From Stigma to Assertion: Untouchability, Identity and Politics in Early and Modern India 8763507757, 9788763507752, 9788763536356

Untouchability was historically a set of discriminative practices that bound the lowest castes to low-status jobs and re

456 24 2MB

English Pages 230 [234] Year 2010

Report DMCA / Copyright


Polecaj historie

From Stigma to Assertion: Untouchability, Identity and Politics in Early and Modern India
 8763507757, 9788763507752, 9788763536356

Table of contents :
Table of contents
1. Robert Deliège: INTRODUCTION. Is There Still Untouchability in India?
2. Mikael Aktor: UNTOUCHABILITY INBRAHMINICAL LAW BOOKS. Ritual and Economic Control
3. Eleanor Zelliot: THE EARLY VOICES OF UNTOUCHABLES. The Bhakti Saints
7. Kathinka Frøystad: RELEGITIMIZING CASTE DISCRIMINATION IN UTTAR PRADESH. Towards a Post-Mandal Untouchability?
8. Marie-Caroline Saglio-Yatzimirsky: CASTE AS A POLITICAL TOOL.The Case of the Carmakars of Dharavi(Mumbai)
Back cover

Citation preview

Mikael Aktor & Robert Deliège (eds.)

Mikael Aktor is Associate Professor of History of Religion at the University of Southern Denmark. Robert Deliège is Professor at ACLA Unité d’anthropologie culturelle et du langage, Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium.

Untouchability, Identity and Politics in Early and Modern India

From Stigma to Assertion

When the constitution of independent India took effect in 1950 this meant a break with a more than two thousand year legacy of Untouchability – a set of discriminative practices that bound the lowest castes to low-status jobs and restricted their social mobility. For centuries large sections of Indian society had lived under the many forms of discrimination connected with this stigma. In order to compensate for the social and economic setback caused by discrimination, a reservation policy that guaranteed the former Untouchables access to education and jobs was introduced. These measures have changed the life conditions of the targeted groups, but they have also created tensions in a society where many other groups experience economic stress. The preservation of caste itself as something that matters in the competition for economic benefits thus creates today’s paradox: that caste assertiveness has become a means to counter inequalities. This collection of articles, written by distinguished scholars in the field, addresses these and other important pre- and post-independence developments impinging on the notion of Untouchability and the Hindu caste system. By putting these developments in a wider temporal perspective – covering pre-colonial textual material as well as recent debates over the rights and identity of the Untouchables – this volume can be seen as a significant contribution to an understanding of why caste continues to play an important role in contemporary India.

From Stigma to Assertion

Mikael Aktor & Robert Deliège (eds.)

Museum Tusculanum Press

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 1 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie

From Stigma to Assertion

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 2 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 3 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie

From Stigma to Assertion Untouchability, Identity and Politics in Early and Modern India

Edited by Mikael Aktor and Robert Deliège


Mikael Aktor and Robert Deliège (eds.)  From Stigma to Assertion: Untouchability, Identity and Politics in  Early and Modern India  © Museum Tusculanum Press and the authors, 2010   Consultant: Tabish Khair  Copyeditor: Jordy Findanis  Composition and cover design: Signe Schmidt‐Jørgensen   ISBN 978 87 635 0775 2  eISBN 978 87 635 3635 6  Coverphoto: Shyari, bonded labourer, India.   Photo: Pete Pattison  This book is published with financial support from   The Danish Research Council for the Humanities        Museum Tusculanum Press   126 Njalsgade, DK‐2300 Copenhagen S  Denmark 

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 5 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie

Contents PREFACE


1. Robert Deliège INTRODUCTION


Is There Still Untouchability in India? 2. Mikael Aktor UNTOUCHABILITY IN BRAHMINICAL LAW BOOKS


Ritual and Economic Control 3. Eleanor Zelliot THE EARLY VOICES OF UNTOUCHABLES






Towards a Post-Mandal Untouchability? 8. Marie-Caroline Saglio-Yatzimirsky CASTE AS A POLITICAL TOOL


The Case of the Carmakars of Dharavi (Mumbai) CONTRIBUTORS



JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 6 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 7 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie

Preface When the constitution of independent India took effect in 1950 this meant a break with a more than two thousand year legacy of Untouchability. For centuries large sections of Indian society had lived under the many forms of discrimination connected with this stigma. Now article 17 of the new constitution declared, ‘Untouchability’ is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability rising out of ‘Untouchability’ shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law. However, ‘Untouchability’ was not defined in the constitution. Instead, a list, or ‘Schedule’, of former Untouchable castes was put together, and hence these castes are known as ‘Scheduled Castes’ (SCs). The castes listed were at the same time guaranteed certain measures of compensative discrimination, primarily in terms of political representation, job recruitment and education. Although this positive discrimination was meant to stop after ten years, it has persisted and has created tensions in Indian society, particularly in relation to the other underprivileged groups known collectively as ‘Other Backward Classes’ (OBCs). Nevertheless, these initiatives did in fact change the conditions of the Scheduled Castes, and one result of the uplift was a growing self-consciousness. Scheduled Castes started to speak of themselves as ‘Dalits’, a Marathi word meaning ‘broken’. As Dalits they wanted to speak with a voice of their own and to act with a power of their own. This collection of articles addresses these developments as well as their pre-independence history. It contains the revised papers presented in a panel on Untouchability at the 15th European Conference on Modern South Asian Studies held at Charles University, Prague, in September 1998. The idea of the panel was to put the colonial and post-colonial notion of ‘Untouchability’ in a wider temporal perspec7

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 8 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


tive, covering pre-colonial textual material as well as present-day debates over Dalit rights and identity. The contributions addressed many aspects of this perspective, without, however, being in any way close to an exhaustive treatment. Two extra contributions, one by a pioneer in the field, Professor Eleanor Zelliot, and one by Dr Marie-Caroline Saglio-Yatzimirsky filled some of the lacunas. Still, the ambition of this collection is not to encompass the total area of this vast and complicated subject. Rather, these contributions address different issues, each important in its own way for an understanding of the manner in which Dalits today have become what they are. On the surface, Deliège’s introduction is an overview of the social changes that have taken place for the populations considered in these essays: ‘Untouchables’, ‘Scheduled Castes’ and now ‘Dalits’. At the same time it is a critical review of the development within their study. But it goes beyond that. Deliège provokes the reader by declaring Untouchability a dead issue. Post-independence measures against Untouchability, first of all the compensative reservation policy, which secures certain privileges for former Untouchables in terms of education and jobs, have to a great extent been successful in integrating these groups fully and bringing about equal conditions in Indian society. But paradoxically, the same measures have strengthened caste differences precisely along the line between former Untouchables and the rest of the society, by sticking to caste as the criterion for qualifying for the privileges. Present struggles are therefore not about ‘self-respect’, that is, against old Hindu notions of ritual pollution and ideas about former sins leading to birth as Untouchable, as it was when Untouchable leaders started to mobilize their castes before independence. Today the paradox, which Deliège finds somewhat threatening, is that members of Scheduled Castes can in fact move freely within Indian society at the same time as their present leaders speak loudly and aggressively about oppression and Dalit rights. This rhetoric has nothing to do with humiliating high-caste ideas of pollution but is simply a way of competing for economic advantages with other groups in the economically lower end of society, particularly in relation to those large groups who are not recognized as Scheduled Castes but whose conditions are similar. The next three articles deal with different historical aspects, in the widest sense of that term. As argued by Mikael Aktor, it is highly problematic to talk about a pre-colonial history of the Untouchables. 8

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 9 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


This is not to say that such a history did not unfold, but that its sources are too few and too scattered to work as a basis for knowledge of the conditions of the Untouchables. Thus, the law books, which contain the most detailed information on rules of Untouchability in ancient and medieval literature, are abstract in character and reveal attitudes and interpretations rather than leaving us with any factual knowledge. Still, in light of later colonial ethnographies, it seems that these attitudes did have an impact on social action. Thus, the ethnographers of the nineteenth to early twentieth century recorded many of the rules prescribed in the law books as living practice. Eleanor Zelliot’s chapter brings us closer to the past voices of the Untouchables themselves. The bhakti saints counted among themselves Untouchables whose fate as Untouchable influenced their religious outlook. Thus, in their poetry as well as in the legends surrounding them the emphasis on the transcendence of divine love is often expressed in explicit relation to the bitter experience of social disabilities. God shows special miraculous favours precisely for those who were not allowed to enter the temple. He transcends Hindu purity norms by taking on the duties of the Untouchables himself. He becomes himself the impure and by so doing, He hints at the absurdity of the orthodox purity rules when confronted with true saintliness. But despite this element of protest among the Untouchable bhakti saints, modern protest movements had to be critical of the tradition. Only those saints whose protest was explicitly turned against Hindu orthodoxy were fully accepted. The historical study of Untouchability has naturally paid special attention to these modern protest movements, in particular to the relation between the political intentions of the Untouchable leader Dr B. R. Ambedkar and Gandhi’s less controversial appeal to a ‘change of heart’ among high-caste Hindus. How both of these strategies were related to the wider nationalist concerns of the independence movement, and in particular, what importance – or unimportance perhaps – the Congress assigned to these movements, are points still in need of historical examination. Jocelyn Clarke shows that the Congress felt national independence and social reforms among the Untouchables to be two conflicting areas of Indian politics. The ideas of social justice and political autonomy were two aspects of the Indian nation whose interrelation was – and remains – quite problematic. History is not only an acute aspect of the study of Untouchability for academic outsiders. Among Untouchables themselves, history be9

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 10 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


came a part of the construction of Untouchable identity that went along with the protest and political claims. In accordance with the conversion strategy that he felt forced to adopt, Ambedkar formulated the historical identity of Untouchables in terms of religion, claiming a Buddhist origin – a choice which was a compromise between anti-Hinduism and nationalism, as Buddhism was a native religion. Today it is rather ethnicity that is the common frame in which modern Dalit movements articulate themselves. Accepting the Aryan invasion theory (in opposition to Hindu nationalists), and in line with a global self-consciousness among the world’s indigenous populations, modern Dalits claim an origin as adivasis, native peoples of India prior to any invasion of foreign Aryan oppressors. This is one aspect highlighted by Andrew Wyatt in his chapter on the Christian Dalits and the endeavours to formulate a specific Dalit theology. But interestingly, Dalit theology has contributed to an awareness of what it means to be an Indian Christian in such a way that even non-Dalit theologians identify themselves with their Dalit colleagues, seeing themselves as Dalits by choice. Here Dalit identity is moving beyond Dalit birth. Do we see the same tendency in other parts of the Dalit movement? Is there a chance that we will see Dalit identity as an attractive icon of social protest to be adopted by other sections of the society? One reason why identity is a crucial matter in the Dalit movement itself is that the labels left to Untouchable castes by the surrounding society are felt so inadequate, considering the diversity of the castes involved. Simon Charsley shows how the very social category ‘Untouchable castes’ and with independence, ‘scheduled castes’, was constructed more in accordance with the economic and political processes of census-making and reservation policy than with any inner homogeneity between these castes. The present paradox is that many of these castes feel less able to progress by conforming to such common labels and their inherent promises of social and economic reform than by asserting their individual caste status. Thus, Charsley argues, caste assertion does in fact help to raise the social standing of those castes which already possess enough resources to engage in a reconstruction of their own caste identity, whereas weaker castes, being poorer and more oppressed, have to rely on the solidarity expressed in a more common Dalit identity. A determining factor of this mobility is the degree to which castes have been able to utilize the reservation policy. Reservation is still the 10

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 11 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


only guarantee for the social mobility of the most disadvantaged castes, despite all the inherent contradictions between the intention of overcoming the caste system and the effect of preserving it. That such preservation exists, however, is a hard fact that analysts will have to reckon with and describe in more detail. How does it work on local levels? What are the dynamics, which preserve not only caste, but even much of the caste discrimination which the very reservation system was supposed to abolish? Kathinka Frøystad looks into these dynamics as they unfold in the concrete interactions of job recruitment and personal services in and around a Brahmin family in Uttar Pradesh. While overt expressions of Untouchability have become illegitimate in public debates, discrimination is re-legitimated on the more private, everyday levels of conversation and personal contacts. This happens not as an expression of an essentialist aversion against contact with Untouchables (as in old literary sources), but as a result of the harder competition for jobs and privileges that the upper caste non-beneficiaries of the reservation policy experience as some of its negative side effects. The contrast in choice of mobility strategies among different Untouchable castes comes out very clearly in the book’s other case study, Marie-Caroline Saglio-Yatzimirsky’s fieldwork among leather workers in the Dharavi slum of Mumbai. Old caste conflicts between Mahars and the leather castes have survived during the entire process of anti-Untouchability mobilization in Maharashtra. Ambedkar was a Mahar, and the organizations which he founded were accused of privileging Mahars. This prevented the leather worker castes, now joined more broadly as Carmakars, from joining the movement. But this has changed recently, and a growing political consciousness and influence can now be observed. The political methods, however, reveal that this is not because leather workers have now overcome the old conflicts, but because political parties have understood how to make use of these conflicts in order to secure Scheduled Castes votes. The anti-Gandhi and antiHindu strategy of the Dalit movement was based on preconditions from the Ambedkar movement. In the perspective of the Mahar-Carmakar conflict, these strategies are self-undermining for the leather workers. This has been understood clearly by the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party, whose campaign among the leather workers in Dharavi focused deliberately on anti-neo-Buddhist, i.e. anti-Mahar, arguments. Hence, leather workers voted Shiv Sena, and succeeded in obtaining increased political representation. More than any other case in these essays, this 11

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 12 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


illustrates the inner contrasts of the anti-Untouchability movement today. Scheduled Castes are able to mobilize and pursue their own interests by political strategies that run counter to the ideological origins of the movement. One conclusion which has to be drawn from these essays is that neither the category ‘Untouchable castes’ nor even ‘the anti-Untouchability movement’ have the uniformity and coherence that they suggest. Many scholars regard the epithet ‘Untouchable’ as obsolete, because this term refers to conditions that have changed during the several constitution amendments, which have prolonged the original 10-year period of positive discrimination onto today. But although the phrase ‘Scheduled Castes’ does reflect contemporary administration, it does not reflect contemporary identities and self-definitions. While some may feel for that reason that the term ‘dalit’ is more politically correct, this term does not represent a common identity either. This multiplicity and diversity among low-caste movements in India is the reality that analysts have to take into account. The essays in this book represent an endeavour in this direction. Mikael Aktor


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 13 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie

1. Robert Deliège

INTRODUCTION Is There Still Untouchability in India? Untouchability has always been a key problem of Indian anthropology, but like many other issues, it has been treated as an abstract concept which existed outside time (Thomas 1998). The first theoreticians of caste had no first-hand knowledge of Untouchables, and tended to base their theories on sacred Hindu texts which had little to do with contemporary life. They stressed the integration of Untouchables within Indian society. Later on, the first village studies concentrated on multicaste settlements and approached the Untouchable reality in the presence of high-caste villagers. They were also biased towards a harmonious view of the problem. Srinivas himself was honest enough to recognize that his knowledge of the Untouchables was on the whole unsatisfactory: ‘Though I knew several Muslims and Harijans well, I did not know these two sections of village society as intimately as I wanted to. I would have obtained a new angle on the village if I had spent more time in their areas’ (1976: 49). Those first ethnographers largely confirmed the views of the theoreticians of castes and Sanskritists, who emphasized the rather harmonious character of village society and the perfect integration of Untouchables within the social organization. Then came a new generation, who studied the Untouchables for themselves. In a famous study, Moffatt made an important – though largely unnoticed – point: he observed that these scholars were on the whole quite sympathetic to the Untouchables and wished to emphasize the distance between the latter and the rest of society. Psychologically, this is quite understandable. Researchers wish to show that their study has contributed something new, and in this particular case they set up what Moffatt calls ‘models of separation’, in other words models that implied a great distance between Untouchables and the rest of society. There was thus a tendency to foreground the persistence of discrimination. This was particularly true of studies led by Westerners, since In13

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 14 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


dian anthropologists were much more preoccupied with social change and the way Untouchability was – slowly but surely – disappearing. Unfortunately, the numerous studies entitled Social Change in India did not always match what one could expect from modern anthropological research, and they tended to be neglected in a debate that, in the West, remained largely dominated by structuralist considerations, caring little about social change. Yet those studies made some important points: they assumed firstly that Indian society was changing, and secondly, in a very post-Independence fashion, that Untouchability had to disappear sooner or later. As previously mentioned, the problem of these studies was that they often relied upon inadequate evidence, very often tables compiled from a simple, even a simplistic, questionnaire. That is perhaps one of the reasons that explain their lack of impact. Yet their assumptions were right, as they were concerned with a changing reality. Having devoted a great deal of my time to the study of Untouchables, I now think it is time to stop considering things as if caste and Untouchability were unchanging institutions. For instance, it seems rather obvious to me that social realities are no longer what they were (or what they were supposed to have been): high castes have changed, Untouchables have changed, the society at large has changed and castes in particular have also changed. I would go further, and claim that fifty years after Independence, Indian Untouchables have come a long way and made remarkable progress. True enough, the vast majority of them remain poor; but poverty is an economic, not a caste, condition. The problem of poverty in India cannot be reduced to caste and one finds poor people basically in all caste groups: according to the various estimates, between 30 and 60 per cent of the Indian population live under the so-called ‘poverty line’, whereas Untouchables are only 15 per cent. In any case, the question of ritual pollution no longer plays a major role in maintaining them at the bottom of society. Finally they form less than ever a homogeneous social category: owing to the state’s protective measures, but also to their own dynamism and courage, many among them have climbed the social ladder. In other words, they cannot be depicted as if their condition was similar to what it probably was in the eighteenth century. In some cases, they have been able to take advantage of their traditional skills to work as municipal scavengers, leather factory workers, etc. In other words, they increasingly resemble the rest of society. When they meet opposition today, it is perhaps more due to their 14

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 15 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


social ascension than to their traditional status: their worst enemies may well be the castes that are structurally close to them, whereas the traditionally pure higher castes, such as the Brahmins, are no longer much concerned with their ascent up the social ladder and many of them may even be in favour of it, since they are not directly threatened by it.

The System as It Worked Untouchability was a typically Indian phenomenon. It derived from the pure/impure ideology connected with caste. The most systematic presentation of this ideology was that given by Dumont, and it is perhaps apposite to recall it here. According to him, the opposition between pure and impure forms the basis of the system and serves as the fundamental criterion of rank. To use Dumont’s terminology, it can be said that the whole system rests on the ‘necessary and hierarchical co-existence of the two opposites’ (Dumont 1966: 65). It is this opposition that accounts for all the social relationships found in Indian society. It is ‘by implicit reference to this opposition that the society of castes appears consistent and rational to those who live in it’ (ibid.: 66). The opposition between pure and impure is first and foremost of a religious nature. Of course, these notions are found in most of the world’s religions, but they provide the actual foundation of the religious and social system of the Hindus. Maintaining a certain degree of purity is a constant concern for Indians, and division into endogamous castes is one way of preserving the relative purity of a group. The primary source of defilement is contact with death and organic wastes, primarily those from the human body (faeces, saliva, urine, perspiration, hair, menstrual blood, etc.). Every area of social life is pervaded by this dichotomy: the type of food eaten, for instance, can be ranked, and the strictly vegetarian diet associated with Brahmins and a few other high castes is considered the most pure; next come diets that allow eggs; then fish, chicken, mutton and, right at the bottom, pork and beef. Similarly, certain materials are ascribed a ritual value: silk is more pure than cotton, gold more than silver, brass more than copper. So pervasive is the opposition between pure and impure that we could go on to enumerate many more applications. Impurity, unlike purity, is contagious. An entire family can be 15

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 16 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


contaminated, as in the case of pollution stemming from contact with death, a particularly powerful pollutant: when someone dies, the deceased’s entire family is polluted, and it is not until the ritual bath and various purifying rites, performed at the end of the mourning period, that the pollution is lifted. Birth pollutes only the mother and the child; while menstruation pollutes only the woman herself, providing she is careful to avoid contact with other people and with their food. Shaving and cutting the hair also entail a degree of pollution, which can be remedied by simply taking a bath. Bathing in running water, especially in the Ganges, is a particularly effective means of purification. In addition to water, other purifying agents exist, among which, and in pride of place, are the five products of the cow: urine, dung, ghee (clarified butter), milk and yoghurt. This highly simplified and very incomplete picture leads us to make two observations, both of which are equally general, but closely connected with the subject at hand: in the first place, pollution is temporary, which means that it is more or less easy to eliminate. Nevertheless, we shall see that there is also a permanent kind of pollution that it is impossible to rid oneself of, however hard one tries. In other words, there is a category of persons who can never achieve ritual purity. These ‘categories’ are of course ‘castes’, since the second point we must now underscore is obviously the fact that this hierarchy, based on the distinction between pure and impure, is reproduced in the social order by the presence of ‘closed’ status groups that are anxious to protect their purity. In effect, a society that attaches so much importance to purity tends to produce closed social groups, in other words to protect the members of a group. Castes, therefore, are these endogamous groups, each more or less associated with an occupation, and each of which is ranked as higher or lower with respect to every other. At the summit of the hierarchy are the Brahmins, and at the base, the various Untouchable castes, who form a sort of antithesis to Brahmin purity, and who are in a permanent state of impurity because of their association with death and the various forms of organic waste. The Indian obsession with purity culminates in Untouchability. According to Dumont, the relegation of Untouchables to the bottom of the social ladder is therefore religious in nature, and stems from their association with impure tasks. Here we touch on an aspect of Dumont’s study that has caused much ink to flow: the dissociation of status and power. For Dumont, caste ranking is essentially a ritual matter, stem16

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 17 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


ming from the notions of purity and impurity, and not from the possession of power. One specificity of the Indian system is the fact that a spiritual authority is never at the same time a temporal power: ‘the supremacy of the spiritual was never expressed politically’ (ibid.: 100). The explanation of the Untouchables’ debased status must be sought in religion, and not in the political or the economic spheres: the execution of the impure tasks by one group is necessary to maintaining the purity of the others. The impurity of the Untouchable is conceptually inseparable from the purity of the Brahmin. Untouchables are therefore the social categories whose task it is to clean up society, to remove its organic wastes and to keep away all sorts of inauspicious influences. The cow, which as we know is the object of religious veneration, indicates the religious basis of the Untouchables’ position: in effect it is always the task of Untouchable castes to dispose of dead cattle; they do the leather working, the drumming and the shoemaking. Their members are also the street-sweepers and the night-soil removers. The main reproach that could be addressed to Dumont is certainly that he has overemphasized the religious foundation of the system and therefore viewed the problem solely in ritual terms. One could argue with many other writers that Untouchability is also a problem of economic and social deprivation. In the traditional system, ‘Untouchables’ are not only those groups that are ritually impure, they are also those that are not allowed to own land and that must perform the lowliest tasks for the rest of the population; they have no right to political expression, nor to any power whatsoever; in sum they have no right to human dignity, and their every attitude must show their baseness. Is there some ritual rule that obliges Untouchables to refer to their children as ‘calves’ when speaking to a high-caste person? Is there something in the ritual that explains why, in Kerala, Pulayas could be bought and sold? Why must an Untouchable use the term ‘Lord’ when addressing a peasant who may be a brute or a prodigious eater of meat? Why do Thakurs have more or less the right to bed any Chamar woman? Untouchability, as Oommen so well defined it, is a system of ‘cumulative deprivation’. Their deprivation is threefold: Untouchables have low ritual status, they live in wretched economic conditions, and they have no political power (Oommen 1984: 46). This conjunction of three factors reminds us that Béteille stresses that poverty, too, is a characteristic of Untouchable groups (Béteille 1972: 412). To this we can add that Untouchables are denied a whole series of status symbols 17

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 18 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


that might make them like the rest of society. For – and this is essential – Untouchables are truly a category apart. We know that in the Indian social system everyone is to some extent impure, and that impurity is a relative concept. But the impurity of Untouchables is peculiar to them, in that it is indelible and irreversible. There is no fundamental contradiction between the religious foundations of the system and the latter explanations: the ritual explanation is the rationale that accounts for the rejection of the people at the bottom of Indian society. It is an essential constituent of Untouchability; without the religious foundations, the Untouchables would simply be some kind of slaves or rural proletariat and therefore they would not be fundamentally different from other backward rural castes. All the same, the social and economic exclusions are also essential features of Untouchability: a rich and powerful person cannot be Untouchable stricto sensu. If we are to understand Untouchability as a system of cumulative deprivation, the reverse is also true: a system of economic or social exploitation without religious legitimacy would not allow us to speak of Untouchability. And this is precisely the aspect that has been disappearing in India during the last few decades.

Changes There has been a strong tendency within the field of Indian studies to represent India as a timeless, fundamentally static and traditional society, in which there was no place for kings, merchants, social change, violence and economic development. Social anthropologists, especially in the West, have been influential in building up this image of a civilization dominated by tradition and religion. By becoming an autonomous, academic discipline, social anthropology has cut itself from History and the historical explanation in order to concentrate, in the twentieth century, on the study of social systems (Layton 1997: 6). This separation has been a major source of difficulty, even confusion; this was particularly true in Indian anthropology. It led us to consider India as an immutable civilization, the essential features of which it was our task to discover. Our propensity to conceive society as a system naturally led us to speak of caste in terms of ‘system’, i.e. as a set of components with a 18

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 19 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


strong coherence and well-established boundaries. The idea of a system also implies that the social order is imposed upon the individuals, who are seen as rather passive agents hardly existing outside their social framework. Caste was not only the major institution of Indian society; it was moreover all-pervasive, permeating all types of relations within Indian society. Typical of this was Parry’s idea that in India the ideology of hierarchy encompassed every sphere of social life, and the relations between man and woman, senior and junior, men and gods, wife-givers and wife-takers were seen in terms of hierarchy and purity (Parry 1979: 6). Such a view led to the everlasting emphasis upon the difference between them and us, the unbridgeable gap between India and Western society. It is no wonder that the uncountable number of books on social change in India were mostly written by Indian scholars. The great majority of Western scholars were so busy debating theoretical issues that they failed to see that Indian society was flexible and undergoing drastic changes. To my knowledge, among the classical theories of caste, there is not a single one that attempts to adopt a diachronic perspective. As a theory is valid universally, this must also be true of the theory of caste. Therefore everything went as if those theories represented some sort of pure pre-colonial system that persisted more or less unchanged to the present day. This is particularly striking since at the very time when those theories were being committed to print, not only was Indian society undergoing all sorts of changes, but whenever the opportunity presented itself the castes, in particular, were showing their extreme flexibility, and their capacity to adjust to changing conditions. While caste was showing itself remarkably adaptive, it was being described by scholars as fundamentally static. As soon as it became possible, most of the lower castes fought tooth and nail to improve their status and their position within society. To take but one famous example, the first Census of the Indian population was the cue for endless petitions and demands from all sorts of castes that wished to improve their names or their status. This was soon followed by many low-caste movements such as the breast-cloth controversy, the creation of caste associations, the fusion of sub-castes, the numerous changes of caste names, the Sanskritization process, religious conversions, economic development, etc. The lowest castes were not the most active in this first stage. They were extremely poor and dependent and living in a state of semi-slavery that did not allow them any room for manoeuvre. Yet they too took advantage of the slightest pos19

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 20 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


sibility of becoming involved in a process of upward mobility. Two main avenues allowed them to improve their lots: some became domestic servants of European families, and others joined the police and the army. These possibilities were only open to specific individuals or families, but they encouraged the emergence of a tiny elite who, in some cases, then tried to organize the rest of the caste. This was clearly the case with semi-Untouchable castes such as the Izhavas and the Nadars of South India; but even at the very bottom of society there were also attempts to get organized. In Kerala, one can mention the name of Ayyankali, who fought on behalf of the Pulayas (Saradamoni 1980). Not all castes had leaders of this type but a much more widespread phenomenon was the refusal to carry on fulfilling the traditional polluting duties. Little by little, Untouchable castes started refusing to remove dead cattle, to play drums at funerals, to clear away night soil, etc. At the same time, they also gave up some ancestral practices such as eating carrion. In other words, people soon started to rub off all the marks of the traditional pollution attached to them. But in the places where they were still dependent, they did not always have the opportunity to do so, and the process was slower. Meanwhile, the rural economy was undergoing a process of monetization that contributed to severing the traditional links between master and servants. Whenever a problem arose, the farmers refused to maintain their labourers and the hereditary links between their families were cut off (see Epstein 1973). Very often, this resulted in economic hardship for the labourer; but it also meant greater freedom. The political circumstances were also favourable to such a change: the formal abolition of slavery, the spreading of democratic egalitarian ideas within the Indian population, Christian ideology, and nationalist ideals also combined to give the Untouchables more independence, helped them to assert their rights and made them realize that their oppression was not natural. The religious legitimacy of Untouchability was also called into question by social reformers, Gandhi being the most famous among them. Leaders and movements slowly developed. It has become fashionable today to reject Gandhi’s action in favour of Untouchables. Nevertheless, the mahatma had much more influence than is now claimed by some people. Among other things, he made Untouchability an essential issue within the Congress Party, and all Indian nationalists were soon aware that the removal of Untouchability was a condition for the constitution of a truly democratic society. The 20

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 21 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


nationalists were well disposed towards the demands of Untouchables, and Untouchables were granted several kinds of advantages. It is quite remarkable to note that Dr Ambedkar, who was not a member of Congress and even an enemy of it, was nevertheless elected, thanks to the Congress Party, as a member of the constituent assembly and became law minister in the first Nehru cabinet (Kamaji 1992: 103). All this was in spite of severe electoral defeats that showed that the immense majority of Untouchables supported the Congress Party, and not his Republican Party. This open-mindedness of the Congress allowed Ambedkar to be as influential as he was in the drafting of the Constitution of Independent India, and he was thus able to secure the whole system of reservation in favour of the Untouchables. Even though Untouchability persisted, it is undeniable that large sections of the middle classes were genuinely against caste discrimination; more basically, in the first decades after Independence, people said that caste had to go altogether. All these elements combined to transform the struggle of Untouchables. This is what Parry called ‘the Koli dilemma’. The first generation of assertive leaders were very keen to adopt the status symbols of the higher castes: they advocated vegetarianism, and the wearing of the sacred thread, and some went so far as to forbid their widows to remarry (a practice common among the high castes); and generally speaking they fought on the ground of ritual pollution, claiming that they did not deserve to be considered ritually impure. The myths of origin of the Untouchable castes expressed this same ambiguity by each claiming that the status of their own caste was undeservedly low; but at the same time they did not reject the basic idea of ritual pollution. When the state started to grant advantages to those who were socially backward, the strategy of upward mobility had to be changed, and it became necessary to claim very loudly that one was deprived and poor. The younger generations cared less and less about older symbols and wanted to get jobs, loans, land: in other words, to improve their material condition. At the same time, independent India has markedly weakened the practice of Untouchability. From 1936, the year in which the temples of Travancore were thrown open to all castes, most temples became accessible to Untouchables. In independent India, the formal practice of Untouchability was rendered illegal and punished by law. These formal, legal measures were not always applied, and they did not mean the sudden and total end of Untouchability. Nevertheless, they had important consequences: Untouchables could go to school, they could go to 21

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 22 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


the temple, they could take a bus and a train like any other citizen, they could enter a restaurant and ask for food, they could dress properly, they could walk on the road, they could apply for jobs, etc. And they actually did all this. In other words, the younger generation considered the formal practice of Untouchability to be less and less the real issue. This is quite clear from attitudes that I was able to observe during my fieldwork: while most people refused to do scavenging work within the villages, they were all keen on having a job as municipal scavenger; the fact that the latter is as polluting as the traditional duties (perhaps even more) was not relevant to them. A salaried job with social security was their only preoccupation, and none of the municipal scavengers I met considered his job as ritually defiling. They could even be proud of it (Searle-Chatterjee 1981). The stigma of Untouchability had not disappeared altogether (and still hasn’t): in the rural areas, Untouchables may still be refused entrance into a temple; some are still insulted; some are still dependent; but on the whole there has been a considerable change, and indeed a tremendous improvement on the former situation.

Education and Employment In other words, as Parry (1970) or Mines (1984) pointed out, the question of ritual pollution soon ceased to be an essential issue. First of all, to a large extent, the whole ideology of pollution became less and less effective among higher castes: many of the Brahmins became Westernized, urbanized and influenced by Western democratic ideas; they were less prone to invoke traditional religious ideas to account for social inequality and very few would still claim that the condition of Untouchables is due to their deeds in a previous life (Maloney 1975). At the economic level and in the initial phase, the Untouchables were not rivals to them and therefore did not constitute a threat to their position within society. This was very different from the case of middle and low non-Untouchable castes, which were much more threatened by the upward mobility of the lower castes. It is thus no surprise to hear that the ‘atrocities’ committed against Untouchables are increasingly conducted by those castes that fear competition from the Untouchables. As Mendelsohn and Vicziany have recently argued (1998: 58), many fights 22

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 23 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


are not really caste conflicts but are linked to land control. Those who come into conflict are very commonly newly rising peasant communities, including Untouchables, which are sociologically very close to each other. In other words, people who commit these atrocities are much more concerned by the economic competition from lower castes than by traditional questions of ritual purity. Besides, it must be said that if one had to apply the traditional ritual criteria, these middle castes would not be not much purer than the Untouchables: they mostly eat meat, worship the same deities as the very low castes, and live in very similar conditions. They would hardly claim to be the defenders of an orthodox ritual purity. Even in traditional circumstances, Good (1991: 14-15) noted that he had never seen anyone purifying himself after physical contact with an Untouchable. Generally speaking, higher castes are no longer much concerned about questions of ritual pollution. Some conflicts may still be expressed in traditional ritual idioms, but this hides deeper economic and political realities. I would thus claim that the question of ritual pollution is no longer what people are ready to fight over. The people among whom I worked were quite aware of this. They were mostly poor people, from backward areas. Yet they were little concerned with the practice of Untouchability. People would endlessly tell me that their main preoccupation was economic, and they kept telling me of such-and-such an Untouchable medical doctor who was well off and met no discrimination whatsoever. Again and again, I was told that Untouchability was a problem of the past and that it was now almost completely forgotten. This was not always supported by the facts and I could soon discover some cases of discrimination. Yet this was never the main preoccupation of the people. Their main problems, universally, were education and employment. They wanted to be educated and have a good well-paid job. In other words, their main concern was about their material condition, their poverty. I could observe many instances that showed that the question of ritual pollution was not fundamental. Untouchables took water from the same wells as the higher castes, members of the latter drank water given them by Untouchables and went into their houses, and generally speaking most of the traditional instances of Untouchability either had disappeared or were less and less observed. People did not suffer from this, but they viewed their plight solely in terms of economic and cultural deprivation. One could argue that their economic situation is 23

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 24 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


largely the result of their traditional destitution at the bottom of Indian society, which is of course very true. Yet there are many other castes that live in conditions that are very similar to those of the former Untouchable castes, and I argue that the gap between them is becoming narrower. The reservation policies in favour of the Scheduled Castes have certainly contributed to improving their lot.

The Scheduled Castes Today, Untouchability is largely a problem of the past. As such it remains interesting to the sociologist or the historian, but it retains little real practical existence. The whole issue has been transformed by recent historical developments, and today’s ‘Untouchables’ are very different from their forefathers. To a large extent, they can no longer be considered as ‘Untouchable’ in the strict sense of the term. The Scheduled Castes are a recent avatar of the former Untouchables. They are the outcome of the protective measures in favour of the lower classes. These measures have undoubtedly had some effects. First of all, they have contributed to creating a new category of people, to transforming a relative and open social category into an absolute and closed one. Whereas in the past the frontier between Untouchables and non-Untouchables was ill-defined and even fluid, the constitution of the ‘Scheduled Castes’ category radically altered this; one is now either within or outside the Scheduled Castes. If you are within, you are entitled to protection from the State. If you are outside, you have to rely on yourself. This has quite drastic consequences: what is, for instance, the difference between an agricultural labourer from a Scheduled Caste and another from a non-Scheduled Caste? Both earn similar wages and live in similar conditions. It may well be that the member of a Scheduled Caste is insulted from time to time; but his life is not really affected by this. Besides, the other man may also be despised, even if no derogatory caste names used thrown at him. Furthermore, this man will have been given many fewer opportunities by the government to improve his lot or that of his family. In other words, all other things being equal, it is better to be a member of a Scheduled Caste. This kind of situation does not favour class solidarity: as I said above, caste clashes tend to oppose castes 24

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 25 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


that are structurally very close. The Valaiyars of Alangkulam village, which I have studied, are quite resentful towards the Pallars, who live in similar conditions but are members of the Scheduled Castes. The strategy of ‘divide and rule’ that was once used by the British to strengthen their power has now been used to divide the most backward classes. It has not even succeeded in creating some sense of solidarity within the Scheduled Castes themselves: if one takes caste as the criterion for socio-economic assistance, then caste remains a major issue. The reservation policy has had some positive results, and has certainly contributed to create a small, but significant, elite among the Scheduled Castes. One could, of course, wonder about the social identity of the beneficiaries. However, we shall not deal here with the question of the ‘creamy layer’. True enough, the people among whom I lived bothered little about medical colleges or the Indian Administrative Service, and would certainly prefer some help to send their children to the primary school or to get a loan in order to buy a bullock cart. Most people, besides, had never received any help from the government. Yet they kept making efforts to better their lives: they became masons, factory workers, brick makers, bullock cart drivers, etc., all this without any kind of help at all. The official policies are mainly oriented towards government jobs, and do not stimulate private initiatives. Generally speaking, one may say that the reservation policy had some impact on the constitution of an elite among the Scheduled Castes. Inasmuch as this was effective, it partly filled up the gap between the Untouchables and the other rural castes. This is only true from an economic point of view. While doing so, as we have seen above, the very categorization of the Untouchables as Scheduled Castes strengthened the differences between them and the rest of the population and therefore they were cut from the rest of society. This is quite paradoxical: while the economic gap had narrowed, the socio-political gap had widened. This is the outcome of fifty years of protective measures. As many former forms of discrimination disappeared, new problems emerged, such as resentment against the people who are considered to be overprotected by the government. In other words, while the system of reservations aimed at bridging the gap between two categories of the population, it has only partially succeeded in doing so and it has also created new forms of separation. A system that is based on the recognition of caste cannot lead to its suppression.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 26 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Dalitism It has become a well-known fact that some sort of discrimination has persisted within the most modern sectors of the economy, for instance in medical colleges or within the civil service. However, I would rather call this a new form of discrimination than a persistence of the former type, and as such it is more a consequence of the frustration that the protective measures have inevitably provoked within the majority of the population than a traditional form of discrimination; in any case, it has little to do with ritual purity. On the Untouchables’ side, this new type of conflict led to the formation of a class of intellectuals, who were mostly beneficiaries of the system of reservation. They started to adopt a much more radical position and called themselves Dalits, ‘the oppressed’, even though many of them could not be considered as oppressed, at least if we compare them to the rest of the Indian population. Among the Dalits who write to the newsletters, one finds doctors, engineers, editors, chairmen, commissioners, directors, professors... all titles that testify to the progress made by some people who can hardly be labelled ‘oppressed’. This emergence revealed another set of paradoxes: first people started to become much more assertive and even aggressive at a time when the overall condition of Untouchables had improved or at least when the question of Untouchability has lost much of its significance. Secondly, those militants were by no means the worst victims of society. On the contrary, most of them were the beneficiaries of its system of reservation and, so to speak, constituted an elite. In spite of these facts, the Dalit activists depict the condition of the Untouchables as if it had not changed for centuries. It is part of their strategy to claim that the condition of their brethren is worse than ever. They tend to minimize the importance of the economic problem and instead read the whole Indian reality in terms of caste and caste struggles. Sometimes they may adopt some kind of Marxist terminology, but again it is applied to castes or caste groups: Brahmins are the exploiters, Dalits the exploited. Yet this kind of Manichean dichotomy corresponds to nothing. Brahmins can by no means be equated to a homogeneous class group and secondly the Dalit militants are mostly drawn from economically privileged social categories and, in purely socio-economic terms, could not be considered as exploited, nor even as underprivileged. That is probably why they prefer to speak in caste terms: caste identity prevails over everything 26

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 27 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


else. If I am born in a low caste, that is enough to be considered as oppressed whatever my income and my occupation. This is part of the tendency of democratic societies to encourage everyone to be a victim (Bruckner 1995). Furthermore, when one claims that a man firstly exists as member of a caste group, one thereby eclipses other realities: if all members of a caste group are oppressed whatever their material condition, then real economic disabilities somehow become secondary. The Dalit ideology does not seem to be oriented towards the annihilation of caste or poverty but towards the constitution of a society that recognizes their own caste groups and guarantees them some privileges. They reject the consensual view of society that was advocated by the leaders of the nationalist movement; on the contrary, they wish to be recognized as a caste and sometimes they are more caste-minded than the most orthodox Hindus. To them, the whole society is nothing but an amalgam of castes fighting against each other. As they claim to be oppressed, they can speak on behalf of the whole community and are extremely vocal. Although most new groups use the label ‘dalit’, there are strong differences between them. Yet they are mostly intellectuals and put forward a strategy of confrontation between themselves and the rest of society. They have adopted a new type of discourse, advocate a dichotomist us/them view, see society as made up of enemies, do not hesitate to use abusive terms to refer to all those who do not support their views. This derives from their Manichean conception of society and it allows them to present themselves as the spokesmen of the Untouchables. The very claim that one should now use the term Dalit instead of any other is a good illustration of their strategy. The vast majority of people had never heard of that word; and yet they are now told that it is how they should call themselves. This terminology is not neutral, and tends to promote a more conscious, militant and aggressive view of society. In other words, this ideology is perhaps more a way to create differences than a reflection of current problems. The idea behind it is to maintain a deep gap between the Untouchables and the rest of the population in order to claim further protective measures and privileges. The recent attempts to promote a ‘Dalit theology’ or ‘Dalit Human Rights’ exemplify this attempt to conceive the Dalits as one people and one culture. They also rewrite history in a way that could be labelled ‘Dalitocentrism’: the Untouchables are described as the first rulers and landowners of the country, who had been dislodged by foreign invasions. They view 27

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 28 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


themselves as true Buddhists who had been forcibly converted to Hinduism. Although this is purely rhetorical, and even mythological, this kind of new history is repeated again and again.

