From The Eighteenth Century To The Modern Age

Caste, Society and Politics in India: From The Eighteenth Century To The Modern Age

Alam, Mohammed B

Bayly, Susan. Caste, Society and Politics in India: From The Eighteenth Century To The Modern Age. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1999, 421 pp.

This book by Susan Bayly is published as part of the New Cambridge History of India in the series entitled, The Evolution of Contemporary South Asia. Although the author has published a number of seminal studies on the caste system in pre-modern as well as post-modern India, her latest book is a step forward in delineating further the intricate relationship between caste as a social institution and the state as a political machinery. While doing so, Susan Bayly has also taken utmost care to subject her study to rigorous historical enquiry amidst the fast changing developments that took shape during the two hundred years of British Raj in India.

The book consists of nine chapters apart from introduction and conclusion. This study, as the author states, argues that caste has been for many centuries a real and active part of Indian life and the onset of British rule significantly expanded and sharpened these norms and conventions, building many manifestations of caste language and ideology into its structures of authoritative government. (p. 4).

Caste system, as is commonly understood, originated during the Aryan invasion into the Indo-Gangetic plain around 1500 BC, and during this period in which the Hindu religious texts were written caste was framed in the form of Varna (order, class) within a social hierarchy in order of precedence. In this order, the Brahmans doing the priestly functions in Hindu temples occupied the top slot, the Kshatriyas were associated with warriors and rulers, the Vaishyas were identified with the merchants and commercial class and the Shudras, the fourth rank in that social order were associated with the unskilled workers. The fact that these caste denominations occupied a prominent place in the early religious texts such as the Vedas and later on in the Bhagvad Gita and the Mahabharatha further added religious sanctity to it.

Bayly then enters into more contested terrain when the issue of caste and its sanction by scriptural ideals pervaded the Hindu way of life in later years. The author quotes the authoritative works of Louis Dumont and Claude Levi-Strauss, who saw the evolution of caste as `being originated by a unique and coherent structure of core values.’ (p. 14). Strauss’ and Dumont’s mention of structuralist analysis is based on the notions of purity and pollution, which to them, are the cornerstones of Hindu psyche. Bayly, however, finds the dichotomy between purity and pollution as being solely Hindu-specific as an inadequate explanation. In this context, as the author states in Chapter 7, even within India’s minority faiths: (Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Jainism, etc.), issue of ritual pollution is viewed very seriously particularly on occasions such as at the time of one’s marriage.

Bayly’s assertion (p. 25) that caste has been a fluid element in the subcontinent’s remarkable diversity in culture and physical environment as well as in its political mechanism can only be accepted at its face value. It is, however, far from certain that fluidity itself contributed to the growth and sustenance of caste system well on to the 20th century without what Dumont termed as ‘substantialisation’ in terms of its wider acceptability early in the pre-modern era.

One of the highlights of the book is the author’s succinct analysis of the ascendance of the Brahman Raj between 1700 and 1830 when the British East India Company was consolidating its foothold in the affairs of the subcontinent. It will be too simplistic to say or suggest that the British company officials left the Hindu religious practices and its caste system untouched due to their preoccupation with the entrepreneurial and mercantilist ambitions. With the overall aim of `divide and rule’ strategy in order to perpetuate the British rule in India to an indefinite term, the British officials found it convenient to prop up Brahman against the emerging Marhatta power in Western India who were posing serious challenge to British suzerainty. One of the ways through which the British appeased the Brahman kings was by allowing them a limited leverage in collecting revenue in the smaller territories and by rewarding these rulers with government jobs in exchange of their acquiescence to the British scheme of things.

The book’s final two chapters dealing with caste and its impact in everyday life of independent India deserve special mention. Even as India is undergoing a transition from its colonial phase to a more enlightened, modern phase, caste identity still plays a significant role in the society at large. In some ways, the process of transition within the framework of `change with continuity’ has been rather contradictory. Most Indians living in urban centers would probably agree with what Andre Beteille describes as `individualized decisionmaking and concern for the small’ scale family unit, away from the sticky ageold caste codes which are accepted and transmitted from generation to generation. (p. 313). Yet the same urbanites, when it comes to more worldly matters such as marriage do not hesitate to go the way of horoscope, astrology and purity so as not to cut off completely from the traditional roots of caste configurations..

In the political arena, too, in spite of the presence of secular political parties, India’s electoral process even up to the beginning of the 21st century has been colored by caste manifestations. Whether it is at the time of candidate’s selection or `vote bank’ in terms of voting en masse by a given caste group or even in the selection of ministers at the local, regional and national levels, caste has played a larger than life shadow all along. If it was the turn of the Congress party that ruled over most of India’s post-independent years in fielding Jagjivan Ram of Bihar state as the champion of the lower caste against Dr. B.R.Ambedkar, the charismatic leader of the pre-partition years, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which has been in power in New Delhi since the late 1990s had also persons from the lowest caste in its organizational cadre to match Congress party’s dominance over this caste group.

Mohammed B. Alam

Miyazaki International College, Japan

Copyright Association of Third World Studies, Inc. Fall 2002

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