Beyond governmentality: caste-ing the Brahmin


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THE many lives and avatars of caste have remained an important concern for scholarship on India. This has been so in spite of the periodic calls to resist caste’s gate keeping task1 as far as studying India is concerned. These calls are diverse in their theoretical and ideological orientations – from the Marxist to the postcolonial, from the nationalist to the conservative and nativist – and have grown more strident in recent decades. While what this simultaneity – of seeking to foreground and background, so to speak, caste in making sense of the contemporary moment – is doing to our understanding of caste needs probing, it appears that the current mood is to decidedly move towards a certain ghettoization of the caste question.

The ghettoization has many forms – institutional, conceptual and empirical. To take the most recent instance, the formation of centres for the study of social exclusion is only a moment of institutionalization of the longer process of ghettoization. Anointing of caste as a principal frame of reference for these centres dovetails rather neatly with the clear moving away of Indian sociology – the discipline that was most closely identified with caste studies – from its preoccupation with caste. This may not be a mere relocation of caste scholarship. Sociology has had a multidimensional and multivalent engagement with the phenomenon of caste, as is borne by the stupendous production of scholarship for close to a century. Now, framing caste exclusively in terms of inclusion and exclusion is important and perhaps even necessary in an intellectual context that increasingly presents caste as, in a rather neat spectrum, a private value-practice for the urban, educated, middle class, ‘upper caste’ subject, a public identity of the ‘lower castes’ and/or circumscribes caste to the electoral political space and blurs out its continuing and resilient role in the distribution of life chances in contemporary India.2


Yet, one is ill at ease with the circumscription of caste in terms of exclusion for at least two reasons. First, if one looks at the mandate of the UGC3 that enabled the setting up of these centres and consequently the statements of purpose that these centres have exhibited on their web pages, one has a nagging suspicion that a denuded sense of ‘lower caste studies’ (and that too as an empirical referent and entity, and not as an analytical site) is what is being imagined in the name of ‘axes of exclusion/inclusion.’4 This empiricist ghettoization almost definitionally rules out our ability to study caste as privileging and including certain subject positions, and thereby, to the extent that we have little sense of what is taking place in the upper caste locales (even if only in terms of sociologically rich descriptions), we are fated to replicate and reinforce the upper caste common sense that contemporarily caste means politics, reservations, lower caste lives and identities.

It is as if we could have a rounded sense of caste as an axis of inequality even without seeking to answer, for instance, what it is to be a Brahmin today. This, again, is in line with the almost complete absence of any sustained focus on the privileged castes even prior to the heralding of the exclusion studies. Accordingly, the current scholarship goes by either the few dated studies on the privileged castes or innocently superimposes ideological and historical projections of the upper caste subject on the empirical and the contemporary.


Second, a more general question perhaps, exhausting caste-ness in a principle of exclusion limits our engagement with the phenomenon in all its forms. If the contemporary character of caste were to be posited as constituting a lifeworld – if multiple and internally contradictory in nature – then it does not negate caste as a principle of exclusion and inequality but also enables us to move towards a total narrative of caste today that can account for the diverse – again if mutually contradictory and paradoxical – transactions that go by the name of and in the space of caste. Debjani Ganguly5 similarly articulates a plea for engaging with the lifeworlds of caste, but it appears that in being heavily invested in the ‘postcolonial’ frame and thereby partaking the baggage of radically critiquing what gets to be constituted as the ‘colonial modernity’, she tends to paint the diverse social scientific scholarship on caste in the singular colour of the ‘modernization thesis’. Through this, paradoxically, she sets up another master narrative even as her project is posited on the need for ‘non-holistic reading[s] of caste.’ What I wish to propose here is a framework from within the social scientific trajectory of thinking on caste that seeks to ask whether we could exhume, if only to transcend, a thought that seems to have found a premature burial.


The French theorist, Louis Dumont, when presented with insistent evidence of change in the structures of caste in conditions of modernity, had proposed the idea of substantialization of caste. He argued that when the ‘traditional’ principle of hierarchy, in terms of the dominant religious value of purity encompassing pollution, begins to break down, caste entities which retained meaning only in their relationality to one another in the traditional context, begin to function like substances, ‘impenetrable blocks, self-sufficient, essentially identical and in competition with one another.’6 While I have elsewhere a more detailed discussion of the debates that this notion enabled,7 here I would like to draw attention to the centrality of the idea of ‘levels’ that Dumont foregrounded which enables us to work with the limits of the idea of substantialization.

