At times it becomes imperative to read the colonial archives, to ‘interrogate’ it ‘along the grain’ as Ann Stoler had put it. Textual analysis presupposes certain indictments which inevitably colours judgements, making the exercise lopsided in its results. To think of ‘colonialism’ being a monolithic entity, all ‘colonial knowledge’ being anachronistic and manipulative, meaning to crush and destroy native culture was a polemic approach to reading history. Let’s not forget that colonial rule didn’t arrive fully formed in the Battle of Plassey, ‘colonial’ as a construct was evidently created by various discourses, some going on to impute spurious ideas of unity between the West and Western ideas as embodying a latent form of moral authority. Through a lack of narratives, it launches into a demonization of colonial minions and administrations in its analysis giving rise to the popular notion of the ‘subaltern’.
The problem with subaltern history was that it was riddled with a rhetoric that presupposed more than recover. It was meant to recover lost voices, reconstruct fragmented and fractured narratives from bottom-up but often it ends up imaging the quotidian experiences of the people themselves and enforcing undue relevance on fragmentary glimpses creating extrapolations which run the risks of being politically guided. If these groups are claimed to have voices, often they are robbed of them in their representations. The British didn’t create caste. They did chart it, record it and use it for their bureaucratic purposes but caste existed right there before them. What motivations drive people to maintain these caste hierarchies? Were these boundaries fluid? Caste distinctions are policed, and constantly negotiated in social spaces; these boundaries are policed through complex intersections between on the one hand, ideological constructs about people being ‘in their place’, and, on the other hand, socio-economic forces which are marshalled to prop up these constructs.
Reservations were introduced for certain groups which had suffered from various historical disadvantages, and they were intended to help these groups to overcome these barriers so that they could participate fully in national life. ‘Difference’ as a category also needs to be studied in the context of its conception and practices of a lived reality.
Difference’as a conceptual category with no natural foundations however it would be fallacious to understand caste dynamics in the light of western theories; as a matter of fact, the majority of Hindus in the past, and arguably in the present, have not thought about caste in this manner – they have regarded caste distinctions as ‘naturally’ inscribed into the social order and these natural inscriptions supported by a theological-Vedic base.
Those who argue that caste is determined by guna and karma tend to affirm ‘mythical’ notions of organic social bodies into which human beings are allotted their placed by their inherited karmic dispositions. The problem, of course, is who is going to determine the quality of these dispositions – the individual herself, the higher caste, a council of all the castes, the learned people, the government, and so on? While the Gita’s appeal to guna and karma is often mentioned in defences of ‘democratized’ notions of caste, it must be remembered that the text is a product of its own times – it prohibits any cross-border traffic across the varṇas, viewing such confusion of castes (varnasamkara) as a sign of moral degeneration. The notion of mythic caste was developed in late colonial India to respond to the charge that Hindu social existence lacks deep metaphysical foundations.
‘Difference’ as a conceptual category can never be studied in isolation. Differences in caste, ethnicity, gender or even disability never exist in a pure form but always in hybridism; knotted up in multiple and often overlapping categories.
The theme of transgression of boundaries between different caste groups, be it antagonistically or paternalistically studied taking the case of Khairlanji Massacres of 2006, where it was found that the upper castes weren’t the Brahmans but ‘intermediate’ sections (OBCs) at conflict with the Dalits and dominance was established through numbers and play of power. Knowledge systems are a product of power and maybe that is why Dirks’s argument on caste being a colonial construct through registers of census manufacturing gained much popularity. Now, the question is, how do these knowledge systems gain legitimacy?
The problem with viewing caste through the lens of the ‘organic whole’, a functionalist approach.. that such communitarian notions are not easily situated within liberalism’s commitment to basic civil and political rights. Whether the sociological approach adopted for investigating caste is ‘essentialist’ or functional, they would both collide with a liberal understanding of individuals as primarily citizens with basic rights. Is providing a teleological explanation to the histories of caste hierarchies an alternative to accommodating them? Scholars have argued that indigenous practices in time were to be eliminated should be initially tolerated and this logic lead to the tolerance of caste marks and dietary practices giving way to sanskritisation; a ‘natural’ marking (essence) of a social body tracing it back to a Vedic theological base is often an active part of academic discourses.
Even in the liberal democratic understanding of national development, the caste question would always act like a double edged sword; a barrier to development yet an inevitable reality in the unforeseen future, where even the counterarguments of a self rule are problematic which could lead to a reconstitution of the social and a reformation of the idea of ‘caste’.