Published On: Wed, Nov 7th, 2018

British India, Creator of Indian Caste System?

It is fairly well accepted, by modern historians, that the British controlled India by means of sophisticated ‘divide and rule’ techniques aimed at fragmenting society and, indeed, resulting in the mass communal violence that signified the last 25 years of British India.

British Fears of Islam

Initial fears of Islam led to the British banning all Indians from holding positions of authority in India, such as magistrates, and also creating a barrier between the languages of Hindi and Urdu which originally shared a common vocabulary and would be recorded in either Persian (Muslim, Urdu) or a version of the Sanskrit script (Hindi). However, a British ruling that documentation was to be in either English or the Sanskrit script alienated the Muslim intelligentsia and certainly also created divisions within what had been virtually an integrated linguistic system, and, indeed, society itself under the Mughal Emperors.

Caste System in India – A British Construct?

The issue of the caste system in India is hotly debated amongst academics, as some feel it to be primarily a construct of British colonialism whilst others see it as a reflection of traditional Hindu society. The following quotation is from the Superintendant of the Government of India regarding the 1921 Census of India and is an indication of the violent debate that still surrounds the caste system of India today.

From the above it certainly seems obvious that some British were of the opinion that Britain had at the very least contributed immensely to the caste system, if not been responsible for its creation..

According to the historian, Susan Bayly there have been commentators since the 1970s who have questioned the “very existence of an ancient pan-Indian caste system, dismissing the idea of caste society as a fabrication of colonial data-collectors and their office holding Indian informants”. She goes on, however, to argue the existence of the caste system as part of “Indian life for many centuries although not so structured or important across the whole of India until the colonial period. In the early 1800s the “boundaries between ‘pure’ and ‘impure’, clean and unclean, ‘caste’ and ‘tribe’, even Hindu and Muslim were still much less clearly defined in everyday life than was later to be the case”.

Caste set by British Stereotypes

Certainly, Bayly concludes, that the caste system prior to British rule of India was a far more fluid arrangement with the British setting and reinforcing caste stereotypes, for example: the “sturdy ‘Jat’,” the ‘manly’ Kanbi ‘race’” to the “parasitical ‘Rajputs’, and ‘thievish’ Kallars” or even creating castes such as the martial race castes from predominantly agricultural peasants.

The Creation of the Martial Race Castes

According to academic Kaushik Roy, the invention and recruitment of the martial race castes enabled the British to practise another ‘divide and rule’ technique by grouping the castes in separate regiments and encouraging inter-regimental competition, so that, in the event of another mutiny, the regiments would not have a problem firing on each other. Muslims, however, due to British fears of a Mughal inspired uprising similar to 1857, were incorporated into all regiments.

British India, Creator of Indian Caste System

The Invention of the Untouchable caste

It has further been stated that the Untouchable caste is a complete British fabrication, however as Bayly argues “they and only they must perform the tasks of ritual cleansing and pollution-removal. . . enabling those of ‘clean’ caste to maintain a state of ritual purity”, they are therefore in a symbiotic relationship with those of higher caste, which was in existence prior to British colonisation.

Introduction of the 1872 All India Census

The introduction of the 1872 All India Census also created communal rifts as Indians were made aware of their caste, religion and ethnicity, whereas previously this had not been an issue with the majority of rural Indians, who had lived and worked together as a community. Indeed, labelling by caste and religion was an extremely hit and miss affair, with officials guessing at origins if rural Indians could not provide them with any information. Academics have argued that this insistence upon caste divisions may not have been so important to the British, but more an introduction by the higher caste Hindus to maintain their exclusive identity within Indian society. The Census also included women as members of individual castes for the first time, as previously it was the man’s caste identity that was recognised in society.

About the Author

- Paul Linus is an eminent online journalist who has been writing news, features and editorials on different websites from across the world for about a decade. He can be contacted at knowledgeherald@gmail.com

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