The conqueror writes history, they came, they conquered and they write. You don't expect the people who came to invade us to tell the truth about us. — Miriam Makeba

The idea of an Indian caste system, as an unchanging, oppressive, and hereditary social hierarchy that is religiously mandated by and for Hindus, is the product of European conceptions about Indians and Hinduism.

Informed by 18th- and 19th- century beliefs in white-European and Christian superiority over “dark” races around the world and non-Christian religions, Europeans theorized that the whole of Indian society was organized as a four-fold caste system and a class of “untouchable” castes outside the main four. According to such theories, the system was created and enforced by a small and ostensibly oppressive Hindu priestly class of the false religions of India with seemingly little to no opposition from the masses for millenia. It remains the predominant way in which Indian and Hindu society are understood and portrayed globally, in spite of Europeans, over 200 years ago, witnessing ground realities that did not correspond to their conceptions.

Acknowledging the historical role of the British in devising an Indian caste system in no way denies that prejudices and discrimination on the basis of various perceived differences in different quarters and levels of Indian society existed (and continues to exist) and that people suffered horribly. It also does not deny the reality of individuals and groups using social, political, and economic advantages, even the color of religion, to justify their standing and behavior towards others. But the fact is that the legacy of colonialism very much informs not only the understanding of India to date, but also impacts contemporary caste and religious dynamics in the subcontinent.

Indian society is no different than any other society around the world in that individuals hold and act upon factors other than the inherent worth. Without understanding the actual root causes of such perceptions, however, there can be little hope of resolving prejudice and discrimination and alleviating the harm and suffering that comes as a result.

The following is not intended to offer a thorough investigation of how the idea of a pan-Indian caste system came into being, but is an introduction. It is a vast topic and an area of established, active, and needed academic scholarship that entails decoloniality and its challenge to orientalism, modernism, and the privileging of Western over indigenous knowledge systems.

Beliefs about white-European superiority and the inferiority of dark-skinned Indians shaped European theories about an Indian caste system

“We must not shrink from the candid avowal of what we believe to be the real place in nature, or in society, of the African or any other race. It will be the duty of conscientious anatomists carefully to record all deviations from the human standard of organization and analogy with inferior types, which are frequently manifested in the negro race...Future generations will thank us more for the establishment of good reliable facts than any hap-hazard speculations.” — James Hunt, Founder of The Anthropological Society of London (circa 1860)
“Race sentiment...rests upon a foundation of facts that can be verified by scientific methods; that it supplied the motive principle of caste; that it continues, in the form of fiction or tradition, to shape the most modern developments of the system; and, finally, that its influence has tended to preserve in comparative purity the types which it favours.” — Herbert Risley, Census Commissioner (1901)

The caste system, according to the Europeans, was pan-Indian, hierarchical, and hereditary; the four ‘castes’ within the system were well-defined, homogenous, and religiously prescribed. The British also described a fifth category, outside of the four, that was made up of ostensibly ‘untouchable’ castes, which would later be made into legal classification by the British called Scheduled Castes.

Embedded in these ideas was a racialized theory about the four castes — the upper castes consisting of light-skinned, more evolved, Caucasians or Indo-Europeans from a superior civilization who, after invading the Indian subcontinent, relegated the indigenous, inferior, and less evolved dark-skinned people to the lower castes and outcastes.

The theory, though lacking in any archaeological or textual evidence, would gain momentum throughout Europe, spur the development of more racist theories supporting white supremacy,  and provide justification not only to Europeans for their imperialist projects around the world, but also Adolf Hitler and his plans for building a master race.

Numerous race sciences such as phrenology and anthropometry, also emerged as a means to empirically support theories about non-European racial inferiority, including collecting data about skin color, skull shape and circumference, shape and size of the nose, amongst other body measurements to make assessments about evolution, intellect, character, and social status.

