Continuous Distortions in Discourses of Indian Social Systems – I

Continuous Distortions in Discourses of Indian Social Systems – I

The Caste System

Dr SN Balagangadhara, in his book, Reconceptualizing India Studies says: “The ‘caste system’, origin of all evils and an obstacle to all progress, is an example of the firm and solid knowledge which Europe and our social sciences have about India. But no one in the world has so far shown how and in what fashion ‘the caste system’ is a coherent system. It is only an assumption. As a system arising from antiquity, it survived Buddhism, Bhakti movements, colonization, Indian independence, world capitalism and even globalization rather strongly. Hence, it must be a very stable social organization. It is an autonomous and decentralized organization and no social-political regulation could eradicate the system. Hence, it must be a self-reproducing social structure. It exists in one form or the other in all religious denominations and in different environments. Hence, it adapts itself to any new environments it finds itself in. New castes have come and gone, and hence, this system is also dynamic. Since it has survived under all political regimes, it must be neutral to political ideologies too. Would not such an autonomous, decentralized, stable, adaptive, dynamic, self-reproducing social organization, also neutral to all political, economic, and religious doctrines and environments be the most ideal system if one really existed as such?”

Dr SN Balagangadhara continues, “The British—like the current social sciences—put across meta-theoretical claims about the jatis in the form of a coherent structure called the ‘caste system’. The evidence we routinely come up with? The horror stories of ‘caste discrimination’; the social humiliation of groups; the phenomenon of ‘untouchability’; the presence of poverty, and such like. This phenomenon of discrimination is neither unitary nor monolithic. If its presence is evidence of the existence of ‘the caste system’, then the latter is present everywhere in the world. Discrimination, poverty, and social humiliation of groups are in slavery, in the feudal societies of Europe, in the capitalist societies of today, and so on. These phenomena are compatible with multiple social structures. On their own, these phenomena are not evidence of one specific social structure.”

“Sensationalism is the answer to the claim of a specific ideology. Some lines from Manu and some anecdotes of a few people constitute the evidence. Not one person has laid this alleged ideology bare; not one person knows what the components of this ideology are. By creating the ‘caste-system’ the British did not describe what existed in Indian culture per se but constructed a pattern and a structure lending coherence to their cultural experiences. It is false, because it falsely assumed that the experiential entity was a real entity in the world; and it is imaginary in that it does not have an existence outside the experience of Western culture. Present social sciences, a parrot-like reproduction of western theories, whether Marxist, feminist, or post-modern, simply continue these discourses on the caste system.”

What is the story behind the creation of the Brahmin myth and the idea of untouchability for social classification? This article is primarily a summary of two extremely important papers from the University of Ghent faculty in Belgium : Scheduled Castes Vs. Caste Hindus: About A Colonial Distinction And Its Legal Impact by Jakob De Roover; and the second The Brahmin, the Aryan, and the Powers of the Priestly Class: Puzzles in the Study of Indian Religion by Marianne Keppens and Jakob De Roover.  These papers should be a compulsory reading for any citizen today interested in seeing a better face of the country. They show how false and imaginary narratives are creating deep fissures in the country which tragically has no basis in social reality. It is simply a continuation of colonial legacy.  


India is the only country in the world with a Constitutional extensive programme of positive discrimination in favour of such deprived groups as the ex-untouchables and the tribals. There are seats reserved for them in parliament, state assemblies, public institutional jobs, and admissions in professional faculties. This was to integrate deprived groups into the mainstream of political life, to remove the handicaps resulting from their centuries of neglect and oppression, and to break down the social barriers imposed by caste-conscious Hindus.

An initial fifteen-year program now continues unabated and almost a permanent government policy. Dr Bhikhu Parekh says that the policy of positive discrimination raises important questions about the nature of justice, the trade-off between justice and such other equally desirable values as efficiency, social harmony and collective welfare, and the propriety of making social groups bearers of rights and obligations. It also raises questions about the nature and basis of inter-generational obligations, the redistributive role of the state, the nature and extent of the present generation’s responsibility for the misdeeds of its predecessors, and the meaning and nature of social oppression.

Justice is generally an individualist concept, defined in terms of what is due to an individual based on his qualifications and efforts. If social groups are subjects of justice-based rights and obligations, the concept of justice must obviously be redefined in nonindividualist terms. The conceptualization of agency and responsibility must be in social and historical terms, so that we can demonstrate continuity between the past and present oppressors and oppressed. We must also analyse the nature of current deprivation and show that it is a product of past oppression and confers moral claims on the oppressed. These questions become particularly important in India where the idea of positive discrimination has no roots in the indigenous cultural tradition and is much resented, says Dr Bhikhu Parekh, a British academic of Indian origin, a Labour Party member of the House of Lords, and a retired Professor of Political Philosophy.