Conclusions The Dalit ideology is one of confrontation, if not of hatred. To what it will lead is still dubious: if it succeeds in spreading its influence to larger sections of the population, it might exacerbate violence. There is however a chance that it will die out as people are more concerned with bread-and-butter matters. The Untouchables know perfectly well that they belong to Indian society, that they have no culture of their own and that they share most of the values of the people among whom they live. Most of them know that Untouchability is a problem of the past and that their future lies in a better integration within society. Meanwhile, the current militantism of a tiny elite is worrying, as it tries to influence vulnerable, poor, illiterate and sometimes frustrated people. What is, for instance, the meaning of being converted to Buddhism apart from trying to insult the Hindus? The problems that people at the bottom of Indian society have now to face are not caste problems. Discrimination based on ritual pollution has perhaps not totally vanished but it is on the wane. On the contrary, the mechanization of agriculture, for instance, is likely to lead to the unemployment of more and more agricultural labourers, whatever their castes. Of course, members of Untouchable castes will be the first to suffer from this; but this is in spite of their caste. In other words, all agricultural labourers will be affected and some will have no affirmative action to protect them. The effect of the liberalization of the economy on the lowest sections of the population is still a matter of debate; but again, it will not be linked to caste identity. The fact remains that caste tends to play a growing role in contemporary India. However, this situation is perhaps less the continuity of tradition than a recent outcome linked to the post-Independence situation. In modern India, it is not relative purity that lies at the basis of caste struggles. Castes now fight because they have to compete for limited economic and political resources. This is also true of Untouchables, who may become a major force within Indian politics. 28

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 29 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


References Béteille, Robert (1972) ‘Pollution and Poverty’, in J. M. Mahar (ed.), The Untouchables in Contemporary India. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 412-420. Bruckner, Pascal (1995) La Tentation de l’innocence. Paris: Le Seuil. Deliège, Robert (1995) Les Intouchables en Inde: des castes d’exclus. Paris: Imago. –– (1997) The World of the Untouchables: Paraiyars of Tamil Nadu. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Dumont, Louis (1966) Homo Hierarchicus: essai sur le système de castes. Paris: Gallimard. Epstein, Scarlett (1973) South India Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. London: Macmillan. Good, Antony (1991) The Female Bridegroom: A Comparative Study of Life-crisis Rituals in South India and Sri Lanka. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Kamaji, Kshirsagar (1992) Political Thought of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. London: Intellectual Publishing House. Layton, Robert (1997) An Introduction to Theory in Social Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Maloney, Clarence (1975) ‘Religious Beliefs and Social Hierarchy in Tamil Nadu, India’. American Ethnologist, vol. 2: 169-192. Mendelsohn, Oliver & Marika Vicziany (1998) The Untouchables: Subordination, Poverty and the State in Modern India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Mines, Mattison (1984) The Warrior Merchants: Textiles, Trade and Territory in South India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Moffatt, Michael (1979) An Untouchable Community in South India: Structure and Consensus. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Mosse, David (1985) Caste, Christianity and Hinduism: A Study of Social Organization and Religion in Rural Ramnad. Oxford University: Institute of Social Anthropology, Unpublished D.Phil thesis. Oommen, T. K. (1984) ‘Sources of Deprivation and Styles of Protest: The Case of the Dalits in India’. Contributions to Indian Sociology (NS), vol. 18, no. 1: 45-61. Parry, Jonathan (1970) ‘The Koli Dilemma’. Contributions to Indian Sociology (NS), vol. 4: 84-104.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 30 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Parry, Jonathan (1979) Caste and Kinship in Kangra. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Saradamoni, K. (1980) Emergence of a Slave Caste: Pulayas of Kerala. Delhi: People’s Publishing House. Searle-Chatterjee, Mary (1981) Reversible Sex Roles: The Special Case of Benares Sweepers. Oxford: Pergamon Press. Srinivas, M. N. (1976) The Remembered Village. Berkeley: University of California Press. Thomas, Nicholas (1998) Hors du temps: histoire et évolutionnisme dans le discours anthropologique. Paris: Belin. Zelliot, Eleanor (1972) ‘Gandhi and Ambedkar – A Study in Leadership’, in J. M. Mahar (ed.), The Untouchables in Contemporary India. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 69-96.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 31 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie

2. Mikael Aktor

UNTOUCHABILITY IN BRAHMINICAL LAW BOOKS Ritual and Economic Control Reconstructing the Pre-colonial History of Untouchability? Are we able to write a pre-colonial history of Untouchability in India? Can we do it in the sense of knowing the factual historical, economic and social conditions of the proto-Untouchable groups we meet in ancient and medieval literature under names such as candala, pulkasa and shvapaca? We may start by noting that almost all our sources for the pre-colonial history of Untouchability are literary sources in which direct evidence of actual social practices is extremely limited. In fact, these sources only very rarely express much more than the attitudes of the elite literary environments in which they were produced. But this does not mean that such attitudes did not have concrete social consequences. For instance it does not mean that the rules of Untouchability laid down in the law books were not followed by certain groups, but it is necessary to consider the range of social influence of single literary genres. Thus, we have to be careful not to make the history of these rules an account of the conditions of the Untouchables. The nature of our sources precludes us from a strict and limited focus on social facts but induces us to be the more concerned with the subtle ways in which religious, ritual, political and economic concerns are inextricably intertwined in these literary sources. References to Untouchable groups and to Untouchability are found in a large range of ancient and classical literary genres, including 31

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 32 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


the Vedic corpus, the ritual sutras, the Buddhist Pali canon, the grammatical and lexicographic literature, the scholarly literature (shastra) of which the law books and their commentaries form one discipline, the epics and puranas, the dramas and prose narratives, the cankam and post-cankam Tamil literature, the devotional poetry of bhakti saints, Persian and Arabic chronicles, and the accounts of foreign travellers.1 Among these, the most systematic account of the phenomenon is found in the law literature, the dharmashastra. This systematism does not mean, however, that we have an entirely realistic record. On the contrary, a discussion of the source value of dharmashastra, i.e. an evaluation of the degree of idealization in this literature, has been a recurring theme in the indological and historical study of it.2 One of the major causes of this idealization was the fight for centrality between ‘orthodox’ (smarta) Brahmin householders and Buddhist and theistic communities. The concern for ritual purity, vital for the livelihood of the Brahmins more than of the other varnas, was an answer to the asceticism and renunciation within the monastic movements. Ritual purity was the asset of a householder Brahmin as opposed to the renunciation of a monk. There is, however, evidence that dharmashastra did have a practical function in an actual policy of regulating social interaction between castes, for instance with regard to conflicts concerning rights to perform specific occupations.3 And although a strict adherence to the detailed code of Untouchability rules found particularly in medieval law books may have been limited, the more general set of rules regarding sexual interaction, segregation, food transactions and economic exchange is confirmed in the broad spectrum of literary genres.


2 3


For an overview, see Kane, vol. 2: 165-179; Sharma 1990: passim; Jha 1975 and 1986; Mukherjee 1988; Leslie 2003: 27-40. For the Buddhist literature, see Fick 1897: 202-212, and Chakravarti 1987: 101-108. Mukherjee 1974 is based on lexicographic material. For the Tamil literature, see Hanumanthan 1979. Lal 1995 is based on late medieval Muslim chronicles, mainly in Persian. Unfortunately, this book is marred by an anti-Muslim attitude which erodes its scholarly credibility. The bhakti poetry is particularly interesting because several of its authors themselves originated from Untouchable castes; see Eleanor Zelliot’s chapter in this book. See for instance Lingat 1993: 180-183. See Derrett 1976: 86-110, and Derrett in Lingat 1993: 273-274.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 33 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Agency, Competence, and Pollution Not all our trouble distinguishing social reality from religious concerns can rightly be ascribed to the texts themselves. Scholarship has its share as well. This is especially true of the manner in which the Weberian notion of status has been stressed as an essence of caste by Dumont, creating a barrier which, allegedly by the very nature of the caste system, assigned pragmatic concerns for power or wealth an inferior place as only secondary properties of caste. Considering the tremendous economic significance of the labour of Untouchable castes in Indian society as well as the large range of disabilities imposed for centuries on these groups, such scholarly discourses become obviously insufficient. Nevertheless, the difficulties of representing levels of power by Dumont’s model have proved productive in the long run by generating various alternatives and correctives. One of these is the suggestion that the pure-impure polarity has to be supplemented by another: the dichotomy of the auspicious and the inauspicious. In a collection of essays in which this idea was elaborated by various authors, Inden (1985: 34) contributed what I believe is an important observation: The condition of personal purity (shuci) was concerned with the ‘competence’ (adhikara) of a master to act with respect to his domain. Acts of purification increased or restored a person’s competency. So, for example, a man temporarily lost his competence to perform rituals and make gifts when his father died, a woman lost her competence to cook during her menstrual period. The relative degrees of purity of persons by caste, gender, and the like, referred to the relative competencies to act with respect to the domain of the ‘social’ whole, historically a kingdom or local cult, to which they belonged. By drawing attention to the notion of adhikara, Inden points to an important and convincing piece of evidence against the validity of a radical split between status and power in South Asian pre-colonial social paradigms. Adhikara, the ritually established right and responsibility to act with respect to particular domains (Lariviere 1988), holds at the same time notions centred around purity (the parameter of status according to Dumont) and notions of power, that is, that power which follows from being competent to act with respect to certain domains and 33

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 34 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


from being entitled to the fruits of these acts. As such the concept is both ritual and economic,4 and all the detailed rules of purity behind the practice of Untouchability should be seen as ways of constituting and authorizing such practices with all their asymmetrical relations of power and wealth. Seen from the perspective of the ritualistic logic of the law books, adhikara highlights the interdependence between the purity which is required of a human agent and the auspicious results that follow from such pure actions in the form of wealth and power. The basic opposition and the basic interrelation here is that between human agency with its limited power but its moral-ritual potency – to act or not to act according to dharma – and an all-powerful divine or cosmic agency influenced by the moral-ritual quality of such human acts and returning results in the form of fertility or infertility, health or disease, wealth or poverty, accordingly. In essence, it is the relation between ‘visible’ (drishta) human endeavours on the one side and the ‘invisible’ (adrishta) connections that guarantee that such endeavours bear fruit in the form of fertility, health and wealth. Thus, it is only logical that the economically and politically suppressed are marked by inauspicious qualities. The distinction between purity and auspiciousness, and between impurity and inauspiciousness, is therefore an important one for our understanding of the Untouchability complex. Impurity alone does not make a person Untouchable. Only if inauspiciousness somehow attaches to that person or to his/her special situation, that is, if aspects related to actual conditions of life such as fertility, food, physical death and degeneration are involved, is Untouchability liable to be evoked.5

4 5


For the economic aspects, see Derrett 1962. For a more detailed analysis of the relation between impurity, inauspiciousness and Untouchability, see Aktor 2002: 260-266. Other sections of the two articles (Aktor 2002 and the present article) are partly overlapping.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 35 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Status or Competence? Purity or Ownership? – Some Examples Let me illustrate the importance of adhikara by some of the rules regulating contact with Untouchables through material things. These rules include cases where a person touches something which has been touched by an Untouchable. It was recognized already in the dharmasutras (the oldest part of the law literature generally dated between 600 and 300 BC) that the touch of candalas is transmitted through various things that are commonly used by others (roads, boats, grass, seats, couches etc.), but that these things are automatically purified by the wind (BDhS This view is for instance accepted by Madhava (on PS 2.7.34), the fourteenth-century commentator on the Parasharasmriti, one of the early medieval law books.6 However, Madhava’s commentary seems to contradict the following prescription in the smriti text itself: ‘In case of sleeping together with candalas a person should fast for three days. Having walked together with candalas on the same road purity is gained by remembering the gayatri prayer’ (PS 2.6.23).7 Madhava understands ‘sleeping’ as ‘sleeping on the same couch’. This indicates a distinction between cases where the involved persons are present at different times, for instance on the road or in a boat, which do not cause pollution (due to the working of the wind, sun, rain, etc., in between these events), and cases where they are present simultaneously, or, rather, where they share the same activity within the same space, which require purification. The distinction explains the seeming contradiction between the two cases. Another category consists of goods that are transacted. It is difficult to treat this separately from rules regulating food transactions and transactions with gifts. Here I shall restrict the discussion to the general principles. These are summarized in Yajnavalkyasmriti (YS) 1.187c-d which states that the hand of the artisan, that which is vendible as well as what can be had by legitimate begging, is always pure. Accordingly, Parasharasmriti 1.1.65, treating the duties of shudras, states: ‘Salt,

6 7

On the disputed dating of the Parasharasmriti, see Kane, vol. 1: 464; Jha 1975: 30, n. 2; Yadava 1979: 62; Aktor 1999. All Sanskrit texts in this chapter are translated by the author.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 36 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


honey, oil, curd, buttermilk, clarified butter and milk should not be considered bad when got from shudras. A shudra can sell all these’. But later in the text (PS 2.6.30-31) penances are fixed for people of all four varnas in case they should drink water, curd or milk from the containers of low-caste people (antyaja). However, Madhava adds: When raw foodstuffs etc. are acquired in other containers [than those of these people] there is no defect. As it is said in Caturvimshatimata [a medieval digest], ‘Raw foodstuffs, meat, clarified butter, honey, oils and fruit-products kept in the containers of low-caste people become pure when they are taken out from these’. So the distinction here is between that which is consumed directly from the vessels of low-caste people and that which is consumed after being transferred to one’s own vessels. The whole issue here seems to be about appropriation. When goods, and particularly of course goods for consumption, are had directly from the containers of those selling them, they are still within the domains of those people. Even though they might be bought they are not fully appropriated as long as they are kept in what still belongs to the seller. But in a correct transaction there is no pollution. In contrast, when candalas have been in contact with things within one’s own domain, for instance inside one’s house, all things must be purified (PS 2.6.34-42). Thus, we have three main categories. One is common domain: roads, boats, grass, and I believe even couches and seats should be understood in this sense. Here there is no pollution unless the contact takes place within shared activities (walking together on the same road). Then we have the case of transacted goods. If these are acquired legitimately (i.e. bought or begged for), and if they are kept in one’s own containers when they have been bought, then there is no problem. Even when they are vendible they are not contaminated although many people may have touched them (Kane, vol. 4: 321). They belong to the vendor, but being for sale they are also within a semi-common domain. Thirdly, we have the pollution of things which belong to oneself. This is critical and necessitates purification. What is demarcated by these practices is what we might call adhikara spheres, i.e. domains centred around rights to the fruits or results following from the activities proper to that 36

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 37 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


domain, or in a more narrow sense, spheres of ownership (svatva). The home of a householder is one such sphere, but it can be any sphere constituted and demarcated by rituals or appropriated by other legitimate means. A person’s own body is the closest of these domains as well as the most basic because all acts in relation to larger spheres are performed by the body. Although contact with impure people through things or materials may transcend these domains when such contact occurs across them or in shared domains, pollution only takes place within domains which are understood as being to some extent appropriated as one’s own. Behind purity and pollution we have domains of ownership and power.

Basic Characteristics The discrimination which we now label as Untouchability has always been a complex of several avoidances, the avoidance of touch merely being the one which has supplied the label. These avoidances cannot simply be characterized as prohibitions, since only very few types of contact with Untouchables were considered so damaging that their consequences could not be averted by proper purification. The segregation of Untouchable groups was not absolute, but was negotiable in relation to two opposite interests: one was to receive certain services characterized by the removal of impurity from one’s personal domains, the other was to avoid the pollution involved in being in contact with those who offered these services. Connected with this more explicit pattern, it was probably the case that the service which was demanded from Untouchable groups increasingly consisted in unskilled manual labour and that regulation of contact with these groups also was a way of preserving and isolating this unskilled labour force, although this is not clearly stated in the ancient and medieval literature. It is clear, however, that these ends necessitated interaction and segregation at the same time. Therefore the focus was not so much on strict exclusion as on what went on along the boundary between Untouchables and twiceborn and on the many ways in which this boundary could be crossed from both sides. Thus, one of our oldest sources for the interaction between candalas and the upper varnas, Patanjali’s comment on a rule in Panini’s 37

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 38 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


grammar (MBhash 1.475.2-10), defines the exclusion of the candalas not by segregation from villages and settlements, which was not demanded at this stage, but by the rule that food vessels used by candalas cannot be used by oneself even if they are washed. This rule, the avoidance of the exchange of food vessels (apapatratva), is also applied in the law books. Manusmriti 10.51 explicitly designates candala and shvapaca as apapatras. Medhatithi, the ninth-century commentator of this law book, then discusses how food can be distributed to candalas and shvapacas in such a way that there is no exchange of food vessels: either it has to be given in earthen vessels which are thrown away afterwards, or in vessels held by a third person or placed on the ground, or in a broken vessel. Patanjali’s discussion, as well as the later elaborations in Manusmriti and its commentaries, shows how exclusion and segregation boil down to pragmatic questions regarding the regulation of concrete transactions. So the concern is about safeguarding and regulating a necessary interaction, not about excluding it. In this sense Untouchables are in an ambiguous position. They do not stand outside the community of the four varnas but at its margins. From there they are in a position to perform tasks that are necessary for the ritual and political constitution of this community by removing the impurity which is fatal to the competencies of its members. In return for this work they will receive food.

Who and What Is Untouchable? There is some evidence in theVedic literature and the ritual sutras that Untouchability as a distinct complex of avoidances was practised within the domestic sphere, particularly in interaction with menstruating women, before it was projected on interactions in wider social contexts. Although a clear distinction between the two cases – the temporarily Untouchable persons in the family, and the permanently Untouchable groups in the village – is not absent in later texts,8 we need to understand them in their totality. P. V. Kane already stressed this point:



See for instance VS 5.104-5 with Nandapandita’s commentary.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 39 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Those who are not familiar with ancient or even modern Hindu notions must be warned against being carried away by the horror naturally felt at first sight when certain classes are treated as Untouchables. The underlying notions of Untouchability are religious and ceremonial purity and impurity. A man’s nearest and dearest women relatives such as his own mother and wife or daughter are Untouchable to him during their monthly periods. To him the most affectionate friend is Untouchable for several days when the latter is in mourning due to death in the latter’s family. (Kane, vol. 2: 170) The apologetic tone notwithstanding, Kane is right with regard to the interrelation between these practices.9 In the law books this is apparent by the manner in which quite different Untouchable categories are classified together and rules of avoidance are treated across such categories. Two early (600-300 BC)10 lists of Untouchable persons and things became normative for later similar lists. One is Baudhayanadharmasutra which reads: A Brahmin who has touched a memorial tree [in memory of dead persons], a funeral pile, a sacrificial post [for binding the victims], a candala, a seller of the Veda [who stipulates certain wages before giving instructions in the Vedas], should enter the water with his clothes on. The other is Gautamadharmasutra 14.30: In case of touching an outcast, a candala, a woman who has just given birth, a menstruating woman, a person who has touched a corpse or any of all these, a man should purify himself by bathing with his clothes on.



Dumont (1980: 48) recognised Kane’s remark and showed how the temporary impurity in the family gives rise to permanently impure specialists such as the washerman (who washes the cloth of menstruating women) and the barber who is assigned the task of the funeral priest in the South. See Kane, vol. 1, pt. 1; Kangle 1968; Derrett 1973.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 40 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Apart from the persons and things listed in these two texts, animals form a third group. Taken together and including the other ancient dharmasutras, persons include the candala, representing the permanent Untouchability of the lowest castes, the woman who has just given birth, the menstruating woman, the dead person, the person who touches a dead person and the outcast (patita), that is the severe violator of moral laws such as the Brahmin-killer or the Veda-seller. Among animals only the dog, which is specially associated with candalas and shvapacas (literally: dog-cookers),11 is mentioned in the early texts (ADhS; BDhS; GDhS 14.32; VDhS 23.33). Among things no other objects are mentioned besides those above in BDhS Focusing on the candala, our prototype for later Untouchables, the avoidances to be observed according to the same early texts (the dharmasutras) are the following: Avoidance of physical contact 1. Avoidance of sexual contact (BDhS; VDhS 23.39-41). 2. Avoidance of touch (ADhS; BDhS; GDhS 14.30; VDhS 23.33). Avoidance of contact through the senses 3. Avoidance of contact through sight (ADhS 4. Avoidance of contact through hearing (during recitation) (VDhS 23.34). 5. Avoidance of contact through speech (ADhS



Also termed ‘shvapakas’, possibly dog-keepers, see Leslie 2003: 28, n. 9.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 41 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Avoidance of contact through things exchanged 6. Avoidance of contact through food (BDhS; VDhS 20.1617). 7. [Avoidance of contact through exchange of food vessels (ADhS, and].12 8. Avoidance of contact through gifts (BDhS Avoidance of contact during religious activities 9. Presence of a candala as a hindrance to recitation (ADhS; GDhS 16.19; VDhS 13.11). 10. Glance of a candala as spoiling the shraddha food (GDhS 15.24).

Proliferations During the following many centuries the list of Untouchable persons and things as well as that of avoidances increase considerably. One category now included consists of persons who undergo ashauca, the period of purification after the death or birth of a relative. This group generally includes all relatives within seven or five generations in both ascending and descending order of respectively the father’s and the mother’s line (see Kane, vol. 2: 452 ff.). Medieval commentators took the Untouchability of these people for granted (VijYS 3.30). Untouchability is simply one of four criteria by which ashauca is defined by Haradatta on Gautamadharmasutra 2.5.1, the others being the threefold suspension of the right to perform rituals, of the possibility for others to partake of one’s food and of receiving one’s gifts, all criteria that for long had been attached to candalas. Other smritis added other categories. Madhava quotes verses which add to both of the two normative lists in the dharmasutras (BDhS and GDhS 14.30 above). Commenting on Parasharasmriti 2.6.24


In contrast to all the other listed avoidances this one is not explicitly applied to the candalas, but it applies implicitly according to Haradatta’s understanding of the term apapatra (see his commentaries to ADhS and


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 42 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


he quotes two verses attributed to Devala which clearly take the list in Gautamadharmasutra 14.30 and its parallel in Manusmriti 5.85 as their model. They say: A man who has touched a shvapaka, an outcast, a cripple, a fool, a corpse-burner, both parents undergoing the impurity of childbirth, a woman overtaken by menstruation or the dogs, cocks and hogs of the village is purified as soon as he has immersed himself in water with his clothes on.13 A little further he quotes Caturvimshatimata which has a list similar to Baudhayanadharmasutra The memorial tree and the Vedaseller are omitted but instead it includes the temple priest (devalaka) (whose prestige is very low from the point of view of the Veda-learned shastra authors).14 Thus, the extra categories so far (compared with the dharmasutras) are: cripple, fool, the father after childbirth, temple priest, cock and hog. Vijnaneshvara on Yajnavalkyasmriti 3.30 quotes other smritis which extend the lists of Untouchable categories further, including, for example, the funeral smoke, a priest who sacrifices for a whole village, the seller of the soma plant, the shadow of a shvapaka as well as




A variation of these verses is found in VijYS 3.30 which mentions ‘a woman in confinement and a midwife’ instead of ‘both parents undergoing the impurity of childbirth’. The temple priest is defined by an anonymous smriti referred to in VijYS 3.30 as a Brahmin who has received payment for temple service for more than three years. This is one example of occupations which render even Brahmins Untouchable. Hanumanthan (1979: 82, 90), in a South Indian context, cites several legends, all to the effect that paraiyas (who were regarded as equal to candalas) also functioned as priests in local cults before the influence of North Indian Brahmins gradually changed society under the Pallava rulers (seventh to ninth century), and he draws the conclusion that at least this section of paraiyas became Untouchable (which they were not before that) as a result of the process by which these Brahmins succeeded in supplanting them as temple priests. Even more serious is the case of the equally Untouchable Brahmin funeral priest, the mahabrahman, as described by Parry (1980) on the basis of modern field work and discussed by Quigley (1993: 80-81). According to Quigley his case shows that the polarity constructed by Dumont between the pure brahmana and the impure Untouchable is a false representation of the system.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 43 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


several animals. And we could go on finding peculiar additions. Atrismriti 277c-79b makes crows, camels and jackals Untouchable to women during menstruation. In addition, there are certain situations which render people momentarily Untouchable to each other. A person who is eating or who has not yet cleaned himself after the meal is impure (ucchishta) and Untouchable to others in the same situation according to Parasharasmriti 2.7.20c-22b. Thus Untouchability became a flexible category into which quite diverse elements of larger areas (village and country) could be added in the process of establishing and maintaining competence in relation to specific domains. That cripples and fools are included shows the strength of the image of the fit body as an index of such a competence. The notion of the country is evoked by Atrismriti 267 and Vriddhayajnavalkya (in ApYS cited by Kane, vol. 2: 384) which add the ‘barbarian’ foreigner (mleccha) to the list. Religious affiliations are likewise brought into the process by Shattrimshanmata (quoted in several texts and by Kane, vol. 4: 114, n. 262) which adds (according to the particular text in which it is quoted) Buddhists, Jainas, Shaivas such as Pashupatas, Laukayatikas (materialists), Kapilas (followers of samkhya) and atheists. With respect to Untouchable castes it is more significant that Shatatapa (in Smriticandrika) as well as Garudapurana (in Caturvargacintamani), both quoted by Kane (vol. 4: 115, n. 264), list several groups (13 and 16 respectively), mostly occupational and all of which are Untouchable and avoided in other respects as well. The two lists are partly overlapping. Shatatapa’s 13 groups are: dyers, leather workers, hunters, fishermen, washermen, butchers, gamblers (thaka), actors, men who serve other men sexually by phellatio (mukhebhaga), prostitutes, oil grinders, wine dealers and executioners. The groups in the quote from Garudapurana that are different from Shatatapa’s list comprise: bamboo and reed workers, medas (several polluting occupations, see Kane, vol. 2: 92), bhillas (mountain people), goldsmiths, sauvikas (?, possibly sauvidas: attendants on women’s apartments), artists, blacksmiths, stone cutters, barbers and carpenters. The quote (Garudapurana) designates all these groups as ‘candalas living in the village’, and specifies what this means in terms of avoidances: Wise people avoid looking at, touching, or talking to these persons. Moreover they do not wish to hear them speaking or to see them during the time of bathing, eating or while per43

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 44 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


forming japa, homa and worship. The sun is to be looked at in case of seeing them and a man should abandon his meal if these things happen during that time. In case of talking with them he should wash both ears well with his hands and having finally talked with a Brahmin he is freed from the defect. (CVCM: 38) The avoidances follow the paradigm of the dharmasutras (see above) in distinguishing between what happens in ritual contexts, during which the results of pollution are more serious (even hearing is damaging), and at other times. This proliferation of occupational Untouchable groups is remarkable in that it transcends the previously delimited field of groups of the candala type (people occupied with unskilled public services as workers at the cremation grounds, executioners and scavengers (MS 10.55-56; VSS 10.14) and includes classes of groups beyond this such as the seven antyajas (washerman, leather worker, dancer, reed and bamboo worker, fisherman, meda and bhilla, see Kane, vol. 2: 70), or other pratilomas (groups classified in the caste structure as descending from hypogamous relations) such as magadha and vaidehaka (VSS 10.13-14). But that these statements might perhaps have been of limited applicability is evident from the commentaries on Manusmriti 10.13 where both Medhatithi and Kulluka maintain that the only Untouchable person among the pratilomas is the candala. Not only do the Untouchable categories proliferate, the complex of avoidances is also extended during the medieval period (from about sixth century CE). Added to the list of avoidances in the dharmasutras (above) we find rules which clearly segregate candalas outside the villages and cities (VSS 10.14). It is stressed, however, that this segregation only pertains to their place of living, not to work. On the contrary, the texts deal increasingly with how contact with candalas is to be met with inside the village. This is paralleled by more detailed descriptions of the duties of candalas within villages and cities. Vaikhanasasmartasutra 10.14 is an example of the fully elaborated stereotype of an Untouchable village candala:


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 45 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


A candala is begotten by a shudra on a Brahmin woman.15 He wears ornaments of lead or black iron, a leather thong tied round his neck and a cymbal fixed to his girdle. He wanders from place to place and is excluded from all rites. In the morning he removes the dirt on the road and elsewhere in villages and similar places and takes it outside. He should dwell far away outside the village together with his own kind. After midday he cannot enter a village. If he does so he has to be punished corporally by the king. Otherwise the king incurs the guilt of killing a learned Brahmin. Other occupations which are prescribed in earlier texts and some of which have been mentioned already include hunting, working on the cremation grounds, executioner (MS 5.131 and 10.55-56; VS 16.11 and 23.50; YS 1.192), and various security functions such as guarding frontiers (ASh 2.1.5), searching robbers in the villages (NS 14.25) and participating in certain military units (gulma) (KS 681). Commenting on Manusmriti 10.55, Medhatithi gives us a parallel picture of the candalas on duty in the larger city: During the day they walk about on business, that is either on their own business such as buying and selling, or on the king’s business, for instance when there is a public show or a festival in the town. At such occasions they should be marked according to royal order by such marks as the thunderbolt etc. which are stipulated by the king, or by the axe or hoe which they carry on their shoulders for the purpose of executing criminals. Along with the increasing need for the candala’s professional presence within villages and cities, rules regulating the spatial limits of contact become more complex. Parasharasmriti, for instance, does not at all prescribe where the candalas have to live. Instead it gives detailed instructions about how a house of a Brahmin has to be purified if a candala


This is the standard genealogical explanation of the existence of the candala caste. Similar explanations are given for other low castes. See Manusmriti 10; Brinkhaus 1978; Aktor 1999: 268-274.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 46 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


has stayed inside it without his knowledge. Thus, the sphere of possible contact becomes closer. This is reflected in the way in which the avoidance of touch itself proliferates. Apart from direct touch there are, as we have already seen, detailed rules about contact through common facilities (beds and roads for instance in PS 2.6.23), particularly when food is involved (Brahmins eating fruit from a tree touched by candalas in AS 178-83b). Even without any material medium, Untouchability is extended to pollution at a distance which is precisely measured out: if a Brahmin happens to get closer to a candala than four yugas (about three and a half metres) he has to take a bath (PS 2.12.54-55; VijYS 3.30). Some texts, as mentioned already, also make the shadow of a candala or shvapaka Untouchable (AS 288c-89b), although this is controversial since shadows in general are declared pure according to the authority of Manusmriti 5.133, Yajnavalkyasmriti 1.193 and Vishnusmriti 23.52. Note also the duty of the candala, mentioned in the quote from Vaikhanasasmartasutra above, to make himself visually and audibly known by wearing, for instance, a leather thong and beating a cymbal. Another important avoidance is the restricted access to the wells and other water sources of the high castes. It is not that candalas are explicitly prohibited from drawing water from the common well, but that twice-born are warned against drinking water from wells dug by candelas, or water which has come into contact with their pitchers (PS 2.6.25-29; VijYS 1.192). Apart from these proliferations we also see a differentiation of various circumstances that aggravate the pollution of Untouchables. The impurity after eating, as noticed, was one such circumstance. Parallel to this there are rules which prescribe specific purification if a man has been touched by a candala while he is still impure after defecation (PM, vol. 2, 1: 110; vol. 2, 2: 143). For menstruating women, in particular, the preoccupation is overwhelming. Detailed rules are given which account for every possible combination of varnas should menstruating women happen to touch each other (PS 2.7.11c-15b). And if such a woman is touched by a candala there are specific penances depending on what day during the menstruation the incident occurred, the first day being the worst (PM vol. 2, 1: 162).16 Thus, various types of Untouchability are combined.



For the views on menstruation, see Leslie 1994.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 47 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Why Untouchable? Is there a pattern behind all these diverse Untouchable categories and diverse avoidances? I believe there is. Firstly, there is a spatial pattern. All the Untouchable characters, cripples, candalas, criminals, menstruating women, foreigners and so forth, are distributed according to the different spatial spheres of activity and competence in which the highcaste, male householder pursues his goals. At the centre is his own body. This is a domain of its own because the ritual competency of the householder as an agent within larger spheres depends on the state of his body. But first of all he is the master of a home with family, livestock etc. Homes are organized in village communities of transacting occupational groups – or – in larger urban centres like the royal city. All these form part of the king’s territory, the country which is his personal domain. Secondly, as already suggested, there is a pattern by which all these Untouchable categories are distinct from other categories that are merely impure. This is a pattern in terms of a distinction between purity and auspiciousness, i.e. between human agency and types of agency which are beyond that domain. These extra-human domains are particularly related to human prosperity, since prosperity cannot be guaranteed by human agency alone. Whether one’s wife delivers a son or a daughter, whether the rain falls as expected, whether one’s enemies are successful in their attacks are all matters in which divine agency has a determining role. Let us look at these two factors while going through the main Untouchable categories. The overall perspective will be that of the central character of the law books, the male Brahmin householder. From this perspective it will be apparent that Untouchable categories are organized in relation to those spatial domains through or within which the householder operates (body, the home, the village, the town and the country). My hypothesis is that the segregation and Untouchability of all these categories are generated, initially, by the process of ritualization through which each domain is constituted as a productive adhikarasphere, a field for realizing competencies. The ritualized body is the agent, whereas the other domains, home, village, etc., are the inclusive ‘complex agencies’ in which it participates through economic or politi-


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 48 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


cal transactions.17 As a second step this paradigm is utilized pragmatically in the special case of the candala as a motivation and means for controlling his labour. I shall deal with these two steps one by one. Ritualization is ‘fundamentally a way of doing things to trigger the perception that these practices are distinct and the associations that they engender are special’ (Bell 1992: 220). By setting themselves off from other practices rituals create situations which presuppose the working of ontological, mythical, cosmological or ideological causes that, axiomatically, have been set off already from the more familiar causalities of everyday life. By the ritual enactment of these forces participants are empowered as agents with special competencies. This basic differentiation of one practice in relation to other practices and of special agents as opposed to ordinary agents is enabled by utilizing the oppositions that are generated by the body’s proprioception and its perceptions of the surroundings, such as inside/outside, high/low and clean/unclean. These oppositions are then projected on the ritualized objects (body, home or whatever) as a paradigm for inclusion or segregation: the ‘low’ or ‘impure’ is segregated to a position ‘outside’ the ritualized field whether by actual segregation or through bracketing by avoidances while the ‘higher’ or ‘purer’ elements are kept inside. And only by this process of segregation does the body emerge as an empowered agent, the home as a proper sphere of ownership and the village and country as rightful spheres of polity. In this system elements are segregated not primarily due to their conceptual, symbolic properties but first of all by the phenomenological qualities that make segregation natural in the specific context. Just as impurity is a better image of the unqualified agent than disease or danger because in everyday experience uncleanliness is incurred by all but is at the same time removable by one’s own effort, so some elements serve better in the process of segregation than others. Why, for instance, in a typology of polluted soil (PM vol. 2, 1: 193-194) is human faeces classified not merely as ‘dirt’ (mala), but among the worst kind of pollutants (the amedhya ones, the ritually impure), like dead bodies or candalas?



The notion of ‘complex agency’ is developed by Inden (1992) on the basis of the British philosopher of history R. G. Collingwood. Its advantage compared to the notion of ‘consensus’ behind Dumont’s structural model is that it allows for contextual diversity and antagonism being present at the same systemic level.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 49 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


And why, out of everything disgusting, is food which has been into contact with faeces or urine equated with the food of candalas (PM, ibid.: 365)? We might say, along with Douglas (1984: 123, 125), that contact with faeces represents a ‘descent in the caste structure’ as part of ‘a symbolic system, based on the image of the body, whose primary concern is the ordering of a social hierarchy’. But why should this social symbolism bother elite Brahmins who had no reason to worry about descent in the caste structure? Phenomenologically speaking, we may say instead that defecation and urination, as oppositions to food in the nutritional cycle, offer themselves immediately as ‘out’-products from the ritualization of this same process. Apart from the many rules regulating the food process in the law books the process itself is explained in ritual terms. According to this ritualism food depends on the cosmic cycle that connects the oblations from the daily agnihotra ritual (fire sacrifice), through the smoke, with rain, vegetation and new food (MS 3.76; Kane, vol. 2: 680). This is a ritualized cycle in which there is no place for excreted waste products. And by the same ritualization any contact between food and its waste products is inauspicious and highly polluting. Neither blood nor semen, sweat, hair, nails, mucus or other bodily impurities have this potential. Only saliva comes close as a similar waste product, but this it does not do simply by virtue of being a bodily substance which crosses bodily boundaries, but only when it is connected to the process of eating. Thus, while any contact with saliva in connection with eating is highly polluting, the attitude to drops of saliva that may fall on a person during conversation is much more relaxed (ADhS 1.16.11-13; MS 5.141; PS/PM 2.7.32, vol. 2, 1: 186). Saliva is also missing in Manu’s list of the body’s twelve impurities (MS 5.135). This illustrates that it is the process more than the substance which causes pollution. Processes that are essential for the prosperity of the householder and are to some extent beyond the control of human agency involve auspiciousness. In such processes possible impurity that might affect the agent and thereby hinder the auspicious results will tend to aggravate as Untouchability. Moving from the householder’s body to his home, segregation and Untouchability pertain to a similar prosperity process. The idiom here is not nourishment, but kinship, and the rules of Untouchability are directed, accordingly, at the women of the house and at death. According to classical medical texts (Leslie 1994: 67-69), conception takes place when the male seed unites with the ‘female seed’ (shonita), i.e. the 49

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 50 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


uterine blood. Conception cannot take place during the first three days of menstruation, when the flow of this uterine blood is out of control. But for twelve or sixteen days after this critical period the woman is ‘in season’ (ritu) and fit for conception. If she becomes pregnant the foetus blocks the downward passage of the blood, and hence she has no menstruation during her pregnancy. Consequently, her menstruation is a sign of her infertility. Although the medical tradition does not express itself in terms of pollution (ibid.: 69), the situation it describes makes the interpretation of dharmashastra obvious. The menstrual blood is inauspicious and polluting because of the infertility it is evidence of (ibid.: 75). Like faeces, menstruation is seen as a negative element of a prosperity cycle in which it is itself an intimate part. When eventually the woman is delivered of the child, she is again Untouchable, and I would interpret this Untouchability in terms of the bodily crisis of the mother and the newborn, but still unsafe, child, a crisis which, again, is an unavoidable part of prosperity and like fertility/infertility depends on forces outside the sphere of human agency. Death, according to one possible interpretation, renders the whole home Untouchable for the period of ashauca, as the sapinda relatives (the closest relatives) are all part of the process of dying by their relation to the physical body of the deceased. This interpretation is based on the explanation according to which sapinda should be understood as ‘having the same [bodily] particles, that is the same body’ (VijYS 1.52; Kane, vol. 2: 452). The sapinda relatives simply share the same body. The segregation (ashauca) lasts until the dead person has passed from the unsafe and intermediate state as a preta (departed spirit) to that of being able to enjoy the offered rice balls that eventually enable the dead to be installed as an ancestor (pitri) at the sapindikarana ceremony (see Kane, vol. 4: 262, 265, 520-523). So, the Untouchability of the family coincides with the kinship crisis that the immediate period after death entails. When, after ashauca, the dead person has himself been properly ‘segregated’ in the form of another body able to enjoy the offerings, death no longer resides in the home and the family members are pure. Thus, the Untouchability rules of the home reveal that the power of the master of the house depends on his duties in terms of kinship. The Untouchability of the home brackets off elements that, although they are intimate parts of the kinship sphere, are seen as negative, critical or illegitimate in relation to it. The Untouchables of the village or town are the candalas (and 50

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 51 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


similar groups such as shvapacas or pulkasas, these terms seem more or less interchangeable) and people who have been outcasted (patitas) due to severe sins. I shall treat these two groups separately. The permanently Untouchable candalas, etc., are part of a set of practices that are related to the prosperity of the village or town communities. These communities depend on occupational transactions between its various groups. All are instructed to pursue their proper professions diligently, and of course this is of importance for the economic welfare of the area. Although all professions are, in fact, parts of this interaction, some are not recognized as contributing to it in any other sense than as a necessary evil, just like defecation is not recognized as part of the sacrifice/food cycle, but only as a waste product caused by it. Thus, the profession of the candala is to remove the most polluting waste that is produced by the village people both in their homes and through their work, particularly in connection with cremation, latrines (at least later) and litter in the streets (VSS 10.14). As far as the transgressions of the citizens involve the penal system, that is as far as citizens have to be executed or imprisoned, the candela also performs this duty, although this service might have been centralized in larger urban centres (MeMS 10.55; MS 10.56). All these jobs comprise a low-status, negative side of the professional life that makes a community prosper. Although they are necessary for the welfare of the community, they are not recognized as part of a common sphere of mutual transactions, most of them being associated with inauspicious forces, such as death and crimes. Rather, the candalas are explicitly excluded from this sphere. Apastambadharmasutra forbids Brahmins to make any transactions such as trade with patitas and apapatras (candalas, shvapacas and other Untouchables) even during critical times when they are allowed to live by trade with other groups. Likewise Manusmriti 10.53 states that candalas and shvapacas should only make transactions among themselves. Thus, the lawful professions of candalas are not seen as ‘transactions’ within a larger, mutual social economy, but as obligatory services carried out by people who are spatially segregated from the villagers and only allowed among them for this purpose. As an occupational group in the professional life of the village or city community, the position of candalas is structurally like that of the menstruating woman in relation to kinship or saliva in relation to nutrition: an unavoidable part of the actual process, but segregated from its ritualized ideal. In the technical sense of Gautamadharmasutra 21.4-5 an outcast 51

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 52 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


(patita) is a person who, because of severe sins, is deprived of the right to perform the rituals and work that follow by his birth and through his initiation as a twice-born as also of their soteriological rewards. That is to say, it is a person who, for a period of time, has lost the adhikara for the activities that pertain to his jati (not only in the sense of ‘caste’, but also of kinship), including, it seems, the economic rights connected with it (Derrett 1962: 39-40; Kane, vol. 3: 616). But the jati itself, that is the membership of these groups, is not lost if the sinner is willing to undergo the prescribed penance. During this observance the sinner has to live outside the village and is Untouchable (ADhS; BDhS; GDhS 14.30). Loss of jati, that is excommunication, only happens if the sinner refuses to undergo the penance (Kane, vol. 2: 388; vol. 3: 615). So, unlike candalas who are confined permanently outside or at the border of the village or town community, and bracketed by avoidances when they work inside it, patitas have not lost their affiliations to their homes inside these areas completely. But precisely because they retain such affiliations the adhikaras connected with them (in terms of ritual, economy and residence) are bracketed by segregation until their sins are expiated. This is because the invisible effect of sins is not a private affair. Although such effects are not shared by individuals they still affect communities. The very presence of sins within larger domains, like one sinning member within the family or like criminals within the state, hinders the ritual integrity of these larger domains (family, state), and with this the prosperity that such domains yield. Accordingly, it is the family that has to perform the excommunication ritual (ghatasphota, see GDhS 20.2-7; Kane, vol. 2: 388) if the sinner refuses to go through the penance, and the king, the lord of the state, who is responsible for seeing that such a sinner is punished, not only for his sin, but further by being branded on his forehead as a permanent outcast, totally excluded from all association with other people (MS 9.236-39; see also Kane, vol. 4: 71-72). Whereas candalas and patitas who undergo penance are related to the village, mlecchas are defined in terms of the state – but not as geographical outsiders. The notions of Untouchability and segregation are only meaningful inside common domains. Therefore the Untouchability of mlechhas should not simply be seen as a demarcation towards an outside ‘other’, but as a recognition of a shared domain, either in the sense of interaction or in terms of a hegemonic appropriation of the world. The land of the Aryans, Aryavarta, has a privileged place in the 52

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 53 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


world as the land of dharma. This implies ‘a unique ritual, religious and soteriological status’ among other people and other countries (Halbfass 1988: 177). These other people of the world are hegemonized as incomplete or negative in relation to the Aryan dharma. By being without the varna system (VS 84.4) and the rituals prescribed by shruti and smriti, the mlecchas are subordinate in this world order. They have no place in Aryavarta, and if they nevertheless reside there, dharma is weakened (Halbfass 1988: 177). Further, we should be aware of the political role of dharma. That Aryavarta or Bharata is ‘the land of ritual’ (karmabhumi) (ibid.), and ‘fit for sacrifices’ (yajniya) (MS 2.23) should also be understood the other way round: rituals are the means by which land becomes part of this noble country. This, according to the view of Medhatithi (on MS 2.23), also implies the integration into the caste system of the conquered foreigners who as a caste will be regarded as candalas, that is, Untouchable. Barbarians beyond conquest, on the other hand, are also beyond the varna system. The implication of these texts is that, ideally, integration would mean subordination in relation to dharma in the sense of accepting the duties assigned to them as Untouchable castes, and that the ritual and political integrity of the country depends on that. So, in the same manner that the Untouchability of candalas is particularly relevant when they work inside the village, that of the mlecchas seems first of all to be related to those who live within the state. The general pattern that emerges from this exposition is this: A ritualized agent and a ritualized sphere of agency is one that produces prosperity. Prosperity has different aspects according to each particular sphere: food for the body, fertility for the home, wealth or welfare in relation to village and city communities, merit in relation to moral norms of action, and, for the state, subjects who are unified by their acceptance of a common social norm (the caste system) and a minimal common code of action. The ritualization of each sphere implies privileging and segregating single elements, and Untouchability is the mark of segregation applied to elements that are, in reality, indispensable or unavoidable within single spheres. Of course, the way I have isolated these factors as separate paradigms of prosperity entails simplifications. For example it conceals to what extent different factors are interrelated across different domains. In fact, the candala is related to them all: the body as a latrine cleaner, the home as a worker on the cremation grounds, morality when he is 53

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 54 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


explained as the reincarnation of former sinners among the four varnas,18 and the state when he is regarded as a mleccha included in the varna system. More than any other category in the complex system of Untouchability the candala, therefore, represents the total phenomenon. This he does because as the one in the complex who is Untouchable by his profession he is the object of the utilization of the system on broader socio-economic levels.