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Beliefs about Christian superiority and anti-Semitic, anti-‘heathen’, and anti-Catholic attitudes shaped European theories about an Indian caste system

“Are we bound forever to preserve all the enormities of the Hindoo system? Have we become the guardians of every monstrous principle and practice which it sustains? … the true cure of darkness is the introduction of light. The Hindoos err because they are ignorant; and their errors have never been fairly laid before them. The communication of our light and knowledge to them, would prove the best remedy for their disorders.” — Charles Grant, British Parliamentarian and Chairman at the East India Company (1792)
“I have no knowledge of either Sanskrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanskrit works… I am quite ready to take the Orientalist learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia…when we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded and general principles investigated, the superiority of the European become absolutely immeasurable…” — Thomas Babbington Macaulay, member of the Supreme Council of India (1835)

While some European observations of Indian society viewed its structure as complex and shaped largely by social, economic, and political dynamics, others, informed by their own religious beliefs as well as the then popular theories about a civilized light-skinned race invading the indigenous dark-skinned race, theorized that the caste system was devised and imposed under the pretense of religious mandate by a light-skinned, Indo-European priestly class upon the dark-skinned masses. Early Catholic accounts of their encounters with Hindus and their religious traditions reveal prevailing anti-Semitic and anti-‘heathen’ attitudes, and Protestant accounts prevailing anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and anti-‘heathen’ attitudes, especially with regard to priesthood.

To prove both their own superiority as well as the inferiority of Indians (and other colonized populations), Europeans translated and interpreted select Hindu texts informed by their prejudices, to in turn, validate them.

British administrators specifically sought out Hindu texts, looking for something akin to Abrahamic laws found in the Torah or Commandments, to better understand Hindu society towards the end of governing it. They interpreted philosophical and abstract concepts from Hindu texts through the lens of their pre-existing ideas, rather than the lived realities or religious understandings of the Indian people. Whether and how much indigenous ideas from different quarters and levels of the Indian polity about their own society and histories were taken into consideration is a matter of necessary research.

The British relied heavily on one ancient text in particular, the Manusmriti, which was unknown to a vast majority of Hindus and had no authoritative role in contemporary Hindu life at the time. Nonetheless, it was made out to be the singular source of pan-Hindu law, especially where it seemed to validate British insistence of the existence of a formal system of four hierarchical castes in the way they envisioned it to be from time immemorial. Over time, other Hindu texts were similarly studied, and colonial knowledge about them deeply informed by their racial and religious biases.

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Beliefs about Christian superiority and anti-Semitic, anti-‘heathen’, and anti-Catholic attitudes shaped European theories about an Indian caste system

“...the ignorant classes have very little idea of what caste means and are prone to return either their occupation, or their sub-caste, or their clan, or else some title by which they are known to their fellow-villagers.” — Sir Edward Albert Gait, Bengal Superintendent of Census Operations (1902)
“When we speak of professional criminals, we...(mean) a tribe whose ancestors were criminals from time immemorial, who are themselves destined by the usage of caste to commit crime, and whose descendants will be offenders against the law, until the whole tribe is exterminated or accounted for in manner of thugs." — James Fitzpatrick Stephens, member of the Imperial Legislative Council (circa 1870)

Eventually the various theories about Hindus and Hinduism made their way into official British administration by way of numerous censuses, as well as policy. During the implementation of various censuses from 1870s to the early 1930s, intended to collect information to categorize the Indian people on the basis of four castes, British officials acknowledged that their theories about Indian society did not comport with the lived realities of the Indian people.

In fact, responses to census questions about caste were wholly inconsistent. Indians who responded self-identified by a variety of social markers such as clan, class, language, lineage, region of origin, religion, traditional occupation, and others which were highly localized. The boundaries between groups coalescing around these markers were also not well-defined, but intersected and overlapped, and were amorphous, permeable, and mutable. Community associations and affiliations often shifted with migration or changes in trade, wealth, or class.

Relations amongst and between communities were greatly influenced by local historical, social, economic, and political dynamics. Perceptions of inter- and intra-community hierarchies across differences in wealth, political influence, social capital, or cultural practices were highly localized and fluid. And, as is true in all human societies throughout history, such perceived differences and notions of hierarchy did contribute to prejudicial and inhumane treatment within and amongst different groups, but this too varied greatly by locality. In short, identifying discrete castes in a uniform pan-Indian caste system as envisioned by colonial administrators proved not only contentious, but a complete failure.

