By Shailendra Aima
Now coming to the period of British hegemony, not only had India’s resources been pillaged for decades by the rapacious East India Company, the inexorable British Raj also set about enshrining caste in the Indian administrative structure, modeling it on the British colonial class system. The ‘scheduled caste’ is an entirely British creation, into which the lowest strata of Indian society has been perpetually pigeonholed. As there was no classification of caste in the Indian legislation prior to this juncture, it was the British who single-handedly formulated the caste schedules that remain in place today. The evils manifest in the current form of the caste system therefore cannot be ascribed to the Hindu faith.
The British of that period practiced their own ‘class system’ and, even within their own ranks, there was a rigid ‘order of precedence’ which pervaded all areas of daily life, including seating arrangements for dinner. Indians were excluded from interacting socially with Europeans and there was an enforced colour bar in place throughout the subcontinent with ‘Europeans only’ clubs. Indians were not allowed to travel by railway carriages, or use railway waiting rooms as these were reserved for Europeans. Not only that, Indian judges were not allowed to try Europeans in their districts. The Ilbert Bill introduced in the British Parliament in 1883 during Lord Ripon’s viceroyalty to remedy this situation, had to be withdrawn in the face of vicious opposition by Europeans and Anglo-Indians.
Claude Alvares has written: “The English establishment viewed themselves as a separate ruling caste; like other Indian castes, they did not inter-marry or eat with the lower (native) castes. Their children were shipped off to public schools in England, while they themselves kept to their clubs and bungalows in special suburbs known as cantonments and civil lines.”
In addition to the explicit discrimination experienced by Indians, European scholars further promulgated various philosophical arguments, and to which the critics too ascribe, that fair-skinned natives of the north were in fact descendants of a superior Aryan race that had entered India from the west and brought with them the Vedas. Hindus to the north of India were considered by these European scholars to be the hybrid descendants of this superior Aryan race and the indigenous Indian populace. Hindus throughout India were debased as being savage and heathen in nature and the idea followed that Vedic culture must have originated from a ‘superior’ Caucasian race. This ‘Aryan Invasion Theory,’ one school claims, was developed by Max Muller in 1848, a highly paid German employee of the East India Company in order to deny any political or moral basis to the Indian claim for independence from British rule. For, under this theory, Hindus as well as the Muslims too were as much foreigners in India as were the British. This theory was not openly challenged for over 120 years and even many Indians were duped into believing they were descendants of a superior foreign civilization.
Such an imperialist hypothesis was designed to ensure that the British were allowed ‘legitimate’ political rights over India as did Hindus and Muslims, all being foreigners. There is an implicit notion among some British historians to this day that their coveting of India and her assets was more through ‘mutual’ consent of the host than coercion, often comparing this subtle method to the brutish colonization of the Americas. Western scholars further theorized that the dark skinned southerners (Dravidians) were the indigenous Indian populace and primitive in nature, thus proliferating disunity between Indians in the North and South.
Kevin Hobson in his path breaking study “The Indian Caste System and The British: Ethnographic Mapping and the Construction of the British Census in India”, makes the following observations. He states: “The freebooters of the 18th century were giving way to the bureaucrats of the 19th century. It is highly debatable which of the two, freebooters or bureaucrats were the most dangerous to the people of India……. Treasures can be replaced. Cultures, once tampered with, are nearly impossible to reclaim”.
He further observes: “The caste system had been a fascination of the British since their arrival in India. Coming from a society that was divided by class, the British attempted to equate the caste system to the class system. …. during the 19th century caste was not what the British believed it to be. It did not constitute a rigid description of the occupation and social level of a given group and it did not bear any real resemblance to the class system. ….the British saw caste as a way to deal with a huge population by breaking it down into discrete chunks with specific characteristics. Moreover, it appears that the caste system extant in the late 19th and early 20th century has been altered as a result of British actions so that it increasingly took on the characteristics that were ascribed to by the British”.
