By Swapan Dasgupta
In recent times the world has witnessed a lot of crying over spilt milk. Germany has apologized to the Jews for the Holocaust; Japan has said sorry to the US for Pearl Harbour; the Pope has publicly taken the burden of his errant clergy on himself and bowed his head in shame; the federal government of Australia has apologized to its aborigines for wilfully killing so many of them; Russia has apologized to Poland for Stalin's massacre of its non-Communist leadership in 1939; and 13 years ago, the Queen apologized for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
Compared to these grave wrongs of history, the abuse showered on long-forgotten British civil servants by the cheerleaders of Indian nationalism seems a case of petty theft. For six decades, generations of Indians have been taught to believe that the colonial rulers saw India through the lens of ignorance and prejudice. Sir Valentine Chirol, a distinguished journalist who was prolific on 'Indian problems' epitomized the type of Englishman Indians loved to despise. Writing in 1926, Chirol observed that "Hinduism could not build up a nation because the one vital structure which it did build up was the negation of everything that constitutes a nation."
The "vital structure" that Chirol alluded to was caste. National allegiance, he felt, "was secondary to the loyalty each (Hindu) owed to his caste since his caste was his karma, determining much more than his present life, namely, all his lives still to come."
Chirol mirrored the colonial perception of India as a land obsessed by caste and unable to rise above it. Since the foreign rulers never aimed at being social reformers, they attempted to accommodate this caste obsession in public policy. They documented caste in all its bewildering complexities in the Gazetteers and, most important, attempted to quantify caste allegiances in the Census operations from 1881. As Census Commissioner for the 1911 Census, Sir Herbert Risley went one better. It wasn't enough merely to record the caste preferences of individuals. To make life easier for policy makers, the Census had also to identify "social precedence as recognized by native public opinion." In other words, the administration had to locate a caste in the ritual and social hierarchy and determine which caste was high, intermediate or low.
Risley's attempt to define caste precedence triggered an upsurge in civil society. Caste groups mobilized to redefine their varna status, undertake changes in ritual practices and even press for changes in caste names. India experienced a bizarre ferment with caste leaders pressing for vegetarianism, restrictions on widow remarriage and changes in the rituals governing marriage and mourning. The Census led to a government-induced process of what MN Srinivas was later to call 'Sanskritization' — social changes premised on the belief that Brahmins were role models.
For nationalist historians, Risley was a villain promoting 'false consciousness' and furthering a divide-and-rule approach to undermine national unity. The Census was perceived, not merely as a quantitative exercise, but a divisive game which, in the process, reduced Indian society to a hideous caricature. Even though Mahatma Gandhi felt compelled to accommodate the 'depressed classes' through the Poona Pact, the conventional Congress view was that caste, like religion, was purely a social institution that had no place in public life and political decision-making. There would be some compensatory discrimination in favour of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes but that's where the encroachment of caste would end. In line with this thinking, the first post-Independence Census in 1951 dropped the enumeration of caste altogether.
So strong was this nationalist consensus that when the first Backward Classes Commission was appointed in 1954, reputed Gandhian and anthropologist Nirmal Kumar Bose proclaimed "the desire and will of the Indian nation to do away with the hierarchy of caste…and prepare the ground for full social equality." Indeed, when the Backward Classes Commission identified 2,399 non-SC and non-ST communities as 'backward', the report was fiercely contested by Congress.
In five decades, politics has come full circle. Last week, the Cabinet deliberated on the wisdom of reviving the enumeration of caste in the Census. There was no unanimity but the government finally conceded that was little point persisting with the old nationalist consensus. Already politicized by democracy, caste has become the basis of the government's elaborate redistributive programmes. Sixty years of experiments with modernity have proved to be mere ripples on the surface; the depths of India's 'vital structure' have been unmoved.
India owes an unqualified apology to the British Raj for suggesting that its officials didn't understand India and, indeed, vilified it. It's our nationalist modernizers who have been defeated by the 'real' India. The future appears to belong to the khap panchayats. Chirol was right and we may as well acknowledge it.