Colonial consciousness and the caste system in 20th-century India. A study of the intellectual and institutional impact of orientalist discourse

Koloniaal bewustzijn en het kastenstelsel in het 20ste-eeuwse India. Een studie van de intellectuele en institutionele impact van een oriëntalistisch discours
Start - End 
2016 - 2020 (ongoing)



“Why does the caste system continue to dominate Indian society, in spite of centuries of moral critique and decades of reservation politics?” This is one of the most frequently asked questions in contemporary public debate in India. To understand the question, we must briefly sketch its historical background.

From the eighteenth century onwards, Protestant missionaries and European Orientalists described Indian society as a caste hierarchy consisting of four ranks or varnas (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishas, and Shudras) and the ‘outcastes’ or ‘untouchables’. They explicitly viewed caste as a religious institution – founded in Hinduism and dominated by Brahmin priests – which condemned the lower castes to lives without basic dignity and rights. Since colonial officials accepted this as a true description of Indian society, they also included it in the educational programmes of British India. Thus, generations of Indian intellectuals learned to reproduce this characterization of their own society. As a result, they started building ‘anti-Brahmin’ movements for ‘the liberation from caste tyranny’ in the era between the 1850s and the 1940s.

When India gained independence in 1947, some political leaders argued there should be redress for the historical injustices committed against the lower castes. Hence, they pleaded for the establishment of a system of quota or reservations in the Constitution: a certain percentage of seats in all government institutions (including students and faculty in universities) should be reserved for individuals belonging to the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), a series of castes and ethnic groups listed in a schedule of the Constitution. They succeeded: today almost 50% of all seats are reserved for certain caste groups; in some Indian states, the number is even higher.

Throughout the twentieth century, caste politics went together with the dominance of a particular discourse in the social sciences and humanities: the systematic rejection of Hinduism and the Brahmins as immoral forces in Indian society. Its climax came with the emergence of the Dalit Movement, which is aggressively opposed to the so-called ‘upper castes’ and to ‘Hindu religion’ in general. Today, its sympathizers play a prominent role in the social sciences and humanities departments of universities across India. They have established a climate of political correctness, where certain dogmas are no longer allowed to be questioned on scientific grounds.


The research questions

The notion of a fourfold caste hierarchy founded in Hindu religion faces a number of conceptual and empirical problems. Empirically, a huge variety of jatis (groups determined by birth) co-exist in Indian society and many are characterized by practices of endogamy and commensality. By convention, one could perhaps call such groups ‘castes’. However, empirically, the structure of Indian society does not reflect a fixed caste hierarchy. In fact, British colonial officials came to this conclusion long ago when they launched a caste census aimed at classifying these groups along the lines of the castehierarchy. Generally, this exercise ended in failure. For most groups, it turned out to be impossible to attribute a stable location in the hierarchy. Even worse, it was often impossible to find out to what ‘caste’ Indians belonged. When asked the question “What is your caste?” – so colonial officials complained – some Hindus would mention one of the four varnas, others would say they belonged to some “endogamous sub-caste,” yet others would mention some “caste-title” or add “vague and indefinite” entries. In short, the Hindus seemed to be ignorant of their own caste system (Blunt 1931; Dirks 2002: 202-212; Nesfield 1885).

Conceptually, the link between caste and Hinduism is unclear. Usually, this link is established by quoting a selection of passages from one text, the Manavadharmashastra (mistranslated as ‘Manu’s Code of Law’). Yet, for every Sanskrit text that supposedly sanctions the caste system, one can find another that does not. While the status of such texts in Indian society is unclear, they certainly do not count as sacred scriptures or legal codes that found social practice (Bhattacharya-Panda 2008; Menski 2003: 73-4). The claim that Brahmin priests invented the caste system and imposed it onto Indian society is as problematic (Dirks 2002; Inden 1990). Any attempt to transform a society along the lines of such a model would require a particular type of institution or centralized authority, which inculcates the rules and monitors compliance. But no historical evidence is available indicating such attempts to create a centralized religious authority or legal system. The variegated groups of Brahmins across India do not constitute a Hindu priesthood, let alone a central institution of religious authority. In short, there is no credible theoretical ground for connecting caste and religion (Guha 2013; Nadkarni 2006; Sen 2005).

How then could this idea of a religiously rooted caste hierarchy emerge and spread? Research shows that it crystallized in the framework of theological debates between Jesuit and Protestant missionaries in India. Whereas the former viewed caste as a civil institution, the latter argued it was a religious institution, ‘the cement that keeps together the false religion of the Hindus’ (Forrester 1979). Drawing on the Protestant theology of false religion and its anti-clericalism, they described ‘the Hindu system’ as an evil clerical hierarchy, which had tyrannized the majority of believers belonging to the lower castes. In the course of the nineteenth century, Orientalist scholars reproduced this theological characterization of the Hindu caste system as though it constituted an objective factual description of Indian society (Balagangadhara 1994; Gelders and Derde 2003).

The proposed project builds on these insights to examine the intellectual and institutional impact of the account of ‘the Hindu caste system’ in postcolonial India. Indian intellectuals reproduced this colonial account, even though it is based in Christian doctrine. Under colonialism, the British education system imposed this account. However, after Independence in 1947, Indian intellectuals avidly kept on presenting it as a valid description of their society. In fact, politicians actively drew upon this account to give shape to the new institutions and policies of India. Since then, it has increasingly come to dominate government institutions. Most strikingly, it shaped Indian higher education, its universities, and bodies like the University Grants Commission (UGC), Indian Council for Social Scientific Research (ICSSR) and Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR). The account of the caste system determined the content of social sciences and humanities programmes. Through the reservation policies, it decided the student population and faculty composition. The avowed goal was to root out injustice and inequality in society, but commentators suggest it is precisely there that the policies failed. Instead they led to the emergence of ‘elite’ groups within the lower castes, which pursue their own sectional interests in the name of social justice.

This brings us to three central questions:

(1) What allowed the Orientalist account of the caste system to dominate the intellectual world of postcolonial India throughout the twentieth century, in spite of the absence of empirical evidence and conceptual coherence?

(2) Given the Christian-theological foundations of this account, how could it play such a decisive role in the ‘secular’ social sciences and humanities institutions of twentieth-century India?

(3) What induced Indian political leaders to build far-reaching policies on the foundations of the critique of ‘the Hindu caste hierarchy’, considering its failure both as a description of Indian society and as a guide for social reform?