Caste understanding in Colonial Regime

The Britishers were more focused on understanding caste rather than gender to understand India. The British ideologues propounded different theories to explain caste. Nesfield hold the position that “the question of caste is not one of race at all, but of culture” (Nesfield: 1885).

In his book, Brief View of the Caste System of the North West Provinces and Oudh, published in 1885, Nesfield propounded the theory that caste arose from occupational specialization, and those castes which practiced more “advanced” occupations maintained a higher status than castes which practiced less “advanced” occupations (ibid). In contrast, according to Risley, the caste system arose out of a racial clash. He postulated that a racially distinct “fair long-headed race” of invading Aryans (speaking an Indo–European language) entered the subcontinent from the North West and encountered and subjugated “dark-skinned Dravidians” (Risley: 1915), the “oldest of the Indian races” (ibid). These invading Aryans “subdued the inferior race”, “captured women according to their needs” and “closed their ranks to all further intermixture of blood,” thereby becoming an upper caste (ibid). Risley’s accounts show that caste and women were the main tool for maintaining hierarchy.

Caste always remained the most dominant factor of north Indian society especially the Hindi speaking belt. In Hindu society, caste divisions play a part in both actual social interactions and in the ideal scheme of values. Members of different castes are expected to behave differently and to have different values and ideals (B├ęteille :1965). But the gender structure remains the same in almost all castes.

Another way through which British rulers attempted to understand the Indian population and caste was conducting census. The justification given for conducting the census was governmental preparedness to deal with disaster situations. Nonetheless, the census went far ahead of merely counting persons or even enquiring into sex ratios or general living conditions. The questionnaire for taking the census was asked for nationality, race, tribe, religion and caste. Certainly, none of these were significant to emergency measures needed for the welfare of Indians. Britishers found that caste was the key to understanding India. Caste was seen as the essence of Indian society, the system through which it was possible to evaluate the ability of persons, depute the work to the population of indigenous people according to their ability.

Risely wrote that: "the caste system itself, with its singularly perfect communal organization, is a machinery admirably fitted for the diffusion of new ideas; those castes may in course of time group themselves into classes representing the different strata of society; and that India may thus attain, by the agency of these indigenous corporations, the results that have been arrived at elsewhere through the fusion of individual types." In making this statement Risley exposes the British agenda of creating a society that would confirm the British ideals through the use of a British interpretation of caste.

The Census of India was started by the British in the late 19th century, and in 1935 the British Government came up with a list of 400 groups considered untouchable and tribal groups, who would get special privileges in order to overcome deprivation and discrimination. These groups were termed as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

The advent of the Britishers introduced modernity and education in India, and some of the British officials resisted caste and gender domination and cruel practices based on caste and gender. But they were well aware of the fact that to rule the Indian population, they should not touch its essential structure of caste and gender. This would ultimately benefit them as half of the population was oppressed and unable to raise their voices.

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