Caste, Society and Politics in India:
From the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age

Susan Bayly

Cambridge University Press 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2000
Caste, Society and Politics in India is the clearest and most convincing study of caste in India I have read. Without denying its medieval antecedents, Bayly argues that
"current manifestations of caste are now far more generalised across the subcontinent than was the case in former times. ... caste as we now recognise it has been engendered, shaped and perpetuated by comparatively recent political and social developments. ... even in parts of the so-called Hindu heartland of Gangetic upper India, the institutions and beliefs which are now often described as the elements of 'traditional' caste were only just taking shape as recently as the early eighteenth century - that is, the period of rapid regional state-building which accompanied the collapse of Mughal rule and the expansion of Western power in the subcontinent."
The following summary does justice neither to the subtleties of Bayly's thesis nor the complexities of Indian caste.

The origins of caste lay in the needs of Rajputs and others such as Maratha king Shivaji to formalise and institutionalise positions based on military prowess, as well as in notions of varna (the traditional fourfold "class" scheme), different kinds of jati (birth groups), and associated Brahman-centred values. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, exaltation of routine and service by both Mughal successor kingdoms and the East India Company (though the latter also feared caste-based sedition) helped to spread Brahmanical caste conventions.

From early travellers and company reports to bureaucratic Victorian census-taking and scientific theories of race, colonial ("Orientalist") theories of caste took a wide range of forms. Among Indian theorists caste was intimately connected with notions of modernity and nascent nationalism, with positions ranging from arguments for caste "uplift" to a Hindu "defence" of caste.

The first half of the twentieth century saw struggles between radically different approaches to caste, most notably between Gandhi and Ambedkar and Nehru over constitutional politics and the status of "untouchables". Independent India has seen intense debates over "reservations" (quotas in government positions for members of particular castes), the extension of notions of backwardness to include "other backward classes", and an increase in caste-based electoral politics.

This summarises Bayly's account of the ideological debates and the events in the political arena. Two chapters (covering colonial and independent India) focus on more everyday experiences of caste, in such areas as marriage, occupations, urbanisation, notions of purity, pollution barriers, relationships between peasants and landlords and merchants, and so forth. And a final chapter looks at the symbolism and rhetoric of recent "caste war" violence, and at some of the rural and urban tensions underlying it.

Bayly concludes

"India then is not and never has been a monolithic 'caste society'. It may even be that one day the principles and usages of jati and varna will lose much or all of their meaning for Indians living both within and beyond the subcontinent. Nevertheless, if one is to do justice to India's complex history, and to its contemporary culture and politics, caste must be neither disregarded nor downplayed - its power has simply been too compelling and enduring."

December 2000

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Related reviews:
- Mendelsohn + Vicziany - The Untouchables: Subordination, Poverty and the State in Modern India
- books about India + Indian history
- more social history
- books published by Cambridge University Press
%T Caste, Society and Politics in India
%S From the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age
%Y The New Cambridge History of India
%V IV-3
%A Bayly, Susan
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 1999
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0521264340
%P xi,421pp