Before Nicholas Dirks was a controversial chancellor of UC Berkeley, he was a well regarded historian of South Asia. He wrote Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. I read it, along with other books on the topic in the middle 2000s.
Here is Amazon summary from Library Journal:
Is India’s caste system the remnant of ancient India’s social practices or the result of the historical relationship between India and British colonial rule? Dirks (history and anthropology, Columbia Univ.) elects to support the latter view. Adhering to the school of Orientalist thought promulgated by Edward Said and Bernard Cohn, Dirks argues that British colonial control of India for 200 years pivoted on its manipulation of the caste system. He hypothesizes that caste was used to organize India’s diverse social groups for the benefit of British control. His thesis embraces substantial and powerfully argued evidence. It suffers, however, from its restricted focus to mainly southern India and its near polemic and obsessive assertions. Authors with differing views on India’s ethnology suffer near-peremptory dismissal. Nevertheless, this groundbreaking work of interpretation demands a careful scholarly reading and response.
The condensation is too reductive. Dirks does not assert that caste structures (and jati) date to the British period, but the thrust of the book clearly leaves the impression that this particular identity’s formative shape on the modern landscape derives from the colonial experience. The British did not invent caste, but the modern relevance seems to date to the British period.
This is in keeping with a mode of thought flourishing today under the rubric of postcolonialism, with roots back to Edward Said’s Orientalism. As a scholar of literature Said’s historical analysis suffered from the lack of deep knowledge. A cursory reading of Orientalism picks up all sorts of errors of fact. But compared to his heirs Said was actually a paragon of analytical rigor. I say this after reading some contemporary postcolonial works, and going back and re-reading Orientalism.
To not put too fine a point on it postcolonialism is more about a rhetorical posture which aims to destroy what it perceives as Western hegemonic culture. In the process it transforms the modern West into the causal root of almost all social and cultural phenomenon, especially those that are not egalitarian. Anyone with a casual grasp of world history can see this, which basically means very few can, since so few actually care about details of fact.
Castes of Mind is an interesting book, and a denser piece of scholarship than Orientalism. Its perspective is clear, and though it is not without qualification, many people read it to mean that caste was socially constructed by the British.
This seems false. It has become quite evident that even the classical varna categories seem to correlate with genome-wide patterns of relatedness. And the Indian jatis have been endogamous for on the order of two thousand years. From The New York Times, In South Asian Social Castes, a Living Lab for Genetic Disease:
The Vysya may have other medical predispositions that have yet to be characterized — as may hundreds of other subpopulations across South Asia, according to a study published in Nature Genetics on Monday. The researchers suspect that many such medical conditions are related to how these groups have stayed genetically separate while living side by side for thousands of years.
This is not really a new finding. It was clear in 2009’s Reconstructing Indian Population History. It’s more clear now in The promise of disease gene discovery in South Asia.
Unfortunately though science is not well known in any depth among the general public. The ascendency of social constructionism is such that a garbled and debased view that “caste was invented by the British” will continue to be the “smart” and fashionable view among many intellectual elites.