Pre-British India

The Myth of Caste Tyranny

By Meenakshi Jain

The Indian Express, 26th September, 1990


The Mandal Commission report is based on a stereotype image of the caste system and Hindu society that our colonial masters popularised with devastating effect in the 19th century. It is not generally known that the India of rigid social stratification  and hierarchical ranking was largely a British creation and that in their attempt to comprehend, and control the Indian social order; the British set in motion forces that transformed the older system in a fundamental way.


As late as the 18th century, the hierarchical ordering of Hindu society was not an established fact over large parts of the subcontinent. As some eminent historians have pointed out, till that time alternative ideologies and styles of life were strong, indeed dominant, in much of India. Large bands of nomads, with their huge herds of cattle, for instance, roamed the North Indian countryside plundering at will (and at the same time trading with settled agriculture, carrying its goods to distant markets and meeting its requirements of milk and other protein foods. For details see ‘The New Cambridge History of India’ Vol. II by C. A. Bayly – Cambridge University Press, 1988. This mutual compatibility was characteristic of all relationships in the older set-up). Among the great nomadic groups were Gujars, Bhattis, Rangar Rajputs, all of whom remained outside the framework of Brahminical Hinduism. It seems ironic that groups which terrorised settled agriculturists for centuries should now talk of the tyranny of the Hindu social order.


British victory


The strength of the pastoral communities can be further gauged from the fact that at no point before the British arrival could settled agriculturists ever be said to have gained a decisive victory over them. It was only the British determination to tame all floating populations that finally led to their amalgamation with the agrarian society. There were areas where Brahmins and Brahminical life-style remained peripheral. Till the 18th century forests competed with arable land in size and importance. The frontiers of settled agriculture were constantly fluctuating, sometimes advancing, sometimes retreating, even in the same area. Large sections of society survived on forest produce. Forests also served as havens for those in search of escape from society. Here also it was British rule that brought about far-reaching changes.


In their attempt to pacify the countryside they engaged in large-scale destruction of forests to deny rebels places of refuge. Arthur Wellesly in his campaigns against the Pyche Raja, for example, cleared the Malabar forest to a mile on either side of the road. The British, not the Brahmins, thus won the final battle against nomads, tribals, soldiers and forests, all of whom constituted important  alternate life-styles in the pre-British period. Incidentally, it was this plurality of society that was a major reason for the failure of Islam to make much headway in the subcontinent. There was no one clearly identifiable enemy to defeat but several powerful, competing power centres and ways of life to cope with.


Apart from ensuring the final defeat of all alternate life-styles, the British introduced other changes that facilitated the creation of a settled agrarian society, a society that would be easier for them to control and manipulate to their purpose. Prominent among these were the spread of irrigation facilities and an increase in the cultivation of cash crops (especially cotton, indigo and sugar) for the market. Peasant society was thereby extended and consolidated and the stage set or the emergence of a more rigid and stratified system of castes.


Pastoral and tribal communities were incorporated into the agrarian society at the same time as the agriculturist castes themselves became more closed and endogamous, a process that has been well documented in the case of important caste groups like the Jats and the Rajputs. To increase their military might, many Rajput clans had, for example, maintained matrimonial relationships with lower caste armed groups like the Pasis of Awadh. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, they had all become endogamous.


It bears repetition that it was only in the 19th century with the “pacification” of large parts of the countryside that the Brahminical principles of social organisation could be said to have become operational on an all-India scale. Till then only ancient centres like Benaras could be truly regarded as Brahmin strongholds.


Legal system


In their search for a uniform law code, the British turned to these centres of Brahmin learning and consequently, for the first time, a unified, supposedly Brahminical legal system began to be applied on an all-India scale. So another part of traditional India fell before the British onslaught. Laws in India had so far remained uncodified and the very process of codification destroyed the flexibility and the capacity to adapt to local customs and situations they had earlier displayed. The Manusmriti may have existed in the past but it had never been sought to be uniformly applied to society.


