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Seeing India, Pak history through the lens of caste

While caste differences in India are also displaced onto a religious minority, in Pakistan this displacement locates the minority within and caste outside Islam. Caste really does allow us to see history anew.

Written by Faisal Devji |
Updated: December 27, 2020 8:47:38 am
Getting ready for Ambedkar Jayanti in Gulbarga, Karnataka. Archive

We see caste as a problem, not as an analytical category. It is the object of analysis but never its subject. Scholarship on India’s history includes caste as one element, with class and community comprising other categories. What would the history of India look like if seen through the lens of caste?

Ambedkar made this argument for ancient India, seeing the struggle between Brahminism and Buddhism, interrupted by Muslim invasions that destroyed the latter and included the former within a new order. Hinduism emerged from this conquest by adopting Buddhist practices of vegetarianism, temples, floral offerings and non-violence. Buddhists, meanwhile, converted to Islam from the low castes to which they had been reduced.

Whatever its accuracy, Ambedkar’s history repudiated the dualistic narrative of Hindu-Muslim conflict by including caste within it. Ambedkar claimed that by launching the movement for Pakistan, the Muslim League abandoned its history of alliances between caste and religious minorities. It came instead to an agreement with the Congress as one high-caste party with another to divide the spoils of Independence.

I want to offer a parallel account of how caste permits us to understand modern Indian history. Consider how the Bania tells us a different story about this past. The first time this caste transformed modern India was in the 18th Century, when traders supported the East India Company to make colonialism possible. They did so by switching allegiance from Kshatriya rulers, whether Hindu or Muslim.

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The second time Banias changed India’s modern history was with the development of the Congress as a mass organisation under Gandhi. The Kshatriyas displaced by colonialism had by then been replaced in politics by Brahmin lawyers and administrators. The first Bania to take power from the Brahmins who dominated the party, Gandhi gained for it the support of India’s traders.

The national and religious culture promoted by Gandhi was also Bania in character, defined by bhakti, ahimsa and popular Vaishnavism. His rival Jinnah performed a similar feat in the Muslim League, which had been run by an administrative class equivalent to the Brahmins, alongside remnants of the old Kshatriya elite.

Jinnah was from the Khoja caste of traders and, like Gandhi, the first Bania to gain control of his party while bringing Muslim capitalists to support it. Khoja are mostly converts of Hindu Lohana caste. Jinnah boasted of his ability to talk to Gandhi as a Khoja would to a Bania.


If Gandhi’s rise to power signalled the emergence of a new national culture for Hindus, Jinnah’s rise accomplished the same for Muslims. The culture of learning and honour that had characterised the League’s Brahmin and Kshatriya elite was replaced by a Bania focus on contractual politics.

With Independence, Banias in both countries had to take a back seat. In India they were restricted by a Brahmin bureaucracy and in Pakistan excluded by a new Kshatriya elite. With Brahmins disempowered by the loss of their bases in north India, power soon came to be exercised directly by Kshatriyas through the military.

The multiplicity of power centres in post-colonial India led to a variety of alliances, in which the numerical dominance of Shudras has been divided, joined or mediated by other castes. Pakistan was dominated by a Kshatriya-Shudra grouping in the west and a Shudra-Dalit-Adivasi one in the east, with Brahmin administrators and Bania capitalists of little account in either wing.


In India, Banias played a major role for a third time during the country’s economic liberalisation in the early 1990s, which freed them to adopt a new political identity in Hindutva’s Brahmin-Bania combine. Their religiosity is not the austere kind valued by Brahmin ideologues like Savarkar, however, but continues to be focused on bhakti.

In Pakistan, meanwhile, the Kshatriya-Shudra grouping became an absolute majority with the separation of Bangladesh. Even a traders’ party like that of Nawaz Sharif must adopt Kshatriya ideals to survive. As for Brahmins, their declining status has allowed them to emerge as ideological brokers for groups making claims to power in the name of Islam.

Religion has come to define national culture in both countries, allowing different castes to identify with each other by excluding minorities. While Hinduism provides a home for many sectarian cultures in India, Islam in Pakistan is exclusive.

Why does Islam as a national ideology have to find its enemies within the Muslim community in Pakistan, whether among Ahmadis or Shias, Deobandis or Barelvis? Because the emergence of Bangladesh eliminated Hindus as a substantial minority, with Christians, Sikhs and Parsis also too insignificant.

While Christians and Hindus are discriminated against and even persecuted in Pakistan, as Muslims and Christians sometimes are in India, they are not seen to represent any serious threat to Islam. This means that Islam comes to dominate politics in such a way as to obscure both caste and religious difference.


If the suspect religious minority in Pakistan is to be found within Islam, non-Muslim groups come to represent not religious but caste difference. A Muslim community dominated by Kshatriyas and Shudras thus attacks Christians in Punjab as Dalits, while discriminating against Hindus in Sind as Dalits, Banias and Adivasis.

Christians and Hindus also serve as repositories for the caste identities of Muslims, who escape their status by displacing it onto them. While caste differences in India are also displaced onto a religious minority, in Pakistan this displacement locates the minority within and caste outside Islam. Caste really does allow us to see history anew.


Faisal Devji is Professor of Indian History at the University of Oxford

Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column


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First published on: 27-12-2020 at 02:18:40 am
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