Pre-British India: The Myth of Caste Tyranny
The author is a historian and professor at Delhi
University. This article is from The Indian Express
of September 26, 1990 and is a sequel to “The
Plight of Brahmins.”
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
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 terrorized settled
agriculturists for centuries should now talk of the tyranny
of the Hindu social order.
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
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 lifestyles,
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
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.
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
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
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.
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 newborn 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.