Caste, race and sociologists - II

By Gail Omvedt

IN WEBER'S argument about the role of religious legitimation in the development of caste, India provides an important backing for his thesis of a necessary (if not sufficient) causal role of ideas in history. ``This well-integrated, unique social system could not have conquered and lasted without the pervasive and all-powerful influence of the Brahmans. The combination of caste legitimacy with karma doctrine - in its way a stroke of genuis - plainly is the construction of rational ethical thought and not the product of any economic conditions. Only the wedding of this thought product with the empirical social order through the promise of rebirth gave this order the irresistible power over thought and hope of members and furnished the fixed scheme for the religious and social integration of the various professional groups and pariah peoples'' (131). It is an analysis that Ambedkar would have appreciated, just as Phule would have applauded his recognition of ``Aryan conquest''. Dalits and OBCs would also appreciate Weber's arguments that caste is a barrier to economic development, though many Indian social scientists have contested it.

There is indeed much to dispute in Weber's analysis. Romila Thapar, for example, has criticised him for an uncritical use of source materials, and a bias especially in regard to Buddhism, which he depicted as extremely other-worldly. It can also be argued that his underlying question - why didn't Asian societies develop capitalism? - is no longer relevant today, when so many of them have produced capitalist societies as vigorous as those of Europe, when today social scientists are analysing how Confucianism supports capitalist development! With all his flaws, though, and in spite of the fact that he never set foot in India but worked with material available in Europe, Weber's analysis remains well worth reading and debating almost 90 years later.

However, Indians may well ask: what is after all the relevance of these studies of caste in pre-British or ``traditional'' India? Hasn't it changed significantly today? Weber, Marx, Dumont also, of course, believed that caste was changing, with Marx taking the strongest position that it would crumble under the impact of industrialisation. Dumont, however, also emphasised change and even gave a theorisation of it: in modern India, caste was becoming ``substantialised'', that is, caste groups were organising as large blocs - for instance, all the Yadavas in a given State, or an even wider territory - mobilising to confront other large caste blocs. Dumont argued that such a transformation of caste into ethnic- like groups represented a fundamental shift from hierarchy, a change in the system itself.

But how fundamental is it? The idea of the innumerable jatis in hierarchies being transformed into ethnic-like blocs seems to fit much experience (the caste-based ``voting blocs'' of politics), but are these really competing on a non-hierarchical basis? Have these larger caste blocs (Yadavas as a group, Brahmans as a group, Pariahs as a group, etc.) really changed their places in a hierarchy, or moved into a position sufficient to say that a hierarchy no longer exists? Or is there still a broad correlation between economic position and caste status? Is inter-marriage occurring at a significant enough rate to really transform the system? Have the equalitarian policies of the Indian state - as Srinivas and Beteille argued over 30 years ago for the prestigious journal Scientific American - joined with the forces of industrialisation wrought a fundamental change in caste traditions? Or are Dalits right in claiming that their oppression and exploitation is as bitter as ever?

The sad fact about the state of Indian sociology today is that we have no empirical data to answer such questions. The Indian state and its supporting intellectuals have been antagonistic to gathering caste data, as indicated by the continuing refusal to collect data on ``caste'' identification in the census - and sociologists have, if anything, been more backward. For instance, while in the U.S. there is not only official data on race linking it with economic position and other criteria, but race/ethnic relations has been the subject of much research, including studies showing the rates of inter-marriage among different ethnic groups. In India there is nothing: we can search our experience, look at matrimonial ads in newspapers and make guesses that, well, some things have changed but most marriages remain traditional - but we have absolutely no scientific surveys to test any hypotheses. There are no studies of actual inter- mariage rates, almost no studies in a region larger than a village that test the correlation of jati with economic position.

In terms of historical sociology, the situation is even worse. While Weber before 1920 could attempt an analysis of the development of caste using original sources (Sanskrit and Pali literature) in translation, Dipankar Gupta's monograph of the 1970s, ``From Varna to Jati'', uses only secondary sources. They are good sources (Romila Thapar, D.D. Kosambi, etc.), but superficial and eclectic tapping of such secondary sources cannot substitute for a comprehensive knowledge of the original material. Today Indian social scientists have many more methodological tools available to them, much more material, and a supposedly deeper understanding of their own society than Weber had in his time - then why can they not surpass scholars such as Weber in doing historical sociology? Why are there only attacks on the whole idea from fashionable post-modernist pedestals?

The development of sociological theories of caste in the post- Independence period, whether by Indians or by Europeans and Americans, has often seemed to involve the kind of speculation that would be pleasing to the most ardent advocate of Hindutva. Anthropologists such as McKim Marriott, for example, have attempted to develop theories that would understand caste in the light of traditional Hindu, that is to say, Brahmanic texts. Ronald Inden in his ``Imagined India'' has not simply criticised British racism, but argues that caste is almost a creation of western efforts to orientalise their conquered subjects. Such themes - that caste hierarchy, or at least its severity, is a colonial creation, that its social impact has been exaggerated, that it has had no major effect on economic and political structures - have understandably become quite popular.

Such theories, of course, need to be grasped and debated as much as the classical positions of Dumont, Weber and Marx. The most haunting lacuna of contemporary Indian sociology remains the lack of data with which to do this, the apparent lack of concern for even gathering data. As Dr. Satish Deshpande has put it in a paper for a Pune University seminar, ``What needs to be emphasised is that unlike other comparable situations, the paucity and poor quality of this data (on caste) is due to wilful if well-intentioned neglect: the state and academic community refused to collect such data because it was believed that it should not and need not be collected. But, however high-minded the motives, the irony is that the end result is not very different from what might have been the case had there been a conspiracy to suppress evidence of caste inequality''.

Today, this suppression of data on caste can no longer be justified. Dalits and other oppressed sections are finding a voice; their charges cannot be countered by mockery or superficial journalistic fiats. A serious sustained effort at empirical research and theorising is needed so that social scientists can contribute their expertise to the comprehension of one of India's most severe problems. Admitting a problem, analysing it and opening up a debate on it paves the way for its enduring solution. There is no reason why an Indian state and academic community, supposedly committed to equality, should be reluctant to undertake this task.

(The writer is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murthi House, New Delhi.)

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Referred by:: Benjamin P Kaila
Published on:19 oct, 2001
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