Modern sociological writings on Indian society can be traced back to earlier European, especially British, interpretations of Indian social institutions like jati, village communities etc. Though numerous observations about Indian society were made by European travellers or visitors from around 1500 A.D., systematic recording of information on India began only around the eighteenth century. European and British writings on India may be classified under three heads. Scholars like William Jones, Max Muller and other Sanskritists, Indologists or Orientalists* form one category". They were by and large concerned with ancient texts like the Vedas, Upanishuds and Dharmasastras. Missionaries who studied and interpreted ancient texts or collected information on Indian customs and practices may be included in the same category. British administrators like Munro, Mackenzie, Elphinstone, Metcalfe etc., who collected a variety of information from another category. Also falling in this category are men like Hamilton', Thornton and Colebrooke who were specially commissioned to undertake surveys and write Imperial and District Gazetteers, and Census Commissioners and officers like Risley, Hutton and O'Malley. Marx, Maine and other scholars who constructed a theoretical framework out of data and reports provided by the British administrators form the third category.

While Indologists and orientlists were generally motivated to trace the links between European culture, Indian culture and language, administrators like Munro and Metcalfe were preoccupied J with revenue settlements of various provinces that came under British rule. Their observations and conclusions were mainly aimed at defending one or the other system of land settlement introduced by the British. Scholars like Marx and Maine were interested in establishing their universal theories of social evolution cr development and found in Indian society a laboratory to test some of their hypotheses.

The organization of Indian society into innumerable jatis and the nature and characteristics of the Indian village find repeated mention in the reports of British administrators. While one can understand the European or British curiosity about jati, as it was regarded as a uniquely Indian institutional is significant that the Indian village should receive an equal attention in the reports of administrators and others. The earliest observations about the Indian village were made by District collectors and other revenue officials in the context of the British preoccupation with the revenue settlements of various provinces. The absence of private ownership of land, the multiple rights enjoyed by various groups or individuals on the agricultural produce, the periodic exchange or rotation of land among a community of owners, and the large amount of rent-free holdings called inams, maniyams or mafees attracted the attention of these early British administrators. The reports of these district revenue officials along with the proceedings of the Board of Revenue were sent to London for information and suitable policy guidelines.

The Fifth Report of the Affairs of the East India Company submitted to the House of Commons in the year 1812 is the earliest consolidation by London of various reports and observations of British officials in India* .It must be remembered that the Fifth Report as also the reports of British officials in India were meant for British policy formulations at the highest level. It is on the basis of this report that Marx and Maine drew their picture of the Indian village and constructed their theories of Oriental Despotism and the Primitive Indo-Aryan Commune respectively. Since the days of Marx and Maine the Fifth Report has been quoted any number of times and we would therefore be doing no harm quoting from it again:

"A village geographically considered, is a tract of country, some hundreds or thousands of acres of arable and waste land; politically viewed, it resembles a corporation or township Us proper establishment of officers and servants consists of the following descriptions: The Potail or head inhabitant, who has the general superintendence of the affairs of the village, settles the disputes of the inhabitants, attends tc the police, and performs the duty, already described, of collecting the revenues within his village, a duty which the situation and concerns of the people renders him best qualified to discharge; the curnum, who keeps the accounts of cultivation, and registers everything connected with it; the Talliar and Totie: the duty of the former appearing to consist, in a wider and more enlarged sphere of action, in gaining information of crimes and offenses, and in escorting and protecting persons travelling from one village to another; the province of the latter, appearing to be more immediately confined to the village, consisting, among other duties, in guarding the crops, and assisting in measuring them; the Boundary-man who preserves the limits of the village, or gives evidence respecting them, in cases of dispute; the Superintendent of the tanks and water courses who distributes the water therefore, for the purposes of agriculture; the Binhmin who .performs the village worship; the Schoolmaster who is seen teaching the children in the villages to read and write in the sand; the Calendar Brahmin or astrologer, who proclaims the lucky or unpropitious periods of sowing and threshing; the Smith and Carpenter, who manufacture the implements of agriculture and build the dwellings of the ryot; the Potman or potter; the Washerman, the Barber, the Cow-keeper, who looks after the cattle; the Doctor; the Dancing Girl, who attends at rejoicings; the Musician and the Poet. These officers and servants, generally constitute the establishment of a village; but in some parts of the country, it is of less extent, some of the duties and functions above described being united in the same person, in others, it exceeds the number of individuals which have been described.

Under this simple form of municipal government the inhabitants of the country have lived, from time immemorial. The boundaries of the villages have been but seldom altered; and though the villages themselves have been sometimes injured, and even desolated, by war, famine, and disease, the same name, the same limits and the same interests and even the same families, have continued for ages. The inhabitants give themselves no trouble about the breaking up and division of kingdoms; while the village remains entire, they care not to what power it is transferred, or to what sovereign it devolves; its internal economy remains unchanged".

Marx, while quoting the Fifth Report, takes the second para to pour scorn on Indian way of life.

