Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present, by Sumit Guha, Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2016 (Leiden: EJ Brill, 2013), pp. 291 + xxiii.
In the course of my research in Nepal I read a lot about caste. Caste is typically understood to be the characteristic social order of India and its neighbours. Debates about what makes it what it is abound. Researchers and theorists approach it from various angles: sociological, historical, political, economic, religious.
My study on the city of Lalitpur in Nepal was largely a sociological one depending heavily on my ethnographic methodology. I did, however, do a fair bit of historical investigation, by delving into the way groups had evolved over the centuries. I was disappointed that my publisher, Orchid Press, decided to entitle my work Caste and Kinship in a Modern Hindu Society because much of what I discovered was of more historical interest. Indeed, I argued that the ritual complex of the city told us a lot about how the city wasin days gone by, rather than what it is today. (Orchid Press, by the way, has not responded to any of my attempts at communication since the book was published and I have never received a single penny in royalties.)
In Beyond Caste, Sumit Guha delves assiduously into previously unresearched historical material and interacts with nearly all the significant literature (though not all – see below). Replete in historical and geographical detail, it is a piece of serious scholarship that deserves careful reading. I will not attempt a thorough review here but merely state Guha’s thesis, note some significant historical facts that were new to me, and make some brief comments. (For a more comprehensive review please see that of H. L. Richard here. I was given a copy of the South Asian edition. The European and American editions are a ridiculous price.)
Guha argues that a caste is a “bounded social group demarcated by the exercise of power throughout its millennial history” (252). He reminds us that, in the study of caste, the exotic has often been highlighted over aspects that are shared with other social systems. In this way, then, caste became an Orientalist trope, as did so many other aspects of Hindu culture. Guha’s point is to demonstrate that “the bounded, status-ranked ethnic community or ‘caste’ is a social form that frequently appears in multi-ethnic societies” (3).
It is not that it is exactly like that of other societies because “in South Asia it became a highly involuted, politicised form of ethnic ranking shaped by the constant exercise of socio-economic power.” And that encapsulates Guha’s answer to the big question that emerges in all the good studies of caste: to what extent is caste in South Asia unique? In my study, I argue that caste is indeed unique because of the creative tension that arises from the competing demands of centralizing kingship and decentralizing kinship, but more on that below.
One of the strengths of Guha’s study is its historical approach, focussing as it does on “dynamic social processes” (6). But it is also valuable because he does not focus on the development of caste in just one part of India. He demonstrates, rather, how social processes have gone on in different parts of the subcontinent at different rates, are often not completed, and often set in reverse; he eschews an evolutionist theoretical position which deems certain systems as necessarily primitive.
In all the vicissitudes of history, however, “the bounded ethnic group remained and remains a powerful presence” (7).
Guha, rightly, after Nicholas Dirks and Susan Bayly, argues that caste is not a product of a single ‘Hindu’ ideology. I also argued that caste is structural rather than ideological. Rather, says Guha, power is the all-important ingredient.
Guha argues that castes are a sort of tribe, by which he means “large, stratified, socio-political organizations characterized by diffuse authority and collective leadership such as, for example, a council of important chiefs” (71). He says that such “identity-centred and geographically bounded communities” were “the domains in which ethnic politics was formed” and that this gives us a “deeper appreciation of how indigenous states in India grew out of and reproduced the lasting structures of inequality so inadequately captured by what has been called the ‘caste system’” (99).
Kinship is far from the fixed, bounded unit of social organization that we often see portrayed in the literature: “kinship and exclusion from the kin were both socially constructed statuses, and a person could move from one to the other in the course of a lifetime” (150). And yet, as my research seems to suggest, there are times when kinship groups do indeed attempt to maintain a tighter boundary.
