Profaning the allegedly religious

RECASTING CASTE — From the Sacred to the Profane: Hira Singh; Sage Publications India Ltd., B1/I-1 Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 795.   | Photo Credit: GRJGM

Hira Singh knows whereof he speaks. Born and brought up in a village in eastern Uttar Pradesh where caste shaped and determined all of life as if it were the natural order of the universe, he saw it at work in the schools he attended – and saw what happened to those of lower castes who even attempted to assert the rights awarded them by the Constitution and the law.

In this terse and very accessible analysis, Singh contends with formidable figures in sociology and anthropology, not least Max Weber and Louis Dumont, and with mainstream Indian sociology as well as the established field of subaltern studies. Weber, who flirts with biological determinism when he tries to explain why capitalism did not develop in the Orient, sees status in caste systems as cultural power and as possibly opposed to economic and political power. For Weber, one consequence was that caste distinctions made it difficult to recruit labour for the emerging Indian industries. That, however, neglects the specific ways the colonial government set about developing industry in India, or rather prevented the development of Indian industry. Secondly, Singh points out that Weber was mistaken in supposing that only the lowest castes were indentured for labour elsewhere in the British Empire; the largest groups among the 1.3 million involved were from the middle and lower castes, not the lowest. Furthermore, indenture served Britain as a source of labour to replace former slaves after the imperial power abolished slavery in 1834.

Weber’s vision of caste, in effect, reduces caste to a cultural matter at the expense of other highly significant factors, and simplifies it into a Brahmanocentric phenomenon. Singh’s analysis of Dumont shows how misleading that is. Dumont considers caste to be almost exclusively a product of religion; he ignores, for example, the extremely uneven historical development of the fourfold Varna division across India, and his addiction to conceptual uniformity also means he misses several tensions between Jati status and Varna status. In addition, Singh draws on M.N. Srinivas, though not uncritically, to show that a precondition for Sanskritisation is change in the economic position of the castes involved; crucially, such changes mean that Brahmans are not necessarily the dominant caste in any one region, and that caste society is never frozen or solely ritualistic.

That leads to many significant reminders. Weber tacitly accepts problems in his elevation of status above all else when he says stratification by status goes hand in hand with the monopolisation of ideal and material goods and opportunities. These would include exclusive commensality and marriage, and Weber and S.J. Tambiah are respectively well aware of caste-related privileges over how many wives a man may have in this caste society. The problem, according to Singh, is that neither Weber nor Tambiah notes that both marriage and concubinage are centrally matters of class. Marriage in caste societies is for the preservation of economic and political privilege, and concubinage is the expression of economic power over lower classes; Singh asks how many serfs in the West or Untouchables in India had concubines. Privileged men’s sexual access to women of lower classes is a consequence and an “intersection” of economic, political, and cultural power.

The underlying issue here is that of property, more specifically of land rights. Singh’s commentary on relations between dominant castes and priests details how the Brahmanical castes are anything but detached from material goods, and shows how in caste society they have almost always been subordinate to the dominant caste, not least in matters of rank, membership, and succession within that caste; in effect, caste society is founded on material relations, particularly those to do with land ownership.

Weber and Dumont, however, have rendered almost invisible the history of caste and the changes in the way caste has informed South Asian society. For example, they appear not to see how significant it is that outcastes are ‘clean’ when they work in the houses of the upper castes.

Hira Singh valuably takes the argument further; he criticises the ways Indian mainstream sociology shuns Marx for economic reductionism – but, as he shows, that makes their work as reductivist as that of Weber and Dumont, while for Marx the task throughout involves showing how the economic, the cultural, and the political combine in and through the relations of production to create the phenomenon of class. Even if property and production relations have not been fundamentally altered, Rajputs and Brahmans in U.P. felt honoured to be invited to take tea with the then Chief Minister Mayawati, but in the 1940s they would not even have allowed one of her caste to touch their cup of chai. For Singh this is significant change, and here he notes Irfan Habib’s pertinent questions about whether or not the ideology of the caste system remains unaltered even if its economic foundations are changed; the point, however is to pay attention to the particular changes which take place – and Singh reminds us how violently the upper castes often resist change, especially when production relations are challenged.

Singh remains true to that insight in a precise critique of subaltern studies; he shows how mistaken it is to see caste membership as a unifying intra-caste factor, which some have even suggested could form the basis of some characteristically Indian form of modernity, despite the persistence of inequalities within castes. The source of the problem is, unsurprisingly, epistemological, and lies in what Singh argues is subalternists’ avoidance – one possibly inherited from postmodernism – of anything resembling a foundational or definitive factor in any explanation. That leads to the neglect of an ineluctable link between the economic and the political; constitutional institutions like the gram panchayats and their cognate bodies have the authority of the Indian republic to effect enormous change, but informal leadership by caste continues.

The link between the political and the economic is further shown in the history of caste in the colonies, particularly South Africa, where caste-based names started to disappear, partly because indentured labourers of all castes had to take up work they would not otherwise have dreamt of doing. Singh also notes a contemporary diminution of caste practices among some of the Indian diaspora in the Global North, and if he is somewhat optimistic about progress in that direction, his concluding point is a lesson for all: if the roots of caste and the caste system do not lie in Hinduism, the end of caste is not the end of Hinduism. For its part, the Indian republic, at present anyway, leaves all free to follow no faith and even to reject the very idea of a god or gods.

RECASTING CASTE — From the Sacred to the Profane: Hira Singh; Sage Publications India Ltd., B1/I-1 Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 795.

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Printable version | Oct 20, 2021 10:36:55 PM |

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