Home Features Interviews Prof. Anupama Rao on Caste and Anti-Caste

Prof. Anupama Rao on Caste and Anti-Caste


Prof. Anupama Rao speaks on caste as a modern category that was shaped by colonial state and capitalism along with modernism.  And, the emergence of anti-caste movement, struggle and thought in such a condition.

DalitCamera: How do you see caste? See, there are different ways of narration of caste. One is about the Vedic literature which Ambedkar speaks about, and there is a recent colonial history where people say that caste has been brought by the colonisers. And, there is another thing, as in 80s and 90s they say caste was brought in because of Mandal Commission. So, given this kind of a debate on caste, share how do you see where the caste emerged?

Anupama Rao: I would respond to that question first by arguing that one of the things that I think would be important to do and something that I have suggested, is that rather than thinking about the question of “What caste is?”, because, as you say there are a number of responses from Indology to a very important school of kind of colonial sociology of knowledge which believed in a sense that caste was hardened and in essence verified because of the practices of the colonial state to the argument about the new politics of caste in the post colonial period. So, that would be one way of saying “What is caste?” and “What has happened to caste?”.

I think the other way and something that I think is equally important and one that really throws light on the fixation on caste is to ask “What is anti-caste?”, “What is anti-caste thought?”, “What is anti-caste practice?” or “What is the anti-caste movement?”. So, one of the things that really I began doing in my earlier book, The Caste Question, is to say that alongside or as important as asking the question of “How do we think about caste?”, it is important to ask “How do we think about anti-caste?”. Because, it is by asking that question that we can begin to think about not just about the anti-caste movement or the anti-caste struggle, but, more importantly, for me, that we can begin to think about anti-caste of thought. And, I will come back to this in a roundabout way by responding to your question “How do I see caste?”.

I was trained in the early 90s, late 80s into the 90s, and was trained freely in the wake of orientalism, Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism as it were but also in the wake of people like Bernard Cohen and a number of others who had begun to really make a very strong argument about the way that caste had taken shape under colonialism. So, that was in a sense my training but, once I started to do research and once I was sort of in the field and got interested in looking at anti-caste thought and anti-caste movements in Maharashtra, I realized something, one was that colonialism itself and so if you want to ask me do I think about indology and a kind of long-term history of caste that is not what I do. I would really think about caste as in it’s modern form, caste as a modern category that is related to the state. That is, that the state actually produces but is also affected by caste. And, that the colonial and capitalist modernity play a very very important role in transforming caste in the modern period for us. So, in that sense, colonialism is important because it does a number of things, it does give to caste a certain kind of bureaucratic or institutional life. The second thing that it does which I think is equally important is that caste becomes, in a sense for the colonial state, a category that can be counted, can be enumerated, it is a demographic category of population. But, caste is also a qualitative network, it is not merely quantitative but there is also qualitative aspect of question of stigma, degradation, ritual exclusion services. And so, in this way caste becomes a very complicated kind of object. So, in the colonial period I think what we also see is not merely the practice of the colonial state and defining, categorizing, naming, controlling caste and what caste is, but we see equally on the part of lower-caste communities, dalit and lower-caste communities a deep investment in precisely those politics of representation, representational democracy, number, counting etc, because, what it allows especially the non-brahmin communities to do, is to begin to claim for themselves the status of a demographic majority. So, regarding the colonial question, people have tended to an easy reading of the colonial question is to say well people want to argue that the colonial state and colonialism invented caste and I think this is really a profound misreading of that argument. It is to say that the coming together of capitalist modernity and colonial rule really transformed caste and in very complicated ways. If we are to really think about dalit and lower-castes in this period, they are both constrained by colonial categories of caste but colonial institutions and colonial ideologies also gifted dalits and lower-castes a very important space of maneuver. And so, that investment in number actually becomes very important for lower-caste communities. One part of the way that I see caste is certainly that colonialism plays an important role in shaping caste but we also need to see it alongside longer practices, critical practices, intellectual traditions, social practices of criticism that anti-caste movements and struggles themselves develop. Sometimes in relationship to the colonial state and sometimes outside of it. Rather than thinking about whether caste is a colonial construct, I think we could think about how caste has changed, transformed, how it mutates under colonialism. But, always by keeping in mind that there were other practices of critiques and a social struggle that went together with this.

Dalit and lower-castes in this period are both constrained by colonial categories of caste but colonial institutions and colonial ideologies also gifted dalits and lower-castes a very important space of maneuver.

DC: Actually when we read Ambedkar’s book on caste – Annihilation of Caste and the history of anthropology study of caste and other writers, dalit writers, even Phule and there are other people in the past even before the colonial invasion, there are writings about caste, historical writings, the religious texts, vedic literature which came before the colonial period. The colonial period during the British rule did give a different shape, a very complex shape, to the caste. But, isn’t it true that it was not their invention; no, it is not an important question but, I want to say that it was the only option the British had. In the sense, to make it very complex, they were not here to give an emancipation life but, rather what they did was that they further fortified the caste formations. One of the examples is in the medical journals, they say that when a municipality was formed it was literally given to an upper-caste, so that the upper-caste landlord became the municipality. So, the British did nothing other than just structuralize the existing formation of caste while at the same time giving some space to the dalits. This is what Ambedkar and you are arguing but, I would like to say that isn’t it that caste existed prior to British however, British complicated it yet gave space for the dalits which was not there in the earlier period of history and to anti-caste struggle in a structural form; which Ambedkar says is that we don’t want freedom we want freedom from India not from British.  

