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Colonial Perceptions of Indian Society and the Emergence of Caste(s) Associations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 March 2011


Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century “caste” organizations and “caste” polemics were, to a greater extent than has been appreciated, responses to foreign definitions of Indian society. The most important stimulus toward caste-cluster consciousness released by the British presence was neither their advanced technology (which revolutionized the means of communication and transportation) nor their military prowess and administrative skill (which obliterated “the territorial limitations inherent in the pre-British political systems” and “brought a new administrative unity to India in the establishment of a centralized bureaucratic government”—both of which are commonly noted. Rather, the growth of caste-cluster consciousness was largely an unintended but direct consequence of the fact that the foreigners engaged in a continuous attempt to describe, define, interpret, and categorize the social complexity that India presented to them—a society so puzzlingly different from their own.

Copyright © The Association for Asian Studies, Inc. 1978

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This essay is based on research conducted in India (1971/72) under a research grant from the American Institute of Indian Studies, whose support is gratefully acknowledged.

1 Following Karve, Irawati (Hindu Society—An Interpretation, Poona: Deccan College, 1961)Google Scholar, I prefer to restrict the use of the term caste to the endogamous group (jati), and to refer to those collections of endogamous units that frequently follow the same or similar occupation and are lumped together under a common generic title (e.g., Kunbi, Kayastha, etc.) as “caste-clusters” or “caste-categories.” For the sake of convenience, I shall refer to the organizations of such groups as “caste(s) associations”; e.g., note the title of this article. Although Dr. Karve refers to the Kayasthas as a “caste” and considers the term “Kayastha” to be a caste name as opposed to an occupational group (op. cit., pp. 72–73), I most respectfully dissent from her on both those points; I consider the Hindustani Kayasthas to be analogous to her Maratha Kunbis.

2 Srinivas, M. N., Caste in Modern India (Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1962), p. 16Google Scholar.

3 Hardgrave, Robert L. Jr., The Nadars of Tamilnad (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1969), p. 10.Google Scholar

4 Cohn, Bernard S. has dealt with various aspects of this question in a provocative essay, “Notes on the History of the Study of Indian Society and Culture” (in Singer, M. & Cohn, B. [eds.], Structure and Change in Indian Society, Chicago: Aldine, 1968 [hereafter S&C], pp. 328)Google Scholar. See also Washbrook's, David excellent “The Development of Caste Organization in South India, 1880–1925” (in Baker, C. J. & Washbrook, South India: Political Institutions and Political Change, 1880–1940, Delhi: Macmillan Co. of India, 1975, pp. 150203, esp. 180–94).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5 July 1883; in (year-by-year) Selections from the Vernacular Newspapers Published in the Punjab, North-Western Provinces, Oudh and Central Provinces [hereafter NWP], 1883, p. 558.

6 Kurmi Samachar (Lucknow), April 1895; in NWP, p. 289. Lahore Tribune, 8 Aug 1894.

7 Since the ”caste” associations that emerged in North India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not represent single endogamous castes, the term is misleading. E.g.: The “social mobility” explanation of the origin and purpose of “caste” associations suggests that marriage relationships were crucial. In refuting Burton Stein's conclusion that in medieval India “mobility” was an activity of families and kingroups (“Social Mobility and Medieval South Indian Hindu Sects” in Silverberg, James [ed.], Social Mobility in the Caste System in India, The Hague: Mouton, 1968, pp. 7894)Google Scholar, M. N. Srinivas remarks that Stein “has ignored the need which has always existed in the caste system to translate familial mobility to caste mobility. Whom will the sons and daughters of the mobile family marry?” (“Mobility in the Caste System” in S&C, p. 196).

The rhetorical question is, however, far wide of the mark. “Caste” associations, as they emerged in North India in the late nineteenth century, were not organized in the name of a single endogamous group but rather that of a caste-category, a collection of traditionally endogamous groups. In spite of the provocative suggestion on the part of advanced spokesmen that the category collected under the conference or association name should become endogamous, the component units, traditionally endogamous, remained emphatically so (The Kayastha Conference did not sanction inter-jati marriages until 1909, when it gathered in Allahabad for its twentieth session.) Clearly, such associations could not and did not answer the question posed by Srinivas. Clearly also, his rhetorical question fails to provide any insight into the real question as to what motivated the Srivastavas, the Saksenas, the Bhatnagars, the Mathurs, etc. to collect together under a “Kayastha” banner in 1887.