"....these idyllic village communities... have always been the solid foundation of oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it... depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies this undignified, stagnatory and vegetative life.... rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindustan".

As downright condemnation of Indian life and civilization, Marx's judgment is perhaps surpassed only by lames Mill. The Fifth Report's observation that villages in India remained the same in spite of war, famine and disease came in handy for Marx to establish his thesis that more than conquering force, it is economic factors that transform society. It is rather strings that Marx did not realize that the Fifth Report's observation was motivated by a desire to build an argument that the British rule is hardly an interference with Indian way of life, that what the British had done was what had always happened in India and that political changes never concerned the average Indian. In order to emphasize his point that British free-trade and steam power brought about a social transformation in India, Marx even went to the extent of it, underplaying the role of the British tax gatherer. It is highly improbable that a scholar like Marx did not know that the British collected about 50 percent of the gross produce as revenue, thus dealing a death" blow to a number of village institutions and functions.

How far is the description of the village administration in the Fifth Report hinting at its autonomy and economic self sufficiency true? There seems to be a fair consensus among scholars that the descriptions contained in the Fifth Report, as also the earlier descriptions of Munro and Metcalfe", are too romantic to be true. It is also held that Indian nationalists use these very descriptions to serve their ideological purpose of condemning the British rule for having destroyed the self-sufficient village republics and painting the pre-colonial era as la golden age.

Srinivas (197551) in an essay on the myth and reality of Indian village argues that the Fifth Report is an oversimplification of reality. He says:

"It seems unlikely that villages were entirely indifferent to the fate of the kingdom of which they were a part. They would have had a natural preference for a 'good' king and distaste for a 'bad' one, judged by the share of the crop he collected by way of tax and the effectiveness of the protection he offered them against robbers, marauding troops etc".

Questioning the economic self-sufficiency of the Indian village, Srinivas says that an essential commodity like salt was not produced in every village nor was iron, indispensable for making agricultural implements, available in every village. About the abilities of the village communities to survive temporary disasters, Srinivas says mat it is an exaggeration and quotes Baden-Powell approvingly.

"As to the villages being unchangeable, their constitution and form has shown a progressive tendency to decay and if it had not been for modern land revenue systems trying to keep it together, it may well be doubted whether it would have survived at all" (Baden-Powell as quoted in Srinivas, 1957:52) “.

If the Fifth Report was interested in presenting a picture of stability and stagnation of Indian 'village in order to show that the British rule after all was no serious interference in the Indian way of life, Baden-Powell was clearly interested in upholding the Zamindari and Ryotwari systems introduced by the British and hence talked about the tendency of Indian villages to decay.

Dumont (1966) says that the Fifth Report and the descriptions by Metcalfe and Elphinstone actually refer to the village community as a political society. Admitting that there is some truth in the descriptions by Elphinstone or Meltcalfe, Dumont says that there is an element of idealization in the supposed political independence of village communities. Even if one agrees with Srinivas and Dumont, there still remains the question as to why our villages appeared as republics to the British administrators and others. For instance, William Adam, a Baptist missionary who surveyed the system of indigenous education in Bengal around 1830 remarked that there were about one lakh schools in the Province. It can be argued today that Adam did not make a proper survey or that he was exaggerating. But is it not sociologically significant that Adam talks about one lakh schools in Bengal Province? Adam must have been struck by the widespread nature of the indigenous education in contrast to what had obtained in England then. Similarly, it can be argued that when British administrators described Indian villages as republics they must have done so by contrasting the Indian village with the village in England or Europe.

What did the British administrators actually see in the Indian village that made them describe H as a republic? One of the earliest and most detailed records of the institutional structure of the Indian village is a detailed survey of about 2000 villages in the Chingleput district of Tamilnadu conducted in the 1760's . The survey records the total land belonging to each village and its utilization including the details of muniyams etc The more important part of the survey, however, concerns the details of deductions made, from the total agricultural produce of the village for maintenance of various institutions of the village as well as institutions and offices outside the village. In each village deductions were made on the average out of about 50 items, ranging from temples and irrigation works to water pandals and flower gardens. A number of village functionaries like Talliar, Karnam, Corn-measurer, Barber, Washerman, Panjangam Brahmin, Purohit, Cow keeper. Carpenter, Blacksmith, Doctor, Snake Doctor, School Teacher, Potter, Devadasi, Valluvan etc. were provided for from the total agricultural produce. Apart from these village institutions and functionaries, great temples outside the village and some offices and functions of the judicial administrative kind belonging to the larger locality around the village also got a share from the village produce. Chief among the offices or functions outside' the village were the great temples, the Brahmin scholar, Palegar, Deshmukh, Tookery, Canoonco etc.

Taking eight villages at random, Dharampal has recently presented the data of the actual deductions made for each item or function out of 100 kalams of agricultural produce. Out of 8 Villages considered, 4 belong to the Ponnery area and 4 belong to Carangooly area. AH the eight villages have 600 cawnies or more of cultivable land. The data is summarized in Table -1.

