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Nicholas Dirks’ Castes of Mind: An Evocative Narration of British India

In the Castes of Mind, 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 book, Dirks 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 at 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: the early ethnographic formulation of caste before 1857 and the post-1857 colonial understanding of Indian in terms of caste through categorisation.

Dirks accounts for the 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’.

dirks castes of mind
A portrait of Anthropologist Nicholas Dirks

By technologies of the rule, Dirks refers 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 recording Indian history emerged as 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 the 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.

In his 1966 book, Dumont held that the region’s domain encompasses India’s ‘political and economic domains of social life’. Brahmana, to Dumont, was both a religious principle and Hindus’ highest form of purity.

However, Dirks countered Dumont’s views on caste as highly problematic as the kings were not inferior to Brahmanas. And that political struggles shaped Indian society.

Identities, Dirks writes, were not restricted to caste itself. He shows us that regional, village and residential communities, kinship groups, chiefs, factional parties, etc., 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 little mention of “caste” in their accounts and those produced by the missionaries. But, with the 1857 revolt, the British began their quest to understand India with enthusiasm.

However, the colonial efforts at understanding India drastically restructured society, in which the subjects became mere tools 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, not only reified the community but also created an entirely new form of community.

In the Castes of Mind, Dirks writes, the British began to use caste [in Varna terms] as a tool to enumerate the population soon after securing their hold over India. The colonial ethnographic interest started in 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 for 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 the British, caste became a civilisational factor for India’s backwardness. As a result, Dirks shows us that caste became India’s civil society.

Caste was reformulated into the rigid Varna categories while discounting 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 as early as the 1930s, with caste associations sprouting all across India, trying to mobilise people on their caste lines.

In this well-structured essay, Dirks shows 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, the British alone could determine to classify and reinstitute caste in a manner that would perfectly represent itself as a civil society.

In the work’s final section, Dirks argues that caste has taken a new shape in its influence on politics. He accounts for the reform movements of Periyar, Gandhi and Ambedkar that helped uplift Dalits. In another chapter, Dirks talks about the 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 disappear after independence, with upper castes resorting to violence to avail preferential treatment and its subsequent culmination in the OBC violence and its aftermath.

In Castes of Mind, Dirks argues that caste is a significant threat to Indian modernity, even if it had helped in its process. Over the years, the caste system has reshaped itself as an essential 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 was perpetuated through colonial forms of knowledge.

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

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