Parallels are with the positive discrimination of the blacks in US, but much work exists on these areas, unlike in India. There are few studies on the subject either challenging or articulating the theory of justice lying at the basis of reservations. Some work however relies on American literature, without appreciating that the historical relations between caste Hindus and the ‘untouchables’ and tribals bear little resemblance to those between the American whites and blacks. 

Brahmins As Villains

The Brahmins have been responsible for creating a decadent society, said our colonial masters. The social sciences of today start their theories assuming the truth of the previous assumptions. Our textbooks describe the Brahmins as oppressors, exploiters, and creators of the caste system. Our academics and intellectuals keep repeating the story till it becomes a firmly established truth. The left influenced academia with their favourite theories of exploiter and the exploited, the missionaries, and the brainwashed intellectuals continued the British story post-independence.  Brahmins were neither rich nor powerful at any point of time in history. There were very few, if any, Brahmin rulers in India. The present social sciences just build up data to show the validity of previous truths; rarely, do they turn back to ask whether these narratives can even be false?  What is the actual status of Brahmins in society?

Brahmins denying education is another myth.  The Beautiful Tree by Dharampal is a revelatory book which shows British themselves documenting that there was no truth in the story of denying education to anyone. In many feudalistic excesses, many non-Brahmin communities as land owners were responsible for oppression of the deprived. Somehow, our social sciences ensured that Brahmins became the prime villains in society. Many thousands of Brahmins lost their lives in the Islamic invasions and the Goan Inquisitions as they were the primary target of the ire of the invaders.  Francis Xavier made his position clear when he wrote to the king of Portugal, his patron, ‘If there were no Brahmins, all pagans would be converted to our faith’, calling them the ‘most perverse people.’ The plight of thousands of Konkani Brahmins was no different from the Pandits of today’s Kashmir. Modern Brahmins suffer from an unjustified guilt complex as it becomes almost impossible to counter the propaganda. So deep is the narrative that, in fact, some of the biggest bashers turn out to be Brahmin born. 

Meenakshi Jain (The Plight of Brahmins) writes that the Mandal Commission report marked the culmination of the attempt at social engineering that began with the Christian missionary (followed by British governmental) campaigns against the Brahmin community in the early part of the 19th century. The British distrusted educated Brahmins in whom they saw a potential threat to their supremacy. Brahmins were prominent in the freedom movement confirming the worst British suspicions of the community. Jain quotes an observer as saying that ‘seventy per cent of those felled by British bullets were Brahmins’. Even though for centuries Brahmins and non-Brahmins had been active political and social partners, the fissures grew by the machinations of the British. The British, rewriting Indian history, started portrayal of Brahmins as oppressors and tyrants keeping down the rest of the populace.

Some British observers concede that there was little difference in the condition of the Brahmin and the rest of the native population. H. T. Colebrooke wrote, ‘Daily observation shows even the Brahmin exercising the menial profession of a Sudra… it may be received as a general maxim, that the occupation, appointed for each tribe, is entitled merely to a preference. Every profession, with few exceptions, is open to every description of persons; and the discouragement, arising from religious prejudices, is not greater than what exists in Great Britain from the effects of Municipal and Corporation laws.’ The British census operations, especially that of Risley (1901), were determined to show race as the basis for the caste-system. The British census operations destroyed the flexible jati-varna system and raised caste consciousness to a feverish pitch, inciting animosities, and a general hardening of the system. Caste consequently became a tool in the political, religious, and cultural battles.

Post-independence, many studies have shown Brahmins to be in a continuous downward spiral mode. Land holdings have reduced. Traditional occupations like family and temple priesthood, recitation of the Vedas and practice of Ayurvedic medicine no longer prove remunerative nor command respect.  A few decades back (1978), the Karnataka state finance minister stated the per capita income of various communities: Christians 1,562; Vokkaligas Rs 914; Muslims Rs 794; Scheduled castes Rs 680; Scheduled Tribes Rs 577; and Brahmins Rs 537. Such is the deep antipathy to Brahmin community that despite consisting of hundreds of jatis, with no uniform rules of living and social interaction,a success is a result of ‘privilege’ and individual faults project to the whole community across the length and breadth of the country.

