Preferred Citation: Pinch, William R. Peasants and Monks in British India. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.

Being Vaishnava, Becoming Kshatriya

Status and the Nineteenth Century

The concern with personal dignity, community identity, and caste status reached a peak among Kurmi, Yadav, and Kushvaha peasants in the first four decades of the twentieth century. But widespread, though sporadic, apprehensions over such issues extended well beyond those who cultivated the soil and emerged well before 1900. That a concern for status and dignity was not restricted to peasants is evident from the official record: by the end of the nineteenth century two influential, landed communities of ambiguous social rank in the Gangetic core, Bhumihars and Kayasths, had already made claims to superior status, and as a result their official position was in doubt. While the 1901 census was in the compilation stage, Bhumihar associations filed numerous representations with E. A. Gait, the director of census operations for Bengal and Bihar, which argued that, for the purposes of the census, the term “Babhan” should not be used to describe them and instead they should be classified as Bhumihar, or landed, brahmans.[9] Ninety years earlier, in his survey of what later became Patna and Gaya Districts of Bihar, Buchanan had noted with some disdain that Bhumihars (to whom he referred as Magahi and military brahmans) “have betaken themselves entirely to agriculture and arms, and cannot be considered as belonging to the sacred order.”[10] He consequently ascribed to them kshatriya status. Gait followed suit in his census report at the turn of the century, though he left the question of Bhumihar status officially unresolved: “The best opinion at the present time is perhaps in favour of the Brahmanical origin of the Babhans, but it would be incorrect to say that they are, therefore, Brahmans still. In the eyes of the general Hindu public they constitute a separate caste, which is generally, but not always, regarded as slightly superior to that of the Rajputs [regarded as kshatriya].”[11] By contrast, Kayasths had been classified as pure shudras by Buchanan in the beginning of the nineteenth century.[12] As a result of their very public campaign for kshatriya status in the last quarter of the century, not to mention their substantial economic and political clout, Kayasths were classified along with “Babhans” and Rajputs as “other castes of twice-born rank” in the 1901 census hierarchy for Bihar.[13] Herbert Hope Risley, who devised the hierarchy, noted elsewhere that “the social position of the Behar Kayasths is unquestionably a high one,” inasmuch as “popular opinion ranks them next in order to the Babhans and Rajputs.”[14]

The problem of ambiguous status implicit in the many claims for high caste was not restricted to Bihar. Risley also designed a complex hierarchy guide for the Uttar Pradesh census that acknowledged disputed claims by delineating such intermediate categories as “Castes allied to Brahmans and who are considered to be of high social standing”; “Castes allied to Kshatriyas, though their claim is not universally admitted”; and “Castes allied to Vaishyas, but their claim is not universally admitted.”[15] Additional intermediate categories reflected the broader incongruity between social practice, particularly regarding the consumption of food and water, and varna theory. Such categories included “Castes of good social position, superior to that of the remaining classes”; “Castes from whom some of the twice-born would take water and pakki [prepared food], without question”; “Castes from whom some of the twice-born take water while others would not”; “Castes from whose hand the twice-born cannot take water, but who are not untouchable”; “Castes that are untouchable, but do not eat beef”; and “The lowest castes eating beef and vermin.”

Indeed, Risley’s hierarchy for Uttar Pradesh was far more elaborate than that for Bihar, suggesting that contending claims of social respectability may have been more deeply entrenched in the western half of the Gangetic Plain.[16] In any case, it is clear from a perusal of Buchanan, writing ninety years before Risley, that status claims predated the creation of the Indian census; neither were they restricted to the powerful landed and professional jatis. For instance, Buchanan observed that in south Bihar,

Although the Rajputs are here universally admitted to be Kshatriyas, there are, as in Bhagalpur, other pretenders to that rank whose claim is not generally admitted . . . by those who are not in their power. It must however be observed, that their claims to a descent from the original regal tribe is probably as well founded as those of the Rajputs.…In fact, every military tribe that had sufficient power, seems to have been admitted by the Brahmans into the regal caste, so soon as it became subject to their authority, and betook itself to a pure life.[17]

