From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    The quality of sources on the Indian caste system varies widely, and while there is some solid contemporary scholarship on the system and individual communities, the more accessible sources often date back to the Raj Era, or are pseudo-histories written and published by members of the various caste communites. And even some recent sources rely heavily on the Raj-era surveys and inherit the problems.

    The topic has been discussed numerous time on the Reliable Sources Noticeboard, India project noticeboard and various caste-related articles. This essay is an effort to document the issues with some of the popularly-cited sources, and to provide guidance on when use of these sources is (in)appropriate.

    Writings of Britons during Company Rule[edit]

    Company Rule in India refers to the period before 1857 during which the British East India Company administered various parts of India. Writers of that period whose works some people sometimes try to use as references on Wikipedia include:

    Writings of British Raj administrators[edit]

    Many colonial administrators, turned ethnographers, produced lengthy tracts on the caste-system in India. These include:

    According to historian Thomas R. Metcalf, the British Raj needed to find ways to "justify, and thus legitimate" their presence in India and this meant "they had to devise novel, and exceptional, theories of governance", mostly autocratic in nature, even while they were trying to understand changes in their domestic society caused by an increasingly liberal democracy.[1] The Indian Rebellion of 1857 came close to overturning British rule in India and the disruption led the British government to take over administrative control from the East India Company. Members of the Indian Civil Service such as Richard Carnac Temple thought that if further discontent were to be avoided, it was necessary to obtain a better understanding of the colonial subjects, particularly those from the rural areas.[2]

    As time went on, the ethnographic studies and their resultant categorisations were embodied in numerous official publications and became an essential part of the British administrative mechanism; of those categorisations it was caste that was regarded to be, in H. H. Risley's words, "the cement that holds together the myriad units of Indian society".[3][4] The desire for ethnographic studies was expressed by another Raj administrator, Denzil Ibbetson, in his 1883 report on the 1881 census of Punjab:

    Our ignorance of the customs and beliefs of the people among whom we dwell is surely in some respects a reproach to us; for not only does that ignorance deprive European science of material which it greatly needs, but it also involves a distinct loss of administrative power to ourselves.[5]

    Risley's 1891 paper, The Study of Ethnology in India,[6] was, according to the historian Thomas Trautmann, a contribution to "the racial theory of Indian civilisation". Trautmann considers Risley, along with the philologist Max Müller, to have been leading proponents of this idea which

    by century's end had become a settled fact, that the constitutive event for Indian civilisation, the Big Bang through which it came into being, was the clash between invading, fair-skinned, civilized Sanskrit-speaking Aryans and dark-skinned, barbarous aborigines.[7][a]

    According to political scientist Lloyd Rudolph, Risley believed that varna, however ancient, could be applied to all the modern castes found in India, and "[he] meant to identify and place several hundred million Indians within it."[9] The work of modern academics such as Cynthia Talbot demonstrates that the Raj understanding of Indian society as a historically caste-ridden, rigid social structure is not reflected in ancient inscriptions, although it is/was the viewpoint of the Brahmins.[10]

    While the Raj ethnographic studies may be valuable source material for later scholars who have the training to evaluate them critically, their use as sources on Wikipedia is problematic. For instance, Susan Bayly, who specialises in historical anthropology, refers to the problems related to the prevalence of scientific racism:

    Those like [Sir William] Hunter, as well as the key figures of H. H. Risley (1851–1911) and his protégé Edgar Thurston, who were disciples of the French race theorist Topinard and his European followers, subsumed discussions of caste into theories of biologically determined race essences, ... Their great rivals were the material or occupational theorists led by the ethnographer and folklorist William Crooke (1848–1923), author of one of the most widely read provincial Castes and Tribes surveys, and such other influential scholar-officials as Denzil Ibbetson and E. A. H. Blunt.[11]

    Past discussions

    The Imperial Gazetteer of India[edit]

    The Imperial Gazetteer of India had a long gestation period. The first volume was published in 1881, following a proposal made in 1869. There were four subsequent editions, at least one of which was edited by Risley, and the last of which appeared in the 1930s. William Wilson Hunter was its first compiler, having previously been an assistant magistrate and Collector in Bengal, where he began recording local traditions and records.[12][13] Another of Hunter's publications was A Comparative Dictionary of the Non-Aryan Languages of India, which the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica said "testifies to the industry of the writer but contains much immature philological speculation".[14]