Permanent Untouchability as a Control of Mobility If we insist on understanding the permanent Untouchable candala in the context of the total complex of other, temporarily Untouchable persons, we also need to point out how this complex is utilized in this particular case. I will suggest that this question is best answered in terms of social mobility and by comparing the case of the candala with that of the shudra artisans. The prevention of the upward mobility of Untouchables and the control of their labour are two sides of the same coin. Both are related to the question of economic exchange between them and the upper varnas. This, in turn, depends on their status as owners and donors of wealth. Manusmriti 10.51 allows candalas to own ‘dogs and donkeys’, and by so doing it actually places them on a scale of ownership which is common to all householders, although at the very bottom of it. They neither own land nor raw materials. It might even mean that they do not get paid in anything other than food for that work they are commanded to perform. As pointed out by Jha (1986: 9), we have no details in the law books of how they were remunerated. But we do have details



The list of such sins is long. These are examples: killing or stealing from a Brahmin (ADhS; MS 12.55), performing a sacrifice with what has been obtained by begging from a shudra (MS 11.24), sex with a Brahmin woman or interpreting the Veda if the sinner is a shudra (PS 1.1.67), showing contempt for preceptors or seniors (PM vol. 2, 2: 229 and 234; AS 10), any sin which causes defilement (malinikarana) (VS 44.9), drinking alcohol (YS 3.207). Likewise, though not in terms of reincarnation, the child which is conceived during the three days of menstruation will be born as a candala (see Leslie 1989: 285).

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 55 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


about how they received food, as shown by the explanations of apapatratva and food transactions discussed above. The fact that candalas and other Untouchable occupational groups do not occur in ancient epigraphic records of donations is a further indication of their insignificance as owners of wealth according to Parui (1961: 10-11).19 Nevertheless, one of the oldest avoidances in relation to candalas is the rule which prevents people from accepting anything given by them (BDhS; MS 11.175; VijYS 3.289, p. 592). They are one of the unworthy donors from whom acceptance of presents is forbidden.20 This indicates that they might not have been totally without wealth. Other groups of unworthy donors are persons from the three upper varnas who have not been initiated in due time (the vratyas), outcasts (VS 57.2-5), persons whose sins have not been expiated by penances, and thieves (Derrett 1962: 44). But apart from these clear cases the rules about persons who cannot be accepted as donors are remarkably (and revealingly) flexible. We must look more closely at these rules in order to understand the economic status of candalas as compared with other groups. Manusmriti 10.115 lays down seven modes of acquiring wealth which are accepted according to dharma. These are: inheritance, treasure trove, purchase, conquest, lending at interest, employment in labour and receiving gifts from virtuous persons. The commentators further remark that of these the first three are open to all four varnas, conquest is only acceptable in case of kshatriyas, lending at interest for vaishyas, labour for the same and for shudras, while the last is only acceptable for Brahmins. The latter restriction is also apparent from the well-known distribution of duties on the four varnas according to which all members of the three upper varnas can give gifts but only Brahmins



For South India the matter is different. Hanumanthan (1979: 157) tells us that paraiyas kept important privileges even as late as during Cola and Vijayanagara rule when they had become Untouchable in that region. As a matter of fact, there are inscriptions from that area and that time which show that some of these paraiyas were sufficiently wealthy to have their donations to the temples recorded (ibid.: 159). ‘With regard to the question of accepting presents, the status of a donor as unworthy is related to his descent or acts, as when he is a candala or a patita’. VijYS 3.289, p. 592.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 56 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


are qualified as receivers of gifts, while shudras, whose only duty is to serve the twice-born, are neither qualified as receivers nor as givers (MS 1.88-91). That means that only persons of the three upper varnas qualify as ‘virtuous givers’, shudras do not. However, the position of shudras in relation to these rules became increasingly ambiguous in spite of the ideal formulations. For instance shudras were entitled to perform penances, but when they did so they had to pay a larger fee (dakshina) and observe less penance than sinners from the upper varnas (see for instance PS 2.10.5-8, 11.1-3). Although a dakshina is not the same as a gift (dana), primarily in that dakshina is obligatory (Malamoud 1976: 164), these rules show that shudras were seen as possessors of wealth. That this, indeed, is the situation is also recorded in Manusmriti 10.110 which compares the three vocations of Brahmins, sacrificing, teaching and accepting gifts, saying that the latter is the lowest because this may involve receiving gifts even from shudras. So although shudras were not among the ideal givers, Brahmins were liable to accept their gifts. In spite of the directions in Manusmriti 1.91 that the only acceptable duty of shudras is to serve the twice-born, shudras worked to a large extent within various crafts. In Manusmriti 10.99-100 this opportunity is only allowed for shudras who are not able to sustain themselves by serving the twice-born, but in practice this was not the case (Sharma 1990: 199). On the contrary, and precisely because of their position within these crafts, shudras, although excluded from Vedic ritual and knowledge, could not be prevented from having their share of the prosperity which followed general economic growth within trade, urban development and agriculture (Sharma 1990: 199-201, 262-268). Brahmins, on the other hand, with all their Vedic authority, were restricted by an ideal code from involving themselves directly in such activities (although concessions for poor Brahmins are frequently mentioned, see for instance MS 10.81-94) but had to depend mainly on the extent to which other sections of society were in need of their religious and intellectual expertise or inclined to donate wealth (thereby gaining respect and soteriological merit). One can hardly avoid seeing in this contrast a reason for the special attitude in the law books towards the wealth of shudras. Manusmriti 10.129 is particularly explicit: ‘A shudra should not hoard wealth although he may have the capacity. For, a shudra who has acquired wealth harasses the Brahmins’. Both Bharuci and Medhatithi discuss the possibility that this ‘harassment’ consists in the sin, which a rich shudra might be said to incur 56

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 57 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


by making a Brahmin accept gifts from an unworthy giver and thereby become instrumental in what might be seen as the Brahmin’s fall from dharma. And both reject this interpretation saying that if the shudra fulfils his dharma in other respects, that is, if only he serves the twiceborn obediently, he commits no sin by donating his wealth to the Brahmins. Bharuci even refers to shraddha (ancestor rituals), saying that if there was any harm in accepting presents from shudras they would not be able to perform the shraddha which involves presenting the Brahmins with dakshinas. Thus, although the commentators acknowledge the resistance to the possibility that shudras may work within occupations in which they are able to make a more profitable livelihood than serving twice-born, they also seem to recognize that facts are different and to be willing to bend the rules accordingly. This is also expressed in the idea of the progressing degeneration caused by the course of the yugas (eons). The present degenerate kali age is precisely characterized in the texts both by an unjust increase in gain (MS 1.82, see also Bühler’s footnote), that is the gain of those who should not accumulate wealth, and by the ethics which make liberality (dana) (towards Brahmins) the special duty of that age (MS 1.86). As Glucklich (1988: 22) remarks with respect to the role of the king, ‘[the] function of the king, simply put, is to take the gain out of vice and restore it to those who obey dharma’ (see also Lingat 1962: 14-15). The heart of this conflict between Brahmins who want to maintain control over the work of shudras and shudra artisans who are, in fact, capable of amassing wealth is, I would suggest, about preventing the upward mobility of subordinate sections. Shudra artisans continued to be of major importance in the state economy during the medieval periods, like they were in the earlier phases (Sharma 1990: 199-201, 262268) whenever trade was expanding or large temple building projects were carried out. But for the Untouchables the situation was quite different. The functions, which were allotted to these groups by the texts (and summarized above), did not yield any return beyond the mere necessities of life, but can best be described as indispensable public service functions, jobs that, although they were highly needed, gave no access to any upward mobility. On the contrary, such mobility would have hindered the control of this labour force. Thus, the avoidance of receiving anything from them, more than other avoidances, emphasized the economic aspects of segregation. By being excluded from economic transactions their service was secured. 57

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 58 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Probably these services did not only or even mainly consist of the more ceremonial duties prescribed in the texts, but, as known from later times, also unskilled labour within agriculture and construction activities.21 However, such duties are only very rarely alluded to.22 The reason for this is probably not that candalas or paraiyas survived merely by cleaning the cremation grounds or beating drums in funeral processions, but rather can be explained in terms of the Hocartian distinction, particularly emphasized by Quigley (1993: 10), between ‘ritual function’ and actual occupation. In the normative texts of dharmashastra these groups are always referred to by their ceremonial or public functions because these functions are the dharmic norm, the svadharma of the Untouchables, notwithstanding the possibility that agricultural labour has been the primary livelihood of such groups – and the primary demand of those in control.

Conclusion Untouchability in the law books cannot be explained simply in terms of impurity and status. Even early on the group of Untouchable persons comprises an exclusive category in this literature. ‘Impurity’ and ‘low status’, being inclusively applicable to a large range of interactions, do not catch the exclusive character of Untouchability. We must remember that only very few of the avoidances that apply to the different Untouchable persons in these texts (candalas, menstruating women etc.) also apply to larger sections of society. These are only the rules restricting sexual relations and food transactions. But all the remaining avoidances that have been described briefly above apply exclusively to Untouchable persons and thus form a separate complex. In contrast to general considerations of purity, then, Untouchability is particularly related to notions of inauspiciousness, and thus to

21 22


See Charsley, this volume, for an overview of these occupational categories. One example is a medieval hagiographic description of the paraiya hamlet where Nantanar, one of the nayanmars (Tamil Shaivite saints), was born (quoted from K.A.N. Sastri in Hanumanthan 1979: 166-167). Here the paraiyas are mentioned as agrarian labourers.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 59 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


ritually constituted domains of prosperity, competence and ownership. I have suggested that this paradigm was developed within a domestic domain before it was projected on demographic groups in the larger society. But due to the basic relation between Untouchability, prosperity and ownership an economic utilization of the paradigm with respect to these larger groups followed naturally from the basic axioms. This economic pragmatism did not belong to a sphere of ‘real social facts’ separate from its legitimation in the form of a magical belief in ritual pollution. On the other hand, the religious concerns of dharmashastra were intertwined through and through with pragmatic concerns for the prosperity of the householder, his own body, his family, village, country and king. Abbreviations ADhS ApYS AS ASh BDhS CVCM GDhS KS MBhash MeMS MS PM PS VDhS VijYS VS VSS YS

Apastambadharmasutra The Apararka commentary on Yajnavalkyasmriti Atrismriti Arthashastra Baudhayanadharmasutra Caturvargacintamani by Hemadri Gautamadharmasutra Katyayanasmriti Mahabhashya by Patanjali Medhatithi’s commentary on Manusmriti, entitled Manubhashya Manusmriti Madhavacarya’s commentary on Parasharasmriti, entitled Parasharamadhaviya Parasharasmriti Vasishthadharmasutra Vijnaneshvara’s commentary on Yajnavalkyasmriti, entitled Mitakshara Vishnusmriti Vaikhanasasmartasutra Yajnavalkyasmriti


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 60 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


References Aktor, Mikael (1999) ‘Smritis and Jatis: The Ritualisation of Time and the Continuity of the Past’, in Daud Ali & Avril Powell (eds.), Invoking the Past: Uses of History in South Asia. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 258-279. –– (2002) ‘Rules of Untouchability in ancient and medieval law books: Householders, competence, and inauspiciousness’. International Journal of Hindu Studies, vol. 6, no. 3: 243-274. Apastambadharmasutra. Ed. G. Bühler, 3rd edn. Pune: The Department of Public Instruction, 1932. –– transl. G. Bühler, [The Sacred Books of the East, 2], 1879. –– with the commentary of Haradatta. Umesha Candra Pandeya (ed.). Varanasi: Chaukhamba, 1992. Atrismriti. Entitled ‘Atrisamhita’, in Hari Narayana Apte (ed.), Smritinam Samuccayah. Pune: Anandashrama, 1905, 9-27. Baudhayanadharmasutra. Ed. E. Hultzsch, 2nd edn. Nendeln: Kraus Reprint, 1966. –– transl. G. Bühler, [The Sacred Books of the East, 14], 1882. Bell, Catherine (1992) Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York: Oxford University Press. Brinkhaus, Horst (1978) Die altindischen Mischkastensysteme. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag. Caturvargacintamani (Prayashcittakhanda). Ed. Pramatha Natha Tarkabhushana. Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1911. Chakravarti, Uma (1987) The Social Dimension of Early Buddhism. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Derrett, J. Duncan M. (1962) ‘The Development of the Concept of Property in India c. A.D. 800-1800’. Zeitschrift für vergleichende Rechtswissenschaft, vol. 64: 15-130. –– (1973) Dharmashastra and Juridical Literature. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz. –– (1976) Essays in Classical and Modern Hindu Law, vol. 1: Dharmashastra and Related Ideas. Leiden: E.J. Brill. Douglas, Mary (1984) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concept of Pollution and Taboo, Reprint. London: Ark Paperbacks. Dumont, Louis (1980) Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and its Implications, Rev. English edn. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 60

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 61 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Fick, Richard (1897) Die Sociale Gliederung im nordöstlichen Indien zu Buddha’s Zeit. Kiel: C.F. Haeseler. Gautamadharmasutra. Ed. A. F. Stenzler. London: Trübner, 1876. –– transl. G. Bühler, [The Sacred Books of the East, 2], 1879. –– with the commentary of Haradatta. Umesh Chandra Pandey (ed.). Varanasi: Chowkhamba, 1966. Glucklich, Ariel (1988) Religious Jurisprudence in the Dharmashastra. New York: Macmillan. Halbfass, Wilhelm (1988) India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding. Albany: State University of New York Press. Hanumanthan, K. R. (1979) Untouchability: A historical study up to 1500 A.D. (with special reference to Tamil Nadu). Madurai: Koodal Publishers. Inden, Ronald (1985) ‘Kings and Omens’, in John B. Carman & Frédérique Apffel Marglin (eds.), Purity and Auspiciousness in Indian Society. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 30-40. –– (1992) Imagining India. Paperback edn. Cambridge, MA and Oxford: Blackwell. Jha, Vivekanand N. (1975) ‘Stages in the History of Untouchability’. The Indian Historical Review, vol. 2, no. 1: 14-31. –– (1986) ‘Candala and the Origin of Untouchability’. The Indian Historical Review, vol. 13, no. 1-2: 1-36. Kane, Pandurang Vaman (1968-1977) History of Dharmashastra (Ancient and Mediæval Religious and Civil Law), 5 vols., 2nd edn. Pune: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. Kangle, R. P. (1968) ‘The Relative Age of the Gautamadharmasutra’, in Mélanges d’Indianisme a la mémoire de Louis Renou. Paris: Éditions E. de Boccard, 415-425. Katyayanasmriti. Ed. and transl. P. V. Kane. Mumbai, 1933. Lariviere, Richard W. (1988) ‘Adhikara – Right and Responsibility’, in M. A. Jazayery & W. Winter (eds.), Languages and Cultures: Studies in honor of Edgar C. Polomé. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 359-364. Leslie, I. Julia (1989) The Perfect Wife: The Orthodox Hindu Woman according to the Stridharmapaddhati of Tryambakayajvan. Delhi: Oxford University Press. –– (1994) ‘Some Traditional Indian Views on Menstruation and Female Sexuality’, in Roy Porter & Mikuláš Teich (eds.), Sexual Knowledge, Sexual Science: The History of Attitudes to Sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 63-81. 61

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 62 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


–– (2003) Authority and Meaning in Indian Religions: Hinduism and the Case of Valmiki. Hants and Burlington, VT: Ashgate. Lingat, Robert (1962) ‘Time and the Dharma (On Manu I, 85-86)’. Contributions to Indian Sociology, vol. 6: 7-16. –– (1993) The Classical Law of India, Reprint. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal. Mahabhashya. Ed. F. Kielhorn, 3rd edn. 3 vols. Pune: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1962-1972. Malamoud, Charles (1976) ‘Terminer le sacrifice: Remarques sur les honoraires rituels dans le brahmanisme’, in Madeleine Biardeau & Charles Malamoud (eds.), Le sacrifice dans l’Inde ancienne. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 155-204. Manusmriti. Transl. Georg Bühler, [The Sacred Books of the East, 25], 1886. –– with the commentary of Bharuci (MS 6-12). J. D. M. Derrett (ed., transl.), 2 vols. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1975. –– with the commentary of Kullaka. Narayan Ram (ed.), 10th edn. Mumbai 1946: Nirnaya Sagar. –– with the commentary of Medhatithi. Ganganatha Jha (ed.), 3 vols. Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1932-1939. –– with the commentary of Medhatithi. Ganganatha Jha (transl.), 5 vols. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1920-1926. Mukherjee, Prabhati (1974) ‘Towards Identification of Untouchable Groups in Ancient India, as Enumerated in Sanskrit Lexicons’. Journal of the Asiatic Society, vol. 16, no. 1: 1-14. –– (1988) Beyond the Four Varnas: The Untouchables in India. Shimla and Delhi: Indian Institute of Advanced Studies and Motilal Banarsidass. Parasharasmriti. Krishnakamal Bhattacharya (transl.). Calcutta: The Asiatic Society, 1887. –– with the commentary of Madhavacarya. Vaman Shastri Islamapurkar (ed.). Mumbai: The Department of Public Instruction, 1893-1919. Parry, Jonathan (1980) ‘Ghost, Greed and Sin: The Occupational Identity of the Benares Funeral Priests’. Man (NS), vol. 15: 88-111. Parui, Sasanka Sekhar (1961) ‘Untouchability in the Early Indian Society’. Journal of Indian History, vol. 39: 1-11. Quigley, Declan (1993) The Interpretation of Caste. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 63 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Sharma, Ram Sharan (1990) Shudras in Ancient India: A Social History of the Lower Order down to circa A.D. 600, 3rd edn. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. Vaikhanasasmartasutra. Ed. and transl. W. Caland, 2 vols. Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1927 and 1929. Vasishthadharmasutra. Ed. A. A. Führer. Mumbai: The Department of Public Instruction, 1883. –– transl. G. Bühler, [The Sacred Books of the East, 14], 1882. Vishnusmriti. Transl. J. Jolly, [The Sacred Books of the East, 7], 1880. –– with extracts from the commentary of Nandapandita. J. Jolly (ed.), [The Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series, 95], Reprint. Varanasi: Chowkhamba, n.d. (1st edn. 1881). Yajnavalkyasmriti. Ed. and transl. A. F. Stenzler, Reprint. Osnabrück: Biblio Verlag, 1970. –– with the commentary of Vijnaneshvara. Umesha Candra Pandey (ed.). Varanasi: Chowkhamba, 1967.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 64 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie

3. Eleanor Zelliot

THE EARLY VOICES OF UNTOUCHABLES The Bhakti Saints The presence of poet saints from all walks of life is one of the hallmarks of the Bhakti (devotional religion) movement which began in South India in the seventh century and left an imprint in the following centuries on most language areas in the sub-continent. Brahmans and low castes, farmers, cobblers, tailors, drummers and even Muslims in some areas joined in the passionate singing of religious experience. In at least three language areas, Tamil, Marathi and Hindi, saint-poets from Untouchable castes are counted among those remembered in legend and song. Each of these saints from the lowest of castes is surrounded by stories which give one an intense sense of real persons. All but one have left songs and poems which tell of devotion but also at times are a revelation of the mind of an Untouchable. In the Tamil-speaking area in about the eigth or ninth century, the Untouchable panar1 Tiruppan is heralded as a devotee of Vishnu among the twelve Alvars and the Untouchable pulai or pulayan Nantanar (or Nandanar), sometimes referred to as a paraiyan,2 is counted one of the sixty-three Nayanars, devotees of Shiva. In the fourteenth century, the




Panar or Panan is an Untouchable caste chiefly concerned with agricultural labour, but also traditional bards. The first use of a caste name will be italicized; subsequent uses capitalized but in regular type. The pulai were agricultural labour and singers. Our English word ‘pariah’ is a reflection of the importance as well as the low status of the paraiya caste. The name is probably from the Tamil word for drum, and the caste duties including drumming as well as service as labourers.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 65 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Untouchable mahar3 Cokhamela and his entire family – wife, son, sister and brother-in-law – became honoured members of the Marathi-speaking pantheon of poet-saints. A century later, Ravidas or Raidas, a camar4 from Varanasi, became one of the best known of saints in the Hindi tradition. The work of these saints and the legends about them constitute an intriguing part of hierarchical Hinduism. What do those who are seen as polluting and beneath association or respect, have to say, teach, and sing about the divine? How do the legends about them reconcile their low place in society with the high regard in which they are held as religious figures? The presence of these Untouchable saints represents the belief which emerged in the Bhakti movement that a human being from any caste, man or woman, could be beloved of God, or if God was considered to be formless (nirgun), then filled with the knowledge of the divine. In many of the legends about these saints, God shows special favour, even works a miracle, for those who were not allowed to enter the temple. Tiruppan Alvar was carried into the temple on the back of a Brahman instructed to do so by God. The stone image of Shiva’s bull, Nandi, was commanded by the Lord to move to one side so that Nantanar could see the image of God, even though he had to remain outside the temple. The statue of Viththal at Pandharpur was found to have a swollen cheek after a blow was given to Cokhamela by an indignant Brahman who overheard him talking to the Lord. The image of Hari leapt into Ravidas’ arms and his aniconic stone symbol of the God floated in water. The legends claim that God accepted the devotion of these bhaktas, even when their contemporaries did not. And in Maharashtra and the North, Cokhamela and Ravidas were accepted by their fellow bhaktas (although not at first by the orthodox) and more legends bear this out. The differences in the poetry of the Untouchable saints are in



The large caste of Mahars in the Marathi-speaking area were, in British parlance, ‘inferior village servants’, with some duties, such as dragging out dead cattle from the village, which were polluting but others which simply involved service to the village. The Chamar caste (which has many sub-castes) extends throughout the North, with a Chambhar component in Maharashtra. Leather working has been their time honoured traditional occupation.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 66 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


some ways more apparent than the similarity of legends about them. The Tamil saints do not mention their caste; we know it only through legend. While Tiruppan Alvar left a long paean to Vishnu, we have no song from Nantanar. Cokhamela and his family, on the other hand, are totally different. They use the caste name Mahar with frequency and mourn their low-caste status. There is an enormous volume of Marathi songs from this family: 192 for Cokhamela, 62 for his wife, 24 for her sister and 39 for her husband and 27 from his often angry son have survived in the canon of Marathi saint literature, together with 157 added later to the original (but contemporary) collection.5 Ravidas is somewhere in between, stating the fact that his caste was leather working but not dwelling on his hardships. In addition to the poetry that we have, in all three language areas, later authors have gathered stories and legends in such quantity that we actually have a sense of the lives of these saints, their sufferings, their triumphs. * A few definitions and explanations are in order. I use the word ‘saint’ advisedly. The Hindi/Marathi term sant is used for a holy man, a mendicant of pious behaviour, and in recent bhakti studies for nirgun bhakti practitioners, those devoted to the Formless One. The pioneering volume edited by Karine Schomer and W. H. McLeod, The Sants (1987), rejects the use of the word ‘saint’. But the book by John Stratton Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer published the next year is titled Songs of the Saints of India. ‘Sant’ does not seem to be used in Tamil and a 1988 study by Vidya Deheja is entitled Slaves of the Lord: The Path of the Tamil Saints. Molesworth’s classic Marathi dictionary defines ‘sant’ as ‘saint’. ‘Saint’ seems appropriate not only because it is becoming freely used in translations and studies, but also because ‘saint’ indicates a person of godly temperament, one whose behaviour is beyond question and who is



Shrisakalsantgatha (a collection of all the saints’ songs) is as near a canon of Marathi sant literature as we have. There are not the collections of medieval sources that one finds in Rajasthan for Ravidas’ work. The Marathi collection was made by Shrinanamaharaj Sakhre and edited by Kashinath Anant Joshi, published in Pune first in 1923, with a second edition in 1967 containing additional songs by Cokhamela.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 67 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


genuinely ‘good’. In contrast to the ideal ‘guru’, a master who can enlighten a disciple regardless of his or her own personal characteristics, the bhakti saint behaves in a pious way, and certainly these Untouchable saints are models of saintly demeanour. * The ‘Bhakti movement’, the phrase with which I began this introduction, requires a longer explanation.6 While bhakti in the sense of sharing with God, yoked to God, devotion to God, is a dominant concept at least as old in texts as the Bhagavad Gita and probably a religious practice of much greater antiquity, the word ‘movement’ implies a historic sense. Shaiva bhakti ‘moves’ from the Tamil region in the seventh to ninth centuries to its neighbouring Kannada-speaking region in the eleventh, although one can trace no direct links. Marathi bhakti emerges in the late thirteenth century with a centre in a town also holy to Kannada speakers, although Marathi poets pay no tribute to either the Shaiva or Vaishnava Kannada traditions. One can find many traces of a Marathi-Hindi connection. A Namdev who many think is the same as the Marathi area Namdev travelled to the North to emerge as a voice in the collected songs of the Sikhs along with another Maratha, Trilochan. By the eighteenth century, the Brahman biographer of all the Marathi-speaking saints, Mahipati, could include many Hindispeaking saints in his collection of hundreds of stories, among them Tulsidas, Mirabai, Kabir and Rohidas (Marathi usage for Ravidas or Raidas); he included the Gujarati Narsi Mehta as well. In the Padma Purana, Uttara Khanda, Bhakti speaks: ‘I was born in the Dravida country, matured in Karnataka, spent my youth wandering in Maharashtra, attained old age in Gujarat’ (Dehejia 1988: Dedication). While the links between the regions are not always clear, there are ‘bench marks’ or commonalties in the bhakti literature of the various language areas which mark the Bhakti movement as a historical phe-


My essay ‘The Medieval Bhakti Movement in History – An Essay on the Literature in English’ was an attempt to explain the nature of the historic component of bhakti together with an annotated bibliography of the English sources available in the 1970s. It appeared in Smith 1976.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 68 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


nomenon in a way which, for example, the concept of advaita vedanta (non-Dualistic philosophy) is not. These are: • Acceptance of all castes and women into the fold of saints; in no other religious literature from the Indian sub-continent do the actual voices of Untouchables appear until the modern period. • The importance of the authors of the songs, with legends about each author. In most cases, the saint ‘signs’ his poem with his or her own name, although the Tamil song of Tiruppan Alvar is an exception. The legends of the saints were collected a century, even centuries, later after their lives in all three traditions – Tamil, Marathi and Hindi – showing how closely linked are the lives of the saints with their songs. The authors of much other religious literature are not known or, as in the cases of the epic authors, Vyas and Valmiki, legendary. • In the three traditions represented here, Tamil, Marathi and Hindi, knowledge of a circle of saints, a companionship or a fellowship, expressed often in the songs themselves, but always at least in the later collections of the saints’ lives. • A critical attitude towards orthodox religion, expressed harshly at times, in most bhaktas’ songs, although this is not true of the Tamil Untouchables. There are no recorded songs of Nantanar and only one of Tiruppan and that is not critical, but since anti-orthodoxy is generally true of other bhakti saints, one wonders! • Usually some sort of ongoing institution: a pilgrimage in Maharashtra, a new sect in Karnataka, a new religion in the Punjab, a host of organizations owing devotion to one or another of the Hindi-area saints, bhajan sessions in Tamil country, the presence of rows of statues of the Nayanars in or just outside Tamil temples, etc. • The vernacular as the medium used by the bhaktas. In Marathi and Hindi, the songs are among the first vernacular literature of the area. • Personal experience as the basis for the bhaktas’ songs.

The Tamil Saints – Tiruppan Alvar Bhakti in its medieval form of identifiable saint-poets singing of God in the tongue of their area emerged in the Tamil country in the seventh to ninth centuries. The Tamil Shaiva saints, called the Nayanars, num68

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 69 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


bered sixty-three and included court aristocrats, Brahmans, peasants, an Untouchable and a woman. The circle of Vaishnava saint-poets of the same period, the twelve Alvars, although far fewer in number, also included a range of classes and castes. Tamil was already a literary language by the time the saint-poets appeared, but the content of that literature was didactic, romantic and heroic. The saint-poets added a vast quantity of more specifically religious poetry dedicated to the worship of Shiva or Vishnu. Both Shaiva and Vaishnava Bhakti movements were legitimized (or perhaps engulfed would be the better word) by larger schools of religious identity, the Alvars into the Shrivaishnavas, the Nayanars into the Shaiva Siddhanta. The hymns of the saint-poets and the legends about them were canonized by various hagiographies and collections several centuries after the saints lived. It seems no separate non-conformist strain of bhakti remains in the South, but even so the lives of the Untouchable saints, Tiruppan Alvar of the Vaishnavas and Nantanar of the Shaivas, have considerable social importance in this century. Tiruppan Alvar (eighth to ninth century CE) was perhaps the earliest Untouchable poet within the Hindu tradition to be thought of as a saint. His poem in praise of the Vaishnava image of Ranganathan at Shrirangam was introduced into temple and home worship by the eleventh century and is still recited in all Shrivaishnava temples as part of the daily liturgy. Although the Shrivaishnava community hailed him as the paradigmatic devotee, it did not allow other Untouchables to enter the temples. Tiruppan Alvar, like the woman devotee Antal, was considered to be an exception to the normal social order. Tiruppan Alvar’s name reveals his identity, although the given name of the poet has not been retained. Tiru is an honorary term of respect. Pan means song and so Panar or Panan indicates a bard or a singer.7 Alvar, the title given by the Shrivaishnavas to the twelve poetsaints, means those deeply immersed in the love of God. The name reveals that Tiruppan Alvar is the poet-saint, worshipper of Vishnu,


See Hart 1975 and 1976 for an interesting discussion of the importance of the low-caste bard and the influence of Southern bardic literature on Deccan poetry.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 70 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


who belonged to the class of Untouchable bards. Tiruppan is the only Alvar known by his clan or caste by his very name.8 A biography of Tiruppan Alvar appears in each of five collections of the lives of the Alvars written between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries.9 The stories in these collections are traditional hagiographies, a combination of fact and myth. According to most, Tiruppan Alvar was born near Shrirangam, just across the river from the temple town. He was an incarnation of the mole on Vishnu’s chest, born in a class lower than the four varnas or, in some legends, found in a rice field by a man from the Panar caste. His singing, a gift traditionally associated with Panars was exceptionally sweet, but he was not able to go to Shrirangam to see the Lord he sang about. The goddess Lakshmi asked the Lord to bring Tiruppan into the inner temple, but Tiruppan refused because of his impurity and a second time refused because of his sins. But the Lord then instructed a Brahmin, Loka Saranga Muni, to put the Panar on his shoulders and bring him into the inner sanctum of Shrirangam. So, riding on the shoulders of a Brahman, Tiruppan was brought into the temple. In this way the devotee was rewarded with the sight of the Lord but did not set foot on temple ground. As he gazed at the Lord, here called Ranganathan, he sang the ten songs of the experience of looking at the Lord from foot to head, beginning with praise for his feet and ending with his mouth (with the image of the child Krishna’s eating butter) in the tenth song. Then Tiruppan disappeared into the sacred feet of the image of the Lord. In a corollary story, crucial in the twentieth century but not found in the medieval biographies, the Muni went to the river to fetch water for the bathing of the Lord, found Tiruppan there immersed in song and asked him to move away. Tiruppan did not hear him, and the Muni




This information and much else about Tiruppan Alvar in this essay comes from an unpublished article by Vasudha Narayanan, ‘Tiruppan alvar: Life, Lyrics and Legacy’. Her paper was first given at a panel on Untouchable saints at the Association for Asian Studies, 1992, and Narayan (1992) in the text indicates that manuscript. I have used her work with great appreciation, but any errors in interpretation are my own. See Hardy 1991 for an analysis of all the Tamil hagiographies and also for an interpretation of the Southern and Northern branches of Shrivaishnavism in relationship to the Untouchable Alvar.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 71 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


threw a stone at Tiruppan, who bled profusely. When the Muni carried the water into the temple, he found the forehead of the image of the Lord covered in blood. In the contemporary Amar Chitra Katha comic book retelling of the story, the priest hit Tiruppan on the head with his stick. The comic book also gives a Northern character to the story by relating that the child was abandoned by his parents and raised not by bards but by a ‘sweeper’, a change which reflects a North Indian stereotype of a sort of generic bhangi. In contrast to other Alvars, Tiruppan does not leave a signature name. His long poem is a straightforward panegyric, praising Ranganathan as the manifestation of Vishnu in the Shrirangam temple. There is no reference to caste in Tiruppan’s lyric, although it is possible that ‘slave of slaves’ refers to his status. I reproduce the first and last verses here from a published source10 so that the reader can have access to the entire poem. I Pure primordial lord, radiant god who has made me a slave of slaves; flawless overlord of angels who lives in Venkata of fragrant groves; sinless dweller in righteous heaven our dear father, here in Arangam of long high rampart walls: It seems as if his lovely lotus feet have come and entered my eyes!


Hopkins 1993. Hopkins tells us that Tiruppan poured out praises for the God in Song for eighty years before he merged with the Lord. He also indicates that the Northern Vatakalai version of Tiruppan Alvar’s story emphasizes a miraculous birth outside a womb, and he tells us that in some stories the prayers of the king and the rituals of Brahmans did not stop the bleeding of the image of Ranganathan after a stone was thrown at Tiruppan Alvar.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 72 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


X As the cowherd boy his mouth ate the sweet butter: that Lord the colour of a rain cloud entered me, ravished my heart. Ruler of all worlds, jewel of Arangam these eyes, seeing him, my nectar, will never see anything else. At this moment Tiruppan Alvar disappeared into the feet of the Lord of Shrirangam. Narayanan (1992, 1994: 66-79) describes an Untouchable community in Bangalore which is devoutly Shrivaishnava. The first temple in their area was to ‘their’ bhakta, Tiruppan Alvar, but the chief worship and the main temple is for Nammalvar, the most beloved of the Alvars. It is quite possible that the community consists of descendants of Untouchables converted to Shrivaishnavism by the eleventh-century Ramanuja and given special privileges by him of temple entry, which are not used today. Although a poem by Nammalvar would indicate acceptance of Untouchable saints as equals (Ramanujan 1981: 60), The four castes uphold all clans; go down, far down to the lowliest outcastes of outcastes: if they are the intimate henchmen of our lord with the wheel in his right hand, his body dark as blue sapphire, then even the slaves of their slaves are our masters. 72

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 73 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Narayanan (1992) ends her unpublished essay: ‘For them [the Bangalore Untouchable community of Shrivaishnavas], bhakti transcends all dharmic prescriptions; bhakti transcends Manu and cohorts. Tiruppan Alvar, Antal, and the other alvars would agree; however a thousand years of Srivaisnava devotees have agreed in theory, but not in practice’.