These “other pretenders” to rank included, most prominently, Kurmi and Goala peasants. The two italicized phrases point out not only Buchanan’s awareness of the influence of brahman opinion in his depiction of Gangetic social differentiation, but the awareness among those aspiring to elite status that the complicity of brahmans (as venerated scholars) was a valued requisite. Perhaps to redress the brahmanical weight of his own presentation, Buchanan was willing to cite (often with considerable sympathy) cases of dissenting claims to status in the regions he surveyed, noting especially the religio-mythical account given by “Goala” peasants (who would later claim Yadav-kshatriya status) regarding their own origins: “These people, however low they may be held by the Brahmans, pretend to considerable dignity on account of their connection with the god Krishna, who, although a Kshatri of the family of the moon, was adopted by a Goyala, and many of his wives (1600) are said on some authorities to have been of the Goyala tribe.”[18]

Buchanan observed similar localized claims to high status among Kurmis in the Gangetic core, based on an Ayodhya-centered consciousness. The significance of Ayodhya here derives not so much from the importance of that site as a growing Ramanandi monastic center as from its position as the mytho-historical kingdom of Ramchandra (though of course the two are closely related) and hence as an increasingly important geocultural hub of Vaishnava belief. Buchanan noted that so-called Ayodhya Kurmis, especially in the Bhojpur region of western Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, claimed superior status and even spurned certain economic and agricultural roles on the basis of that assertion.[19] One case dating from the late eighteenth century concerned a group of influential, land-controlling Ayodhya Kurmis who lived in the Parraona environs of northeast Gorakhpur District and upon whom Asaf ud-daula, the fourth Nawab of Awadh, attempted to bestow the title of “Raja” and thus kshatriya status.[20] The Kurmi avowal of noble status ultimately seemed to fail due to united Rajput opposition in Asaf’s court. Ironically, the Rajput constituency of Awadh itself composed a “group of newcomers to the court, who had been peasant soldiers only a few years before. They were called, half sarcastically, the ‘Tilangi Rajas’ [or] ‘trooper rajas’—the people described by the shocked Muhammad Faiz Baksh as the new Nawab’s courtiers: ‘Naked rustics, whose fathers and brothers were with their own hands guiding the plow . . . , rode about as Asaf ud-daula’s orderlies.’”[21] In other words, the Rajputs of Awadh, who along with brahmans constituted the main beneficiaries of what historian Richard Barnett characterizes as “Asaf’s permissive program of social mobility,” were not willing to let that mobility reach beyond certain arbitrary sociocultural boundaries.

Notwithstanding a lack of success at the nawabi court, however, Kurmis still managed to craft for themselves a sophisticated identity. Indeed, Buchanan’s description indicates that some wealthy Kurmis in the early nineteenth century were on the verge of rejecting entirely the physical labor inherent in a peasant-cultivator existence:

The families most nearly connected with the chiefs of Parraona, and some others, who were Chaudhuris [chiefs] of Pergunahs [precincts], are reckoned Ashraf [high class], and scorn the plow. While a great many of [them] have become ashamed of the term Kurmi, and reject all additions to the names above mentioned, . . . many of them are not ashamed of this name.…The families reckoned Ashraf, perhaps 110 houses, can read and write [and] unless exceedingly poor, will not hire themselves as plowmen, nor on any account act as domestics.[22]

Later data, from early twentieth-century village note surveys in Patna District, suggest that Kurmis in Bihar possessed an Ayodhya-centered consciousness as well. According to this detailed survey, Awadhia (a Persianized version of Ayodhya) Kurmis were the dominant community in a large tract of villages in the Barh precinct of northeast Patna District; as an example, in one village the surveying officer noted that “there are 9 families / 60 people of Awadhia Kurmis who wear the sacred thread since a long time.”[23] Likewise, according to officials northwest of Patna in Saran District, among Kurmis “Ayodhias were particularly singled out as the ‘substantial farmers and . . . the most influential sub-caste.’”[24]