    The basis of the Gazetteer was as a statistical work, condensed from 128 volumes of surveys covering 240 administrative districts.[15] According to the 1911 Britannica, Hunter "adopted a transliteration of vernacular place-names, by which means the correct pronunciation is ordinarily indicated; but hardly sufficient allowance was made for old spellings consecrated by history and long usage".[14]

    The "information for control" ethos is evident. Hunter later said that

    Nothing is more costly than ignorance. I believe that, in spite of its many defects, this work will provide a memorable episode in the long battle against ignorance; a breakwater against the tide of prejudice and false opinions flowing down upon us from the past, and the foundation for a truer and wider knowledge of India in time to come. Its aim has been not literary graces, nor scientific discovery, nor antiquarian research; but an earnest endeavour to render India better governed, because better understood.[15]

    Satish Chandra Mittal believes that Hunter "represented the official mind of the bureaucratic Victorian historians in India", of whom James Talboys Wheeler and Alfred Comyn Lyall were other examples.[16]

    A recent discussion about this source is at RSN (permalink, should be updated when the thread is archived).

    Census of India[edit]

    Indian censuses of the British Raj period are not usually considered to be particularly reliable except for overall population figures. Those for some areas of the country could be more reliable than others.[17][18][19][20][21]

    H. H. Risley is best known for the now discounted attribution of all differences in caste to varying proportions of seven racial types which included Dravidian, Aryo-Dravidian, and Indo-Aryan. This caused anomalies. For example, the Kurmi of the United Provinces were classified as Aryo-Dravidian, whereas the Kurmi of the Central Provinces were counted among Dravidians.[22] In the 1901 Census of India, the category of varna, the four-fold ritual ranking system of Vedic Hinduism, was included in the official classification of caste,[23] the only time this was the case. Although influential, Risley's attempt did not achieve the end which he sought: people were unable to determine in which group they should classify themselves, the localised system he adopted could not be transposed onto the national stage, and some groups took advantage of the situation deliberately to seek reclassification and therefore satisfy their aspirations. L. I. and S. H. Rudolph have commented that "Risley's work, as a scientific effort, seemed based on mistaken premises. Varna was not a behavioural concept."[24]

    The People of India[edit]

    The latest of three works titled The People of India was commissioned by the Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI), edited by Kumar Suresh Singh, and was published in multiple volumes/series:

    • A national series: Singh, K. S., ed. for Anthropological Survey of India. People of India. National Series, 10 vols. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990-1994.
    • Various state series published by various Indian publishers.

    Singh was an officer in the Indian Administrative Service. His career prior to being appointed to AnSi had little to do with anthropology, although he was influenced by the mathematician-historian Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi and sympathised with tribal people.[25][26] Muchkund Dubey, former Indian Foreign Secretary, says that he was

    a kind of a rare person among Indian civil servants. He was of a scholarly bent of mind right from his university days. He had a deep knowledge of a number of disciplines. His monumental contribution People of India will remain as a kind of tribute to his multifaceted talents.[25]

    The work was critically reviewed in The Journal of Asian Studies and criticised in particular for its heavy reliance on colonial ethnographies, using outdated bases for classifying people, and for promoting "official nationalistic anthropology".[27] Comparisons with the NCERT controversy may apply.

    The series has also taken modern papers and used them without attribution. Eg: content about the Natrayat Rajputs in B. K. Lavania, D. K. Samanta, S. K. Mandal & N. N. Vyas, ed. (1998). People of India Rajasthan Volume XXXVIII Part Two. Popular Prakashan. pp. 700–703.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: editors list (link) is word-for-word from Debnath, Debashis (June 1995). "Hierarchies Within Hierarchy: Some Observations on Caste System in Rajasthan". Indian Anthropologist. 25 (1): 23–30. JSTOR 41919761.

    Past discussions

    Miscellaneous discussions[edit]

    See also[edit]



    1. ^ Sir William Jones had first proposed a racial division of India as a consequence of an Aryan invasion but at that time, in the late 18th century, there was insufficient evidence to support it.[8]