At the end of Britain’s experiment, thousands of castes or communities were enumerated, not four. A few census officials also sought ranking by status, some with the help of native informants who themselves may have, in the context of the serious asymmetries of power, been offering their colonizers what they knew or felt the colonizers sought, or seeking to secure or improve their own social standing. The absence of any objective or meaningful way of assigning status became obvious when Hindus across the subcontinent filed petitions and complaints disputing the rank assigned to them.

One other means by which British administrators categorized Indians was through a series of laws referred to as the Criminal Tribes Act. Starting in 1871, over a hundred communities were deemed hereditarily criminal, and thus designated.  Whatever limited civil liberties Indians generally had, those of especially the men in these communities were severely limited.

Regardless of documented biases and failures, the theoretical four-tiered hierarchical caste system with a group of “untouchable” castes remained the singular way of describing and classifying Indian society and Indians. The Criminal Tribes Act was finally repealed at the time of Independence and the listed communities, accounting for over 2 million people, decriminalized. But by the 20th century, after numerous such census exercises, subsequent policies, and a particular history being inculcated through the British education system established in India, most of the Indian polity grew accustomed to thinking and answering in the manner that was designed by their colonizers, and eventually adopting the classification system into Indian law.

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A fifth class of ‘untouchables’ is also a result of the British construction of the Indian caste system

“For this purpose it will be necessary to have a list of castes to be included in depressed classes and all provinces are asked to frame a list applicable to the province. There are great difficulties in framing a list of this kind and there are insuperable difficulties in framing a list of depressed classes which will be applicable to the whole of India.” — JH Hutton, Census Commissioner (1931)

The way in which ‘untouchable’ came to be used as a class of certain castes or communities is equally confounding. There is no equivalent term in any Indian language to refer to such a class or set of practices.

The English word ‘untouchability’ being used to refer to practices of one community refusing to take water, food, or otherwise socially interact with another is surprisingly recent in origin. It was coined by British administrators in the late 19th century and gained widespread acceptance in the early 20th century in exercises and utilized in the creation of yet another British category — that of ‘Depressed Classes.’

‘Untouchable’ was supposed to classify certain communities based on whether other communities considered interactions with them to be degrading — a strange fascination for one particular British administrator, Herbert Risley. When this standard for the classification did not fit in a particular locality, however, census officials modified or expanded the category to include other standards such as whether the community ate beef or whether they employed Brahmin priests for rituals. They even included some communities ranked by census officials as “lower” even though not the “lowest” because of their size. These social practices rarely occurred in the northern parts of India; the phenomenon was more widespread in southern India. It was also relative in that there were communities which had been categorized as ‘untouchable’ to broader society who were also ‘untouchable’ to one another within the same category.

Regardless, census exercises and committee reports continued to be produced and resulted in an internally inconsistent class of communities, which outside of administrative designations, shared little in common socially, economically, educationally, or politically. Each community designated SC, OBC, or ST had their own identity, culture traditions, problems, and aspirations. And while there might have been overlaps in any of these factors, often communities sharing the same administrative designation were in conflict with one another. Nonetheless, at the time of Independence, the newly founded Indian government largely adopted the category of ‘Depressed Classes” and the communities or castes designated as such.

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SOURCES

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Akena, F. (2012). Critical Analysis of the Production of Western Knowledge and Its Implications for Indigenous Knowledge and Decolonization. Journal of Black Studies, 43(6), 599-619. 

Charsley, Simon. (1996). “‘Untouchable’: What is in a Name?” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 2, No.1, pp. 1-23

Keppens, Marianne, and Jakob De Roover. “The Brahmin, the Aryan, and the Powers of the Priestly Class: Puzzles in the Study of Indian Religion.” Religions, vol. 11, no. 4, 2020, p. 181., doi:10.3390/rel11040181.

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Samarendra, Padmanabh. (2016). Concept of Caste and Practices of Jati: Exploring Roots of Incomparability. In Kumar, Ravi, et al. Contemporary Readings in Marxism – A Critical Introduction. Aakar Books, Delhi, India

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