The Tamil Saints – Nantanar In Tamil Shaiva bhakti, the list of saints, the Nayanars, is much longer – sixty-three in number – and in contrast to other circles of saint-poets, many were not composers of hymns. The Untouchable Nantanar (also transliterated as Nandanar) is among the Shaiva saints who are remembered by deeds, not songs. The hagiographic work that is basic to Tamil Shaiva bhakti is the twelfth-century collection of Cekkilar, whose Periya Puranam tells of the character and deeds of each saint. All sixty-three are acknowledged in statues in the courtyards of Shaiva temples.11 Nantanar was born in a pulai (or pulayan) community just outside the town of Atanur on the Coleroom River, in the Pulaippadi, the living quarters of the Pulaiyas. It is described by Cekkikar in graphic terms: dark children with bracelets of black iron, a labourer sending her baby to sleep on a sheet of leather, drums hung from mango trees, crows crowing before dawn to call the Pulaiyan to their day’s work, the women staggering in intoxication in a dance after husking paddy (Manickam 1990: 20-21). The hamlet was ‘thick with kith and kin, the thatched huts connected by green gourd creepers spreading across their roofs’.12 Nantanar was a village servant, a watchman, a town crier who beat the drum and provided skin coverings for the drums in the temples of the Lord and worked in the fields as well. From birth he was ‘endowed both with prior knowledge of Shiva and with a character that was suited to his



I was prevented from entering the outskirts of a Shaiva temple in Chennai to photograph the statue of Nantanar even though it was explained to the guard that he was an Untouchable and so should have been in a place open to me! See Pechalis 1992. Her work has been of great help to me, but any interpretation of the material that is incorrect is my error, not hers.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 74 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


hereditary station in life [...] he excelled at the traditional agricultural duties [...]’ (Pechalis 1992). Nantanar not only made musical instruments out of leather, such as the drum and strings for the vina, he would sing and dance outside the Shaiva temple. One day he set out on a pilgrimage to see Shiva at Tiruppunkur. He could only stand at the entrance to the temple and his view of Shiva was obstructed by the image of Shiva’s bull, Nandi. Shiva granted Nantanar darshan (a sight of the Lord) by moving the bull to one side. Nantanar was in ecstasy – and began to visit many temples. For him, Chidambaram was the most sacred place in Tamil country but because of his polluting status, he put off the trip, saying ‘I will go tomorrow’. This phrase has become one of his alternative names, ‘he who will go tomorrow’. Eventually, Nantanar went to Chidambaram and circled the temple night and day, longing to see Shiva Nataraj. Then, hearing Shiva’s voice in a dream, he entered a fire which was built at the temple entrance, emerged as a Brahman on the other side, entered the temple and merged with the image of the dancing Shiva. The story of Nantanar continues to be told. In the nineteenth century, Gopalakrishna Bharati wrote the Nantanar Charitram (the story of Nantanar), a dramatic rendering of Cekkilar’s classic, but with emphasis on the social disabilities endured by Nantanar’s caste. Bharati used the term ‘May I come’ as the first word of his drama and as a refrain, a reference to the legend that Nantanar had to shout this request at the entrance of each street as a warning to high-caste people. In spite of, or perhaps because of its social message, Younger (1995: 226) reports: ‘One of the most beloved of Tamil operas is the Nandanar Charitram of Gopalkrishna Bharati, which elaborates on the story of the watchman who could never get to see the Dancing Image until he was found one day in the sacrificial fire of the priests’. There have also been more contemporary adaptations of the story. Manickam (1990: 14-17) reports that K. B. Sundarambal staged the story several times; a Tamil film on Nantanar starred Dandapani Desigar; N. S. Krishnan popularized the Nantanar story through a narrative art form; and A. Padmanaban published Saint Nandanaar, a small booklet for school children. Manickam adds information on Bharati’s drama, noting that Bharati’s Nantanar was a rebel and that Bharati added a Brahmin landlord to the story to represent conflicting social orders. Manickam concludes that while the medieval biography was a justifica74

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 75 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


tion of the status quo, Bharati’s purpose was to ‘mitigate the tyranny of caste through awareness-building’. Karen Pechalis (1992) reports that a water tank in Chidambaram is considered holy because it is believed to be the spot where Nantanar emerged from the fire. There is also a small recently built temple to Nantanar in the south-west corner of the town, which means that ‘Nantanar has become the temple’. Lynn Vincentnathan’s field work in a community near Chidambaram offers more information on the meaning of Nantanar today (Vincentnathan 1993: 164-172). She interviewed both Paraiyas and caste Hindus and discovered striking differences in their versions of the stories. Caste Hindu legends of Nantanar often make him an anomaly as an Untouchable; he is in their versions a Brahmin or perhaps even the God himself somehow encased in an Untouchable’s body, coming to his proper being through fire. Other legends told by caste Hindus stress Nantanar’s acceptance of caste rules, his obedience to his master, his unwillingness to try to enter the temple. Untouchables, however, have no problem believing the Untouchable Nantanar’s piety. His troubles are all caused by Brahmans; God is always on his side. ‘For Untouchables, their versions of the Nandanar legend fits in with what they know about themselves – that they are capable of religiosity comparable or superior to that of caste Hindus’ (1993: 174). The film version of Nantanar’s life shows him absorbed into God’s thigh; however, these Untouchable devotees prefer to think of him ‘swallowed by God’. A touching image in the mind of one informant interprets the sashes floating on either side of the image of Shiva Nataraj at Chidambaram to be the legs of Nandanar, symbolizing the merging of the saint with the God (1993: 172). It should be added that for younger Untouchables, Nandanar is not much of a hero today. They have other heroes, such as Dr B. R. Ambedkar13 and either do not know much about or are not interested in the obedient Nantanar.


For the reasons for the importance of Dr Ambedkar, see Zelliot 1998. It is interesting that Ambedkar dedicated his book entitled The Untouchables (New Delhi: Amrit Book Company, 1948), which documents the idea that Untouchables were former Buddhists, to the memory of ‘Nandnar, Ravidas, Chokhamela – Three renowned saints who were born among the Untouchables and who by their piety and virtue won the esteem of all’.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 76 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Cokhamela, His Family and the Marathi Tradition As is customary in the Marathi tradition, Cokhamela was a householder, and the fact that his wife, son, sister and brother-in-law also were saints and poets is also not unusual for the many saint-poets in the Maharashtrian area.14 But the very volume of their poetry, and their extraordinary consciousness of their caste status, gives us considerable insight into the ethos of the time as well as their own devotion to the God Viththal or Vithoba of Pandharpur. Although the manuscript findings for Marathi are not nearly as full or authentic as those found in Rajasthan for the Hindi-area sants, we are fortunate in having a compendium of all the saints’ poetry, appropriately titled Shrisakalsantgatha (1923) (all the holy sants’ works), and English translations of much of the hagiographic material that tells their legends (Mahipati, vol. 1). The life of Cokhamela includes miracles but none are as dramatic as those of the Tamil country. Legend does give him and his son miraculous births, but aside from this there is no attempt to relate his existence to any other realm than that of the Untouchables. In other words, he has not been brahmanized, although the birth legends contain possibilities. According to a popular story, his birth involves his parents’ carrying mangoes to Pandharpur (some say Bedar, which would make more sense if Cokhamela lived in Pandharpur) on the orders of the village headman, a duty expected of the Mahar village servant. On their journey the god Viththal (who was worshipped as the central figure in the Maharashtrian bhakti tradition) disguised as a Brahmin, begged a fruit from his wife. He tasted it, found it sour and returned it to her. She tucked it into the folds of her sari and delivered the other mangoes to the priests at Pandharpur (or the governmental authorities at Bedar). The fruit was counted, the number found to be short, and so she pulled the bitten mango from her sari – and it had taken the form of a lovely child, Cokhamela.15




My paper on ‘The Householder Saints of Maharashtra’ has appeared in Studies in Early Modern Indo-Aryan Languages, Literature and Culture, ed. Alan W. Entwistle, Carol Salomon et al. (New Delhi: Manohar, 1999), 417-426. This version is taken from Cokhamela abhang gatha (1950: 1-2).

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 77 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


According to Mahipati, vol. 1: 377-384, Cokhamela’s home was Pandharpur, the goal of the pilgrimage of the Vaishnava saints of Maharashtra. He would bathe in the Bhima, circumambulate the whole city, and then prostrate himself in front of the main door of the great Pandharpur temple of Viththal. He could not go into the temple. However, one night the Lord of Pandharpur himself took Cokhamela by the hand and ‘lovingly led him into the innermost shrine’ (Mahipati, vol. 1: 379). A Brahman priest heard Cokhamela talking to the god, and thought, selfishly, according to Mahipati, ‘If a man of low caste can touch the god on whom are garments and ornaments, then our duties as Brahmans will cease’. The Brahman told Cokhamela to go to the other side of the Chandrabhaga River (the name for the Bhima as it runs past Pandharpur) lest the Lord keep bringing him into the temple. Cokhamela protested that the Ganga is not polluted by low castes, nor is the holy earth defiled, but he left the temple domains and worshipped from afar. The God came to him there and dined with him. His wife spilled some food on the God and a nearby Brahman heard Cokhamela talking to the God about the accident, came near and slapped Cokhamela on the mouth. But when the Brahman went into the temple, he found food on the image of God’s clothing and the cheek of the God was swollen. And so the Brahman repented and took Cokhamela by the hand into the temple. One wonders where Mahipati got his story. The samadhi (memorial place) of Cokhamela is at the foot of the great door of the temple in Pandharpur and until the Independence of India in 1947, no Untouchable could go beyond that spot. And not then until a Brahman reformer, Sane Guruji, fasted for days in front of the great door. Cokhamela himself was both a devout singer of songs of devotion and a man anguished by his status in life. His poem on purity is the strongest of any of the saint poets: The only impurity is in the five elements; the same impurity pervades the whole world. Then who is pure and who is impure? The cause of pollution is the creation of the body. In the beginning, at the end there is nothing but pollution. No one knows anyone who was born pure.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 78 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Cokha says, in wonder, who is pure? (Abhanga 84)16 He also is capable of an almost amusing sense of a God of all, those pure and those impure: [They say] in the company of the lowly, God is polluted. Bathing him in water makes him pure. But he is pure from the beginning; where can he be impure? He is the see’er and the act of seeing. He is pure in the place of the pure; why should he not be impure in the place of the impure? Cokha says, God is different for both; I have filled my eyes only with him. (Abhanga 85) And Cokhamela sang one angry abhanga which ridicules the very idea of pollution: The Vedas are polluted; the Shastras are polluted; the Puranas are full of pollution. The soul is polluted; the oversoul is polluted; the body is full of pollution Brahma is polluted, Vishnu is polluted Shankar is full of pollution. Birth is polluted; death is polluted. Cokha says: there’s pollution at the beginning and at the end. (Abhanga 86) The song of Cokhamela’s which is sung by pilgrims on the path to Pandharpur could be interpreted as a reference to his low caste, but not necessarily:



All references are to the Shrisakalsantgatha. Translations were made with the invaluable help of Vijaya Deo, S. G. Tulpule and Jayant Karve, although the final versions are my decision on wording. Abhanga is the Marathi word for the flexible form and metre of the saints’ songs. Its meaning is ‘unbroken’.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 79 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Cane is crooked, but its juice isn’t crooked Why be fooled by outward appearance? The bow is curved, but the arrow is straight Why be fooled by outward appearance? The river is twisting, but its water isn’t twisted. Why be fooled by outward appearance? Cokha is ugly, but his feelings aren’t ugly. Why be fooled by outward appearance? (Abhanga 125) This translation is chiefly by Maxine Berntsen, who encourages students in her school in Phaltan (a town on the pilgrimage route to Pandharpur) to create their own versions of Cokhamela’s song. R. D. Ranade (1961: 161) is more caste conscious; his final line reads: ‘Cokha may be Untouchable but his heart is not Untouchable’. The word for the qualities of the cane, the juice, the bow, the arrow, the river, the water and Cokha himself is the same, donga, which has a multiplicity of meanings. Many of the other saint-poets of Maharashtra sang of Cokhamela. Namdev the tailor told a long story of the birth of Cokhamela’s son. It seems that Cokhamela was distressed at the idea of the messiness of the coming birth, and left his pregnant wife to visit his sister. When her time came, the God himself in the guise of Cokhamela’s sister came to help her with the birth and the rituals of birthing. Cokhamela returned in time to greet his healthy new son, and his ever forgiving wife said, ‘You just missed seeing your sister’. Then Cokhamela said, ‘That was the God Vithoba Himself’. The story is told with great realism and no credit at all to the saint. Many songs indicate the knowledge other saints in the early fourteenth century had of each other, probably because they met at Pandharpur for the annual pilgrimage; later abhangas also indicate the sense of a circle or a company is continued through the centuries.17 Jani or Janabai, the serving maid of Namdev and a well known and very imaginative bhakta (Sellergren 1996), a contemporary of Cokhamela, sings:


The collection of Cokhamela’s songs and stories in Kadam 1969 contains the songs about Cokhamela of Jani, Namdev and Eknath.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 80 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Low caste Cokhamela yearned for bhakti God became his servant, sheltered always in his house God ate in his house because of his true devotion People say he polluted God, but Jani sings a song. Jani also creates a picture which is reproduced on posters at various pilgrimage sites; the various bhaktas of her fourteenth-century world are included: My Vitthal has many children with him is a merry crowd. Nivritti rides on his shoulder he holds Sopan by the hand. Dnyaneshwar walks in front beautiful Mukta close behind Gora the potter rides his hip Cokha is in his very heart Vunka [Banka?] clings to his waist Nama holds his smallest finger Jani says, Oh Gopala, it is a festival of your dear ones. Eknath, a radical Brahman,18 sang in the sixteenth century: What bhakti was Cokha’s bhakti! God loved him because of his love. God dragged the dead carcasses into His house; He did the low dirty work Himself. Janardan [Eknath’s Guru, here God] Himself was midwife to his wife. Look! What love for the devotee! God was drawn to his joy. He did not mind his low caste. Look! Ekajanardan longs for Cokha. Jani’s, Namdev’s and Eknath’s songs indicate the importance of bhakti in the Marathi-speaking area as a close and continuing tradition



See Zelliot 1998b. Eknath also wrote forty songs as if he were a Mahar in a remarkable sixteenth-century display of empathy. Some of these have been translated in my ‘Eknath’s Bharuds: The Sant as a Link between Culture’, in Schomer & McLeod 1987: 91-110.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 81 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


of saints, a panth in Marathi. Cokhamela, however, does not sing of other saints, except in Abhanga 64, which adds Kabir and ‘Rohidas Chambhar’ to the list of Maharashtrian saints, and another one not in the canon of Shrisakalsantgatha which asks for a daughter like Mira (Cokhamela Abhangaca Gatha). These songs are clearly, at least in part, additions to the earlier songs, but they also indicate a strong sense of a tradition with links past and present. It is also interesting that Cokhamela does not sing of his work, not of removing cows from the village nor obeying the orders of the village headman, even though other songs tell of God’s helping Cokhamela to drag out the dead cattle from the village. By legend however, Cokhamela was killed when the wall of Mangalvedhe, a town near Pandharpur, caved in on him as he was mending it, which seems to have been Mahar work. The legend tells of Namdev’s finding the body under the rubble because Cokhamela’s very bones murmured God’s name. In the first third of this century, Cokhamela was a very important source of pride for Mahars attempting to better their lives and to gain pride. Hostels were named after him, some Mahars called themselves Cokhamela, poems were written which urged militancy in the name of Cokhamela. Cokhamela, however, in just a few songs gives a previous life of sin as the reason for his low caste, and this made him unacceptable in the Ambedkar movement which swept through Maharashtra.19 There is scholarly study of him now among a few of the descendants of those who were Cokhamela’s followers, but almost no worship, and only a handful of pilgrims in the Cokhamela dharmshala (rest house for pilgrims) in Pandharpur. There is no attention paid to his very interesting family, except for one devout Ambedkar follower and dramatist, B. S. Shinde, who finds Karmamela (Cokhamela’s son) a radical voice from the past. Cokhamela’s wife Soyrabai20 often calls herself ‘Cokha’s Mahari’, and refers quite frequently to her low status. She is also conscious of being very poor, and her most famous line concerns the simple food she gives the God:

19 20

See Zelliot 1995. I have discussed ‘The Untouchable Women Saint-Poets of Maharashtra’ in The Banyan Tree: Essays on Early Literature in New Indo-European Language, ed. Mariola Offredi (New Delhi: Manohar, 2000), 273-282.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 82 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


I’ll place a leaf before You and I will serve you family food. O God, it’s not fit for You, but imagine it sweet and accept it. [And then Soyrabai refers to Puranic and Epic stories which also indicate her poverty:] Vidhur served watered broken rice, O mother and father, O Lord. O Narayana, Draupadi’s one leaf smeared with leftover food satisfied You. It’s just like that here, says the Mahari of Cokha. (Abhanga 1) There are references to her low caste and that of her husband here and there in her poetry: ‘O God, I am lowly’; ‘The great river flowed, but my body is still not pure’; ‘The Brahmans of Pandhari harassed Cokha’. She also uses the images of sitting at the Great Door (but going no farther) and of receiving gladly the God’s leftover food, both of which are Mahar references. In two poems, however, she is specifically and keenly aware of pollution and equally adamant that purity is a state of mind, not of the body. In a powerful verse, she cried: Not a creature in the world has a place of origin anywhere other than in gore. This is the glory of God; defilement exists within. The body is polluted from within. Be sure of it, says the Mahari of Cokha. (Abhanga 6) The basic tone of Soyrabai’s poetry, in spite of many references to low status, is a delightful intimacy with God, a scolding, loving, very close relationship. ‘I sit shouting at Your door’, she tells God. She threatens him: ‘Now, if You discard me, who will call You great? asks Cokha’s Mahari’. ‘I sit alone and talk to You. I embrace Your feet’. ‘Our conditions are different; who will take us to their bosoms? Who will care for us? Except You? Now You understand. Now do whatever You feel proper. That’s all I have to say’. ‘What a tease You are; why do You say no to me? Now I don’t have any respect for You, but I have no other love. How much should I say, Lord? Now, don’t be angry with me’. Soyrabai also glories in the festival at Pandharpur in all its noise and music and colour. And she delights in her sister-in-law Nirmala, whom she sees as merging with Cokhamela to form the divine. And she revels in the Name, which is the only antidote to the worldly life that she despises because it keeps her from God. 82

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 83 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Nirmala, Cokhamela’s sister, speaks of her low caste only once in her twenty-four poems. Chiefly she regrets the limitations of this worldly married life, sansar, and revels in the God of Pandharpur who is ‘an ocean of bliss, a storehouse of beauty’. One poem does stress in an interesting way her belief, shared with almost all saint-poets, in the efficacy of chanting the name of God, although its contradiction in the last line is not made clear: must one go through innumerable births or will chanting the Name free one?: The name of Hari is on the lips only of the one who has merit tied in his garments throughout innumerable births. The name of Hari is on the lips only of the one who carries in his purse the good deeds of innumerable births. The chanting of Narayan’s name is only for the one who practices discipline throughout innumerable births. The sweetness of Hari’s name is only for the one who has left worldly attachments throughout innumerable births. Nirmala says, the sin of innumerable births disappears as you chant the Name. (Abhanga 9) Nirmala’s abhangas include the birth story of Karmamela in part: Cokhamela had fled to his sister’s house when it was clear that his wife was about to have a baby. Usually very respectful of her brother and his religious status, she scolds him: Tell me, you are my elder brother – how could you act so thoughtlessly? How could you come running here without asking her? My sister-in-law will cry wildly. He [Cokhamela] said, ‘Vithu [Vithoba] will take care of everything. I have put my burden on Him’. Nirmala says, This is not fair, to give Vithoba such trouble. (Abhanga 14) In Namdev’s version of the story, this is not the end. The God Vithoba (Vithu) comes to Soyrabai in the guise of Nirmala, helps her with the birth, stays until just before Cokhamela comes back home, and Soyrabai doesn’t even know it is the God and not her sister-in-law who has been with her.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 84 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Although Soyrabai speaks of her husband, Nirmala never mentions her husband. Her final abhanga concludes: At the great door, Cokha and his sister prostrate themselves. But she gives no hint that neither of them can go beyond the great door of the Pandharpur temple to actually see the God Vithoba. The songs of Karmamela, the son of Cokhamela and Soyrabai, are rather unusual in that he accuses God of forgetting him, making him low caste, creating a miserable life for him, indeed behaving very badly. An example of this is Abhanga 4: Are we happy when we’re with You? O Cloud-dark one, You don’t know! The low place is our lot, the low place is our lot, the low place is our lot. We never get good sweet food. It’s a shameful life for us here. It’s a festival of bliss for You, but misery is written on our faces. Cokha’s Karmamela asks, O God, why is this our fate? But then in another mood, in Abhanga 17, he accepts his lot in life: Which joys and sorrows are tied in our garments, that was decided long, long ago. Now what use is it to call it bad? We will endure our daily lives. You are all pervading, different from all else; we will endure the fruit of our karma. Karmamela says, according to Your promise, we have come to know our inner selves. This philosophical acceptance is so unlike the majority of Karmamela’s songs that one wonders if it is authentic. If one wants proof that an Untouchable saint-poet feels deeply the curse of his birth, Karmamela offers the most evidence. Banka, the husband of Nirmala and possibly the brother of Cokhamela’s wife, Soyrabai, speaks of many different subjects, most of them quite the usual happy and peaceful observations of the beautiful God of Pandharpur. He does occasionally speak of birth in a low caste, but the more usual poem is praise of the God Viththal who is not known in the Sanskrit texts: 84

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 85 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


The Agamas and Nigamas don’t know God in this form; Shruti and Shastra don’t know His greatness. That God, Shrihari [i.e. a Vaishnava God], fills our eyes and hearts, stands as Viththal on the bank of the Bhima. Ocean of happiness, protector of Bhaktas That One’s fame resounds among the moving and the unmoving. Banka says, He is such a Great God, and He comes so easily to those who love him. (Abhanga 37) Banka refers to a dozen other saint-poets in his verses, including a reference to Mirabai which must have been inserted later since the Rajasthani princess lived at least a hundred years after Banka. He also refers to Puranic stories, which are also a common theme among Maharashtrian saint-poets of all castes. At times, his storytelling ability enters the verse, and the following abhanga is about the potter saint Gora who was a contemporary of Cokhamela and his family: Look, what a wonder! At Gora’s place God himself has become a potter. He’s left aside all his wealth, His vehicle [the eagle] that roams the three worlds has become a donkey. He fills the gunny sack [with clay], brings it in Himself; His wife helps Him. Banka says: about this fondness of God towards His bhaktas, the Vedas don’t say a word! (Abhanga 31) Banka also tells stories about his own family, describing the birth of Karmamela in this way: God knew about the wish of Cokhamela’s wife Soyrabai for a child, and so he came to her door in the guise of an old Brahman beggar asking for food. She protested that she was a low-caste Mahar and couldn’t think of doing such a wrong thing as giving him something to eat, that people who censure her, beat her, thrash her, if she did. But he persisted and told her she would have a child if she gave him a morsel. So she gave him a bowl of rice and yoghurt. When Cokhamela came home, he was extremely angry with his wife for her action. And Banka does not tell us if he was ever reconciled, ending cryptically with another reference to God’s coming to the ‘broken hut’ of Cokhamela and staying there. 85

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 86 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


There is still another Mahar, also a woman, who enters the contemporary bhakti canon. Nothing is known about Bhagu and she is not considered a part of Cokhamela’s family, but she is identified as ‘Bhagu Maharin’ in the Shrisakalsantgatha. One of her poems is reminiscent of the Southern story of Tiruppan Alvar being carried into the temple: We have come for Your darshan [sight]; please meet us. All the saints are inside the temple I am alone outside, pining. Oh Mother Vithu, listen to my plea I am a poor girl, please meet me. God came outside and took me in on Her shoulder. Says Bhaga, I met God and my fears disappeared. (Abhanga 1) Many of the saints refer to God (and to the most important of the saints) as Mother, but no other poem that I am aware of in the Marathi tradition tells of God as either male or female carrying in an Untouchable saint on his/her shoulder into the temple.

Ravidas – Best Known of the Untouchable Saint-poets Of all the Untouchable saint-poets, the fifteenth-sixteenth-century Ravidas is by far the most important today. Groups of Chamars use Ravidasi or Raidasi instead of their caste name. Temples to him are still being built, including one by Ramdasi Sikhs (ex-Untouchable converts from Chamar castes) and an impressive one by the late Jagjivan Ram, both in Varanasi. Books in Hindi abound; there are more in English by Indian scholars than about any other low-caste bhakta; and a critical edition of Ravidas’ vani has been completed by Callewaert. He is important in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan and also among Chambhars in Maharashtra.21 More non-Indian scholars have worked on Ravidas than on other Untouchable saints. Ravidas is included in Hawley and



There is a dindi (a group of devotees usually from one caste or village who are part

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 87 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Juergensmeyer 1988; an article by Joseph Schaller appears in Lorenzen 1995; and Callewaert and Friedlander’s book (1992) contains a life, the teachings, translations of all the Ravidas poetry they find authentic, as well as the critical edition of the vani. Callewaert and Friedlander (1992: 9) state the basic truth that Ravidas’ ‘message was simple and clear, without arrogance and self interest. Raidas still is, at the end of the twentieth century, a catalyst for all who yearn after the “Uplifter of the fallen, the Master of the meek”. Humble is his origin, humble is human existence and the voice of Raidas sounds for all, then and now, who identify with that status’. There are many historic references to the life of Ravidas. Callewaert and Friedlander (1992: 11-21) list twenty. The Sikh Adi Granth not only contains songs by Ravidas but also four verses by two of the Sikh Gurus which praise him. Medieval sources which are biographical rather than tributes in verse are Nabhadas’ Bhaktamal, composed around 1600, the same time the Adi Granth appeared; Priyadas’ Bhaktirasabodhini, a commentary on Nabhadas from a hundred years later; and Anantadas’ Raidas Parcai, from the late sixteenth century. Lochtefeld (1998) has commented on the biographies, noting that Nabhadas does not mention Ravidas’ caste, only that he had pride in his lineage, and that Nabhadas claims Ravidas’ verses were not opposed to the Vedas or the shastras. Anantdas and Priyadas’ accounts are much longer and filled with miracles. These two biographies cast Ravidas as either a Brahman who ate meat and so was reborn a Chamar or a disciple of Ramananda who took food offerings that had been ritually polluted by contact with low-caste people and so was cursed by Ramananda to be reborn an Untouchable. These two and some other sources tell of Ravidas’ ripping open his chest to show a sacred thread inside. There is, of course, disagreement about Ravidas’ Brahmanical status. Darshan Singh (1981: xli) tells us that ‘Ravidasa nowhere claims that he was a brahmana in his previous life’, and it is doubtful if any Chamars believe in the previous incarnation of Ravidas as a Brahman. Just as Vincentnathan found high-caste and Untouchables’ readings of

of a larger palkhi going to Pandharpur on pilgrimage) in the name of Rohidas in the Maharashtrian bhakti tradition. There is also a Rohidas math (teaching centre) and dharmshala (place for pilgrims to stay) in Pandharpur. However, no Marathi translations of Ravidas have been made.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 88 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Nandanar’s status as unquestionably Untouchable directly opposite, so Khare (1984: 40-50) has found that caste Hindu and Chamar beliefs differ about Ravidas. He tells us that the Chamars of Lucknow believe that Ravidas ‘did not obey the Hindu Vedic and scriptural constraints [...] he revealed his real spiritual identity as a Chamar without any camouflage or pretext, and he encountered resistance and opposition from the Brahmans (and the caste Hindu) – householders and ascetics – throughout his life and overcame them like a true Chamar’ (Khare 1984: 46). Darshan Singh (1981) also notes that Ravidas’ own verses do not mention Ramanada as his guru. Although it is often said that both Ravidas and his contemporary Kabir were disciples of the great Southern Brahman exponent of Ramanuja’s bhakti, Ramananda most probably lived a hundred years earlier, and while he may be credited with bringing Vaishnava devotion to the North, he may not have had a direct connection with Varanasi’s two low-caste saint-poets. Callewaert and Friedlander (1992: 17, 34) cast doubt on the authenticity of references to Ravidas in the work of the two most famous saints of the Northern tradition, Mirabai (who in some sources claims Ravidas as her guru) and Kabir, who supposedly had a long debate with Ravidas over the nirgun (formless) or sagun (with qualities) nature of God.22 Callewaert does note that the hagiographic sources tell that Ravidas initiated a woman from the royal family of Chittorgarh as a disciple and that this is such a rare note that it probably is true, although Mirabai is probably not that woman. Whatever his previous birth, there is no question that Ravidas the saint-poet lived as a Chamar. He calls himself a Chamar, states that his trade is low, his labour is degrading, his caste unhonoured. More than any other saint, he sang about his traditional work: ‘My trade is dressing



David Lorenzen (1996: 169-181) tells us that although the debate may be legendary, there are at least nine unpublished manuscripts of the text. His translation allows us to see the radical implications of Kabir’s nirgun God, since ‘perfect Brahman pervades all bodies, how can we distinguish between a Brahmin and a Shudra?’ But as Raidas and Kabir argue about avatars, various Gods join in the debate. Raidas acknowledges Kabir as his master, but Vishnu appears at the end, declaring Kabir the possessor of the truth and Raidas to be blessed.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 89 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


and cutting leather and daily removing dead cattle round about Banarasa’ (Darshan Singh 1981: 35). I keep my hands engaged, with the Cobbler’s tool and the Leather cutter. Honest work is my righteous duty. This will ferry me across the world, sayeth Ravidas. (Upadhyaya 1982: 15) He probably was born in Varanasi, holiest city in India. His most probable dates are the latter half of the fifteenth century and the first quarter of the sixteenth. He mentions Namdev, Kabir, Trilocan, Dadu, Sadhna and Saina (the author of the Kabir-Ravidas debate) in his songs. He speaks of the high born coming to him in recognition of his worth, and this is such a common observance that it probably is true. Much of the rest of his story is myth. Perhaps the best way to understand the power of the oral tradition is to read the story of Ravidas as it was recorded in pre-modern times. There seems to be no English translation of the Hindi biographies, but a Marathi version of Ravidas’ life appears in the eighteenth century hagiography of Mahipati, the Bhaktavijaya (Victory to the Bhaktas).23 A long quotation will give the flavour of the legends surrounding Ravidas. The Marathi version tells the story this way: 3. Although he was entangled in domestic affairs [Rohidas] planned acts of benevolence. To any Vaishnava who came to his house he gave a pair of shoes. 4. The occupation of a worker in leather appears to be a low one but there is not the least fault to be found with it. If such a one performs acts of benevolence the Pervader of the universe will certainly be attained [...] 12. Hari is more fond of benevolent bhaktas than he is of his own life [...]


Translated by Justin E. Abbott and Narhar R. Godbole in the Stories of the Indian Saints series, the story of ‘Rohidas’ (Marathi for Ravidas) is one of some fifty about bhaktas, many of them from the Hindi-speaking area. See Mahipati, vol. 1: 401405.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 90 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


22. Now it happened on a certain day that this bhakta of Vishnu was sitting performing his worship of God. He had withdrawn to be alone with materials of worship, and he held his fickle mind in restraint. 23. He brought a bottle of leather and placed it there filled with water. His mat and his sacred bag and casket were also made of leather. 24. Rohidas was sitting down with all his vessels made of leather and just then a Brahman came to his house to explain to him the [astrological] Calendar. 25. The Brahman sat down by the holy and beautiful tulsi altar. Rohidas at once arose and with reverence made him a namaskar. 26. The Brahman said to Rohidas, ‘You are worshipping God while sitting upon a leather seat. What do you expect from that? 27. We Brahmans worship Shaligram, the idol of Vishnu. How is it you have placed Him in a leather bag? 28. How is it you have placed in a leather bag Him who dwells in Vaikunth (heaven), the Life of the world whom Yogis contemplate? How is it you have placed Him in a leather bag? 29. He Who dwells upon the sea of milk, the Recliner upon Shesha, and who cannot be described adequately by the Shastras though you might search there for Him, you have made a leather bag and placed Him within it [...]’ 31. Hearing what the Brahman said, Rohidas replied, ‘What object have you ever seen which has not leather connected with it? 32. Musical instruments and drums are used in the praise-service of Hari [...] 33. The black cow has a leather skin, yet her milk is holy [...] 34. Animate things that are born, those hatched from eggs, and those produced from seed, all three are covered with skin and Atmaran (God) is in them alike. 35. Shudras, Vaishyas, Kshatriyas and Brahmans are covered with skin [...] 37. [...] And from a leather shrine (the human body) Atmaran (God) speaks with His gentle voice. 38. [...] If the Pervader of the universe, the Life of the world, is in a leather bag, how can you regard Him as defiled by the leather?’ [...] 43. The Brahman now replied, ‘The emblem of Vishnu (Shaligram) is a holy pebble and so if a shoemaker worships Him, He is defiled thereby [...] 45. [...] We alone should worship the Lord of Vaikunth (heaven). Among the 90

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 91 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


four races we Brahmans are the highest. 46. Shri Hari is chief among the god. The Brahmans are the highest among the four races. They alone have authority to invest themselves with the sacred thread and they alone can worship Vishnu’. 47. Hearing this remark, Rohidas replied, ‘O Swami, I will show you my sacred thread’. 48. Then with his sharp tool he ripped open his stomach, and showed the sacred thread within it. 49. The Brahman then exclaimed, ‘You are indeed a bhakta of Vishnu, I was thoughtless and persecuted you [...] 50. [...] In persecuting you I have but advanced your glory [...] 55. You are a supreme bhakta of Vishnu. Worship the Shaligram at your pleasure’. Thus speaking, the good Brahman went back to his home. A miracle left out of the Marathi story is told by Priyadas: In a dispute with Brahmans of Banares in the royal court, the king put them all to a test. The Brahmans’ chanting of Sanskrit mantras left the image of the God unmoved, but it leapt into the arms of Ravidas at the sound of a single verse. And in another story, Ravidas visited Jali, the queen of Chittor. Although he is the queen’s guru, the Brahmans refuse to eat with him and he leaves the room. But as they sit to dine, they find an image of Ravidas appearing at the side of each Brahman (Lochtefeld 1998). In still another myth, Ravidas’ stone Shaligram floats in a pool of water. Lochtefeld (1998) also reports that the Amar Chitra Katha comic book on Ravidas published in 1986 illustrates the social discrimination suffered by Ravidas and other Chamars. His guru is an ascetic named Sandan Swami. And in a new twist, Ravidas liberates Mira from slavery to a statue of Krishna by saying they are already one (which is the argument of Ravidas in the text of the Kabir-Ravidas dispute over the nirgun – without form – and sagun – with form – nature of the divine). While the comic book teaches the ideals of equality, compassion and brotherhood, Lochtefeld calls it ‘incredible insensitivity’ that a shoe polish ad appears in the centre of the comic book. In his poetry, Ravidas, like Cokhamela, challenged the very concept of purity and pollution, but in a different idiom. This poem is one from the Sikh holy book, the Adi Granth, in the translation of Hawley and Juergensmeyer (1988: 26): 91

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 92 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Mother, she asks, with what can I worship? All the pure is impure. Can I offer milk? The calf has dirtied it in sucking his mother’s teat. Water, the fish have muddied; flowers, the bees – No other flowers could be offered than these. The sandalwood tree, where the snake has coiled, is spoiled The same act formed both nectar and poison. Everything’s tainted – candles, incense, rice – But still I can worship with my body and mind and I have the guru’s grace to find the formless Lord. Ritual and offerings – I can’t do any of these. What, says Ravidas, will you do with me? AG 13 In another song from the Adi Granth, Ravidas shows that anyone who is devout and pure rises above caste. This translation is also by Hawley and Juergensmeyer (1988: 26): A family that has a true follower of the Lord Is neither high caste nor low caste, lordly or poor. The world will know it by its fragrance. Priests or merchants, labourers or warriors, halfbreeds, outcastes, and those who tend cremation fires – their hearts are all the same. He who becomes pure through love of the Lord exalts himself and his family as well. Thanks be to his village, thanks to his home, thanks to that pure family, each and every one, For he’s drunk with the essence of the liquid of life and he pours away all the poisons. No one equals someone so pure and devoted not priests, not heroes, not parasolled kings, As the lotus leaf floats above the water, Ravidas says, so he flowers above the world of his birth. AG 29 Judging the effect of Ravidas’ life and teaching on Untouchables today is difficult. At the very least he is a reason for great pride and dignity. Since 1967, the people of an enclave of Untouchables near the Benaras Hindu University have worked on the temple for Ravidas founded by the All India Adi Dharm Mandal, which is a Hindu Sched92

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 93 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


uled Castes organization. The current devotees, Ramdasi Sikhs, hope to gild its cupola with gold through donations from Ramdasis who have emigrated to the United States.24 These devotees take a procession through Varanasi each year to celebrate the birth of Ravidas. Hawley (1988: 16) reports that ‘a group of Ravidasis [...] not long ago travelled to far-off Rajasthan to visit the temple of Mirabai in her natal village of Merta, only to be denied entrance once they arrived’.25 The other Ravidas temple in Varanasi is at the far end of the Ganges’ ghats, the last great project of the long time Congress political leader Jagjivan Ram. Kabir and Surdas pictures are in the temple, and there is a shrine to Mirabai. Sayings from Ravidas in gold, chosen by Sukhdev Singh, line the walls.26 Spires on each corner commemorate Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam while the great spire in the middle is a tribute to Ravidas. Hawley notes that the Ravidas temple says many things: ‘First and foremost, of course, it says that Ravidas belongs on the highlands along the Ganges as much as any other Hindu god or saint’ (Hawley 1988: 21). One wonders at the fate of Ravidas as Dr B. R. Ambedkar (and the Buddhist conversion he felt was the way out of Untouchability) becomes ever more popular in the North. Schaller (1992) reports that the devotees he interviewed described themselves as following nirgun devotion just like Guru Ravidas, and most were devoted to Dr Ambedkar as well as Ravidas. Ravidas does not seem to have met the fate of Cokhamela as someone inextricably tied into the Hindu theory of karma or an ongoing religious pilgrimage which still exhibits some caste prejudices (Karve 1988: 142-172). He still is a genuine voice for Untouchable piety, courage and pride.

24 25


Conversation with devotees in Govardhanpur in December 1996. I found a small temple to Ravidas containing his paduka (footprints) opposite the Mirabai temple in the Chittor fort. Both temples were open to all, and a woman was presiding over donations at the Mira temple. Conversation with Sukhdev Singh in the Ravidasi temple in 1996, when it was under construction. Singh credits Jagjivan Ram with the Ravidas revival and popularization in Uttar Pradesh.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 94 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


References Callewaert, Winand M. & Peter G. Friedlander (1992) The Life and Works of Raidas. New Delhi: Manohar. Cokhamela Abhangaca Gatha. (Marathi). Mumbai: Balkrishna Lakshman Pathak, 1950. Dehejia, Vidya (1988) Slaves of the Lord: The Path of the Tamil Saints. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal. Gokhale-Turner, Jayashree B. (1981) ‘Bhakti or Vidroha: Continuity and Change in Dalit Sahitya’, in Jayant Lele (ed.), Tradition and Modernity in Bhakti Movements. Leiden: E.J. Brill. Hardy, Friedhelm (1991) ‘TirupPan-Alvar: The Untouchable Who Rode Piggy-Back on the Brahmin’, in Diana L. Eck & Francoise Mallison (eds.), Devotion Divine: Bhakti Traditions from the Regions of India – Studies in Honour of Charlotte Vaudeville. Groningen: Egbert Forsten. Hart, George L. (1975) The Poems of Ancient Tamil: Their Milieu and Their Sanskrit Counterparts. Berkeley: University of California Press. –– (1976) The Relation Between Tamil and Classical Sanskrit Literature, [A History of Indian Literature Series]. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrossowitz. Hawley, John Stratton & Mark Juergensmeyer (1988) Songs of the Saints of India. New York: Oxford University Press. Hopkins, Steven P. (1993) ‘In Love with the Body of God: Eros and the Praise of Icons in South Indian Devotion’. Journal of Vaisnava Studies, vol. 2, no. 1: 17-54. Kadam, S. B. (1969) Shrisant Cokhamela Maharaj yance Caritra va abhanga gatha. (Marathi). Mumbai: author. Karve, Irawati (1988) ‘On the Road: A Maharashtrian Pilgrimage’, in Eleanor Zelliot & Maxine Berntsen (eds.), The Experience of Hinduism. Albany: State University of New York Press. Khare, R. S. (1984) The Untouchable as Himself: Ideology, Identity, and Pragmatism among the Lucknow Chamars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Lochtefeld, James G. (1998) ‘The Saintly Camar: Perspectives on the Life of Ravidas’. ARC: The Journal of the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, vol. 26: 63-82. Lorenzen, David (1995) Bhakti religion in north India: community identity and political action. Albany: State University of New York Press. 94

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 95 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


–– (1996) Praises to a formless god: Nirguni texts from North India. Albany: State University of New York Press. Manickam, Sundararaj (1990) Nandanar, the Dalit Martyr: A Historical Reconstruction of His Times. Madras: Christian Literature Society. Mahipati (1933-1934) Stories of Indian Saints: An English Translation of Mahipati’s Marathi Bhaktivijaya, 2 vols. Translated by Justin E. Abbott & N. B. Godbole, [The Poet Saints of Maharashtra, vol. 9-10], Reprint. Pune and New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1982. Narayanan, Vasudha (1992) ‘Tiruppan alvar: Life, Lyrics and Legacy’. Paper presented at the annual meetings of the Association for Asian Studies, 1992. –– (1994) The Vernacular Veda: Revelation, Recitation and Ritual. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. See especially Chapter 5. Pechilis, Karen (1992) ‘The Story of Nantanar as a Clue to Changes in the Order of Things’. Paper presented at the annual meetings of the Association for Asian Studies, 1992. Ramanujan, A. K. (1981) Hymns for the Drowning: Poems for Visnu by Nammalvar. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Ranade, R. D. (1961) Pathway to God in Marathi Literature. Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Schomer, Karine & W. H. McLeod (eds.) (1987) The Sants: Studies in a Devotional Tradition of India. Berkeley: Religious Studies Series and Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. Schaller, Joseph (1992) ‘Caste and Social Dissidence in the Sant Ravidas Panth’. Paper presented at the annual meetings of the Association for Asian Studies, 1992. –– (1995) ‘Sanskritization, Caste Uplift, and Social Dissidence in the Sant Ravidas Panth’, in David N. Lorenzen (ed.), Bhakti Religion in North India: Community Identity and Political Action. Albany: State University of New York Press, 94-119. Sellegren, Sarah (1996) ‘Janabai and Kanhopatra: A Study of Two Woman Saints’, in Anne Feldhaus (ed.), Images of Women in Maharashtrian Literature and Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press, 213-238. Shrisakalsantgatha, vol. 1. Ed. Kashinath Anant Joshi. Collected by Shrinanamaharaj Sakhre. Pune: Shrisantwangmaya Prakashan Mandir, 1967 (1923). Singh, Darshan (1977) Sant Ravidas and His Times. Delhi: Kalyani Publishers. 95

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 96 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


–– (1981) A Study of Bhakta Ravidas. Patiala: Punjabi University. Smith, Bardwell L. (1976) Hinduism: new essays in the history of religions. Leiden: E. J. Brill. Upadhyaya, K. N. (1992) Guru Ravidas, Life and Teachings. Beas, Punjab: Radha Soami Satsang Beas. Vaudeville, Charlotte (1981) ‘Chokhamela, An Untouchable Saint of Maharashtra’, in Günther D. Sontheimer (ed.), Bhakti in South Asian Regional Literature, [South Asian Digest of Regional Writing, vol. 6]. Heidelberg: South Asia Institute Heidelberg University. Vincentnathan, Lynn (1993) ‘Nandanar: Untouchable Saint and Caste Hindu Anomaly’. Ethos, vol. 21, no. 2: 154-179. Younger, Paul (1995) The Home of Dancing Sivan: The Traditions of the Hindu Temple in Citamparam. New York: Oxford University Press. Zelliot, Eleanor (1995) ‘Chokhamela: Piety and Protest’, in David N. Lorenzen (ed.), Bhakti Religion in North India: Community Identity and Political Action. Albany: State University of New York Press, 212-220. –– (1998a [1992]) From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement. New Delhi: Manohar. –– (1998b) ‘Chokhamela and Eknath: Two Bhakti Modes of Legitimacy for Modern Change’, in Eleanor Zelliot, From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement. New Delhi: Manohar, 3-32.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 97 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie

4. Jocelyn Clarke

UNTOUCHABILITY AND THE INDIAN NATIONALIST MOVEMENT Recent shifts in Indian politics have focused attention on the nineteenth-century origins of today’s Hindu nationalist and Dalit parties, while recent developments in Indian historiography have provided the basis for a reconsideration of the period from the foundation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 to Independence in 1947. In the past, the question of Untouchability has been treated by some Indian historians as a minor theme or a mere footnote to the dominant narrative of nationalism, Congress and Gandhi. This approach does not do justice to the complexities of the nationalist narrative, nor does it give proper weight to the narrative of the Untouchable movement and its leadership. Most important of all, it neglects a third narrative, that of the masses for whom Untouchability was not a moral and political question, as much as an encompassing fact of life. The lives of these masses were touched and transformed by the nationalist and anti-Untouchability movements but also by social and political changes, the effects of which upon Untouchables were largely unintended and unforeseen. The rise of Hindu nationalism in the late twentieth century has focussed attention upon the history of Hindu organizations, especially the Arya Samaj founded in 1875 and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh founded in 1925 and upon the nationalist thought of Bal Gagandhar Tilak, Aurobindo Ghose, Swami Vivekananda and others. Most of these Hindu organizations and leaders had their own ideologies and programmes in respect to the ‘uplift’ of Untouchables; at times their work overlapped or blended with that of the Indian National Congress, at other times it diverged. Today’s Dalit parties, such as the Bahujan Samaj 97

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 98 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Party founded in 1984 and parties seeking the Dalit vote, have focused attention upon Dalit history and particularly upon the work of Dr B. R. Ambedkar. In the case of both Hindu nationalists and Dalits, the events of our own period have done more than open up new lines of academic interest; the reinterpretation of history and organizing around historical symbols have become key political activities. Within academic history and social science, there have also been changes. The Subaltern Studies collective, in both their individual work and in the volumes of Subaltern Studies which appeared from 1982 to 1992,1 have inverted Indian historiography, calling accepted truths into question and placing the category of the subaltern in that central position occupied in the work of other writers by the elite. The subaltern, a term taken from the Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci, is intentionally loose and refers to the subordinated who may in a particular context include women, the poor, the lower classes, lower castes and the colonial or post-colonial subject. As Spivak points out, there is a search for moments when change occurs as a result of resistance and confrontation by the subaltern, but since such moments lead (according to the Subaltern Studies writers) to changes in sign systems, they are also obliged to reinterpret the role of the elite. Spivak notes the paradox that much of the finest work in the first volumes of Subaltern Studies deals with Gandhi, ‘far from a “subaltern”’ (Spivak 1988: 197). The contribution of the Subaltern Studies writers to rethinking caste and Untouchability has been mostly theoretical and indirect but nonetheless important.2 The Subaltern Studies writers are writing for an international academic audience but there are a number of Dalit activist academics who are writing, sometimes in regional languages, for a broad domestic audience (see for instance Ilayah 1996). The other academic trend which should be noted is the increasing number of accounts of nationalist politics, caste politics or both, at the regional level. These accounts highlight the enormous differences between regions. As Galanter (1984: 122-130) explains, even ‘Untouchable’ had a different meaning from one region to another. Efforts to write Dalit history ‘from below’ (Sarkar 1993) face a problem of sources. Many of the actors were illiterate. Others were

1 2


Delhi: Oxford University Press. A direct contribution to the field is made by Gyan Pandey (1983).