When we analyze the data for these 8 villages we find that great temples outside the village received between 2 and 5 percent of the gross agricultural produce of each village. The Brahmin scholar outside the village received about 0.5 percent of the produce. The Poligar,
who is the area militia chief received about 25 to 4 percent, while the Tookery about 2.5 to 3 percent of the produce. The average deduction made in respect of the Deshmukh, which is a political office of the region is 1.5 to 2 percent. In all about 10 - l4 percent of the total agricultural produce of the village was allocated to support religious, cultural and wider political institutions and functions.

When one considers the deductions made for the infrastructure of the village, we find that irrigation received the maximum, about 3 to 4 percent of the gross produce. Karnam, who was the registrar of the village, received about 2.5 to 3percent, It may be pointed out that the deductions for Karnam could have been shared by a number of persons as the job of the Karnam required maintaining a sort of secretariat of, the village. The Talliar who was generally from Paraiah jati received about 1.5 percent of the produce. The carpenter and blacksmith were" together allocated on an average 1.7 percent of the produce. The barber and washerman received 0.5 to 1 percent each. As against these deductions made for functions performed by lower jatis, the Purohit and Panjangam Brahmin received on an average only about 0.25 percent of the produce. Even the Valluvan (astrologer from lower jatis) received a little more than the Panjangam Brahmin. The Devadasi received an allocation of about 0.25 percent and the flower garden, water panda) etc., received about 012 to 0.25 percent each. Interestingly/among the village temples that received allocations, the Amman temple and Dhararnaraja temple belonging to the lower jatis received about percent while Eswaran, Perumal and Ganesha temples of the higher jatis received only 0.5 percent. In all about 20 to 25 percent of the total agricultural produce was allocated for various functions, institutions' and individuals within the village. Adding the deductions made for institutions/functions outside the village, the total amount deducted from produce ranged between 30 and 40 percent.

The picture one gets from the Chingleput data is one of relatively autonomous localities or villages which managed their own affairs by a complex system of allocation of resources. That these villages were not completely isolated or cut off from the wider society or polity comes out clearly from the allocations made for institutions, functions etc. outside the -village. That every function was taken care of-and every individual provided for reminds one of the functions supposed to be performed by a modern welfare state.

In the light of the data from Chinglcput one would naturally look for corroborative evidence from other parts of India. According to John Malcolm, a major British military commander and later governor of Bombay Presidency, the dcductions: made for such purposes in the villages of Malwa region was about .25 percent. We have a lot of data from early British records pertaining to Bengal during 1765-1790 about the nature and extent of revenue assignments to religious, cultural institutions and for administrative-economic functions. According to this data, there were two categories of assignments called Chakeram Zameen and Bazee Zameen, implying that the recipients of the former were engaged in administrative functions and the latter, in religious cultural functions. Around 1777 in the Nuddcah district of Bengal a total of 96,827 Beeghas of land was assigned as Chakeram Zameen. Out of this about 15,000 Beeghas were assigned to Turrufdars and Karmacharis; 7,488 Beeghas for village Pykes about 15,000 Beeghas for village accountants; 8,000 Beeghas for Sudder officers 7,500 Beeghas for officers of Pergunnah cutcheries'. Bazee Zameen assignments in the district of Rajashahi in 1777 amounted to 4,29,149 Beeghas Of these 80,900 Beeghas was for temples and 2,80,520 Beeghas for learned individuals. The Collector of Rungpore reported in 1789 that over 24,000 persons held Bazee Zameen assignments in his district. Similarly, the Collector of Beerbohm estimated that the resumptions that would-be allowed under the new British regulations would affect over 10,000 persons in1 his district. According to H.J. Prinsep, a major authority on land resumptions, the district of Burdwan alone had received over 72,000 applications for registration and 'confirmation of Bazee Zameen around 1780. Regarding the extent of these assignments, the President of the Board of Revenue in Bengal in 1789, Sir John Shore, stated that the total produce of these alienated lands, estimated at over Rs.2.5 crores, was almost one-third of the gross produce, which was estimated at about Rs.8 crores.

A very similar picture emerges from the British accounts of the Rajasthan area around 1818- 1830.. According to Captain Stewart, political agent at Jaipur in 1818, out of the total revenue of the state, estimated at Rs.6530,216, the religious and charitable assignments amounted to Rs.10,10,492. In addition Tunkhadars got Rs.11, 93,889 and Jafreerdars Rs.17,11,446. The revenue receipts of the exchequer (khalsa) was thus only Rs.26,11,389. The position in the Madras presidency was not very different even after a period of disorganisation and dispossession between 1750 and 1800. As late as 1807, Thomas Munro, as Collector, reported to the Board of Revenue that over 30-40 percent of the land in Ceded districts (the present day Bellary, Anantapur and Cuddappah) camejunder the category of revenue-free assignments called inams. An idea of the number of persons to whom these hams were assigned may be had from the settlements made by the name commission of the Madras Presidency. By 1369 the Commission has settled a total of 3,67,427 inams. The recipients of the inams included religious institutions, public utilities like chattrams, schools etc., individual functionaries like the Poligar and the Brahmin.

