The shadow of colonialism

The grounds (meta-narratives) that inform the modern notion of caste all stand debunked. Yet caste-based politics seems to be perpetually on the rise.

The shadow of colonialism

In part 1 of this series, we drew the readers’ attention to how scholarship anchors the discourse around an issue to a given premise. In the India of the 21st century, where political rhetoric around caste is a frequent occurrence, it is remarkable that the tone of this discourse is consistently shrill. Everyone is convinced of the monstrous nature of this ‘institution’ but no one quite knows where exactly to place the historical roots of this monstrosity. In part 2, we also tried to touch upon the misrepresentation of varna as a hierarchy by treating it as an equivalent of caste. In this part, we will be examining the underlying theories that formed the basis of the pyramidal ‘colonial conception of caste’ (CCC) and we will also see where these theories stand today. Although this is a brief detour from our exploration of the Purushasukta, it is extremely relevant to explore this aspect of colonial disruption before we dive further into the meaning and application of the hymn.

Scientific Racism

We have come to regard race as a broad categorization of people according to their skin colour. However, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the definition of race called for a much more hairsplitting approach, as even among whites, for example, Slavs, Jews and Anglo-Saxons were considered to be different races. This was also the time when positivism and Darwin’s theory of evolution had finally reached the widespread public acceptance that we associate with them today. It is important to note that even the most progressive intellectuals of the day bought into the notion of a hierarchy of races in terms of their intrinsic worth. Therefore, what we call ‘racist’ beliefs rapidly turned into organized ideologies that sought their legitimacy by appealing to the authority of science. It is a different matter that the so-called scientific approach was actually pseudo-scientific and continued to feed the prejudices of intellectuals on either side of the sharp line dividing mutually contradictory views of race even as late as the fag end of the twentieth century. [1]

At the height of the colonial rule, numerous methodologies were employed in the service of physical anthropology to classify human populations into different groups that had pre-decided ranks in the imagined hierarchy of races. These methodologies had severe flaws ranging from inadequate sample sizes to the selective use of data that strengthened the very assumptions that such exercises were supposed to challenge. Notable examples of such pseudo-scientific studies were anthropometry and craniometry, which took measurements of different parts of the human body to establish a cause-effect relationship between these physical measurements and the degree of evolution of a given race. What is also very interesting is that in spite of the great diversity of theoretical views prevalent among the race scientists, their conclusions were surprisingly uniform – they unambiguously testified to the supremacy of the white rulers. For example, while monogenists of the day believed that all humans are descendants of Adam and polygenists believed that different races come from distinct racial stocks, they converged on the belief that whites were superior to darker races.

Race theories applied to India

The intellectual churning with respect to understanding and rationalizing the phenomenon of race that was taking place in European countries had far-reaching consequences for the people in the colonies they ruled. Not only were the half-baked theories of race used to justify the conquest and plunder of whole continents and the slave trade that flourished as a consequence, there were also earnest efforts to understand the natives and their mysterious ways of living, if for nothing else but to improve the administrative efficiency of the empire. India, being the jewel in the British crown, was naturally subject to a great degree of probing and theorizing. Broadly speaking, where pseudo-scientific race theories were applied in the Indian context, the ensuing speculation led to the creation of paradigms that defined the colonial view of India and that continue to steer much of the political discourse around caste in the contemporary Indian society.

