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REVIEW: H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-Asia@h-net.msu.edu (January 2006) Sekhar Bandyopadhyay. _Caste, Culture and Hegemony: Social Dominance in Colonial Bengal_London and New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2004. 253 pp. Index. $51.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-7619-9849-7. Reviewed for H-Asia by Bernardo A. Michael, Department of History, Messiah College <Bamichael@messiah.edu> Sekhar Bandyopadhyay's book focuses on the constitutive role played by caste in the formation of colonial modernities in Bengal. Bandyopadhyay engages the literature on colonial Bengal and caste to argue that the high castes were largely successful in maintaining their domination and ideological hegemony in Hindu society despite resistance and protests from various sections of the lower castes, and social reformers. More often than not the lower castes and their protest movements were unable to successfully dislodge caste hierarchies and even upheld and emulated high caste Hindu values. The author concludes that in the end colonial modernity in Bengal actually strengthened certain aspects of traditional Hindu society and especially its ideology of caste within the public space. The book is divided into 5 chapters. In the first two chapters Bandyopadhyay examines the relationships between caste, power, and popular religion. The striking feature of Bengali Hindu society was that the dominance of the upper castes was rarely threatened by social reformers such as Raja Rammohan Roy or even the protest movements of lower castes and popular religious sects. Upwardly mobile lower castes and their protests were gradually co-opted into Hindu society or ultimately marginalized as being exotic, deviant or heretical. Even the Depressed Classes who posed the most serious challenge to the organization of power in Hindu society in the early twentieth century were unable to escape the dominance of Hindu ritual codes, hierarchies, and mentalities. For instance, despite the presence of numerous (and often dissenting) popular religious sects in Bengal and their disregard for caste and gender differentiation, the hegemony of the Brahmanical order was rarely threatened. In the end nationalist discourse in Bengal was largely a high caste Hindu one, which, while inclusive of all Hindu social groups, was never fully integrative. In the next two chapters Bandyopadhyay explores the connections between caste, social reform, and gender. Despite the social ferment that Bengal underwent, social reforms, and reformers on the whole tended to be patriarchal, rarely threatening the dominant power structures of Hindu society which were organized around caste and religion. Widow remarriage, which had caught the attention of nineteenth-century social reformers like Raja Rammohan Roy and I. C. Vidyasagar, invariably turned out to be futilely paternalistic and elitist in practice. Women were thoroughly marginalized in these debates; their agency and their sufferings were located in their bodies rather than in their mind or inner feelings. Widows who chose not to remarry continued to be adored for their chastity, sacrifice, surrender, and dedication to their dead husbands. In the end widow remarriage reform failed despite the passing of the Act of 1856 which legalized widow remarriage. Most castes continued to discourage this practice. Women would continue to be domesticated, their movements restricted to the home while men took control of public spaces. Lower caste movements despite their anti upper caste stances would continue to retain upper caste norms and behavior as models for emulation. The emergence of a number of lower caste associations in the early twentieth century did not necessarily mean the demise of high caste values and practices. Bandyopadhyay explains the high percentage of low caste women committing sati in nineteenth century Bengal as due to the tendency of upwardly mobile low caste (Sudra) families to adopt this practice in order to enhance their social status. While this might be open to debate, his overall conclusion is that, if "social mobility was one positive impact of the introduction of colonial modernity in India, it also generated the contradictory tendency of universalizing the ethos of Brahmanical patriarchy across Hindu society" (p. 162). This seems an apt characterization of the contradictions engendered by patriarchal forces within colonial modernities. In the fifth chapter, Bandyopadhyay explores the relations between lower castes (Dalits), communalism, and the partition of India. The author correctly points out that Dalit groups have always had a problematic relationship with Hindu nationalism, despite their avowed anti-high caste, and sometimes even anti-Hindu stance. This problematic relationship goes all the way back to the 1920s and 1930s when Hindu nationalist leaders made serious efforts to mobilize and co-opt these Dalit groups and strengthen Hindu nationalist solidarity in the face of the growth of the Muslim League and its demand for Pakistan. Organizations such as the Hindu Mahasabha and their leaders such as