Kevin Hobson goes on to state: “The word caste is not a word that is indigenous to India. It originates in the Portuguese word “casta” which means race, breed, or lineage. However, during the 19th century, the term caste increasingly took on the connotations of the word race. Thus, from the very beginning of western contact with the subcontinent European constructions have been imposed on Indian systems and institutions. To fully appreciate the caste system one must step away from the definitions imposed by Europeans and look at the system as a whole, including the religious beliefs that are an integral part of it. To the British, viewing the caste system from the outside and on a very superficial level, it appeared to be a static system of social ordering that allowed the ruling class or Brahmins, to maintain their power over the other classes. What the British failed to realize was that Hindus existed in a different cosmological frame than did the British”.
Thus, it may be seen that within traditional Indian society the caste system was not static either within the material or metaphysical plane of existence. With the introduction of European and particularly British systems to India, the caste system began to modify. This was a natural reaction of Indians attempting to adjust to the new regime and to make the most of whatever opportunities may have been presented to them. Moreover, with the apparent dominance exhibited by British science and medicine there were movements that attempted to adapt traditional social systems to fit with the new technology. Men such as Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Dayananda, and Ramkrishna started movements that, to one degree or another, attempted to explore new paths that would allow them and their people to live more equitably within British India. Roy in particular sets this description with his notion that the recognition of human rights was consistent with Hindu thought and the Hinduism could welcome external influences so long as they were not contrary to reason. There was a dynamic interplay between the British and Indians that had a profound effect on both societies.
While the Mughals had issued written decrees on the status of individual castes, there had never been a formal systematic attempt to organize and schedule all of the castes in an official document until the advent of the British censuses. The data was compiled on the basis of British understanding of India. This understanding was deeply affected by British concepts of their own past, and by British notions of race and the importance of race in relation to the human condition. Further, the intellectual framework, which was provided by anthropology and phrenology and used to help create the ideas surrounding the concept of race, was foreign to the intellectual traditions of India. These concepts endured well into the 20th century and affected the analysis of the censuses throughout this period. Risley, for example, used anthropometric measurements, which were directly descended from anthropological and phrenological methodology, in his ordering of castes following the census of 1901. These same notions led to a classification of intelligence and abilities based on physical attributes, and this in turn led to employment opportunities being limited to certain caste groupings that displayed the appropriate attributes.
Indians attempted to incorporate themselves into this evolving system by organizing caste sabhas with the purpose of attaining improved status within the system. This ran contrary to traditional views of the purpose of the caste system and imposed an economic basis. With this, the non material rational for caste was degraded and caste took on a far more material meaning. In this way, caste began to intrude more pervasively into daily life and status became even more coveted and rigid. In a sense, caste became politicized as decisions regarding rank increasingly fell into the political rather than the spiritual sphere of influence. With this politicization, caste moved closer to class in connotation. The actions of the Indian people that contributed to this process were not so much acquiescence to the British construction, as they were pragmatic reactions to the necessities of material life. In expropriating the knowledge base of Indian society, the British had forced Indian society and the caste system to execute adjustments in order to prosper within the rubric of the British regime.
In this manner, India’s awareness of its own society, the societal structure, history and culture was manipulated in the hands of colonial ideologues. Domestic and external views of India were shaped by authors whose attitudes towards all things Indian were shaped either by subconscious prejudice or worse by barely concealed racism. For instance, William Carey (who bemoaned how so few Indians had converted to Christianity in spite of his best efforts) had little respect or sympathy for Indian traditions. In one of his letters, he described Indian music as ”disgusting”, bringing to mind ”practices dishonorable to God”. Charles Grant, who exercised tremendous influence in colonial evangelical circles, published his “Observations” in 1797 in which he attacked almost every aspect of Indian society and religion, describing Indians as morally depraved, ”lacking in truth, honesty and good faith” (p.103). British Governor General Cornwallis asserted ”Every native of Hindostan, I verily believe, is corrupt”.
Unable to rise above the colonial paradigms, many post-independence scholars of Indian history and civilization continue to fumble with colonially inspired doctrines that run counter to the emerging historical record. And hence, it is often difficult to have a dialogue, since prejudice sweeps their minds and distorts their ability to see reason.