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 99 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


literate but too absorbed in the struggle for survival to leave a written record of their experiences and consciousness. Still others left writings which were not valued or preserved. Hence it is often the case that the lives of Untouchables can only be read between the lines of the writings of others who had their own agendas and purposes. Freeman’s use of oral history to tell the story of Muli, an Oriya Untouchable, should have pointed the way forward, but little oral history work has been done in India until the 1990s (Freeman 1979).3 In the nineteenth century the institution of caste was subject to critique from without and from within Hinduism. That which had been taken for granted became self-conscious and problematic. The British, in the dual roles of scholars and rulers, drew attention to the concept of pollution by touch and, by classifying together different jati from across the country, created the category of Depressed Classes later called Untouchables.4 Phule (1991, vol. 2: 86) wrote in 1877, They [the British] have put it on record (in these books) that the Untouchables were considerably disadvantaged (and oppressed) as a direct result of the pernicious caste system prevalent in our society.5 However, the strongest critique came from foreign missionaries. It was in the missionaries’ interests to campaign against the injustices of the caste system and to win converts for their own faith, but it appears that they felt a genuine horror at the institution of caste and at Untouchability in particular. Caste was seen as counter to post-Reformation Christian doctrines of the equality of men before God. John Wilson, a Free Church of Scotland missionary, writing in 1877, distinguishes between caste and other more ‘natural’ and positive forms of hierarchy. It is among the Hindus, however, that the imagination of natural and positive distinctions in humanity has been

3 4 5

Two recent examples of oral history projects are Singer 1997 and work in progress on Partition by Gyan Pandey. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn, 1989, records instances of use of the term ‘Untouchable’ beginning in 1909. The word ‘Untouchable’ is the translator’s. See also Keer 1964: 150.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 100 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


brought to the most fearful and pernicious development ever exhibited on the face of the globe... It is now the soul as well as the body of Hinduism. With its terrible deeds before us proclaiming its hate and power, attention may well be bestowed on its origin, developments, character and results, and on our own duty in respect to its continued influence on Indian society. (Wilson 1985: 10-12) Forrester (1980: 23) suggests that the social origins of the Protestant missionaries were lowly, thus predisposing them to identify with the oppressed. Most British administrators took a somewhat more pragmatic view of caste. It was a given which needed to be understood in order to carry out the work of ruling. For this reason, and perhaps also for reasons of intellectual curiosity, as Ghurye (1969: 277-278) suggests, the descriptions of castes in the Indian Census became more and more elaborate. After the Revolt of 1857, caste began to be seen as useful in a conscious policy of ‘divide and rule’. Ghurye quotes James Kerr, the Principal of the Hindu College at Calcutta, writing in 1865, It may be doubted if the existence of caste is on the whole unfavourable to the permanence of our rule. It may even be considered favourable to it, provided we act with prudence and forbearance. Its spirit is opposed to national union. (ibid.: 285) Many educated Indians became persuaded that Untouchability was ‘a blot on Hindu religion’, as Dayanand, founder of the Arya Samaj, and, later, Gandhi believed.6 The removal of Untouchability was seen by some as a matter of Indian or of Hindu honour. Nationalists were also conscious that caste and communal differences were being exploited by the rulers. By the end of the nineteenth century the position which Gandhi took in the twentieth had been clearly articulated and was a



Dhanpati Pandey 1985: 98-106. The phrase is Gandhi’s (Gandhi 1958-1994, vol. 13: 94).

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 101 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


common view, although not the only one: caste was a social issue not a political one, Untouchability was separable from the institution of caste and an accretion on Hinduism, caste was good, although it must not be allowed to divide the nation, Untouchability was bad. Thus it was possible for Vivekananda to make an oft-quoted statement that the pariah is our brother, while defending varna. The more the British attacked it, the more nationalists like Vivekananda felt impelled to defend caste: We are not discussing here, whether these customs deserve countenance or rejection; but if the mere disapproval of the Westerners be the measure of the abominableness of our manners and customs, then, it is our duty to raise our emphatic protest against it [i.e., against the echoing of British opinion]. (Vivekananda, ‘Modern India’, in Brown 1953: 103) Rabindranath Tagore makes a similar defence in a 1917 article: However, what Western observers fail to discern is that in her caste system India in all seriousness accepted her responsibility to solve the race problem in such a manner as to avoid all friction, and yet to afford each race freedom within its boundaries. Let us admit, in this India has not achieved a full measure of success... the West... has never given her attention to this problem... (Tagore, ‘Nationalism in India’, in Brown 1953: 118) Tagore was drawing upon Sir Herbert Risley’s racial theory of caste (Risley 1969 [1915]) which was beginning to be taken up in quite a different way by the lower castes who claimed to be the first inhabitants of the land. While there were many defenders of caste as a characteristically Indian institution, there was rarely a public assertion of Untouchables’ inferiority, whatever people’s personal practices and feelings may have been. An exception to this was an article by the British supporter of Indian nationalism, Mrs Annie Besant. Ironically it was Mrs Besant who became Congress President in 1917, the year of the Depressed Classes


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 102 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


resolution. In 1909 she argued for the separate education of the Depressed Classes, comparing them to the British lower classes. They are gentle, docile, as a rule industrious, pathetically submissive, merry enough when not in actual want, with a bright though generally very limited intelligence; of truth and the civic virtues they are for the most part utterly devoid – how should they be anything else? – but they are affectionate, grateful for the slightest kindness, and with much ‘natural religion’.7 Anti-Untouchability and anti-Brahman movements predated the birth of Congress. They quickly moved from religious demands like temple entry to political ones. In 1873 Jotirao Phule (1827-1893)8 who was later given the title of Mahatma, founded a Satya Shodak Samaj to resist caste distinction. Phule’s programme included demands for political representation, provision of education for the lower castes and opposition to Brahman-conducted weddings. Phule, who lived in Pune, was of the Mali caste (a shudra caste). He was influenced by Christian missionaries, by Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man and by the American anti-slavery struggle. His work attracted the support of M. G. Ranade, a Brahman (with whom he had some differences of opinion, however), V. R. Shinde and the Maharajah of Kolhapur. Phule advised shudra not to join Congress because they would alienate their British benefactors and would not be treated on equal terms by Brahmans and other forward castes. The Maharajah took up Phule’s ideas on representation and, after Phule’s death, pressed them upon Mr Montague, the Secretary of State for India, with the result that reserved seats for backward classes and reservation in government service were incorporated into the Government of India Act of 1919 (Ghurye 1969: 287-288; Galanter 1984: 154). Dr Ambedkar, making his first appearance on the political stage, during a brief visit to India in 1919, also had a role in this extension of reservation, since he gave

7 8


Besant, ‘The Uplift of the Depressed Classes’, Indian Review, Feb. 1909, in Vatsa 1977 [1912], quoted in Ambedkar 1946: 3-6. Keer 1964; O’Hanlon 1985; Pathan 1977; Ghurye 1969: 286-288, 293, 325.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 103 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


testimony to the Southborough Committee on franchise reform (Zelliot 1998: 64-65). The Satya Shodhak was a broad shudra movement, but Phule encouraged organizing by the main Untouchable jati of the region, the Mahar and Mang. The first Mahar conference met in Mumbai in 1903. Before this, Gopal Baba Walangkar had drawn up a petition for the readmission of Mahars into the Army. However, as Mendelsohn and Vicziany (1998: 96-97) point out, the first autonomous Untouchable movement was probably Sri Narayana Guru’s Ezhava caste organization in Travancore in the 1880s.9 At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, there were a number of discrete regional movements against caste, with a particularly strong anti-Brahman movement in the Madras Presidency. From the foundation of Congress in 1885 to the Depressed Classes resolution of 1917, the Indian National Congress position on Untouchability was consistently maintained (Zaidi & Zaidi, vol. 3: 210-211, 223). Untouchability was a matter of concern but not an issue for Congress: it was deemed a social and not a political issue. For this reason the Indian National Social Conference was formed in 1887 and met on the same premises as Congress on subsequent days. This symbolic separation was not enough for Tilak, then a Congressman.10 He was vehemently opposed to the proposed use of the Congress pavilion by the Social Conference in 1895 and his supporters threatened arson if the pavilion was used.11 The Social Conference yielded to the threat and found another venue. Tilak felt strongly about keeping all social reform issues away from Congress but this did not mean that he was unsympathetic to Untouchables or to other aspects of reform (A. B. Shah 1983: 206). In this period the only Congress speech which strikes a different note from all the rest was one given by Mr C. Sankaran Nair, a pleader from Madras, as President of the thirteenth session held in 1897. Nair

9 10


See also Saradmoni 1980; Sreenivasan 1989. Lokmanya B. G. Tilak parted company with Congress in 1907 at Surat and became an ‘extremist’ nationalist. He and his group were reconciled with Congress in 1916. Lokmanya is an honorific meaning ‘revered by the people’. Ghanshyam Shah 1987; Zelliot, ‘Congress and the Untouchables 1917-1950’, in Sisson & Wolpert 1988; Keer 1969: 95-100; Wolpert 1962: 71-76.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 104 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


called for women’s rights, stressed the importance of secular government for India and said, ‘We claim equality for all, Brahmins and Pariahs alike’ (Zaidi & Zaidi, vol. 3: 223). Despite the insistence that the plight of the Depressed Classes was a social and not a political issue, organizations related to Congress were working with Untouchables from the early years. V. R. Shinde, the supporter of Phule, continued Depressed Classes work after Phule’s death but unlike Phule encouraged Untouchables to join Hindu organizations and Congress. Often the same individuals were involved in Depressed Classes work for Congress and for Hindu organizations. Untouchability was not only defined as a social issue but also as a Hindu issue and therefore a problem for that community alone. At the time of the Morley-Minto reforms (Indian Councils Act of 1909), there was still no thought that any of the Hindu masses might be represented by members of their own community, as the Muslims were. However, the Muslim League delegation proposed in their statement to Lord Minto12 that the lower castes were not Hindus, which was the first time this view was put in a major political forum. The League’s intention was to reduce the number of ‘Hindus’ by excluding the tribes and the ‘depressed classes’, thus improving the ratio of Muslims to Hindus and enhancing their own claims to representation. Untouchability, defined by Congress as a Hindu social problem, fell into that class of issues which were within the power of Indians, acting for themselves, to solve. Other problems were political because they needed to be negotiated with the British. These problems were either caused by British mismanagement in the first place or could not be solved because Indians were not given the opportunity through representation on the legislative councils to put forward their ideas. The poverty of the Indian masses and the plight of the Assam coolies were thus regarded as falling into the political category and were major subjects of debate in the Congress. To what extent was the Indian National Congress prior to 1917 either national or nationalist? The number of delegates attending the meetings was quite small: it was not until the 1915 session, held in Mumbai, that delegate numbers exceeded 2,000. Delegates came from most parts of British India: so in geographic terms Congress was repre-



Delegation to Lord Minto, Simla, 1 October 1906, in Muhammad, vol. 1: 193.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 105 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


sentative. The participants had an influence beyond their numbers, not only because of the quality of the debate and the publicity it received in Britain and India, but also because of the grassroots organizing required to select delegates and, in most cases, the need to raise funds for their travel. In 1887 it was noted that in Tamil areas ‘even coolies’ had contributed funds (Zaidi & Zaidi, vol. 1: 161-162). A few delegates at the early meetings were described as ‘cultivators’ as distinguished from landholders or as artisans, but these people do not appear to have been active in the debates. Their presence and that of a few women delegates is nonetheless remarkable, given contemporary notions of representation. Britain, for example, even after the third wave of parliamentary reform in 1884-1885, did not have universal male suffrage. Congress claimed from the beginning to be widely but not completely inclusive, to have among its members ‘all castes except the lowest’, and to speak for ‘40 millions of intelligent non-starving males’, and ‘that section of the Indian people who have learned to think’ (Zaidi & Zaidi, vol. 1: 170, 223 (this appears to be a contemporary comment on the 1898 record), 457). Membership gradually widened, but it was only in the 1930s that significant numbers of Untouchables joined Congress (Kochanek 1968: 339-341). In the early years the one thing which most members of Congress had in common was knowledge of English, so that the line of exclusion did not run straight along class, religious or caste lines. Those Muslims, Hindu landlords, traditional Brahmins and poor people who spoke no English were excluded, while those who had access to English education were included: journalists and newspaper proprietors, religious leaders of various religions, princes and, above all, lawyers. Untouchables were missing not so much because of traditional caste prejudice as because the odds were so much against an Untouchable receiving English education. The nationalism of the early years was genuine, although judged in the light of later militancy, it seems feeble: Indians had to think of themselves as Indians, as a single nation, before they could challenge colonial rule. The first sessions of Congress were marked by protestations of loyalty and gratitude to Britain. Within a decade the prevailing mood had changed to criticism of British policy in India and demands for self-government within the British Empire. Then an even more radical note was sounded by an Englishman, Sir Henry Cotton, President of Congress in 1904, who foresaw that India would become auton105

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 106 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


omous and free of Britain (Zaidi & Zaidi, vol. 4: 573). In 1907 there was a split at the Surat session and the radicals who favoured using violence to oust the British left Congress, leaving loyalists and gradualists in control. In 1916, the year before the Depressed Classes resolution, the mood changed again and a vigorous and impatient attitude to ending British rule emerged. The Depressed Classes resolution was a turning point because it brought the issue back into the political arena of Congress and because it coincided with Gandhi’s intervention. However, the initiative for the 1917 resolution came not from Gandhi but from Depressed Classes and anti-Brahman organizations. Resolved that this Congress urges upon the people of India the necessity, justice and righteousness of removing all disabilities imposed by custom upon the Depressed Classes, the disabilities being of a most vexatious and oppressive character, subjecting those classes to considerable hardship and inconvenience. (Zaidi & Zaidi, vol. 7: 253) Mrs Besant’s presidential speech made clear the motivation of many delegates for supporting the resolution, ‘attempts are being made by official and non-official Europeans to draw this class into opposition to Home Rule’. She also pointed out ‘the folly of making it profitable for them to embrace Islam or Christianity’. She at least gave the Depressed Classes some credit for their own uplift: ‘movements, created by themselves, or originating in the higher castes, have been stirring in them a sense of self-respect’ (ibid.: 202-203). Gandhi’s motivation was more complex than that outlined in Mrs Besant’s speech. He mentioned in an article in Young India (27 April 1921) his early feelings of compassion for the family’s sweeper boy, Uka. Uka was a Bhangi and, as Zelliot points out, the sweeping and latrine cleaning functions of Bhangi dominated Gandhi’s concept of Untouchability (Zelliot 1998: 155). At his South African farms there were no servants and all were expected to share in sweeping and latrine cleaning. He notes in his Autobiography (Gandhi 1940: 168-169) that at the Calcutta Conference in 1901 he was obliged to clean a latrine for his own use. About 1916 an Untouchable family moved into the Ahmedabad Ashram at Gandhi’s invitation and he defended them against the protests of the other members, even threatening that his own wife, 106

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 107 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Kasturbai, would have to leave the Ashram if she could not accept the new members (Gandhi 1940: 300; Nanda 1989: 57). The Depressed Classes resolution was historic because it brought the issue of Untouchability into Congress itself and away from the margins. However, Gandhi’s stance on the issue was not markedly different from the position of Congress before 1917 or from that of Dayanand and other Hindu reformers. What distinguished Gandhi’s position was the high priority he gave to the issue, the energy which he brought to it and ‘his personal example, from the beginning, of touching the Untouchable’ (Zelliot 1998: 155). Gandhi supported the 1924-1925 Vaikam satyagraha in Travancore State (Zelliot 1998: 160-163; Ayrookuzhiel 1987: 20-21, 29). This was a locally organized campaign to secure the right of Untouchables to use a public road passing a temple. By 1932 Gandhi had come out in support of intercaste marriages and interdining which he had previously opposed (Fischer 1954: 111-112). Gandhi was not the first to work with Untouchables in a nationalist context. Swami Dayanand had started such work as part of the program of the Arya Samaj and after his death in 1883 the work continued, although more fitfully (Shraddhanand 1946; Anderson & Damle 1987). Swami Shraddhanand had done ‘uplift’ work for both Arya Samaj and Congress and believed the former was more deeply committed and more effective. In 1921 Shraddhanand found it difficult to persuade Delhi Untouchables to join Congress and noted that Muslim Congress members were particularly opposed to sharing wells with Untouchables, on the grounds that the latter ate carrion, but his major complaint was lack of leadership support for the work. He wrote to Gandhi in 1921, The Delhi and Agra Chamars simply demand that they be allowed to draw water from wells used both by the Hindus and Mohammedans and that water be not served to them (from Hindu water booths) through bamboos or leaves. Even that appears impossible for the Congress Committee to accomplish... At Nagpur you laid down that one of the conditions for obtaining Swarajya within 12 months was to give their rights to the depressed classes and without waiting for the accomplishment of their uplift, you have decreed that if there is a complete boycott of foreign cloth up till the 30th September, Swarajya will be an accomplished fact on the 1st 107

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 108 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


of October... I now want to engage my limited energy in the uplift of the depressed classes. I do not understand whether the Swarajya obtained without the so-called Untouchable brethren of ours joining us will prove salutary for the Indian nation. (Shraddhanand 1946: 134-135)13 In 1922 Shraddhanand withdrew from the Depressed Classes Subcommittee of Congress because of frustration at the lack of moral and financial support for the Subcommittee’s work (ibid.: 179-188). After his resignation the Subcommittee gave up its work, referring the question to the Hindu Mahasabha. It appended a note to its final report indicating support for separate schools and wells where Untouchables were denied the use of public facilities – a policy suggesting apartheid rather than equality (Shraddhanand 1946; Ambedkar 1946: 21-39, 309314). Shraddhanand had several other points of disagreement with Gandhi and his involvement with Congress declined after his resignation from the Subcommittee. He was assassinated by a Muslim in 1926 (Shraddhanand 1946: 189-198; preface by Swami Satya Prakash Sarasvati in the same book, pp. 14-19). While the debate on caste and Untouchability continued within and outside Congress circles, social change was transforming the lives of some Untouchables: education and employment in a variety of urban occupations broke down or at least weakened caste distinctions and made Untouchables aware that there were debates at national level about caste and nationalism. Hazari, a child servant from an Untouchable caste, was working in Simla around 1919 when he came in contact with newspapers and political debate: I could not make up my mind which side to take, whether to fight for the freedom of India or to fight for the freedom of Untouchables from the degradation of the caste system. My cousin had never lived in a village or worked for Hindus or Muslims, and he did not know the real meaning of Untouchability. So we did not look at these matters from the same angle. All his life he had worked in European families, and



The letter Shraddhanand reproduces here is dated 9 September 1921. Gandhi’s Nagpur statement was made at the Nagpur session of Congress in December 1920.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 109 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


now he held a position that was envied not only by our community but by the Hindus and Muslims. (Hazari 1969: 92) Hazari himself began to work for Europeans and, surpassing his cousin, became educated and travelled abroad. He was in turn a Congress supporter, a Christian and a Muslim, without being content with any of these identities. His autobiography ends in the 1930s. Ambedkar’s family had been caught up in the social changes of the period, not just for one, but over three generations.14 The Mahars were an Untouchable servant caste of Maharashtra. At the time of his birth, Untouchables were subject to the most severe discrimination (Keer 1962: 12-13). However, Mahars had been recruited to the Army in the period from the 1857 Rebellion to 1892, when they were again excluded. Both Ambedkar’s father and grandfather served in the Army. His father had acquired sufficient education to become a teacher after his service. Ambedkar was encouraged in his own education by some of his Brahman teachers and received from the Gaikwad of Baroda a scholarship to study in London and New York. He practised as a lawyer and economist, was a prolific author, a Cabinet Minister in the first Government of independent India and is regarded as ‘Father of the Indian Constitution’ because of the drafting work he did for the Constituent Assembly. Among the lower castes and especially his own caste, the Mahars, he is chiefly honoured for the views he espoused at the end of his life, when he turned away from politics in disappointment and led some of his Untouchable followers out of Hinduism to Buddhism which he claimed was a caste-free religion.15 Until his conversion he was secular and rational in his approach, in contrast to Gandhi. His literary style is a mixture of meticulous and accurate historical documentation and polemics with a courtroom flavour. What is missing is the direct expression of his own feelings. Of Gandhi’s fast against the Communal Award, he simply says, ‘no man was placed in a greater and graver dilemma than I was then. It was a baffling situation’ (Ambedkar 1946: 88).

14 15

For biographical details, see Keer 1962; Lokhande 1977; Zelliot 1998; Jaffrelot 2001. Ambedkar 1948; Lynch 1972; Zelliot 1998.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 110 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Mr Montagu and Lord Chelmsford had recognized in their report the need for the protection of the Depressed Classes, but the 1919 Constitution only provided them legislative representation through nomination.16 At the first Round Table Conference in 1930 Untouchables were represented by Ambedkar and Dewan Bahadur R. Srinivasan. Ambedkar submitted to the Minorities Committee of the Round Table Conference a memorandum entitled ‘A Scheme of Political Safeguards for the Protection of the Depressed Classes in the Future Constitution’ (Ambedkar 1946: 40-52). This was a very comprehensive programme of legislative protection, including anti-discrimination legislation creating the offence of infringement of citizenship and a number of social boycott offences (adapted from the Burma Anti-Boycott Act of 1922). Other provisions were the invalidation of laws and executive orders which are discriminatory, representation of the Depressed Classes by separate electorates for ten years, redress against prejudicial action or neglect of interests and the setting up of special Departments to assist the Depressed Classes, reservation in the civil services and in the executives of the central and provincial governments. He also put forward the demand that Untouchables not be counted as Hindus. His proposals were well-received, if cautiously, by the British. However, the whole Conference had an air of unreality about it since it was boycotted by Congress, one of the major players. When Gandhi and Ambedkar went to the second Round Table Conference in London in 1931, Gandhi apparently realized that he had made a mistake and given too much away in the Gandhi-Irwin Pact earlier in the year (B. N. Pandey 1969: 134-135). Therefore he was unimpressive in the discussions and seemed to be looking for an excuse to break off negotiations and resume civil disobedience. There were tensions between the two men at the Conference and at their first meeting, just prior to it (Keer 1962: 164-168).17 At the Conference Gandhi claimed to speak for ‘the vast mass of Untouchables’ (Zelliot 1998: 166). Ambedkar pressed for separate electorates for Untouchables and when the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, announced his Commu-

16 17


A. Mukherjee in Banerjee, vol. 3: 13-17; Ambedkar 1946: 334-337. Keer attributes his detailed account of the meeting to Navayug, Ambedkar Special Number, 13 April 1947. It is not clear who the author is.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 111 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


nal Award there were separate electorates for Muslims and some other groups (as before) and for Untouchables for the first time. The Communal Award was announced on 17 August 1932 and on 20 September Gandhi entered on a ‘fast unto death’ against separate electorates for Untouchables. Ambedkar could not forgive this: Gandhi, who had accepted the separate electorates for other communities and who at this time had never fasted against the evil of Untouchability, was seeking to deny political rights to Untouchables.18 During the second Round Table Conference, organizations of Untouchables voiced their support for Ambedkar and criticisms of Gandhi and, on his return from the Conference, Gandhi was faced with a hostile demonstration of Untouchables (Keer 1962: 179, 390-391; Juergensmeyer 1982: 126-129). Gandhi can be seen to have been taking a stand against separate electorates which he saw as an extreme form of communalism. He offered two explanations – his desire for a ‘heart understanding’ among the castes, leading to the repentance of the oppressors, and his fear of bloodshed if the proposals in the Communal Award became law.19 On 26 September Ambedkar yielded to the intense pressure upon him and, after Gandhi and Ambedkar reached an agreement, known as the Pune Pact, the Communal Award was amended by the deletion of separate electorates coupled with the doubling of the reserved seats for Untouchables in the joint electorates (Banerjee, vol. 3: 238-243; Ambedkar 1946: 88-95, 322-328). Ambedkar remained deeply unhappy about his decision to yield.20 In 1931, prior to the Pune Pact, Gandhi for the first time used the term ‘Harijans’ for the Untouchables or Depressed Classes.21 From prison he set up his anti-Untouchability campaign with a new weekly


19 20


Gandhi’s statements at the time appear in Gandhi 1958-1994, vol. 51. Ambedkar’s account appears in Ambedkar 1946: 77-95, 322-328. Juergensmeyer (1982: 124131) describes a fast undertaken by the Punjabi Ad Dharm leader, Mangoo Ram, in opposition to Gandhi’s fast. M. K. Gandhi, Letter to P. N. Rajbhoj, in Gandhi 1958-1994, vol. 51: 111; Mahadev Desai quoted by Zelliot (1998: 167). His regrets were expressed in a series of bitter attacks on Gandhi which were subsequently collected in the pamphlet edited by Shri Bhagwan Das as Ambedkar 1970. 2 August 1931, Gandhi 1958-1994, vol. 47: 244-245.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 112 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


paper, Harijan. In 1933, during a brief period out of gaol, Gandhi made a twenty-one-day fast against Untouchability. In August he was back in gaol and fasted against his gaolers’ denial to him of the facilities and contacts he needed for his campaign against Untouchability. In November 1933 he was again released from gaol and went on a nine-month tour against Untouchability. This tour was interrupted by a visit to the site of the Bihar earthquake which he claimed was God’s punishment for the sin of Untouchability (Nehru 1936: 383-384; Nanda 1989: 351359; Zelliot 1998: 86-88). Despite these activities, Harijan Sevak Sangh workers (whose primary commitment was to removal of Untouchability and not to swaraj) complained of obstruction by Congress leaders (Ayrookuzhiel 1987), as Swami Shraddhanand had done earlier. Nehru explains in his autobiography written in 1934 and 1935 that he and Congress had little sympathy for the movement against Untouchability and other social reform movements: But the real reason why the Congress and other non-official organisations cannot do much for social reform goes deeper [than the lack of a mass base and the fear of repression]. We suffer from the disease nationalism, and will continue to do so till we get political freedom... But social reform and the Sarda Act and the Harijan Movement did not fill our minds in prison, except in so far as I felt a little irritated by the Harijan Movement because it had come in the way of civil disobedience. (Nehru 1936: 383-384) Leaving aside those Untouchables who were politicized by their contact with Ambedkar or other community leaders and as a result shared their cynicism about the benefits of independence, as well as those who were directly affected by Gandhi’s uplift work and hence became early converts, most of the rest came by the 1930s and 1940s to support independence. It was a slow process. Shraddhanand says of the Punjab in 1893, ‘It was a time when even English-educated people knew very little about the national movement. As regards the masses, they had never heard of it before and were not certain whether it was a man, an animal or a fetish’ (Shraddhanand 1946: 21). In 1917 Gandhi had a similar experience in remote Champaran. ‘The Congress was practically unknown in those parts. Even those who had heard the name Congress shrank from joining it or even mentioning it’ (Gandhi 1940: 310). 112

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 113 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


In the 1920s regionally based groups of Untouchables such as the Adi Dravida in what is now Tamil Nadu and the Ad Dharm in the Punjab claimed to be the adi or original inhabitants of India who were invaded and oppressed by Hindu Aryans from Iran, an idea already foreshadowed in the work of Phule (Juergensmeyer 1982: 24-25, 45-54). This was a powerful blend of Western theories with the Indian respect for origins and belief in the purity and superiority of the distant past. This ideology appealed primarily to intellectuals from the Untouchable castes but was never supported by the greatest intellectual of them all, Dr Ambedkar (Zelliot 1998: 322). The anti-Brahman and, in particular, the anti-Untouchability movements perceived – correctly – that British rule was more advantageous to them than the rule of caste Hindus would be. That was also Ambedkar’s position. When the British policy of separate electorates for Muslims raised the hopes of the Untouchables and anti-Brahmans, the antipathy between these movements and the nationalist movement deepened, culminating in the conflict between Gandhi and Ambedkar. Alliances were complex and shifting. In the South, for example, Untouchables were involved with both Congress and the non-Brahman Justice Party but tensions arose when Adi Dravida workers refused to join a mill strike in 1922 and were seen as too close to the British in sympathy. In Bihar the lowest castes were active in the peasant movement of the 1930s: however, a Yadav peasant activist interviewed by Singer more than fifty years later could only remember conflicts in which the lowest castes took the side of the landlords (Damohar 1992; Singer 1997: 66-69). The late 1930s and early 1940s was the period in which Ambedkar built a mass movement, first in the form of the Independent Labour Party and then the Scheduled Castes Federation. Nonetheless Dalit politics remained regional with very different patterns in Mumbai, Mysore and Hyderabad (Omvedt 1994). It is the nature of Indian politics to be national in aspiration, regional in reality; why should Dalit politics be any different? Today Gandhi and Ambedkar are revered, but, in semiotic terms, having ceased to be signifiers, they have become signs. Asghar Ali Engineer describes an anti-Muslim demonstration in Pune in the early 1980s:


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 114 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


The procession carried portraits of Ambedkar, Mahatma Phule and Gandhiji along with that of Golwalkar [a founder of the Hindu Revivalist organization, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] and a copy of ‘Manusmriti’. Bhai Vaidya asked how Golwalkar and ‘Manusmriti’ could be bracketed with Ambedkar and Mahatma Phule. Ambedkar had burnt a copy of ‘Manusmriti’. He had said that he had been born a Hindu but would not die a Hindu and had fulfilled his vow.22 My first reaction to this story was that the life of Ambedkar was misremembered and misunderstood and had somehow lost most of its meaning as a sign. The Swedish social anthropologist Eva-Maria Hardtmann23 has pointed out that, on the contrary, the story shows the power of Ambedkar as a sign: the images of Phule, Ambedkar and perhaps also Gandhi (who after all had no place in a demonstration against Muslims) were being used to symbolize unity between caste Hindus and Untouchables. Mulk Raj Anand (1986: 155-157) suggested in his novel Untouchable that the Untouchables would in the future be liberated not by political action but by the introduction of the flush toilet; while today this seems naive in the extreme, it is true that social changes not intended for that purpose have had as much effect on the lives of Untouchables as the policies of Gandhi or of Ambedkar. On the third page of his autobiography, Hazari introduces the reader to the ‘8 miles of pucka road’ linking his village to the railway station and his life and that of his family to the outside world (Hazari 1969: 3). Globalization, capitalism and improved communications have had enormous effects, not always for good. Education has been an important factor, whatever the motives for providing it have been. The equalizing logic of universal suffrage, strengthened admittedly by reservation, and the competition between Hindus, Christians and Muslims for the religious allegiance of Untouchables have raised their status in the eyes of others. The greatest contribution of both Gandhi and Ambedkar has been what Freire calls ‘conscientization’, education of a type which enables the learners to

22 23


‘Maharashtra: Behind the Communal Fury’, Economic and Political Weekly, 6 March 1982, p. 357. Personal communication, March 1999.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 115 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


understand critically their own situation of oppression and to take control of their lives. Zachariah (1988) has explored the similarities and differences between conscientization and Gandhi’s sarvodaya but the connection to Ambedkar seems even closer. References Ambedkar, B. R. (1946) What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables, 2nd edn. Bombay: Thacker. –– (1948) The Untouchables. New Delhi: Amrit Book Company. –– (1970) Gandhi and Gandhism, Shri Bhagwan Das (ed.). Jullundur: Bheem Patrika. Anand, Mulk Raj (1986 [1935]) Untouchable. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Anderson, Walter K. & Shridhar D. Damle (1987) The Brotherhood in Saffron. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. Ayrookuzhiel, A.M. Abraham (1987) Swami Anand Thirth. Delhi: ISPCK/CISRS. Banerjee, Anil Chandra (ed.) (1961-1965) Indian Constitutional Documents 1757-1947, 3rd edn, 4 vols. Calcutta: A. Mukherjee. Brown, D. Mackenzie (ed.) (1953) The White Umbrella: Indian Political Thought from Manu to Gandhi. Mumbai: Jaico. Damohar, Vinita (1992) Broken Promises: Popular Protest, Indian Nationalism and the Congress Party in Bihar, 1935-1946. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Engineer, Ali Asghar (1982) ‘Maharashtra: Behind the Communal Fury’. Economic and Political Weekly, 6 March. Fischer, Louis (1954) Gandhi. New York: New American Library. Forrester, Duncan B. (1980) Caste and Christianity. London: Curzon Press. Freeman, James M. (1979) Untouchable: An Indian Life History. London: George Allen and Unwin. Galanter, Marc (1984) Competing Equalities: Law and the Backward Classes in India. Berkeley: University of California Press. Gandhi, M. K. (1940) An Autobiography. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House. –– (1958-1994) The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, 97 vols. Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India. 115

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 116 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Ghurye, G. S. (1969) Caste and Race in India. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan. Hazari (pseud.) (1969 [1951]) Untouchable: The Autobiography of an Indian Outcaste. London: Pall Mall Press. Ilaiah, Kancha (1996) Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Shudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy. Calcutta: Samya. Jaffrelot, Christophe (2001) Ambedkar: Leader of the Untouchables, architect of the Indian Constitution. London: C. Hurst. Juergensmeyer, Mark (1982) Religion as Social Vision: The Movement against Untouchability in Twentieth Century Punjab. Berkeley: University of California Press. Keer, Dhananjay (1962) Dr Ambedkar: Life and Mission, 2nd edn. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan. –– (1964) Mahatma Jotirao Phooley. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan. –– (1969) Lokamanya Tilak: Father of the Indian Freedom Struggle. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan. Kochanek,StanleyA.(1968)CongressPartyLeadership.Princeton:Princeton University Press. Lokhande, G. S. (1977) Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. New Delhi: Sterling. Lynch, Owen (1972) ‘Dr B.R. Ambedkar – Myth and Charisma’, in J. Michael Mahar (ed.), The Untouchables in Contemporary India. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press. Mendelsohn, Oliver & Marika Vicziany (1998) The Untouchables: Subordination, Poverty and the State in Modern India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Muhammad, Shan (ed.) (1979-1990) The Indian Muslims: A Documentary Record, 10 vols. Meerut: Meenakshi Prakashan. Nanda, B. R. (1989) Mahatma Gandhi. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Nehru, Jawaharlal (1936) An Autobiography. London: John Lane. O’Hanlon, Rosalind (1985) Caste, Conflict and Ideology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Omvedt, Gail (1994) Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India. New Delhi: Sage. Pandey, B. N. (1969) The Break-up of British India. London: Macmillan. Pandey, Dhanpati (1985) Swami Dayanand Saraswati. New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 117 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Pandey, Gyan (1983) ‘Rallying round the Cow: Sectarian Strife in the Bhojpuri Region, c. 1888-1917’, in Ranjit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies, vol. 2. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Pathan, Y. M. (1977) ‘Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Satya Shodhak Samaj’, in S. C. Malik (ed.), Dissent, Protest and Reform in Indian Civilization. Simla: Institute of Advanced Study. Phule, Mahatma Jotirao (1991) Collected Works, 2 vols. Mumbai: Education Department of Maharashtra. Risley, Sir Herbert H. (1969 [1915]) The People of India. Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint. Saradmoni, K. (1980) Emergence of a Slave Caste: Pulayas of Kerala. Delhi: People’s Publishing House. Sarkar, Sumit (1983) ‘Popular’ Movements and ‘Middle Class’ Leadership in Late Colonial India: Perspectives and Problems of a ‘History from Below’. Calcutta: K.P. Bagchi. Shah, A. B. (1983) ‘Tilak and Secularism’, in N. R. Inamdar (ed.), Political Thought and Leadership of Lockmanya Tilak. New Delhi: Concept Publishing. Shah, Ghanshyam (1987) ‘Congress and the Deprived Communities’, in Ram Joshi & R. K. Hebsur (eds.), Congress in Indian Politics: A Centenary Perspective. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan. Shraddhanand, Swami (1946) Inside the Congress. New Delhi: Dayanand Sansthan. Singer, Wendy (1997) Creating Histories: Oral Narratives and the Politics of History-Making. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Sisson, Richard & Stanley Wolpert (eds.) (1988) Congress and Indian Nationalism: The Pre-Independence Phase. Berkeley: University of California Press. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1988) ‘Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography’, in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge. Sreenivasan, K. (1989) Sree Narayana Guru: Saint, Philosopher, Humanist. Trivandrum: Jayasree. Vatsa, Rajendra Singh (ed.) (1977 [1912]) The Depressed Classes of India: An Enquiry into Their Conditions and Suggestions for their Uplift. New Delhi: Gitanjali Prakashan. Wilson, John (1985 [1977]) Indian Caste, 2 vols. Delhi: K. K. Book Distributors.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 118 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Wolpert, Stanley A. (1962) Tilak and Gokhale: Revolution and Reform in the Making of Modern India. Berkeley: University of California Press. Zachariah, Mathew (1988) Revolution through Reform: A Comparison of Sarvodaya and Conscientization. New Delhi: Vistaar. Zaidi, Moin & Sheda Zaidi (eds.) (1976-1994) The Encyclopedia of the Indian National Congress, 28 vols. New Delhi: S. Chand. Zelliot, Eleanor (1968) ‘Congress and the Untouchables 1917-1950’, in Richard Sisson & Stanley A. Kochanek (eds.), Congress Party Leadership. Princeton: Princeton University Press. –– (1998) From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement, 2nd edn. New Delhi: Manohar.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 119 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie

5. Andrew Wyatt

DALIT THEOLOGY AND THE POLITICS OF UNTOUCHABILITY AMONG THE INDIAN CHRISTIAN CHURCHES In the early 1970s the Dalit Panthers brought the term ‘dalit’ into usage as a way of referring to those who were usually known as harijans or Untouchables. The wider usage of the term has coincided with a growing assertiveness on the part of those to whom the term refers. This activism has had consequences for the political attitudes and self-perception of many former Untouchables across India. The Indian Christian churches, most of which are numerically dominated by Dalits, have had to come to terms with this trend in the last fifteen years. One result of the growing interest in Dalit identity among Christians has been the emergence of a new approach to theology. In contrast to much earlier Christian theology, Dalit theology is explicitly political. It draws heavily on ideas associated with other Dalit writers. The main innovation of Dalit theology has been to argue that if theology is to be relevant to the majority of the Indian Christian population it must be articulated from their perspective. Dalit theology pays close attention to the politics of caste in India in general and inside the Christian churches in particular. Those who take a narrow view of politics might object that much of what is discussed in this chapter is not of a political nature. This objection would be based on a view of politics as an activity largely to do with the institutions of government. Bernard Crick (1982: 30) sees politics as inextricably tied to the use of state institutions to regulate conflict between different interests in society. Therefore conflicts and disagreements that are resolved or articulated outside of the state arena 119

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 120 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


do not count as political. One problem with this view is that it can exclude important problems from the realm of the political (Held & Leftwich 1984: 144). Critics have argued that there are significant cases of conflict and the exercise of power in civil society and the family that warrant the label ‘political’. Feminist political theorists have argued for a view of politics in terms of ‘power relations which cut across state, civil society and familial realms’ (Squires 1999: 32). The treatment of caste in Indian society requires just such an expanded view of politics. It is certainly the case that caste interfaces with state institutions at numerous points and thus becomes a political issue in the narrow institutional sense of the term. Caste is often used as the basis for political mobilization to capture state power. The Indian state has also taken upon itself the responsibility to regulate certain aspects of the caste system. Official recognition of caste as a legitimate basis on which to allocate resources has also occasioned conflict that the state has assumed responsibility for resolving. However, caste also has a significant impact on structures of power and social outcomes in ways that do not always directly involve the state. Caste is an important determinant of social status, social mobility and access to economic resources. The reach of formal state institutions in India is limited, especially in the countryside, and this enables informal institutions such as caste to maintain structures of power. Though the structure of the caste system is uneven across India, and has not been immune from processes of social change, a caste-based system of social stratification remains in place and the rules of individual jatis may still place important constraints on individual behaviour. To put such a large array of power relations outside the realm of politics because of the absence of state institutions would lead to a limited understanding of Indian politics and society. * The issue of Untouchability among the Indian Christian churches has been a political one for a variety of reasons. In common with others, Dalit Christians have experienced the social stratification that follows from the power relations that are embedded in the caste system. This was not an issue that was overlooked by the Christian churches, but caste customs have permeated the churches and often performed an important regulating function within local Christian communities. Caste has become a source of political conflict as Dalit Christians have 120

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 121 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


sought to redefine their status inside the church. This has been reflected in a debate as to what constitutes an appropriate theology for the Indian Christian churches. At the same time, Dalit Christians have engaged with formal institutional politics by campaigning for a change in state policies on compensatory discrimination. In the first section of the chapter I will argue that the issue of caste has always been a political issue for the churches though it has been treated in a variety of ways. Most of the earlier Christian writings that dealt with caste opposed the institution. The aim was to de-emphasize caste as a form of social identity and point Christian converts towards social relations based on shared religious beliefs. While Dalit Christian writers share the antipathy towards caste, they argue that only by emphasizing caste oppression will it be removed. This is consistent with the resurgence of caste-based politics in wider society where caste identities are frequently highlighted as a basis for political mobilization. In the remainder of the chapter I will sketch out how Dalit identity has been incorporated into a form of Christian political theology known as Dalit theology. This form of theology reflects the material conditions experienced by many Dalit Christians, encouraging them to look backward as well as forward. The history of the Indian church and its theological traditions are subject to scrutiny, and the future of the church is also debated. The idea of a Dalit theology has been taken up by writers from a number of Christian traditions and thus it is not expressed with a single voice. However, those who are described as Dalit theologians share the fundamental idea that the Dalit Christian experience should be at the centre of the theological method. In the concluding pages I will consider some critical responses to Dalit theology.

