The following are excerpts from an essay that tries to explain how and why the British created the modern Indian caste system. It is a shame that current political and media forces, that run India, continue to do the same.

Ethnographic Mapping and the Construction of the British Census in India

 by Kevin Hobson



…. 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.

…. class is based on political and economic factors, caste is not.

…. the British saw caste as a way to deal with a huge population by breaking it down into discrete chunks with specific characteristics. …. 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.

One of the main tools used in the British attempt to understand the Indian population was the census. … Among the many questions were enquiries regarding nationality, race, tribe, religion and caste.

 …. That reason was, quite simply, the British belief that caste was the key to understanding the people of India. Caste was seen as the essence of Indian society, the system through which it was possible to classify all of the various groups of indigenous people according to their ability, as reflected by caste, to be of service to the British.

Caste was seen as an indicator of occupation, social standing, and intellectual ability. It was, therefore necessary to include it in the census if the census was to serve the purpose of giving the government the information it needed in order to make optimum use of the people under its administration. Moreover, it becomes obvious that British conceptions of racial purity were interwoven with these judgements of people based on caste

 …. The word caste is not a word that is indigenous to India. It originates in the Portuguese word casta which means race, breed, race 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 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. The concern of the true Hindu was not his ranking economically within society but rather his ability to regenerate on a higher plane of existence during each successive life. Perhaps the plainest verbalization of this attitude was stated by a 20th century Hindu of one of the lower castes who stated: “Everything lies in the hands of God. We hope to go to the top, but our Karma (Action) binds us to this level.” If not for the concept of reincarnation, this would be a totally fatalistic attitude but if one takes into account the notion that one’s present life is simply one of many, then this fatalistic component is limited if not eliminated….. The aim of the poor in the west is to improve their lot in the space of a single life time. The aim of the lower castes in India is to improve their position over the space of many lifetimes. It should also be borne in mind that an entire caste could rise through the use of conquest or through service to rulers. 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 particulary 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. …. 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 sits 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.

 ….Unlike its predecessors in England, the census of India attempted not only to count, but to define and explain. As a result, the census became not simply an accounting of what existed but an active participant in the creation and modification of the society. As a result, Indians of many levels of society reacted to the census in attempts to gain or maintain status.

 …. this definitely shows that the actions of the British in classifying and enumerating castes within the census had heightened indigenous awareness of the caste system and had added an economic aspect that the Indian people were willing and anxious to exploit.

 …. Contrary to what the British appear to have believed, it seems doubtful that the Brahmans were dominant within the material world in pre colonial Indian society. A cursory examination of any of the ruling families quickly shows a dearth of families of the Brahmin caste. Rather, one finds that the majority, though by no means all, of rulers were Kshytria and occasionally Vashnia. This suggests that although the Brahmin caste had power in spiritual matters, their power and control within the material world was limited to the amount of influence that they could gain with individual rulers. No doubt there were instances when this was quite considerable but there is also little doubt that there were times when Brahman influence was very weak and insignificant.

 …. there was a belief in not only the superiority of the white races but that the inferiority of other races was believed to be caused by innate physiological attributes that could be observed and quantified. Belief in the innate inferiority of others and in the notion that this inferiority had physical, measurable manifestations was an old European tradition

 It therefore becomes plain that the British …. saw caste as being motivated by the principle of race purity. From this point it is a very short intellectual leap for the British to equate cast and race. That is, caste as a system created a system that preserved race purity and therefore castes represent that preserved purity.

 …. What seems, however, to have confused the British, was the fact that when they asked Indians to identify the caste, tribe or race for census purposes, they received a bewildering variety of responses. Often the respondent gave the name of a religious sect, a sub-caste, an exogamous sect or section a hypergamous group, titular designation, occupation or the name of the region he came from. Obviously Indian self identifying concepts were quite different from those concepts that the British expected.

 …. It is interesting to note that when modern sociologists posed the same type of question to Indians in the 1960s, they too received a wide variety of responses. The simplest explanation for this is that on a day to day basis caste may not be the most important factor in the life of a Hindu. While it is granted that extremely low groups such as the untouchables who suffer under a constant burden of being ritually polluting were very conscious of their caste and that Brahmins were also very caste conscious, it is questionable whether the majority of the Indian people actually concerned themselves with caste on a daily basis.

 This notion is given support by a handbill that was distributed by Arya Samaj in Lahore just prior to the 1931 census:

Remember! Operations Have Begun

Question        You Should Answer 

Religion           Vedi Dharm

Sect                 Arya Samajist

Caste              Nil

Race               Aryan

Language        Arya Bhasha

 …. consideration of answering “Nil” to caste must not have been beyond the realm of possibility for a large number of people. This would tend to indicate that attachment to and self identification by caste was not crucial to the self concept of at least a portion of the population. Moreover, it clearly indicates that this group has identified caste as a means of British control over the Indian people. …. Thus, the very institution of caste was now being seen as a tool of British rule rather than as an indigenous system of social organization.

 …. Indeed, there is ample evidence to show that the British viewed themselves as the source of knowledge for the Indian people and regarded the Indians in the same way as a scientist regards the subjects he studies.

 …. In examining the writings of Edward Dalton, Commissioner of Chutia Nagpur, the nomenclature alone is enough to indicate that the Indian people were regarded as less than human in at least some regard. People are referred to as “specimens” …..

 …. The conceptual framework within which Indian society was being understood was becoming British rather than Indian. This allowed the British to expropriate the basic concepts of Indian society and Anglicize it in such a way that only they would have the ability to interpret it within the new construct. A major factor in allowing this expropriation was the census system.

The censuses forced the Indian social system into a written schematic in a way that had never been experienced in the past. ….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, such as that provided by anthropology and phrenology, that was 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.

 …. 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 relevance and importance of the spiritual, 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.

 …. For the Indian people, the censuses acted as a catalyst for an increased consciousness of caste as caste status became an increasingly significant factor in attaining material status. While the original intent may have been to gather data to assist governments in dealing with natural disaster and famine relief, the effect of the analysis of that data went far beyond these goals. Ultimately, the census provided data that allowed the British to have a much deeper effect on Indian society than might otherwise have been possible.