Book review: Sumit Guha’s new book on the history of caste

First posted June 13, 2014

A persuasive and a totally new way of thinking about a difficult subject, a truly significant achievement

Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present (2013)

by Sumit Guha

Reviwed by Tirthankar Roy 

EPW vol – XLIX No. 24, June 14, 2014)

Three building-blocks structure this book. First, the author cites the anthropologist Morton Klass to remind us that “there is no exact equivalent of the word ‘caste’ in Indian languages” (p 19). The word signified the way the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British settlers viewed society in India from the 16th century onwards. These views were stylised, being attempts to capture the essence of Indian society on the basis of little systematic knowledge of it, and worse, a religious conception of it. Because the word carries such preconceptions, a serious discussion of the history of corporate organisations in Indian society needs to go “beyond caste”, or at least, specify what it is about caste that is of interest to the historian, of which certain features were abstracted to form the European concept.

Second, the author follows McKim Marriott in defining caste as an ethnic group, that is, a group that sets boundaries around itself by means of endogamy and hereditary membership, and that sees itself as a body of distinct people within the larger society. This flexible notion can apply to corporate groups among non-Hindus as well as Hindus, and holds equally well across the artificial caste-tribe divide, as Marriott himself claimed.

And third, the author follows Fredrik Barth, and partly Max Weber and Michael Mann, to claim that such corporate groups can remain locally powerful only because they serve political roles that are supra-local. A history of caste cannot be distinct from a history of the state, understood not as an entity removed from society, but as “a societally important institution” (p 15).

These building-blocks support what must be regarded as the most important attempt so far to write a long-range history of caste. The aim of the book is to develop an analytical narrative that spans centuries, even millennia, and at the same time, to challenge both European orientalist construction of India where India is changeless, and the opposite positions claiming that caste was radically changed by British colonial rule. There is more continuity in this story. The connecting thread through time is politics, rather the constantly renegotiated relationship between local communities and the state. Colonial rule was indeed a break, so was the 18th century transition, in the ways the relationship was reordered.

A new book on such a profoundly challenging and yet overworked subject needed to join a number of qualities. Beyond Caste combines theoretical rigour, a close knowledge of the archives, the ambition to bridge the gulf of time and link the premodern, the early-modern, the colonial and the present in a “longue durée” account, and an elegant writing style enhanced by a fine sense of humour. These characteristics, present in many of Sumit Guha’s publications, make him one of the most interesting and stimulating social historians today. This work justifies that reputation.

Excluding the Introduction and an afterword, the book consists of six chapters, dealing with the evolution of the meaning of the word (Chapter 1), how social organisation and political power became entwined in precolonial era and how the interdependence changed from the 18th century (Chapter 2), the political economy of the village and the household (Chapters 3 and 4), how systematic knowledge of society reshaped society (Chapter 5), and the transformation of caste in colonial and postcolonial times (Chapter 6).


The significant contributions on this subject have been written not by historians but by political scientists, who have studied the instrumental use of corporate identity and organisation or what caste does in practice, and by sociologists and anthropologists, who have studied what caste is or is thought to be. Beyond Caste belongs in neither of these two disciplines. It is a social history. But it had to decide whether to write a history of what caste was, or a history of what caste did. It takes the latter road, asking how “the structures of caste enter[ed] into the political process” (p 18). It justifies the choice by an insightful discourse on the large theoretical literature, which is set out in the introduction and Chapter 1.

It is shown that the question – what caste is or what is the essence of caste – has led emphasis to fall on a number of attributes, some of which are historically contingent, and some can be found in other societies. One of the answers (especially Louis Dumont in the 20th century) has focused on the Hindu ritual context, the opposition between purity and pollution, and the highly specific idea that purity is lost by touch or the exchange of bodily substances. The idea of a hierarchical social order follows from the purity ideal. Others have dealt with the notion of kingship and how the hierarchical social order was conceived in statecraft. An influential contribution in this line, by Nicholas Dirks, suggests that the link between kingship and caste was severed during the British colonial era, making caste appear as the essence of Indian society and engendering “the caste system”.