How did caste develop under British rule? Guha reports how important the colonial administration of British India was in the formation of South Asian identities. Bernard Cohn and Nicholas Dirks, he reports, “argued that colonialism was more than a system of power: it was also a mode of knowing that constructed its objects of knowledge” 174). The colonial administration created a significant apparatus to classify and count all the peoples in its domain. Sometimes administrators visited a region and, working with local Brahman literati, as in the Bombay Presidency at the beginning of the nineteenth century, “simply divided the people into Muslims and Hindus, and the latter into Brahman, Rajput, ‘Shoodruh’ or Maratha, and Ati-Shudra or outcastes” (201), masking and distorting a much more complex reality on the ground. Interestingly, twenty years later, in the mid-nineteenth century a change had occurred, with the “basic ordering seems to have been religious (201). This would seem to correlate with the developing notions of religion in the emerging paradigm of ‘world religions’.
After the great anti-colonial uprising of 1857-8 the notion of race became a significant category in a way it had not been hitherto (203). And this was a surprise to me: by the late eighteenth century, “It was the political value of this sense of European-born identity that…led the [East India] Company to assiduously limit the development of a local power elite with any genealogical depth. It also caused the Company to discourage the immigration of non-official Englishmen into India. All this was designed…to pre-empt any local claim to the ‘rights of Englishmen’ that had just been forcefully raised in North America. The disavowed India-born offspring formed a socially inferior class of Eurasians, excluded from power” (218). In order to encourage English officials to return to Britain once their term of service was complete, Lord Cornwallis, the then Governor-General of India, sanctioned a large pay increase, allowing them to return at middle age with a substantial nest egg.
Returning to his main point, Guha tells us to “abandon the futile search for a social essence” because “social structures, old and new, have been politically ordered in ways that we cannot grasp unless we deploy the concept of caste as a bounded corporate body shaped by socio-political power throughout its long history” (255).
I have a few quibbles with Guha’s analysis.
Firstly, I think he makes too much of ranking. That is, he seems to follow the standard idea that all the castes in a society are in a clear hierarchy relative to each other. He quotes Weber: “A status segregation grown into a ‘caste’ differs in its structure from a more ‘ethnic’ segregation: the caste structure transforms the horizontal and unconnected coexistences of ethnically segregated groups into a vertical social system of super- and subordination” (13).
As I demonstrated in my work, with the exception of Dalits (those formerly known to others as Untouchables) and, to a lesser extent, other impure, but not untouchable castes, such as Butchers, those vertical relations are often contested and indeterminate because of no ritual intercaste relations. Guha does acknowledge, at least, that ethnic boundaries are porous.
Secondly, although Guha examines caste throughout traditional India (including the territories now Pakistan and Bangladesh), dividing it helpfully into five regions, and makes several references to caste in Sri Lanka, he barely mentions Nepal. In a sense Nepal is little different from other parts of the subcontinent, especially in the old Mithila kingdoms of the southern plains (Tarai). But the Newar former kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley – Kathmandu, Lalitpur (Patan), and Bhaktapur – are particularly significant exemplars of archaic caste systems because the Nepal Valley was never under Mughal or British rule.
Although he does indeed discuss the phenomenon of kingship, and interacts with Dirks and A. M. Hocart, he doesn’t even reference Declan Quigley’s important theoretical work, The Interpretation of Caste. Thus, in my opinion, kingship and the city are not given their due.
Has Guha’s study led me to change my view of caste? Not a lot. But it has broadened it. Guha’s careful elucidation of the ongoing centrality of power in the development of caste society is convincing. In so arguing, Guha is stating that caste is not unique but is, rather, a South Asian example of political realities found in every society, but in a way that previous materialist writers had not managed.
However, Guha makes no mention at all of the ‘climax communities’ of the Kathmandu Valley. I think that is a failing. In so doing he misses the centrality of kingship in those societies. But his central thesis is solid, and I now think such cities must be regarded not as the apex of caste society but as perhaps caste's most complex instantiation.
There are missiological implications to this analysis, but more on that later.
There are missiological implications to this analysis, but more on that later.