The Concept of Race in South Asia

Originally published in Contemporary South Asia, vol.8, no.1, Carfax Publishing (Bradford, U.K.), 1999

Peter Robb, ed., The Concept of Race in South Asia (SOAS Studies on South Asia, Understanding & Perspectives Series), Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 1997.

Sponsored by the School of Oriental & African Studies in London, this anthology is part of an series seeking to intervene in present debates on the problem of Eurocentric representations-constructions. The fourth volume of the series edited by Peter Robb of SOAS’s History Department, this volume collects eleven essays which interrogate the concept of race, defined by Robb (in his useful and comprehensive Introduction) as “any essentialising of groups of people which held them to display inherent, heritable, persistent or predictive characteristics, and which thus had a biological or quasi-biological basis”.

A general lecture by Kenneth Ballhatchett (“The language of historians and the morphology of history”) rehashes familiar issues in recent post-Orientalist historiography, while setting the tone for the volume with an anti-essentialist plea. Dagmar Hellman-Rajanayagam (“Is There a Tamil Race?”), in an investigation of the modern Tamil cognate for the English “race”, inam, shows the mutability of this term in describing Tamil identities in different circumstances, concluding that cultural and linguistic factors predominate in the essentialising of Tamil identity more than biology. John Brockington (“Concepts of Race in the Mahabharata and Ramayana”) presents a genealogy of the classical notion of varna from its beginnings as a flexible philosophy of recognition, to its hardening into a system of exclusion, race-like in its patterns.

Four contributions analyse colonial discourse. John Rogers (“Racial Identities & Politics in Early Modern Sri Lanka”) discusses the continuities of precolonial ideas of a fluid Sinhalese identity with later, rigidified ideas of a Sinhalese “race”, which partially appropriated aspects of Victorian racial ideology. Susan Bayly’s long essay (“‘Caste’ and ‘Race’ in the Colonial Ethnography of India”) challenges current post-Orientalist caricatures of colonial ethnography, detailing the important differences between individual ethnographers and the contemporaneity of some of their work, and placing their often-ridiculed theories within their political-intellectual milieu.

Crispin Bates’ investigation of colonial anthropometry (“Race, Caste and Tribe in Central India”) calls into question the cognitive status of present categories of analysis of castes and tribes by showing the origins of much present ethnographic methodology in the pseudo-scientific theories of nineteenth century racial anthropology. Lionel Caplan (“Martial Gurkhas”) offers an account of the concept of “martial” races and tribes in recruitment for the Indian Army from Nepal, showing the formation of an ideal “martiality” through essentialised ideas of race and tribe, prejudices about climate and environment, and notions of masculinity — a racial discourse with very real material effects for its subjects.

The final three essays address the connections between racial ideology and nationalism. Through a reading of a biography of a Bengali colonel, Indira Chowdury-Sengupta (“˜The effeminate and the masculine”) describes the constitution of an nationalist self through the appropriation of colonial knowledge about the Aryan racial heritage of Hindus over colonial stereotypes of Bengali effeminacy. Javed Majeed (“Pan-Islam and ‘Deracialisation'”) discusses the tension in the work of Mohammed Iqbal between a repudiation of European racialism and nationalism, and the acceptance of European terms of discourse which structured his own vision of pan-Islamism. Christophe Jaffrelot (“The Idea of the Hindu Race”) shows the ambivalent appropriation by early Hindu nationalists of European racial and fascist theories, discussing the persistence of traditional ideas of hierarchy and subordinate inclusion over exclusive eugenic conceptions of the Hindu “race”.

The lack of any discussion on present-day South Asia or its diaspora, where issues of race are very much alive, is unfortunate. The lack of an index, some typographical errors, and a bland typeset are troublesome. Overall though, with strong and diverse discussions by established scholars, this volume will serve as an useful critical intervention in modern South Asian history, cultural studies and anthropology, and postcolonial theory.