So, to put in this context, isn’t that more than the complexity the Britishers at least structuralized the formation of caste which was there already.

AR: Sure, and again as I said that is what is very complicated about it. You read somebody like Phule and he is writing at a moment where the British bureaucracy is rigidifying and actually using caste, and is giving to, what Phule calls the new Brahmin, a very important place. So, the ritual brahmin who was a ritual specialist now becomes the bureaucratic brahmin. So, Phule I think is very very astute in recognizing that an earlier social hierarchy is actually the grounds on which colonial rule could be justified. Cause, let us keep in mind that an important aspect of the colonial rule was to argue that native hierarchies existed and that the British themselves were a progressive improving power. It is a very complicated way in which the British both strengthen the existing social hierarchies even as they argue that what they are doing is merely respecting what is there and that they are not going to interfere. This kind of an argument about non-interference while structurally embedding themselves within a caste order which gives to the upper-castes a new kind of power. It is secular-ysis the upper-castes, it brings them within the bureaucratic order, it gives them English and so on and so forth. That is one thing but, I think the contradictions also that the British and British colonialism puts in place cannot just be restricted to what the British think they are doing. Because, the other aspect to this is to say what are the unintended consequences of what they do. By investing in things like modern institutions, the school, the kacheri, the hospital and so on and so forth, by investing in those modern institutions the British can also open up new institutional spaces. What do we see happening, mill workers, people who go into the municipality and so on and so forth, now these are people who continue to perform manual labor but, they are performing it under conditions of a modern organization of labor. Now, this becomes the contradiction that dalits and lower-castes constantly experience. They are able to, for instance come into the city, but once they do that what they end up performing is manual labor again, but, under conditions that are modern, you are in a factory space, you are in a textile mill, labor is organized differently. You experience the possibility of social equality even though on the ground you are prevented. The imagination of social equality that is also opened up is very important. So that is the complicated thing, there may be a distinction between thought and practices.

DC: You were talking about the British trying to structuralize the upper-castes, who became a new kind of brahmin with a powerful structure. Can we put this way that Britishers really gave power to the upper-castes in a structural form of a state formation kind of backing?

AR: The 19th century globally is the period of the emergence, the rise of the modern bureaucratic state. That is the state regulated by bureaucratic institutions which is to say a number of institutions that take on the project of the governance. Because this is a modern capitalist formation of the state, albeit in a colonial form, is marked by notions of racial and cultural difference and so on and so forth. You could certainly say that brahminism is transformed, this is Phule’s argument for instance. What Brahmanism is as a structure of power, as a structure of governance, is transformed. It secularized also, this I think is very important. So that part absolutely but, because these are institutions that are based on an idea of equal access, of equality, the unintended consequence is that the dalits begin to make the argument that if this is a public space why are we prevented from it – the temple entry struggle, tank access, water, etc. The minute that this notion also that the state must have the notion of public interest behind it, once it begins to do that, once it begins to bring in, let us say, scavengers, sweepers, municipal workers, tram drivers, textile workers, who are lower-castes and dalits, who are in a sense getting also influenced and infected with this language of public interest. Then, there is an internal contradiction that is built into the structure of the state and that internal contradiction is to say that this is a state that cannot behave or act on behalf of civil right. This is the difference from an earlier caste state to what the colonial state does, it must act on behalf of everyone. Then, the question emerges if it acts on behalf of everyone why does it exclude large number of people. Now, you have to justify inequality on totally new grounds, it can no longer be that we have always done it this way. There are no religious books that govern us, now inequality has to be justified as private property, inequality has to be justified through a completely different normative order. This I think is what is profound, this is what begins to give lower-castes and dalits also a lot of space for mobilization. So that’s the contradiction of the colonial state.

Prof. Anupama Raoteaches in Department of History, Columbia University. Her book, The Caste Question (University of California Press, 2009) theorizes caste subalternity, with specific focus on the role of anti-caste thought (and its thinkers) in producing alternative genealogies of political subject-formation through the vernacularization of political universals. She has also written on the themes of colonialism and humanitarianism, and on non-Western histories of gender and sexuality. Recent publications include: Discipline and the Other Body (Duke University Press, 2006); “Death of a Kotwal: Injury and the Politics of Recognition,” Subaltern Studies XII; Violence, Vulnerability and Embodiment (co-editor, special issues of Gender and History, 2004), and Gender and Caste: Issues in Indian Feminism (Kali for Women, 2003). https://history.barnard.edu/profiles/anupama-rao arao@barnard.edu

Video: Ravichandran Bathran, Transcription: Archana Bidargaddi, Video Date: 31-Oct, 2014