8 (Note 3 above), pp. 130–31.

10 “Preface” to Sita Ram's Hindi translation of Kali Prasad's Kayastha Ethnology, published in Hindustan Review, XVII (Apr 1908), p. 426. (Only the “Preface” was published in the HR.) See also Sita Ram's “Preface” to the English edition (Ram, Sita & Das, Ram Saran [trans.], The Kayastha Ethnology of Munshi Kali Prasad, Allahabad: Kayastha Pathshala, 1915Google Scholar [hereafter KE]).

11 “It is scarcely a paradox to lay down as a law of the casteorganization in Eastern India that a man's social status varies in inverse ratio to the width of his nose.” (Sir H. Risley, Tribes and Castes of Bengal, Calcutta: 1891, 1, p. xxiv.)

12 “Notes” (n. 4 above).

13 Ibid., pp. 15–16.

14 In the preface to his Kshatriya Prakasha (Bombay, 1891), Sarvan Lai Tandon explained that the book was necessary because “officials and private individuals, posing as Ethnologists, seem singularly apt to be misled by the present occupation of a vast majority of the Khatris and even form wrong judgments … of an illogical character” (p. i). His work is full of references to that of John Beame, E. B. Cowell, H. H. Wilson, Colebrooke, Price, J. T. Thompson, J. T. Piatt, William Jones, Colonel Tod, and John Wilson.

15 E.g.: In concluding an article advocating the Kshatriya claims of the Khatris, the Bharat Jiwan (Benares) asked concerning Risley: “Does he not know what the Ain-i-Akbari, Firishta, Shamsher Khalsa, and English writers like Mr. G. Campbell, Mr. W. Crooke, Mr. G. H. Lawrence and Mr. A. Sells say about the Khatris?” (22 July 1901; in NWP, p. 530). Likewise, theJat Hitkari (Agra) re minded Risley that “Mr. Tod, Mr. Wilson, Mr. Sherring and other Englishmen who have made inquiries regarding the castes have classified Jats with Rajputs” (July-Oct 1901; in NWP, p. 740).

16 Lahore Tribune, 27 Apr 1901. In acknowledging the Khatri memorial and agreeing to revise his classification to place the Khatris in the Kshatriya rather than the Vaishya category, Risley commented: “These representations exhibit considerable research and form a valuable contribution to the history of the Khatris, of which I hope to make use in revising the article Khatri in The Tribes and Castes of Bengal” (letter to Raja Ben Behari Kapur, published in Tribune, 10 Oct 1901).

17 Rajput (Agra), Apr-May 1901; in NWP, pp. 410–11.

18 Kurmi Samachar (Lucknow), Apr 1895; in NWP, p. 289.

19 Kayastha Samachar [hereafter KS], 18 Feb 1874; in NWP, pp. 89–90.

20 E.g., Harakh and Jaimangal v. Musammat Subidha and Alopa, Mirzapur, 1877 (KE, p. 47). Also cited by the illegitimate would-be heir were Colebrooke's Miscellaneous Essays and Elphinstone's History of India; idem.

21 Independently wealthy, he was able to prepare such a pamphlet without consideration of its commercial prospects. There was very little commercial scope for caste histories and polemics; those individuals who looked for a financial return from their books and pamphlets naturally chose topics that would reach a wider audience, especially ones that might merit them the patronage of the Education Department. People who wrote caste histories either were independently wealthy or had to beat the bushes for a patron.

22 “Author's Preface,” KE, p. 13. (italics added)

23 Sita Ram's “Preface” to ibid., p. 3.

24 Ibid., p. 7.

25 Marc Galanter, “Changing Legal Conceptions of Caste” in S&C, p. 303, n. 17. Cohn, B. S., “From Indian Status to British Contract,” Journal of Economic History, XXI (1961), pp. 614–15.Google Scholar

26 The four main divisions or classes of society, according to late Vedic texts: Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Sudras.

