anyone who knows India’s social history knows – and I have graphically shown this in Debrahmmanising History – that politicization and hierarchization of caste started with the brahmanic precept and prescription for differentiated treatment for different castes on the ground that different castes have essentially and inherently different intellectual and psychological traits. Through the centuries, brahmanic philosophies, religious canons, cultural symbols and social dealings constantly normalized and justified caste hierarchy and patriarchal dominance, and attributed them to natural and supernatural reasons and not to mere social cause. As I have argued in Debrahmanising History (p 26), “Brahmans gave a sacred aura [of dharma] to this fraud. The dharma they envisioned was the cosmic order maintained by the correct performance of sacrifice, which in turn was dependent on maintaining the requisite social hierarchy. The brahman would not establish dharma (which implied righteousness as well as justice) unless he himself presided over it, unless dharma upheld caste hierarchy, unless righteousness was bound to the caste order and polity, unless justice was one with dandaniti (the rule of force) and matsyanyaya (the law of big fish swallowing small ones). Thus, by integrating the caste doctrine into dharma, the brahmans overcame several kinds of resistance and gradually succeeded in universalising the caste system within the subcontinent.”
Brahmanism used the ideology and structure of caste to dehumanize and divide the productive majority of Dalitbahujans. Ambedkar saw caste not as a class-like division of labour but a division of labourers in a system of graded inequality. Many castes among a single class (occupying a similar position within the division of labour) will fragment and divide that class. This made him describe brahmanism as “a diabolical contrivance to suppress and enslave humanity”. The “diabolical contrivance” involves the “graded inequality” between and among hundreds of mutually antipathetic castes and sub-castes, which explains why the stranglehold of caste, despite resistance from the dehumanized and exploited lowered castes, has survived till now.
Thus, contrary to the postcolonial assertion, the social hierarchy of caste, as we know it today, was not created by the British. Of course, caste underwent changes during the colonial rule, but such changes have been a regular feature in all periods of Indian history. Normalized and maintained through longstanding nexus of brahmanic precept and kshatriya coercion, caste is notorious for its sinister resilience and adaptability to new political, economic and technological milieu, and that is what more or less happened during the colonial period as well.
The fabrication of caste-as-a-colonial-construct – along with Edward Said’s influential work Orientalism (1978), which blithely overlooks the basic nature of British colonialism in India, which was actually based on the collusive role of Indian elites – has in fact given the caste elites what they were looking for and what they wanted subliminally to believe. Despite the show of scholarship embellished with the characteristic obfuscatory language of postcolonial studies, this critique avows progressive egalitarianism but actually defends caste and brahmanical privilege. This explains the secret of its great popularity among the privileged-caste scholars. Overrepresented in the US academia on the strength of English-language proficiency, the desi pundits represent themselves as the brown voice of the subaltern in the West, questioning and inducing guilt in the hearts of white elites in order to get desirable jobs, promotion or profit, while maintaining their privilege in both India and abroad.
This is not to defend British colonialism, which certainly had the dark history of depredation of the land and its people, but to blame the British for the cruelty and hierarchy of caste is utterly misplaced and mean. In fact, for all its faults and crimes, British colonialism also established the rule of law, lifted the brahmanic ban on education for the Dalitbahujans, started a process of opening up the terribly closed society of India, thus unsettling many viciously settled issues like caste, and since the 1909 Morley-Minto reforms, the British also gradually laid the limited yet important foundation of democratic representation in India.
Also, the postcolonial pundits find it difficult to confront the disturbing fact that the traditional caste and brahmanical social order was far more oppressive for the subjugated majority of Dalitbahujans than the British rule. Neither do they grasp the reality that brahmanical nationalism was as responsible for the heightened caste-spirit as the British colonialism, as I have pointed out in my book:
“Livening up of the ‘caste-spirit’ was heightened by the brahmanic orientation of nationalism, which had excluded, except for the rhetoric, a vast majority of dalit-bahujans from the national domain. Parallel to the nationalist power politics, the dalit-bahujans were trying to organise themselves locally and regionally across the subcontinent into a multiplicity of movements against the oppressive forces. The limited yet significant spread of education and political awareness had awakened a section of the dalit-bahujans. Caste-based as well as anti-caste agitations had been building up in many parts of India well before the colonial design to conduct censuses on caste identities. The nationalist leadership, however, tended to deride such movements as ‘divisive’ and, hence, not in the ‘national’ interest. To safeguard their entrenched interests, the caste elites retained their brahmanic dogmas under the garb of nationalism, repudiating the people’s grievances and democratic aspirations as unpatriotic and anti-national.” (Debrahmanising History, p 338)
Thus, far from shedding light on the complex relation between caste and colonialism, it seems as if the entire burden of the postcolonial critique is to somehow converge on one or other kind of brahmanic conclusion, and, thus, to discredit the Dalitbahujans’ memory of their oppressed past and their own lived experiences of caste and discrimination.