The revenue free assignments, variously called as inams, mafees etc. must have had the sanction of long standing custom, or convention and no ruler could ordinarily cancel them. In Bengal and Bihar areas, which were under Muslim rule for a long time, more than 90 percent of the assignments were in the name of Hindu institutions. It is thus clear that the Indian village was basically a self-regulating community with an infrastructure of services and amenities along with a measure of political autonomy. Though we do not yet have a clear picture of the actual linkages that existed between the village and the wider society/polity, it is beyond doubt that the Indian village did contribute to the larger society in terms of both material and human resources. That a certain sense of cultural unity based on very ancient traditions and norms existed is well indicated by institutions and structures like temples, chatrams receiving scal support from various regions of India. As Dharampal says (1986:138)

"....the available data seems to suggest the kind of society and polity that (in recent times) Mahatma Gandhi tried to spell out in his concept of Oceanic circles, where the innermost circle retained the utmost autonomy and extended to the outer circles fiscal and other support required to perform such of those functions that could not be performed at the local level".


In order to understand the European formulations on Indian Society it may not be totally out of place here to have a look at the British society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is generally held that the Norman Conquest consolidated feudalism in England in the mid-eleventh century. The main consequence of the conquest was that the people of the conquered areas were deprived of their land and other natural resources and around 95 percent of the resources were appropriated by the Normans. This 95 percent was distributed in roughly the following proportion:25 percent to the King, 25 percent to the established church and 50 percent amongst the followers of the conquerors. These followers in due course came to be known as the nobility and aristocracy in England and of Wales, Ireland and Scotland too. The original inhabitants of England, estimated at about 1.5 million in the mid-eleventh century were mostly reduced to the status of serfs and villains’. For instance Gregory King's analysis of the incomes of English families in the late 17th century illustrates the manner in which the resources were concentrated and controlled at that time (the data is presented in Table II). A look at the distribution of land and resources in the next century (see Table III and IV) suggests that though the British society underwent several changes in the following centuries, the property right of the nobility and aristocracy as also the hierarchical structure of wealth and power more or less remained intact as late as 1873.



Number of
Banks, Degrees, Titles and Qualifications Average yearly
Income per Family (£)
160 Temporal Lords 2,800
26 Spiritual Lords 1,300
800 Baronets 880
600 Knights 650
3,000 Squires 480
12,000 Gentleman 280
5,000 Persons in Office 240
5,000 Persons in Office 120
2,000 Merchants and Traders by Sea 400
8,000 Merchants and Traders by Land 200
10,000 Persons in the Law 140
2,000 Clergymen 60
8,000 Clergymen 45
40,000 Freeholders 84
140,000 Freeholders 50
150,000 Farmers 44
16,000 Persons in Science and Liberal Arts 60
40,000 Shop keepers and Tradesmen 45
60,000 Artisans and Handicrafts 40
5,000 Naval Officers 80
4,000 Military Officers 60
-----------   -----------
511,586   67
-----------   -----------
50,000 Common Seamon 20
364,000 Labouring People and Out Servants 15
400,000 Cottagers and Paupers 6.5
35,000 Common Soldiers 14
-----------   -----------
849,000 Families + Vagrants(30,000) Persons 10.5
-----------   -----------
511,586 Increasing the Wealth of the Kingdom 67
849,000 Decreasing the Wealth of the Kingdom 10.5
--------------   -----------
1,360,586 Familes      Net Totals 32
--------------   -----------
Source: Gregory King Esq: Natural and Political Observations and Conclusions upon the State and Condition of England (pp 73)



  No. of Families Average
share of
per family
Temporal Lords 516 10,000
Spiritual Lords (Archbishops and Bishops) 48 5,010
Baronets 861 3,510
Knights and Esquires 11,000 2,000
Gentlemen and Ladies Living on Incomes 35,000 800
Eminent Bankers and Merchants 3,500 2,600
In all 50,925  
Higher Civil and Military Servants 50,080 200
Eminant Clergymen 1,500 720
Lesser Clergymen 17,500 200
Judges, Barristers, Attorneys etc. 19,000 400
Physicians, Surgeons, Apethecaries 18,000 300
Artists, Sculptors, Engravers 5,000 280
Freeholders of land of the bettor sort 70,000 275
Leeser Merchants 22,800 805
Engineers, Surveyors, Master Builders 8,700 300
Owners of ships, various manufacturers 54,150 600
University Teachers 874 600
In all 2,68,404  
Lesser Freeholders and Farmers 4,90,000 100
Minor Manufactures like Tailors Milliners etc. 43,750 180
Shopkeepers and Retail Tradesmen 1,40,000 200
Clerks and Shopmen 95,000 70
Inn-Keepers and Publications 87,500 100
School-owners and Teachers employing
some capital
35,000 204
Dissending Clergymen 5,000 100
Actors in Teachers etc. 875 200
Half pay Officers 6,500 100
Common Soldiers 2,80,000 35
Seaman and Marine 1,71,540 42
Army Pensioners in Homes etc. 42,000 15
Labouring People in Agriculture Mining etc.
(including earnings of the females)
7,42,151 45
Aquatic labourers in the Merchants 1,80,000 45
Umberlla and Parasol Makers, Lace Workers,
launderers etc.
70,000 50
Artisans, Machanics, labourers in Manufactories,
building works etc.
10,21,974 48
Hawkers, Pelders, etc 1,400 45
Persons in prison for debt 3,500 30
Paupers, producing from their own labour
in Miscellaneous employments
3,87,100 10
In all 28,99,100  
Source: Patrick Colquhons: Treatise on the population, wealth, power and Resources of the British Empire in every quarter of the World (1814).