27 Duncan, J.Derrett, M., “The Administration of Hindu Law by the British,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, iv (1961/1962), p. 11Google Scholar. An example of the degree to which local conditions and the local jurisdiction of the traditional legal process sanctioned blatant deviations from textual law is provided by Cohn, B. S., “Anthropological Notes on Disputes and Law in India,” American Anthropologist, lxvii (1965), p. 101.Google Scholar

28 In 1899, the Subordinate Judge of Tipperah (Girindra Mohan Chakrabutty) was called upon to rule concerning the validity of a marriage between a Bengali Kayastha and a Bengali Vaidya, and thus the legitimacy of the heir and his right to inheritance of extensive properties. The Kayastha family, “usually known as the Durgapur Dewan family, is admittedly a distinguished one in this district [Tipperah]” and for generations past had given and received daughters in marriage with Vaidyas. Although the Judge found that local custom in this particular region of Bengal supported the validity of the marriage, he felt constrained to bring the issue within the text of Hindu law by holding the Vaidyas (at least of that region of Bengal) to be Sudras. As the 1884 Raj Kumar Lal decision of the Calcutta High Court (see below) had declared the Bengali Kayasthas to be Sudras, a similar judicial declaration concerning the Bengali Vaidyas reduced the question to one of intermarriage among Sudra castes, which had been upheld in previous decisions.

Interestingly, in support of the existence and social acceptance of Vaidya-Kayastha marriages in Tipperah, the Judge observed that pleaders representing both the plaintiffs and the defendants had practiced such marriages in their own families: in one case the wife was Kayastha and the husband Vaidya; in the other the situation was the converse.

On appeal, the Calcutta High Court in 1903 upheld the decision of the Subordinate Judge and held the marriage valid according to local custom, “however the [textual] law may be.” Although the High Court apparently did not accept the Subordinate Judge's finding (based on a text of Vishnu) that the Vaidyas were Sudras, they provided their own textual authority by observing: “The ancient Hindu law did not regard such marriages with the condemnation expressed by later authorities which have been accepted by our Courts so as to make children born from such unequal marriages illegitimate” (Ram Lal Shookool v. Akhoy Charan Mitter in Calcutta Weekly Notes [reports of high court cases], VII, 1902–1903, 619).

29 Indian Law Reports [hereafter ILR], 10 Cal., 688.

30 All India Reporter [yearly high court series, hereafter AIR], 1927 Patna, 145 = ILR, 6 Patna, 506.

31 ILR, 10 Cal., 694.

32 Calcutta, 3rd ed., 1883. An exposition of the Dayabhaga School of Hindu Law, designed as a reference book for justices and lawyers in the British-Indian courts, it is a collection of relevant classical texts and case law precedents, on the lines of similar works by Macnaghten and others.

Shyama Charan Sarkar, a law professor at Calcutta University and author of the Tagore Law Lectures of 1873 and 1874 on Muhammadan Law, also authored another text: Vyavastha Chandrika. A Digest of Hindu Law as Current in All the Provinces of India, except Bengal Proper—that is, the Mitak-shara School with its various regional modifications (2 vols., Calcutta, 1878).

In the Darpana—the Bengal Proper volume— there is a 15-page section on castes, including more than 8 pages (pt. I, pp. 662–70) on the Kayasthas; with the exception of the final paragraph quoted by the Court, the Kayastha section consists of extracts from Sanskrit works, each and every one of which asserts the Kshatriya status of the Kayasthas. In the Chandrika, there is a very short section on caste, and only one sentence on Kayasthas (vol. 11, p. 636): “The Kayasthas, who for several reasons rank above the Sudras, are divided into no less than fifteen classes or sub-tribes.” Sarkar cites Steel and Sherring as his authorities for this statement.

It is worth remembering that the case in point was one from outside Bengal Proper, from the Shahabad district of western Bihar. The case was heard on appeal before the Calcutta High Court because, until 1912, Bihar was included in the administrative jurisdiction of Bengal.

33 ILR, 10 Cal., 694.

34 Cf: “It is contended on behalf of the plaintiffs that the Kayasthas of the present age are necessarily Sudras, inasmuch as they are not vested with the sacred thread, nor do they recite the Gayatri.