One study in the previous united Andhra Pradesh (Brahmins of India by J. Radhakrishna) showed 55% of them living below the poverty line, 10% higher than other groups. This study also showed that the largest percentage of Brahmins were domestic servants. The unemployment rate among them was as high as 75 per cent. The rest of the country is no different perhaps. The British attacked our Brahmins for many reasons, but it is sad that the dominant leftist theories trapped in the exploiter-exploited paradigm failed to look beyond what the colonials said. 

Defining the Dalit in Modern India- A Political and Legal Reality Only

Jakob De Roover says in his paper that the colonials divided the society into ‘Caste Hindus’ and ‘Depressed Classes’. Indians simply continued with the narrative. In 1950, the Constitution passed a Scheduled Castes order to include a set of groups for special benefits and provisions. Supreme Court insists on guidelines for intelligible differentiae distinguishing the persons inside and outside the groupings. However, there seems to be no such clear criteria even as the notion of untouchability does not really help. This applies to a wide set of practices and are prevalent in both the groups paradoxically.

The Constitution gives equal rights to all citizens and prohibits discrimination on grounds of caste, religion, race, sex, or place of birth. Peculiarly, special provisions appear to discriminate (a positive discrimination) precisely on such grounds. Jobs in public sector, lowering of qualifying marks in competitive exams, promotions in jobs, protection by laws against any form of speech, deed, writing, or action under the PoA (Prevention of Atrocities) act, are the forms of positive discrimination. Hence, the legal system of contemporary India gives a decisive role to membership of a specific set of caste groups. It thus becomes crucial to identify which groups in Indian society belong to this set of castes. One must also presume that a deep exercise has taken place to identify these groups with reservations and exceptional legal provisions.

One author says, “The concept ‘Scheduled Castes’ is relevant only in a context of statutory provisions, government programs and politics. Outside this context, ‘scheduled’ castes do not exist. Rather, there is a diverse population, numbering 64.5 million at the last census, born into numerous communities, each with its own identity, traditions, and problems. They were ‘scheduled’ by the government and can be legitimately treated as a single category only when dealing with aspects of this relationship with the government.” The difficult question is on what empirical grounds has the government transformed more than one thousand two hundred communities into a single category of Scheduled Castes?

SCs should encompass the formerly Untouchable Castes who suffered from severe social disabilities. In other words, the feature that is to distinguish these castes and support their special status is that of untouchability and the ill-treatment and backwardness related to it. This also functions as the official government criterion. In 1965, the Lokur Committee, established by the government to revise the SC lists, adopted ‘the test of extreme social, educational and economic backwardness of castes, arising out of traditional practice of untouchability’. The decisive factors are not social or economic backwardness, age, income, disability but a single characteristic of ‘untouchability’.  The Constituent Assembly, largely reproducing British legislation, never clearly defined ‘untouchability’ despite its decisive role in formulating caste legislation. In today’s India, it is common to speak of ‘Dalits’ and ‘Caste Hindus’ as two distinct sections of the population. The criterion is clear: to count as a Dalit, one should be a member of one of the more than one thousand two hundred groups listed in the updated version of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order. What was the rationale behind this Schedule’s classification of castes?

The Beginning

Let us begin in the beginning. In the Government of India Scheduled Castes Order of 1936, the King’s Excellent Majesty ordered that “the castes, races or tribes specified in Parts I to IX of the Schedule to this Order shall, deemed to be scheduled castes…”. The schedules attached to this order provided lists of groups for every province of British India, which would from then onwards count as Scheduled Castes.

Broadly, there are two ways in which the order concerning the scheduled castes could have come into being; either it reflected the existing structure of Indian society or this order had simply stipulated a division and classified groups of people accordingly. If the first was the case, then the Scheduled Castes Order should be the result of existing research of Indian society. If the second is true, then the caste legislation of contemporary India enforces a colonial decree that commanded that Indian population needs division along certain lines. Hence, it becomes crucial to find out how British officials drafted the list of SCs.

The Committee took what they called two ‘generally accepted tests of untouchability’ from the previous 1911 Census Superintendents. These tests said that people living up to the following criteria should count as Untouchables: “those who are denied access to the interior of ordinary Hindu temples” and “cause pollution, (a) by touch, (b) within a certain distance”. This was confused, filled with circular logic, and begging questions right at the beginning. Many of the ‘exterior’ castes considered polluting by ‘interior Hindus’ also had strong caste organizations and included numerous individuals of substance and education. Many jatis in both the ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ groups practised many forms of untouchability internally amongst themselves too. Two things remained clear throughout all this confusion: (a) the British were convinced that there must be distinct class of untouchable castes external to the caste system; (b) they faced major obstacles in identifying this class and saying who was in or out.