The postcolonial thesis also does not take into account the ugly fact that colonialism in India, as I have shown in great detail in the Chapter 4 of Debrahmanising History, was built on the complicity and convergence of interests of British and Indian elites and the body of colonial information and knowledge was jointly constituted by the racist colonialists and their casteist Indian counterparts. Brahmanism has a long history of playing power politics and shaping state ideology since ancient times, which continued under colonial rule. In fact, the caste elites were part of the colonial racket for more than a century and only during the last 30-40 years of colonial rule, did they turn against the British for gaining monopoly power. Caste elites were able to influence colonial rule in a self-serving way, but the British were also compelled to listen to the growing complaints and demands of the caste-oppressed. The fact that the British were not exactly like the ideal Hindu kings ruling the country on the brahmanic principle of keeping Dalitbahujans enslaved forever angered the caste elites. This does not mean that British colonialism was not loathsome, it was; but, seen from the perspective of the Dalitbahujans, it was not so loathsome that it would forbid, like Brahmanism, the Phules, Periyars, Birsas and Ambedkars from entering the domain of learning and education.
It is a postcolonial travesty of truth that caste as a principle of social organization and a source of material and cultural exploitation of Dalitbahujan masses in precolonial India has been made a debatable point! I would like the interested reader to read Debrahmanising History, in which I have presented a comprehensive review of two-millennia-old brahmanic dominance and Dalitbahujan resistance in Indian society. Here, I shall only reproduce my brief views on the politics of knowledge and caste, which are germane to the main issue under discussion here.
“That the higher echelons of academia and knowledge-construction have been monopolised by vested interests is a fact—and this fact is the problem. This applies to the whole intellectual grove that reproduces India’s history and culture in the brahmanic mould in a variety of ways. It explains the absence of any fundamental questioning of traditional structures; normalisation of caste and brahmanism; the identification of the privileged-caste culture with Indian culture… If you are critical of caste and brahmanism, you are Euro-centric and guilty of denigration of the civilisational ethos of India. Any suggestion that caste and race, brahmanism and colonialism are beastly kith and kin is still heresy. Wonderful theories, rich with erudition and documentation—such as caste is a colonial construction: almost a fabrication of the Population Surveys and Census Reports (Inden 1990; Dirks 2001); communalism is an ‘Orientalist term’, produced as ‘a form of colonialist knowledge’ (Pandey 1990); secularism constitutes an ‘alien cultural ideology’, ‘a gift of Christianity’, and ‘there are no fundamentalists or revivalists in traditional society’ (Madan 1987: 748–9)—are being invented under the banner of postcoloniality of the ‘indigenous’ to ‘justify and defend the innocence which confronted modern Western colonialism’ (Nandy 1983). The ‘innocence’ here involves a complete elision of centuries of violence of caste, class, and patriarchy. In other words, the colonial tragedy returning now as the postcolonial farce allows the brahmanic elite to mystify the caste-class exploitation and masquerade as the oppressed rather than the oppressors. One can well imagine how comforting such ‘primal innocence’ can be to the custodians of ‘community’ and ‘culture’ because colonial crimes pale in comparison with the crimes of caste and brahmanism which have victimised, stigmatised and inferiorised the dalit-bahujans (who constitute more than 80 per cent of Indian people) for almost three thousand years. In other words, a deeply devious, neo-brahmanic impression is being created (by the resource-rich academics, many of whom are, ironically, ensconced in the Euro-American universities) that all the problems of contemporary India emanated from the Western colonialism. As Aijaz Ahmad (1992: 196–7) articulates it, ‘Colonialism is now held responsible not only for its own cruelties but, conveniently enough, for ours too.’ ” (Debrahmanising History, pp 12-13)
It is clear to anyone but the postcolonial pundits that the ruling Hindutva forces (that threatens to tear apart India’s fragile democratic-secular fabric) derive strength and inspiration from their bogey of caste-as-a-colonial construct, which has given them the intellectual heft to claim that caste was never a Hindu phenomenon. Such obscurantist representation of India’s history and culture has been crucial in the construction and maintenance of caste hegemony and when such brahmanisation of knowledge is complete, it is easier for the Hindu right to pull the wool over the people’s eyes and present myth as history, precluding any clear-cut stock taking of the past and present. This is the challenge that we face today. We have no choice but to fight such regressive falsification of Indian history and culture, with the understanding that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.
Ahmad, Aijaz. 1992. In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures. London and New York: Verso.
Cohn, Bernard. 1987. An Anthropologist Among the Historians and Other Essays. Oxford University Press.
Cohn, Bernard. 1996. Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. Princeton. Princeton University Press.
Dirks, Nicholas B.  2002. Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Delhi: Permanent Black.
Gurye, G S. Caste and Race in India.  2000. Bombay: Popular Prakashan.
Inden, Roland.  2000. Imagining India. London: Hurst.
Mani, Braj Ranjan.  2nd revised edition. 2015. Debrahmanising History: Dominance and Resistance in Indian Society. Delhi: Manohar.
Mani, Braj Ranjan. 2014. Knowledge and Power: A Discourse for Transformation. Delhi: Manohar.
Nandy, Ashis. The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Pandey, Gyanendra. The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Penguin
Sarkar, Sumit. 1996. ‘Indian Nationalism and the Politics of Hindutva.’ In David Ludden, ed, Making India Hindu, pp 270-93, Delhi: Oxford University Press
Sarkar, Sumit. 1997. Writing Social History. Delhi: Oxford University Press
N. Madan, ‘Secularism In Its Place’, Journal of Asian Studies, 46.4 (1987): 748-9.
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