Durba Mitra on the Sexuality of Endogamy

Cover of the February 2021 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies

Durba Mitra, assistant professor of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality and the Carol K. Pforzheimer Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, is author of “‘Surplus Woman’: Female Sexuality and the Concept of Endogamy” published in the February 2021 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies. Mitra’s first book, Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought, was published by Princeton University Press in 2020. In the Q&A below, Mitra discussed her essay in conversation with Kelvin Ng, a Ph.D. student in History at Yale University who works on unfree labor migration in the Indian Ocean.

This is Number 9 in the “JAS Author Interviews” series at #AsiaNow. Click here to see all posts in the series.


Kelvin Ng: Let me begin by asking about your broader research interests in intellectual history and histories of sexuality. Your acclaimed monograph, Indian Sex Life, provides a fine-grained concept history of the “prostitute,” which emerged as central to both colonial and nationalist knowledge projects. How does the present article stem out of this constellation of interests, and how did you come to be interested in the conceptual history of “endogamy” specifically? 

Durba Mitra: My research analyzes the intimate relationship of sexuality and disciplinary knowledge and asks how deeply normative ideas of gender and sexuality shape the modern study of social life. In turning to the history of the concept of endogamy after the publication of Indian Sex Life, I wanted to make a methodological statement about how we might differently approach foundational theories that have shaped the modern Indian social sciences through a feminist genealogy of key concepts that appear as commonsense in the study of society. This essay on the concept of endogamy is part of an ongoing project of reimagining the lexicon of terms we use to study of social life in decolonizing societies. This project of imagining social scientific concepts anew, what I have termed a “femme-glossia,” critically engages the history of key social scientific terminologies that have often been used uncritically to describe social worlds in South Asia and beyond, terms like “endogamy,” “kinship,” “rank,” and “marriage.”

This approach to this history of key terms in the social sciences undoes any easy dichotomy between colonial and Indian epistemologies. Instead, I reveal the central place of gendered violence and the sexual subordination of women in modern social theories across dominant intellectual traditions of colonial military men, British ethnographers, and Indian social scientists. Evolutionary theories of the imminent promise of modern patriarchal civilization became a site of collusion for colonial and Brahmanical patriarchies, an epistemological resource that was used to justify colonial racial imaginaries of colonized social life as well as the deep history of Brahmanical domination and power. Even as I document modern epistemologies of dominance, I foreground powerful modes of dissent that contest these structures of knowledge in the Indian social sciences, most strikingly in B.R. Ambedkar’s earliest publication, “Castes in India” (1917). Ambedkar’s anti-caste thinking undoes the primacy of ethnological and Indological racialized ideas that pervade Indian social science. Yet his novel critique was all but ignored in most modern sociological studies that followed, perhaps because what Ambedkar called for made the modern study of caste as endogamy all but impossible except as a project of political unknowing.

Ng: Building on an earlier historiographical tradition on the colonial politics of knowledge (e.g. works by Nicholas Dirks, Ronald Inden, Bernard Cohn), recent scholars of Dalit history, feminist theory, and histories of gender (e.g. Sharmila Rege, Aniket Jawaare, Shailaja Paik, Lucinda Ramberg, Anupama Rao) have importantly highlighted the gendered, intimate, and familial violence constitutive of caste subordination. How would you situate your work within this historiography, and what are the stakes of returning to the concept of “endogamy” today? 

Mitra: I feel a strong resonance with theorist Katherine McKittrick’s approach to citation in her book Dear Science and Other Stories (Duke University Press, 2020), where she describes citation as a kind of collective assembly that “breaches” norms and creates new possibilities of storytelling that “risks the sovereignty” of individual expertise. Citations are for me a form of alliance, a way to undo any singular claim to expert knowledge, and I say alliance here as a purposeful inversion of the “traffic in women” that structures social alliance theory. The story I tell in this one essay is built through rich and complicated historiographies on caste and knowledge, most especially through interdisciplinary scholarship on the gender of caste subordination. The story in this essay focuses on an unresolved problem: how have the modern social sciences in modern South Asia centered marriage in the study of “Indian society,” yet they have disappeared the problem of gendered violence and sexual control that sit at the heart of modern social theory of the evolution of societies?

I cite a wide range of thinkers as you note in your question, in particular scholars who have documented how gender and sexuality shape the workings of caste power. These feminist ideas have been transformative for me in this genealogy of the term “endogamy.” In particular, this essay for me builds on the wide-ranging insights of Sharmila Rege, who in her editorial introduction to Ambedkar’s “Castes in India” in her brilliant Against the Madness of Manu (2013), argues that Ambedkar laid the foundations for the feminist critique of caste. This essay follows this line of inquiry to argue that the control of women’s sexuality is the very genesis of the concept of endogamy and places Ambedkar’s early publication in a long genealogy of theories that naturalize endogamy that came before his essay and thrived long after Ambedkar’s intervention. These theories of endogamy, from McLennan to Risley to Ketkar to Ghurye and more, saw endogamy as a neutral descriptor and foundational concept that was a true reflection of caste difference. Today, the supposed neutrality of endogamy as the primary organizing principle for Indian society has been fully upheld as it has been incorporated as a keyword into contemporary Hindutva projects of the racial genetics of caste.

