Caste Today – paper abstracts

Kol, Coolie, Colonial Subject: A Hidden History of Caste and the Making of Modern Bengal

Uday Chandra, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity

Historical anthropologists of modern India such as Bernard Cohn (1987), Arjun Appadurai (1993), and Nicholas Dirks (2001) have argued forcefully that the modern articulation of caste is a ‘state effect’ (Mitchell 1991) insofar as this social institution came to be revived and reproduced by the colonial state via its classificatory and enumerative policies. Yet this colonialism-centred perspective, though useful in many senses, obscures the everyday socio-cultural processes by which the colonized organized themselves under colonial overlordship. Insofar as caste is a system of organizing labour on the basis of a hierarchical social logic, it is important to understand how distinctive ‘regional modernities’ (Sivaramakrishnan and Agrawal 2003) were built, quite literally, on the backs of labouring groups assigned the lowest ritual and socioeconomic status in these new regions.

This paper uncovers a ‘hidden’ history of one such labouring group in nineteenth-century Bengal, who appear in the colonial archives as Kols, despised in caste terms by the Hindu bhadralok yet categorized subsequently via ethnological accounts as ‘ribes’. The Kols, sometimes known as Dhangars, appear in the colonial record from the time they helped build the imperial capital of Calcutta from the neighbouring forest highlands of Chotanagpur in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Decried as dirty or impure but valued for their ability to perform hard physical labour, the Kols served as construction workers as well as sweepers and cleaners in Calcutta. By the middle of the century, the colonial archives suggest that the Kols had turned coolies for the indigo and tea plantations of modern Bengal. In the plantation economy, the lowly Kols, men and women alike, performed hard agricultural labour that other caste groups were deemed incapable of. Subsequently, as land had to be reclaimed and forests cleared in the Sunderban delta, the Kols were called upon to alter the natural and human ecology of the area. Even as they were classified as ‘tribes’ by anthropologist-administrators in Chotanagpur, therefore, the Kols became the labouring caste par excellence in modern Bengal. The sociocultural processes by which this occurred have, nonetheless, been hidden from the gaze of later historians raised on the venerable caste/tribe dichotomy in Indian sociology. This paper offers a preliminary sketch of this hidden history of labour, caste, and subjecthood on which Bengali regional modernity came to rest by the end of the nineteenth century and which continues to pervade the postcolonial present.

The Pitfalls and the Bridges on the Way to Securing Legal Protection against Discrimination on the Grounds of Caste in Britain

Meena Dhanda, University of Wolverhampton

The paper will trace the movement for the criminalisation of caste discrimination in Britain culminating in the recent passage of an Amendment to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill in the House of Commons, which with a mere change of a word, from “may” to “must” in the Equality Act 2010, enjoins upon the Secretary of State a duty to bring in a secondary legislation making caste discrimination illegal. A fresh process of consultation with community groups will aim to get the wording of the secondary legislation ‘right’, which after passage through Parliament will enter the statute book. The paper analyses the bases of unexpected alliances made in opposition to the passage of this historic Amendment. The ‘deniers’, as I call those who opposed the Amendment, shared three types of underlying agreements i) they blamed dalits for making a fuss about nothing ii) they used the charge of Eurocentricism to discredit the claim that caste prejudice persists in Britain iii) they claimed their right as democratic citizens to be ‘properly consulted’ before any legislation is made. The pitfalls were, and continue to be, created by South Asians themselves – Hindus and Sikhs. The paper sets out the contours of religious-symbolic wars that are likely to sharpen divisions within South Asian communities along caste lines in the process of consultation. Yet, bridges may emerge from the rapid politicisation of dalit communities in Britain, who boast their own ‘media’, but perhaps underestimate the strength of lobbying by the upper-caste to alter the shape of the secondary legislation that will eventually enter the statute book. The paper identifies the compromise underlying the passage of the historic Amendment through parliament – the avoidance of identifying perpetrators by religious community as Hindus and Sikhs. This avoidance arguably reinforces the silencing of dalit members of South Asian communities. I explore what alternatives there may be by way of ‘bridges’ to circumvent the continuing threat of opposition from the ‘deniers’.

Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan meets Sarva Samaj: The Politics of Education and Caste in Rural Uttar Pradesh

Akshay Mangla, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Education is often seen as the great equalizer, a means for the marginalized to participate in a modern economy. The liberal ideals of India’s universal primary education policy notwithstanding, caste inequality continues to pervade the primary school system. Taking the primary education system in rural Uttar Pradesh as the site of village caste politics, this paper traces both the marginalizing practices and mobilizing possibilities of caste. Grounded in ethnographic fieldwork conducted in rural Uttar Pradesh, including village ethnography, participant observation inside primary schools, interviews and focus group discussions with parents and village youth, I examine the relatively mundane social processes in the classroom that reproduce caste inequality as well as the more intense political bouts of caste conflict that erupt around the school system. I interrogate critically the conventional wisdom that associates development with the state and meanwhile treats dignity as the domain of electoral politics in UP. I find instead that caste conflicts centered on the delivery of primary education offer an opportunity for subordinate caste groups to engage in collective action and construct their own narratives of dignity and development. Further, I find that even in settings where subordinate caste groups dominate electorally, local public agencies are seen nevertheless to favor the privileged, which points to the limits of collective action and serves to reinforce the highly unequal social relations upon which education is embedded.

Partition, Displacement and the Decline of the Scheduled Caste Movement in West Bengal

Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, Victoria University of Wellington, and Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury, Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group

In West Bengal it is widely believed that the discourse of class has displaced the discourse of caste. This notion of ‘Bengali exceptionalism’, however, was seriously challenged recently by the midday meal controversy in 2004, when it was widely reported that in a number of districts, parents of higher castes objected to their children eating cooked meals prepared by volunteers from the Scheduled Castes. The situation underscored the importance of addressing that as-yet unanswered question: If caste discrimination still persists, then what happened to all those powerful voices that protested against it so forcefully and vocally before 1947?

Evidently, the prolonged silence on the part of the organized Scheduled Castes in the public life of West Bengal after Partition has contrbited to building the powerful political myth that caste does not matter in Bengal. To take the analysis to another level, however, this paper argues that an explanation for this silence lies partially in the long history of Partition itself. In colonial Bengal, the organized Scheduled Caste movement was dominated by two groups, the Namasudras and the Rajbanshis, who had their geographical anchorage in the east and north Bengal districts. In case of the Namasudras, their habitat, despite their vehement protests, went to East Pakistan by the award of the Boundary Commission. The Partition issue divided their leadership, and post-Partition migration in large numbers after 1950 led either to their appropriation by a dominant Hindu discourse, or to absorption into the new category of ‘refugees’. In post-Partition West Bengal, the attention of their leaders was focused more on the issue of rehabilitation than on caste discrimination. And the Left leadership of the refugee movement also purposefully suppressed the caste issue. The subsequent dispersal of these Scheduled Caste peasant refugees to Dandakaranya, Andaman Islands, Bihar, Orissa and Assam in the 1960s led to their loss of that crucial spatial capacity to mobilize and protest. This paper will tell the story of the breakdown of the Scheduled Castes-Muslim alliance in east Bengal, the subsequent Scheduled Caste peasant migration, their dispersal, struggles and sufferings in post-Partition West Bengal between 1950 and 1964. It will show how the caste question was still at work in this refugee story.

An Absent-Minded Casteism? On the Making of Upper Caste Domination in West Bengal

Dwaipayan Sen, Amherst College

After reviewing a number of important explanations for the decline of caste in the politics of West Bengal since 1947, I touch on three largely overlooked dimensions of the Dalit political in post-independence West Bengal: Jogendranath Mandal’s post-Partition career as a refugee leader, Dalit activist, and failed aspirant to political power; a brief history of the Congress and Communist regimes’ implementation of reservations policies; and contemporary activists’ discourse on the caste question, in order to demonstrate why the making of upper caste domination in West Bengal was by no means a process the bhadralok stumbled upon through sheer contingency and structural constraint alone; reluctant, or absentminded casteists, as it were. While there are indeed a number of compelling explanations at hand, I argue that we must also consider the possibility that the disproportionate influence commanded by the upper castes of West Bengal, and the related silence about the caste question therein, was the consequence of a profoundly discriminatory political culture, deeply inimical to Dalit political and social aspirations. I wish to draw attention to not only the ample evidence of prejudice, but the centrality of the idea of conspiracy in Dalit understandings of the present.

Caste in Indian Student Politics

Kristina Garalytė, Vytautas Magnus University

There is a prevalent comprehension in modern metropolitan setting of India that caste is a somewhat remnant of the past and only persistently existing in rural undeveloped areas. This sort of caste blindness can be easily challenged by following the recent Indian student politics and more broadly looking at the higher education sphere in which caste debate is being continuously put forward by the groups of the so called lower strata of India society, namely SC, ST and OBC representatives. Indian student politics can be understood as a reflection of the broader Indian socio-political context in which political affiliations are merging with caste identities hence forming perplexed identity formations. The paper is based on the currently conducted field research in Indian universities among the members of different, frequently ideologically hostile student organizations. It focuses on how caste-based reservation, discrimination and identity questions are being formulated and enacted by different cultural and political student groups.

