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An Academic Memoir

Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

By Nicholas B. Dirks
Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2015, pp. x 390, Rs. 895.00


In the past year there have been two interesting events that made me recall the seminal work of Nicholas B. Dirks: Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (Princeton, 2001). The first event was the social and educational survey conducted in Karnataka in April 2015 that recorded caste. The second was the demand made by assorted groups of people to make public the all-India data on caste collected as part of the Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011. Why is the work of a historian and anthropologist like Dirks who has mainly worked on the history of colonial India relevant if a survey that records caste takes place in 2015 in one province of India or if there are demands to make public the data on caste? In a piece that I had written at the time for Frontline in May on the Karnataka exercise, I had provoked a thought that referenced Dirks’s argument. In Castes of Mind, Dirks argues that the idea of caste in modern India emerged in large part out of the colonial encounter. Similarly, I had tried to deepen the nuances around the debate on the caste survey by suggesting that one of the possibilities of an exercise like this would be to consolidate nebulous caste identities in Karnataka. This was happening all around me through a variety of measures that included newspaper advertisements and Whatsapp messages to members of particular caste groups. These messages made blatantly communitarian appeals. Thus, Dirks’ work has a constant echo in the daily life of India as questions of caste, and concomitantly, caste formation, are areas that are mired in a minefield. Dirks’s repertoire is vast and he has dedicated his academic life to the study of India but this argument where he understand caste in an instrumental manner, locating its provenance partially in the colonial encounter, has also made him a problematic academic. Social science academics in India particularly have always seen caste as an intrinsic part of Indian society, a fundamental building block of Indian society, and Dirks’s argument has demolished many shibboleths in this area. With the publication of the book under review Dirks brings together his works of many years and provides a framework for understanding his versatile and rigorous corpus in one place. The book is a collection of essays written by Dirks that trace his engagements as a scholar of India. Dirks’...

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