I have come a long way from my undergraduate days. Then, my fiends and I were outraged by
the fact that a section of the admission form of the University of Calcutta asked for our
caste. In a spirit of juvenile rebellion, while returning the form, we struck out that
section, triumphant at our act. Caste, we felt, was an outmoded institution that did not and
should not matter, particularly in a state with clearly Left orientations. We were confident
that caste was essentially about Hinduism and had to be discarded just as religion was to be
confined to the domain of the private. Across the years, my own engagement with Indian
history and society along with the growing importance of caste and religion in contemporary
India, including the vigorous public debates and bitter conflicts they have engendered, have
wrought a change in my prior naivete and nonchalance. I have become increasingly aware of
the necessity of understanding caste as institution and practice.
There is no dearth of literature on caste. Indeed, it is apparently inexhaustible
and palpably abundant. Yet, there are very few works that take up for serious analysis the
manifold, historical articulations of caste. Such discussion is of critical import for an
adequate appreciation of caste not merely in relation to overarching theories of its nature
and function, but with regard to its actual elaborations in everyday arenas. Caste is not
just religious, nor is it exclusive to Hinduism. If caste has been about privilege, its
norms have equally been turned upside down by subordinate groups. This is to say that caste
is as much about perception and action as it is about ideology and value, and these domains
are intimately interconnected. Besides, it is not merely now that debates and confrontations
rage around caste. They have accompanied caste throughout its career. Caste has evolved
across time and through history, preserving its presence precisely because it has been
apprehended and enacted in varied ways.
Caste in History is informed by an awareness of the historical nature of caste and
its ever-shifting and porous boundaries. It brings together writings that elaborate the
diverse processes that have provided caste with definite shape at different moments of time,
further focusing on struggles in the name of and against caste as underlying its evolving
expressions. Learning yet departing from sociological and anthropological emphases on caste
as 'structure' and 'system', the volume as a whole turns instead to the myriad and divergent
articulations of caste in practice. It is in these ways that the work hopes also to offer
insights into the emotions and energies invested in caste, which can allow a better
comprehension of its ongoing significance.
I am thankful to the editorial staff at Oxford University Press for the suggestions
and careful nurturing of the volume. I appreciate their skills, patience, and effort. The
comments of the anonymous readers on the initial proposal for the volume enriched the
endeavor in valuable ways, Later, the reports of two readers on the introduction helped me
to cover gaps, tighten loose-ends, and make the arguments more forceful. David Lorenzen
closely read the first draft of the introduction coming up, as always, with incisive
comments. The inputs and enthusiasm of my teachers Gautam Bhadra and Sekhar Bandyopadhyay-as
well as the active involvement of fellow historian, Saurabh Dube-have been vital for the
students of El Colegio de Mexico have improved my understanding of caste, history, and caste
in history. Mara Pologovsky and 'Ghosh provided crucial help in the final stages.
Among the contributors to the volume, I especially thank Shail Mayaram and Padmanabh
Samarendra for producing valuable chapters at short notice. My gratitude extends of course
to all other members of the cast. Apart from giving freely of their time in order to answer
endless emails and pursuer publishers for permissions, they have graciously consented to my
editing of their pieces.
Friends and family have sustained my efforts through the making of Caste in History.
My philosopher father, S.P. Banerjee, did not live to see it. He would have been delighted
and proud. My historian mother, Gitasree Bandyopadhyay, gently prodded me on with her
enthusiasm and suggestions. She gave me strength through her own fortitude. The volume is
dedicated to her.
From the Jacket
The intangibility of caste-as a concept and in practice-retains centrality in discussions on
the sociopolitical scenario in India today. For a category whose viability itself has been
questioned, the last few years have seen the production of an enormous scholarly corpus on
various aspects of caste. However, such studies have only rarely considered the myriad,
historical articulations of caste. Caste in History redresses this imbalance by tracking the
contentious careers of caste among different groups and in distinct regions of India from
the seventeenth century through to the present.
By bringing together a careful selection of old and new works, seminal and recent
studies by historians and social scientists, this interdisciplinary reader in the Themes in
Indian History series reflects on the diverse understanding of caste in pre-colonial,
colonial, and post-colonial India. It examines caste as institution and ideology and as
perception and practice by charting its varied trajectories and changing contours. It also
explores the experiences in everyday life of hierarchies and disabilities of caste. The
result is a questioning of pervasive presuppositions regarding the given-ness of caste as
involving tacit structures of belief and action.
Organized thematically, the volume has four sections. The first part focuses on the
distinct yet overlapping ways in which configurations of caste changed and gained legitimacy
during colonial times. The next section opens up new vistas of thinking about caste,
kingship, identity, and hierarchy. Questions arising from multiple pasts of communities and
identities concerns the third part on caste and politics. The concluding section explores
the vicissitudes of caste in everyday lives through personal accounts and emotive portrayals
of disability and discrimination.
In her introduction to the volume, Ishita Banerjee-Dube discussed the varied
historical and epistemological trajectories of caste as well as key debates around identify
and consciousness in modern India. She further underlines issues and themes for future
This reader will interest scholars, teachers, students, and researchers of modern
and contemporary Indian history, political science, sociology, and anthropology,
particularly those concerned with the study of caste in pre-colonial, colonial, and
Ishita Banerjee-Dube is Professor, Center for Asian and African Studies, El
Colegio de Mexico, Mexico.
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