Why the Namasudras ‘Suffered Diaspora’: Caste and the Governance of Refugees in West Bengal

Uditi Sen, Hampshire College

The disappearance of Dalit political assertion from the political fabric of West Bengal, despite the rich history of Dalit movements in colonial Bengal forms a genuine puzzle for historians. The disappearance is particularly stark when it comes to the Namasudra movement. Received wisdom privileges the displacement wrought by partition as the primary cause for this decline and loss of identity, where it is argued that the increasing communalisation of politics in late colonial Bengal, followed by the trauma of violent displacement and loss of geographical anchorage, led the Namasudra identity to be over-written by a Hindu refugee identity. This paper argues that the loss of a political voice amongst the Namasudras can be attributed less to the fact of displacement per se, and more to the pattern of resettlement of the vast majority of the Namasudra refugees. This echoes the insight of Namasudra scholars, such as A.K. Biswas, who lament the fact that the Namasudras ‘suffered disapora’. Resettled in clusters in some of the most remote and inhospitable regions of India, such as Bastar district of Madhya Pradesh, Koraput and Kalahandi districts of Orissa and the Andaman Islands, the Namasudra refugees were cut off from the mainstream of democratic politics and often formed isolated linguistic minorities in their new homes.

This paper illustrates how this pattern of dispersed resettlement was far from accidental. It was born of a rationality of governance that saw national politicians, bureaucrats and policy-makers mobilise neo-colonial understandings of tribal lands as ‘empty’ and low-caste Namasudras as ‘hardy’, to come up with a plan of refugee resettlement that forced Namasudra refugees into the unenviable role of agricultural pioneers in India’s forested heartlands. While it is true that the vast majority of Namasudras were late migrants, their dispersal from West Bengal cannot be explained by the exigency of late arrival alone. As early as 1949, local administrators were specifically targeting Namasudra refugees for resettlement in the Andaman Islands. Obfuscated by rhetoric of selection of ‘suitable’ refugees for resettlement, caste identity was used actively to separate young and able bodied Namasudra men from the general refugee population. This dubious privilege of being ‘suitable settlers’, in effect bound Namasudra refugees within static caste stereotypes of a community used to, and suited, to hard menial labour, who, in the eyes of upper-caste bureaucrats, could make do without access to higher education or proper healthcare. It is small surprise that such acute geographical marginalisation negatively impacted community identity amongst Namasudra refugees. This paper reveals the active use of caste as a category of governance within schemes of refugee rehabilitation. The dispersal of Namasudra refugees from West Bengal and the concomitant disappearance of Namasudra self-assertion were born less of the exigencies of partition and more of the permeation of the entire process of rehabilitation of Bengali refugees by neo-colonial caste stereotypes and upper-caste prejudice against Namasudras.

How Quotas for Scheduled Castes Shape Perceptions: A Survey Experiment

Francesca Jensenius, UC Berkeley and Norwegian Institute of International Affairs

India has had reserved seats for Scheduled Castes (SCs) in state assemblies and parliament since 1950 and in village councils since the early 1990s. Studies of these quotas have been fairly negative, suggesting that they bring to power politicians who do not work for SC interests and have had little to no effect on development for SCs (Ram 1980, Pande 2003, Chin 2011, Jensenius 2013, Dunning and Nilekani 2013). While much of the literature about descriptive representation and quotas in the rest of the world has focused on attitudinal effects such as more inter-group trust and a higher satisfaction with public services, there have been few studies of attitudinal effects of quotas for SCs in India. In recent work on village level quotas in Rajasthan, Chauchard (2013) finds that increased representation of SCs in village councils has a positive effect on the interactions between non-SCs and SCs in villages, in that it reduces inter-group stereotyping and prejudice. In this paper, I look at attitudinal effects of quotas for SCs at the state assembly constituency level. I do so by looking at data from a survey experiment conducted in two locations in Western Uttar Pradesh in January 2013. The two areas were both within reserved constituencies, but each used to be border areas between a reserved and general constituency under the previous delimitation. By sampling 5 villages from each side of this border in each of the areas, a sample of 20 villages was created of which half the villages had been located in reserved constituencies since 1974 and the other half had only recently become part of a reserved constituency. Within each of the villages I sampled 100 people from the voters’ lists, based on a systematic random sample and this sample of 2000 people was interviewed about their perceptions of politicians, of SC politicians in particular and of the SC community in their village. Some of the questions were about the perceptions of the images of two fictitious politicians and half the respondents were randomly assigned to being primed with an image of Ambedkar behind one of these politicians. The survey reveals several interesting patterns. First, voters who have lived in a reserved constituency for a long time were generally more positive to SC politicians than voters who live in villages that have recently become reserved. Second, the treatment effect of being primed with a picture of Ambedkar was much stronger in areas that had been reserved for a long time. Finally, there was evidence of much less self-reported caste bias against SCs in areas that have reserved for a longer time. The findings from this survey therefore suggest that there are important attitudinal effects of quotas for SCs.

