Our obsession with caste is really a colonial hangover

The modern Indian caste system got institutionalised by the practices made use of by the British to count and classify Indian society and we as a society have firmly held on to it.

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | Updated: February 1, 2016 8:28 am
Pages from Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India according to Christian Missionaries in February 1837. In this image, a combination of Hindu musicians. Wikimedia Commons/Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University Pages from Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India according to Christian Missionaries in February 1837. The image above depicts Hindu musicians. Wikimedia Commons/Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University

“The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind.” These were the departing words of Dalit Phd scholar Rohith Vemula. Vemula’s suicide on January 17, 2016 has revived the caste debate across the country.

It is interesting to note how a brawl between student political groups has led to the nationwide discussion on the politics of caste. So what is it about caste that Indian society obsesses about despite 66 long years of efforts at affirmative action? Vemula’s suicide and the ensuing discourse needs to be looked at from a wider perspective.

In an article published in 1993, soon after the Mandal commission riots and the Babri Masjid attacks, cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai wrote about how caste and religion based divisions of modern India are to a large extent the product of the classifying tendencies of the British rulers.

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By the nineteenth century, strategies of counting bodies had become popular in England to understand human and social sciences. However in India, as highlighted by Appadurai, numbers carried with them the pragmatic purpose of disciplining what the colonial rulers considered to be ‘strange’ ways of the brown masses.

In the aftermath of the 1857 riots, the British colonial office in India came to the realisation that in order to best govern Indian society, they needed to learn more about the unique religious and social order that had been preexisting. What ensued was a grand program of utilitarian knowledge building that sought to explain the peculiarity of the exotic land that they needed to administer in order to make optimum economic gains.

This was done through instruments of knowledge gathering such as census, gazettes, maps and so on. These instruments were made use of by the British even before the 1857 riots, but more for the sake of revenue collection. Post-1857 a disciplining role was attached to them.

Track all the developments in the Rohith suicide case, here

The first census was held in 1871 and caste was made the foremost basis to it. The British came to the conclusion that Indian society would become intelligible to them by enumerating its population on the basis of caste. The census first counted and then classified and ranked the people of India on the basis of caste.

This is not to say that classification of Indian society on the basis of caste was something that was built upon the whims and fancies of the colonisers. Caste was a definite reality of Indian society. When the foreigners faced the trouble of classifying and ranking these categories in the census they approached the dominant learned section of Indian society which consisted of the Brahmins.

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The Brahmins pointed out to texts and scriptures which they believed to be essential to Hinduism. Modern Hindu social order as we know it today is a result of the collaborative efforts between the British and the Brahmins made in the late nineteenth century. Together they did not create the caste system. They simply attached numerical values and ranks to caste identities and made official the hierarchical divisions of Indian society.

Vemula’s suicide note is much more than being a signifier of his mental agony. It is testimony to the fact that we as a society have hardly gone far enough to shake off the colonial tendency of attaching statistics to human beings, reducing their value to a mere manageable number.

The discussion surrounding the suicide on the other hand is evidence of the colonial hangover our society suffers from; of our incapability to elucidate societal divisions without resorting to the concept of caste which was born out of a combined effort on the part of the British and the Brahmans to maintain governing status in the country.

This photograph is part of a series taken by the firm of Shepherd and Robertson for a book entitled 'The People of India' by Forbes Watson, published in 1868. Chohan Rajpoots were classified as the highest secular Hindu caste during the British regime. This photograph is part of a series taken by the firm of Shepherd and Robertson for a book entitled ‘The People of India’ by Forbes Watson, published in 1868. Chohan Rajpoots were classified as the highest secular Hindu caste during the British regime.

The author is a student of New York University. Views expressed are personal.

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  1. S
    sree
    Feb 1, 2016 at 11:56 am
    "the 1857 riots". The fight against British has been hailed as "First war of Independence by Nationalists and condemned as "rebellion" by British. For the first time it is referred to as a simple RIOT. What a fall oh indian Express, in the quality of your main edit contributors
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    1. S
      SM
      Feb 2, 2016 at 10:30 am
      You seriously think 1857 was a "riot"?? That alone makes this article a total joke. IE you've surped yourself in idiocy when one thought you'd reach the limit...
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      1. M
        Marathi Yadav
        Feb 1, 2016 at 3:49 pm
        This is like saying that scientific progress in medical sciences consolidated the diseases. Of course, the British had less interest in removing caste than running an empire. Let us not blame theBrits for our greatest malady.
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        1. Z
          Zina
          Feb 1, 2016 at 4:13 pm
          Since express blogs have resorted to offensive innuendos, it is important to bring out that Roychoudury zamindars voluntarily gave up land to the British in Bengal so that they - (the British) could establish an actual colony in Bengal and later rule India. The Mughals, Siraj-ud-daulah, Mir Jafar and the Zamindars were equally responsible for allowing the divisions in Indian society. To go further in the conspiracy let us add the medicine men of colonized British India who aided the British with the kind of clification that this article claims. By the way caste is not even an Indian word.
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          1. M
            Mavala
            Feb 1, 2016 at 7:11 am
            How confused and biased these writers and scholars are. Issue was regarding giving support to Yakooh Memon and some groups opposed. Any brahmin was involved, how cleverly they push such an unconnected issue.
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