All of these concepts become more or less unstable in the presence of hierarchy among the non-Hindus, Indo-Islamicstates, and evidence that there was no one notion of statecraft even among Hindu kings. Purity is no more of much value today, and yet caste persists. These readings also overstress the hierarchical ordering aspect of caste, at some neglect of another important aspect of it as a political community.

This distinction between the external political aspects of an ethnic group, which involves separating outsiders from insiders, and the internal social aspect, or maintaining order within (pp 84, 90), is crucial for the book. Guha does not deny that there are real cultural diversities in the Indian situation, as elsewhere. “Coexistence of various identities and diverse values…inevitably also generates contests over public space and social norms” (p 14). These contests are political, that is, they are resolved via access to power, whether by forming powerful communities in the past or by taking a share of the state in the more recent times. It is this idea that connects the present of caste with its past.


The historical interpretation can be summed up in a few broad generalisations, though bland summaries would not convey either the nuances of the argument or the richness of the illustrations that accompany them.

Until the 19th century, a great deal of military power was diffused among the communities that formed in and governed the village. Some of these communities were tribal or “kingless”, as were some of the janapadas of the epics, others possessed forms of kingly authority within them. In the arid areas, which produced a smaller surplus, we are more likely to encounter relatively egalitarian communities. Because of the geographical influence, there was no one linear pathway that led tribes to become castes, a theory favoured by colonial ethnographers. Groups resembling the kingless janapadas could form as late as the 18th century, such as the Khalsa Sikhs.

Conquest and conflict “renewed and re-energised” local authority (p 59), whereas the presence of a stable and powerful imperial state that managed to insert revenue officers and intermediaries in this world could undermine their power. The origin of militarily strong village-based corporate groups, who enjoyed entitlements from the state, including juridical autonomy, is the foundation of caste.

The 18th and the 19th centuries permanently changed this long-term dynamic. The conversion of entitlements into marketable rights in the 18th century, the relentless pressure of kings upon the locality in periods of warfare, the insertion of military chieftains and, finally, the disarmament of the village elite after the mutiny led to “effective dissolution of the locality as a political unit” (p 80). The 18th century conflicts and the dependence of the state on certain hereditary services turned the supply of these village-based services into customary obligations. In Chapter 3 on the village and elsewhere Guha suggests that a later belief in strong village unity, insularity, and established village customs in western India were a product of the 18th century turmoil.

The British colonial regime achieved a degree of unprecedented control over the countryside, with the result that “the vestiges of older sociopolitical organisation began to wither away” (p 189). But its knowledge of the constitution of local society was limited as in times before. Governance in this era empowered intermediaries of a different sort, literate officers recruited from the scribal groups. The divergent trajectory of postcolonial dalit movements in northern and southern India had owed partly to these selection processes.


We read here about mainly two ways that the history of caste-like bodies can be written: hierarchy and collective action. There is a third way, property rights. Bounded communities could form through the task of setting out who should have access to productive assets, and who should not. In a world where asset markets are non-existent and yet productive assets are scarce, corporate bodies would play a role in protecting access, whether by negotiating with the state or enforcing rights themselves. These groups in the past deployed the universal language of caste, turning economic opportunity into moral right, and frequently behaved like an ethnic group. The word “guild” is sometimes used to refer to this dimension, but guild, like caste, is an European word prone to misplaced application. The common use of guild is in the field of technological and commercial knowledge; which context is not identical to, but shares some similarities with, the control that caste-like groups often exercised in India upon land, water, the commons, livestock, craft skills, and even labour service. Theoretical studies on caste tend to make short work of this dimension.

Following that convention, the book avoids the economic history of corporate bodies. Perhaps wisely, for what it does offer is a more coherent product in the end. It is, furthermore, a persuasive and a totally new way of thinking about a difficult subject, a truly significant achievement.