Dumont argued that this transformation of caste from a relation to substance obtains only in the political-economic domain and not in the religious domain. Even as Dumont could be accused of abruptly introducing this piecemeal modification in battling to retain his rigorous structuralist model, it appears that the notion of ‘levels’ appears to calibrate the seeming abruptness of the invocation of substantialization. It appears then that if caste could be approached as resembling substance-hood only in specific socio-political spaces, then there is much to being caste subjects that obtain outside the substantialized forms that continue to retain a relational form.

Irrespective of whether one partakes in Dumont’s anointment of caste as a religious system or not, his insistence that we ask the question of what is happening to caste strictly with reference to locations and contexts is perhaps the most needed antidote to the current urgency to paint caste in monochromatic terms. It is in heeding this advice, even when perhaps deviating sharply from Dumont’s specific formulations, that I propose an interesting dynamic that appears to obtain in the ways in which Brahmins of today negotiate with their Brahmin-ness. But the Brahmins are merely an illustration here. The dynamic that is being hinted at could as well serve as a model to make sense of a(ny) caste subject in the contemporary moment.


Gupta argues that the thesis of substantialization is weakened because Dumont provides no ‘analytical reason’ as to why it takes place.8 Perhaps we now have an analytical tool to make sense of what Dumont was gesturing towards.

In introducing governmental technologies in late 19th and early 20th centuries to know the population it ruled over, the British rendered caste as a predominant category of knowing the colonized. This re-positioning of caste enables it to emerge as a new and primary articulation of public identity through which subjects/citizens make them intelligible to the state, and in turn become intelligible to themselves. These processes put in place a remarkable array of ‘projects’ of self-making across many hitherto regionally circumscribed spatialities that, perhaps for the first time, travel beyond and across the country. This is acutely reflected in the space of caste associations which swiftly turn, in a matter of decades from the 1890s to 1920s, from beseeching to be recognized as higher ritual status entities to socio-economically determined backward communities. Indeed, caste as an associational imaginary is very modern and enabled by the state beginning to exercise an unprecedented hold over human life.9


This public and governmental enunciation of caste as the pre-eminent mode of individual and community identity has been constitutive of the lives of caste in the last 100 years. It is this form of caste that Dumont seems to have glossed as the substantialization of caste, and many others, far less usefully, as ‘ethnicization’. The academic engagement with the phenomenon of caste over the decades has remained closely devoted to this governmentalized categorization and operation of caste. But it is only in the recent years that scholarship on caste is beginning to be exhausted by this singular framing of the caste question. Before pointing towards what this exhaustion is doing to our (in)ability to engage with caste’s contemporaneity, let me suggest a schematic mode of engaging with the realities of caste that emerge owing to its governmentalization – viz., primarily how to account for the modes in which individuals and communities subjected to regimes and categories of governmentalized caste enunciate their subject-positions.

There appears to be a contradictory manifestation of being caste-d in the contemporary moment: to foreground caste if one is ‘subjected’ to a low position in the caste hierarchy, and to invisibilize caste if one is ‘subjected’ to a higher position in the hierarchy. But, as mentioned, this manifestation is most salient and all-determining in the governmentalized regimes of caste, even if it is connected to other dimensions of caste today. This is perhaps as it should be. The prism through which caste is enveloped in governmentality is one that imagines it to be a tool/frame of social stratification, (un)equal provider of resources and life chances. If one even schematically sketches the trajectory of the register of caste entering the imagination of the modern state, ‘inequality’ is the only frame in which this dialogue takes place.10 This propels the subjects of caste to speak as ‘forward’ or ‘backward’, and not contest over ritual status. It is within this register that foregrounding and backgrounding of ‘self as caste-d’ appear to take place. What further complicates this equation is the differential valuation of the modern that the caste subjects place.


For the ‘upper’ castes – for many historical and ideological reasons, quintessentially represented by the modern Brahmin – the only acceptable way of public presentation of the self was/is in terms of rendering one’s caste location as insignificant in one’s public deliberations and enactments. This presentation articulated a modern, secular space in which there is no – or at least, ought not to be – room for caste. Accordingly, the move was/is towards domesticating, privatizing and interiorizing caste. It is in this articulation that rhetorics of merit and individuality as against inherited social and cultural capitals, and community locations are foregrounded.

