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Castes of Mind

Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India

Nicholas B. Dirks
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Castes of Mind
    Book Description:

    When thinking of India, it is hard not to think of caste. In academic and common parlance alike, caste has become a central symbol for India, marking it as fundamentally different from other places while expressing its essence. Nicholas Dirks argues that caste is, in fact, neither an unchanged survival of ancient India nor a single system that reflects a core cultural value. Rather than a basic expression of Indian tradition, caste is a modern phenomenon--the product of a concrete historical encounter between India and British colonial rule. Dirks does not contend that caste was invented by the British. But under British domination caste did become a single term capable of naming and above all subsuming India's diverse forms of social identity and organization.

    Dirks traces the career of caste from the medieval kingdoms of southern India to the textual traces of early colonial archives; from the commentaries of an eighteenth-century Jesuit to the enumerative obsessions of the late-nineteenth-century census; from the ethnographic writings of colonial administrators to those of twentieth-century Indian scholars seeking to rescue ethnography from its colonial legacy. The book also surveys the rise of caste politics in the twentieth century, focusing in particular on the emergence of caste-based movements that have threatened nationalist consensus.

    Castes of Mindis an ambitious book, written by an accomplished scholar with a rare mastery of centuries of Indian history and anthropology. It uses the idea of caste as the basis for a magisterial history of modern India. And in making a powerful case that the colonial past continues to haunt the Indian present, it makes an important contribution to current postcolonial theory and scholarship on contemporary Indian politics.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4094-6
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. ii-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiv-xiv)

    • One Introduction: The Modernity of Caste
      (pp. 3-18)

      When thinking of India it is hard not to think of caste. In comparative sociology and in common parlance alike, caste has become a central symbol for India, indexing it as fundamentally different from other places as well as expressing its essence. A long history of writing—from the grand treatise of the Abbé Dubois to the general anthropology of Louis Dumont; from the piles of statistical and descriptive volumes of British colonial censuses starting in 1872 to the eye-catching headlines of theNew York Times—has identified caste as the basic form of Indian society. Caste has been seen...

    • Two Homo Hierarchicus: The Origins of an Idea
      (pp. 19-42)

      The Portuguese have been credited with the initial use of the termcastato refer to the social order of India, although according to at least one source the first use of the word was applied only to the lowest Indian classes in contradistinction to their overlords.¹ In the early sixteenth century, the traveller Duarte Barbosa reported some features of a caste order after extended stays in India, in particular on the basis of his stay in the great kingdom of Vijayanagara. He wrote that there were “three classes of Heathen, each one of which has a very distinct rule...

    • Three The Ethnographic State
      (pp. 43-60)

      By the second half of the nineteenth century, the colonial state in India was about to undergo several major transformations. Whereas the revenue and authority that accrued from the relationship between land and the state were fundamental to the formation of the early colonial state, the general agrarian revolts that followed hard on the heels of the 1857 “Mutiny” and the steadily increasing economic investment in imperial power (propelled in particular by the joint stock arrangement of the railways and other infrastructural projects) made it clear that things had to change. Land tax was still an important source of revenue...


    • Four The Original Caste: Social Identity in the Old Regime
      (pp. 63-80)

      The British conquest of India was anything but absent-minded. Despite the self-serving rhetoric about political chaos and social involution, the British conquest was one of the most comprehensive, long-lasting, and successful campaigns in world history. The British mobilized military, diplomatic, and economic means to transform makeshift beachheads into the major imperial jewel of modern times. The East India Company arrived in India to engage in trade for goods craved by Europe, only to find local political struggles irresistible, and opportunities for wealth—both private and public—incomparable. While beseeching the Mughal emperor to treat them as a privileged vassal, they...

    • Five The Textualization of Tradition: Biography of an Archive
      (pp. 81-106)

      History had not always been unimportant to the British in India. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries a great number of British writers— among them Dow, Elphinstone, Wilks, Malcolm, and Mackenzie—felt compelled to confront India’s precolonial history. These writers often engaged a growing body of assertion and argumentation about the fundamental nature of Indian society and its civil and political institutions, in the context of extensive debates about the colonial project of conquering and ruling India. Historical questions were preeminent in the aftermath of the impeachment of Warren Hastings and the Pitt Act; in discussions around the...

    • Six The Imperial Archive: Colonial Knowledge and Colonial Rule
      (pp. 107-124)

      The archive, that primary site of state monumentality, is the very institution that canonizes, crystallizes, and classifies the knowledge required by the state even as it makes this knowledge available to subsequent generations in the cultural form of a neutral repository of the past. Colonial governmentality was not merely dependent on knowledge, it was also embedded in the forms of knowledge that provided the basis for the principal practices of the colonial state. Colonial conquest made possible (even as it was made possible by) the marking of new territories with the dimensions and coordinates of colonial interest. Resources were converted...


