Lord Risley's application of the principles of 'Race Science' to his study and classification of Indian society was as absurd as it was consequential.
Rajiv Malhotra is an Indian–American researcher, writer, speaker and public intellectual on current affairs as they relate to civilizations, cross-cultural encounters, religion and science. Rajiv has conducted original research in a variety of fields and has influenced many other thinkers in India and the West. He has disrupted the mainstream thought process among academic and non-academic intellectuals alike, by providing fresh provocative positions on Dharma and on India.
Once the eighteenth-century European scholars had invented `Race Science’, colonial administrators were quick to recognize the potential of this emerging field and utilized it as an effective governing tool. Employing imaginary racial categories based on vague biblical reference points, they imposed these racist categories like signposts on top of the many distinctive regional and distinctive communities in India. These imported classifications led to greater fragmentation and conflicts with in India.
Sir Herbert Hope Risley (1851-1911) was a powerful colonial bureaucrat at the Royal Anthropological Institute, and developed the Nasal Index based on Max Müller’s speculation. Müller searched for physical features in the Vedas that would identify the groups physically and tentatively interpreted nose-length as one such differentiating feature in Rig Veda (29.10) based on a single Sanskrit word anasa, which was used infrequently. Hence, this Nasal Index, much like Phrenology, became a tool of Race Science in an effort to classify the traits of Indian communities. His goal was to separate Aryan communities from non-Aryan communities and also classify those considered non-Aryan as distinct from mainstream Hindu society. Various colonially inspired studies transformed jatis into racial categories rather than identities based on occupation. Risley’s taxonomical classification and massive documentation of Indian jatis froze the dynamic quality and mobility found in the jati system within the varna matrix.
Prior to colonialism, the jati-varna system in India had little, if anything, to do with race, ethnicity and genetics. It was better understood as a set of distinction based on traditional and inherited social status derived from work roles. Jati is a highly localized and intricately organized social structure - allowing social mobility as well as occupational diversification. These rural social structures were more horizontally organized than vertically stratified. It was this inherent feature of the jati-varna system that led Gandhi to postulate the model of `oceanic circle’ for the ideal Indian village society, rather than the Western pyramidal model.
One of the common threads throughout the west’s study of India has been the manner in which subsequent scholars pick and choose from someone else’s work, often out of context, and with their arbitrary assignment of priorities. The younger Risley was greatly influenced by the senior and legendary figure of Max Müller. The development of racist theories between these two men was an important step in shaping the future identities of people across India. Publicly, Müller was cautions and wanted to protect his image, so he criticized the use of linguistics for racial profiling. But indirectly and privately, he encouraged it in various ways. Müller gave the following input in a private letter to Risley, prior to Risley’s census of 1901:
It may be that in time the classification of skulls, hair, eyes and skin may be brought into harmony with the classification of language. We may even go so far as to admit, as a postulate, that the two must have run parallel, at least in the beginning of all things.
Risley’s Race Science
Risley took the casual Vedic nose-reference in Muller’s writings, and turned it into the centrepiece of his racist ethnology of India. He further distorted Müller’s interpretation of the Rig Veda. Without having any Sanskrit knowledge and relying solely upon Müller’s Works, he falsely stated that the Vedas had `frequent references to the noses off the people whom the Aryans found in possession of the plains’. He commented that nobody who glanced at the Vedas miss such accounts. His long and powerful tenure in the British civil service in India lent strength to his ideas. His work became institutionalized within the workings of the British Empire. He was appointed the commissioner of the British censuses, from where he imposed the taxonomy and racial framework for Indian people.
In 1910, Risley became president of the Royal Anthropological Institute. To this day, Indian society legal framework is Risley’s creation, and his taxonomy of India’s communities dominates today's caste wars and shapes Indian politics. Risley wrote that he wanted `scientific’ research to detach considerable masses of non-Aryans from the general body of Hindus’. Risley used his clinical data to promote far-reaching conclusions. Besides claiming to validate his two-race theory of Aryan and non-Aryan populations in India, he graded various castes according to the Nasal Index. Using this, he went further and classified jatis as Hindu, and tribes as non-Hindu. This is how category of `tribes’ officially institutionalized, the definition of which is still used for legal purposes in India. Risley was particularly interested in measuring what he called the `wild tribes’ of India. He claimed that different castes were biologically separate races. These classifications were enforced through the British censuses of India that were carried out every ten years and required every jati to submit its data based on the official classification system of British.
The Vedas were interpreted to show clear and emphatic racial distinctions between Aryans and aborigines. A major reference work in 1912 translated Vedic Dasas and Dasyus as `dark-skinned savages’, whereas classical Indian interpreters like Sayana had explained their differences as being one of faith and language only. Colonial Indologists also stretched and distorted Max Müller’s interpretation of varna and used it to mean white/black races, citing the histories of the south of the United states as well as South Africa to claim that the same kind of racial north/south divide existed in India as well.
