Re: [OPE-L] Caste system

From: Paul Cockshott (wpc@DCS.GLA.AC.UK)
Date: Wed Feb 21 2007 - 04:58:47 EST

This take on it is quite different to Ranganakayammas, she traces
untouchability back to the feudal period, citing reports by Chinese
visitors in 400AD and 629 AD who report back on it as a social

-----Original Message-----
From: OPE-L [mailto:OPE-L@SUS.CSUCHICO.EDU] On Behalf Of Rakesh Bhandari
Sent: 20 February 2007 01:43
Subject: Re: [OPE-L] Caste system

A *historical* materialist approach important in regards to caste; for
example Robert Deliege's
helpful and illuminating book on untouchability shows little historical
awareness of the historical changes in various regions of caste and

I sent these excerpts to LBO-talk several years ago.

Some excerpts from Susan Bayly's book on caste. She tries to show how
caste as it is understood today is the product of what she calls
(perhaps euphemistically) "colonial modernity".

Here her history begins in the 19th century...]

...struggling seigneurial groups frequently claimed that the powers they
were seeking to exercise over dependent  labourers were of ancient
origin, and that they were sanctioned in Hindu scripture as correct and
righteous for the man of power in his capacity as upholder of dharmic
propriety. In reality, these landed people were trying to take advantage
of the fact that colonial India was coming to contain more and more
people who were defining both themselves and others on the basis of an
increasingly stark division between clean and unclean birth. Many of
these so-called polluting groups  were non-patrician peasants and field
labourers. Others were newly marginalised forest people who have lost
their privileged relationships with the Maratha dynasts and other
rulers, but who were still without a settled niche in the village-based
economies. When these people sold such skills as they had to the
expanding agrarian populations, they were disparaged by the British as
'gypsies' and criminal predators.

[And from later in this same chapter, a compelling historical narrative
indeed, Bayly shows how caste norms came to be more deeply entrenched in
the new urban areas than they had been  in the so-called traditional
village ]

Paradoxically, however, the forging of more rigid concepts of pollution
and untouchability was not a primarily a reflection of 'traditional'
household practices. The most important of these changes in nineteenth
century caste life was pushed forward in a far more modern and
impersonal arena, that is, within military cantonments and urban
industrial workplaces. [A]fter mid-century the decline of old-style
artisanal and agrarian employment brought large numbers of non-elite
migrants into the ports and industrial towns. Many of these were newly
marginalised practioners of 'unclean' village trades, especially the
smiths, tanners, potters whom the wider world new as Kumhar, Lohar,
Chamar and so on. Although their occupations were quite skilled compared
with those of field labourers, such workers were usually too poorly
capitalised to compete with suppliers of cheap industrial products.
Moving to the cities, leather workers generally became low paid
labourers in such industries as tanning and boot-making. In colonial
hospitals and medical colleges, many of the north Indian funerary
specialists known as Doms were employed as mortuary attendants and
dissecting room assistants. In textile production too mill hands were
often from the groups which had come to be identified as 'impure' or

     These newcomers encountered very different conditions from those
which had previously defined the meaning of caste in their lives. In the
villages, formerly open-ended labour and tenancy relationships were
still being turned into 'caste'-based service bonds. [F]or both field
labourers and the more specialised artisanal groups, this had the effect
of eroding what remained of their entitlements as protected, if often
harshly treated retainers of 'kingly' jajmans (patrons). Paradoxically,
when they entered the industrial workplace, such people as the Bhangi,
Chamar and Mahar became subject to caste conventions which were often
more potent and 'essentialising' than the norms of the 'traditional'

     Untouchability as we now know it is thus very largely a product of
colonial modernity, taking shape against a background of new economic
opportunities including recruitment to the mills, docks and Public Work
Departments, and to the labour corps which supported both the British
and sepoy regiments. The nature of casual labour in the factories,
ship-yards and brick kilns also tended to enhance the power of the
pollution barrier. In all these settings, people who were known by such
titles as Chamar, Mahar and Dom were not likely to become detached from
the 'caste Hindu' norms which had come to define them as lowly and
unclean. Quite the reverse in fact, as life in the modern workplaces so
often reinforced the 'untouchable''s low status. (emphasis mine)

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Wed Feb 28 2007 - 00:00:08 EST