It is still the case, centuries after the onset of orientalizing tropes became codified in the formal “study of India,” that caste is still treated as a cultural and therefore not a material, historical, or economic phenomenon. I have not myself undertaken a quantitative assessment of this, but it would be interesting to classify dissertations that take caste and casteism as a central subject matter and divide them into culturalist or materialist studies and see how many of each there are. Culturalist accounts depend explicitly or implicitly on caste being treated as ideological bias, rooted in Hinduism, tradition, and irrational stereotypes about purity and pollution that exclude entire populations from access to basic social goods necessary for living and thriving. That exclusion being premised on culture, can only be solved by liberal projects of inclusion rather than material re-allocation of resources like land or money power.

When I wrote “Where Does Caste Fit in a Global History of Racial Capitalism?” my main goal was not only to wholly sideline that culturalist approach but also, to do so in a way that didn’t regurgitate liberal marxist orthodoxies, as I have written about elsewhere, and yet revealed the complicity in the version of caste as culturally rooted that exists even amongst marxist and nationalist historians. There is in fact such an overdetermination of development discourse amongst historians of the subcontinent, that even when they are trying to critique colonialist narratives they end up resorting to notions that formal capitalism is progressive and can therefore erode caste and the fact that it didn’t proves colonial forms of capitalism led capitalist transformations to be incomplete or thwarted. The presence of casteism and the forms of bonded labor or slavery it entailed could be framed as “incomplete proletarianization” by nationalist developmentalists in the subcontinent, and historians who took their cues from them.

Three books primarily helped me see this complicity amongst even marxist nationalists. 1.) I was inspired by the profound critique of a progressive history of capitalism that came primarily out of Black Marxism. 2.) The historical proof of upper caste collaboration in colonial India in making the myth of caste as culture is shown so profoundly in Rupa Viswanath’s The Pariah Problem. 3.) The understanding of the ongoing violence of casteism in postcolonial India, murders, rapes, beatings etc., of untouchable communities as backlash and countermovements offered by Anand Teltumbde in many of his works but especially The Persistence of Caste. Teltumbde shows that episodes of violence that are reported as “caste atrocities” and therefore atavistic or barbaric are not rooted in historical enmity but are specifically backlash against victories or attempts at redress; casteist violence is backlash to put back down.

Overall, as is perhaps clear, the overarching concern was the overdetermined, progressive, or even teleological history of economic and social life that guides much historical and economistic work (and maybe sociological?) but more importantly, sneaks into Marxist varieties of these as well. Marxism should pose a critique of political economy, but it doesn’t always. This overdetermination of developmentalist models both in our narratives about the world and our actions has had implications for the reproduction of poverty in South Asia, a problem that is repeatedly cast to be solved in some future time horizon, but remains unaddressed as long as we do not see casteism as the material basis for the reproduction of economic and therefore social and political power. 

As long as that material basis of social power is invisibilized, we will have trouble addressing it truthfully. A small slice of that redress may manifest in our educational institutions. But with regards to our educational mission, if we have one, we should ask what are all the specific ways that caste power is invisibilized in curricula? I can think of two now. First, the almost near absence of discussions of caste and casteism as racism in almost every course I took that covered the subcontinent, an absence that I have had to recover from through self-study. This is codified in the fact that Subaltern Studies, widely lauded as a revolutionary critique of historiography, didn’t address caste until a much later volume than the project began. Second, how multiculturalist values substitute for real engagement with relations of power in distant cultures. This has had an impact on the countermovement against the inclusion of caste in California’s textbooks as described by Purnima Bose. But most dangerously, the result is that the fundamental condition in which the vast majority of India’s population labors is hardly ever mentioned in discussions of India’s economy or society; how they labor is in relations of debt bondage or slavery. If we pay attention to caste and casteism as the condition of labor, we learn that, as I said in the article, “it is the distinction between people rather than distinction between places that gives capital its power everywhere.”

Sheetal Chhabria is Associate Professor of History at Connecticut College and the author of Making the Modern Slum: the Power of Capital in Colonial Bombay which won the American Historical Association’s 2020 John F. Richards Prize for South Asian History. She researches the histories of capitalism, the production of space, the governance of labor and poverty, and the production of the economy as social scientific fact. She has published in Comparative Studies in Society and History, the Journal of Urban History and the Journal of World History as well as written for The Nation, Jacobin, and Scroll, amongst others.

Image: “The Invisible Women who Keep the City Clean,” Muhammad Ali via Wikimedia Commons