Similar claims to status prevailed among many Muslim peasants in Bihar, who appropriated the title Shekh, implying highly coveted Arab origins. Buchanan remarked that “even though every low fellow assumes this title, . . . he is [nevertheless] not admitted to any rank.”[25] Purnea District, in the northeasternmost section of the Gangetic core, possessed the greatest concentration of Shekhs claiming “descent from the gentry of Arabia.” Buchanan insisted, however, that “a few alone can boast of this distinction, and the greater part are not to be distinguished from the Hindu peasantry of the vicinity. These Sheykhs are in general cultivators, and seem much fonder of the plough than of any other profession.”[26] Shekhs were more evenly spread throughout the Gangetic districts to the west of Bihar, and here similar doubts were raised by colonial observers as to their exact history. Of particular note were concerns not unlike Buchanan’s raised in the late 1860s by Henry Miers Elliot.[27] Elliot divided Muslims into two large categories, viz., the nobility descended from “foreign invaders” and the commoners who descended from or were themselves Hindu converts, whom he referred to as “Mahommedans.” The nobility comprised four ethnic groups, “Sayyid, Mughal, Pathan, and Shaikh”; but for Elliot, the last of these terms represented a conceptual, classificatory stumbling block: “Any ordinary Musulman who belongs to none of the three above-named classes [Sayyid, Mughal, and Pathan], is called Shaikh. A vast number of the converts from Hinduism give themselves this title, which from being so promiscuously used has long ceased to have any special meaning or value as a title of honour.”[28] In a later, more detailed consideration of the subject, Elliot confessed an inability to pinpoint the “true” identity of Shekhs, observing that while many were descended from low-caste Hindu converts, many others could be regarded as “the lowest class of the descendants of the invaders.” Like Buchanan, Elliot was forced to base his conclusions on information provided by informants and on his own first-hand observations of the apparent racial stock of a given community. Hence Elliot observed that “[the Shekh] is often of Affghan descent, though his forefathers were not of sufficient social standing to acquire the title of Khan. There is also much Persian, Bokhariot, and Turki blood in his veins. Judging from the appearance of this class on the whole, one would say that the non-Aryan element preponderated considerably.”[29]

Claims of this sort, grounded in the racial assumptions of the nineteenth century, were resorted to as a way of resolving the inevitable ambiguities that plagued colonial classification. In this case, those ambiguities indicate that a significant number of Muslim peasants sought to achieve a modicum of self-respect through the articulation of a noble past, expressed here as an identity with the Arab crucible of Islam, regardless of whether that identity was called into question by colonial observers. This process, boiled down to its essentials, is analogous to the changing identities among Kurmi, Yadav, and Kushvaha peasants, aspirations that begin to crystallize into full-fledged movements by the 1890s.

The divergent claims to status in the nineteenth century (and earlier) illustrate the point that for non-Muslims, while varna was generally accepted as the basis for identity, on the whole little agreement prevailed with respect to the place of the individual and the jati within a varna hierarchy. Srinivas, describing social relations in the mid-twentieth century, regarded such a “lack of clarity in the hierarchy” as “one of the most striking features of the caste system,” adding that “it is this ambiguity which makes it possible for a caste to rise in the hierarchy.”[30] Such ambiguity only becomes a striking feature, however, when observers expect to see the opposite, that is, a complete congruity between theory (varna) and practice (jati). Such expectations were increasingly palpable in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when India became for nascent (imperial) anthropology a “laboratory of mankind,” wherein scientific methods of observation (anthropometry among them) were expected to produce clear and straightforward sociological (and racial) patterns that conformed to varna-derived theories.[31] But if the claims to status confronted by Buchanan were at all remarkable, it is because they appear so commonplace, as if they were not at all unexpected given the all-too-obvious dysfunctions between theory and practice.

What is perhaps more significant, given the foregoing, is that a popular concern with status predated the rise of an imperial census apparatus and the colonial obsession with caste. Rather, claims to personal and community dignity appeared to be part of a longer discourse that did not require European political and administrative structures. This should not be taken to imply that the role of the state generally was of no significance. Status predicated on the presence of an interested state as arbiter was clearly evident in the political culture of Mughal India and Awadhi north India, but only served to give added political credence to attitudes that already possessed substantial popular appeal.[32] The role of the British in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was to further solidify the discourse of caste into a hierarchical “caste of mind,” at least for those on the perceiving end.[33] Even as this occurred, however, kshatriya identities were coalescing in peasant society that would, ultimately, threaten to undermine the systemics (if not the principle) of hierarchy by the middle of the twentieth century.

Being Vaishnava, Becoming Kshatriya

Preferred Citation: Pinch, William R. Peasants and Monks in British India. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.