Number of Owners Class Extent in Acres
400 Peers and Peeresses 5,728,979
1,288 Great Landowners 8,497,699
2,529 Squires 4,319,271
9,585 Great Yeomen 4,782,627
24,412 Lesser Yeomen 4,144,272
217,049 Small Proprietors 3,931,806
703,289 Cottagers 151,148
14,459 Public: The Crown, Barracks: 165,427
  Bodies: Convict, Prisons:  
  : Lighthouses & c :  
  : Religious, Educational : 947,655
  : Philanthropic & c. :  
  Commercial and Miscellaneous 330,466
  Waste: Commercial and Miscellaneous 1,524,264
973,011 Total 31,523,974

Source: John Bateman: The Great landowners of Great Britain and Ireland 7883 (p.515).

After some 120 years, i.e. in 1812, the hierarchical relationships of this society had changed only marginally- A contemporary' analysis presented the picture presented in Table (II under four categories. Even later in 1873, the same pattern persists as can be seen from an analysis of land ownership in Britain and Ireland, in 1873 presented in Table IV above.

As may be seen from the above data, the aristocracy in England from the time of Norman conquest was] mainly preoccupied with preserving and extending its property and consequently all English norms arid institutions lhat were framed from time to time preserved this institution of private property. The primacy of private property as well as the wealth-based and power-graded hierarchical order, in its train, led to a scries of coercive laws which governed the rates of wages of artisans and laborers as well as the movement, especially of the latter, away from their habitual place of residence. Even while serfdom and villienage were disappearing, receiving and paying wages above the fixed rate was made a cognizable offense in the sixteenth century itself. Such fixing of wages continued till the early eighteenth century when the market forces took its place. In King's data given above (Table I), 849,000 families of common seamen, laboring people, cottagers etc., whose average income was 10, were considered as decreasing the wealth of the kingdom and 511,586 families with an average income of 67 were considered as increasing the wealth of the kingdom. The logic is strange and funny. You first fix the wages of some categories low and then argue that since their incomes are low they contribute nothing to the wealth of the Kingdom. This was raised to the status of a theoretical principle by Adam Smith who argued that the labourer was not Worth more than his hire and it was wrong therefore to pay the laborer more than what was needed for his subsistence, and the less the sum on which he was hired the better it was for the economy.

If we compare the above data with the Chingleput data presented earlier, it seems that at a gross level Indian society of pre- British era was more egalitarian than British society of the corresponding period. Further, the British social hierarchy based on wealth and power has been as rigid, if not more, than the so-called caste hierarchy of India. In this context one really wonders if the European or British hostility to and condemnation of, caste an institution were because of reasons other than it being a hierarchy of statuses and positions or a system of social inequalities. It seems more likely that the British opposition to caste as an institution was because of it being a major obstacle in their way to atomize Indian society.


Whatever data one may collect; about the fiscal and political structure of the Indian village, discussion of these communities cannot be complete without facing the question of caste or jati. It was the rigid hierarchical jatis system that supposedly bound the village society in its vice-like grip and classified the crass inequalities in a theoretically unshakable frame. Breaking the jatis system and thereby releasing the forces of progressive egalitarianism then became the major argument in favor of the destruction of Indian social structure, and made this destruction look like an act of civilizing grace even to someone like Marx. Support of an obnoxiously in egalitarian jati system remains even today the main charge leveled by scholars, politicians and the enlightened laymen, against the traditional social and political structure of India. It is difficult to discuss objectively a phenomenon that has generated so much righteous indignation and civilizing zeal amongst foreigners and the educated Indians alike over such a long period. But let us at least put together what the scholars have been discovering about this peculiar system of India.

The phenomenon of the division of Indian society into innumerable jatis has been much discussed, researched and theorized about. While the theories themselves differ a great deal in tracing the origin and development, or in describing the structure and function, of jatis, the fact that for centuries the Indian people belonged to, and continue to belong to, jatis is undisputed. It is also an accepted fact that in the course of our history, a number of jatis were born both by a process of fission and fusion. It is also likely that a few jatis disappeared altogether, while some took new names. It is generally accepted that the origin of the jati system is hidden in pre-history. The attempts by ideologists to trace the origin of jati to varna has become discredited since the emergence of empirical sociology. It is now generally accepted that varna and jati are different. Many have expressed doubts whether the varna model or theory is useful at all in understanding the reality of jatis. It is said, for instance, that there are no Kshatriyas in a majority of villages an&Vaisyas are conspicuous by their absence in many part of India. It is also a well known fact that most of the Hindu rajas were Sudras.

