The Strange Castes of British India

Christie Davies

In March 1974, the University Grants Commission of India assigned me the task of giving lectures at the Punjab University in Chandigarh.  It was congenial work with delightful colleagues.  At the end of each afternoon we would meet for kala chai and talk about our academic work, the latest iniquities of the politicians and about India.  But there was also joking and gossip and banter and I would always join in. 

In those days I had a long though well-kept curly jet-black beard and dressed in casual international clothes, neither imitative Indian, nor aggressively western.

English v/s Welsh

One afternoon a colleague asked a very surprising personal question that I had never been asked before, neither in India or anywhere else.  “Why are you not like other Englishmen?”  The question did not shock me, but I must have looked puzzled for he added “You always enjoy coming down with us to the tea room for our end of the afternoon chats” perhaps implying that a pukka Englishman would not have done so.  I laughed and reached for an obvious and true, though in retrospect misleading, answer.  “I am not English,” I replied with a smile.  “I am Welsh.  I do not have a single English ancestor and I grew up in Wales.”

I explained that the people of South Wales were much more relaxed, friendly, nosey and curious than the more formal and hierarchical English.  Our history and customs are different, though in truth they are really not all that different from those of the English.  We mix easily with the English and we routinely intermarry with English Protestants.  The English have settled in large numbers in our little peninsula to the west of their own country, drawn by the industrial work it once provided and they have successfully assimilated. With the decline of our once pioneering industry, it is we who have taken the train to England, settled there and become like them.

Subsequently, I wondered why on earth my Indian colleagues considered the English to be so cold and reserved and standoffish when most of the English people I know are not.  I decided that the answer lay in the strange caste-trapped history of the English in India between the proclamations of Queen Victoria as Empress of India in 1876 and Indian independence in 1947.  I am, of course, using the word ‘caste’ very crudely, that English word derived from the Portuguese casta in which jatis, varnas and many other items are vaguely bound together.

There are no truly English castes, only certain entrenched distinctions of social position, but even these have been regularly eroded through the forces of capitalism in our country, which was one of the world’s first truly commercial nations, certainly the first industrial nation and the first creator of a peaceful trade zone that ran right across the globe, the first globalization.

Yet, during their time as the rulers of India, the British did behave in many ways as if they were ‘castes’ and certainly far more so than in England.  It was partly that the Indian attitudes rubbed off on them and partly that as foreigners with strange customs and, in particular, as a tiny stratum of foreign rulers who wanted, at all costs, to avoid unrest among the vast population, it paid to respect local tradition.  The British, apart from a few anthropologists, never fully understood the niceties of local caste customs, and Indians were often annoyed and irritated when the British mixed them all together.

English v/s Indian

Nonetheless, British India saw a great deal of productive co-operation between these two very different nations.  It was all in all a fairer and less exploitative relationship than India had experienced under her utterly alien Muslim rulers who had come for religious and social domination through conquest, whereas the British came primarily for the honourable purpose of trade.

I would compare the leading British ‘caste’ in Imperial India, though only rhetorically, with the Brahmins.  They were the Indian Civil Service (ICS) men, the ‘steel frame that held India together’, with its central bureaucracy and networks of district officers, magistrates, collectors, controllers and inspectors.  For an ambitious, intelligent Englishman it was a secure, well-paid job with all necessities provided and it carried a pension.  These men rarely became rich, either through corruption or in trade which was left to the lesser ‘castes’ of British Indians.

Theirs must have been a lonely existence. Who could such a man possibly marry in Hindu India?  He had no ‘caste’ that a high born Hindu could recognize and he might well be regarded as a ‘polluted’ person.  In England, marriage was seen as a matter of personal choice; but in India, marriages were arranged.  Which Hindu father would ever want an English son-in-law?  The English official could convert and marry an illiterate Muslim woman but that would involve him taking on a religion whose beliefs and customs were absolutely abhorrent to his own and anyway the Muslims had their own castes.  The emancipated Parsee women of Bombay might have made suitable brides but they came from a tightly enclosed community that did not marry out.  The inability of the English official to intermarry will also have involved colour snobbery, but then many English officials serving in Buddhist Burma married the dark skinned Burmese.