    1. ^ Metcalf, Thomas R. (1994). Ideologies of the Raj. The New Cambridge History of India. Vol. 3. Cambridge University Press. p. ix. ISBN 978-0-52158-937-6.
    2. ^ Naithani, Sadhana (2006). In quest of Indian folktales: Pandit Ram Gharib Chaube and William Crooke. Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-34544-8.
    3. ^ Metcalf, Thomas R. (1997). Ideologies of the Raj. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-521-58937-6.
    4. ^ Risley, Sir Herbert Hope (1915) [1908]. Crooke, William (ed.). The People of India (Memorial ed.). Calcutta: Thacker, Spink. p. 278.
    5. ^ Ibbetson, Denzil Charles Jelf (1916). Panjab Castes. Lahore: Printed by the Superintendent, Government Printing, Punjab. p. v. of Original Preface.
    6. ^ Risley, Herbert Hope (1891). "The Study of Ethnology in India" (PDF). The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 20: 237–238. JSTOR 2842267.
    7. ^ Trautmann, Thomas R. (2006) [1997]. Aryans and British India (2nd Indian ed.). New Delhi: YODA Press. p. 194. ISBN 81-902272-1-1.
    8. ^ Bates, Crispin (1995). "Race, Caste and Tribe in Central India: the early origins of Indian anthropometry". In Robb, Peter (ed.). The Concept of Race in South Asia. Delhi: Oxford University Press. p. 231. ISBN 978-0-19-563767-0.
    9. ^ Rudolph, Lloyd I. (1984). The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India. Rudolph, Susanne Hoeber. University of Chicago Press. pp. 116–117. ISBN 0-226-73137-5.
    10. ^ Eaton, Richard M. (2005). A Social History of the Deccan: 1300–1761. Cambridge University Press. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-52125-484-7.
    11. ^ Bayly, Susan (2001). Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age. The New Cambridge History of India, Volume 4.3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 126–127. ISBN 978-0-521-26434-1. Retrieved 23 November 2011.
    12. ^ Chatterjee, Rimi B. (2004). ""Every Line for India" : The Oxford University Press and the Rise and Fall of the Rulers of India Series". In Chakravorty, Swapan; Gupta, Abhijit (eds.). Print Areas: Book History in India. Orient Blackswan. pp. 65–102. ISBN 978-81-7824-082-4.
    13. ^ Scholberg, Henry (1970). The District Gazetteers of British India: A Bibliography. Inter Documentation Company. ISBN 9780800212650.
    14. ^ a b Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 13. Britannica. 1911. p. 945.
    15. ^ a b Marriott, John (2003). The other empire: metropolis, India and progress in the colonial imagination. Manchester University Press. p. 209. ISBN 978-0-7190-6018-2.
    16. ^ Mittal, Satish Chandra (1996). India Distorted: A Study of British Historians on India. Vol. 2. M.D. Publications. p. 170. ISBN 978-8-17533-018-4.
    17. ^ Anstey, Vera Powell (1977) [1931]. The economic development of India (Reprinted ed.). Ayer Publishing. p. 60. ISBN 978-0-405-09775-1. ... a vast army of enumerators are utilised, many of whom have a very limited understanding of what is required. Hence the Indian census provides at times more food for merriment than is usually connected with statistical compilations.
    18. ^ Maheshwari, Shriram (1996). The census administration under the raj and after. Concept Publishing Company. pp. 104–116. ISBN 978-81-7022-585-0.
    19. ^ Atal, Yogesh (2003). Social Sciences: The Indian Scene. Abhinav Publications. p. 124. ISBN 978-81-7017-042-6.
    20. ^ Caplan, Lionel (2003). Children of Colonialism: Anglo-Indians in a Postcolonial World. Berg. pp. 66–67. ISBN 978-1-85973-632-6.
    21. ^ Sinha, E. Zacharia (12 April 1984). Elements Of Demography. Allied Publishers. p. 290. ISBN 978-81-7764-044-1.
    22. ^ Bayly, Susan (2001), Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age, Cambridge University Press, pp. 129–132, ISBN 978-0-521-79842-6
    23. ^ Rudolph, Lloyd I.; Rudolph, Susanne Hoeber (1984). The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India. University of Chicago Press. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-226-73137-7.
    24. ^ Rudolph, Lloyd I.; Rudolph, Susanne Hoeber (1984). The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India. University of Chicago Press. p. 117. ISBN 978-0-226-73137-7.
    25. ^ a b Rajalakshmi, T. K. (30 June 2006). "Scholar of society". Frontline. Vol. 23, no. 12. Archived from the original on 11 June 2011.
    26. ^ Sinha, A. K. (January 2007). "Obituary: Kumar Suresh Singh (1935–2006)". Indian Historical Review. 34 (1): 365–368. doi:10.1177/037698360703400136. S2CID 142819673. Retrieved 9 November 2011.
    27. ^ Jenkins, Laura Dudley (November 2003). "Another 'People of India' Project: Colonial and National Anthropology". The Journal of Asian Studies. Association for Asian Studies. 62 (4): 1143–1170. doi:10.2307/3591762. JSTOR 3591762. S2CID 154291230.

    Further reading[edit]