It is now realised that there are a number of jatis which may not find a place in the varna scheme. Modem sociologists are agreed that varna is a general frame of reference or theory or ideology that orders Hindu society in a particular way. It is widely held that this theorisation or attempt at ordering Hindu society was undertaken by higher jatis, especially the Brahmins. Hence the model or theory found in, for example, Mariusamhita, is basically a Brahmanical model that may never have operated at the level of a village or a region. Most of the earlier theories about jati based on analyses of Manu and other law givers were therefore attempts at understanding the phenomenon of jatis from the top. It may be interesting to speculate whether the Western fascination with Brahmanical texts was the consequence of the European social reality itself being a linear hierarchy. In this context, it is pertinent to note that in 1815 when London had begun discouraging the translation and publication of Indian works, only the re-publication of "Institutes of Manu" was approved, as the Public Dispatch to Bengal of 63.1815 declared:

"After the most attentive consideration we have been enabled to give as to the merits and utility of the works mentioned in the paragraph under reply, there is only one," the "Institutes of Manu", that appears to be of the description to which our former orders our patronage should be confirmed, viz. to works of real utility and of moderate expenses. We must therefore strictly enjoin you to confine your future patronage of literary works to such as shall be entirely of the description above mentioned".

While it can be seen from the above that the British ruler? Considered Manu's Dharmasastra a work of real utility, among Indian scholars and in schools of higher learning where Indian law was taught Manu's Dharmasastra did not seem to have enjoyed the status of sole authority. According to Adam, in all the 19 schools of higher learning of five districts of Bengal where law was taught, the main text used was that by Raghunandana, and Manu and the Mitakshara, (the commentary of Vijnancswara on Yajmvalkya Swriti) were known only by name.

What the British Census operation did in the early years of this century in fixing the social rank of different jatis has been well documented. Though the publication of his work Tribes and Castes of Bengal in 1891 had, resulted in a lot of quarrel between Kayasthas and Vaidyas, Risely went ahead and provided a classification according to social rank in 1901 Census that rekindled enmities. As Rajat Kanta Ray (1984:43) observes:

"The immediate occasion for the outbreak of caste antagonisms on a large scale at the beginning" of the twentieth century was the use of Census operations of 1901 by the British government to fix the social rank of different castes. An elaborate list of caste precedence, drawn up by Sir Herbert Risely, was submitted to committees of Indian gentlemen for scrutiny and1 criticism. An extraordinary amount of ill-feeling and jealousy characterized the debates of these committees, which in more than one instance failed to reach a decision. This use by government of census operations to fix caste rank" was an extraordinary exercise of official power",

Now, what are jatis? Sociologists have listed several characteristics of jatis or the jatis system. Broadly jatis are considered closed kindred, endogamous groupings, generally following a hereditary calling". Some principles of hierarchy such as superior-inferior, pure-impure,
auspicious-inauspicious or clear-unclear are said to be at the basis of the jatis system. This view finds it’s most rigorous exposition Jin Dumont’s Homo Hierarchicus. What is therefore described as the jati system is the inter-relationship between jatis supposedly governed by the principle of hierarchy. It is claimed that this hierarchical arrangement of jatis can be found in every village or locality, though it is also conceded that in the middle regions of the hierarchy there is a lot of ambiguity about the relative ranking of jatis. In other words, except for the top (Brahmin) and the bottom (Pariah) position which are accepted everywhere, there is dispute about the relative superiority or inferiority of other jatis.

That the jatis were also arranged in different ways, without reference tovarnas is seldom taken serious note of. For example, the division of jatis into right-hand (Balagai) and left-hand (Yedagai) with jatis placed in between as Madyasthas has not been pToperiy understood. According to many British reports the Balagai jatis seemed to have consisted largely of the peasantry and those clearly linked with agriculture, while he Yedagai jatis seemed largely to have consisted of people following various crafts and trades. It was often the case that in many "disputes between the balagai and Yedagai divisions, the Paraiahs and Chakkiliars took leading role on behalf of the respective divisions.

In the Baramahal records an estimate is available of the probable number of cultivators, tradesmen, etc., in the BaJagai, Yedagai and Madyastha jatis. Out of a total population of six lakhs made up of 116lahs, the Madyasthas formed a majority, of 66 jatis with 2,29,642 persons. The Batagai jatte numbered 39 with a population of 1,83,763 and the Yedagai had 11 jatis with a population of 1,86,595. It was also estimated that among Paraiahs who numbered 65,075 there were 32,474 cultivators 36,478 tradesmen and 5433 independents (apparently these are not mutually exclusive categories and cultivators could also be tradesmen). It appears from the British records that there were many disputes between the Balagai and Yedagai jatis. While the significance of the Balagai - Yedagai division and the role of Madyasthas need to be properly understood, the fact that there were such divisions clearly indicates that the jati system was not necessarily a linear hierarchy.

