Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age, written by Susan Bayly and published by The New Cambridge History of India, is a book that attempts to explore the inception of ideas and practices that gave rise to the so-called caste-society. Holding a lectureship in history and social anthropology at the University of Cambridge, she utilizes a historical and anthropological approach to analyze the context of India’s economic and social order.
Bayly depicts caste as a contingent and variable response to changes in India’s political landscape through the colonial conquest. She creates this depiction by taking us through a journey that starts at the historical origins of a caste society’ by historicizing the anthropological models. She asserts that castes are best seen as composites of ideals and practices that have been made and remade into varying codes of moral order over hundreds or even thousands of years.
She argues that caste has never actually been a fixed part of Indian life, however caste-like ideologies have have been colored by some in almost all of the subcontinents regional cultures. These ideologies are traced by her in the three structuralist formulations that French sociologist Louis Dumont proposed, those of priestly hierarchy, kingship and ascetic renunciation.1 Historical origins of a `caste society’ 2 The `Brahman Raj’: kings and service people c. 1700 ± 1830 3 Western `orientalists’ and the colonial perception of caste 4 Caste and the modern nation: incubus or essence? 5 The everyday experience of caste in colonial India 6 Caste debate and the emergence of Gandhian nationalism 7 State policy and `reservations’: the politicisation of caste-based social welfare schemes 8 Caste in the everyday life of independent India 9 `Caste wars’ and the mandate of violence These ideologies are traced in three structuralist formulations that French sociologist Louis Dumont proposed, those of priestly hierarchy, kingship and ascetic renunciation. As Bayly traces the two-stage rise of Kingship and Priestly hierarchy, she gets into a game that says catch me if you can. In order to identify the caste ideologies that she has decided exist, she starts to point at things which she can never define. Across India, across social and political boundaries, she traces the rise of Brahman and Kshatriya centred manifestations of caste values. . The British rule is looked upon as having an intensifying effect on the reutilization in social life.However, even before the British rule, there was an uneasy synthesis of principles in everyday life. In her interpretation of history, instead of examining the historical evidence for her premise, she patches her project on the available data. She often confuses between the jati and the varna, as also with the different caste names available through the country. She is able to, without even once problematising and looking at the severe disparity between the practices across the nation, she makes arbitrary connections between different region groups and caste-like groups to draw a homogenous domain of caste practices. And as she goes on to describe the determinants of caste ” including amongst them, illiteracy, poverty, social status, eating patterns, clothing, lifestyle, dark skin colour and so on. I am sure, given enough space, she would have spotted caste in every trivial thing she could think of.In her attempt at historically determining caste as an integral part of India’s understanding and constitution of itself, she has actually trivialised caste to such mundane differences in practices, without recognising the geographical or socio-cultural heritage of the places. Also she is able to talk of a pan-Indian system of values and practices, without taking into consideration the fact that the India she talks about does not exist in the time she talks about. She is able to shrink all of Southern Indian states as One State. Ditto with Maharashtra and Gujarat and Rajasthan in the Northwest. Bayly looks at the western or orientalist perceptions of caste; and what it meant to them.Bayly actually dismisses Orienatlism as an improbable phenomenon. For her, the so-called’; Oriental constructions’ of Caste are only a myth. She claims that caste practices were formed and formulated, reported and understood by the Indians themselves. Much of the subcontinent did become more pervasively caste-conscious under British rule but that is not to say that caste was in any simplistic sense a creation of colonial scholar-officials, or a misperception on the part of fantasising Western commentators.Instead of looking at the peculiar ontological position and history of Caste, instead of doing a genealogy of Caste, she dismisses the whole idea that caste can be indeed a category evolved out of discourse. Instead she is interested in creating an intellectual history of the social, political and economic changes that led to the final evolution and spreading of caste practices in nineteenth century India. There was a definitely excessive reportage of Caste in most of the ethnographic surveys conducted by the British government in India. Bayly looks at the two categories of identification:1.The divide between the Hindus and the Muslims and other non-Hindus. 2.The whole populace of Hindu India, under the slavery of a rigid Brahminical caste-based system. While she accepts that travelogues, writings by missionaries, travellers, officers of the EIC and others did give a one sided picture of essential characteristics of the Hindus in specific, Indians in general, they were full of contradictions.However, she finds in the more sophisticated’ versions, ambiguities and uncertainties, which actually hint at the uneasy transition that the society in India was undergoing at that time. She argues that the Indians themselves were keen on preserving the age-old sastric texts and helped the British in maintaining certain age-old practices which gave them community and caste feeling. She suggests that the orientalist/colonial/British texts be taken seriously inspite of all their flaws or biases, not only because they were received and adapted to by a score of Indians but also because they contain in them, information given by the native informants’ of that time. She also looks at how Indians themselves were also involved in a particular brand of essentialising of their own nature and status.Also, this is not just an orientalist project, because other travellers from other parts of the world ” Arab and Chinese travellers too ” have produced such texts that have captured a caricatured version of Indian life and beliefs. While the European interjections might have settled some of the things into a fixed definition, they cannot be blamed of inventing the caste or the surrounding practices. The whole effort is one of well-controlled desperation, where she is trying her level best to make her premise work. Instead of looking at the difficulties, which she is skirting, she distorts them in order to ensure that her own theories are not questioned. However, this puts her in an extremely difficult position. Because every time she thinks that she has identified caste, it eludes her and she points at something else. Her theory, rather than a consolidated logical progression, is a scattered montage, a collage of things, which point at each other. The intertextuality and the indefinite nature of her observations lead to an interesting set of pointers where nothing tangible emerges.From individual reportage to collective reportage, from the nineteenth century Victorian data collectors to the native informants, from the material practices of the people of those times to the self appropriation of practices, she fleets from one point to another, one paradigm to another and yet ends up proving nothing but the fact that it is indeed discourse that produced Caste. At the end of her argument, she ends up showing the one thing that she was against ” that Caste is more or less a construct. In spite of Foucault’s method being available to her, she never even once resorts to it and fails to see the peculiar status of the Caste non-entity that faces her.All in all Bayly is an interesting entry point to enter the caste debates in India.
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