myth of caste tyranny
The Mandal Commission report was based on a stereotype image of the caste
system and Hindu society that our colonial masters popularised with devastating
effect in the 19th century. It is not generally known that the India
of rigid social stratification and
hierarchical ranking was largely a British creation and that in their attempt to
comprehend, and control the Indian social order, the British set in motion
forces that transformed the older system in a fundamental way.
As late as the 18th century, the hierarchical ordering of
Hindu society was not an established fact over large parts of the subcontinent.
As some eminent historians have pointed out, till that time alternative
ideologies and styles of life were strong, indeed dominant, in much of India.
Large bands of nomads, with their huge herds of cattle, for instance, roamed the
North Indian countryside plundering at will (and at the same time trading with
settled agriculture, carrying its goods to distant markets and meeting its
requirements of milk and other protein foods. For details see ‘The New
Cambridge History of India’ Vol. II by C. A. Bayly – Cambridge University
Press, 1988. This mutual compatibility was characteristic of all relationships
in the older set-up). Among the great nomadic groups were Gujars, Bhattis,
Rangar Rajputs, all of whom remained outside the framework of Brahminical
Hinduism. It seems ironic that groups which terrorised settled agriculturists
for centuries should now talk of the tyranny of the Hindu social order.
The strength of the
pastoral communities can be further gauged from the fact that at no point before
the British arrival could settled agriculturists ever be said to have gained a
decisive victory over them. It was only the British determination to tame all
floating populations that finally led to their amalgamation with the agrarian
society. There were areas where Brahmins and Brahminical life-style remained
peripheral. Till the 18th century forests competed with arable land
in size and importance. The frontiers of settled agriculture were constantly
fluctuating, sometimes advancing, sometimes retreating, even in the same area.
Large sections of society survived on forest produce. Forests also served as
havens for those in search of escape from society. Here also it was British rule
that brought about far-reaching changes.
In their attempt to pacify the countryside they engaged in large-scale
destruction of forests to deny rebels places of refuge. Arthur Wellesly in his
campaigns against the Pyche Raja, for example, cleared the Malabar forest to a
mile on either side of the road. The British, not the Brahmins, thus won the
final battle against nomads, tribals, soldiers and forests, all of whom
constituted important alternate
life-styles in the pre-British period. Incidentally, it was this plurality of
society that was a major reason for the failure of Islam to make much headway in
the subcontinent. There was no one clearly identifiable enemy to defeat but
several powerful, competing power centres and ways of life to cope with.
Apart from ensuring the final defeat of all alternate life-styles, the
British introduced other changes that facilitated the creation of a settled
agrarian society, a society that would be easier for them to control and
manipulate to their purpose. Prominent among these were the spread of irrigation
facilities and an increase in the cultivation of cash crops (especially cotton,
indigo and sugar) for the market. Peasant society was thereby extended and
consolidated and the stage set or the emergence of a more rigid and stratified
system of castes.
Pastoral and tribal communities were incorporated into the agrarian
society at the same time as the agriculturist castes themselves became more
closed and endogamous, a process that has been well documented in the case of
important caste groups like the Jatis and the Rajputs. To increase their
military might, many Rajput clans had, for example, maintained matrimonial
relationships with lower caste armed groups like the Pasis of Awadh. By the
mid-nineteenth century, however, they had all become endogamous.
It bears repetition that it was only in the 19th century with
the “pacification” of large parts of the countryside that the Brahminical
principles of social organisation could be said to have become operational on an
all-India scale. Till then only ancient centres like Benaras could be truly
regarded as Brahmin strongholds.
In their search for a uniform law code, the British turned to these
centres of Brahmin learning and consequently, for the first time, a unified,
supposedly Brahminical legal system began to be applied on an all-India scale.
So another part of traditional India fell before the British onslaught. Laws in
India had so far remained uncodified and the very process of codification
destroyed the flexibility and the capacity to adapt to local customs and
situations they had earlier displayed. The Manusmriti may have existed in the
past but it had never been sought to be uniformly applied to society.