Early Christian Approaches to Caste in India The pattern of conversion to Christianity shaped the social composition of the Indian churches. Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries found their most receptive audience among the Untouchable castes in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The Roman Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations have deeper historical roots, but it was during this period that the church in India expanded its presence in


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 122 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


regions such as Andhra Pradesh and the Punjab.1 The Syrian church predates both of these traditions but it did not encourage the conversion of lower-caste converts. The Christian missionary activity had important political implications. Conversion was a sensitive issue and it provoked a response from Hindu reform organizations such as the Arya Samaj (Jones 1989). Caste was another important issue raised by the missionaries. The response of the Christian churches to the issue of caste and Untouchability has been differentiated according to denominational traditions. The Syrian Christians did not raise any significant objections to the caste system. They were accommodated within the caste hierarchy and as they made no attempt to gain converts, they did not cause conflict between themselves and their Hindu neighbours over the ideology of caste. The Roman Catholic churches officially condemned the practice of Untouchability in the eighteenth century. However, at the local level it was usually felt to be easier to tolerate longstanding social practice (Forrester 1980: 12-16). The Protestant churches, under the watchful eye of their missionary sponsors, were more hostile to the institution of caste. Forrester argues that a consensus on caste had emerged by the early 1850s among the Protestant missionaries working in India. Caste was considered an ‘evil and idolatrous thing inseparable from Hindu religion’ (ibid.: 138). Resolutions emphasizing the incompatibility of caste and Christian doctrine were passed at a number of missionary conferences (Oddie 1979: 48). Some missionaries adopted an uncompromizing policy: new converts were expected to renounce caste prior to baptism or confirmation. The seriousness of the renunciation would be tested by holding meals which obliged congregations to join together and break the taboo on converts from different castes eating together (Forrester 1980: 43). Oddie has observed that while the ideological and theological consensus among Protestant missionaries was inimical towards caste, their practical response was more ambiguous. Attempts to eradicate caste among their new converts were often met with hostility. These attacks caused some congregations to split and even encouraged other converts to return to Hinduism (Oddie 1979: 54). Following initial setbacks many missionaries, while refusing



The mass movement conversions to Christianity are given thorough treatment in Webster 1992. Stephen Neill’s two-volume work (Neil 1984, 1985) provides an introduction to the earlier history of the Indian churches,

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 123 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


to modify their normative objections to caste, adopted a less confrontational pastoral policy within their churches. It followed from this that the attitude encouraged among the Indian churches was one of official intolerance towards Untouchability. The Protestant solution to Untouchability was part of a wider attack on the institution of caste. If the caste identity of Indian Christians could be erased then the problem of caste-based social differentiation, and with it Untouchability, would be resolved inside the churches.2 A number of missionaries campaigned for social reform of the caste system outside of the churches. In this regard they shared the aims of a number of Hindu reformers (Oddie 1979: 69). The objections to caste were motivated by theological and practical reasons. Caste was considered by the missionaries to be part of Hindu religious practice and thus inconsistent with conversion to Christianity. It also became clear that potential converts from higher caste backgrounds were deterred by the prospect of losing their status in a society organized along caste lines. The missionary challenge to caste and attempts to eradicate its practice among new converts had important political ramifications. The campaign against caste was an implicit attack on the way Indian society was ordered. Missionaries were keen to undermine social hierarchies based on ritual purity and diminish the importance of caste in determining social status. This was politically significant as the missionaries attempted to put in place an alternative status hierarchy within a community separated from wider Hindu society. This attempt was only partially successful as caste institutions, though often in modified forms, persisted inside the churches. The British government of India was not prepared to engage in significant reform of the caste system and it was left to the government of independent India to introduce legislation abolishing Untouchability. The 1950 constitution included provisions for reservation schemes to improve the socio-economic status of the Untouchables designated as members of the Scheduled Castes. This policy on Untouchability did little to assist Dalit Christians as the legislation was interpreted to mean


This is not to suggest that the missionaries were consistently egalitarian. The issues of race and class were not always recognised. Hollis makes the related point that Lutheran missionaries were reluctant to address the issue of caste because they were aware that class-based distinctions observed in churches in Europe had strong parallels with the practice of caste in India (Hollis 1962: 49).


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 124 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


that Christians were ineligible for official assistance under any of the new legislation.3 The theological attack on caste did little to improve the marginal status of Christians who very often continued to suffer the stigma of Untouchability within the church and in society as a whole (Webster 1999: 16). This was the position until the early 1980s when calls were made to reconsider Christian theology in India and to articulate a Dalit theology that would reflect the social composition of the churches.

The Status of the Dalit Christians The emergence of Dalit theology has to be discussed in the context of the social situation in which most Dalit Christians find themselves. It has been argued, by James Massey in particular, that one of the factors behind the preference for a Dalit theology is that established approaches to theology by the Indian churches have been irrelevant to the needs of ordinary Indian Christians. He notes that the majority of the Indian Christians are from Dalit backgrounds and he argues that Christian theology in India did not recognize this.4 In socio-economic terms Dalit Christians are as disadvantaged as the wider Dalit population. Kurien summarizes one local study that is consistent with the experience of most Dalit Christians throughout India [...] This basic information on land, employment and education of the Christian dalits in Vijayapuram diocese points out that they continue to be a marginalized community without sufficient income, proper habitat and adequate education to lead a decent life. (Kurien 1995: 18) In these circumstances a more appropriate theology is required. Instead of a theology that concentrates exclusively on the spiritual aspect

3 4


The response of Dalit Christians to the Indian government has been given more detailed treatment in Wyatt 1998. Rev. Dr James Massey, General Secretary of the ISPCK, in an interview with the author, Delhi, 19 August 1992.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 125 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


of life, a new theology is needed that is relevant to the social circumstances of the majority. Dalit theology is directed at this need.5 Dalit theology raises the issue of the treatment of Dalit Christians by the church. The record of the Christian churches in dealing with discrimination against Dalits within their congregations has not been exemplary. Japhet cites the recent experience of a community in a village outside Bangalore: Less than ten years ago when there was clear-cut caste oppression in this village against the Christian dalits, there used to be a separate (left) wing of the Church for dalits. Communion was served separately after being served to the caste Christians. The dalit boys were not allowed to serve as altar boys.... A separate place was allotted for the dalits in the cemetery.... [T]he form of caste oppression has changed to subtler ways... If some women try to sit in the main wing of the church they are often scolded and abused by their caste names.... They are not allowed entry into hotels and theatres.... When they go to work in the fields they are served food on castor-oil plant leaves, and water is poured into the mouth holding the vessel high up. (Japhet 1989) Anthony Raj argues that some Roman Catholic churches in Tamil Nadu are afflicted by similar problems: Even today in a predominantly Christian village, the dalit colony is distinct and separate from the upper caste settlement.... In some parishes, they are not allowed to assist the priest during the eucharistic celebration or read scriptural passages. They are denied participation in the church choir. (Raj 1992: 101) * More generally, Christian Dalits do not feel adequately represented within the Church. Christian Dalits form the majority of the congrega-


Rev. Dr James Massey, in an interview with the author, Delhi, 19 August 1992.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 126 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


tions but are a minority among the ordained clergy and bishops of the Indian churches.6 According to Raj, little had been done to rectify this imbalance: So far, no serious attempt has been made by the dioceses or religious congregations to recruit dalit boys and girls to the seminary or the religious life. We do understand that vocation is from God, but it boggles our mind why he should choose his priests from the non-dalits only. (Raj 1992: 102) In some rural areas Christian Dalits feel they are neglected as pastoral resources are concentrated in the urban areas and the poorer rural parishes are left to their own devices (Shiri: 1993: 33). Dalit theology has to be understood in the context of the social conditions, outlined above, that are experienced by most Dalit Christians.

Theology and Dalit Identity The enthusiastic adoption of the term ‘dalit’ was politically significant for a number of reasons. The use of the term signals that the new theology will have an explicitly political content. This is because Dalit theology adopts much of the agenda advanced by other Dalit writers and movements. This overt politicization begins with the very name ‘Dalit’. It is different from terms such as ‘Scheduled Castes’ or ‘Harijans’ because it is a term chosen by those to whom it refers. As such it represents



Precise figures are hard to come by but the frequency with which the grievance is aired does incline one towards accepting the broad thrust of the complaint. Damel does supply some figures for the Roman Catholic dioceses in Tamil Nadu. Dalits Christians constitute 65 per cent of the congregations in the state but only 3 per cent of the clergy are Dalits. There is one Dalit among the 14 Roman Catholic Bishops in Tamil Nadu. The drawback with Damel’s figures is that he is not altogether clear which period they relate to and one has to assume that the figures relate to the mid-1980s. Kurien cites the figures of 3 Dalit priests and 16 Dalit nuns out of totals of 99 and 324 resepectively for the Vijayapuram Diocese in Kerala at the end of the 1980s. See Damel 1990: 24-25; Kurien 1995: 20.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 127 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


a claim for cultural autonomy. The Gandhian phrase ‘harijan’ is dismissed because of its patronizing overtones. It is also a rejection of many of the colloquial ways of describing the Dalits. Wilson’s response to these pejorative terms is to argue that ‘all the names attributed to their identity are conferred upon them by others; and they are specifically meant to dehumanize them’ (Wilson 1989: 50). Dalit is a label that warns of progressive or subversive designs and does not fit easily into the traditionally respectable vocabulary of Indian Christian theology. The term is associated with the brash polemic of a radical political movement.7 In contrast, earlier writing by Protestant thinkers used the terminology of Harijans and Untouchables. In these terms they are the passive objects of theology. However, as Dalits they become the active subjects of a theology. Raj (1992: 96) sums up the significance of the term: First, it clearly identifies our oppressors. If today we are reduced to a life of abject poverty and treated as polluted human beings, it is the non-dalits that are the cause of our dehumanization. No non-dalit can absolve himself from this collective guilt. Second, the word connotes the consciousness of our own unfree existence and outcast experience, which form the basis for a new cultural unity and dalit ideology. The core of such an ideology is freedom and humanism. We want to be human, and to be human is to be free. Third, it also indicates a certain militancy. The name dalit is a symbol of change, confrontation and revolution. * The choice of the term identifies a large group of Christians with other, non-Christian, Dalit movements and indicates a move towards a more autonomous status, as Dalit Christians supplement their religiously determined identity with a worldview from another source. The use of terminology also helps to identify political allies and enemies. The use of derogatory or patronizing terms is taken as an indication of the


This militancy is most apparent in the work of Anthony Raj. Among other things he argues for a theology of disobedience within the church (Raj 1990: 9).


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 128 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


hostile attitude of the user. The adoption of Dalit identity also suggests that Christian Dalits will now demand their rights from church and society. Dalit theology is also politically significant because it raises the politics of knowledge within the Indian Christian theological community. The dominant mode of theological writing, Indian Christian theology, did not recognize the Dalit presence in the churches. The religious traditions of upper caste Hindus were used as a source on which to base theological, reflections but Dalit traditions were overlooked (Clarke 1998: 40). Critics argue that the elite, academic orientation of Indian Christian theology meant that those who had the responsibility of generating the theological discourse, those charged with deeming what and what is not considered to be true, were never Dalits. Furthermore, the content of Indian Christian theology, as noted above, did not deal with the concerns of ordinary Dalit church members. The theological methods advocated by Dalit theologians are much more likely to produce a political theology and encourage ordinary Dalit Christians to engage in grassroots theological reflection.8 In parallel with the trend towards a Dalit theology, the move towards Dalit identity establishes a new context of social relations within the Christian churches. In other words, the emergence of Dalit Christianity has significance for the internal politics of the Indian Christian churches. Dalit Christians have asserted their independence within the churches by adopting a form of identity with a base outside the Christian community. They have ceased to be the passive majority within the churches and have begun to demand recognition from the various church authorities. Finally, the shift towards a Dalit perspective has encouraged Dalit Christians to reconsider their relationship with the state. Historically the political concerns of Indian Christians have been understood as being linked with the minority status of the community. Thus the themes of secularism, religious freedom and the regulation of educational institutions were regarded as ‘Christian’ issues



Dalit theology has much in common with Latin American Liberation theology that emerged in the late 1960s. Liberation theology uses the experience of the poor as the starting point for theological reflection. This reflection is often conducted by the poor in their own basic communities and incorporates their aspirations into an overtly political theology that seeks liberation from oppressive socio-economic circumstances; see Gutierrez 1988.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 129 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


(Wyatt 1996). In contrast, Dalit Christian activists raise more material issues. They have resuscitated the old, and routinely ignored, demand for the inclusion of Dalit Christians on the list of Scheduled Castes. In the past the churches had a minimal expectation that the state should act as a protector of its freedoms. In common with other groups in Indian society, Dalit Christians are now asking the state to guarantee proportional access to government employment. While this is not a new demand, it is being voiced with greater vigour and is in keeping with the general trend of extending the process of reservation (Hasan 1998: 160-165).

History and Dalit Theology The assertion of an autonomous Dalit identity among Indian Christians requires them to take a particular view of their history. Dalit theology accepts the explanation of caste and Untouchability that is contained in the Aryan invasion theory. This account emphasizes the autochthonous identity of the Dalits. Caste is seen as an alien institution used by the invading Aryans to suppress the indigenous population at the bottom of the social hierarchy. James Massey, a leading Dalit Christian theologian and activist, has written in relative detail on the history of the Dalits. In his work he includes among his sources Hindu scriptures to draw strong conclusions about the evolution of the caste system. Among other things Massey (1991a: 73) makes the claim that the Dalits are the descendants of the indigenous people of India. This is a common theme of lower caste protest movements and is reminiscent of the ‘Lords of the Earth’ theory, claiming original possession of the region and portraying the upper castes as alien interlopers, used by the Mahars in the nineteenth century (Zelliot 1996: 57-58). It is a motif picked up by Wilson: The plausible and rational theory is that dalits are the descendants of pre-Aryan Indians.... One can without any controversy, claim that the pre-Aryan Indian culture was both autonomous and egalitarian in its nature.... the beginning of the entry of the Aryans, became the end of their glorious past. In this transition they moved from freedom to slavery,


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 130 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


from autonomy to heteronomy, from a real world to a false world. (Wilson 1989: 40) Ayrookuzhiel argues that non-Dalit history attempts to incorporate the Dalits into an account of history that generates a fatalistic acceptance among the Dalits of their lot: Dalit intellectuals and leaders (have) now realised that the consciousness of their masses shaped by Vedic and Puranic myths is a false consciousness serving the interests of the dominant castes and classes. A consciousness based on true history has to be formed to strengthen their identity and bring about their liberation and a new civilization for the whole country. (Ayrookuzhiel 1991: 177) An alternative history is important for sustaining the Dalits’ claim to have experienced a long history of oppression. This reading of Indian history serves a negative and a constructive purpose. It provides the basis on which Brahminic ideology can be denounced as oppressive but it also allows the Dalits to begin the process of constructing a new identity. If Dalit Christians can claim to share a common history, it forms an important basis on which to build a claim to possess a distinctive identity. The reconstruction of Dalit Christian history is also theologically important. Massey (1991b: 60) argues that ‘Up to now the Church history written in India is basically the history of western Christian missions. Indian Church history till now has been existing as an appendage (in the words of M. M. Thomas) to this history’. In order to produce a theology that is not merely an inferior imitation of an alien theology this issue must be addressed because a Dalit theology ‘has to come out from the experiences of dalits themselves. It must be based on the content of many living stories of the dalits. It also means that the history of Christian dalits or dalits has to be prepared first’ (ibid.). Again the autonomy and distinctiveness of the Dalits is at stake. If Dalit Christians can lay hold of their history they will begin the process of restoring their lost dignity.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 131 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Dalit Theology, Hinduism and Indian Christian Theology There is an element of protest in the treatment of Hinduism by Dalit theology. In making such a protest Dalit theologians depart from the more respectful tradition of Indian Christian theology. The writers in this latter school exhibited a varying degree of sensitivity towards the religious pluralism of Indian society.9 Some writers have understood their task to be a sophisticated translation of Christian ideas in such a way as to make them more appealing in an Indian setting and did not enter into a dialogue with Hindu systems of belief. In contrast, other writers have synthesized Christian thought with various, though usually philosophic, traditions of Hinduism (Boyd 1969). However, at a minimum, they all share a reliance on the religious vocabulary of the Hindu traditions. One general criticism that can be made of this approach is that Hinduism is used as shorthand for what it is to be Indian. This inadvertently supports a Hindu nationalist understanding of Indian identity and does little to reflect the diversity of religious traditions present in India (Ludden 1996: 6). Dalit intellectuals are antagonistic towards Hinduism because they consider caste oppression is given legitimacy and institutionalized in the religious practice of Hindus. ‘[The] ideas of purity and pollution, varnashrama dharma, etc., have been and are instruments of power legitimizing a hierarchical order’ (Chatterji 1991: 31). Dalit theology has sought to demonstrate how Hinduism became a form of false consciousness encouraging a fatalistic acceptance of one’s caste status. It has also been argued that Hinduism has colonized authentic forms of indigenous Dalit religiosity and inverted this piety into an oppressive tool. Consequently some Dalit theologians want to embark on a project to recover the lost traditions of Dalit religiosity.10 Indian Christian theology has been rejected because it utilizes the vocabulary of the philosophic traditions of Hinduism. This type of Hindu-

9 10

A representative selection is included in Sugirtharajah & Hargreaves 1993. A. M. A. Ayrookuzhiel, Associate Director of Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society (CISRS), in an interview with the author, Bangalore, 5 August 1992.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 132 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


ism is usually associated with upper caste Hindus and thus is contaminated by the Brahminic ideology that undergirds the caste system (Nirmal 1991: 54). The criticism of Hindu thought by Dalit theologians is direct, but it is not as abrasive as such publications as Dalit Voice. Though even among the Dalit theologians there are those who prefer to undermine existing modes of thinking about Hindu orthodoxy in a more direct way. Among the Dalit theologians Ayrookuzhiel (1989: 84) took a more scholarly approach that contrasts with Devasahayam’s blunt criticism of the institutions of Hinduism ‘The Karma theory was the convenient tool in the hands of Brahmins to enable Dalits not only to accept the(ir) exclusion and suppression but also to enjoy their slavery’ (Devasahayam 1992: 10). There are other ideological objections to Hinduism. Gnanadason has argued that Brahmin religious ideas have combined notions of purity into a construction linking the supposed sexual laxity of lower caste and Dalit women to the status of their community. The implication is that higher status enforces greater restrictions on women in order to protect their purity and by extension the purity of their caste (Gnanadason 1991: 135-136). The irony is that this does not deter upper caste men from sexually assaulting Dalit women. In more general terms, the status of Hinduism is caught up within a debate about the location of power within the structure of Indian society. This is a controversy in which the social category of class appears almost redundant. Those who favour preserving the upper caste dominance of Indian society have an interest in upholding the unity and practice of orthodox Hinduism. They emphasize the commonalities between higher and lower caste forms of religiosity.11 They also claim that the case against caste has been overstated. Thus the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) opposes any attempt to define political allegiance on the basis of caste and counters attempts to use caste-based mobilization with appeals to Hindu unity that transcends caste (Hasan 1998: 156); whereas those who wish to undermine the Brahmin hegemony and redistribute power among the Dalits and lower castes insist that the Hindu monolith does not exist because there is no essential unity among Hindus. This is because the religious practices of the higher and lower



Dr Motilal Pandit, Visiting Professor at Aarhus University, in an interview with the author, New Delhi, 6 April 1994.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 133 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


castes have their origins in totally different religions (Ilaiah 1996: 1). It is further argued that the myth of Hindu unity combined with caste customs have allowed the Brahmin elite to continue ruling the country. Dalit theology has been thrust into this debate and has sided with the latter point of view. The ideological clash between Dalit theology and Hinduism parallels the political opposition of the BJP to calls for reservations for Dalit Christians.12

Dalit Experience, Methodology and Exclusivity The methodology employed by Dalit theology focuses on the experience of the Dalits themselves. This experience is one marked by the rejection and alienation described above. Consequently, their reading of the Bible will concentrate on drawing out these themes and making them relevant in the daily realities of Dalit experience. It places an emphasis on the experience of an oppressed people forming an important part of the theological methodology. Prabhakar (1991: 48) states that ‘the point of departure for dalit theology is the liberation of the dalits from their socio-economic and political bondage’. In order to be true Dalit theology it must belong to Dalits because ‘it is a people’s theology, and a particular people’s theology i.e. that of the dalits, therefore a theology of the dalits by the dalits for the dalits’ (ibid.: 47). Thus it makes little sense to abstract themes from the context of Dalit experience. For instance, to discuss an atrocity against a Dalit as simply an infringement of an individual’s human rights is to misunderstand the incident entirely. The incident is integrally bound up with particular issues about intercaste relations and the unequal status of Dalits. It is likely the incident would not have occurred if it had not involved a Dalit.13 Unlike other kinds of theologies that take a wider perspective, the concern here is with a Dalit theology – a theology about Dalits devel-

12 13

‘BJP opposes quota for dalit Christians’, Asian Age, 6 December 1996, p. 5. Professor S. K. Chatterji, Director of CISRS, in an interview with the author, New Delhi, 26 March 1994. This critical treatment of human rights from an Indian perspective is examined in detail in Arokiasamy 1991.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 134 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


oped by Dalits. Nirmal (1989: 76) is adamant about the necessity of an exclusive theology ‘because the tendency of all dominant traditions is to accommodate, include, assimilate and finally conquer others’. This binding of theology to the Dalit experience ahead of links to the whole Indian church can only bring Dalit theology closer to other Dalits working from a non-Christian perspective. It is part of the attempt to give a practical meaning to Dalit claims to an autonomous position within the church. However, the methodological exclusivism has not been endorsed by all the exponents of Dalit theology and there is no practical consensus. For instance, there are Roman Catholic writers of Dalit theology who have to reconcile a local theology with their membership of a church deeply committed to catholicity. Damel (1990: 43) blends the two together by arguing ‘the only truly legitimate universal Christian theology is the Theology of the Oppressed; a theology that at once acknowledges a broken, divided world of the exploited and the exploiters’. Damel explicitly draws on Latin American writers in his description of this universal theology. He also cites the 1984 Vision Statement of the Madurai Jesuit Province, which states ‘We love the oppressed by espousing their causes and we love the oppressor by emancipating him from his greed and domination which dehumanize him’ (ibid.). It is within this universal imperative that local theologies have to be worked out. So Dalit theology becomes the ‘local theology of the oppressed, the theology of the people of India who are made to carry the stigma of Untouchability by birth’ (ibid.: 44). The background of the writers of Dalit theology is another matter that is problematic if Nirmal’s formulation of ‘a theology of the Dalits by the Dalits’ is to be consistently applied. Not all of those who have written Dalit theology come from Dalit backgrounds. A related question is posed by theology incorporating the experience of Dalit women. This involves a form of oppression that has a different, though related, mode of operation. It deconstructs the notion of a unique Dalit experience as an Indian feminist could argue that women suffer a form of oppression that can only be fully understood in the setting of gender relations. Thus an assault on a woman is not simply a matter of a human rights violation but is instead an incident that can only be understood in the context of patriarchal domination. This problem of cross-cutting bases of oppression and the importance placed on Dalit identity has prompted two responses from Arockiadoss. Firstly, he claims to be able to elect himself 134

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 135 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


a Dalit, as ‘the present student is unfortunately not a Dalit by birth, but only by option’ (Arockiadoss n.d.: vii). However, having asserted this option he goes on to reject the attempt to fence off Dalit theology from non-Dalits as there exists a universal need for human liberation and so there is an obligation on non-Dalits to share their concern (ibid.: viii).

Dalit Readings of the Bible One of the outcomes prompted by Dalit theology has been a number of innovative readings of Christian scripture. Soares-Prabhu (1992a: 94) argues that the Bible should be considered part of the corpus of Dalit literature as it devotes so much space to the victims of oppression. Many of the passages incorporated in Dalit theology are also identified by Liberation theologians as having an emancipatory content. The most obvious parallels are the gospel descriptions of Jesus as a figure accustomed to being on the margins of society and identifying with the poor and oppressed (Prabhakar 1991: 49). Among these a specific text relevant to Dalit theology is the passage in Luke (4:14-21) that records Jesus’ description of his mission as one that will liberate the poor and oppressed. Massey (1991b: 57) considers the phrase ‘oppressed’ used in the passage to be entirely synonymous with the word ‘dalit’. The suffering so poignantly depicted in the writings of the Old Testament prophets is another important theme. The nuances of the term ‘dalit’ blend well with passages describing the crushed and suffering servant of the Lord in Isaiah (53:10). Other favoured texts include the account of the Exodus and the well-known quotation from Galatians (3:28) idealizing the church as a genuine fellowship free from ethnic, class and gender divisions (Nirmal 1991: 54, 60). Devasahayam has explored the implications of a number of passages from Corinthians that deal with questions of status within the church. He argues that the divisions between Gentiles and Jews, which were inimical to the unity of the early church, can be taken as a lesson for caste-ridden Indian churches. He concludes that the elite within the Indian churches have to adopt an attitude of humility and accept the leadership of Dalit Christians (Devasahayam 1992: 46-48). Soares-Prabhu takes up a similar theme with an analysis of the messages for contemporary churches implicit in the conduct of Jesus as narrated in the gospels. Thus he infers that caste customs are inap135

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 136 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


propriate within a church fellowship (Soares-Prabhu 1992b: 159). Another new area that Dalit theology draws the Indian church into is the acknowledgement of local ‘readings’ of scripture that take place at the grassroots. Sathianathan Clarke notes that certain gospel stories are given precedence in the oral tradition of the Christian Paraiyars of Tamil Nadu. One of the stories is an account of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well. The story is an interesting one because as it narrates the breaking of a social taboo, taking a drink of water from a member of a socially inferior group, it bears a remarkable resemblance to the type of caste discrimination that stigmatizes the Dalits. The conclusion taken from these stories is that a willingness to identify with the marginalized and oppressed means that ‘Jesus was a Dalit in his time’ (Clarke 1998: 30-31).

Women and Dalit Theology In spite of the dispute over methodology Dalit theology has taken an inclusive approach to gender-based oppression. Dalit theology has been sensitive to the fact that those who suffer as a result of being Dalits are very often the women of the community. Christian Dalit women suffer the depredations of upper caste men as well as the potential problem of abuse within the home and alienation within their churches: Christian dalit women in Tamil Nadu are neither truly liberated nor totally enslaved but are simply tolerated (ignored or rejected); this is the situation of all Christian women in India. Women in general are considered to be machines for breeding and caring for children, cooking food, taking care of the house, and good for attending church services and, if educated, to take Sunday school classes. That is all. (Shanthakumari 1989: 164): A recurring theme of Dalit theology is that the oppression of Dalit Christian women is compounded by their gender. While Wilson describes Christian Dalits as the ‘twice alienated’ others have argued:


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 137 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Dalit women are the dalit of the dalit in Indian society, the thrice oppressed victims of centuries of social, political, economic, cultural and religious pressures. Dalit women in India live a precarious existence combining abject poverty with grinding labour in the fields/work places and in the home abused and used, powerless and exploited. (Gnanadason 1991: 130) This overbearing experience of oppression will become the wellspring of a new movement Dalit women, who have for centuries been kept powerless, their voices silenced, their dignity and personhood trampled on, are no longer going to accept submissively patriarchal economic, political, social, cultural and religious institutions that oppress them. The image of the dalit woman that is emerging is that of a strong person, capable of rising above many deprivations and sufferings, to keep her family together (often solely responsible for its survival!) and yet becoming a voice of strength in the community too. ‘... you have to get burns first to get your bread later...’. (ibid.: 130-131) Women have been very active in the political and theological activity of the Indian church in the last few years. In addition to contributing to Dalit theology they have participated in the protests against the government policy on reservations. The explicit treatment of gender is a significant departure from earlier Indian Christian theology.

The Implications of Dalit Theology for the Indian Churches An important part of the political project that is articulated by those who favour Dalit theology is a restructuring of the Indian churches. Dalit theology challenges the church to abandon social hierarchies and treat all of its members equally. Adopting a Dalit theology is one way of beginning this process because it obliges the church to consider the 137

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 138 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


experience of the grassroots membership as the core of its theological method. To speak of dalit theology is a liberative action in itself, considering that theology has been for too long the preserve of the elite, an academic discipline and an intellectual activity with little or no direct contact with realities experienced by people. It is a people’s self-affirmation of doing their own theology from within their own situations, for transforming them, with an alternative consciousness of the economics of equality, politics of justice, and religion of God’s freedom. (Prabhakar 1991: 49-50) Dalit theology also challenges a number of prevailing theological norms within the Indian Christian churches. As noted above it provides an indigenous alternative to the Brahminic orientation of traditional Indian Christian theology. Dalit theology acknowledges that the majority of the Indian Christians are either literate or semi-literate (Azariah 1991: 85). The most articulate Dalit theology has been written by those with formal theological training, but the anthologies of Dalit theology include contributions from the grassroots in the form of poetry, stories and personal testimonies.14 Dalit theology seeks to raise consciousness of the plight of Christian Dalits within the Indian churches. It also encourages Indian Christians of Scheduled Caste origin to begin thinking of themselves as Dalit Christians. This helps to build solidarity with the majority of Dalits who are not Christians.15 Given their minority status, this solidarity is necessary if Dalit Christians are to engage successfully with political activity at the regional and national level. The growing sense of Dalit Christian identity means that the practice of caste discrimination within the church is being discussed more openly. Another controversial issue for the Indian churches that is brought to the fore by Dalit theology is the number of Dalits employed by church

14 15


A selection of these, several of which have already been cited above, are included in the second half of the volume, edited by M. E. Prabhakar (1989). This has been pursued by the World Council of Churches funded Dalit Solidarity Programme, see Joseph 1994.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 139 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


organizations. It is a deep-seated grievance for Dalit Christians that their numerical preponderance in Christian congregations is not reflected among the employees of the churches, schools, colleges, hospitals and other institutions run by church related organizations. The imbalance among numbers of the clergy is reflected in theological education where one study estimated that only thirteen percent of academic staff was from Dalit backgrounds (Chatterji 1991: 28). This could probably be explained in part by the fact that most Christian Dalits are not as well-qualified for ordained ministry and other skilled jobs as Christians from higher caste backgrounds. However, this only raises the question as to why they have not had the access to education and other benefits which would put them in the position of being available for such preferment. In such circumstances it will be difficult for the church hierarchies to resist pressure for affirmative action schemes similar to those organized by the government.16 In a number of areas, Dalit Christians have organized very public demonstrations against diocesan authorities demanding more balanced employment of Dalits in the church. Protestors have also called for the churches to support development projects to benefit the Dalits who, it is alleged, have otherwise been neglected (Kurien 1995: 22). In some areas the issue has introduced serious social tension within the church, and in at least one case the police and the courts have been involved in resolving disputes (Raj 1992: 107-110).

The Implications of Dalit Theology for Indian Society Outside of the church Dalit Christians are concerned about their status in society. The general aim of Dalit theology has been to sustain a struggle. Nirmal (1991: 61) puts it thus, ‘the liberation struggle we are involved in is primarily a struggle for our human dignity and for our right to live as free people’. This freedom could be conceived in both negative and positive terms. In other words, Christian Dalits seek a


‘Dalits seek quota in Church bodies’, The Hindu, 19 April 1999.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 140 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


freedom from oppression and a freedom to be a dignified people. Government policies of compensatory discrimination have been important to the Scheduled Castes in these terms since the 1950s. Reservations policy is psychologically important for the Dalits because it is an official recognition of a long history of oppression. The unwillingness of successive governments to grant reservations to Dalit Christians could be taken as an official denial of their socio-economic plight. Government policy is also important because it is intended to improve the socioeconomic condition of the Dalits and put them on a more equal footing with the rest of Indian society. Christian Dalits are alienated from this process because they were excluded from these benefits. So a major focus of attention has been on government policy. Dalit Christians have lobbied strenuously to have themselves included on the Scheduled Caste list and so become eligible for compensatory discrimination. This political activity has demonstrated popular support for the practical application of Dalit theology. Since 1990 numerous demonstrations and rallies have been staged which have attracted tens of thousands of Christians keen to support the campaign for changing government policy (Wyatt 1998).

Critical Responses While caste continues to present many of the problems recorded by the missionaries, the growing assertiveness of the Dalits makes leadership of the contemporary churches more difficult. The bold claims made by Dalit Christian activists have been construed as a thinly veiled criticism of the predominantly upper-caste leadership of the churches. At the same time church leaders are aware that the Dalits are in majority in most of their congregations. There is always the possibility that the Dalits may form their own denominations (Caplan 1987: 160). The possibility of reconversion to Hinduism cannot be ruled out. Dalit theology has been criticized on a number of grounds. There are those who question the aims of Dalit theology, criticizing the pursuit of reservations as a shallow response to a more profound problem. They consider the analyses of the earlier mass movement conversions to Christianity, which point to the material advantages of conversions as a motivating factor, to be misleading. It is argued that these movements need to be 140

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 141 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


understood as expressions of Dalit consciousness motivated by a desire among the Dalit converts to reclaim their human dignity in a more egalitarian religious environment.17 So it is important for the Christian churches not to emphasize caste divisions but instead to promote fraternity and unity within their congregations. This has also been a response of the Roman Catholic Church in Tamil Nadu to the growing assertiveness of Christian Dalits. The Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Conference, in response to problems in the Pondicherry diocese in 1990, is reported by Raj (n.d.: 50) to have made it clear that it represented ‘bishops for all Catholics – not only to one particular caste, namely the Dalits’. While this was a response to political rather than theological activity, the principle can be applied in a similar fashion. Dalit theology has been criticized as being little more than an ideological tool which is being used by a Dalit Christian elite to promote its own interests. According to this view the ordinary Dalit Christians are being enlisted into a struggle for constitutional rights on false pretences. They do not realize that even if they achieve a change in the law they will not benefit because the prime beneficiaries will be those Dalit Christians who are already affluent and thus well positioned to benefit from the privileges associated with Scheduled Caste status. Thus critics argue that the purpose behind Dalit theology is to consolidate the power of a small group of Dalit Christian leaders.18 This view resembles general criticisms of the pursuit of compensatory discrimination by the Scheduled Caste elite. Those who advocate a conservative interpretation of Christian doctrine will find the ambiguity of Dalit theology with regard to religious pluralism troubling. Wilson (1982: xi) takes the view that Dalits should emphasize humanist values that transcend religion. He has also criticized the impact of Western missionary theology on the Dalits. He argues that ‘the one most powerful instrument that has blinded them and immobilized them is the salvation theology taught by the acculturated Western Christian missions’ (ibid.: 26). Jayakumar takes a contrary position and provides a more positive interpretation of the missionary legacy. He contends that conversion to Christianity was culturally liberating. In his view Christianity provided a way out of oppressive caste

17 18

Samuel Jayakumar, in an interview with the author, Oxford, 5 September 1995. Motilal Pandit in an interview with the author, New Delhi, 6 April 1994.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 142 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


culture, though he admits that the churches were not able to escape the influence of caste society around them (Jayakumar 1999: 364-365). While most writers of Dalit theology do not comment on the issue of theological universalism a few have revealed their thoughts on the matter. Sundar Clarke (1989: 32-33) is somewhat opaque but he does seem to favour a more universalist approach: ‘[Dalit] theology should go beyond the frontiers of Christianity. Dalits include a larger religious framework... A common heritage of oppression is one of the factors that should enable us to include people of other faiths’. When Ayrookuzhiel (1989: 99-103) argued for a Dalit counterculture, the suggestion was that Dalit theology should not confine its reflection to Christian sources but should seek synthesis with other forms of Dalit religiosity. These suggestions will not be well received by those of a more conservative theological outlook who prefer to keep their religious practice within well-defined boundaries.

