Last week, we covered one of Islam’s key contributions to India. There is plenty of material out there to undertstand the bad things done by the Islamists, which is why i wrote about some good things they did. Any discussion on India’s history is not complete without considering the caste system. In this post, i want to cover the caste system using 3 different scholarly viewpoints. Thanks to Aditya and one other contributor who wishes to be anonymous, i came across the works of Nicholas Dirks. Thanks to Senthil for introducing me to Dharampal, the brilliant Gandhian Scholar who decided to look directly into the sources of British wisdom about India – the papers published by British officers on various aspects of India. Thanks to Priya Raju, I came across A.N. Sattanathan’s A Sudra’s Story – Sattanathan was the first Backward Classes Commission Chairman of Tamilnadu, who rose up from a disadvantaged background.
What was the caste system like Pre-British?
It is essential for us to understand whether the caste system existed in India before the British and if so, in what form did it exist? Most of the knowledge about India’s caste system came from British historians like James Mills/William Jones. Or from European Historians like Max Mueller and others who were influenced by the British historians themselves as well as made their own contributions to the discussion and influenced British opinion. It is these opinions that have mattered when it comes to gaining an understanding of India’s caste system. From my readings, it appears there is a lot of distortions in the way the caste system has been understood.
Reading the works of the 3 people i mention above, has given me some clarity on the caste system.
Dirks’ strategy was to focus on a region of Pudukottai, formerly a Princely State that was ruled by kings from the Kallar martial caste (now part of the Mukkulathor community). His choice is brilliant because as he explains in this paper, British tampering is likely to have been minimal. In that paper, he shows how the pre-British caste system functioned as a socio-political-religious-economic structure.
Colin Mackenzie was the Surveyor General of India, another remarkable man, who collected a lot of material on India’s history as his side-project. It is the Mackenzie collection that formed the basis of later British works about Indian history. Dirks shows in another paper how the whole Colin Mackenzie collection used flawed techniques to collect information on India’s society. Dirks also made the startling observation that there was a ridiculously small number of references to caste in the Mackenzie collection.
Based on these and other observations and extensive field work in South India, Nicholas Dirks published what is seen as a landmark publication on the caste system – Castes of Mind, in which he proves that the caste system as seen in India today is completely a British creation (of course, he doesn’t say the caste system didn’t exist before this). Here is an excellent review of this great book, by Champakalakshmi, a noted Indian historian.
Dharampal, on the other hand, decided to rely upon the various reports published by British collectors and officers about the state of India’s education system, technology etc. Given that these reports were produced by the officers in charge of the territories they were reporting on, Dharampal’s data seems quite reliable. Since the caste system atleast in the modern context is closely tied to the education system, i decided to read The Beautiful Tree – containing Dharampal’s description of the pre-British education system.
This book contains a lot of material including reproductions of the reports of the British officers. i found it extremely useful to understand what the British thought about India. In this book, Dharampal, proves that the the Indian education system was extensive, there was a school in every village which taught the Hindu curriculum and there were also higher institutions somewhat like modern day colleges where more advanced subjects were taught etc. He also proves that there was no real discrimination based on caste in the education system.
It is when i read Sattanathan that i realized that there is a big mistake that many Indologists make by equating the caste system as practiced in Tamilnadu with other states. The key difference from other states lies in the fact that Brahmins formed just 4% of Tamilnadu’s population and that percentage still holds (i think it is now 3%, citation needed). In other states it is between 15-35% (citation needed).
Let us look at some statistics that Sattanathan reports on Page 185:
It is on record that between 1894 and 1904, in the provincial civil services, out of 16 officers 15 were Brahmans, among 21 Assistant Engineers, 17 were Brahmans, out of 140 Deputy Collectors 77 were Brahmans, and out of 128 district munsiffs, 98 were Brahmans. This was inevitable, as, according to E.F.Irschick, who had made a deep study of this subject, during these years, between 67 percent and 71 percent of the graduates of the Madras University came from a single community: Brahman.
further on page 155 he states:
Towards the end of the 19th century, 80 to 90 percent of all jobs available to Indians were occupied by Brahmans, and they were dominating other professions also. It is needless to quote statistics of the number of Government servants, lawyers etc. of this period, as these are often quoted in other reports and publications.
I have read a lot of material on the subject and what i have quoted is the choicest parts of the material i have read. i was able to draw these key inferences when i put all the three pictures together:
1. From Dirks’ writings, it does appear that the British made the caste system into what is today and hence the blame must fall on the head of the British. But if you look at Dharampal’s research, we have to conclude that the caste system did have the foundational aspects of the abominable system we see even today. Though, I agree with Dirks and Dharampal, that because of the British, the caste system became more ossified, i am not able to agree that the evil aspects of the caste system was a British creation.
2. Dharampal, on the other hand, has clearly shown that there was not much discrimination based on the caste in the pre-British education system. But the big problem in Dharampal’s work is this – what did people do after they passed out of the education system? His own research shows that the students went back into their own caste’s professions many a times dropping out of the education system completely.
3. Now, when you look at Sattanathan’s data, the picture gets completed. It is what they did after the education that matters and it appears that is where net effects of the discrimination are seen. The British Macaulay system accentuated this further by first focusing on the Brahmins, handing them an almost monopolistic dominance of the jobs.
It is interesting to note that given the dominance of the Brahmin community, Tamilnadu was faced with the unique situation of having to resort to reservations for the majority community (non-brahmins) to level the playing field. I think this is unprecedented in the history of affirmative action anywhere in the world. When i wrote in support of affirmative action a while ago i was not aware of the extent of the caste system in Tamilnadu. Brahmins used to live in segregated areas – agraharams and also had segregated eateries (Brahmanargal sappidum idam or Brahmins only eatery). It is in this sort of a context that we must look at Periyar. There are people who attack Periyar for his atheistic policies and/or his marriage to a young girl. Everyone has flaws and I am sure Periyar did as well. Without Periyar, this unnatural dominance of a rank minority would have continued forever. Periyar’s contribution to the social reformation of India, especially Tamilnadu is unparalleled, making him one of the greatest sons of India.
Next week, i want to cover some aspects of the Indian education system, as seen by Dharampal because it has some valuable clues into the process of Aryanization.