“This in the first place is taking only a limited view of the Kayasthas as a class for it is not denied that there are many exceptions among them, and in the second place no rule of Hindu Law has been pointed out whereby the twice-born under such circumstances become so degraded as to be classed, not only theoretically but practically among the lower order of Sudras; there are in fact thousands of Baniyas and Thakurs who avowedly belong to the Dwiji class and yet do not put on the sacred thread.” (Stta Ram v. Sunder Lai, Shahjehanpur, 1881; quoted in KE, pp. 59–60.)

“The balance of authority is in favour of Chitra-guptavanshi Kayasthas being Kshatriyas. The plaintif's father had sacred thread on his person; he performed Homa after Vedic form and Kayasthas of the same class do perform it. These are prohibited to Sudras.… For the reasons shown above the plaintif's father and defendent are not Sudras, but were and are members of the twice-born class Kshatriyas. It is found that many Rajputs who are admittedly Kshatriyas have no sacred thread and have given up the ceremonies which they were bound to observe but still they are not less Kshatriyas than their kinsmen who observe all these ceremonies. Accordingly I hold that the law regarding the Kshatriyas shall apply to plaintiff and defendents and not that of the Sudras.” (Musammat Ramarati Kuar v. Musammat Rukmin Kuar, Patna, 1879; quoted in KE, pp. 53–54.)

35 Calcutta, 1882, p. 948.

36 ILR, 10 Cal., 696. (italics added)

37 Idem.

38 ILR, 10 Cal., 694, 695.

39 Circular issued 25 Feb 1901 and published in Pioneer, 26 Apr 1901.

40 SirRisley, H., The People of India (Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co., 1908), p. 110[br]. Note B. S. Cohn's perceptive comments in “Notes” (n. 4 above), p. 18.Google Scholar

41 Published in Pioneer, 3 June 1901.

42 16 June 1901; in NWP, p. 457.

43 The second resolution was: “That this meeting of the Khatris, having read the letter of Mr. Risley to Rai Ramcharan Das Bahadur of Allahabad, extracts from his ‘Tribes and Castes of Bengal’ and Mr. Burn's Circulars Nos. 524 of 25th February 1901 and 804 of 25th April, and agreeing with the protest made by the Khatris in different parts of India, records its deep sense of alarm and indignation at the proposal of the Census authorities to group the Khatris in a class lower than that immediately below that of the Brahmans and expresses its great dissatisfaction at the attempts made to lower the social status which the Khatris have unquestionably occupied from time immemorial.” Both in Advocate (Lucknow), 4 July 1901; in NWP, p. 484.

44 IV, July 1901, p. 13.

45 KS, III, Apr 1901, p. 253.

46 Sir H. Risley & E. A. Gait, Census of India, General Report, 1901, I, Pt. 1, p. 537.

47 E.g., see reference to “the Hamirpur affair” in Nasim-i-Agra, 7 Apr 1882; in NWP, pp. 268–70.

48 Ukbar Alum (Meerut), 27 Feb 1868 (in WP, pp. 137–38) and Moofeed-ool Anom (Futtehgarh), 24 Dec 1868 (in NWP, 1869, pp. 2–3).

49 KS, (Allahabad): Mar, July 1883; Dabdaba-i-Qaisari (Bareilly): 21 Apr, 5 May 1883. In NWP, pp. 267, 342–43. 389, 558.

50 2 Aug 1890; in NWP, p. 520.

51 24 Sept 1894; in NWP, p. 424.

52 Mauj-i-N eriudda (Hoshangabad), 1 Sept 1888; in NWP, p. 589.

53 The (Anglo-Indian) Civil and Military Gazette (Lahore) remarked in 1891 on the “curious phenomenon of modern Indian history, that those classes who … have gained most by the introduction of British rule, are the first to grumble against it; while those who like the Sikhs and the Kayasthas, may justly complain that they have comparatively lost ground from the same cause are exceptionally grateful and well-disposed” (25 Feb 1891; quoted in A Short Account of the Aims, Objects, Achievements, and Proceedings of the Kayastha Conference, Allahabad: Conference Reception Committee Muttra, 1893, P. 29).