Certain other features of caste system, as it operated in the pre-British period, deserve to be commented upon,. Despite the commonly-held belief that hierarchy in Hindu society was clearly defined and operational, in actual practice only the position of the Brahmins at the top of the ritual scale and Harijans at the bottom was relatively stable. In between there was ambiguity about the status of several castes, an ambiguity that was acceptable to all concerned. This itself produced a large element of fluidity in the system.


The close association of caste with occupation notwithstanding, members of a caste group ever exercised exclusive monopoly over a profession. As leading sociologists have pointed out, in addition to their hereditary occupation, all castes traditionally also engaged in cultivation. There were certain other professions such as warfare which regularly drew adherents from different castes. In fact, the leadership of most armed bands was provided by non-Kshatriya peasant  castes. Powerful castes with almost a monopoly over violence were as much part of the Indian scene as the ritual dominance of Brahmins in the settled areas of the country.


Many villages, in addition, did not have a hierarchy corresponding to the all-India system. There were, for instance, often only one or two families of certain artisan and service castes such as nais (barbers), telis (oil pressers), sonars (goldsmiths) and even banias (money lenders) residing within the village precincts. So there was little question of actually ranking these one or two families in the village hierarchy and then discriminating against them.


The usurious interest rates that the village baniyas are supposed to have charged also became possible only under British rule when for the first time land became a marketable commodity. Generally it was the peasant castes that were numerically preponderant and economically and politically powerful at the village level.


Economic ties


All castes living in a village or a cluster of neighbouring villages were bound together by economic and social ties. The Jajmani system tied the highest and lowest castes in a strong bond of mutual dependence. M. N. Srinivas has pointed out that in the pre-British period, land being more abundant than people, the paramount consideration of most Jajmans was “to acquire and retain their local followers”. This obliged them to be generous in matters of food, drinks and even loans when required. He adds that the tropical climate made it difficult to store foodstuffs for long and this combined with “ideas from the great tradition” further encouraged distribution of surplus.


Moreover, all rituals required the participation of several castes. This was also true of religious festivals where even Harijans had important duties to perform. Srinivas has recorded that Bhaksorin (Harijan) women helped Thakur families at the time of delivery, bhangis (sweepers) beat drums in front of Thakur homes. Brahmins cast the horoscope of new born Thakur children and the village barber spread the news and served food during the celebrations that followed. He further record a rural Mysore saying that 18 castes come together during a wedding.


Non-Brahmins and occasionally Harijans served as priests of temples devoted to certain goddesses like Sitala, Mari and Kali associated with smallpox, plague and cholera. All castes including Brahmins sent offerings to these temples. Thus non-Brahmins too fulfilled some of the religious needs of other castes.




Alongside close interaction and co-operation at the village level, castes also enjoyed a large measure of freedom in respect of their internal customs, rituals and life-styles. There was usually no outside interference in the internal affairs of a caste, all caste matters being the jurisdiction of the caste council. The village panchayat deliberated on questions concerning the larger village society.


A striking feature of the caste system in the pre-British period then, was its local character. There was no all-India horizontal organisation of castes. This being so, there was hardly any question of all-India tyranny of any caste group, especially so of the Brahmins who usually also lacked the political and armed strength to enforce their will.


British rule destroyed the local character of the caste system. It broke up the homogeneity of small groups over small areas and encouraged organisation of castes over vast stretches of land. This became a major cause of the caste tensions and rivalries India has witnessed in recent years.


Caste has become synonymous with the theory of pollution. The issue is complex enough to merit separate treatment. Here it is possible only to say that like in much else of the caste system, in this regard too we have been victims of the British propaganda machine.


Some idea of the issue involved can be had from Mary Douglas, a distinguished anthropologist. She has written, “I believe that ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience. It is only by exaggerating the difference between within and without, above and below, male and female, with and against that a semblance of order is created.”


Based as the Mandal Commission report is on a totally distorted view of the past, it deserves to be rejected in toto. No amount of ‘improvement’ on its recommendations can correct its distorted perspective.


(The author is a historian and professor at Delhi university.)



© Meenakshi Jain