History professor discusses new book on Indian caste system

Chris Mendez

While discussing his new book, “Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present,” on Wednesday, history professor Sumit Guha said the caste system continues to influence India today.

Guhu began the book 10 years ago as a way of connecting India’s history of class stratifications to the present existence of low-social groups, such as castes and tribes.

Guhu defined castes as organized community councils of defined ethnic groups, typically of an agrarian origin.

Guha said he wrote the book in order to reveal how caste systems have remained relevant to Indian life today.

“I’ve tried to achieve two goals,” Guhu said. “[I wanted] to link the social history of the present with its millennial past and to place the socializations of India as the same as those of the old world of which it has always been a part of.”

According to Guha, castes and tribes have not yet disintegrated in India, although the origins of the words have altered since their establishment by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

“[These words] were transplanted to India in the 16th century and lost [their] original connotations as being a pure group,” Guhu said.

Instead of studying the different values and ideas that separated these two groups, Guhu said he preferred looking at the physical boundaries that disconnected them.

“I wanted to look at the boundaries between these two groups rather than look at the internal values or ideas they might hold,” Guhu said.

Guhu said he has paid particular attention to social taboos in India, which have created even more barriers between the people.

“[Taboos] are not boundary-makers, but they are boundary-markers,” Guhu said.

Retired history professor Gail Minault, who attended the event, praised Guhu’s book.

“I think [Guhu’s book] is a path-breaking and fascinating study of what we call ‘caste,’” Minault said. “‘Caste’ is a lot less easily defined than anyone imagines.”

Although castes persist as a part of Indian society, for some people who have been to India, such as history graduate student Norman Coulson, these hierarchies continue undetected.

“It’s really not easy for an outsider in India to notice things like castes,” Coulson said. “As far as I could see, there wasn’t really any castes still going on in India.”