Monday, May 31, 2010

Right Angle: Face it, India is all about caste

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    • By Swapan Dasgupta
    • Chirol mirrored the colonial perception of India as a land obsessed by caste and unable to rise above it. Since the foreign rulers never aimed at being social reformers, they attempted to accommodate this caste obsession in public policy. They documented caste in all its bewildering complexities in the Gazetteers and, most important, attempted to quantify caste allegiances in the Census operations from 1881. As Census Commissioner for the 1911 Census, Sir Herbert Risley went one better. It wasn't enough merely to record the caste preferences of individuals. To make life easier for policy makers, the Census had also to identify "social precedence as recognized by native public opinion." In other words, the administration had to locate a caste in the ritual and social hierarchy and determine which caste was high, intermediate or low.

      Risley's attempt to define caste precedence triggered an upsurge in civil society. Caste groups mobilized to redefine their varna status, undertake changes in ritual practices and even press for changes in caste names. India experienced a bizarre ferment with caste leaders pressing for vegetarianism, restrictions on widow remarriage and changes in the rituals governing marriage and mourning. The Census led to a government-induced process of what MN Srinivas was later to call 'Sanskritization' — social changes premised on the belief that Brahmins were role models.

      For nationalist historians, Risley was a villain promoting 'false consciousness' and furthering a divide-and-rule approach to undermine national unity. The Census was perceived, not merely as a quantitative exercise, but a divisive game which, in the process, reduced Indian society to a hideous caricature.

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