It became clear that the term ‘untouchability’ did not refer to any recognizable characteristic(s) of some distinct set of groups and their members. Untouchability was to refer to a variegated series of practices and situations. Sometimes, it was banning of entry into temples, sometimes it was refusing to take water from some groups, sometimes it was to the custom of providing separate cups for different groups, sometimes it was taking a bath after physical contact, sometimes it was cleaning the house after some member from a group entered the house. It could also indicate the fact that a group lived in separate quarters at the borders of a village. The list was never exhaustive and other practices added to it. During the censuses and in the committee reports, it turned out that some such practices existed in certain parts of India but not in other parts. ‘Untouchability’ covered a set of actions or practices but remained unclear which common trait those practices shared.

Parliament Debates

The Parliament debates after independence had severe difficulties in classifying these depressed classes who were at the receiving end of untouchability. Dr. Banerjee of Bengal, for example, asked for clarification on the word ‘untouchability’. For him, in the last 25 years, the word had different connotations leading to confusion; sometimes it means merely taking a glass of water;  sometimes it is  in the sense of admission of ‘Harijans’ into temples; sometimes it meant inter-caste dinner; sometimes inter-caste marriage. Mahatma Gandhi, the main exponent of ‘untouchability’, has used it in various ways and on different occasions with different meanings.  What is the real implication of this word? This was a vexing issue. 

The situation became even more complicated, once one considers the fact that practices labelled as ‘untouchability’ are also visible in the interaction among so-called ‘high-caste Hindus’. Within the Depressed Classes too, the different practices that came under the term ‘untouchability’ were also among and between these castes. Inevitably, this would also count as ‘untouchability on the ground of religion or caste’. But how could this characteristic then distinguish the ‘Untouchables’ from the ‘Caste Hindus’? Basically, the claim is that if one human being refrains from touching or approaching another human being, this becomes caste-based untouchability when the former belongs to the Caste Hindus, while the latter belongs to the Untouchable Castes. And how can one recognize these Untouchable Castes? Well, they are the ones that are subject to caste-based untouchability. This route leads us into a vicious circle.

In May 1949, in the end phases of the Assembly’s work, Mahavir Tyagi sharply said that the term ‘Scheduled Castes’ is a fiction. They are a variety of castes with different problem situations collected from various provinces into one category. He questioned how Dr Ambedkar with his education and standing belonged to the Scheduled Castes. He said there were plenty of Brahmins and Kshatriyas who are worse off than some belonging to the scheduled castes. It is the individual or the family which gets the benefit and not the whole caste, Tyagi said emphatically. Another member Mullick conceded that it was impossible to give a cut and dry definition of untouchability.

Internal Feelings of Odium

This evolved into a common indication of ‘an internal feeling of odium’ expressed in a variety of practices, different in different parts of India, which show that these castes have a refusal of enjoyment of their political rights. ‘An internal feeling of odium’ that expresses itself externally opens another set of problems due to its vague nature. How could one ever assess which internal feelings lie at the root of external behaviour? B.R. Ambedkar himself had difficulties in identifying the Depressed Classes. He agreed to confine this term to Untouchables only, but intended to be even stricter. He wanted to exclude those in whom the same kind of consciousness of social discrimination does not exist. These were likely to take advantage, he said.

Dr Ambedkar classified all practices as ‘untouchability’ sharing the common characteristic of being outward registers of the same inward feeling of defilement, odium, aversion, and contempt. Now, inward feelings of odium, aversion and contempt exist among all kinds of people towards all kinds of other people. Therefore, merely being the object of such inward feelings or ‘suffering from social odium’ cannot characterize the condition of the Untouchables. These inward feelings of odium among ‘the Touchables’ expressed outwardly in their behaviour towards ‘the Untouchables’ is decisive. How then could he already know who are the Touchables and the Untouchables?

