Objects in the past are closer than they appear

In the present moment, emancipatory thought in India is caught in the immobilizing grip of disparate deadlocks. We turn from one contradiction to the next, wondering how we can relate them to each other, often failing to fashion a coherent weltanschauung, falling into the trap of creating a hierarchy of suffering. We know that they are related—that the virulent Islamophobia, the shapeshifting configurations of caste, the unyielding class character, the stringent patriarchal default, and many other revolting constitutive forces work in unity. However, a politics that can coalesce the struggles against these has not emerged. Navayana’s latest offering, Merchants of Virtue: Hindus, Muslims, and Untouchables in Eighteenth-Century South Asia by historian Divya Cherian finally gives us a history of how these disparate conservative currents emerged in tandem. In doing so, it offers us a path to true intersectionality. As Gopal Guru puts it, Cherian offers a ‘refreshingly different perspective on how pre-colonial configurations of power in the locality shaped the everyday experience of caste.’

There has been much contestation among historians about how caste identity came to be fixed and how the modern notion of belonging to a caste emerged over time. Cherian locates the obvious figure who seems to fall outside of this history—the bhangi—within the larger context of religious consolidation. Her object of study is the kingdom of Marwar in the eighteenth century. This was a time when colonial raj had not yet taken root in western India. Marwar was already becoming a site of emergent merchant capitalism. Old hierarchies of caste, or at least scriptural hierarchies, were being challenged through accumulation of capital and exchanges of power. So, the brahmin, the rajput, the bania, all negotiated their places around the mutable line that determined purity and impurity.

However, the bhangi occupied a forever-determined, forever-fixed place in this everchanging hierarchy. Always at the bottom, always impure. In this nexus of caste elites, to demarcate a sense of self-identity, it became necessary to clearly signal who was impure. It is thus that the bhangi and the Muslim were brought together to constitute the extreme Other.

When Maharaja Vijai Singh of Marwar dispatched an order to all Hindus in the provincial capitals of Nagaur and Merta in 1785, that they should recite the name of ‘Sri Paramesvar’ at a fixed time every day, he forbade those who were deemed untouchable from following the practice:

Relay this to Hindus (hinduvāṃ) but not to the achhep (“untouchable”) castes, these being turaks, chamārs, ḍheḍhs, thorīs, bāvrīs, and halālkhors.

The turak (Muslim) was clubbed together with other untouchable jatis, and the creation of this separation was central to constitute incommensurate elite jatis into a singular identity called ‘Hindu’. Merchants of Virtue details the granular, everyday account of the construction and practice of untouchability and its relationship with Hindu-ness in Marwar—through scribal renderings, petitions and testimonies. This host of governmental archives shows the intentional construction of the social, and how the elites recast the fissile nature of brahmanism that may not have been to their advantage. Sheldon Pollock recognizes this as the book’s strength: ‘Cherian acutely traces the linkages among caste, faith, law, merchant capitalism, and politics in eighteenth-century Marwar (today’s Rajasthan). She shows how these lead to a reinforcement of Outcaste oppression, to mandating their quotidian humiliations, even to creating, against their ‘specter,’ a new form of ‘Hindu’ identity.’

Cherian uncovers the crucial role played by the merchant class in constituting this identity. Cynthia Talbot identifies this in the book: ‘Mandating practices such as vegetarianism, non-violence toward animals, and the regulation of female chastity, increasingly influential Marwari merchants enhanced their status as Hindus by differentiating themselves from Untouchables more so than from Muslims.’ We see here the appropriations and opportunistic reconfigurations that typify modern-day Hindutva approaching in the rear-view mirror.

Merchants of Virtue is now available on the Navayana website for Rs 500. Get your copy today.