54 Quoted in Lahore Tribune, 10 Apr 1895. When the Pioneer promised its sympathy to the Kayastha Conference as long as it kept clear of politics, the Hindustani of Khatri Congressman Ganga Prasad Varma pointed out to the Kayasthas that their loyal stand had not profited them anything (26 Jan 1898; in NWP, p. 64).

55 Quoted in KS, II, Oct 1900, p. 28; see also editorial remarks in same issue.

56 Kayastha Conference Gazette (Lucknow), 30 Oct 1898; in NWP, p. 572.

57 30 Oct 1898; in NWP, p. 572.

58 14 Dec 1898; in NWP, p. 664

59 See KS, II, Nov 1900, p. 24; IV, July 1901, p. 89. Lahore Tribune, 3 Oct 1901.

60 Quoted in KS, iv, July 1901, p. 89.

61 KS, IV, July 1901, p. 88. The Shri Gopal Patrika (Lucknow) was virtually the only Hindu paper to approve of the exclusion (15 July 1901; in NWP, pp. 511–12).

62 Quoted in KS, IV, Sept-Oct 1901, p. 322.

63 Published in KS, V, Jan 1902, pp. 110–11.

64 Published in ibid., p. 110.

65 See ibid., p. 109. It also seemed to satisfy a recent scholar: “Finally, the caste association functions as a political interest group. … This mechanism is … evident in activities of the Kayasthas early in the century, when the economic basis of their mobility was threatened by a United Provinces Government decree on limiting numbers of Kayasthas to be hired in government service. Organized response through the caste association was effective in countering this attack on the fundamental basis of mobility” (William L. Rowe, “Mobility in the Nineteenth Century Caste System” in S&C, p. 206).

66 12 Feb 1902; in NWP, p. III.

67 E.g., Hindustan Review and Kayastha Samachar, VII, June 1903, p. 614–15.

68 Abstract of the Proceedings of the Council of His Honour the Lieutenant-Governor, United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, 1908, p. 4.

69 Ibid., pp. 4–5.

70 Quoted in Hindustan Review, XVII, March 1908, p. 328.

71 “The Rahbar (Moradabad), of the 7th May [1908], says that in these days when Government want to set one caste against the others it is no wonder that one hears of the Kayasthas—whose profession by the way has always been Government service—being precluded from entering it in order to secure ‘due representation’ of other castes. Had not ‘divide and rule’ been its policy, the Government would have carried into effect the words of the Queen's Proclamation, and secured the confidence of all sections of the Indian people.” (In Selections from the Vernacular Newspapers Published in the United Provinces, 1908, p. 452.)

72 (Note 1 above), pp. 19–29.

73 “Notes” (n. 4 above), p. 24.

74 B. S. Cohn, “Anthropological Notes” (n. 27 above), p. 114.

75 With the single exception of Bhowanee Prasad v. Bukhtawar Singh, I have not found a reference to a case where the point was directly at issue, and in which the Kayasthas were held to be Sudras by a court of Upper India prior to 1901. In the 1927 decision of the Patna High Court,, justice Jwala Prasad, in dissenting from Raj Kumar Lai v. Bisesh-war Dayal and holding the Hindustani Kayasthas to be Kshatriyas, remarked: “It is … important to notice that no contrary view of any Court in the United Provinces and Bihar has been referred to us. This shows that … without any controversy … the status of the Kayasthas as belonging to the twice-born caste has been accepted in those provinces” (AIR, 1927, Patna, 158–59). There had, however, been at least one contrary decision at the turn of the century; KS, III, Jan-Feb 1901, p. 62.

76 Tulshi Ram v. Behari Lai, 1889, ILR, 12 Allahabad, 328.

77 Proceedings of the Government of the NorthWestern Provinces in the General Department for February 1877, Pt. 11, B, p. 8, 8 Feb 1877.

78 For the founding of the Kayastha Pathshala and the Kayastha Conference, see my Caste, Social Change, and the Social Scientist,” JAS, xxxv (1975). PP. 6384.Google Scholar

79 Sita Ram's “Preface,” KE, p. 7.

80 Risley (n. 40 above), p. 110.

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