Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Caste, Society and Politics in India

Book Cover

Book Title

Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age. New York : Cambridge University Press, 1999

Author

Bayly, Susan

Synopsis

Combining historical and anthropological approaches, Bayly frames her analysis within the context of India's dynamic economic and social order. She interprets caste not as the essence of Indian culture and civilization, but rather as a contingent and variable response to the enormous changes that had occurred in the subcontinent's political landscape before and after colonial conquest.

The main idea of the book is that caste has been for many centuries a real and active part of Indian life, and not merely a self-serving orientalist fiction. And yet,
the book will ask why caste has so evidently mattered to many Indians, why it has aroused so much debate from within and outside the continent, and why its norms have influenced people in so many areas of economic, political and religious life.

Unlike accounts that were written before hers, Bayly explores a different angle of caste in Indian history. She argues that the nineteenth and twentieth century critiques of caste has had a powerful impact on colonial policy, and on the ways Indians themselves have come both to understand and experience the phenomenon of caste.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book accounts for and interprets the phenomenon of caste in the Indian subcontinent. It deals primarily with the period from the mid-eighteenth century to the present-day, though Chapters One and Two explore the spread of caste-like norms and values in the age of the great sixteenth and seventeenth century Indian dynasties.

An important dimension of the book lies in how caste has been the focus of a debate in which the question of whether modernity has modified or undermined caste values.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Bayly counters several arguments that India lacked indigenous values which might have inspired the construction of strong states and the achievement of effective political action, either in the distant past or in resistance to colonial conquest. The changes to perceptions of caste and how it is used serves as an important contribution to the understanding of changes that occurred in India.

The book argues that caste has been for many centuries a real and active part of Indian life, though well into the colonial period, much of the subcontinent was still populated by people for whom the formal distinctions of caste were only of limited importance as a source of corporate and individual lifestyles.

The book moves beyond placing value judgments such as seeing the caste as a cause for dehumanizing inequalities, instead attempting to see critiques of caste in the nineteenth and twentieth century as having a powerful impact on colonial policy, and on the ways Indians themselves have come both to understand and experience caste. In addition, the study seeks to illustrate the point that both before and after the end of British colonial rule, the perceptions and writings of both Indian and foreign observers also further contributed directly to the shaping of the 'system' of caste. Hence, the study seeks to prove that caste should be examined as a dynamic force in Indian life and thought and is embodied in what people do and say rather than a mere code of conduct.

Finally, this book has served to show that caste in itself only became a form of 'tradition' underway long after the initial British conquest. However, it would be the state rulers, as well as the responses of the Indians in turn which would have moulded the caste system to what it gradually become, a comparatively recent product of these transformations of Indian life and thought.


Annotated by Michelle Djong