A brief history of caste in India and the British role

The construction of social identities was done to serve the British government’s desire to create a single Hindu identity with a common law for easy governance.

Published: 12th February 2022 02:29 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th February 2022 02:30 AM   |  A+A-


For representational purposes

When I was in school we had no idea about our caste or that of our friends. I still don’t. We grew up innocent of any sort of divisions and nobody discussed the subject.

Switch to 2009. I run several schools. We never asked the students their caste till, one day in 2009, the Director of School Education sent a letter saying that we must document every child’s caste. So we sent out a letter to the parents. We immediately received a visit from two Scheduled Caste couples who said that they chose our school because we never asked the child’s caste, so why are we doing it now? What can I say?

With five states going to the polls, all we hear about is the caste of each candidate and his caste strength. It is shocking that 75 years after Independence and increasing levels of education, we have not yet outgrown the caste system.

The early Rig Veda does not mention caste at all. The Purusha Sukta, a later interpolation, mentions the four varnas. But India has jatis, not varnas, and most jatis do not fit into the varna system. Valmiki, author of the Ramayana, was an Adi Kavi and thief by jati. In the Mahabharata, King Shantanu married a fisherwoman, Satyavati. Their child was Vyasa, the author of the epic, and their descendants were the Pandavas and Kauravas, Kshatriya rulers of Hastinapur. The Kshatriya King Kaushika became the Brahma rishi Viswamitra. Caste was flexible for a long time.

The definitions of religion and caste as we know them now were developed during the British period, in the 19th century, “by elevating texts like Manusmriti to canonical status”, to quote Sanjoy Chakravorty. But few people follow the Manusmriti. During the first census of 1860, it was found impossible to fit the various jatis into the four varnas and W R Cornish, in charge of the census in Madras Presidency, wrote in 1871 that “regarding the origin of caste we can place no reliance upon statements made in the Hindu sacred writings. Whether there was ever a period in which the Hindus were composed of four castes is exceedingly doubtful”.

According to anthropologist Susan Bayly of Cambridge University, “until well into the colonial period, much of the subcontinent was still populated by people for whom the formal distinctions of caste were of only limited importance, even in parts of the so-called Hindu heartland… The institutions and beliefs which are now often described as elements of the traditional caste (system) were only just taking shape as recently as the early 18th century.”

Megasthenes divided the entire population of India into seven castes: philosophers; husbandmen; herdsmen and hunters; traders, artisans and day-labourers; warriors; overseers, inspectors and spies; and councillors and assessors. Megasthenes does not mention their inflexibility. Chandragupta Maurya, who belonged to the scheduled Maurya tribe of Bihar, was selected by Chanakya, a Brahmin, for his leadership qualities, not his caste.

Hiuen Tsang mentions four castes, but also adds that there were mixed castes, numerous castes formed according to their kinds, which cannot be described. Interestingly, the early Arabs also divided the population into seven castes.

The Guptas were Vaishyas who became Kshatriyas when they established their rule. Nobody knows the origin of the Pallavas, leave alone their caste. Harihara and Bukka were Kurubas who claimed Yadava lineage. They were converted to Islam by Muhammad bin Tughlaq and were reconverted to Hinduism by Vedaranya, Shankaracharya of Sringeri, and then crowned as Kshatriyas and rulers of Vijayanagara by the same orthodox muth. Hemu, in the 16th century, was a seller of saltpetre who became the ruler of Delhi and assumed the title of Vikramaditya, till he was killed and beheaded by Akbar’s regent Bairam Khan. Shivaji was a Maratha who was crowned Kshatriya when he created the Maratha empire. Each South Indian dynasty belonged to a different caste but the king was always crowned as Kshatriya.

Ramanujacharya, the 11th century Vaishnava philosopher, absorbed people of every caste, including the so-called “untouchables” and downtrodden, into his Sri Vaishnava bhakti movement and gave all of them the sacred thread, converting them to Brahmanism. Many North Indian communities who moved south during the Muslim invasions, like the Saurashtrians or Pattunool weavers of Madurai, are called Brahmins.

Pre-colonial accounts of travellers make little or no mention of caste. The construction of social identities was done to serve the British government’s desire to create a single Hindu identity with a common law for easy governance. Thus a complex, diverse and flexible society was reduced to a single identity, separated by “castes”, a part of the British government’s divide-and-rule policy.

Caste has permeated into Islam and Christianity. I once went to the funeral of a Christian friend in a Chennai church. The priest came and asked me my caste. I said that I was not a Christian but would like to attend the funeral service. He said that I must sit in the pew meant for my caste. What does my caste have to do with death and mourning? In many villages, Scheduled Castes have to sit outside the church. Similarly, Darzis, Dhobis and Bhangis are much lower than Syeds and Sheikhs in the Muslim caste hierarchy and the various castes do not intermarry.

The status of the downtrodden was always bad, and no caste can claim that they treated the Scheduled Castes well. When we began to restore a sacred grove that belonged to a scheduled community in the deep south of Tamil Nadu, the local OBCs burnt it down one night, saying that a forest would encourage the SCs to go in and pray in the local temple. In many villages, we have been asked to choose to work with either the SCs or OBCs, not both. Our village service is very simple: planting trees and medicinal plants and skill development for local women. Even such innocuous activities bring out the ire of other castes. Does a tree have a caste? The tribals are the poorest of the poor and are deprived of their traditional land rights and have no status. With no skills, they suffer the most.

This election has been so full of caste that I fear for the future of my India. Urbanisation—where people live side-by-side with no idea of their neighbour’s caste—has improved the situation in the cities, but India lives in its villages.

That is where a Scheduled Caste person is still attacked for walking through the main street of the village. When will we treat them as human beings?

Nanditha Krishna

Historian, environmentalist and writer based in Chennai



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  • Deena Dayalan

    First of all I share your sentiments. It is not "When will we treat them as human beings?" but
    4 months ago reply
  • Binay

    Great article! I agree with the author that caste has created a lot of problems for India. Let such articles come out more often so that people will know truth about caste.
    4 months ago reply
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