Mapping the Caste Debate
Vijaya Ramaswamy
CASTE IN HISTORY by Ishita Bannerjee-Dube Oxford University Press, 2008, 303 pp., 695
January 2008, volume 32, No XXXII

The editor of this volume quotes Nicholas Dirks from his book Castes of Mind to show the ubiquitous presence of caste in today’s India. Caste continues and ‘continues to trouble’. Caste names and jati classifications have found their way into every Performa, ranging from school admissions to student scholarships and plush jobs. Today it is more important to identify oneself as a ‘Meena’ a ‘Gujjar’ a ‘Mahari’ or any other jati rather than to think of oneself as Indian. Can the resurgence of caste and at times, aggressive assertion of jati identities, be seen as a step towards greater democratization of the Indian polity? In the present volume Ashutosh Varshney has specifically raised this question. To quote from his essay ‘Is India Becoming More Democratic?’: Weighed down by tradition, lower castes do not give up their caste identities; rather they ‘deconstruct’ and ‘reinvent’ caste history, deploy in politics a readily available and easily mobilized social category (‘low caste’) use their numbers to electoral advantage, and fight prejudice and domination politically. (p.216) The inference is that historically and culturally perceived as the signifier of inequalities and hierarchies, ‘caste can paradoxically be an instrument of equalization and dignity’.

Ishita Bannerji brings together a wide range of essays which raise vital issues related to caste—its historical roots, theoretical underpinnings, contemporaneous relevance and every day reflections. Forming a part of the Oxford University Press ‘Themes in History’ series, the present volume continues the dialogue commenced by the earlier publication on Subordinate and Marginal Groups in Early India edited by Aloka Parashar-Sen.

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