The Brahmin self has an additional and peculiar problem at hand – of negotiating with a state sanctioned ideological position that invests the Brahmin figure with all that is traditional and even anti-modern. Accordingly, the Brahmin community and the individuals had to resort to a rather difficult engagement with such an already overdetermined category of self-description. To take the instance of the Brahmin trajectory in the Kannada speaking region over the course of the 20th century, it is a story thus marked by an acute sense of siege, of an intense desire to speak as a secularized modern subject. This is paradoxically so even when they seek to mobilize Brahmins into caste associations.11


On the other hand, reflecting the other side as it were of this demand on the Brahmin, the castes anointed as the discriminated, the backward, sought to route their negotiations with modernity and the modern state by foregrounding their caste selves that re-imagines the past as a continuous tale of denial even in the face of an equally continuous resistance. So any reparation of this historical denial will thereby have to be founded on a recognition of their caste-ness. Again, the last century of mobilizations from below is animated by this desire and logic of assertion and reclamation.

While the caste scholarship has always been framed, if largely without recognizing it as such, by this triangle of caste-governmentality-foregrounding/backgrounding, a certain equating of this world of substantialized, governmentalized caste, positioning it primarily as a form of inequality, and the socio-political processes that it set forth as all that there is to the world of caste, is increasingly becoming a dead-end. Postcolonial perspectives have even positioned this problematic explicitly and sought to transcend its limits. Again Dumont was perhaps gesturing towards this when he insisted that we devise ways of engaging with caste beyond (or outside) the frame of stratification, even if he was quite captivated with the imagination that caste ideology at its dominant level is religious. The point, to reiterate, is by no means a dismissal of the centrality, perhaps even constitutiveness, of these frames; it is only to recognize their limits and critique the same.


So what is at stake here? What are we missing by reducing caste to a logic of governmentality, of stratification? First, there appears to be a problem with the categories we deploy to approach the contemporary reality of caste. Mapping our questions and concerns about today’s caste exclusively in categories that emerge responding to the imperatives and imaginations of governmental technologies and thereby in the mutually nurturing logics of legitimation-contestation and frames of domination-resistance is proving to be limiting and partial. In saying this one is not only thinking of categories such as Scheduled Castes or Backward Classes, but even OBCs and even Dalit. This is even true of re-framed ‘traditional’ categories such as Brahmin, Shudra and so on.

For instance, the demands the caste associational space makes on jatis within the Brahmin fold as against when Brahmins of all jatis seek to organize as a corporate entity are very different.12 What appears to obtain in Brahmin jati-level associations is the cultural economy of a large kin group and thereby its concerns, while the corporate associations find it very difficult to imagine a language outside f the one that posits the Brahmin as the very embodiment of all that needs to be left behind in the march towards becoming modern. This distinction, if not a disjunction, is more stark as one begins to look at the array of transactions that take place in the name of being Brahmin, which appear to be relatively less touched by the governmental technologies and imperatives.

Here it appears that, what was once termed, ‘caste patriotism’ thrives and remains the fountainhead for self-making. For instance, often Brahmins speak of the samskara that a Brahmin upbringing provides, distinguishing them sharply from the non-Brahmin groups. Of course, it would be simplistic to argue that these two realms remain mutually disjunctive or even exclusive. I am only suggesting that one cannot proceed with the assumption that either one is the same as the other or that one has overwhelmed and saturated the other.


Studying the other end of the caste spectrum as it were, Anupama Rao interrogating the story of the category of Dalits and thereby of the paradigm of Dalit emancipation in modern India, too seems to gesture towards the ways in which the category of Dalits is constituted in an inextricable relationship with the technologies of governmentality.13 Indeed, if I could extend her argument beyond what she herself does, it appears that our understanding of the communities and identities so constituted in the twin registers of untouchability and the Dalit will enable us to prise open the closures that it faces today if we can engage with the lifeworlds of these communities and politics that may remain outside the frame of the Dalit-ness. It could even be productive in reimagining the project of emancipation differently, for the articulation of the ‘movement’ appears to hit dead-ends of state welfarism, having lost the multivalent imaginations that someone like Ambedkar brought to bear on the Dalit/Untouchable question.


