India’s caste system of racial stratification is going nowhere, says historian and scholar of India Shefali Chandra. Instead, it is expressed in new and ever more cunning ways. Her new book project takes a hundred-year look at India’s history to unravel the intertwined nature of privileged racial regimes.
What does it mean to be the norm? To move through society unexamined, unfettered, unchallenged? The interdisciplinary field of whiteness studies calls out the central position of “whiteness” in American and other white-settler societies, revealing the vast project of institutionalizing wider consent to dominant values and beliefs. It’s an essential aspect of race studies, yet “race” continues to signify nonblack in the popular as well as academic imagination. In much the same way, says Shefali Chandra, associate professor of history, India’s racial stratification system of caste has yet to be fully scrutinized.
“In general, caste studies have largely restricted themselves to studying lower caste, especially Dalit, histories,” Chandra says. A Faculty Fellow in the Center for the Humanities, she is working on a new book that examines how the invisible privilege of upper-caste Brahmans in global and Indian society rests on their appropriation of the discourses of race.
“Borrowing analytically from whiteness studies, I want to uncover the interconnected nature of dominant, or privileged, racializations,” she says. “The vocabulary and analytic power of whiteness studies in particular, but also American studies itself, is vitally transferable. By bringing it to India studies, I show how the silent universalization of upper-caste norms and cultural codes plays into the globalization of race — that is, the dissemination of an American economy of culture and appearance." The book shows the intertwined racial histories of whiteness and caste.
Briefly, what is your project about?
My book examines the history of India to unravel the intertwined nature of privileged racial regimes — caste, race, whiteness, Hinduism — under imperialism. I look at more than 100 years of India’s relationship to Empire, first British and then American, to show how different ways of hailing people through “race” come to reinforce one another in the most subtle and understated ways. Particularly, I track dominant forms of racial formation: upper-caste power and its quiet yet tenacious contract with whiteness.
The title of your project, “The Cunning of India,” riffs on the philosopher Georg Hegel’s notion of the “Cunning of Reason.” What ideas link the two?
Yes, although it is a loose riff! Hegel believed that Reason was a kind of sovereign entity that sought to unfold and realize itself; indeed, the very motor of history was the movement of Reason toward Freedom. More pertinent for me, he mentions that in its actualization through time and space, Reason does not actually exert itself directly. Rather, he writes, other passions mobilize to enable the ultimate realization of Reason: “It is not the universal idea which places itself in opposition and struggle, or puts itself in danger; it holds itself safe from attack and uninjured in the background and sends the particular of passion into the struggle to be worn down. We can call it the cunning of reason that the Idea makes passions work for it.” The connection to the title of my book is therefore two-fold.
One aspect of my project is to historicize the worldwide obsession with “India” — the laudatory, affirmative and simultaneously disturbing adulation that outsiders are educated to feel for “India.” I am interested in the conviction that “India” is a transhistorical, universal spirit that endures, and perhaps even undermines, the ravages of empire and capitalism. There is a sense that a pure, unsullied “Indian” knowledge system, way of life and culture will rise above more base (read: Islamic, or western, or class-based) cultural and political formations. We see aspects of this conviction in a range of important historical actors, from Henry David Thoreau and “Mahatma” Gandhi to Ranajit Guha and Mindy Kaling!
The second reason for riffing on Hegel is because I show that the “cunning of India” is really the “cunning of Brahmanism.” India’s supposed enduring and transhistorical power is a way, I argue, of making Brahmanism stand in for Indian culture. So, the cunning of India is the making of Brahmanical (that is, upper-caste Hindu) culture synonymous with India. This is a cunning, or sly, move, but one that is being reinforced continually by other privileged racialisms and class formations. “India” thus endures as a permanent, world-historical triumph over capitalism and even whiteness, even as what it enables is the universalization of upper-caste cultures.
In general, Westerners don’t know that much about India’s caste system except the impression that it’s repressive and is being swept away with modernization. Where does this type of understanding go wrong?
Most crucially, caste is in no way disappearing. In fact, even as caste is rising in importance — as an electoral device for organizing votes, as an important means for amending the historical discrimination against so-called lower castes, and as a route along which to direct unbelievable forms of sexual and physical violence — “upper” castes are claiming that caste is disappearing. Commentary that asserts that caste is being swept away is actually ventriloquizing an upper-caste investment in the political, economic and cultural benefits of “modernity” — or, more accurately, U.S.-centered globalization. The notion that caste is disappearing actually indicates the quiet and crafty triumph of Brahmanism.
But even for the upper castes, caste is not actually disappearing. Instead, as I showed in my first book, The Sexual Life of English: Languages of Caste and Desire in Colonial India, all the organizing precepts of caste endure. Only now, instead of the conventional traditional rituals anthropologists once examined as indicating caste, we find new modes of expressing caste’s exclusionary nature. Postcolonial scholars argued that the English language was a colonial imposition, a means of strengthening Britain’s cultural hold over India. But what I show in The Sexual Life of English is that upper-caste Indians rapidly incorporated the language into the symbolic logic of upper-caste India, and immediately deployed it to maintain and even accentuate the very same caste hierarchy that differentiated between knowledge and labor, between the twice born and the “low” castes. The process by which English becomes an Indian language is the process by which caste becomes secularized, or stripped of formal religious connotations, and therefore continues to perpetuate and even exacerbate the same social and political hierarchies of old.
Caste is not being swept away; rather, in new and covert ways it tightens its grip over more and more people. Like all systems of racialization, caste is extremely volatile and opportunistic. Certainly, the features that characterized it in the 19th century have changed dramatically. But its basic contours — graded inequality, the differentiation between knowledge and labor, the uses of normative sexuality — have not only endured but deepened their power.
Finally, the notion of a caste system occludes an analysis of Brahmanism: the power of the Brahmanical caste to reproduce its power and privilege over time. Progressive and radical scholars have shown how caste is nothing without Brahmanism. In the words of the scholar and activist B.R. Ambedkar, “caste is Brahmanism incarnate.” The view of caste as a system actually tends to divert our attention away from understanding the specific logic and ritualistic elasticity of upper-caste power.
How did you first get interested in this topic? What’s the connection to the matrimonial advertisement section of newspapers?
Matrimonial adverts, which millions of people read weekly in Indian and American newspapers, are like megaphones that amplify a massive consent over the permissible parameters of caste, race and gender. I’ve always been interested in the politics of gender normativities. How (and why) do people claim social belonging by presenting themselves as legibly gendered? What do cultural expectations of race do to those presentations? Why does the desire to fix gender enable wider systems of expropriation and control? Who gets to marry whom? Why has marriage become the way to organize a wider consent to power? For instance, the past 10 years have been dominated by the developments over “gay marriage”: My assessment of the Indian matrimonials will show how that debate was much, much wider than homosexuality in the U.S. The upper-caste investment in sexual normativity is the analytic lens that I brought to my first book. Here, too, the gender and sexual desires expressed in the matrimonial advertisements reveal new and shifting relations between caste and race. The chapters of the book — which deal with education, nation-building, film, health and comedy — continually return to the way that matrimonial advertisements illuminate the parameters of race, caste, gender and India’s relation to globalization.