The Balagai - Yedagai division also suggests that jatis combining themselves in a power struggle need not b.1 viewed as a Irecent phenomenon. It seems that jatis have always played a political role in so far as they are cohesive groups giving protection and security to their members. Therefore, the so called politicization of jatis need not be taken as the consequence of the introduction of elections or the democratic process in general. It may on the other hand be that having been used to mobilization of their members for political or power struggle jatis have responded to the introduction of the democratic process in a similar way. Thus, by considering politicization of jatis as a recent change in the caste system, sociologists have failed to appreciate the political nature of jati organization. It was perhaps this characteristic of the jatis to mobilize its members that made the British rulers so inimical to this institution. The European or British criticism of jatis, could not have been based on the principle of equality, for equality as an ideology is quite recent in origin and popularity within the Western society itself.

Another aspect that deserves mention here, but which is often ignored in discussion of jatU is the fact that there were a number of Sampradayas with their followers drawn from various jatis. That one retained one's jati even while belonging to a sampradaya like Veerasaivism which questioned notions of purity- impurity suggests that jatis may continue to exist even in sampradayas that proclaim the spiritual equality of all. Some interesting questions arise in the context of Veerasaivism, or even Buddhism. The commonly held view that though both wanted to abolish jatis, they could not succeed because of the power of the jati system needs reexamination. May be the Buddha and Basava were not against jatis themselves though they questioned the varna system of ordering jatis. Put differently, the fight, if ever, was against a particular arrangement of, or relationship between jatis.

This brings us to a crucial question. How were the jatis related at the level of village or locality? It is held that while jati was a segmental division of society there was also interdependence of jatis at the village or locality. This interrelationship between jatis has been called the jajmani system. Ever since Wiser's 'discovery' of the system in a village in 1930, a number of sociologists have commented upon it. For some scholars like Beidelman the system is merely a rationalization of the economic exploitation of the lower jatis. For others the essential features of the system is that it is fundamentally religious in nature and perhaps a substitute of sacrificial pattern. ThusLannoy considers the jajmani system to be nothing but a degraded imitation by the peasant jatis of the royal style in which the Kshatriya-king patronized a priest. According to him (Lannoy 1971:157-8).

"... the Jajmani system first appeared in the period when Vedic sacrifice was abandoned as the primary religious rite of the Hindus - that it was a substitution for sacrifice, on another more functional level rather in the same way as purification rites spread beyond the sacrificial domain to include the entire gamut of social regulation. Jajman came to mean all the basic reciprocal relations of patronage, not merely that between Kshatriya and Brahman, it is a privilege and responsibility for a family to patronize not only the domestic priest, but also all other specialists in the village. The system ensures the service of specialists and their subsistence; in exchange they receive annual gifts of products from the soil - a fixed portion of the crops".

For Dumont (1980:105) to the system is basically religious though with a richer content than suggested by Lannoy. According to him the system is designed to satisfy the need of everyone who enters into the system of jajmani relationships. It is a "sort of co-operative where the main, aim is to ensure the subsistence of everyone in accordance with social function, almost to the extent of sharing out the produce of each piece of land". Therefore, argues Dumont, the jajmani system in which each is assigned his place, is fundamentally religious and not economic. Srinivas, on the other hand considers the jajmani system to be essentially an economic relationship between jajman and kamin jatis. Writing on Indian social structure in the Gazetteer of India he states: 'Though primarily an economic or ritual tie, it has a tendency to spread to other fields and become a patron-client relationship". (Srinivas 1982:14). Thus two broad positions are taken on the jajmani system. One which describes it as a religious, ritualistic tie that ensures the subsistence of every jati, and the other, which considers the jajmani as a rationalization of exploitative economic relationship. But both are agreed that the relationship is one of patron-client or master-servant or jajman - kamin.

In the light of the data from Chingleput discussed earlier about the deductions made for various functions and individuals from the total agricultural produce of the village, one is tempted to question these views on jajmani system. If each village provided for a number of functions like irrigation, temples, chatrams, education, police and so on, why not regard the arrangement as politico-economic-administrative rather than religious- ritualistic? That they system was not merely religious or ritualistic can be seen from the variety of individuals, functions and institutions for which allocations were made. Further, the allocations made were not token or symbolic, but quite substantial. Nor were the allocations in the nature of mere subsistence allowance. That the agricultural produce, or the land-tax, or both allocated to a person or function was not related to the ritual status of the person or function can be seen from the fact that the purohit often received less than the barber or washerman. It also does not seem to be the case that the non-cultivating or servicing jatis lived at the mercy of the peasant. On the other hand, these jatis seem to have received their share in the produce as a matter of right. (In fact, according to records, a substantial part of these deductions were made even before the produce was shared between the king and the cultivators). Apart from such deductions, many functionaries had maniyam lands. Even jatis often classed as untouchable had maniyams assigned to them.