This limit equally stares at another widely held description of the contemporaneity of caste, which differs radically from the insistence of Dalit Studies that caste continues to be a profound form of inherited privilege in contemporary India. Many leading sociologists – including M.N. Srinivas, Andre Beteille and Dipankar Gupta – have in recent years insisted that caste as a frame of meaning-making and self-identity is fading out in the face of the relentless sway of modernization, at least in the urban, middle class, professional sections, and that if there is anything we need to be worried about it is the persistence of caste in electoral politics. This too equates the paradox of foregrounding-backgrounding of caste subjects which is framed by the logic of governmentality into a totality of caste.

So, if substantialized caste is only one, if perhaps the most significant, dimension of what caste is today, how does one account for those practices of caste and its economy that remains relational, so to speak?

Surely, going back to Dumont for an answer here won’t do. Dumont would then compel us to recuperate and replicate his thesis of hierarchy being essentially religious and therefore the world of substantialized caste as being peripheral and incidental. A schema that does not valorize one aspect over another will be briefly sketched here.14

Such a schema must gesture towards the contradictory bases of caste action today that simultaneously hails the caste subject to recuperate the self as – at once – substantialized and relational. If the substantialized aspects of caste can be glossed as associational, the relational aspects are communitarian as they seem to foreground a structural (and thereby transcendental) character.


To indicate what is at stake in thinking of ‘caste as community’, let me revert to the Brahmin story again. Even as the Brahmins today insistently articulate a sense of receding significance of caste in their public actions, there is simultaneously an imagination of samskara (codes and practices of conducting the self) that appear to overwhelm their sense of being. This code – of samskara – is, note, presented as a quality that they gain simply because they are born as Brahmin and grow up in Brahminical environs, which is indeed a source of pride. In articulating this, Brahmins do not invoke registers of governmentality but perhaps a ‘traditional’ structure of sentiments. Similar is the case of the Brahmin jati-specific associations mentioned above, which in spite of being brought into existence by and anchored within the modern associational logic consistently feel the need to articulate a kin-group economy of practice. All this is much like the transactions that take place in the worlds of ‘untouchable’ castes that would not invoke the register of ‘being Dalit’.

The contemporary caste self, it appears, is defined and constituted by this oscillating, if not contradictory and surely not schizophrenic, dynamic of community-association. Conceptual modes of accounting for this dynamic – of being community and association at once – will perhaps allow us to work at the limits of the closures caste scholarship faces today.



1. Arjun Appadurai, ‘Theory in Anthropology: Center and Periphery’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 28(2), 1986, pp. 356-361.

2. Andre Beteille, ‘The Reproduction of Inequality: Occupation, Caste and Family’, Contributions to Indian Sociology (n.s.), 25(1), pp. 3-28; Dipankar Gupta, ‘Introduction: The Certitudes of Caste: When Identity Trumps Hierarchy’, Contributions to Indian Sociology 38(1-2) 2004, pp. v-xv; Satish Deshpande, ‘Caste Inequalities in India Today’, in his Contemporary India: A Sociological View. Viking, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 98-124.

3. Available at establishment_centres.pdf. Accessed on 18.02.2012.

4. A representative and not an exhaustive claim.

5. Debjani Ganguly, Caste and Dalit Life-worlds: Postcolonial Perspectives. Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2008.

6. Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and its Implications. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2004, p. 222.

7. Ramesh Bairy T.S., Being Brahmin, Being Modern: Exploring the Lives of Caste Today. Routledge, New Delhi, 2010, chapter 1.

8. Dipankar Gupta, op cit., p. xi.

9. Ramesh Bairy T.S., ‘Brahmins in the Modern World: Association as Enunciation’, Contributions to Indian Sociology (n.s.), 43(1), 2009, pp. 89-120.

10. Yet, the space of the nation, and therefore national/ist imaginations, as we know, were and have been radically different in negotiating with the idea and ideology of caste.

11. Ramesh Bairy T.S., op cit., 2010; particularly chapters 4-6.

12. Ramesh Bairy T.S., op cit., 2009.

13. Anupama Rao, The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2010.

14. A more elaborate presentation is in Bairy 2010, ch. 7, anchored around theorist Ferdinand Toennies’ formulation that, in the transition from ‘traditional’ structures of society, social formations will have to contend with a tension between the earlier communitarian modes of relationship and the newer associational ones.