Caste in 19th Century India: In Conversation with Ishita Banerjee-Dubey

in Interview
Published on: 19 September 2018

Ishita Banerjee-Dubey

Ishita Banerjee-Dubey is Associate Professor at the Centre for South Asian Studies, El Colegio de Mexico. She has edited 'Caste in History' and her publications include 'Divine Affairs: Religion, Pilgrimage', and 'State in Colonial and Postcolonial India'.

Rajarshi Chunder in conversation with Prof. Ishita Banerjee Dubey, 2017


Rajarshi Chunder: How did the colonial administrators and ethnographers define the idea of caste? To what extent did it differ from the indigenous understanding of caste?


Ishita Banerjee Dubey: More than defining caste, over which colonial administrators did not agree, what they did was to mark and establish caste as on the principal ‘keys’ to the understanding of Indian society. This conferred on caste a salience that was new and different.


R.C.: From when did Indian intellectuals start reflecting on caste as an institution? Was caste a matter of concern during the mid-nineteenth century period of social reform?


I.B.D.: It is difficult to state precisely when Indian intellectuals started reflecting on caste as an institution. With the interrogation of caste by Protestant missionaries and liberal administrators from the early nineteenth century and the establishment of caste as a key institution of (Hindu) India in the second half of the century in colonial censuses and several other surveys, caste and Indian society became objectified in ways they had not been before. Hence, Indian intellectuals also started reflecting on caste in ways they had not been pushed to do earlier. This does not mean, of course, that caste hierarchy did not exist or people did not experience it, but the way it was thought of and lived was different. Besides, there were wide regional variations. Caste was a matter of concern during the period of social reform only tangentially: both the practice of ‘sati’ and the prohibition to remarry applied to Brahmin and upper caste women and widows. Indeed, in discussions on the ‘condition of women’ in the first half of the nineteenth century, the fact that the customs and practices being discussed were only valid for upper caste women was glossed over completely. Women and not caste was the principal concern at this stage.


R.C.: Do you think that Indian intellectuals of the 19th century deliberately avoided commenting on caste? Were they influenced, in this respect, by the colonial understanding of caste or was it an attempt to uphold the superiority of India over Britain?


I.B.D.: Which Indian intellectuals are we speaking of? Can we really say whether they did or did not do something deliberately? As stated above, the way caste came to be perceived, understood and acted upon changed quite radically over the nineteenth century. But caste is constantly changing because it gets affected by the way people understand and act upon it.


R.C.: Did the defence of caste by Indian intellectuals come suddenly in the wake of nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th century? If so, then how can one explain the absence of caste issues being addressed during the Swadeshi movement in Bengal?


I.B.D.: The attack by Protestant missionaries and the interrogation of caste and other customs by British liberal and utilitarian administrators also had a role to play in the defence of caste by some Indian intellectuals in the nineteenth century. The Swadeshi movement was a middle class reaction to the colonial government’s decision to the partition of Bengal. Except for the boycott of British goods, it did not have an adequate economic programme. And caste was not an issue it sought to address.


R.C.: Do you think that lower caste movements grew as a counter to the apparent silence of Indian intellectuals on caste matters?


I.B.D.: It would be too elitist and formalistic to affirm that lower caste movements were a consequence of the silence of Indian intellectuals. It is important to state what we mean by caste and at what period of time. Lower caste poets and saints have intellectually challenged hierarchy and discrimination in society for a long time and new faiths such as Satnam Panth of Chhattisgarh or Mahima Dharma of Odisha have also tried to work out a repudiation of caste hierarchy in discrete ways in their practices. And there are numerous instances of such faiths that do not pertain to the realm of formal, institutional politics. It is important to keep such challenges in mind and not concentrate on caste only on institutional politics.


R.C.: To what extent did the challenges thrown up by the lower caste assertion of the late 19th and early 20th centuries affected the mainstream nationalist politics of the Congress?


I.B.D.: It is difficult to gauge whether Gandhi’s inclusion of the eradication of untouchability in the Non-Cooperation Programme was a consequence of lower caste assertion. The Congress till the time of Non-Cooperation was a small elite organisation that met annually. Till the time of Gandhi’s inclusion of the eradication of untouchability as a part of Non-Cooperation, the Congress had consciously decided not to address social issues in order to conserve unity on an all-India basis. Moreover, many important leaders of the Congress accepted the ‘eradication of untouchability’ as a part of the programme only to pay heed to the whims of Gandhi. Ashwini Kumar Dutta was probably the only notable example among the leaders of Bengal who tried to disregard the caste norms of commensality during Swadeshi and Non-Cooperation movement in Bengal.


R.C.: Was Gandhi’s defence of the caste system an extension of similar defence of caste by 19th century intellectuals?


I.B.D.: Not sure which intellectuals are being referred to here. Gandhi defended varnashram dharma, we are not sure what he thought of caste as jati.


R.C.: Does Gandhi’s emphatic rejection of untouchability seem contradictory to his equally emphatic defence of the caste system?


I.B.D.: No, not really. Because if we follow Gandhi, varnashram was an organic division of society in accordance with profession or calling and untouchability had come to pass as a deviation from that. And the upper castes were responsible for it and had to atone for it. The questions that could have been put to Gandhi are: who decided on such a division of labour and on what grounds?


R.C.: How can one explain the relative silence of caste issues in Bengal—even by the communists—even at the time when caste became a clinching issue of debate in the rest of India in the late 1920’s and early 30’s?


I.B.D.: The communists have focussed on class and not on caste as an element of organisation and mobilisation. Their idea of exploitation and oppression is different from formulations of social discrimination. Despite the struggle of the Namasudras (and Rajbanshis) from the early part of the nineteenth century, there was no important and consolidated caste struggle in Bengal in the 1920s and 1930s. One has to explore the socio-cultural and political and economic context of Bengal in those decades to address this issue adequately.


R.C.:  Did caste play any role in the rehabilitation of Partition victims in 1947?


I.B.D.: Not sure I can answer this.


R.C.:  How did the post-colonial state deal with caste in the initial years of Independence?


I.B.D.: The Indian constitution even more than the post-colonial state accepted caste as one of the primary factors behind the ‘backward’ status of significant sections of society. Hence, in order to guarantee social justice and substantive equality to Indian citizens, it accepted ‘compensatory’ discrimination or ‘reservation’, which had been introduced by the colonial state, initially for a limited period of ten years to the disprivileged sections. ‘Reservation’ was implemented by the independent Indian state when the Constitution came into effect. However, neither Ambedkar’s hope of social justice and dignity nor Nehru’s expectations of liberal equality to be achieved through ‘compensatory discriminations’ have materialised. The factors and processes are far too intricate to be discussed here.


R.C.:  What is the role of caste in the present day electoral politics in India? Do you think that caste is still avoided to be addressed in the politics of West Bengal?


I.B.D.: Caste, as indicated above, constantly changes avatars depending on the way peoples and groups apprehend and act upon it. There have been political alliances on caste lines among several castes in the 1970s, that have changed continually in different states and electoral constituencies. Now with a strident Hindu Right as the ruling party at the Centre, ‘reservation’ is being turned upside down with the so-called ‘forward castes’ claiming ‘reservation’. Unsurprisingly, old arguments around ‘merit’ and ‘economic status’ are being advanced to counter Dr Ambedkar’s idea of social justice and dignity. Dalits and Other Backward Classes have also aligned and fallen apart very differently in different parts of India. In this situation of flux caste still remains an important element of mobilisation in electoral politics. I am not competent enough to comment on Bengal.