Aryan Invasion Theory

Much has been written about the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) and how it was used to create a false narrative about Indian history. As Abraham Maslow famously stated, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” The preoccupation of European intellectuals with the mysteries of race made them look for it in unlikely settings. Indians never identified themselves with the colour of their skin and none of their ancient texts had anything to suggest that Indian society was ever divided on the basis of colour. As we have noted above, the supremacy of the white race was a foregone conclusion for most European scholars of that era and from that assumption, they worked backward to create a narrative of history that supported this convenient notion. As Rajiv Malhotra explains in his book [2], this was a three step process in which the European romanticists first looked towards India for a “search of their own golden origins”, followed by the Indologists who “created the notion of Aryans [of European ancestry] as harbingers of civilization to all humanity” and finally race science was invoked to “lend credibility to the idea” of a Master Aryan Race. Effectively, what the AIT told Indians was that the original inhabitants of India were dark skinned and light skinned conquerors from the Northwest (of the same stock as white Europeans) drove them south and ruled over the aborigines for the better part of their history. There was intermixing between these two races, which explained why the Indian Aryans were not as white as their European cousins. Further, as pointed out in part 2of the series, due to a conflation of the concept of race with the usage of varna as colour, the colonial scholars imagined two major races: Arya Varna (invaders) and Dravid Varna (natives). It must be pointed out that although AIT was a conspiracy theory of sorts that rationalized the exploitative nature of the colonial rule over India, it wasn’t really ‘concocted’ in the sense that those who invented this theory knew any better. The fact is that Europeans not only used it to interpret Indian history but also their own and took its implications, as some would argue, too seriously, with the result that by the middle of the twentieth century, the notion of the superior Aryan race directly led to the extermination of millions of Jews.

After the Second World War, there was a massive reorganization of the world order and one of the most consequential moral outcomes was a complete U-turn in the way that intellectuals addressed the question of race. For the memory of the holocaust was mortifying enough for the thought leaders to not just abandon the bad ideas that had led to so much violence but to take the diametrically opposite stand. Whereas the pre-war era is associated with notions of superiority of the imaginary Aryan race, the post-war decades saw a sudden shift in discourse towards a complete denial of racial differences, ironically derived again from ‘scientific’ studies. [3] However, no such change in discourse was apparent in India, where the AIT, though debunked by now or at least seriously challenged, continues to be a part of the curriculum in schools and universities, forcing upon the young minds a view of history that is not just outdated but intrinsically polarizing.

Lord Risley and Anthropometry

Working with the cocksure but fictitious assumption of an Aryan race was Lord Risley, a senior official in the British government entrusted with the taskof carrying out the ethnographic survey of Bengal in the late nineteenth century. Using measurements of body parts of the natives collected by himself and others British officers before him, he went on to make preposterous claims about the causal connect between the physical features (what he termed as the nasal index) of an ethnic group and their status in the Indian society. He declared:

“If we take a series of castes in Bengal, Bihar and the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, or Madras, and arrange them in the order of the average nasal index, so that the caste with finest nose shall be at the top, and that with the coarsest at the bottom of the list, it will be found that this order substantially corresponds with the accepted order of social precedence.” [4]

Risley’s study was hailed as path-breaking and his methodology was replicated across the country to document the racial types among people in different parts of India. There was also abundant careless guesswork about how the tribes of southern India, who were supposed to be of the race ‘Homo Dravida’ as they called it, traced their ancestry to Australian aborigines and had nothing common with their high-caste neighbours. Other than committing the obvious conceptual mistake of using race and caste interchangeably, it was believed that the use of boomerangs by Kallan and Maravan warriors was sufficient evidence to treat this hollow hypothesis as a scientific fact. [5]

Castes and Tribes

The colonial administration faced formidable challenges in controlling the vast territory of the Indian subcontinent, not the least among which was finding potential collaborators among the natives for assisting the government with various administrative tasks. The heterogeneity of Indian society also brought them considerable hostility from certain groups who did not take kindly to the uncalled for intrusion into their affairs, which they were hitherto unaccustomed to under the rule of native kings or chiefs. To the colonialists, these hostile communities did not seem to match the impression they had of some of the more ‘compliant’ groups that they came across. Again, viewing it from the paradigm of race, they imagined the hostile people to have different origins from the more friendly ones. In order to control these aggressive groups, the infamous criminal tribes act was passed that deemed entire populations such as the Maghyar Doms in Bihar or the Bowries in the Narmada valley as habitually criminal. [6] In keeping with their prejudices, they understood criminality to be an inherited tendency and true to the spirit of ‘European Science’, anthropometry was used in the Police Department as a means of identifying criminals until the introduction of the Berthillon system of finger-printing, at the cusp between the 19th and 20th centuries.

