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FW: Book Review - Caste, Society and Politics in India

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  • Popplestone, Ann
    ... From: Danny Yee [mailto:danny@ANATOMY.USYD.EDU.AU] Sent: Friday, December 29, 2000 2:36 AM To: ANTHRO-L@LISTSERV.ACSU.BUFFALO.EDU Subject: Book Review -
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      FW: Book Review - Caste, Society and Politics in India

      -----Original Message-----
      From: Danny Yee [mailto:danny@...]
      Sent: Friday, December 29, 2000 2:36 AM
      To: ANTHRO-L@...
      Subject: Book Review - Caste, Society and Politics in India


      An HTML version of this book review can be found at
       http://dannyreviews.com/h/Caste_India.html
      along with more than five hundred other reviews.

       TITLE: Caste, Society and Politics in India
       - from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age
       SERIES: The New Cambridge History of India, volume IV-3
       AUTHOR: Susan Bayly
       PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press 1999
       OTHER: 421 pages, bibliography, index

      _Caste, Society and Politics in India_ is the clearest and most convincing
      study of caste in India I have read.  Without denying its medieval
      antecedents, Bayly argues that

              current manifestations of caste are now far more generalised
              across the subcontinent than was the case in former times.
              ... caste as we now recognise it has been engendered, shaped
              and perpetuated by comparatively recent political and social
              developments. ... even in parts of the so-called Hindu heartland
              of Gangetic upper India, the institutions and beliefs which
              are now often described as the elements of 'traditional' caste
              were only just taking shape as recently as the early eighteenth
              century - that is, the period of rapid regional state-building
              which accompanied the collapse of Mughal rule and the expansion
              of Western power in the subcontinent.

      The following summary does justice neither to the subtleties of Bayly's
      thesis nor the complexities of Indian caste.

      The origins of caste lay in the needs of Rajputs and others such as
      Maratha king Shivaji to formalise and institutionalise positions based
      on military prowess, as well as in notions of _varna_ (the traditional
      fourfold "class" scheme), different kinds of _jati_ (birth groups), and
      associated Brahman-centred values.  In the eighteenth and early nineteenth
      centuries, exaltation of routine and service by both Mughal successor
      kingdoms and the East India Company (though the latter also feared
      caste-based sedition) helped to spread Brahmanical caste conventions.

      From early travellers and company reports to bureaucratic Victorian
      census-taking and scientific theories of race, colonial ("Orientalist")
      theories of caste took a wide range of forms.  Among Indian theorists
      caste was intimately connected with notions of modernity and nascent
      nationalism, with positions ranging from arguments for caste "uplift"
      to a Hindu "defence" of caste.

      The first half of the twentieth century saw struggles between radically
      different approaches to caste, most notably between Gandhi and Ambedkar
      and Nehru over constitutional politics and the status of "untouchables".
      Independent India has seen intense debates over "reservations" (quotas
      in government positions for members of particular castes), the extension
      of notions of backwardness to include "other backward classes", and an
      increase in caste-based electoral politics.

      This summarises Bayly's account of the ideological debates and the events
      in the political arena.  Two chapters (covering colonial and independent
      India) focus on more everyday experiences of caste, in such areas
      as marriage, occupations, urbanisation, notions of purity, pollution
      barriers, relationships between peasants and landlords and merchants,
      and so forth.  And a final chapter looks at the symbolism and rhetoric of
      recent "caste war" violence, and at some of the rural and urban tensions
      underlying it.

      Bayly concludes

              India then is not and never has been a monolithic 'caste society'.
              It may even be that one day the principles and usages of jati
              and varna will lose much or all of their meaning for Indians
              living both within and beyond the subcontinent.  Nevertheless,
              if one is to do justice to India's complex history, and to
              its contemporary culture and politics, caste must be neither
              disregarded nor downplayed - its power has simply been too
              compelling and enduring.

      --

      %T      Caste, Society and Politics in India
      %S      From the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age
      %A      Bayly, Susan
      %Y      The New Cambridge History of India
      %V      IV-3
      %I      Cambridge University Press
      %C      Cambridge
      %D      1999
      %O      hardcover, bibliography, index
      %G      ISBN 0-521-26434-0
      %P      xi,421pp
      %K      India, social history

      26 December 2000

              ------------------------------------------------------
              Copyright (c) 2000 Danny Yee       http://danny.oz.au/
              Danny Yee's Book Reviews      http://dannyreviews.com/
              ------------------------------------------------------

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