I never stated nor did my note declare any grand standing of Kashmiri Pandits’ position. In fact, it is the critics who should explain why they believe that we are assuming a superiority and if at all, then viz. a viz. whom. We have repeatedly stated that we believe in pluralism and wish good and peace for all. Again, is it so that the critics do not agree with the tenets of proselytizing religions, which developed in West
Asia and are called Semitic religions and so treat my statement as an inferiorization of what are Semitic Religions? In fact, I had stated: “How are Semitic Faiths different from Sanskrit Faiths? The basic difference is that the Semitic faiths are essentially mono-theistic, the Sanskrit faiths are Pluralistic. We, as upholders of these faiths, do not distinguish between the jeevas (mankind as well as other animals) and believe them to be carrying the essence of same atman. The Semitic faiths distinguish among Human kind and other life. They distinguish among people on the basis of the Faithful and the other. That is why there is a concept of proselytization; and we don’t have that concept. The Semitic faiths have caused conflicts and strife by dividing mankind among believers and non-believers. The Semitic civilizations invaded each other in the name of religions, fought wars, indulged in ghettoizing the non-believers, annihilation of the non-believers, in waging the Crusades.”
Talk to any faithful Christian or a Muslim, and you would know that both these religions hold proselytization as legitimate and moral. And I no where dispute their right to preach their faith and convert more faithful to their creed. But I do state that the Sanskrit faiths, especially the Sanatan Dharma does not believe in conversions. And then I give my reason for that. I also state that the Sanskrit religions do not discriminate among humans on the basis of their faiths, as BELIEVERS and NON-BELIEVERS, as the Semitic Religions do. Do I make a false statement, a derogatory statement, a grandiose statement? I believe that I don’t.
What the critics further do is to create a unique construct that the “Sanskrit civilization was an offspring of the notion of the (so-called) Aryan race”. They however don’t provide any arguments in support of that; they assumes a lot, but these assumptions lead them no where.
Civilization and race are two very different things. That the Indian civilization, in any of its manifestations, ever propounded any sort of racialism is an astounding construct created by these critics. The Hindu Sanatan principles treat the entire universe as one family (Vasudeva Kutumbakum). The Upanishads speak so: “Ekam Sada, Vipraha Bahudah Vaddanti” – meaning that the wise men describe the Truth in different ways. In the Bhagavad G?t? (4:11), God, manifesting as Krishna, states that “As people approach me, so I receive them. All paths lead to me (ye yath? m?? prapadyante t??s tath?iva bhaj?myaham mama vartm?nuvartante manu?y?? p?rtha sarva?a?). The Hindu religion has no theological difficulties in accepting degrees of truth in other religions. Hinduism emphasizes that everyone actually worships the same God, whether one knows it or not. Just as Hindus worshiping Ganesh is seen as valid by those worshiping Vishnu, so someone worshiping Jesus or Allah is accepted. Many foreign deities become assimilated into Hinduism, and some Hindus may sometimes offer prayers to Jesus along with their traditional forms of God.
Racism is a product of capitalism. It grew out of early capitalism’s use of slaves for the plantations of the New World, it was consolidated in order to justify western and white domination of the rest of the world and it flourishes today as a means of dividing the working class between white and Muslim or black, and native and immigrants or asylum seekers.
The justification of slavery by an ideology of racism started to fade under attack by slave-trade abolitionists, and with the decline of the trade itself. Racism, however took on a new form as a justification for the ideology of Imperialism. This racism of Empire was dominant for over a century from the 1840’s on.
Authors such as Hannah Arendt, in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, have said that the racist ideology (popular racism) that developed at the end of the 19th century helped legitimize the imperialist conquests of foreign territories and the acts that accompanied them (such as the Herero and Namaqua Genocide of 1904–1907 or the Armenian Genocide of 1915–1917).
Rudyard Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden (1899) is one of the more famous illustrations of the belief in the inherent superiority of the European culture over the rest of the world, though it is also thought to be a satirical appraisal of such imperialism. Racist ideology thus helped legitimize subjugation and the dismantling of the traditional societies of indigenous peoples, which were regarded as humanitarian obligations as a result of these racist beliefs. Concepts such as the ‘white man’s burden’ became fashionable especially in England where British Colonialists liked to cast themselves as father and mother with a clear duty to take responsibility for the material and spiritual well-being of their ‘colonial’ children. Racism became the ideological justification of capitalism’s expansion into conquering countries, plundering their wealth and exploiting the natives.