Certain other features of caste system, as it operated in the pre-British
period, deserve to be commented upon,. Despite the commonly-held belief that
hierarchy in Hindu society was clearly defined and operational, in actual
practice only the position of the Brahmins at the top of the ritual scale and
Harijans at the bottom was relatively stable. In between there was ambiguity
about the status of several castes, an ambiguity that was acceptable to all
concerned. This itself produced a large element of fluidity in the system.
The close association of caste with occupation notwithstanding, members
of a caste group ever exercised exclusive monopoly over a profession. As leading
sociologists have pointed out, in addition to their hereditary occupation, all
castes traditionally also engaged in cultivation. There were certain other
professions such as warfare which regularly drew adherents from different
castes. In fact, the leadership of most armed bands was provided by non-Kshatriya
peasant castes. Powerful castes with almost a monopoly over violence
were as much part of the Indian scene as the ritual dominance of Brahmins in the
settled areas of the country.
Many villages, in addition, did not have a hierarchy corresponding to the
all-India system. There were, for instance, often only one or two families of
certain artisan and service castes such as nais (barbers), telis (oil pressers),
sonars (goldsmiths) and even banias (money lenders) residing within the village
precincts. So there was little question of actually ranking these one or two
families in the village hierarchy and then discriminating against them.
The usurious interest rates that the village baniyas are supposed to have
charged also became possible only under British rule when for the first time
land became a marketable commodity. Generally it was the peasant castes that
were numerically preponderant and economically and politically powerful at the
All castes living in a village or a cluster of neighbouring villages were
bound together by economic and social ties. The Jajmani system tied the highest
and lowest castes in a strong bond of mutual dependence. M. N. Srinivas has
pointed out that in the pre-British period, land being more abundant than
people, the paramount consideration of most Jajmans was “to acquire and retain
their local followers”. This obliged them to be generous in matters of food,
drinks and even loans when required. He adds that the tropical climate made it
difficult to store foodstuffs for long and this combined with “ideas from the
great tradition” further encouraged distribution of surplus.
Moreover, all rituals required the participation of several castes. This
was also true of religious festivals where even Harijans had important duties to
perform. Srinivas has recorded that Bhaksorin (Harijan) women helped Thakur
families at the time of delivery, bhangis (sweepers) beat drums in front of
Thakur homes. Brahmins cast the horoscope of new born Thakur children and the
village barber spread the news and served food during the celebrations that
followed. He further record a rural Mysore saying that 18 castes come together
during a wedding.
Non-Brahmins and occasionally Harijans served as priests of temples
devoted to certain goddesses like Sitala, Mari and Kali associated with
smallpox, plague and cholera. All castes including Brahmins sent offerings to
these temples. Thus non-Brahmins too fulfilled some of the religious needs of
Alongside close interaction and co-operation at the village level, castes
also enjoyed a large measure of freedom in respect of their internal customs,
rituals and life-styles. There was usually no outside interference in the
internal affairs of a caste, all caste matters being the jurisdiction of the
caste council. The village panchayat deliberated on questions concerning the
larger village society.
A striking feature of the caste system in the pre-British period then,
was its local character. There was no all-India horizontal organisation of
castes. This being so, there was hardly any question of all-India tyranny of any
caste group, especially so of the Brahmins who usually also lacked the political
and armed strength to enforce their will.
British rule destroyed the local character of the caste system. It broke
up the homogeneity of small groups over small areas and encouraged organisation
of castes over vast stretches of land. This became a major cause of the caste
tensions and rivalries India has witnessed in recent years.
Caste has become synonymous with the theory of pollution. The issue is
complex enough to merit separate treatment. Here it is possible only to say that
like in much else of the caste system, in this regard too we have been victims
of the British propaganda machine.
Some idea of the issue involved can be had from Mary Douglas, a distinguished anthropologist. She has written, “I believe that ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience. It is only by exaggerating the difference between within and without, above and below, male and female, with and against that a semblance of order is created.”