Review: Nicholas Dirks’ Castes of Mind

Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, Princeton: Princeton University Press: 2001

In the Castes of Mind, Prof. Nicholas Dirks documents the centuries of scholarship on caste, colonial intervention in the institution of caste, and its broad impact on Indian modernity. In the work, Dirks, at first, shows us the colonial understanding of caste as an Indian form of “civil-society” through the writings from the early attempts of Abbé Dubois to the late 19th Century scholarship of Louis Dumont. Dirks, then, provides a brief analysis of the colonial obsession with the caste system through its attempts of categorisation in the form of ethnographic censuses. Finally, Dirks analyses the politicisation of caste through the reservation policies, and the subsequent OBC politics.

The book is divided into four parts: “The Invention of Caste,” “Colonisation of the Archive,” “The Ethnographic State,” and “Recasting India: Caste, Community, and Politics.” The book can be categorised into two broad trajectories: first, the early ethnographic formulation of caste, before 1857; second, the post-1857 colonial understanding of Indian in terms of caste through categorisation. Dirks accounts for colonial construction of knowledge and the institutionalisation of India on caste terms. He writes that colonialism was ‘made possible,’ and ‘sustained and strengthened’ by both the ‘brutal modes of conquest’ and through ‘cultural technologies of the rule’. By technologies of the rule, Dirks refer to the colonial forms of knowledge as espoused by Bernard Cohn in his “investigative modalities.” Dirks opines that colonialism itself was a cultural project of control. He writes, ‘Colonial knowledge both enabled conquest and was produced by it’ (p. 9).

The colonial effort to understand India, before 1857, could be seen in the writings of Alexander Dow, Robert Orme, Charles Grant, Mark Wilks, and James Mill. One of the earliest British efforts at the recording of Indian history emerged like a treatise by Alexander Dow, an officer in the East India Company’s army, in the form of History of Hindostan in 1768. Nicholas Dirks observes that ‘Dow [however] relied on the tutelage of a Brahmin pandit in Banaras and adopted a textualist and Brahmanic view of Indian society’ (p. 22). Dirks observes that the early colonial efforts of writing history of India looked at caste, not the state that held the society together with villages and communities as its major constituents. Its impact, Dirks notes, could be seen in the writings of Louis Dumont as late as the 1960s.

Dumont (1966) in Homo Hierarchus held that the ‘political and economic domains of social life’ in India are encompassed by regions domain. Brahmana, to Dumont, was both a religious principle as well as the highest form of purity of a Hindu. However, Dirks counters Dumont’s views on caste as highly problematic as the kings were not inferior to Brahmanas. And that Indian society was shaped by political struggles. Identities, Dirks writes, were not restricted to caste itself. He shows us that there existed regional, village and residential communities, kinship groups, chiefs, factional parties, etc. that formed the basic character of pre-colonial Indian society.

The early colonial efforts at understanding India, as Dirks accounts, in the writings of the historiography of Abbe Dubois to ethnographic enthusiast Colin Mackenzie, in his efforts at mapping and surveying the southern states of India. There is not much mention of “caste” in both their accounts and those produced by the missionaries. But, with the 1857 revolt, the British begin their quest for understanding India with enthusiasm. However, the colonial efforts at understanding India drastically restructured society, in which the subjects became a mere tool for governance. The colonial administrators recorded censuses, wrote reports and conducted surveys based on caste, race, ethnicity, religion and colour. Such processes of categorization, Dirks notes, did not only reify the community but also created an entirely new form of communities.

In the Castes of Mind, Dirks writes, British, soon after securing their hold over India, began to use caste [in Varna terms] as a tool to enumerate the population. The colonial ethnographic interest began from the 1870s, with caste as a primary object of social classification and understanding. The census of 1871 generated all-India procedures, standards, and categories for its enumeration. One of the general trends in the colonial caste census was its intolerance for multiple, blurred, at times changing identities. The colonial census fixed a particular category for the people. Several census officers, time and again, have written, as Dirks shows us, that the question of caste was inaccurate and conflicting and such a process would lead to a flawed understanding of the communities. Mr Prinsep, an officer who conducted the census of Benaras in 1843, accounts ‘not less than 107 distinct castes in one city alone’ (p. 202). In 1891, the Varna was formally abandoned as the basis for the census.

Herbert Hope Risley, a census commission of 1901, made it pertinent that he would return to the use of Varna for enumeration and classification. To British, caste became a civilisational factor for India’s backwardness. As a result, Dirks shows us that, caste itself became a civil society of India. Caste was reformulated into the rigid Varna categories, while discounting for multiple identities, at times, politicising such identities. The Castes of Mind shows us that with the caste becoming a major category for understanding India, the process of politicisation of caste began in as early as the 1930s with caste associations sprouting all across India trying to mobilise people on their caste lines. Dirks, in this well-structured essay, shows us that caste displaced every aspect of Indian social life. Caste, to the British, represented India as a whole. It was only the caste that represented India. It was also what the British thought was the caste system, that would represent India. Furthermore, it was the British alone that could determine to classify and reinstitute caste in a manner that would perfectly represent itself as a civil society.

In the final section of the work, Dirks argues that caste has taken a new shape in its influence on politics. He accounts for reform movements of Periyar, Gandhi and Ambedkar that helped in the uplifting of Dalits. In another chapter, Dirks talk about politics of caste and the caste politics, providing multiple facets of the caste debate in Indian sociology, with Rajni Kothari at one end and Srinivas and Ghurye at the other. The caste system that took a new form of civil society did not fade away after independence. With upper castes resorting to violence to avail preferential treatment and its subsequent culmination in the OBC violence and its aftermath. Dirks, in Castes of Mind, argues that caste is a major threat to Indian modernity, even if it had helped in its process. Over the years, the caste system has reshaped itself as an important aspect of Indian society. Today, caste remains as resilient as it could have even been. Castes of Mind shows us that caste, as we know it today, is a colonial construct and it was perpetuated through colonial forms of knowledge.

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