The racial policy of the Nazis was a set of policies and laws implemented by Nazi Germany, asserting the superiority of the “Aryan race”, and based on a specific racist doctrine which claimed scientific legitimacy. It was combined with a pogrom that aimed for racial hygiene by using compulsory sterilizations and extermination of the Untermensch (or “sub-humans”), and which eventually culminated in the Holocaust. These policies targeted peoples, in particular Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and handicapped people, who were labeled as “inferior” in a racial hierarchy that placed the Herrenvolk (or “master race”) of the Volksgemeinschaft (or “national community”) at the top, and ranked Russians, Romani, persons of color and Jews at the bottom.
It was the Spaniards who gave the world the notion that an aristocrat’s blood is not red but blue. The Spanish nobility started taking shape around the ninth century in classic military fashion, occupying land as warriors on horseback. They were to continue the process for more than five hundred years, clawing back sections of the peninsula from its Moorish occupiers, and a nobleman demonstrated his pedigree by holding up his sword arm to display the filigree of blue-blooded veins beneath his pale skin—proof that his birth had not been contaminated by the dark-skinned enemy. Sangre azul, blue blood, was thus a euphemism for being a white man—Spain’s own particular reminder that the refined footsteps of the aristocracy through history carry the rather less refined spoor of racism.
Allegations that caste amounts to race were addressed and rejected by B.R. Ambedkar, an advocate for Dalit rights and critic of untouchability. He wrote that “The Brahmin of Punjab is racially of the same stock as the Chamar (Dalit) of Punjab, and that the “Caste system does not demarcate racial division. Caste system is a social division of people of the same race”.
Such allegations have also been rejected by many sociologists such as Andre Béteille, who writes that treating caste as a form of racism is “politically mischievous” and worse, “scientifically nonsense” since there is no discernible difference in the racial characteristics between Brahmins and Scheduled Castes. He writes that “Every social group cannot be regarded as a race simply because we want to protect it against prejudice and discrimination”. In addition, the view of the caste system as “static and unchanging” (which would indicate a form of racial discrimination) has been disputed by many scholars. Sociologists describe how the perception of the caste system as a static and textual stratification has given way to the perception of the caste system as a more processual, empirical and contextual stratification. Others have applied theoretical models to explain mobility and flexibility in the caste system in India. According to these scholars, groups of lower-caste individuals could seek to elevate the status of their caste by attempting to emulate the practices of higher castes. Sociologist M. N. Srinivas has also debated the question of rigidity in Caste.
Yes, Friedrich Nietzsche is noted to have said “Close the Bible and open the Manu Smriti. It has an affirmation of life, a triumphing agreeable sensation in life and that to draw up a lawbook such as Manu means to permit oneself to get the upper hand, to become perfection, to be ambitious of the highest art of living.”
Contra Nietzsche, Nipissing University philosophy professor W.A. Borody has coined the phrase “sublimation-transmogrification logic” to describe the underlying ‘state of mind’ lying behind the ethical teaching of the Manu Smrti – a ‘state of mind’ that would have found Nietzsche’s concept of the Dionysian Übermensch abhorrent, and a ‘state of mind’ or ‘voice’ that has always been radically contested within India’s various philosophical and religious traditions.
In fact, Joseph Goebbels stated “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” The critics seem to have taken a fancy to both Racism and this Nazi precept. Parrot fashion, they kept repeating ill-founded and deliberate colonial constructs to debunk and denounce Indian Civilization or the Sanskrit Civilization as I have chosen to give a name to a historical period of a millennium and a half, in India’s history. They wrongly try to associate it with the priestly class, the Brahmins and their efforts at stratifying the Indian society into the ugly reality of Caste and Jati.
One of such constructs foisted upon Indian Civilization and history is “A Myth of Aryan Invasion” that was created to make it appear that Indian culture and philosophy was dependent on the previous developments in Europe, thereby justifying the need for colonial rule and Christian expansion in India. This myth remained unchallenged for almost a hundred years till the remains of an urban civilization were found through the efforts of Sir John Marshall in 1920s in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. As archaeologists started to demystify the haze surrounding these finds, the Aryan invasion theory started getting deconstructed.