As can be seen above, the colonial definition and categorization of certain exceptional ‘criminal’ communities was wholly arbitrary and was justified by invoking bogus race theories. Therefore, it would be worthwhile to investigate the classificatory scheme used while conducting census surveys of the pliant (non-criminal) part of the population. It turns out that census officials had a really tough time in getting a reliable answer to the question, “What is your caste?” to which the response would vary from one of the four varnas to some endogamous sub-caste to what the officials called “vague and indefinite” entries. [7] Evidently, Hindus were not mindful of their own ‘caste’ and their place in the purported hierarchy of varnas.

Another puzzle confronted the British government, as the empire was nearing its dusk in India, in their noble mission of uplifting the ‘depressed castes’ of Hindu society out of misery. The steepest part of the problem was to first identify the criteria that implied oppression and then to determine who oppressed whom. So, the officials reached a consensus to fix the notion of ‘untouchability’, a term first coined in the 1920’s, as the principal criterion to separate the oppressed from the oppressors. As it turned out, the practice of untouchability was not just restricted to higher castes dealing with lower or out-castes but also between the various out-castes so defined. To complicate matters further, many jatis that were deemed ‘upper caste’ in the British census considered other equally upper caste jatis to be polluting in the same way. [8] Thus, the identification of the depressed classes was an exercise rife with grave errors arising from an extraordinarily flawed conception of the jati-varna matrix.

One would have hoped that after India gained its independence, the flaws of colonial scholarship would be finally addressed and the new affirmative action would be based on a far more authentic rationale. For, to deny that there was exploitation of certain communities in the past would be a travesty of justice, given that no society in the world can honestly make such claims. However, the first crop of leaders of independent India, due to reasons unknown to us, succumbed to the temptation of taking the easy way out and took a decree of King Edward VIII by the name of the Government of India (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1936 as the basis of the government policy for welfare of the historically marginalized sections of society. The result was that different communities competed to enlist themselves as the oppressed ‘scheduled’ castes and tribes and more groups continue to be added to the list to this day. Thus, what was, in fact, a conceptual conundrum became the bedrock of India’s postcolonial politics. The unfortunate reality is that the categories of caste and tribe, as well as the schedule of which they are a part of, are all products of spurious scholarship and political expediency.


[1] Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race or the Racial Basis of European History

[2] Rajiv Malhotra and Aravindan Neelakandan, Breaking India

[3] Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Race

[4] [5] Crispin Bates, Race, Caste and Tribe in Central India: The Early Origins of Indian Anthropometry(Paper)

[6] E.J. Gunthorpe, Notes on Criminal Tribes Residing in or Frequenting the Bombay Presidency, Berar and the Central Provinces, (Bombay, 1882)

[7] Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India

[8] Jakob De Roover, Scheduled Castes vs. Caste Hindus: About a Colonial Distinction and Its Legal Impact

This is part 3 of the series. The other parts can be accessed by following the links below:
Part 1 – Introduction
Part 2 – Purusha and Varna

About Author: Sonalee Hardikar

Sonalee Hardikar has a bachelor in chemistry and a masters in mass communication. She is an alumna of the National School of Drama and was the first recipient of the "Jim Henson" fellowship, during which she studied scenic design. She is also a theater practitioner, a documentary film-maker, a student of Shaiva/Buddhist/Tibetan philosophies, a self-taught photographer and a teacher of Indian art and aesthetics at leading National Theater and Filmmaking institutes in India.

About Author: Ashish Dhar

Ashish Dhar is the co-founder of Pragyata and Upword Foundation and the Director of Operations at The Indic Collective Trust. He writes on History, Kashmir, Culture and Religion.

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