In This Review

Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India

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

India's caste system is often seen as an institution deeply rooted in traditional Indian culture. This carefully researched study, however, argues that the caste system was at least partly shaped by British colonial practices. Before the British arrived, Dirks writes, Indian society was highly fragmented into communal groupings that served as centers for social identity. In trying to make sense of these groupings, the Portuguese first suggested caste identities. The British expanded on that idea to promote order in Indian society. Thanks to them, the discipline required for census counts helped establish a clear hierarchy of caste categories. Although the Indians themselves have been ambivalent about caste categories for years, caste has now become a factor in India's competitive politics. Upper castes, for example, riot over the "affirmative action" policies that they believe give unfair advantages to the "untouchables." By playing up the importance of British colonial policies, Dirks criticizes the Western experts who have associated caste with traditional India. He may be correct, but the durability of caste identities in post-independence India suggests that the institution has something that gives it lasting value for most Indians.