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Could independent India stay together? A British colonial officer measured Indian noses to find out

If you were a British officer in the late 1800s, you just had one goal after the Revolt of 1857 – to prove that India cannot be a stable nation.

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What does the width of the nose of Brahmins and Dalits have to do with whether India can stay together and flourish? If you were a British officer in the late 1800s, you just had one goal after the Great Revolt of 1857 – to prove that India cannot be a stable nation.

Herbert Hope Risley (1851-1911), a 22-year-old assistant district collector in Midnapur in then Bengal Presidency, aimed to do precisely that with his ‘caste is race’ project. To Risley, caste was a rigid, racially graded hierarchy that would prevent Indians from ever becoming nationally united. Of course, few Indians, if any, would accept such a theory today. However, revisiting it might be a salutary experience as some of his ideas can be found lurking even today in election manifestoes, identity politics and caste crimes.

Caste as race

After the shock of 1857, the British colonial government felt it was imperative to have a better understanding of Indian society and its customs, most of which, it believed, were rooted in caste. In 1885, Risley was appointed to conduct a project called the ‘Ethnographic Survey of Bengal’, the outcome of which was the four-volume The Tribes and Castes of Bengal (1891). In 1899, he was appointed the commissioner for the 1901 Census. Both in the books and in the census report, Risley forcefully argued that ‘caste was race’, that caste distinctions had originated from racial difference and that this could be proved by examining certain physical features.

Risley contended that the ‘motive principle’ of caste was to be found in the “antipathy of the higher race for the lower, of the fair-skinned Aryan for the black Dravidian”. (This drew upon the theory of Aryan invasion of India, much favoured by colonial officer-anthropologists.) The sentiment was too weak to prevent alliances between the men of the dominant race and the women whom they had captured and enslaved, but was still strong enough to deny the conquered men equal rights in the matter of marriage. Risley argued that upon the foundation of the ‘fact’ of racial difference, the ‘myth’ of the four-fold varna structure and its subsequent subdivisions had been erected. Professor Ronald Inden cites this as a typical instance of 19th-century European racism being projected onto those who were its victims.

Since investigating racial distinctions was necessary to understand social divisions, Risley championed anthropometry as the best method to do so. Anthropometry is the science of obtaining systematic measurements of the human body, which have been used historically as a means to associate racial, cultural and psychological attributes with physical properties. The long-standing caste-based restrictions on intermarriage in India would enable it to yield particularly clear and instructive results.


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Measurement of noses and what it revealed

Among the features selected for anthropometrical measurement (the proportions of the nose, head and stature), the nasal index was especially useful for sustaining Risley’s theories on the origins of caste. Risley claimed that the nasal index was accepted by all anthropologists as one of the best tests of racial affinity. This was because where races with different nasal proportions have intermixed, the index marked the degree of crossing that has taken place and recorded a large range of variations and it enabled the grouping of types in a serial order corresponding to that suggested by other characters.

The data collected in Bengal revealed large variations. The average nasal proportions of indigenous peoples such as the Mal Paharias of Rajmahal was 94.5 (similar to that of Africans), while that of the Bengal Brahmans and Kayasthas was 70.4 (the figure for citizens of Paris was an average of 69.4). These figures bolstered a two-race theory of the construction of Indian society by ‘separating’ the populace into its two ‘original’ components.

Risley then pointed out that the gradations of the racial type indicated by the nasal index closely matched the caste hierarchy as it existed in Indian society. He stated that if a series of castes from Bengal, Bihar or the United Provinces was arranged in the order of the average nasal index, so that the caste with the sharpest nose would be at the top and the one with the bluntest noses at the bottom of the list, it would be found that this order substantially corresponded with the accepted order of social precedence – or the existing caste order. He concluded:

“…it is scarcely a paradox to lay down as a law of the caste organization that the social status of the members of a particular group varies in inverse ratio to the mean relative width of their noses.”