Thus what is presented as jajmani system by sociologists seems a caricature of what had actually obtained only 200 years ago. Simply because it was called jajmani in some parts of India one need not associate it with ritual gifts offered to the priest at the vedic ritual. Nor is it indicative of the Kshatriya's role assumed by peasant jatis. It may however be added that by and large the peasant jatis seem to have wielded effective political power. That must be so given the nature of our village, with one or two jatis engaged in agriculture constituting 50 percent or more of the households and other jatis numbering 15-20 on an average, providing other crafts and services. According to the Dutch missionary Ziegenbalg who was in South India in the 17th and early 18th century, the status of a Vellala or the peasant was so high that:

"Even if one be bom a Brahmin, the person is by no means considered to be of as great excellence, as when born a Vellalar; neither the King's splendor nor the Merchant's nor the Brahmin's is to be compared with the Vellalar's excellence".

The concept of dominant caste developed by Srinivas thus seems to be stating the obvious in a way. The non-cultivating jatis, numbering only a few households each in a village could have only provided checks and balances to the power of the peasant jatis. It is very likely that the non-cultivating jatis sometimes came together to check the peasant jatis or a particular jati mobilised its own jatis members from neighboring villages to protest ill-treatment or injustice. Thus what is called horizontal solidarity of jatis must have existed even in earlier times. There are several instances of barbers or washer men refusing their services to a family or jati as a protest against injustice. There may have been several ways of protesting against injustice as also ways and means of resolving such conflicts and clashes between jatis.

Untouchability or a form of communal slavery is said to be intrinsic to the jati system. While we make no attempt to defend it or explain it away, it seems necessary to raise some questions about the phenomenon of untouchability and untouchables'. First and foremost, who are the Untouchables? Are they the descendants of chandais or the outcastes mentioned in the dharmasastras? If so, how did the outcastes form themselves into jatis and how do we explain their large numbers today? Secondly, did the untouchables suffer economic deprivation as much as is generally claimed? It is a well known fact that Mahars and Chamats were soldiers. Similarly Paraiahs were landowners and cultivators even around 1830. There is also evidence to the effect that Paraiahs were expert weavers. Paraiahs and Mahars also assumed the important village offices of the policeman, boundaryman, corn measurer etc. According to the early 19th century report on Mirasi Right by F.W.Ellis:

"In Tondamandalam the Paraiyar, especially affect to consider them as the real proprietors of the soil. The villeins possess established rights and privileges of which they cannot be deprived which constitute their Mirasi... First the Paracheri... Secondly, they are entitled to a share in the produce of every crop.... Thirdly, they hold the inferior offices of the village as Talaiyari, Vcttiyan, Combucattu, Alavucareu, Totti, etc. for which they are allowed manyams and sotuntrums from those above mentioned".

If this was the status of Paraiahs and other supposedly untouchable jatis even in the early 19th century, then how "do we explain their, present status? It would be interesting to investigate the process through which the Paraiahs from being artisans, soldiers, weavers and real proprietors of fhe soil in the 19th century deteriorated to being outcaste landless agricultural labourers by the early 20th century.

The foregoing discussion touches. upon only a few issues such as the political economy of the Indian village and the jati system. Our aim has been to discuss the nature of modern sociological writings on Indian society keeping a few such areas in focus. It seems clear that there is a need for a fresh investigation and understanding on various aspects of Indian society. It is our hope that our sociologists and scholars would take up such a task that would help us to arrive at a new perspective on Indian society.


1. Baden-Powell (1972) Indian Village Community Delhi Cosme Publications

2. Dumont, Louis (1966) "The Village Conrctunity from Munro to Maine" Contributions to Indian Sociology 9:67-89.

3. Dumont, Louis (1980) "Homo Hierarchjcus (Complete Revised English Edition) Chicago, University of Chicago.

4. Dharanpal (1986) "Some aspects of earlier Indian Society and Polity – II New Quest 57:T33t146.

5. Lannoy, Richard (1971) The Speaking Tree London, Oxford University Press

6. Mukherjee, Ramakrishna (1979) Sociology of Indian Sociology Bombay, Allied Publishers.

7. Ray, Rajat Kanta (1984) Social Conflict and Political Unrest in Bengal: 1875 - 1927, Delhi, Oxford University Press.

8. Srinivas MN (1975) "The Indian Village : Myth and Reality" In Beattie JHM Leinhardt RGj (Ed) Studies in Social Anthropology, Oxford, The Clarendon Press : 4"i-85.

9. Srinivas MN (1982) India : Social Structure Delhi, Hindustan

Author:G. Sivaramakrishnan


* Chingleput-data as also the other data about Bengal, Bihar etc are from the archival material collected by Dharampal in the last two decades. Exact references of the sources etc can be had from the PPST Foundation.

No comments:

Post a Comment