Page: View: The book interrogates the disciplinary biases and firewalls that inform mainstream international relations today, and problematises the several tropes that have come to typify the strategic histories of post-colonial societies such as India. Questioning a range of long-held cultural representations on India, the book challenges such portrayals and underscores the centrality of context and contingency in any cultural explanation of state behaviour. Taking two contrasting case studies from medieval Indian history, the book assesses the success and failure of the grand strategy pursued by the Mughal empire under Akbar. The study emphasises his grand strategy of accommodation, defined by the interplay of critical variables such as distance and the vast military labour market.

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It is not an easy book to read, neither is the thesis that it propounds an easy one to comprehend. It will draw attention, however, for its claim to formulate an alternative theory of caste in India. This thesis does merit consideration. At the centre of the book is one basic question: is there a single universally accepted caste hierarchy that unites all those who belong to the caste system?

He believes instead that there are many competing hierarchies within the caste system as set out in the chapter titled "Brahman, Baniya, Raja". The reason he can do this is because he shifts his focus of viewing castes away from the top - or as one united system - to the various rungs of the system by looking at the perspectives of individual castes.

Hierarchies that may then develop are an expression of politico-economic power and may change with alterations therein. Gupta also argues that notions of purity and pollution are relatively recent additions in the history of the caste system. They emerged mainly to separate the untouchables from the rest and became operative at various planes of the caste system much later. He denies these concepts any universal role as being diacritical markers of jati difference.

His argument is clear: "Castes exist first as discrete categories. Hierarchies come later. Castes that are lower down the scale do not accept the degrading status accorded to them by what he calls the "sacerdotal" view of caste. He cites myths of origins, caste revolts and movements of caste mobility in support of this contention of discreteness. There is also a chapter on caste arithmetic in politics designed to show that caste alliances emanate from secular and political factors and not from primordial loyalties, thus questioning popular assertions on the issue.

This last links the varna and jati systems to the "Asiatic" and "Feudal" modes of production. Gupta ends the book with a chapter focusing on "de-exoticising the other".

The appeal here is to readers to view castes with empathy as opposed to sympathy, to be guided not by the exotic value of castes or their "otherness" but to concentrate instead on the fundamental equality of humankind. This is best done using some "Sociological Imagination" as defined by C. Mills and refined by Gupta. Having described the thesis put forth, it must be said that there are certain things that render the understanding of this theory rather difficult.

First, the fact that the book was not written as one whole. It contains pieces written at different times for different purposes, thus introducing issues that are not integral to the main exercise, such as the discussion on preferential policies or race relations in America. More important, caste is central to Indian sociology and to the study of Indian society.

Therefore the parameters of a debate as important as this one cannot be selectively set out, neglecting work on the subject by acknowledged specialists like M. Srinivas to concentrate only on the theory of Dumont. Get real-time alerts and all the news on your phone with the all-new India Today app.


Interrogating Caste: Understanding Hierarchy and Difference in Indian Society



Dipankar Gupta


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