It is important to note that Risley injected prejudice into the process of sampling by instructing his investigators to “avoid measuring individuals who did not conform to pre-conceived caste types: Brahmans with wide noses and aboriginals with narrow ones”.

The 1901 Census marked another important departure from previous practice. Unlike the earlier census reports, Risley classified the castes and tribes on the basis of ‘social precedence as recognised by native public opinion at the present day’ (read: upper caste opinion). The determining criterion was whether Brahmins ‘took water’ and were willing to serve the caste in question. Risley mostly relied on the opinion of officials belonging to higher castes (usually Brahmins) with whom he corresponded regularly to create the ethnographic framework necessary to define social status and determine categories. He justified the decision by pointing out that the caste hierarchy reflected in the 1901 census report exactly mirrored the order listed by nasal index.

As Professor Nicholas Dirks put it, the judgement of science appeared to have confirmed the attitude of the Brahman.


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The hidden agenda

Risley argued that anthropometry had proved beyond doubt that Indians were originally racially divided and had continued to remain so, proof of which was the operation of the caste system. Stressing the ‘divisive principle’ in Indian society (read: caste endogamy), he contrasted it with Europe where all the ‘recognised nations’ were believed to be the result of a process of ‘unrestricted crossing’ which had fused a number of distinct tribal types into a more or less definable ‘national type’. In India, the process of fusion had long ago been arrested and “there is consequently no national type and no nation in the ordinary sense of the word”. He argued:

One might as well try to construct a table of social precedence for Europe, which should bring together on the same list Spanish grandees, Swiss hotel-keepers, Turkish Pashas, and Stock Exchange millionaires and should indicate the precise degree of relative distinction attaching to each…[…]..India is no more one country than Europe is, indeed very much less.”

These efforts were not just anthropological knowledge-gathering exercises, but were informed by a deeply political purpose. The 1901 census report was written at a time when the nationalist movement in India, especially in Bengal, was gaining potency. It had become imperative to marshal the census data to deny the very basis of this rapidly strengthening force. (It is no coincidence that Risley was the Home Secretary in Lord Curzon’s government, which implemented the Partition of Bengal in 1905 using religious divisions to weaken the nationalist movement in the province.) In Risley’s interpretation, anthropometric data proved that India was a society irretrievably fragmented by caste (which was really race). Such a society simply did not have the necessary qualities to transform into a politically united ‘nation’. The logical conclusion of this argument was that in this scenario, British rule was indispensable as the only entity that could prevent India’s descent into anarchy and chaos.

The irony was that Risley gathered data on the physical characteristics of Indians and then deployed it against them to justify their subjugation under colonial rule.


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Caste chaos

While caste had existed for a long time, its appearance as a rigid hierarchy in authoritative texts endorsed by the government (such as the census report) served to ossify it in a manner it had never been before. Moreover, it unleashed an avalanche of petitions to the government from diverse caste groups demanding a higher place in the listed order. The Khatris of the Punjab and the United Provinces wished to be categorised as Rajputs. In Bengal, the Baidyas argued for a position just next to the Brahmans while the Kayasthas claimed a status above the Baidyas.

Numerous caste organisations were formed: The Presidency Mahisya Samiti was formed in 1901 in Midnapur, Bengal. Through its activities, the Chasi Kaibarttas (a section of the Mahisya caste) laid claim to Vaisya status in the 1901 census, and to Kshatriya status in the 1931 status. Professor Sekhar Bandyopadhyay has shown that this was not just for social recognition but for political rewards as well since the gradual introduction of electoral reforms meant caste consolidation could lead to political dividends.

Caste, today, is a critical element in any meaningful discussion of Indian society. However, assumptions that caste has remained unchanged over the centuries could be problematic. Perhaps it would be helpful to stop to consider how far present conceptions of caste are shaped by data generated and modified in the interests of the colonial agenda.                 

Dr Krishnokoli Hazra teaches History at the undergraduate level in Kolkata. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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