Dr. Ambedkar: A Symbolic Type for India’s Dalits

Dag Erik Berg, University of Bergen

This paper discusses the popular expansion of Dr. Ambedkar, the leader of the untouchable castes prior to India’s independence, as a symbol for Dalit emancipation in the contemporary Indian state. Although Ambedkar is celebrated as a scholar and a well-educated person who crafted the Constitution of India, he summarises the different experiences of caste, exclusion, atrocity and profound diversity among India’s Dalits. This paper focuses on how his symbolic role connects with the developments in India’s legal framework. The central lesson in the postcolonial period is that the problem of untouchables could not simply be conceptualised as a problem of civil law and rights. Rather, the problem of atrocities created demands and a need to make caste based atrocities a concern for criminal law. The paper argues that the legal changes reflect a structural mechanism in the Dalit situation. The mechanism consists of two opposites, upward social mobility and enduring atrocities. The mechanism and the legal changes provide the background to explain Ambedkar’s increasing significance, being a dynamic symbol in expansion in India today.

Great Men of Clay: ‘Portraiture’ in the Clay-Modelling Communities of Bengal

Moumita Sen, University of Oslo

The caste-based trade of clay-modelling in Bengal – more specifically in Krishnanagar and Kumartuli – has seen a marked diversification in its production in the last two decades. From making god-images, or pratimas, the Kumbhakar mritshilpis (clay-modellers) of these two clusters now specialize in making ‘portraits’ of iconic figures from various aspects of social life: Politics, cinema, sports and of course popular religion. The commissions for the making of these images come from the state and the national governments, local clubs and individual patrons. In the way these ‘portraits’ of great men are framed, the Kumbhakar community seems to employ the vestiges of older conventions of Indian portraiture which created a sense of ‘idealized alienation’ (to quote Geeta Kapur) along with their inchoate training in Western Academic Realism. The resultant form is a uniquely hybrid one, which urges us not only to redefine the convention of ‘portraiture’ broadly, but to also look at the position of the great men portrayed – particularly Gandhi, Tagore, Vivekananda and Subhash Bose – in the popular imagination of Bengal. By employing certain artistic techniques, the Kumbhakar community reframes these political icons as almost deified. In this paper, I wish to look at the circulation of photographic source material from which these iconic images are made. Here I want to address the following questions: What are the channels through which the local clubs (who have clear affiliations with political parties) and the state Government commission the mritshilpis for public statuary? Why do they choose particular photographs of these great men as ‘reference’ images over the others; and can the mritshilpis exercise their will inasmuch as this choice is concerned? And crucially, how does a particular iconic photograph, through several reiterations, become if not the most accurate, then the most representative image of a person – a condition Geeta Kapur calls ‘iconic stasis’.

Another History: Responses to Dalit Political Assertion in Colonial Bengal

Sarbani Bandyopadhyay

Social science literature on caste seldom focuses on Bengal. This makes one wonder if caste ever mattered in Bengal. My research into the archives on 19th and 20th century Bengal provided me with material to argue for a ‘hyper-visibility’ of caste in the Bengal of this period. In contrast, post-partition Bengal seems to have made peace with caste. How was this achieved? Although Dalit politics has a long history in Bengal, I would identify 1922 as a crucial moment, when the Bangiya Jana Sangha (Bengal People’s Association) was formed. Spasmodic reform attempts failed by and large to do away with the large-scale alienation of the Dalit and Backward caste population from mainstream nationalist politics. The formation of the Bharat Sevashram Sangha (a cognate of the Hindu Mahasabha) in 1923 could be seen as one response to Dalit politics. On the other hand the ‘class’ politics of the Communist Party of India and its peasant front should have brought them closer to some Dalit organisations and the people associated with these, but that did not happen. The CPI remained trapped in its bhadralok identity. At this level the nationalists and the CPI seem to have shared a common anxiety – the possible erosion of bhadralok dominance. In this paper I would attempt an understanding of patterns of bhadralok response to Dalit politics through a study of the politics of two organisations, the Bharat Sevashram Sangha and the CPI and its peasant front.