The stakes of such a feminist history of social scientific concepts are high, and such a project of rethinking is collective. Terms like endogamy perpetuate the idea that communities, castes, subcastes, religious groups are hermetically sealed entities, contained and discrete units that reflect the static timelessness of custom in Indian social life. Our inherited social scientific vocabularies naturalize these ideas, and today, dominant social groups and state governments are sanctifying these interdictions into law. When scholars write about inter-caste and inter-religious marriage now, they continually confront the inadequacy of concepts like endogamy. In rethinking this ethnological lexicon built on the control and erasure of women’s sexuality, I am, like so many scholars, thinking about what kind of social science might need to be thought now, in the crisis of our present.

Ng: Your article traces the emergence and development of “endogamy” as a social-scientific concept across both British colonial administrators (e.g. John F. McLennan and Herbert H. Risley) as well as Indian intellectuals (e.g. S. V. Ketkar, B. R. Ambedkar, Govind Sadashiv Ghurye, M. N. Srinivas, and Irawati Karve). What accounts for the mutability and translatability of this concept across distinct fields of knowledge and disciplinary traditions? What are the afterlives of this concept of “endogamy,” either within the social-scientific disciplines or in social life writ large? 

Mitra: I think endogamy has an enduring life in the study of South Asia across European ethnology, colonial ethnography, much of Indian sociology and anthropology, and now Indian genetics because it functions as both as a mode of description, i.e., a group practices endogamy, and as an explanation, a form of reasoning used to “prove” the historical durability of caste hierarchy and social difference. From John F. McLennan’s invention of the terms endogamy and exogamy in his ethnological theory of “primitive marriage” in the 1860s, he claimed endogamy to be a universalist, “scientific” concept that could be used to assess the primitivity of any society. The term was structured through its opposing term “exogamy.” Together, endogamy and exogamy were be used to diagnose all social structures in an either/or scheme of social practice. And then H.H. Risley established the terms as essential to the modern study of caste through his comprehensive studies of castes and tribes and the Indian census, organized through the assessment of groups as endogamous or exogamous. Risley sets the terms for studies of caste that follow, even for Indian scholars who set out to dispute Risley. Endogamy is used again and again by upper-caste Indian social scientists like the Marathi Brahman S.V. Ketkar who created a complicated justification for caste through the racialized language of ethnological evolution. In tracing the origins of these terms in social theory, I point out that both endogamy and exogamy are premised on the control and erasure of female sexuality from the very inception of these terms. By control, I mean the structures of social enforcement from compulsory patriarchal marriage to sexual violence in the rape of women in the stage of “bride capture.” By erasure, I mean quite literally the erasure of women through the social death of widowhood and femicide, the killing of girls and women in social theories that justified female infanticide through the language of “population control.”

B.R. Ambedkar’s 1917 critique offers an innovative intervention in the genealogy of the term “endogamy” in direct opposition to studies like Ketkar’s that came before, but using Ketkar’s citational apparatus. Ambedkar proposes a third possibility for endogamy, not as a social scientific description or explanation, but as a political imposition, an intentional act of upper-caste enforcement. And with the introduction of that third possibility of understanding endogamy, Ambedkar subverts the power of endogamy as a neutral social scientific term that explains caste to instead function as a system of violent caste power enforced by upper-castes through interdictions that control women’s sexuality. Yet Ambedkar’s recasting of endogamy as political superposition is largely overlooked in the Indian social sciences that follow. I suggest we might turn back to Ambedkar’s critical call to radically re-imagine the sociological lexicon that shapes the study of Indian societies.

Ng: Ambedkar’s study of endogamy, in many ways, posed a radical break with earlier Indological studies of caste by inaugurating a powerful critique of caste hierarchy. How did the framework of “surplus” enable his critique of sexual violence vis-à-vis the political enforcement of endogamy? How was his study of caste informed by his disciplinary training in economics and philosophy? In what ways are there continuities between his early 1917 study with his later Annihilation of Caste (1936) or Who Were the Shudras (1946)? 

