About the Book :
The volume brings together papers presented at a Seminar organized by the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in late 1993. Participants in the Seminar included historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, sociologists and economists. The paper question many popular notions about the history of social formations in India. Since "tribe" and "caste" constitute two of the basic categories in terms of which Indian society is sought to be understood, the contemporary relevance - both for theory and policy formulations - of this volume will be quite considerable.
The Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, organized a
seminar on the theme 'Tribe to Caste' in November 1993. The
seminar brought together a number of historians, archaeologists,
anthropologists, sociologists and even some economists.
The purpose of the seminar was to combine historical and
anthropological analyses in order to understand one of the
fundamental historical transformations to have taken place in
India (and in the whole South Asian subcontinent). Certainly,
both the theme of the seminar and the combination of disciplines
that it brought together owe their inspiration to D.D. Kosambi.
Kosambi always held that much of Indian history could be seen
right in the present and that a combination of anthropological
and historical analysis was needed to uncover the various
processes that had been at work in the course of Indian history.
Many of the scholars who presented papers at the Seminar have
themselves continued the tradition of combining anthropology
But, the Seminar was held a couple of decades after Kosambi
did his work on Indian history. It was held at a time when its
theme is going somewhat out of fashion, at least in some
academic circles. Out of fashion for two reasons. The first is that
with the current eclipse of the socialist project, a view of society is
gaining ground in which there are no substantial boundaries
between one epoch and another and all' of human history is a
repetition of much the same venality. The second is that the very
terms of this Seminar are now suspect, supposedly the product of
Orientalist scholarship of colonizing powers.
In introducing this volume of Seminar papers, the above and
some related issues will be taken up for discussion.
(which anyway was not the topic of the Seminar), it is still possible
to insist on the 'importance of an analysis of epochal changes,
certainly of particular epochal changes.
The transition from tribe to caste is one such change. The
result of this process was the formation of institutions like private
property, the caste system, the state and the patriarchal family.
While this change took place over a long period of time and
included a number of intermediate stages, it was not just
uniformitarian, in the sense of gradual and constant cultural
growth and modification, a kind of accretion as it were. There
were periods of accretion of small changes (say, the Vedic period,
or within tribal systems), and there were also subsequent periods
when these small changes gave way to major changes, qualitative
changes in ways of living, relating to each other and even in ways
of making sense of things.
The denial of such a major break in South Asian history has
varied manifestations. In sociology and anthropology it is seen in
G.S. Ghurye's refusal to allow any separation between the tribes
and castes. For him, the tribes were only "backward Hindus". Of
course, this stand itself is part of a "nation-building" project, one
which requires the amalgamation of all peoples into a Hindu
nation. Such a concern is evident not only in India but also in
Nepal. A Nepalese scholar protested against the" use of the term
"tribe" in the Nepalese context. 'The main point of his critique
seems to be that the use of the term by foreign scholars intro-
duces biased 'ideas of social disharmony' and thus undermines
the process of nation-building in Nepal.
The denial of distinct forms of living and being, of making
sense of things, is a form of ethnocentrism. In economics this
ethnocentrism is strongly manifest in seeing all pre-capitalist
economic systems as merely imperfect forms of capital. All history
is seen as the striving of capital to reach its full-blown form. When
that has been done and there are no more worlds for capital (and
its attendant cultural and political baggage) to conquer, then that
is the "end of history".
In India ethnocentrism consists in seeing the history of all
communities as being merely the striving to become Hindu, to
become a caste. There is no distinction between tribe and caste.
All communities are castes, only the degree of being castes is
different. Baidyanath Saraswati in his note to this Seminar insisted
on the "cultural oneness" of tribe and caste. He asks for "tribe" to
be treated as "caste", and "caste" to be understood as a cultural
Powerful support for these ideas (which in a sense deny
history, deny the process of formation of caste society, jatikarna or
castification' ) comes from the analysis of inequality in society. If,
as Andre Beteille emphasizes, social inequality is "a common
condition of all human societies", then can we draw a valid
distinction between tribal equality and caste inequality? Is there a
contrast in the ethical foundations of these two purportedly
different forms of society? In this Seminar Shalina Mehta argued
for "the universality of inequalitarianism as an innate principle of
all societies"." Certainly inequality has always existed and will
exist, but, as Amartya Sen has suggested we ask, are there areas in
which equality is sought and areas in which inequality is accepted?
Do these areas of equality and inequality vary in different
societies? And, are there societies which do not recognize equality
in any sphere?
In a gatherer-hunter band, access to productive resources (the
forest) is that of the whole band. Membership of a band, which
may be temporary, determines access to its forest resources.
Income, however, is that of the individual family. So, even in
immediate return societies which, Woodburn argues," are
"assertively egalitarian" there is some inequality.
This is as one should expect, for, as Amartya Sen points out.
'The demand for equality in terms of one variable entails that the
theory concerned may have to be non-egalitarian with respect to
another variable, since the two perspectives can, quite possibly,
conflict." Here, in the gatherer-hunter band there is an equality
of access to the band's resources, but the actual income of each
family depends on a number of other factors which would be
unequally distributed among families - skill, number of able
persons in a family, and so on. At the same time, the impossibility
of accumulation means that immediate differences cannot
become cumulative. At the same time, mechanisms of redistri-
bution playa social security function and tend to enforce an
Along with the above, it should be noted that there is
inequality, between men and women, in their access to the
supernatural and the ritual knowledge of the community. But this
inequality does not as yet have consequences in other spheres of
social, political and economic life.
At the other extreme, lies the caste system. At one level, there
is an equality of social status within a caste (a poor Brahmin is still
a Brahmin). But, at another level, that of relations between castes
there is a profound inequality in access to knowledge, productive
resources and social status. A prescribed inequality exists even in
the naming of persons: "(The name) of a priest should have (a
word for) auspiciousness, of a ruler strength, of a commoner, and
(the name) of a servant should breed disgust.
Is there any sphere in which there is equality between the
castes? Not even in the sphere of punishment for breaking the
law. "A ruler who shouts abuse at a priest should be fined a
hundred (pennies); a commoner (who does this) a hundred and
fifty or two hundred (pennies); a servant (should be given)
corporal or capital punishment.
The contrast between the two systems outlined above is stark.
The first has some notion of equality and some sphere(s) in
which there is equality, while there is inequality in other spheres.
But in the second there is no notion of equality, in any sphere.
Rather, there is a notion of equality in the theory of the caste
system. That is with respect to performing one's caste duty
(dharma) according to one's fate (karma). Of course, the rewards
for this performance of dharma are unequal in this life, since not
every caste's svadharma is of equal standing, but only the
svadharma of the priests coincides with the universal, the
samanyadharma, which is the measuring rod.
Certainly when searching for a theory that would serve the
ends of furthering social justice, one would have to exclude
Hinduism, as the ideology par excellence of the caste system,in
not having a basal equality altogether. While tribal cosmologies
at least provide some notions of equality in some spheres and thus
can lead to a discussion about the spheres in which equality is
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