In consequence, English women from suitable social backgrounds, often ageing and desperate to marry in a world that offered few alternatives, would sail to India to ‘fish’ for a lonely bachelor. Many came from families who had lived in India so they knew exactly what to expect.  On the good side, their households could support large numbers of loyal servants and they could entertain on a scale available in England only to the wealthy. Their main problem was they could not stand the summer heat and often took their children away to the hills to escape the hot season and its accompanying epidemic. But it also set the English children apart from their Indian contemporaries, though the English children often learnt and used the local Indian language.

Early Exile for the English Child

The English ICS man’s progeny and even those from below this class were sent back to England to be, in effect, fostered by relatives and child-minders and then admitted to boarding schools, often to be recycled for the Indian market.  Thus a ‘caste’ was born with a suitable pedigree and distinctive outlook, a way of life, customs and traditions and a strong sense of hierarchy and precedence based on rank.  I could never have fitted into any such system.  I grew up among my kin, a tightly knit group of loving parents and relatives.

Indians should also always remember that entry into the ICS was not so much designed to keep them out as to keep people like me out.  It made sense for it is easier to maintain the stability and coherence of a state-based organization if those who hold power are a homogeneous group who think alike, feel alike and can act together.  In Britain itself, the upper civil servants were nicknamed ‘Mandarins’ after their Chinese counterparts, another group open, in principle, to competitive entry but trained alike.  In the ICS the sense of identity was stronger. Had I ever been recruited by mistake I would have been an awkward, argumentative, disruptive presence, someone unable to keep to the code, at best an accepted eccentric but probably not ‘English’ enough to fit into the mould of the pukka Englishman.

The English Kshatriya

Yet, at the top in British India were a group we may term metaphorically the Kshatriyas, those who had sought a professional career in the officer classes of the British armed forces.  Their training as young men and often their schooling as boys was directed towards this end.  Their dharma was to fight.  This was the destiny of Winston Churchill.  He was a warrior and it enthused on his early life and politics, particularly when he was in charge of the navy.  In fairness, he was also humane and had condemned the Amritsar (Jallianwalla Bagh) massacre set up by those two brutal incompetents Dyer and Dwyer who, in fact, were not English but Irish.

Only the very top ranks of the British Army and the British Indian Army were drawn from those educated in army establishments like Sandhurst (The Royal Military Academy), often preceded by militaristic boarding schools.  Lower down the British jawans were drawn from the British ‘dalits’, from those who had been born at the bottom or had sunk down the scale of social classes because they had neither skills, nor any established role in modern industrial enterprises.  They were a ruffian lot, but thoroughly trained and well- disciplined when in action.  In some parts of India the British private soldiers fathered children by Dalit women; those are the ancestors of the Anglo-Indians who sought constitutional privileges accorded to scheduled castes.  Looking back at the very real Indian caste system and the British mock castes, what choice did anyone have?  Being fair to the British they did provide some choice by giving such Dalit children access to government schools.

In between there were other British ‘castes’ accepted by those at the top, but not esteemed.  There were the tea planters and the box wallahs who traded in commodities and managers of the newly mechanized cotton mills in Gujarat.  There were forest and immigration officials, those who built the railway tracks and bridges and provided the technical skills for the telegraph, the world’s first form of electronic communication and the ancestor of the sophisticated transmission of data between computers today.  But these are not part of the story of why my colleagues in Chandigarh thought I differed from other Englishmen.

This is the last of the three articles written by the late Prof. Christie Davies for FF Digital, the other two being – “Different Shades of White” and “Just a Joking” (see ‘Miscellanea’ section).  An academic to the core, he was a visiting scholar at several Indian and other universities and often wrote for Freedom First and Quest (publications of the Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom).  The memory of this delightful person is being kept alive by a group of his friends and colleagues who have set up an annual prize – The Christie Davies Award for young scholars in the field of humour in society.  A very befitting way to honour him; Prof. Davies received international recognition for his original and deep understanding of ethnic humour.  He is past President of the International Society for Humour Studies. 

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