“Sociologists of the caste have invoked religion, cognition, cosmology, heaven and hell to find the secret of the genesis, growth, and survival of the caste and caste system. In the process, they have missed the real secret of the caste and caste system, which lies in political economy.”
[“Recasting Caste: From the Sacred to the Profane” by Hira Singh]
Joan Robinson, the legendary Cambridge economist, was visiting India after a tour of revolutionary China in the 1950s. In India, she met E.M.S. Namboodiripad, a senior leader of the then united CPI. She asked EMS, despite many similarities between the two countries why there was a revolution in China, and why it did not happen in India, what was the problem? “Caste” was the answer given by Namboodiripad. Today, the India political left is divided, so one need not toe the political line of E.M.S. Namboodiripad or his later party CPIM. This, however, is not to deny the existence of caste or caste atrocities in India. Every day one gets the gory news of medieval barbarism inflicted on the Dalits of the country. Therefore, understanding the caste system is a serious task for anyone who is interested in the revolutionary transformation of Indian society. For communists, it is an urgent task, because the annihilation of caste is intrinsically related with the abolition of class rule in India.
Orientalists, indologists and colonial administrators had tried to understand the caste system in India each according to their own ideological prejudices, predominantly from the colonizers’ mindset of “the whiteman’s burden” and the “exotic east”. Risley, the Census Commissioner of British India, was one of the early pioneers to study caste. Later, with the establishment of the Bombay School, eminent sociologist G.S. Ghurye wrote “Caste and Race in India”. The book has achieved iconic status with the 19th reprint done by Popular Prakashan, Bombay in the year 1911. M.N. Srinivas, a well-known scholar on caste, left his teaching job at Oxford in the year 1927 to start the first sociology department at Baroda. . After Independence, caste has been one of the major pre-occupations of Indian sociologists.
There is no unitary theory of castes. There is a whole spectrum of perspectives. From the orientalists to the post-colonial, there is a variety of caste theories. Hocart and Quigley give the kingship theory, while Morton Klass calls his method as eclectic anthropology. Marxists and liberals, Gandhians and Dalit intellectuals have also written on caste. So, Marxism and Ambedkarism are only two red and blue colours in the colourful spectrum of caste theories. Apart from differences on the “book view” and “field view”, overall debate on caste within Indian sociology has been pro or against Louis Dumont. For Marxists, the basic debate is between the method of D.D. Kosambi and Louis Dumont. “Division of Labour” and property regimes have been one of the major ingredients of Kosambi’s method. Ursula Sharma, who also has done her fieldwork in Himachal Pradesh, has done a fairly good mapping of the caste debates within sociology and social anthropology in her book “Caste” published early this century. Within the Marxist tradition, there is this whole debate about “infrastructure” and “super structure”. Suvira Jaiswal, Uma Chakraborty, Anupama Rao, Sharmila Rege, Susie Tharu et al., have written on the intersections of caste and gender.
Over the years, in my interactions with different young research scholars in the universities in Delhi, to my surprise I found even a handful of Marxist talking about the inadequacies of Marxism in understanding the functioning of caste system in India. As a Marxist, this was a personal challenge for me to construct a Marxist narrative of the caste system in India. In my search for Marxist discourses on “caste”, Hira Singh’s book “Recasting Caste”, which was published this year, has made me proud of the Marxist tradition in interpreting caste.
Outlining his alternative approach to caste system vis-à-vis mainstream sociology, Hira Singh says:
“The difference between the West and the rest was essentialized in the dominant discourse during slave trade, colonialism and imperialism constitutive of modern West. Identification of India with caste and reduction of caste to its religious essence is a product of the colonial process of essentialization. Interrogating the [mis]identification of India with caste and the reductionist view of caste as essentially religious or ideal going back to the classical roots of mainstream sociology is a necessary step towards decolonizing sociology of caste. Decolonization here is not being used to draw distinction between Indians and non-Indians or between East and West. Decolonization I talk about is not related to cultural or national identities of scholars or scholarships. Rather, it is related to an alternative perspective. Sociology of caste has followed the classical sociological tradition which, as discussed above, originated in ideological opposition to Marxism in the 18th-century Europe. In extending that framework to the study of the caste system in India, it had two main objectives. One, it used the caste system to critique Marxist interpretation of society and history, the notion of class in particular, at home. It was simultaneously used to argue that India remained stuck at the stage of status opposed to contact, mechanical opposed to organic, lineage opposed to state, despotic opposed to democratic, irrational opposed to rational, static opposed to dynamic and savage opposed to civilized modern West. That was the dominant discourse of modern West in the age of colonialism-imperialism. Dumont extends that, in a reinvigorated form, at a time when colonialism-imperialism was in the decline, but the struggle between Marxism and mainstream sociology in the West (and the East) had acquired new vitality in the background of the ideological divide of the Cold War. Theoretical-methodological framework used by mainstream sociology is a hindrance to produce a theory of caste. To develop a theory of caste, we need an alternative approach that enables us to see the intersection of economic, political and ideological in the origin of the caste system, its reproduction, continuity and change in historical perspective.”
[Pp. 61-62. “Recasting Caste: From the Sacred to the Profane” by Hira Singh]