In 1859, Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution, and it became an immediate affront to the Biblical narrative of history. Simultaneously, the science of geology was gaining acceptance among European scholars, leading to the understanding that the earth and its fauna and flora had evolved over millions of years, thus raising serious questions about the long-held Biblical ideas of the Big Flood and the Mosaic ethnology.
However, the British did not see this as a reason to give up the domination of India, as India was very profitable to the British economy, and the British navy could project its power over the Indian Ocean and beyond with the help of the Indian mercenary army. They found a new justification in the science of “Social Darwinism” that evolved in Europe and the United States in the 1870s.
Social Darwinism postulated that different races of humans were “biologically different and evolved to different levels of civilization” (8). It speculated that the Europeans reached evolutionary progress of the highest level, while the Africans had progressed the least, and the Indians were somewhere in between. The technological superiority and affluence of Europe, in contrast to the primitive condition of the Africans, was deemed to be evidence of the European self-image of superiority. Indians were seen as somewhat advanced but certainly far behind the Europeans. The new science of Social Darwinism soon replaced Mosaic Ethnology.
The outcome of the 1857 Rebellion in India strengthened the case of Social Darwinists. That a few thousand Englishmen could defeat millions of Indians, racially evolved to a lower level of intellectual capabilities, was accepted as clear evidence of the veracity of the Social Darwinism theory.
The British Raj, in its heyday, was an apartheid state that placed pure-blooded British, the mixed-blood “Anglo-Indians” – the Indians converted to Christianity and Islam – and the Hindu Indians in that order of social ranking. British men stopped marrying Indian women and spent half the year in the hill stations away from Indians. Indians were excluded from English Clubs and not allowed to travel in the same railway compartments. Whenever an Indian visited an Englishman’s bungalow, he was not welcome beyond the verandah steps.
Risley and the Varna-Jati-Caste Conflation
After the 1857 Rebellion, the governance of India passed from the East India Company to the British parliament and became the “Raj.” The Raj administration continued the refinement of ethnology and expanded race theory further. They sought the help of Social Darwinism, the popular discourse in Europe at that time, to better understand the Indian people. Indians had their jati-varna system, where the jati represented the trade the person was involved in, and the varna was an abstract concept defined in many different ways. British ethnographic curiosity searched for the logic behind the jati-varna concept. Herbert Hope Risley, who was the Director of Ethnography and Census to the Government of India, concluded that the varna classification was the Indian version of racial differences as understood in Social Darwinism. Therefore, he theorized, the jati of an individual identified the extent to which his racial biology permitted his intellectual ability to develop, which, in turn, indicated the level of his civilizational progression(9,10). Based on Risley’s recommendations, the Colonial Government embarked on a project to rank the entire Indian population hierarchically by identifying their jatis and placing them into a hierarchical Varna ladder. This was how the modern “hierarchic caste system” evolved.
The census was used to record the jatis of people and rank them to fit into the hierarchical ‘neo-varna’ order created by the British. Census enumerators utilized anthropometrics tools to measure nose width and relate it to people’s height and facial measurements. They then used the data to estimate intelligence and brain development. They also used it as physical evidence to correlate with jati and assign social rank. They even classified some jatis as “criminal castes,” claiming that the people who belonged to those jatis were biologically evolved to make a living exclusively by criminal means(11).
The census was conducted once every ten years, and the first all-India census took place in 1871. Its purpose was that all jatis were to be grouped in different varnas and ranked in a hierarchical order within each Varna. It was easy to identify and fit the Brahmins in the system because there were few of them, and were mostly practicing what they were expected to be doing – priestly, ritual work, and learning the shastras. Other Varnas posed a challenge. After the 1857 experience, the British Government had disarmed the entire country; all martial arts were legally prohibited, and soldiering had become the exclusive monopoly of the Government. Except for the Rajput, not many people qualified for the Kshatriya varna. Therefore, the Kshatriya category was sparsely populated. Relatively well-off shopkeepers, trader jatis, and some land-owning farmers were pigeonholed into the Vaishya varna space. That left a large majority of the population who belonged to literally thousands of jatis. They were, by default, classified as Shudras. Within this group were the carpenters, goldsmiths, blacksmiths, bricklayers, agricultural laborers, potters, oil mongers, weavers, and hundreds of other trades. There were cases of jatis overlapping trades and trades overlapping jatis in varying manners from province to province and district to district within the provinces. Because there were thousands of jatis over and above the lists the government had developed, many people were force-fitted into arbitrary jatis when the census enumerator could not find a suitable match in the government list. Most people did not want to be classified as Shudras because of the perceived social stigma associated with the classification. Many of them petitioned the government to be reclassified as Kshatriyas. The courts were full of cases in which people of many jatis had requested to be reclassified to a higher varna.