V.D. Savarkar (who became its president in 1938) were instrumental in popularizing the idea of a Hindu India among lower castes and tribal groups such as the Rajbansis and Santhals who were projected as the defenders of the Hindu faith in Bengal. In this fashion, the Partition of Bengal in 1947 was not an entirely _bhadralok_-led affair. Dalits and to some extent tribal groups played a curious role in it, maintaining close alliances with organizations such as the Hindu Mahasabha. Dalit groups in Bengal increasingly identified with the new emerging territorial space of Hinduized India and momentarily transferred their antagonism from high caste Hindus to the wider and more threatening Muslim community. Thus, the Hindu-Muslim communal divide was no longer a high caste affair in the 1940s, and by the time of partition in 1947, the Hinduization of the Dalit had made considerable progress with long-term implications for politics in postcolonial India. Bandyopadhyay feels that similar strategic considerations are at work in the recent attempts made by Dalit groups to work out power-sharing arrangements with a Hindu nationalist party such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in north India. Bandyopadhyay's book is a valuable addition to the current debates on the nature of colonial modernity vis a vis the role of caste, and the developing character of Hindu nationalism. He makes careful generalizations while being sensitive to the presence of historical exceptions. For instance, he modifies Partha Chatterjee's argument that the "women's question" was resolved in the nineteenth century when women were relegated to the private sphere by arguing that this was not always the case. He provides the example of "low"-level vernacular literature among the middle and lower castes, till now ignored by scholars, where women's issues dominated debates in print culture. Bandyopadhyay concludes with the observation that many aspects of the symbolic cultural world of Hindu India survived colonial modernity with the upper caste continuing to dominate and exercise power over the lower castes. The ideology of hierarchy and its association with the relations of power which constitute the essence of the caste system are yet to lose their relevance in modern Bengali Hindu culture and society. The book serves as a timely reminder of the deep-seated communal sentiments that lie at the heart of colonial modernities, Indian nationalism, and arguably contemporary postcolonial Indian politics. His overall approach of treating social life as being multileveled, filled with similarities and contradictions enables him to paint a nuanced account of the role of caste in Bengali society. His understanding of social relations as being mutually transformatory informs his discussion of a number of issues such as the interactions between mainstream and popular religion (chapter 2) despite the dominance of the former. By being willing to concede the presence of contradictions in the constitution of social life, he is better placed to argue that lower caste groups both embraced and resisted modernity, just as their high caste counterparts did. In this manner he is able to add to current debates on the nature of Bengali modernity and the colonial construction of caste. He tries to complicate common binaries such as high versus popular culture, high versus low caste to show the border crossings and fluidity that marks the space between such categories. One can only hope that new scholarship of the kind that Bandyopadhyay provides, and further research along these lines in other regions of south Asia will broaden and deepen our understanding of the diverse manner in which patriarchally flavored, caste conscious colonial modernities were constituted in South Asia and continue to impact the region's history. Notes . Sects such as the Bauls, Fakirs, Kartarbhaja, Sahebdani, Balhadis and Matua. . For instance, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar felt that women should be allowed to remarry since they had 8 times more libidinal energy than men! . For instance, upwardly mobile lower castes such as the Namasudras copied their high caste Hindu counterparts as they went about regularizing their marriage and adoption rules. . The _Bhadralok_ or respectable classes represent the middle classes in colonial Bengal. . Other works that engage the question of south Asian modernities are too numerous to cite. But the literature typically traverses a terrain covering issues of epistemology, gender, ethnicity, class, history, science, politics, economics, and the environment. . He provides an interesting examination of vernacular papers such as the Subarnabanik Samachar, Mahishya Samaj, Sadgop Patrika, Tili Samachar, and Kshatriya produced by low caste groups such as the Subarnabaniks, Mahishya, Sadgops, Tili, and Rajbansis respectively. . See for instance Partha Chatterjee, _The Nation and Its Fragments_ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993) and Nicholas B. Dirks, _Castes of Mind_ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). Copyright (c) 2005 by H-Net, all rights reserved. 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