    • Seven The Conversion of Caste
      (pp. 127-148)

      When V. D. Savarkar wrote his grand history of the Great Rebellion in 1909, he glossed the bloody events following the Meerut mutiny as the first Indian war of independence.¹ The national awakening that grew out of military refusal was an expression for Savarkar of the fundamental injustice of British rule in India. Savarkar wrote of the need for India to attain historical consciousness of itself as a nation, and of the importance of the rebellion for constituting a foundational moment in the emergence of a national history. Savarkar’s narrative emphasized the heroic refusal of Indian heroes, ordinary soldiers as...

    • Eight The Policing of Tradition: Colonial Anthropology and the Invention of Custom
      (pp. 149-172)

      Victoria’s proclamation had announced, unambiguously, that the British would no longer seek to impose their “convictions on any of our subjects,” and that she would “strictly charge and enjoin all those who may be in authority under us that they abstain from all interference with the religious belief or worship of any of our subjects on pain of our highest displeasure.” She had further declared that in the “framing and administration of law, due regard would henceforth be paid to the ancient rights, usages and customs of India.” But although it was clear that the British intended by this never...

    • Nine The Body of Caste: Anthropology and the Criminalization of Caste
      (pp. 173-197)

      For much of the nineteenth century, missionaries continued to dominate the production of ethnographic accounts of India through the sheer volume of accounts and reports they prepared, often to document the trials and tribulations of their labors in the midst of barbarism. Most of these writings, like Caldwell’s monograph on the Shanars, concerned groups that either succumbed to conversion or were at least targeted for major missionary activity. Some writings seemed to celebrate scandal, as we have just seen in the case of hookswinging; others focused on the more exotic customs of tribal and lowercaste groups. Because missionaries had firsthand...

    • Ten The Enumeration of Caste: Anthropology as Colonial Rule
      (pp. 198-228)

      The Great Rebellion had made it clear to the British that they knew far too little about the colonized populations of India. Moreover, what they did know was far too unsystematic.¹ During the 1860s, a number of efforts were made to generate the basis for systematic and statistical knowledge collection and compilation. In 1862, a proposal that each district have a manual of its own was revived by the Government of Madras, which subsequently charged Mr. Carmichael, collector of Vizagapatam, and Mr. Nelson, collector of Madura, to compile model works for their respective districts. When these works were completed several...


    • Eleven Toward a Nationalist Sociology of India: Nationalism and Brahmanism
      (pp. 231-254)

      Risley was by no means the only observer to suggest that caste opposed nationality. This view found a steady refrain among colonial voices, for whom such an analysis was deeply comforting in its projection that Britain’s empire would not be threatened by a genuine nationalist movement for many years to come. Although the putative divide between Muslims and Hindus became the more dominant colonial charge, caste division had been used throughout colonial history to explain India’s “lack” of politics, and when that did not work, to trivialize its politics as localistic, particularistic, and inherently divisive. Indeed, the antipathy of caste...

    • Twelve The Reformation of Caste: Periyar, Ambedkar, and Gandhi
      (pp. 255-274)

      There is nothing new in the phrase “Hindu nationalism,” even if it has come to be associated with the recent emergence of political movements expressing Hindu rather than secular ideology. Nationalism in India emerged under colonial conditions, conditions that put Indian civilization itself on trial as the principal impediment to modernity and self-rule. We have traced parts of the process whereby India was consigned to an otherworldly and decidedly premodern position, and have pointed out moments when reactions to colonial and Orientalist characterizations led to other versions of Hinduism as the indigenous cultural repository of identity and value. This process...

    • Thirteen Caste Politics and the Politics of Caste
      (pp. 275-296)

      On September 19, 1990, a student from Delhi University poured kerosene over his body and set himself on fire. According to some accounts, Rajeev Goswami had initially only intended to stage a mock self-immolation; as soon as he struck a match his friends were supposed to have doused him with water, waiting only for a few photographs to be snapped. These photographs and the attendant press coverage would be used to draw dramatic media attention to the protests against caste reservations that had been mounting over the previous six weeks. But in the heat of emotion, in the context of...

    • Fourteen Conclusion: Caste and the Postcolonial Predicament
      (pp. 297-302)

      Kancha Ilaiah begins his remarkable book entitledWhy I am Not a Hinduby saying, “I was not born a Hindu for the simple reason that my parents did not know that they were Hindus.” He goes on to make clear that this was not because his parents belonged to some other religious identity but rather because his “illiterate parents, who lived in a remote South Indian village, did not know that they belonged to any religion at all.” Members of the Kuruma caste, breeders of sheep, his parents brought him up in a world in which Hinduism was clearly...

    • Coda The Burden of the Past: On Colonialism and the Writing of History
      (pp. 303-316)

      Whereas the nineteenth century was the great century of imperial power, the most astonishing accomplishment of the twentieth century has been the struggle to consign colonial rule to the past tense. Although that struggle has been successful, it has not only been drenched in violence but it has also led to the general recognition that the effects of imperialism have by no means disappeared with the demise of formal colonial regimes of rule. Colonialism lives on in the massive disparities of wealth and control over capital between north and south, in the contradictory institutional legacies that inhabit political, juridical, educational,...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 317-358)
  10. Index
    (pp. 359-372)