Conclusions Many find the approach favoured by Dalit theology to be a more appropriate response to the issue of caste and Untouchability than that favoured by the churches before the 1980s. Dalit theology acknowledges that the legacy of Untouchability continues to be a problem for Dalit Christians. It advocates a new form of identity that transcends the individual interests of jatis and argues for a more inclusive grouping of those marginalized by the caste system.19 Dalit theology is still in its early stages and has not had sufficient opportunities to develop responses to as many issues as other forms of political theology. Nevertheless, in its present state it addresses the main social and political issue facing the contemporary Indian churches and reflects the experience of the majority of Indian Christians. Dalit theology can be seen as having induced a paradigm shift in the political thinking and vocabulary of the Indian churches. Dalit theology has moved the interests of many Chris-



There are those who argue that Dalit identity should not be defined on the basis of social background, in this case Untouchability, but should be based on a shared experience of oppression. See Guru 1995.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 143 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


tian intellectuals away from the concerns of an earlier generation of writers. The extensive discussions of secularism (Hoffman 1967: 37-40), nationalism and democracy (Devanandam & Thomas 1962) have been replaced by an interest in the politics of caste. Caste has always been politically significant inside the churches, but now it is discussed in terms that explicitly acknowledge the marginality of the Dalit Christians. Dalit Christians are more assertive and have begun to challenge their subordinate status. Having encouraged this change, Dalit theologians have strengthened the political position of the church on issues that affect ordinary Dalit Christians. This means that the campaign to extend Scheduled Caste reservations to Dalit Christians is conducted with greater conviction. The churches can state that they have begun to take the issue of Untouchability more seriously. However, it is unclear how the Indian Christian churches will resolve the internal politics of caste that has become more prominent in recent years. In terms of the politics of theology, the Dalit issue is certainly on the agenda of most Indian churches. Some denominations have accepted the need for a Dalit theology readily but it will be difficult for churches that make universal claims to incorporate a particular Dalit theology. A related, and unresolved, issue is how Dalit theology can incorporate non-Dalits. The spread of Dalit identity among the churches has, as described above, brought a new intensity to relationships between different caste groups within congregations and Christian organizations. Dalit Christians are more aware and less patient than they have been. It remains to be seen how well the church authorities will be able to negotiate the new politics of caste within their churches. References Arockiadoss, P. (n.d.) Ambedkar’s Quest for a New Humanity and Its Implications for Doing Theology in India Today: An Exploratory Study. A doctoral thesis submitted to Vidyajyoti College, Delhi. Arokiasamy, S. (1991) ‘Human Rights: Collective, Societal and Liberational Perspectives’. Jeevadhara, vol. 21, no. 121: 53-62. Ayrookuzhiel, A. M. A. (1989) ‘Dalit Theology: A Movement of Counter-Culture’, in M. E. Prabhakar (ed.), Towards a Dalit Theology. Delhi: CISRS/CDLM/ISPCK.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 144 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


–– (1991) ‘Dalits move Towards the Ideology of “Nationality”’, in A. P. Nirmal (ed.), A Reader in Dalit Theology. Madras: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College. Azariah, M. (1991) ‘Doing Theology in India Today’, in A. P. Nirmal (ed.), A Reader in Dalit Theology. Madras: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College. Boyd, R. H. S. (1969) An Introduction to Indian Christian Theology. Madras: Christian Literature Service. Caplan, L. (1987) Class and Culture in Urban India: Fundamentalism in a Christian Community. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Chatterji, S. K. (1991) ‘Why Dalit Theology?’, in A. P. Nirmal (ed.), A Reader in Dalit Theology. Madras: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College. Clarke, S. (1989) ‘Dalit Movement – Need for a Theology’, in M. E. Prabhakar (ed.), Towards a Dalit Theology. Delhi: CISRS/CDLM/ ISPCK. –– (1998) Dalits and Christianity: Subaltern Religion and Liberation Theology in India. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Crick, B. (1982) In Defence of Politics. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Damel, P. (1990) ‘Dalit Christians’ Experiences’, in X. Irudayaraj (ed.), Emerging Dalit Theology. Madras/Madurai: Jesuit Theological Secretariat/Tamil Nadu Theological Seminar. Devanandan, P. D. & M. M. Thomas (1962) Problems of Indian Democracy. Bangalore: CISRS. Devasahayam, V. (1992) Outside the Camp: Bible Studies in Dalit Perspective. Madras: Gurukul Theological College. Forrester, D. B. (1980) Caste and Christianity: Attitudes and Policies on Caste of Anglo-Saxon Protestant Missions in India. London: Curzon Press. Gnanadason, A. (1991) ‘Dalit Women – The Dalit of the Dalit’, in A. P. Nirmal (ed.), Reader in Dalit Theology. Madras: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College. Guru, G. (1995) ‘Dalit Identity’, presentation to a research seminar on Indian politics, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London, 23 June. Gutierrez, G. (1988) A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation. London: SCM. Hasan, Z. (1998) Quest for Power: Opposition Movements and Post-Congress Politics in Uttar Pradesh. Delhi: Oxford University Press. 144

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 145 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Held, D. & A. Leftwich (1984) ‘A Discipline of Politics?’, in A. Leftwich (ed.), What is Politics? The Activity and Its Study. Oxford: Blackwell. Hoffman, B. R. (1967) Christian Social Thought in India: 1947-1962, An Evaluation. Bangalore: CISRS. Hollis, M. (1962) Paternalism and the Church: A Study of South Indian Church History. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ilaiah, K. (1996) Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy. Calcutta: Samya. Japhet, S. (1989) ‘Caste Oppression in the Catholic Church’, in M. E. Prabhakar (ed.), Towards A Dalit Theology. Delhi: CISRS/CDLM/ ISPCK. Jayakumar, S. (1999) Dalit Consciousness and Christian Conversion: Historical Resources for a Contemporary Debate. Delhi: ISPCK. Jones, K. W. (1989) Socio-religious Reform Movements in British India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Joseph, I. (1994) Dalit Solidarity Programme Report: Four Regional Consultations. Delhi: ISPCK. Kurien, S. G. (1995) ‘Struggle for Survival – Experience of the Christian Dalits (In Vijayapuram Diocese) in Kerala’. Religion and Society, vol. 42, no. 2. Ludden, D. (1996) ‘Introduction: Ayodhya: A Window on the World’, in D. Ludden (ed.), Contesting the Nation: Religion, Community, and the Politics of Democracy in India. Philadelphia: Philadelphia University Press. Massey, J. (1991a) Roots: A Concise History of the Dalits. Delhi: CISRS/ ISPCK. –– (1991b) ‘Ingredients for a Dalit Theology’, in A. P. Nirmal (ed.), A Reader in Dalit Theology. Madras: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College. Neil, S. (1984, 1985) A History of Christianity in India. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Nirmal, A. P. (1989) ‘A Dialogue with Dalit Literature’, in M. E. Prabhakar (ed.), Towards a Dalit Theology. Delhi: CISRS/CDLM/ ISPCK. –– (1991) ‘Towards a Christian Dalit Theology’, in A. P. Nirmal (ed.), A Reader in Dalit Theology. Madras: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College. Oddie, G. A. (1979) Social Protest in India: British Protestant Missionaries and Social Reforms, 1850-1990. New Delhi: Manohar Publications. 145

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 146 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Prabhakar, M. E. (ed.) (1989) Towards a Dalit Theology. Delhi: CISRS/ CDLM/ISPCK. –– (1991) ‘The Search for a Dalit Theology’, in A. P. Nirmal (ed.), A Reader in Dalit Theology. Madras: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College. Raj, A. (1990) ‘Sociological Foundation for a Dalit Theology’, in X. Irudayaraj (ed.), Emerging Dalit Theology. Madras: Jesuit Theological Secretariate. –– (1992) ‘The Dalit Christian Reality in Tamil Nadu’. Jeevadhara, vol. 22, no. 128. –– (n.d.) ‘Dalit Christians’ Struggle in Pondicherry – A Case Study’. Shanthakumari, P. (1989) ‘The Christian Dalit Women Today’, in M. E. Prabhakar (ed.), Towards a Dalit Theology. Delhi: CISRS/CDLM/ ISPCK. Shiri, G. (1993) ‘In Search of Roots: Christian Dalits in Karnataka and their Struggles for Liberation’. Religion and Society, vol. 40, no. 4. Soares-Prabhu, G. M. (1992a) ‘Editorial’. Jeevadhara, vol. 22, no. 128. –– (1992b) ‘The Table Fellowship of Jesus – Its Significance for Dalit Christians in India Today’. Jeevadhara, vol. 22, no. 128. Squires, J. (1999) Gender in Political Theory. Cambridge: Polity. Sugirtharajah, R. S. & C. Hargreaves (eds.) (1993) Readings in Indian Christian Theology. London: SPCK. Webster, J. C. B. (1992) The Dalit Christians: A History. New Delhi: ISPCK. –– (1999) ‘Who is a Dalit?’, in S. M. Michael (ed.), Untouchable: Dalits in Modern India. Boulder, Co: Lynne Rienne. Wilson K. (1982) The Twice Alienated: Culture of Dalit Christians. Hyderabad: Booklinks Corp. –– (1989) ‘An Approach to Christian Dalit Theology’, in M. E. Prabhakar (ed.), Towards a Dalit Theology. Delhi: ISPC. Wyatt, A. (1996) ‘Indian Christians and the 1996 Lok Sabha Elections’. Contemporary Political Studies, vol. 1: 265-272. –– (1998) ‘Dalit Christians and Identity Politics in India’. Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, vol. 30, no. 4: 16-23. Zelliot, E. (1996) ‘The Leadership of Babasaheb Ambedkar’, in E. Zelliot, From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement. New Delhi: Manohar.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 147 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie

6. Simon Charsley

UNTOUCHABLE IDENTITY AND ITS RECONSTRUCTION The apparently age-old phenomenon of Untouchability is often taken to be one of the few basic and uniform features of Hindu society, even spreading over to non-Hindu sections of India’s population, but, as I have argued elsewhere (Charsley 1996), this should not be accepted at face value. It has been part of the social framework into which Indians have been born since the first half of the twentieth century; it has also been an egregious feature of the society for many foreign anthropologists trying through first-hand fieldwork to understand and analyse it; but in important respects it has been under construction during that period, and by the end of the twentieth century this process was still far from complete. Ideas, values and related discriminations of the kind which were appropriately labelled ‘Untouchability’ at the end of the first decade of the century were real – and sadly often still are – but what has been constructed is a sharp, uniform and pan-Indian dichotomy between ‘the Untouchables’ and ‘Caste Hindus’ where there had previously been only a multiplicity of variable boundaries, rankings and exclusions. Out of this new dichotomy came soon to be developed the legal distinction between Scheduled Castes and others. This in turn was progressively entrenched within a vast complex of institutions, legislation and vested interest in the course of the century (Charsley & Karanth 1998b). It is an unusually transparent example of the way in which fundamental social facts are generated. In this case, it was primarily the cumulative actions of well-intentioned reformers which achieved it. Here I mean to discuss first the ways in which content has been given to ‘Untouchable’ as an identity – and subsequently to ‘Dalit’ and ‘Bahujan’ – in the cause of freeing those to whom it was originally 147

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 148 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


applied from the peculiar disadvantages it signified. The process of creating the Scheduled Caste category after 1935 already suggested that the attempt to transcend individual caste (jati) identities would be problematic. The kinds of discrimination labelled ‘Untouchability’ were always imposed on the basis of identity from birth as members of particular castes. The new Untouchable identity sought to override this but the reformers quickly came up against inter-caste rivalries and discriminations amongst those so designated. When a legal category came to be defined, it was in terms of lists of discrete castes. Membership of one of these had to be proved in order to claim the new ‘scheduled’ status, entrenching them as significant identities, whatever had been their previous nature.1 In what is often seen as characteristic of Indian society, it was the addition of a new difference without displacing any of the old. I first examine the extent to which the Untouchable label has been turned into embraceable identity, and then turn to the continuing heterogeneity of the castes involved (cf. Deliège 1995: 39-43). This and the subsequent discussion rest most directly on the insights obtained from a recent study of nine local Scheduled Caste communities in Karnataka (Charsley & Karanth 1998a).2 The chapter goes on to consider whether current reassertions and attempted revaluations of caste (jati) identity may offer ways ahead which have not been so far achievable through the earlier initiatives.




Lists of apparently discrete castes were the form: the extent to which the names represented separate entities is complex and variable (see Charsley & Karanth 1998b: 23-25, 38-40). The work was carried out by a team from the Institute for Social & Economic Change (ISEC) in Bangalore and the University of Glasgow. Thanks are due to these institutions and to the ESRC, which funded the research (Project No. R00023468). The other members of the team are all cited here: it is their work above all which is reported. The support and friendship of team members and many others in India has over the years gone far beyond the bounds of duty and I am deeply grateful.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 149 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


‘Untouchable’: From Label to Identity However well-meaning the creation of the ‘Untouchable’ label was, evoking indignation based on a sense of common humanity, the perspective which it embodied was that of superior people for whom others might be ‘Untouchable’ though they themselves were not. It referred to nothing positive that those so labelled might be for themselves or for others. Gandhi, initially taking up the term himself, soon became uncomfortable with it and created his own substitute intended to be more positive. ‘Harijan’, for him ‘Man of God’ but usually glossed as ‘children of God’, was intended to give them a spiritual value superior to those who customarily discriminated against them, ‘men of evil’ (Gandhi 1954: 16), but it was not a positive value which could be expected to appeal to many of the ordinary sufferers. The work of the Harijan Seva Sangh, Gandhi’s upper-caste organization dedicated to their ‘upliftment’ by material and Hindu spiritual means, was nevertheless welcomed and supported by some, and local jatis in some areas of the South did adopt the term as a caste name in place of such older and stigmatized names as the Kannada ‘Holeya’ and the Tamil ‘Paraiyar’. For those so labelled it was transformed in practice, that is to say, changed into no more than a euphemism for the older names of particular castes. Others often subsequently found the Gandhian enterprise and its label patronizing. Profane readings of the term represented it as covertly derogatory: if people were being called ‘children of God’ this was tantamount to denying them human fathers, declaring them bastards. Out of context such an idea may seem no more than an amusing play on words and meanings, but its resonance with typical village insults gives it force. Therefore, although use of the term was positive for some, who embraced it as a new claim to dignity and respect, it was neither generally welcomed nor taken up by Untouchables themselves in the broader sense intended. For particular castes it neither linked with existing cultural assets nor provided the base for the construction of new. In this it contrasted with what may be loosely termed the Adimovement. This had begun in the South in the late nineteenth century, well before the appearance of ‘Untouchable’ as a category. Already at this point there was a directly Brahmanical category in official use, ‘Panchama’, standing for a fifth quasi varna, i.e. for castes deemed excluded even from the fourth or Shudra varna. As Gandhi tried to improve on ‘Untouchable’, so in Madras the attempt was made to move 149

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 150 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


to a more favourable designation. Here organization of those so designated, and participation by members of the tiny elite already present amongst them, was an element from the beginning. The ideology was of mobilization to bring pressure on government in one’s own interests, rather than of duty to uplift others less fortunate. The Adi-Dravida Mahajana Sabha, the origins of which go back to a Pariah Mahajan Sabha formed in 1892 in Madras (Pradhan 1986: 84, 95; Mohan 1993: 46 f.), appears to have been the first such organization. It drew upon the idea of original (adi-) inhabitants of the South (dravida) – indeed of most of India – conquered and reduced by an alien people from the North, thought of as Aryan and/or Brahman. Subsequently, the movement spread, first to Telugu-speaking parts of Madras Presidency which would later form part of Andhra Pradesh,3 and then to Mysore. ‘AdiDravida’ remained the Tamil version (though particular caste sections were soon mobilizing under their own separate designations) but AdiAndhra and Adi-Karnataka became the equivalents for the other two linguistic regions. Since Tamil immigrants were instrumental in introducing the movement in Mysore – part of Karnataka as it would later become – there the movement was always characterized by multiple ‘originals’, Adi-Dravidas as well as Adi-Karnatakas. Indeed, there was soon also, on a significantly different basis, an Adi-Jambava Sangha, formed in 1926 (Chandrasekharan 1989; Omvedt 1994: 125-133). Here ‘Adi-’ was attached not to a country or a people but to an ancestral figure representing one particular jati, Madigas. The Mysore government, with progressive intentions, decided that unity should be imposed and that the ‘Adi-Karnataka’ version should officially replace ‘Panchama’. In deference to the policy, at the 1931 Census both Holeyas and Madigas were returned as Adi Karnataka, whatever their own choice of name (Iyengar 1932: 327-328). Subsequently, the designation has been used on occasion by members of both castes for official purposes, but in any given region only by one or the other. Whichever has been locally preponderant – generally Holeyas in the far south, Madigas further north – has claimed the Adi-Karnataka title, leaving the other



In Hyderabad, the Nizam’s capital which was to become the capital of Andhra Pradesh but was outside Madras Presidency, an ‘Adi-Hindu’ movement developed in the first decade of the century. In ideology this was proto-Gandhian. It was not until the 1930s that the southern Adi- ideas took hold (Venkatswamy 1955: 69 f.).

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 151 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


to be either Adi-Dravida or Adi-Jambava, or indeed to eschew any such new-fangled names. Official confusion has never subsequently been resolved and it is now the stuff of political rivalry between the castes themselves. This Southern Adi-movement, which had echoes elsewhere in India (Hutton 1963: 488; Juergensmeyer 1989), therefore began to lose its supra-caste significance rather quickly. As was to happen to ‘Harijan’ subsequently, the Adi- terms were adopted by particular castes as differentiating names with few if any of the original historical connotations remaining. However, during the Mumbai Presidency of the 1930s a similar mobilizing and reconstructing of identity through an appropriate history found an effective leader and exponent in the person of B. R. Ambedkar.4 He was himself a Mahar, one of the major excluded castes of Maharashtra, amongst whom, as in the South, an educated elite was already emerging in certain limited areas by the late nineteenth century. Born into a military family, he secured an education in India and then trained as an economist in the United States and a lawyer in Britain. Returning to India he did not, however, seek new labels. He embraced the title ‘Untouchable’: it had been the creation of the same wellmeaning elite whose patronage had enabled him to realize his own potential. He made of it a banner behind which he would seek to assemble members of castes suffering discrimination, creating for them a power base commensurate with their numbers. He played a leading role in Indian public affairs, participating as the main representative of the Untouchables in official and political preparations for the eventual independence of India. In the post-Independence government of Nehru, he was Justice Minister and chief author of the constitution of the Republic. Throughout his career he wrote voluminously. He put his wide-ranging, broadly social-scientific study to direct political use in shaping the future for his country and his people, the Untouchables. Providing them with a history was a part of this, a history which connected them with supposed original rulers of the country, the Nagas, and with opposition to the Brahman. The Untouchables were the ‘broken men’, those who had refused to succumb to Brahmanic reconversion after the glorious Buddhist era of Indian history (Ambedkar 1969).


The literature on Ambedkar is voluminous and increases each year. See, for a start, Keer 1954.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 152 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


In all this he opposed Gandhi, often fiercely (Ambedkar 1945): the task was to stand up for oneself and assert one’s own rights, not to renew ancient dependence by looking to upper castes for upliftment. Gandhi’s interests were in keeping the Untouchables within the Hindu fold, whereas he was seeking ways out of it, eventually finding them for himself and thousands of followers in a mass conversion to the old religion of Buddhism at Nagpur, city of the ancient Nagas. It was estimated that half a million converted on that day in 1956 shortly before his death. Numbers have grown since, with several subsequent waves of conversion in Maharashtra and elsewhere. This was a mass, rural movement aimed at directly transforming the conditions of those refusing their allocated and discriminatory place in Hindu society. Since it did not tackle material dependence and was not able in the short run to set up any machinery to support village rebellion, its practical outcome was nevertheless disappointing for many. In the longer run, it has been gradually possible to build on and fill out the promise of 1956 for those converted or converting, but more generally substance has been to a link, historical and cultural, which Ambedkar sought to achieve in his writing, between twentieth-century Untouchables and the Buddhists of ancient India.5 As will be noted below, this has provided exploitable roots even for those who do not explicitly embrace Buddhism. The other part of his legacy has been to found a directly political movement. This has always been fissiparous and has never had the field to itself. Nevertheless, despite problems, it has been the Ambedkarite Dalit movement which has, with increasing force, been able to challenge the implications of a social order which includes Untouchability. Dalits are, that is to say, the radical critics of caste society, with an inclination, more or less developed at different times and places, to enlarge the Dalit category beyond the Untouchables as originally defined. At times they see themselves as the energizing principle for the mobilization of indigenous Indian society struggling to free itself from the domination of quasi-colonial Brahmans and their upper caste allies and from the hegemony of their ideology of inequality expressed in Brahmanical Hinduism. As a movement this took form with the cre-



Buddhism as a potential new identity for Untouchables is, like Christianity, an important and complex topic but space is not available to discuss it here. On Buddhism, see e.g. Wilkinson & Thomas 1972; Kenadi 1995; Burra 1996.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 153 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


ation of the Dalit Panthers in Mumbai in 1972 (Joshi 1986). It has often avoided party politics, reacting against a conservative bias in the system of reserved constituencies, a system to which Ambedkar’s unwilling agreement in the so-called Pune Pact was extracted by Gandhi’s coercive fasting. The Dalit movement gradually spread to other states, notably Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, and in recent times has begun to impinge on party politics too. At times this has meant widespread support for Kanshi Ram and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) based in the ‘cow belt’ states of central North India, at others a fragmentation amongst non-Dalit parties.6 The Dalit movement has built on the person, the life, the ideas and the writings of Ambedkar. It has been largely these that provided the basis of a cultural heritage for Untouchables or Dalits. His physical image, commonly in the form of full-length statues, and his name on institutions, buildings and streets are everywhere. Often these have been put in place in response to demands for recognition and respect, and their presence represents acknowledgement. Sometimes it has been hard won, as exemplified by the long battle to rename the Marathwada University in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, in Ambedkar’s honour. He has become in this way not only the inspiration but the totem of the Untouchable category, contributing directly to its socio-cultural stability. In addition his writings (both the short and accessible booklets he originally published and the long series of volumes of his speeches and occasional writing which has been in publication since 1989 by the government of his own state, Maharashtra) provide an impressive grounding for Dalit literature. More recently Kanshi Ram, the BSP leader in North India, has for some taken on the mantle of Ambedkar, as the successful Dalit leader about whose achievements pride can be felt. Thus the Dalit movement did what had not been achieved and was probably impossible before. With the growth of education and the potential for travel and communication more generally, even amongst Untouchables, it began to give content to an identity shared across castes and to an exploitable cultural heritage. Ways in which identity-construction is in some areas moving beyond Ambedkar are also increasingly apparent. From his initiative, but


Suresh (1996) provides a useful account of Dalit politics, the spread and the limitations of the movement from Independence to the end of the 1980s.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 154 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


not always subscribing to his account, histories of the Untouchables have been constructed which assert a common history for a single ‘people’ (e.g. Jha 1975; Massey 1995). Katti Padma Rao, an energetic publicist and leader of the Dalit Mahasabha in coastal Andhra Pradesh, makes identity-formation his explicit task.7 A former Sanskrit College lecturer and a prolific Ambedkarite writer in Telugu, he traces a materialist or humanist philosophy characteristic of the culture of the people from ancient times. This he contrasts with Brahmanism, the idealist religion which he places as the equivalent for the upper castes. Brahmanism, he says, is not a people’s religion. Temples are ‘human weakness centres’: gambling, prostitution, all the weaknesses of men go on there; their own centres – libraries, not temples – are, in contrast, to encourage human strengths. Man has to be reconstructed; the village has to be reconstructed. The organizing of mass marriages breaking away from Brahmanical restrictions is an important part of it, but the major instruments are to be literature, folk art, plays, sculpture, folk oration and song. Dalit culture exists, he asserts, preeminently in song: his movement puts on programmes of songs, debates, monologues, expressions of moods of suffering, as well as speech-making. In Andhra Pradesh a particularly rich base of traditional popular performance in many genres (often the specialities of particular Untouchable communities) has been exploited for political purposes since the 1950s. In recent times, societies of Dalit singers and performers, with popular singer-composer-directors leading them, have been active in campaigns of consciousnessraising and mobilization. Padma Rao, supported by such attractions and himself a powerful orator, draws thousands to mass meetings and his message is distinctive. He promotes an enlargement of Dalit identity in which knowledge based on literacy and reading is to be central. Every Dalit home is to have books; his movement is financed in part by the sale in their thousands of didactic booklets which he produces on his own press at the movement’s centre. Accordingly his own writing has an emphasis on knowledge first (Padma Rao 1995, 1997), though he



This account is based on discussion with Katti Padma Rao at Ponnur, Guntur District, AP: 20.09.97. See also Padma Rao 1995, 1997.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 155 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


also writes and publishes poetry, contributing regularly to a local Telugu newspaper,8 and has published a collection of folk songs. He seeks to strengthen access for the masses to Dalit literature, a major field of cultural pride and achievement. It is an identifiable category of literature, flourishing in several languages and parts of the country, but most widely known and translated from Maharashtra (Dangle 1992; Nagaraj 1993; Satyanarayana 1995; Zelliott 1996). Its poets, writers of short stories, novels and autobiography, its essayists, critics and directly political writers publish vigorously and find a committed readership. It contributes to and feeds upon movements for education and politics, and it has strong links within academia, not only in India but occasionally abroad. Poetry is particularly important: in a free verse form it allows far larger numbers to make a literary debut than would the greater technical and publishing demands of larger scale work. Its publication in newspapers, periodicals and anthologies now draws in poets who are not themselves Dalits, and in several languages it has sometimes been judged the most vigorous and innovative area of current writing. For Padma Rao there is no ready-made alternative to the identity for Untouchables imposed by hegemonic Brahmanism; it is not a matter of reviving the past but of revealing hitherto ignored aspects of it and using the knowledge in creating a new present. Without being himself a Christian, he acknowledges strong Christian support in his own formation and current operation; without being a Buddhist, Buddhism is a key element in his materialist philosophy and the link is asserted in the naming of his movement’s centre and his own home, Lumbini, as well as in the naming of his children. He develops old ideas from anthropology, identifying an original egalitarian and matriarchal culture and contrasting it with patriarchal Hinduism as creating inequality in every field it touches. These become resources for the progressive identity he is seeking to construct as an alternative culture. Here, therefore, the current Dalit movement is seen going beyond Ambedkar. It has more concern for local culture and more respect for it than the master himself ever displayed, using it and building on it.


In September 1997 he published, for instance, a poem on the death of the British Princess Diana, representing her as a champion of the world’s Dalits.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 156 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Difference and Division amongst Untouchable Jatis Cultural work for the Dalit category, based on Ambedkar and going beyond him, has therefore been considerable. It has had marked success in some areas, with Dalits now collectively a conspicuous and assertive element in Indian society. Individually, there can be little doubt – though the matter would be hard to demonstrate conclusively – that those now called Dalits tend to differ markedly in their attitudes and stance towards upper castes from their parents and grandparents in the earlier part of the century. It may seem odd therefore that this successful line of advance is not simply further pursued. However, the resilience of jatis as major units of collective identity in the society generally means that, instead of ‘Dalit’ displacing these separate identities, it is something added to the available repertoire. It is an identity which has more significance amongst the educated than for others and one of often minor interest or relevance in the village context, where jati perceptions persist often unrivalled and still based in the kinds of tradition to which Ambedkar expressed his clear aversion. In a speech in Marathi delivered in 1937, he put matters forcefully: If every caste sticks to its own caste for its pride, if Mahars remain Mahar and Mangs remain Mang [the leading and rival Untouchable castes of Maharashtra], we would not be able to fight the injustice against us. What is there so great about the names Mahar and Mang, that you should feel proud of it? What bright history comes in front of your eyes by uttering these names, so that you should strive for preserving old traditions? All society is considering these names contemptible. [...] So you must not have any pride for these names. (Jamanadas 1998) Ambedkar himself saw nothing but the reflection of a hateful past in the old jati identities, a perception shared at times by others who, in some cases, have rejected any use of old names as inherently abusive (Armstrong 1998: 172-173). He therefore lacked sympathy with attempts to maintain them or organize on the basis of them. His concern was with ‘the annihilation of caste’ (Ambedkar 1936). Though his intentions in using the always potentially contentious term ‘caste’ have


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 157 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


been contested, there can be no doubt as to his attitude to the old caste identities. Nevertheless, for Untouchables as for others they persist: membership in endogamous, culturally individual and birth-ascribed jatis remains important. For people of the collection of jatis whom others chose to see as ‘the Untouchables’, the problem of change is exacerbated by three common if variable factors: two rooted in the deep past, the third in twentieth-century reformism itself. Different kinds of livelihood specialism or hereditary occupation, often with intense associated values and meanings, and long-standing rivalries and hostilities are the first two, and competition for twentieth-century state patronage the third. These factors impinge in a complexly differentiated field. Its outlines need to be sketched before its relevance for the contemporary reconstruction of identities can be addressed. Livelihood specialisms are often thought central to caste identity9 but, as it is not so often noted, there are two dimensions to this. On the one hand there is the task and the meanings and values attached to it, on the other the relationships within which it is performed. Either or both may add or detract from the status of those involved in it. For example, ploughing one’s own land is almost invariably preferable in status terms to ploughing someone else’s as a servant; to have a servant ploughing is always more status-conferring than to be that servant. Exact positive and negative meanings depend on many particular factors: traditionally, for example, for most Brahmans to be ploughing their own land has had strong negative implications which are altogether absent for members of so-called ‘Peasant’ castes. Ploughing for others may be carried out within different employment relationships varying in their status implications. Both what is done, and for whom and on what terms it is done, need attention. Three major categories related to ‘traditional work’ have also to be differentiated amongst castes who were labelled Untouchable. For those who fall into the North Indian category of Bhangi or Sweepers, the work itself is heavily stigmatizing and the relationships involved, though


Karanth (1996: 89) notes that ‘If there is one significant change in rural and urban India today it is its growing dissociation with hereditary occupation’. He adds, however, that this applies much less to members of lower castes and in particular to Untouchables (91-92).


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 158 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


variable, are less significant; for those associated in a variety of ways with leather work, both task and relationship are in varying and instructive ways more significant; and for those whose main association is with agricultural tasks it is not these but the relationships which are of primary significance for status. A number of other materials used and services commonly associated with Untouchable castes are also significant, as are both female and male activities, though there are gender differences and specialisms in some cases. The main categories are considered in turn, necessarily too briefly to do justice to the variations and complexities here. Bhangis or Sweepers are those who perform the closely allied tasks of cleaning streets, public places and public and private latrines. In so doing they are thought by many to pollute themselves in the complex senses developed within Hindu thought, as well as associating their persons with substances and conditions which are considered disgusting much more widely. Though ‘Bhangi’ is often reported as itself a caste, it is generally more appropriately understood as an occupational category to which a variety of individual castes may belong. Their members commonly perform other low-status tasks in villages where little if any of the classic, urban sweeping is called for, but it is their association with sweeping which ensures that every group engaging in such work will be close to the lowest in any scheme of caste ranking envisaged. As a specialism, the task was historically more developed in North India than in the South and in urban more than rural environments, but employment has expanded in recent times. Water-borne sewage systems have reduced the demand for cleaning of dry latrines in private upper-class homes, but employment by municipalities and other large organizations has increased. Those with traditions of Bhangi work, and indeed others who have been willing from necessity to trade status for economic advantage, have often been able to find relatively advantageous employment in the public and formal sectors. As a caste specialism it has therefore shown a resilience in contemporary conditions. Yet secure employment and relatively good remuneration, even when combined with a Western-style separation of home from work, do little to alter the low status and exclusion of those involved (Searle-Chatterjee 1981; Shyamlal 1992; Prashad 1996). Castes associated, if sometimes only indirectly, with leather are the second and highly contrasting major section of the Untouchable or Scheduled Caste population. They include the Chamars of the North, 158

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 159 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


the Bhambis of Gujarat, the Andhra and Kannadiga Madigas, and the Chakkiliyans of Tamil Nadu. Like other castes these have historic heartlands where large populations are often intricately sub-divided, and regions of expansion where they appear as single and simple minority castes in local caste orders. Both the production of leather and the manufacturing of articles from it have been specialisms generally found in rural as well as urban areas. Producers might be relatively less specialized members of village ‘jajmani’ teams, with obligations to supply the leather needs of patrons, particularly footwear (chappals) and harness for draught animals. In many areas in the past, irrigation depended on them too: they were the manufacturers of essential buckets for standard irrigation devices. Leather workers were therefore widely found as an integral part of basic rural economic orders, but they might also belong to one of a range of castes with more specialized roles and niches. Specialized tanners in town and villages, castes manufacturing better qualities of particular objects such as premium styles of chappals for more sophisticated markets, castes focused on saddlery, military equipment, etc., all might be found. There might also be castes of jobbing repairers of leather goods, only occasionally getting opportunities to make new chappals or other items. Where such differentiation has been found, the castes concerned formed ranked series, in some regions even to the extent of seeming to constitute a separate caste system of their own. The Madigas have had trading and priestly ‘sub-castes’, as well as others less directly linked with any leather specialism. They have also had their own ‘satellite’ castes, some rendering a clear service, others more puzzling as to their raison d’être (T. R. Singh 1969: 31 f.; Armstrong 1998: 175-179). Leather-working castes as a whole, and those who associate closely with them, come therefore to represent an excluded but powerful and not inevitably impoverished section of the population. In northern Karnataka and southern Maharashtra, the two leather castes of highest status are a primarily urban tanning caste and a caste of specialized chappal manufacturers. In recent times the latter have produced an elaborate and distinctive style for export on a large scale. Here the tanners are the financiers of leather production, buying hides, tanning in co-operative tanyards and supplying credit to manufacturers (Parameshwara 1990: 33-36, 114-115; Ashok Kumar 1998b: 240). However, since the association with leather working characterizes particular communities and castes, it is inevitably acquired by succeeding genera159

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 160 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


tions and survives even where their numbers have outstripped any possible leather-related employment. This is something which has likely always happened, but which has become more significant in modern times with rapid population growth and with increasing substitution of non-leather goods for those previously requiring it. In village contexts it often seems therefore that supposed leather workers are merely agricultural labourers, generally impoverished. In vast areas of the north Chamars constitute the main Untouchable caste, regarded as near the bottom of local caste hierarchies. As Armstrong’s work (1998) in a Karnataka village has shown, however, such castes may be living simultaneously in terms of a second set of intra- and inter-caste relationships and associated socio-cultural meanings, in an altogether more expansive geography reaching beyond the village. The third category of Untouchable castes contrasts with the preceding Sweepers and Leather workers in the absence in their work lives of anything that marks them off from anyone but Brahmans as polluted. Working primarily in agriculture, it is only when they have been required to perform tasks such as the removal of carcasses and cleaning of village streets and buildings in preparation for festivals and ceremonies (for the village collectively or for particular superior caste families) that they have associated with pollutions such as those characterizing the livelihoods of the two preceding categories. Apart from the Chamar region of the North, such castes constitute either the main section of the population traditionally treated as Untouchable, such as the Dheds of Gujarat, Mahars of Maharashtra, the Paraiyars and Pallars of different parts of Tamil Nadu and the Holeyas of Mysore (southern Karnataka), or they are in competitive balance with village-based leather-working castes. At times they have been treated as slaves, most notoriously in Kerala where they once belonged physically to estates. More often they have been denied the right to own land or farm on their own account. At other times and places however – the Mysore kingdom even before modern times is an example – they had greater freedom of movement and livelihood. Dependence on local superiors has long been variable and remains so. Where it has been less, and relatively free exploitation of land has been possible, some have been able to prosper materially. Even if they did so, however, their status would still be ritually marked by exclusion from Brahman-controlled temples and religious events. The marked differences between regions in this respect seem probably to have been linked historically with the scope for intensive land ex160

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 161 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


ploitation. Under rainfed conditions with extensive unused land, as has been found at many places and periods in much of the Deccan, both the incentive to control labour and the possibility of doing so were less than in areas with highly productive land, developed through large-scale irrigation and depending on control of extensive labour resources for its exploitation. These three already very different categories of caste still do not exhaust the variety of those which have been considered Untouchable. Though weaving might be regarded as a typically artisan or Sudra activity, the weaving of coarse cotton was often found in the past as a specialism of sections amongst the Malas of Andhra Pradesh and the Holeyas of Mysore and probably in cotton-producing areas more widely. Other coarse-fibre manufacturing, such as coir and sisal rope-making and various kinds of mat-making, are also frequently found as specialisms of such castes. Bamboo work has commonly belonged either to them or to nomadic groups who might become Untouchables (Ashok Kumar 1998a). These are all specialisms in which both men and women have a part, but midwifery and sex work, where they are found, usually belong to women only. Various categories of entertainment are also often so treated. Where music is a specialism, drumming and other kinds are commonly distributed amongst different local caste communities and are exclusively male. There are significant differences in patterns between different regions, North and South being a useful if over simple way to characterize them. The Bhangi role, as has been noted, has been more highly developed in the former, without any commonly identified equivalent category in the South. There, village work of this kind has rarely been found and only on a very limited local scale have castes as a whole been identified with it. In northern India, those carrying out the personal services of barbering and laundry have also been considered Untouchable; in the South, these services are outside the range of Untouchability even though they included dealing with pollution as an essential and constant part of the livelihood. In the North again, the rearing of pigs is often associated with such major Untouchable groups as Chamars and Bhangis (Cohn 1990; Searle-Chatterjee 1981). Pigs, in the conditions in which they have historically been found in India, live to a considerable extent on and amongst excrement and other polluting wastes. However, as a source of meat, they have often been valued by Caste Hindu meat-eaters and their rearing has therefore provided a useful 161

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 162 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


source of livelihood for those amongst the poor without pressing reason to avoid it. In the South, however, pigs are more rarely seen in villages. They are typically reared by specialized castes living apart in small camps. They are in practice excluded from village life but, not being integrated into village patterns of dependence, they and their way of life may be regarded as disgusting but not in the normal sense as Untouchable. The livelihood specialisms of castes are thus various, their implications varied in themselves and through the differing relationships with others in terms of which they are performed. The difficulty of containing such long-standing heterogeneity within a single social category is compounded first by long-standing rivalries and hostilities between major castes amongst them and then by the way in which such ancient differences have increasingly led them into rivalry for benefits made available by state patronage in the twentieth century. This occurs both in state-wide contexts and in particular villages. Earlier regimes often allocated offices for the running of villages to members of particular castes on a hereditary basis. Either agricultural or leather-working Untouchable castes, or both, have been able to take pride in their link with such positions as Cheluvadi, Thoti and Talawar, guardians of the village, its unity and its knowledge in key respects. These were normally in the past remunerated with rent-free land for farming. Responsibility for the performance of collective services for the village have been similarly distributed, though here there has always been an equivocal and shifting balance between the security and remuneration deriving from such work, and the loss of status and freedom in being required to perform it. In this small-scale local context, as well as in wider ones, castes now brought together as both Untouchables or Scheduled Castes have competed and challenged one another for material advantage and relative status. The dire effects of Mala-Madiga opposition in the Nizam’s Hyderabad from the earliest years of the Untouchable struggle are, for instance, a major theme, emphasized with sadness, in the detailed account written by one of its leading participants (Venkatswamy 1955). In Karnataka, the opposition between Holeyas and Madigas has an even longer documented history. In the old Mysore and neighbouring areas to the south, the former were at the bottom of a ranked Right-Hand division of society, opposed to a Left-Hand which included, in a similar bottom ranking, the Madigas (Buchanan 1807, vol. 1: 7780). In the twentieth century, across southern India it has generally 162

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 163 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


been the agricultural Untouchable castes who were more able and earlier to take up educational opportunities. They have subsequently been better placed for new employment opportunities and particularly in obtaining positions reserved for Scheduled Castes in government service. The supply of such positions in relation to numbers qualified has decreased in recent times, and imbalances between the achievements of leading castes and the recognition accorded to them by and in government have become a casus belli. Demands for the fragmentation of the overall Scheduled Caste quotas into allocations for individual jatis have spread.