Dr Ambedkar made the distinction between applying the test of ‘causing pollution by touch’ in its literal sense and in its notional sense. In the literal sense, untouchables are only those persons whose touch causes pollution and hence avoided; if touch is unavoidable, then a purification process ensues. In the notional sense, an untouchable is a person who belongs to a class commonly held to cause pollution by touch although contact with such a person may for local circumstances not avoided or may not necessitate ceremonial purification. Thus, Ambedkar’s comments on ‘ascertaining the untouchables’ reflected an entire story about Hinduism and the caste system. He knew that ‘untouchability’ would be present wherever there were Hindus; he knew that there were Touchable and Untouchable Hindus all over India; the question simply was how to count the Untouchables. Here, no uniform test of ‘untouchability‘ is applicable, since all the practices labelled as ‘untouchability’ were expressions of the same odium and contempt. All of this shows how obscure the notion of untouchability was.

Was it an age-old division?

In the 1930s, the division of the Hindus into ‘Touchables’ and ‘Untouchables’ was presented as though it was an age-old social division sanctioned by the Hindu religion and reinforced by its orthodox followers. Both Gandhi and Ambedkar, ironically on two sides of the fence, perpetrated this notion of depressed classes. Was the distinction between Caste Hindus and Untouchables really an age-old division within Hindu society? No, it was not. Simon Charsley has shown that the notions of ‘the Untouchables’ and ‘Untouchability’ had been created by the British administration in the early twentieth century. When Sir Herbert Risley became Commissioner for the 1901 Census in India, he sent to every Census Commissioner, as a part of his standard scheme, four Sanskrit-named ‘Shudra’ categories, of which the last was ‘Asprishya Shudra’, explained as ‘castes whose touch is so impure as to pollute even Ganges water’. This system failed and the category of “not–to-be touched Shudra” did not prove to be useful. His major criterion of Brahmins’ willingness to take water was irrelevant in many regions.

The decision to classify certain people in Indian society as ‘Untouchables’ cannot have been a matter of administrative convenience; in fact, the census project showed that it brought inconvenience to the administrators. Over the years, the same problems had come up repeatedly. That is, some framework made the bifurcation between Caste Hindus and Untouchables appear self-evident despite its inadequacy. As some administrators admitted, the caste census merely mirrored the classificatory scheme they had decided to use and not the structure of the society that was its object. Basically, the census research revealed that the structure of Indian society did not correspond to the conception of the caste hierarchy it had started out with. In the process, officials and scholars stumbled upon the problems that have dogged the study of caste to this day. They could neither provide a coherent hierarchical classification of castes nor identify the Untouchables or ‘exterior’ castes in any consistent way. They drew upon the classical account of the caste system as a conceptual framework for their studies, policies, and laws in India, but the results constituted a massive exercise in falsifying this account.

Modern Indian Understanding

Nevertheless, the post-Independence Government of India continued to rely upon these results to decide which groups should be Scheduled Castes. The 1965 Lokur Committee drew extensively from what it called “the standard works of reference on castes and tribes by recognised authorities”. It was referring to the works of British officials and old colonial census publications. As recently as 2012, the Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment was unhappy to note that the Registrar-General of India “is referring to old literature of pre-independence era in determining the socio-economic status of castes for clearing proposals for inclusion/exclusion of castes and there is no new literature on the demographic and economic status of castes”. It points out that there are basic cognitive problems confronting the currently dominant account about Indian society and the so-called ‘caste system’ and its division of the Hindus into ‘Touchables’ and ‘Untouchables’.

Today, commentators frequently react with indignation when one points out the problems confronting the classical account of the caste system. Worse, questioning this orthodoxy and its hackneyed claims about ‘the plight of the Dalits’ is often denying the existence of injustice in Indian society. Injustice, inhumanity, and other oppressions do occur but to consider an overarching framework to explain these is an intellectual misunderstanding bordering on dishonesty. These situations and events cannot be coherently conceptualized in terms of the ‘caste system’ and its oppression of the ‘Untouchables’ or ‘Dalits’. There appear to be no intelligible differentiae that distinguish all the persons grouped together as SCs from others excluded from that group. Indeed, the class of Scheduled Castes exists, but only in the Indian legal and political system. ‘The King’s Excellent Majesty’ ordered how the people of India should have a division into Scheduled Castes and others, and we continue to follow the legacy by caste legislation to this day.

Featured Image: Appollo-Magazine, Six Recruits (1815–16), attributed to the family of Ghulam Ali Khan, India, Haryana. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

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Dr Pingali Gopal

Dr Pingali Gopal is a Paediatric and Neonatal Surgeon practising in Warangal, Telangana. He has a keen interest in Indian culture and does his little bit to correct the many wrong narratives which hurt India at many levels. Opening his eyes rather late to the wonder called India, it is now a continuous journey for him to sip bits from the oceanic nectar of Indic Knowledge Systems.