BOOK REVIEW: Nicholas Dirks’ Castes of Mind

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Dirks, Nicholas B. Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Histories Implicated in Colonialism

Nicholas Dirks’ Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India is a literature review of four centuries of scholarship on caste, a study of colonial knowledge and categorization, and an intervention in understandings of caste politics and nationalism, wrapped into a post-colonial history of modern India. A tremendous feat of anthropological history, Castes of Mind demonstrates how the nationalist movement and post-colonial histories are implicated in British colonial processes of knowledge production. The work is divided into three parts—parts one and two consider the “invention” of caste starting from early orientalist and Indological studies to the archival representation of caste and social difference; part three studies the ethnographic state in action through practices of enumeration, classification, and the census; and part four examines the relationship between the ethnographic state, caste politics, and Indian nationalism.

The first two parts focus before the events of Great Rebellion of 1857 and assumption of direct Crown rule in 1858. The first part examines the early ethnographic knowledge produced on India and caste around the East India Company period. Dirks shows how early missionary studies such as the Abbe Dubois understood caste as a varna system, as a civil institution, but mainly as an impediment to Christian conversion. Dirks explains the historiographical significance of Louis Dumont’s Homo Hierarchicus in the 1960’s to once again reinstall caste as the major symbol of Indian society. This framing of caste results in an image of India defined by religion, hierarchy, and society rather than secularism, equality, and the individual—fundamental tenets of the Western, modern nation-state. In this way, Dirks historicizes the ‘opposition between caste and nation’ from the early works of Orientalist and Indological studies of India up through nationalist caste politics and reform initiatives in contemporary India. In the second part, Dirks most importantly explains how early British imperialism in the 1870s legitimized its rule through constructions of Indian caste, traditionalism, and barbarism. Dirks takes us through the contours of Colonel Colin Mackenzie’s collection to reveal the emergence of an epistemic regime of British colonial sociology. Dirks remarks with initial surprise that the original Mackenize collection does not reveal the origin story of caste, but the loss of an old world political regime. Rather, the collection becomes implicated and instrumentalized to explain Indian caste for colonial interests.

The third part of the book contains the core of Dirks’ argument regarding the epistemology of colonialism. Dirks thus shows the importance of such instruments of epistemic rule that are disguised as tools of bureaucracy, legibility, and documentation. Dirks also highlights how archives and ethnographies were concerned with strategic questions of land ownership and sovereignty, as well as cultural and political questions of social relationships and caste. The archive and the census appear as “neutral” repositories of the past or representations of the present and thus are immensely powerful in their silent perpetuation of discourses of power and cultural difference. He states, “ethnographic science ultimately achieved its apotheosis in the colonial census, both because of the massive scientific and administrative apparatus that the census represented and because of the way the census had unprecedented effects on the social realities it claimed merely to represent” (Dirks, 196) Dirks draws from the ethnographic work of scholar bureaucrats and census officers such as H.H. Risley, William Crooke, J.H. Hutton, and Edgar Thurston to understand how the discourse of caste evolves to explain the impossibility of Indian self-rule and social change.

The legacy of colonial discourse of caste and India weighed upon 19th and 20th century caste politics and nationalist movements. Dirks examines this relationship in part four of his book and analyzes the work of Gandhi, E.VR Naicker, and B.R. Ambedkar to understand the ways in which nationalist movements were implicated within colonial constructs of social mobilization and the possibility of modernity and self-rule for India. He also argues that the certain colonial epistemologies carry on to the present day over debates over immigration, identity, and ethnic violence. Dirks concludes his work with a brilliant treatise on the consequences of colonialism on the writing of history. He reminds the reader of the tremendous consequences of colonialism in the history of capitalism, the West, anthropological visions of the colonized world, and historiographical thought. Dirks argues that the work of Bayly, Washbrook, and the Cambridge school pull attention away from the importance of the colonial state. Dirks explains that these works frame the colonial state as weak, accidental, passive, and peripheral in order to rescue Indian agency and nationalism as a “tribute to the heroic Indian role of the making of the British empire.” (Dirks 310) In this way, Dirks reasserts the fundamental importance of engaging directly with colonialism and colonial production of knowledge on India.

This work offers several historiographical and polemical contributions. First, Dirks shows how caste was invented, reformulated, and put into action involving the work of both British and Indian actors, Brahmins, administrators, and information gatherers. Second, Dirks centers the role of colonial knowledge alongside the power of military, political power, and economic wealth in the study of colonial conquest and governance. Dirks shows how the anthropoligizing of India for colonial interests and colonial legitimacy in turn cemented social categories of difference and positioned caste as opposed to self-rule and the modern nation state. This argument reinforces Dirks’ third historiographical and polemical contribution: the implication of historical and anthropological scholarship on India within colonialism. Thus, the colonial construct of caste is a specter, ‘haunting’ postcolonial studies of India by perpetuating colonial technologies of classification, exclusion, and epistemic rule.


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