Mitra: For me, the concept “surplus” reflects Ambedkar’s disciplinary transgression, the way Ambedkar’s critical thought inverts norms by uniting economic, sociological, legal, religious, philosophical and political thought into a single epistemic field. In his concept of the “Surplus Woman,” Ambedkar diagnoses how a strange calculus of compulsory heterosexual reproduction pervades the study of Indian society, a calculus that has an enduring presence in the study of post-colonized societies today in the language of sex ratios and birth rates. Ambedkar’s novel interdisciplinary analytic reflects the breadth of his knowledge and training in everything from philosophy to economics to ethnology. It also reflects the immense difficulties faced by non-Brahman intellectuals who sought to challenge claims to objectivity in the Indian social sciences, because Brahmanism appears in such a wide range of social science as the natural and neutral language of social science. My goal in this essay was to trace endogamy from its invention in ethnology as an idea that was always Malthusian and steeped in sexual control and violence at its inception, and then situate its place in Ambedkar’s field-changing essay and in the social sciences that followed in the twentieth century.

The economic in Ambedkar cannot be disaggregated from the social and political, and he regularly insists in his writings that scholars must assess socio-economic, political, and religious institutions through intersecting issues of class and caste subordination. For example, in Who Were the Shudras? (1946) Ambedkar offers a theory of labor subjugation and occupational power in his critiques of the Indological origins of the history of caste. Traces of his early critique of endogamy can be found in his later condemnation of eugenics and racial theories of caste, as Ambedkar insists across his corpus of work that there is no racial difference between castes. As he argues in Annihilation of Caste (1936) and again in Who Were the Shudras?, Indian society was always but one racial group. In doing so, he reveals the perpetuation of the myth of endogamy in South Asia, arguing that endogamy and its attendant social interdictions of intermarriage were not natural divisions, but upper-caste ideologies of caste domination recast in the false language of racial difference. As he argues in Annihilation, caste is always a negation, a system of violently enforced prohibition, never a positive mode of choice. Again and again, Ambedkar undoes any static social scientific idea of caste through an interdisciplinary exegesis of caste as a system of political enforcement and violence. An extraordinary exegesis of Ambedkar’s thought regarding endogamy in this essay and over his oeuvre can be found in the deeply thought lectures of V. Geetha, entitled “Let’s Read Dr. Ambedkar” published in March of 2020 by the Ambedkar King Study Circle USA (see especially V. Geetha, “Lecture 2 – Caste: A New Vocabulary”). V. Geetha offers some of the most innovative and learned readings of Ambedkar’s many writings in these comprehensive lectures.

Ng: Toward the end of your article, you take up Ambedkar’s call to “kill the ghost of Manu” with reference to recent theorizations on the embodied phenomenology of caste (e.g. Aniket Jawaare’s conception of touching/not touching). This turn finds resonances in cultural studies and literary theory on hapticality, embodiment, and affect. How might these methodologies offer a new conceptual vocabulary for thinking caste?

Mitra: In the essay, I argue that the modern social sciences in India naturalized patriarchal Hindu caste supremacy through the seemingly neutral language of the social sciences of marriage based in the overlapping fields of ethnology and Indology. Ethnological theories of caste and marriage posited patriarchal power and sexual violence as inevitable stages in the making of modern civilizations. Ethnological terms like “endogamy” have historically been used in Indian social science to conceal the mechanisms of political enforcement and upper-caste interdictions that shape caste supremacy. In doing so, both colonial social science and much Indian sociology constituted caste hierarchy as a historical inevitability with racial origins that could be traced in Sanskrit text.

At the end of my article, I open up the question of what is at stake now in returning to Ambedkar’s critique of endogamy that undoes the seeming inevitability of caste difference. Ambedkar’s essay is a call for an epistemic abolitionism. This critique of the neutrality of social science is largely ignored by upper-caste Hindu scholars who write sociology and anthropology in the decades that followed Ambedkar’s “Castes in India” (1917). This immense task, to “kill the ghost of Manu,” shapes Ambedkar throughout his life, quite literally in his public burning of Manu on December 25, 1927 in a “crematorium for Manusmriti.” It is this challenge of annihilation that is taken up by wide range of anti-caste thinkers in the twentieth century, in Dalit feminist critiques of the dominance of Manu in contemporary India, including today in ongoing demands for the statue of “Manu” to fall in front of the Rajasthan High Court. The philosophical works of scholars like Aniket Jaaware present another site for the project of abolishing Manu. Jaaware’s phenomenological approach starkly critiques structuralist theories of caste as wholly inadequate. He puts them aside and instead radically reframes caste through the question of touching and not touching. Jaaware’s text offers an alternative framework for thinking the intricate workings of institutions of caste dominance, exclusion, and humiliation at the intersections of capital and Hindu patriarchal upper-caste power. From the long genealogy of the term “endogamy,” we learn that the abolition of patriarchal caste supremacy requires the systematic undoing of the Hindu Brahmanical patriarchal vocabularies that undergird modern disciplinary knowledge about South Asian societies. The conceptual vocabulary that such a project might yield must undo exclusionary patriarchal claims to expertise and scientificity that made terms like endogamy indispensable. It is a collective political project, not only of critically tracing and undoing inherited concepts like endogamy, but of imagining other ways of knowing.

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