Risley Freezes the Castes
Risley took Max Müller’s linguistic hierarchies and turned them into a solid link between language and race. He reasoned: 'That some races produce sounds with other races can only imitate imperfectly is a matter of common observation, and may reasonably be ascribed to differences of vocal machinery’. His Aryan/non-Aryan divide was very concrete and based on anthropometrical evidence rather than philology. The British colonial administration claimed that science is being used for partitioning Indians into divergent camps.
Based on his research, Indians were classified into seven major races located on a linear scale, with Aryans and Dravidians as the two opposite poles. He also organized `social types’ into seven groups. To protect himself, he wrote numerous disclaimers against blatant racism, and against taking things too far. He claimed that according to his data these races were sufficiently close. He thereby concluded that Indian tribes had turned into castes. He described the various tribal types in the order of their primitiveness, positioning the Dravidian as the lowest, assigning manual labour as their `birth right’, along with human sacrifices to the goddess. Those tribes that had developed Professional specialization became castes, while those that had remained in a limited geographic territory were still classified as tribes. Scholars such as Risley claimed that the European society had evolved from tribes into nations; they did not sink into the political impotence of caste’.
In India, the once glorious Aryans had become contaminates by intermixing with the inferior Dravidians, leading to the caste system. Risley wrote: `In India alone were the Aryans brought into close contact with an unequivocally black race’. The conquering `men of the dominant race’ have `intercourse with the women whom they have captured’. But it is `out of question’ that the `men whom they have conquered’ should be allowed `equal rights in the matter of marriage’. So, it is white men having sex with women of colour that produces the various inferior offspring races of half-breeds. The motive in Risley’s perception, was, the antipathy of the higher race for the lower, of the fair-skinned Aryan for the black Dravidian’, which he claimed was actually based verbatim on the Vedas. He explained that this racial interaction `formed the ultimate basis of caste’. These false racial categories paved the way for the subsequent Afro-Dalit-Dravidian movements. It also fanned the anti-Brahmin movements.
As the commissioner of the 1901 census of India, Risley wrote the section on caste, which was Publisher in the highly influential Imperial Gazetteer of India, and became the Template of academicians and colonial administrators to do their studies. He decided that Indians consisted of 2,378 main castes and tribes (with sub-castes), and 43 races. Once his structures got established in the colonial bureaucracy, Risley wanted to distance himself from the racial implications he had set in motion, and to blame the whole thing on the peculiarities of the Indian mind. Having created a ridiculously complex and administratively unworkable system, he blamed the system lacking the intellect to apply it. Risley translated the dharma of various jatis as `race sentiments’, and made it his ambition to scientifically prove that a comparatively pure `Aryan type’ existed in North India. His obsession with noses caught on with other colonial administrators. For example, noses of Indians became the subject of scientific inquiry for Edgar Thurston, author of the voluminous Castes and Tribes of Southern India (1909). Thurston even used his `Lovibond Tintometer’ (originally an instrument for quality testing in breweries) to measure the racial features of Indian villagers.
Risley’s views that `caste is race’ and that `social position of caste varies inversely as Nasal Index’ were opposed by a few scholars, based on scientific arguments and data. But such critics were marginalized and ignored, and even felt the personal animosity of the powerful Risley. Trautmann criticizes this `over-reading’ and `text-torturing’ of Vedic literature to fit into Western racism. He concludes:
The racial theory of Indian civilization alludes to racial attitudes of Whites towards blacks, found in the segregated southern United States after the Civil War and in South Africa, as a constant of history, or rather as a transcendent fact immune to historical changes that is as operative in the Vedic period as it is now.
Ambedkar Demolishes Nasal Index Racism
Dr Ambedkar (1891-1956), a Dalit leader who was also the architect of the Indian Constitution, was a historian and scholar of ancient Indian society. After studying the voluminous Nasal Index data of various castes across India that had been Publisher by anthropologists, he came to a striking conclusion using Risley’s own data to disprove his thesis:
The measurements established that the Brahmins and the Untouchables belong to the same race. From this it follows that if the Brahmins are Aryans, the Untouchables are also Aryans. If the Brahmins are Dravidians, the Untouchables are also Dravidians. If Brahmins are Nagas, the Untouchables are also Nagas. Such being the fact, the theory… must be said to be based on a false foundation.
(This is an excerpt taken from the book Breaking India by Rajiv Malhotra & Aravindan Neelakandan. (Page 51-60. Published by Amaryllis. Delhi. 2011.)