By Sergio Targa
Right from the inception of indological studies in the 18th century, caste was identified by the administrators of the British Raj as the centrepiece of Indian civilisation. Since then caste has continued to excite the interest of anthropologists and historians alike. At first at least, British fascination with caste and Indian civilisation in general had clearly a political goal. The British somehow had to justify and legitimise their dominion in India. Caste and Hinduism came in handy as the tools for such a legitimisation. Caste was basically considered a product of Hinduism, a religious matter and nothing else. Deprived of any political meaning caste was blamed for the apparent lack of political unity in the Indian civilisation. In fact, in western circles from Hegel onwards caste was invoked to explain the lack of the state the like of which was being built in Europe at the time. Caste or civil society, it was said, engulfed the state or political society leaving India in the hands of continuously warring petty principalities unable to rise to the statures of European empires. Vincent Smith in his The Early History of India a famous and classical text, so expresses himself while introducing three of his book’s chapters:
the three following chapters, which attempt to give an outline of the salient features in the bewildering annals of Indian petty states when left to their own devices for several centuries, may perhaps serve to give the reader a notion of what India always has been when released from the control of a supreme authority, and what she would be again, if the hand of the benevolent power which now safeguards her boundaries should be withdrawn (1924, p. 372).
Needless to say, the ‘benevolent power’ he talks about is the British one! Obviously, in today’s India and Bangladesh there is no longer a question of a foreign power imposing itself politically, and hence there is no longer the need to misuse culture, religion or social structures to legitimise anything. Nevertheless the explanations and interpretations produced by early British administrators are still fashionable. And these may be misleading in today’s situation.