The Government gave the Jati and Varna system a new name, the “caste system.” It was a system that was constructed by the whims of the colonial government out of a simple social structure where people simply practiced a trade to make a living and associated with fellow traders to form a group identity and kinship. Further, every person was fit into a “caste,” which became his identity. When people dealt with the government, like getting land deeds or approaching the court system, the caste identity of the person was a pre-requisite to get service. “Inter-caste” marriages did not have legal standing in colonial times.
The [colonial] Government gave the Jati and Varna system a new name, the “caste system.” It was a system that was constructed by the whims of the colonial government…
The colonial government’s ranking and arranging of jatis in a hierarchical order continued until 1931. Still, it did not serve any useful purpose because the whole project was based on false European assumptions and understandings. Unfortunately, it had managed to label the jati identity as the caste – an essential part of being an Indian – and thereby created an uncomfortable awareness of ranking in an artificially designed social order that did not exist earlier.
The twentieth century and the two world wars brought new perspectives and fresh challenges to the Social Darwinism theory. Racial theories and anthropometrics lost their currency, and the caste enumeration in the Indian census lost its credibility. Independent India discontinued the caste enumeration in its census exercise. However, the Western discourse of Hinduism and Indian society had become an integral part of India’s collective consciousness and was dominated by the idea of caste hierarchy. Ironically, even though the colonial era ended more than seven decades ago, this sad legacy of the colonial government has been kept alive by Indian political leadership and continues to be reinforced by the academics in European and American Universities.
It is alarming that seemingly unrelated events and beliefs of colonizers have combined to disenfranchise and disempower the true narrative of Indians about their own history and identity.
Thanks to its colonial past, the caste identity has become an integral part of the Indian legal framework, politics, and a means to stake a claim on public resources and win elections. The ghost of India’s colonial past continues to haunt India as a nation divided into Dalits, Brahmins, Aryans, Dravidians, and on and on. It has become a social and political burden and remains a painful thorn in India’s psyche. There is an urgent need for Indian society to take control of their history, introspect on who they are, and develop a truthful narrative of their past and present.
Scholars of European descent dominated African-American studies in the United States until the 1960s. They controlled African Americans as subordinate people for over a hundred years after Emancipation. The African Americans wrested control from scholars of European descent over the last several decades, and a new equality discourse emerged. Similarly, the Chinese people have taken control of Chinese studies and do not let others define who they are. There is a great urgency for Indians to rise up and do the same.
- Part 1: European Enterprise of Global Conquest – Theological Roots
- Part 2: Conquest, Confusion, and Invention of Aryan Invasion Theory
- Trautmann, Thomas (1997), Aryans and British India, University of California Press, Chapter-2.
- The Glider Lehrman Institute of American History: History Resources, The Doctrine of Discovery, 1493, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-resources/spotlight-primary-source/doctrine-discovery-1493, accessed on 2/16/2022
- Digital Encyclopedias of European History, The Treaty of Tordesillas, June 7, 1494, https://ehne.fr/en/encyclopedia/themes/treaty-tordesillas-june-7-1494, accessed on 2/16/2022
- Trautmann, Thomas (2006), Languages and Nations, University of California Press, Chapter 1.
- Trautmann, Thomas (1997), Aryans and British India, pp 31.
- Trautmann, Thomas (1997), Aryans and British India, pp 58
- Trautmann, Thomas (1997)., Aryans and British India, pp 172.
- Bannister, R.C(1989), Social Darwinism and Myth of Anglo-American Thought, Temple University Press
- Dirks, Nicholas B (2001), Castes of Mind: Colonialism and Making of Modern India, Princeton University Press
- Trautmann, Thomas., Aryans and British India, Chapter 6
- Dirks, Nicholas B (2001), Castes of Mind: Colonialism and Making of Modern India, Princeton University Press, Chapter 9.