A dalit died and 40 others injured in an attack by the upper caste while dalits in Rohtas, Bihar, were trying to unfurl the national flag. A dalit woman was beaten up by upper caste people for drawing potable water from government-dug deep tube well in Kendrapara, Odisha.1 A dalit boy E. Ilavarasan was allegedly murdered in Tamil Nadu for marrying a girl from the Vanniyar caste. Rape of a dalit girl took place in Jind which the administration has been denying. Contrary to these incidents of attacks on socially disadvantage community, during the 16th Lok Sabha election many scholars have written an obituary to ‘caste politics’—social and political mobilization of caste groups for electoral success. Development modelled on the Gujarat experience was marketed by the campaign machinery. Yet, Narendra Modi often reminded voters about his OBC identity. Disguised identity politics under the agenda of growth created necessary political convulsion, which brings ‘deprived sections’ facing development deficit closer to the Bhartiya Janata Party. Hence, a political environment of conflicting claims and counter claims always puts forward the question of relevance and current form of the caste system in modern India.
It is in this context, the book under review, a collection of forty articles from the Economic and Political Weekly spanning over 62 years takes us to the past of the future. The timing of the book could not have been better. However, the editor acknowledges the ‘presentist bias’ in the selection of the articles. 77.5 percent of total articles are from 1990-2012. The articles from three generations of scholars are an epistemological journey of study on caste in Indian Social Sciences. It coincides with the journey of modern India’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’. Hence, it also presents the evaluation of the project ‘Modern India’, whose source has been upper caste. It put the idea of Dr. Ambedkar about the ‘age of contradiction’ to the litmus test.
The six sections of the book deal with definitions of caste, various theoretical positions on it, class versus caste, Left parties’ role in dealing with caste questions, economic discrimination in modern industries, reservation versus merit debate, new social movement and caste question, the role of dalit women, etc. ‘How Egalitarian are the Social Sciences in India?’ written by Gopal Guru is an analysis of domination of upper caste in social science theory. Guru discusses how ‘theoretical Brahmins’ have paved the way for epistemological imperialism. Guru argues that ‘there are historical reasons that gave a structural advantage to the top echelons of the “the twice born” in doing theory’ (p. 111). Modern education, constant opportunity and language are effective weapons to restrict the entry of dalits into academic circles. Guru appeals to dalit intellectuals to shun their vulnerability toward temporal power/immediate recognition in the field of social sciences.
It is not only the classroom, seminar and elite social sciences institutions that intimidate dalit scholars and researchers but their vulnerability increases manifold once they enter the job market. This has been analysed by Katherine S. Newman, Carol Upadhya and Ashwini Deshpande res-pectively. ‘Caste barriers can be subtle as well as direct. Employers recognize the signal of surnames that are caste identified and students know that their names trigger employment interview questions that non-dalits are never asked’ (p. 156). ‘…there is serious evidence of continued discriminatory barriers in the formal, urban labour market even for highly qualified Dalits…’ (p. 86). These incidents present counter-evidence to the idea of meritocracy and perception that the market treats everyone as equals. It also refutes the few internal voices that claim that only through the market can ‘Manu’ be defeated. It negates the endorsement of globalization in the Bhopal Declaration (2001). The tenacity of caste prejudices in modern India was unthinkable by some scholars. M.N. Srinivas (2003) in an obituary to the caste system wrote, ‘the improvement of communication, the spread of education, a host of governmental policies favouring the weaker sections, political mobilization of the people, and the many technological changes referred to above have all had the effect of greatly weakening the link between jati and traditional occupations.’2
However, Srinivas’s article in this book, ‘The Future of Indian Caste’, written thirty-five years ago, concludes differently. He pointed out the continuities and dis-continuities in the system of caste. Writing in the late 1970s he found the politicization of caste. Andre Beteille found three major areas of social life to suggest that ‘caste was declining and not advancing. First, the observance of the rules relating to purity and pollution were becoming weaker. Second, the regulation of marriage according to the rules of caste was becoming less stringent. And third, the relation between caste and occupation was becoming more flexible…’ (p. 54). D.L. Seth in his chapter too discusses the decline of the caste system. He argues that changes that took place after decolonization have led to de-ritualization of caste—meaning de-linking of caste from various forms of rituality which bound it to a fixed status and occupation and to specific rules of commensality and endogamy. Both Beteille and Seth share a common concern about caste being used as a tool for political mobilization.
However, politicization of caste was not all about the negativity in Indian politics. It was seen as a ‘secular upsurge’ by R. Kothari. For Kothari, caste can be oppressive but it can also provide a basis for struggle against oppression. Perhaps it was the reason that Left parties, although late, have taken up the issue of caste oppression. Earlier, Left parties saw Indian politics from the perspective of class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Reading of Kosambi in chapter six brings out an important and unresolved debate of relationship between class and caste. Kosambi, writes Kumkum Roy, visualized the shudra as constituting a class of more or less dependent labourers with virtually no independent access to productive resources. Dipankar Gupta finds the differences between caste and class. He writes, ‘…in Marxism the mode of production is an unconscious structure which constrains without prejudice different social classes. The caste ideology is not only a believed-in and conscious structure…’ (p. 48).
Gendered analysis of caste in section five of this book is another milestone. Uma Chakravarti starts with an acknowledgment that there has been close interconnection between gender and caste but initial studies of women merely remained focused on the ‘status of women’. She argues that ‘the purity of women has a centrality in brahmanical patriarchy…’ (p. 305). The following chapter by Prem Chowdhry notes that for the brah-man male dalit women have no purity hence, one can violate their chastity at will and onus put back on them. Sharmila Rege has brought in the Indian feminists lacuna in dealing with gendered analysis of caste. She argues that ‘…it is clear that while the Left party-based women’s organizations collapsed caste into class, the autonomous women’s groups collapsed caste into sisterhood…’ (p. 337). Dalits and other disadvantage groups, especially their women-folk face physical and sexual violence. Law has not taken its due course of implementing the Untouchability Offence Act (UOA). ‘No case involving the UOA has reached the Supreme Court and, since few petty criminal appeals do, it is not likely that the Supreme Court will play a significant role in interpreting the UOA’, wrote Marc Galanter. This can be reflected from the data which shows that every 18 minutes a crime is committed against a dalit. Everyday three dalit women are raped, two dalits are murdered and two dalit houses are burnt in India, eleven dalits are beaten. Every week: thirteen dalits are murdered, five dalit home or possessions are burnt, and six dalits are kidnapped or abducted. The conviction rate under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act is 15.7 percent and pendency is as high as 85.37 percent.
However, the book has missed out discussions on Pasmanda, dalit Muslims, and Christians in India. The book ends with a dialogue on metaphysics of the body and purity and impurity as a base of untouch-ability. ‘Everybody is dirty, both in moral sense as well as material sense’. This also sends a reminder to the dalit movements to work for the annihilation of caste based on principle of social justice rather than indulge in politics of practicality as has been shown by dalit leaders like Ram Vilas Pasawan, Udit Raj, Ram Das Athavale et.al.
1 In 1927 Dr. Ambedkar had led the Mahad movement against the upper caste opposition to dalits taking water from village ponds.
2 M.N.Srinivas, ‘An Obituary on Caste as System’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. xxxviii, No. 5, 2003.
Manjur Ali is Research Officer at the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, Delhi.