Jati Identity: Exploitable Heritages and Cultural Renewal It was therefore a feat of imagination, assisted by limited knowledge, which allowed upper-caste elites in the early part of the century to project a unity onto this vast, diverse and sometimes mutually opposed collection of castes across the sub-continent. It has been momentous in the achievements which have flowed from it. However, amongst these castes it has been no more possible than amongst others to transcend old distinctions. Indeed it has been argued (Karanth & Charsley 1998: 226-227; see also Karanth 1997: 329-330) that they have been able less than others to ‘broad-base’, to enlarge the scale of caste divisions by overcoming local distinctions. Whereas in the past some have mobilized like other castes to seek to improve their standing in the society at large through the promotion of education and the amendment of the cultural practices of fellow members, in recent times a new wave of mobilization has been directed largely to the competition for state benefits allocated for Scheduled Castes. Particular Untouchable castes have been challenging one another – most conspicuously the Madigas challenging the Malas of Andhra Pradesh – and directly undermining the unity which Ambedkar and the Dalit movement have worked so hard to achieve. This development might be considered the result of a divide-and-rule policy had it not such clear roots in the differences and divisions, never overcome, which have been discussed. At the same time, the general level of caste mobilization and assertiveness in the society at large 163

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 164 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


reveals it as a phenomenon of far wider relevance than for the Scheduled Castes alone.10 The relevance for Dalits of this general upsurge, given a focus by proposals to put into effect the Mandal Commission recommendations for increasing the scope of reservation in 1990, was at first unclear. Kothari noted that it gave ‘new leases of life to the brahminic social order’, with its ‘contempt for the labouring classes and for labour as such, especially for the most arduous and demeaning kinds, the ultimate logic of which has been the phenomenon of Untouchability’ (Kothari 1994: 1591). Soon, the Ambedkarite fortnightly Dalit Voice, overwhelmingly the personal creation of its remarkable editor, V. T. Rajshekar, began to promote a new and until recently unthinkable direction for policy. Arguing that there was no question of upper castes rejecting their own caste identities, a way ahead began to be envisaged as through the promotion by each jati of its own worth. Caste as promoted by the ‘Brahminical Social Order’, or ‘BSO’ as Rajshekar always terms it, is an order of ranking and devaluing. So-called ‘castes’ amongst Untouchables do not, he argues, really belong to such a system. Each is more appropriately thought of as a ‘nation’, a group in and for itself but in aggregate composing the bulk of the Indian population. They and it are properly regarded as distinct from the Aryans or Brahmans, those who declared others ‘castes’ and tried to incorporate them into their own Hindu caste system, awarding superiority to themselves and devaluing others. Only, it is claimed, by each ‘nation’ developing and asserting its own identity, so breaking out from the cage of hierarchy prepared for it, would this BSO be defeated. Prolonged debate on the issue in succeeding numbers of the journal, in seminars and eventually in the daily press have begun to make the argument more widely known. It interacts currently with a debate as to whether the Census of India should again, for the first time since 1931, enquire into the caste affiliations of the population generally. The remainder of this chapter assesses this policy of assertion for



Revival in the publication of ethnographic survey volumes, with the mammoth ‘Peoples of India’ series of which vol. II is The Scheduled Castes (Singh 1995), bears striking witness to the revived interest in castes and their identities. Work of this kind came to a halt in the 1930s; general caste data was avoided in the Censuses of India after 1931. Its revival for the Census of 2001 is currently hotly debated.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 165 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


individual jatis, with reference to the kinds which have been examined. Is it a practical policy, or merely a distraction from the more straightforwardly Ambedkarite line of abandoning the old and stigmatized in favour of a new, large-scale and unified identity which can be the basis for mobilized political strength? On what basis can separate Untouchable ‘nations’ claim respect and assert identity? Indubitably, the range of contributions to the economic life and general well-being of the society at large which have begun to be reviewed here have tended to be hidden behind the negative categorization of the people concerned as merely ‘Untouchables’. Whether, once revealed, these contributions or anything else can provide the underpinning for separate positive identities has now to be considered. Does it remain just a theoretical possibility in the pages of a radical journal or is there already a process under way which is a reality in people’s lives? Can stigma embedded in old identities be eliminated without replacing them with new? I discuss first the ways in which it might be so and for some could be, before noting finally the limitations. A number of ways in which it can be so have already been observed. Firstly, though leather work and sweeping have a special salience for others, for many of the caste communities concerned, other work which is not necessarily stigmatizing may have more significance. The making of sisal rope, for instance, has been an important seasonal activity for the Madar community of a studied village in Karnataka (Gayathri Devi 1998: 113, 117-118). By others they may be thought of as leatherrelated, but for themselves any such activity is today both practically and symbolically marginal. Sisal work is said to have been given them as a special blessing by one Jade Thatha, a well-known holy man with a local shrine and cult embraced by people of many castes. As a valued speciality symbolizing their relationship with him, rope-making provides a positive contribution to their caste identity. This is so even though, at his annual festival for which they provide grain, they are discriminated against in the participation they are allowed. For many others, too, traditional stigmatizing work and practices were either never present, or are not remembered, or are receding in their significance for the people concerned. Often handling of dead cattle in the past has been left for others to do and the eating of meat from them given up. Former roles in the festivities of superior castes have been refused and the offering of honorific places in their own celebrations to members of such castes is avoided (see Charsley 1998a). Already, therefore, prac165

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 166 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


tices which entailed devaluation and stigmatization have been modified. If livelihood-related identities are now asserted, these are not outsiders’ outdated conceptions of traditional identities but the often different experience and understandings of the current generations. Such change has been possible because of the changing social, political and economic contexts within which many live. In the first place, the upper caste groups who once gained both their wealth and their status in large measure from the dominance they were able to exercise over lower castes often no longer have the will to maintain it or the interest in doing so. As families they have often diversified their material interests away from the village and from agricultural contexts and now play on larger stages with their links spreading across states within India and even abroad. For such people who were once the pillars of the local caste order and its old proprieties, the village may retain a certain sentimental significance, but the old practical significances of exercizing control there recede. At the same time, legislative protection for Scheduled Castes, the common breaking down of the boundedness of the village as a unit of control, and the institution on a larger scale of local representative institutions with reserved places for other sections of the population, all mean that even if the old masters wished to exercise their past prerogatives, it is now rarely practical for them to do so (Karanth & Charsley 1998: 282-285; cf. Mendelsohn 1993). In contrast, it used to be of little moment whether a caste actually gave up eating carrion beef or not: it was the opinions of their masters on the matter which counted. These latter would not acknowledge such change or permit divergence from traditional roles. Whilst there are always exceptions in so diverse a country and some of the many atrocities reported in the press still result from efforts to repress those who would assert their new rights and freedoms, these rights and freedoms now have a reality for many. In addition, some specialisms have for long been pursued outside the local caste contexts in which they are ranked and discriminated against. The possibility has spread widely as money as the nexus between supplier and consumer has increasingly replaced earlier forms of economic organization. In leather trades particularly, tanners working in urban centres, buying-in their raw materials and with client leather manufacturers dependent on them, have avoided being in a position where the opinions of others as to the degrading nature of their work have mattered. Whether this is a twentieth-century development is not 166

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 167 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


clear in this case, but in that century others have also been able to follow this route. Specialized footwear manufacturers, basket makers, silk reelers, lacquerware manufacturers and others have been able to work for external markets which have not involved them in relationships of inferiority to other castes within local contexts. Even in agriculture, the presence of landowners of their own caste has sometimes meant that Untouchables could escape from the service of other castes and from accepting the assertions of caste inferiority that this has entailed (Charsley & Karanth 1998a). A further factor which has loosened the knot of disadvantage, often in conjunction with the kinds of development just noted, has been the introduction of new technologies and new ways of organizing production. The basic feature here is the separation of work and home. The product of a factory production line is not irrelevant to the status of those working on it but whether the factory is producing footwear or metalware may be of little consequence. Whereas in the past a worker was necessarily surrounded even at home by evidences of his or her employment, and hence of any status-devaluing elements it entailed, once work is concentrated in specialized factories or on premises separated from the home, its defining force is lessened. Even for municipal sanitation workers, methods of handling and transporting waste and protective clothing to create a barrier between their own persons and noxious substances have been increasingly introduced. Pointers to the real force of such developments are increasing if still occasional attempts by those without the appropriate caste tradition to take up work which in the past would have been regarded as so conspicuously degrading as to be impossible. New conditions tend to lessen the potential for work of particular kinds to define stigmatized identities. Finally, the significance of financial success needs to be noticed. Not only is it possible for specialisms once in themselves severely disadvantaging to be financially successful, but the resources made available by them may, together with the law, be sufficient to erode old discriminations. This has been happening for the specialized footwear producers in northern Karnataka to whom reference has already been made. Here, both for the entrepreneurs themselves and for the caste community as a whole, the levels of income obtainable have made them the chief dynamic element in their local economy. It was they who attracted banks and other financial institutions into their village and created a market for numerous other local producers. In this context 167

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 168 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


public barriers against them have fallen. Even their own shops have come to be patronized by others. Long-standing patterns of inter-caste dependency have been, if perhaps not as completely reversed as Ashok Kumar argues (1998b: 256-259 and passim), at least significantly reduced. A somewhat similar situation of basket makers studied elsewhere by the same author shows the transformative capacity of success in that context too (Ashok Kumar 1998a). Entrepreneurial success in silkreeling has been shown to have supported successful local action against Untouchability (Charsley 1998b). In these various ways financial success in contemporary conditions allows former stigma to be overcome in significant degree and a wider range of livelihood activities to become positive elements in caste identity and bases for self-assertion. The most radical means so far noted by which existing identities can be effectively asserted is at present more tentative. There are so far only hints of its practicability though it is the topic of writing by theorists of the Dalit/Bahujan movement. Cultural elements from the past are to be revalued by bringing them into the light of open examination and seeking to undermine the thinking which formerly devalued and stigmatized them (Padma Rao 1995; Ilaiah 1996a, 1996b).11 This is the project particularly of Kancha Ilaiah, an anthropologically minded political scientist in Hyderabad. He has previously examined the cultural contrasts between his own caste background as a Kurumaa (Shepherd) in Andhra Pradesh and the stereotypical Brahman. He has claimed that the former represents desirable values common to the range of Untouchable and other low castes, the ‘Dalitbahujans’ as he terms them: it is these values which should be promoted, to the exclusion of the parasitical and negative ways of the Brahman. From this general argument he has gone on, in work in progress,12 to examine the practical heritages of previously devalued castes and tribal groups in turn, revealing them as the originators of practical knowledge and the inventors of basic techniques for the society as a whole, and as the possessors of their own philosophical heritages. In such work the materialist orientation of

11 12


This may be compared with Gandhi’s attempt to revalue the task of the Bhangi, perceptively analysed and critically assessed by Prashad (1996). In 1999, following previous newspaper articles on such themes, also in Telugu, he was publishing weekly in the Sunday magazine of Andhra Prabha, one of Hyderabad’s leading papers.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 169 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


the majority is contrasted with a perverted Brahmanical preoccupation with purity and pollution and with ritual. It is claimed that a perverse and impractical society has resulted which needs transforming through a process of Dalitization, i.e. the reassertion of the practical and humane values of the Dalits and other workers. This kind of revaluation linked to caste assertion is identifiable in practice, though it is not yet common. On the eating of beef, for instance, Ilaiah (1996c) argues that it is a superior meat which gives strength to those who consume it and fits them for the hard work of the world. In an observed village context with beef-eating Muslim neighbours and Christian fellow Dalits, sale and consumption of beef in the village was no more than minimally shame-faced (Charsley 1998b: 228). It is drumming, however, which so far provides the most conspicuous example. Writing of a village in central Karnataka, Armstrong (1998: 185) notes that the caste ‘AKs’ (Adi Karnatakas) for whom playing the particular drum called tamate is traditional respond to it very differently to others. For these others this drum is unpleasant and the sound of it being played is harsh and disgusting (...). Children are often brought inside the house when AKs start to drum. In contrast AKs see it as a thing of power. They dance when the drums play, and sometimes have to ask the drummers to stop so that they can stop dancing, the rhythm being so difficult to ignore. They find the sound appealing and have no sense of its being distasteful. It is this drum that the Madiga movement in Andhra Pradesh in the late 1990s, claiming their share of reservation advantages from their more successful Scheduled Caste rivals, the Malas, made their central icon. ‘Dandora’, the name they popularly attach to ‘Madiga’ in naming their movement, is the beat of the drum; their logo is a drummer beating it. The drums themselves, characteristically in a modern version rather than the old-style village one, are always with them. Cultural assertiveness, calling on what is meaningful in the past but without making a fetish of tradition, could not be more directly or economically expressed. By the same people, the use of ‘Madiga’ itself, recently still avoided as stigmatizing in interaction with others, is proclaimed and adopted as a demonstrative surname. 169

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 170 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Assertiveness on the part of Untouchable castes is therefore neither impossible nor unreal. For whom it is possible and what there is in their past that can be drawn upon is, however, limited and variable. Much that was once central to identities has been irrevocably undermined and devalued. Key roles in one of the most widespread and spectacular of village religious festivals, the sacrifice of buffaloes to the Goddess, have often in the past been one of the important ways in which the importance of particular Untouchable castes in the village order was expressed. In Karnataka at least, more often than its long illegality would likely suggest, it is still found in many areas (e.g. Armstrong 1998: 161-168). But its illegality and its outdated air make it unlikely that any caste would seek to make this indicator of the complex and important roles they had in the society of the past a symbol of identity for the future. Even more complexly, such castes have often in the past been characterized by practices of dedication: girls and boys have been initiated into religiously dedicated orders, of which the lesis and jogatis of Karnataka are notorious examples (Shankar 1990; Assayag 1992; Gayathri Devi 1998: 120-123, 126-129). Dedication of girls to the Goddess might occur in various ways and with various effects but in recent times the term ‘devadasi’ has been used indiscriminately for them all. Such dedication implied marriage to the God and freed the girls concerned from human marriage. They were not expected to eschew sex or motherhood but were treated as if they were male heirs to their parents. Freedom from the danger of widowhood was also a positively valued characteristic, linked with auspicious roles in domestic rituals of many upper castes despite their own low-caste origins. They formed reproductive relationships with men from superior castes, including leading men, who might sponsor their sons through life. However, this was an institution located in a society integrated in ways which have been largely forgotten today. Since the nineteenth century it is as prostitutes alone that such women have been officially regarded outside the bounds of marriage. With the development of major centres of commercial sex, this is indeed what many have become. Today, campaigns and associations for the prevention of dedication and the rehabilitation of devadasis run continuously and are supported unanimously by all progressive and elite sections (Nair 1994; Epp 1997). Those castes that do not dedicate their girls have regarded it as an element in their superiority over those that do. Again, therefore, a whole area of past importance, interesting particularly for the alternatives for female lives that it 170

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 171 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


contributed in the castes concerned, is effectively ruled out from the exploitable heritage for any caste. As regards livelihoods, a few others such as sanitation work are still also not amenable to attempts to present them as sources of caste pride.13 More significantly, however, many which are indeed possible sources are vulnerable to economic and technological change. Rope and mat and basket makers, tanners and shoe makers, all belong to old orders of production being rapidly replaced. Their value for their practitioners is frequently under threat (e.g. Ashok Kumar 1996). Sadly, the enterprise of recuperation for caste occupations which some are now pursuing seems likely to be of increasingly antiquarian interest only.

Conclusions The creation of a new Dalit identity has been outlined, and the way this added to rather than replaced older caste identities grounded in various occupations has been seen. The general upsurge of caste concern in the society at large, as well as this old diversity, have meant that a common Untouchable or Dalit identity has no more than marginal significance for many. New policies of caste assertion have appeared and the chapter has attempted to evaluate their possibilities.14 These have arisen, first, because the cultural repertoires of caste communities have already altered greatly to respond better to the expectations of the wider society and are continuing to do so. Continuity of identity is continuity of historical change for a reproducing population, not a fixity of customs. This is so, secondly, and more effectively, because the social contexts in which the old stigmas were asserted and constantly reinforced have changed. Identities in themselves may not need to change to the extent that stigmatizing contexts are removed. This is so, thirdly, because even



S. Srinivas, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Hyderabad, is currently developing an important understanding of alternative sources of pride within the Sweeper community of the city. For new and directly relevant evidence and discussion, of old as well as recent assertion, see Charsley 2004, Badri Narayan 2006. For the wider context see the collections edited by Jodhka (2001) and Gupta (2004).


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 172 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


unchanging aspects of the cultural repertoires of castes can be revalued or given value for the first time, often perhaps for their practitioners themselves as well as for others. What was regarded in terms of past hegemonic values as shameful may be recuperated by a rejection of these old values. But these possibilities are not equally real or equally accessible to all. This is a final point the relevance of which to current and future developments cannot be over-stressed. In general it is the strongest amongst castes, able to be most independent and with the best levels of developed human resources, who have most scope for self-assertion. The poor, the weak and the dependent may still be left with little alternative to acceding to the ways in which others see and define them. A policy of jati assertion is likely to be good for those able to achieve it, for a new generation of leading Untouchable castes able to raise their standing in the society as those now thought of as once borderline Untouchables, such as the Eravas of Kerala (Aiyappan 1943, 1965) and the Nadars of Tamil Nadu (Hardgrave 1969; Templeman 1996), were able to achieve at an earlier period. For Chamars, Mahars, Pallars, Pulayas, Malas, Madigas, even Holeyas – though only the first signs of the rehabilitation of their ancient name have yet been observed – and a few others, assertion is possible (cf. Deliège 1996). However, poverty, subjection to others and humiliation cannot be thought away. They are sad realities for vast numbers of Dalits. Certain religious values to the contrary, for most people there is no way in which these realities can be turned into something positive, made to be a bolstering element in their identities, individual or collective. For the poor and directly oppressed, Dalit identity and solidarity with others on that basis must be more practical and have more to offer. The fate of the mass of other minor Untouchable castes is unlikely to depend, therefore, on anything they have the strength to achieve on their own but on general changes in the society and on allying with others under the umbrella of supra-caste formations such as the Dalit movement. References Aiyappan, A. (1943) ‘Iravas and Culture Change’. Madras Museum Bulletin (NS, General Section), vol. 5, no. 1. Madras. –– (1965) Social Revolution in a Kerala Village. Mumbai: Asia Publishing House. 172

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 173 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Ambedkar, B. R. (1936) Annihilation of Caste: With a reply to Mahatma Gandhi. Mumbai: Bhusan Press. –– (1945) What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables. Mumbai: Thacker –– (1969) The Untouchables. Balrampur (UP): Jataban Mahavihar. [The Untouchables: Who were they? And why they became Untouchables. New Delhi: Amrit, 1948]. Armstrong, N. (1998) ‘Checks to Integration: AKs of Mahepura’, in S. R. Charsley & G. K. Karanth (eds.), Challenging Untouchability. New Delhi: Sage. Ashok Kumar, E. N. (1996) ‘Preserve for the Poor, Don’t Reserve for the Rich’. Exchanges [Actionaid, Bangalore], vol. 13, June. –– (1998a) ‘Caste Metamorphosis: The Korachas of Dharmapura’, in S. R. Charsley & G. K. Karanth (eds.), Challenging Untouchability. New Delhi: Sage. –– (1998b) ‘Upward Mobility or Class Formation? Samagars of Jenubhavi’, in S. R. Charsley & G. K. Karanth (eds.), Challenging Untouchability. New Delhi: Sage. Assayag, J. (1992) La colère de la déesse décapitée. Paris: CNRS. Buchanan, F. (1807) A Journey from Madras through the Countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar, 3 vols. London: Cadell & Davies. Burra, N. (1996) ‘Buddhism, Conversion and Identity’, in M. N. Srinivas (ed.), Caste, Its Twentieth Century Avatar. New Delhi: Viking (Penguin). Chandrashekaran, L. (1989) Social Mobility of Scheduled Castes in Karnataka: A Study of the Madiga. Unpubl. Ph.D. dissertation, J.N.U., New Delhi. Charsley, S. R. (1996) ‘“Untouchable”: What is in a Name?’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (NS), vol. 2: 1-23. –– (1998a) ‘Increasing Autonomy: The Harijans of Rateyur’, in S. R. Charsley & G. K. Karanth (eds.), Challenging Untouchability. New Delhi: Sage. –– (1998b) ‘The Silk Industry in the Development of Scheduled Castes in Southern India’. Journal of Social and Economic Change, vol. 1, no. 2: 288-305. –– (2004) ‘Interpreting Untouchability. The performance of caste in Andhra Pradesh, South India’. Asian Folklore Studies (Nagoya), vol. 63, no. 2: 267-290.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 174 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Charsley, S. R. & G. K. Karanth (eds.) (1998a) Challenging Untouchability: Dalit Initiative and Experience from Karnataka, [Cultural Subordination and Dalit Challenge, vol. 1]. New Delhi: Sage. –– (1998b) ‘Dalits and State Action’, Chapter 1 in S. R. Charsley & G. K. Karanth (eds.), Challenging Untouchability: Dalit Initiative and Experience from Karnataka, [Cultural Subordination and Dalit Challenge, vol. 1]. New Delhi: Sage. Cohn, B. S. (1990) An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Dangle, A. (ed.) (1992) Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature. Mumbai: Orient Longman. Deliège, R. (1995) Les intouchables en Inde: Des castes d’exclus. Paris: Imago. –– (1996) ‘At the Threshold of Untouchability: Pallars and Valaiyars in a Tamil Village’, in C. J. Fuller (ed.), Caste Today. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 65-92. Epp, L. (1997) Violating the Sacred? Social Reform of Devadasis among Dalits in Karnataka, India. Unpubl. Ph.D. thesis, York University, Toronto. Gandhi, M. K. (1954) The Removal of Untouchability. Ahmedabad: Navijan. Gayathri Devi, K. G. (1998) ‘Privilege and Conformity: The Madars of Nuliyur’, Chapter 4 in S. R. Charsley and G. K. Karanth (eds.), Challenging Untouchability: Dalit Initiative and Experience from Karnataka, [Cultural Subordination and Dalit Challenge, vol. 1]. New Delhi: Sage. Hardgrave, R. L. (1969) Nadars of Tamil Nadu. Berkeley: University of California Press. Hutton, J. H. (1963) ‘The Position of the Exterior Castes’, Appendix A in J. H. Hutton, Caste in India: Its Nature, Function and Origins, 4th edn. London: Oxford University Press. Ilaiah, K. (1996a) Why I am not a Hindu. A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy. Calcutta: Samya (Bhatkal & Sen). –– (1996b) ‘Productive Labour, Consciousness and History: The Dalitbahujan Alternative’, in S. Amin & D. Chakrabarthy (eds.), Subaltern Studies: Writings on South Asian History and Society, vol. 9. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 165-200.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 175 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


–– (1996c) ‘Beef, BJP and Food Rights of People’. Economic & Political Weekly, vol. 31, no. 24: 1444-1445. Iyengar, M. Venkatesa. (1932) Mysore, Part 1, Report, [Census of India 1931, vol. 25]. Bangalore: Government Press. Jamanadas, K. (1998) ‘Letter, with trans. of original 1938 Marathi speech by B.R. Ambedkar’. Dalit Voice, vol. 17, no. 3: 19-20. Jha, V. (1975) ‘Stages in the History of Untouchability’. Indian Historical Review. vol. 2: 14-31. Jodhka, Surinder S. (2001) ‘Community and Identities’, in S. Jodhka (ed.), Contemporary Discourses on Culture and Politics in India. New Delhi: Sage Publications. Joshi, B. R. (ed.) (1986) Untouchable! Voices of the Dalit Liberation Movement. London: Zed and MRG. Juergensmeyer, M. (1989) Religious Rebels in the Punjab: The Social Vision of the Untouchables. New Delhi: Ajanta. Karanth, G. K. (1996) ‘Caste in Contemporary Rural India’, in M. N. Srinivas (ed.), Caste: Its Twentieth Century Avatar. New Delhi: Penguin Books. –– (1997) ‘Caste after Fifty Years of Independence’. Review of Development and Change, vol. 2, no. 2: 319-337. Karanth, G. K. & S. R. Charsley (1998) ‘Beyond Untouchability? Local Experience and Society-wide Implications’, in G. K. Karanth, & S. R. Charsley (eds.), Challenging Untouchability. New Delhi: Sage. Keer, D. (1954) Dr. Ambedkar. Life and Mission. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan. Kenadi, L. (1995) Revival of Buddhism in Modern India: The Role of B.R. Ambedkar and the Dalai Lama XIV. Delhi: Ashish. Kothari, R. (1994) ‘Rise of the Dalits and the Renewed Debate on Caste’. Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 29, 25 June: 1589-1594. Massey, J. (1995) Dalits in India: Religion as a Source of Bondage or Liberation. New Delhi: Manohar. Mendelsohn, O. (1993) ‘The Transformation of Authority in Rural India’. Modern Asian Studies, vol. 27: 805-842. Mohan, P. E. (1993) Scheduled Castes: History of Elevation, Tamil Nadu 1900-1955. Madras: New Era. Nagaraj, D. R. (1993) The Flaming Feet: A Study of the Dalit Movement in India. Bangalore: South Forum Press.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 176 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Nair, J. (1994) ‘The devadasi, Dharma and the State’. Economic & Political Weekly, vol. 29, 10 December: 3157-3167. Narayan, Badri (2006) Women Heroes and Dalit Assertion in North India: Culture, Identity and Politics, [Cultural Subordination and the Dalit Challenge, vol. 5]. New Delhi: Sage Publications. Omvedt, G. (1994) Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India. New Delhi: Sage. Padma Rao, K. (1995) Caste and Alternative Culture. Madras: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College & Research Institute. –– (1997) Charvaka Darshan: Ancient Indian Philosophy. Madras: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College & Research Institute. Parameshwara, S. (1990) Development or Backwardness: Coexistence or Confrontation? A Study of Leather Workers of Karnataka. New Delhi: Reliance. Pradhan, A.C. (1986) The Emergence of the Depressed Classes. Bhubaneswar: Bookland International. Prashad, V. (1996) ‘The Untouchable Question’. Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 31, no. 9: 551-559. Satyanarayana, A. (1995) ‘Dalit Protest Literature in Telugu: A Historical Perspective’. Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 30, 21 January: 171-175. Searle-Chatterjee, M. (1981) Reversible Sex-Roles: The Special Case of Benares Sweepers. Oxford: Pergamon. Shankar, J. (1990) Devadasi Cult: A Sociological Analysis. New Delhi: Ashish. Shyamlal (1992) The Bhangi: A Sweeper Caste: Its Socio-economic Portraits. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan. Singh, K. S. (ed.) (1995) The Scheduled Castes, [Peoples of India, National series, vol. 2, 2nd edn]. Delhi: Anthropological Survey of India and Oxford University Press. Singh, T. R. (1969) The Madiga: A Study of Social Structure and Change. Lucknow: Ethnography and Folk Culture Society. Suresh, V. (1996) ‘The Dalit Movement in India’, in T. V. Satyamurthy (ed.), Region, Religion, Caste: Gender and Culture in Contemporary India. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Templeman, D. (1996) The Northern Nadars of Tamil Nadu: An Indian Caste in the Process of Change. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Venkatswamy, P. R. (1955) Our Struggle for Emancipation, 2 vols. Secunderabad: Universal Art Printers. 176

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 177 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Wilkinson, T. S. & M. M. Thomas (eds.) (1972) Ambedkar and the Neo-Buddhist Movement. Madras: Christian Literature Society. Zelliot, E. (1996) From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement, 2nd edn. New Delhi: Manohar.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 178 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie

7. Kathinka Frøystad

RELEGITIMIZING CASTE DISCRIMINATION IN UTTAR PRADESH Towards a Post-Mandal Untouchability?1 May 1997. The cement mixer grinds to a halt, the carpenters stop hammering. It is time for lunch. The workers retreat to the rear of the construction site; those living on-site disappear into their shacks, the ones hailing from other parts of the city – skinny men in tattered, greying, cotton clothes – seek shade underneath the half-built apartment building and open their modest tiffin boxes. Inside the bungalow that houses the Brahmin family in charge of the construction work, the daughter-in-law starts to hand out the lunch plates. While waiting for his plate, Babloo glances at the front page of Dainik Jagran, the local Hindi newspaper, and makes a remark about Mayawati, the current Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Babloo’s brother sighs with a resigned look on his face, but says nothing. Nobody speaks. The silence gives me an opportunity to inquire about the unskilled labourers: How are they recruited, and on what basis? Babloo doesn’t quite answer my question, but says resolutely: ‘we don’t give jobs to Scheduled Castes anymore.



This article is a by-product of a research project funded by the Norwegian Research Council and the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO). Parts of this article have been published in my book Blended Boundaries: Caste, Class, and Shifting Faces of ‘Hinduness’ in a North Indian City, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2005. I kindly acknowledge the permission granted by OUP to reproduce this material. I am indebted to Arild Ruud, Michael Gibson and two anonymous referees for comments, but the responsibility for all inadequacies is mine alone.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 179 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


These people are already favoured in government jobs. What’s the point in helping them further?’ This incident occurred in one of the larger cities in Uttar Pradesh, almost fifty years after caste-based reservation was first implemented as a political measure to bring about a casteless and classless society in India. Today, an increasing number of scholars are reaching the conclusion that, despite all efforts at redistribution, the caste-based reservation and the backward class movement have reinforced the very caste identities they sought to eradicate. This reinforcement, as several scholars point out, is not a mere reproduction: it is a reinvention (Panini 1996: 63) or a transformation (Fuller 1996: 20). Among its outcomes is increased tension between upper-castes, on the one hand, and low castes and Dalits on the other (see e.g. Kothari 1994, 1997), a tension which seems to cluster the numerous jatis into two main pan-Indian categories, ‘forwards’ and ‘backwards’, in terms of political identification. This process is relatively recent, and little has yet been written about its relevance outside the domain of formal politics and public discourse. In this chapter I seek to reflect on this process through my consecutive micro-level fieldwork stays in a suburban area in Uttar Pradesh, conducted between 1992 and 1997.2 My participation in, and observation of, the everyday lives of a Brahmin joint family and their friends, relatives, employees and servants was deliberately aimed at studying people across clear-cut social fields like ‘politics’, ‘family life’, ‘work’ or ‘religion’. From a person-centred perspective such categories ‘slice’ up the wholeness and interconnectedness of their lives. The main locus of my fieldwork, the compound in which this family lived, was not only a home, but also a construction site and a place for lively gossip and debate. Following the same persons in and out of different activities in order to see how each relate to issues of caste should bring us a step forward in understanding the increased tension between forwards and backwards as it is perceived in, and made manifest through, everyday suburban life. The everyday life approach may prove useful in studying various issues, but is particularly crucial for the study of increasing caste ten-


Due to the nature of the ethnography presented in this chapter, I will leave the name of the city unspecified and the persons I associated with protected by pseudonyms.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 180 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


sions. One reason is that the illegitimacy of defending caste hierarchy (cf. Béteille 1991, 1996) seems to have spilled over to the public debate on caste reservation as well. Though people freely and openly question the numerous proposals of extending the current reservation level, challenges to the existing level of reservation were hardly aired in public at all at the time of my fieldwork – neither in the media, nor in political statements. Not only as a result of this, but also because no political party – not even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – was willing to risk alienating its potential low-caste and Dalit voters by proposing reductions in the current reservation level, critics of caste-based reservation were unable to convert their critique into votes. As a consequence, the upper-caste critique of caste-based reservation had largely ‘gone underground’ in the sense that it first and foremost was expressed outside the realm of formal politics and public discourse. Thus, I will argue, when studying the relationship between ‘forwards’ and ‘backwards’, we need to focus on what people say in domestic contexts, as well as on how the constraints (real or perceived) of caste-based reservation for the nonbeneficiaries influence their action and practice in other spheres of life. In brief, my argument here is that the extension of preferential treatment to the Other Backward Classes, combined with the increased political assertion of Dalits, leads to a ‘forwardization’ of collective loyalties, and to a relegitimation of discriminatory practices against Untouchables.

Background: Caste-based Reservation and Dalit Assertion in Uttar Pradesh Babloo’s remark about not wanting to employ Scheduled Castes anymore must be seen in relation to two crucial political changes which have occurred since Independence, and which accelerated in the 1990s. Most important is the implementation of preferential treatment. When Independent India adopted its first Constitution in 1950, it was eventually agreed that a certain quota of all parliamentary seats, government jobs and admissions in higher education should be reserved for the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). This reserved quota was proportionate with the percentage of the SC and ST popula180

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 181 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


tion in each state – which was 22.5 per cent for India as a whole in 1991. Reservation beyond this level was at the discretion of the state governments until 1993, when the recommendations from the Mandal commission were implemented. This decision entailed that an additional quota of 27 per cent of all government jobs was set aside for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), a category that included about 52 per cent of the population of India in 1980.3 The second important change is the increased political assertiveness of the lower castes. Today, their interests are mainly expressed not by individual intellectuals like Phule, Gandhi or Ambedkar, nor by general political parties like the Congress party, but by parties that have the uplift of the poor and downtrodden on top of their political agendas. Politicians from the lowest castes are increasingly making their voices heard, not only as individual politicians, but – more importantly – as representatives of their caste or caste segment. Their new political confidence has led them to reject older referential terms like achut (Untouchable) and harijan (the children of God). Instead, dalit (the oppressed) has emerged as the only acceptable self-referent. With the reservation policy and the political assertion of Dalits has come a new set of pan-Indian caste categories, most of them rooted in the access to or denial of preferential treatment. Labels such as Dalit, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, upper castes, low castes, forwards and backwards are freely tossed about in the contemporary political discourse. Even the categories defined in minute detail by the government are used with surprising elasticity by politicians, journalists and ordinary people alike. The upper-caste people I interacted with, for example, would sometimes use the term ‘Scheduled Castes’ in the official sense, sometimes as a common denotation for all jatis entitled to preferential treatment (including STs and OBCs), sometimes as a more politically acceptable term for ‘Untouchable’, but most commonly as a substitute for the specific jatis that they still considered most Untouchable, namely the Chamars (leather workers) and Bhangis (sweepers). When Babloo made his remark, six years had already passed since the government decided to extend the reservation policy to OBCs, and since upper-caste Hindus took to the streets in protest. These protests had been temporary, not because the policy gained acceptance, but


Report of the Backward Class Commission, 1980, vol. I, p. 52, cited in Yadav 1994: 71.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 182 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


because the political attention of the upper castes soon was engulfed by the controversy over the Babar mosque in Ayodhya and other issues that accentuated religious boundaries and put the emergent boundary between forwards and backwards into the background. When the intensity of the Hindu nationalist wave subsided, the boundary between forwards and backwards was again open for actualization – particularly in Uttar Pradesh. Until the late 1980s Uttar Pradesh had been a Congress stronghold. Then in the early 1990s it became the main locus for the transformation of the BJP from an elite movement into a dynamic political force. After the dismissal of the BJP government in 1992, however, Uttar Pradesh was thrown into a state of political vertigo, with unstable coalitions or President’s Rule as the only alternatives of state governance.4 One of these unstable coalition governments came into being in March 1997. The coalition partners were Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and this was the second coalition between the two. With the BJP rooted in an ideology founded on upper caste, particularly Brahmanic, values (see e.g. Lochtefeld 1996), and with the BSP being programmatically aimed at reducing the political and economic hegemony of the upper castes (see e.g. Mendelsohn & Vicziany 1998, Chapter 7), this coalition proved equally conflictridden as its predecessor. Yet, with the experimental system of chief ministership, both parties had agreed that Mayawati (BSP) would occupy the chief ministerial berth for the first six months, after which she would vacate it for Kalyan Singh (BJP). Kalyan Singh and his party gave Mayawati more or less free hands, presumably hoping for the same degree of freedom when their time came.5 The day Babloo made his remark, Mayawati was about to complete her first two months in power. Mayawati, knowing that she only had six

4 5


For details on the political situation in Uttar Pradesh in this period, see Brass 1993, Pal 1994, Duncan 1997 and Hasan 1994, 1998. This was not to happen in the way BJP hoped. Shortly after handing the chief ministership over to Kalyan Singh, Mayawati, fearing that he would reverse her policies, pulled her party out from the coalition government. However, BJP managed to remain in power without support from BSP, as it proved its majority with help of defections and, according to critics, promises of ministerships and a sum of 50 lakh rupees (about £100,000) to non-BJP MLAs who voted in their favour.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 183 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


months at her disposal, acted as quickly as she could to improve the conditions for Dalits in the state. She reshuffled the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) and the Indian Police Services (IPS) in order to fill the reserved quotas and place Dalits or Dalit-friendly officers in strategic positions.6 She doubled the scholarships for school children of the reserved categories. She decided to construct a large and impressive Ambedkar park in Lucknow and got some 5,000 statues of Ambedkar erected throughout the state.7 She issued an Act that reduced the qualifying marks for SC, ST and OBC applicants to the medical colleges in a new effort to fill the quota allotted to them.8 And finally, she ordered that the Act protecting SCs and STs from atrocities and discrimination (normally referred to as the SC/ST Act) was to be more effectively implemented.9 All these moves were widely reported, commented and


7 8


Mendelssohn & Vicziany (1998: 228) add that she created ‘a climate of fear’ within the IAS and IPS by implicitly conveying the message to the officers that unless they followed her orders, they risked transfer. Political opponents and other critics further add that mass transfers gave Mayawati an opportunity to make money. Several bureaucrats are said to have paid Mayawati large sums to avoid transfer, or to secure transfer to the posting of their preference. This figure is derived from India Today, 1 September 1997. This Act – the UP Post-graduate Medical Education (Reservation for SC, ST and OBC) Act, 1997 – has a history. When Mayawati headed the first BSP-BJP coalition in 1995, she issued a government order that exempted SC, ST and OBC applicants from minimum qualifying marks in the admission tests to post-graduate medical and diploma courses. However, this government order came into conflict with the Indian Medical Council Act, 1956, and its amendment of 1993, and was therefore quashed by the Supreme Court in 1997 (The Times of India, 22 February 1997; The Pioneer, 24 February 1997). As the Supreme Court ruled that state governments cannot do away with minimum qualifying marks, Mayawati’s Act of 1997 reduced the minimum qualifying marks for reserved category candidates rather than doing away with minimum qualifying marks altogether. However, this Act was also rejected by the Supreme Court on the grounds that merit, not quotas, should be the key to admissions to top level courses in medicine. This Supreme Court verdict, however, was not reached until August 1999 (The Times of India, 13 August 1999; The Pioneer, Agenda supplement, 26 September 1999). The SC/ST Act is an abbreviation for The Scheduled Caste and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. This is a central Act that makes it punishable for non-SC/STs to commit atrocities against SCs or STs. The atrocities mentioned


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 184 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


discussed in the newspapers in Uttar Pradesh. People like Babloo and his family could not open a newspaper without being reminded of the distinction between forwards and backwards, or between Dalits, SCs, STs or OBCs on the one hand and themselves on the other. Hence, the political situation in Uttar Pradesh at the time contributed strongly to politicize the boundaries between such caste segments further, and to make the local critique of caste-based reservation stronger and more explicit than before.

The Local Critique of Caste-based Reservation Upper-caste critique of caste-based reservation was by no means a new phenomenon, neither in this suburb nor elsewhere in India. The critique goes back to the early days of preferential treatment, and has been discussed by such scholars as Galanter (1984), Shah (1996) and Mendelsohn & Vicziany (1998).10 While the core arguments against castebased reservation have remained basically unchanged, the frequency with which they are advanced has varied. As the political events in Uttar Pradesh in 1997 brought this frequency to a peak, local observations from that year can provide a good example of how caste-based reservation is discussed locally. Whenever the issue of reservation was brought up during my fieldwork, either in my Brahmin host family or among other upper-caste Hindus, it evoked a strong negative response. Their standard argument was that it bars hard-working, well-qualified people from jobs that instead are given to SCs, STs or OBCs on the basis of less stringent recruitment criteria. This was explained as having three main negative



include making SC/STs eat inedible or obnoxious substances, dumping excreta or carcasses in their premises, wrongfully dispossessing them from their land, forcing them not to vote, or to vote for a particular candidate, and insulting or intimidating them in public. It could even be argued that the critique of caste-based reservation extends all the way back to 1932, when Mahatma Gandhi fervently opposed Ambedkar’s demand for reserved electorates as a means to increase the political representation of low castes and Untouchables. For details on their disagreement, see Zelliot 1996 [1972].

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 185 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


consequences. First, it was seen as reducing the efficiency and quality of the professions or colleges in which job reservation was implemented. ‘What kind of doctors will we get?’ and ‘what is to become of India with all these duffers in the government?’ were standard remarks.11 Second, most people I talked to argued that reservation on the basis of caste was not a fruitful means of levelling out the structural inequalities between the castes, as it discourages the beneficiaries from hard work and from cultivating perfection, thus locking them in a position of chronic disadvantage. Third, many argued that caste-based reservation strengthens caste identities rather than weakening them. Some had reached this conclusion through following the political debates in the media, others through reflecting on the changed attitudes towards low castes and Dalits in their own social circle.12 Shah warns us against dismissing the critique of caste-based reservation as a ‘fetish of the elite’ (Shah 1996: 201). True, it would not do justice to the criticism if we were to interpret it as a more politically legitimate version of the traditional Brahmanic view that low castes and Dalits do not deserve preferential treatment because their caste, and the concomitant social and economic status, are determined by the balance of punya (good deeds, righteous action) and pap (bad deeds) in their previous lives. On the contrary, the merit referred to in the critique of caste-based reservation refers explicitly to qualifications and performance in this life. Nor should we automatically infer that the uppercaste critique of caste-based reservation is rooted in a total lack of support for the fight against destitution. Most of the people I talked to were positively inclined towards political efforts at helping the poor. What they argued against was reservation on the sole basis of caste. When economically well-off low castes and Dalits – the ‘creamy layer’ – tend to siphon off the benefits at the expense of more needy people (be



Fear of inefficiency is widespread. A survey among non-SC government employees in Chandigarh, the state capital of Punjab, showed that a clear majority (80.2 per cent) either agreed, or strongly agreed, that reservation necessarily leads to inefficiency in the functioning of government departments (Bains 1994: 95). A similar view can be found in scholarly arguments as well (e.g. Shah 1996). I have restricted the discussion to the arguments commonly put forward during my own fieldwork. Additional critical arguments are recorded by Mendelsohn & Vicziany (1998: 138-140) and Galanter (1984: 72-83).


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 186 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


they destitute Chamars or poor Brahmins), the system is clearly unfair, they argued. One often-voiced suggestion was to provide India’s poor with ‘free education, scholarships and so on’ – although in fact such schemes have been implemented for a long time (Mendelsohn & Vicziany 1998).The most common suggestion, however, was that reservation should be made contingent upon economic background rather than upon caste. The critique does point to severe drawbacks with the current caste policy, and deserves to be taken seriously. On the other hand, this should not prevent us from a closer examination of the criticism itself. The assertion that preferential treatment on the basis of caste causes bureaucratic inefficiency, for example, has not yet been confirmed by any systematic study known to me. And even if it had, it would be simplistic to see bureaucratic inefficiency as a monocausal phenomenon, caused solely by the entry of ‘substandard’ employees. Bureaucratic inertia might just as well be the result of widespread corrupt practices that slow down bureaucratic processes until the appropriate palms are greased, or of hesitations to make decisions independently of one’s superiors. In that case, abolishing caste reservation would only remove one of several obstacles to bureaucratic efficiency – perhaps not even the major one. Scrutinizing each argument and counter-argument, and balancing advantages against disadvantages, would be important if I were to evaluate the achievements of the reservation policy. This is not my intention here. Rather, I suggest that a broader understanding of the uppercaste critique of the reservation policy must be sought through seeing the arguments in relation to each other, together constituting a ‘discursive object’ in Foucault’s sense (1997 [1972]) – and also by examining the process of discussing in addition to the object that is being discussed. Here there seem to emerge some inconsistencies, overemphases and ‘discursive full stops’ that may lead us to reconsider Shah’s warning against interpreting the critique as being motivated by vested interests. Normally, those who argued that caste-based reservation leads to inefficiency also argued in favour of economically based reservation. Yet, they never seemed to ask themselves whether reservation on the basis of poverty would not cause inefficiency as well. Furthermore, after proposing a shift to poverty-based reservation, people seemed to have finished with the matter. Everyone would agree, and the discussion would shift to an entirely different discursive object, or topic. In this sense, economic 186

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 187 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


reservation proved a full stop in the upper-caste discourse on preferential treatment. The underlying terms of access to economic reservation were never discussed, even though they, as far as I can see, would be highly problematic. For example, should eligibility be determined in terms of property, or in terms of income? Should it be registered in the name of each individual applicant, or in the name of the applicant’s relatives? In the case of the latter, who should count as ‘relatives’ – the applicant’s father?, father’s father’s brother’s son?, or relatives outside the patriline as well, such as mother’s maternal uncle’s wife? Although poverty-based reservation might give an immediate impression of being more ‘fair’, the criteria would not only be arbitrary, but also highly vulnerable to manipulation. Lying about kin relations, hiding income and property from the Government, or transferring it to relatives who in this context are defined as non-kin, are probably far easier than getting hold of a counterfeit SC, ST or OBC certificate, and undoubtedly more socially acceptable as well. Overemphasis on potential drawbacks, indifference towards potential advantages, lack of critical examination of the proposed alternatives, and lack of understanding for the fact that low-caste or Untouchable background entails far more than economic disadvantages – these emerged as salient features of the upper-caste critique of caste-based reservation. Thus, I am inclined to argue that it is naïve to dismiss entirely the assertion that the critique is motivated by vested interests. The most important indication of this, however, pertains to yet another issue: Upper-caste Hindus perceive the reservation policy as narrowing the future prospects for non-beneficiaries like themselves. At the time of my fieldwork, such an argument was never mentioned in the public discourse on reservation, probably because it would seem unsuitable to publicly raise critical remarks on behalf of one’s own relatives, caste or social segment. This is also rarely mentioned when the reservation policy is locally debated as a general topic, probably for the same reason. However, when I spoke with people individually, or in groups of two or three, and when talking more specifically about their work or education rather than about the reservation policy per se, then the question of limited future prospects overshadowed all other arguments against castebased reservation. The subjective feeling of having one’s future prospects narrowed down, and of belonging to a segment of society whose supremacy is threatened, seems to lead to the following two processes. First, these feelings spilled over to and intensified the arguments against 187

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 188 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


caste-based reservation that were perceived as more politically acceptable. And second, they made people rely more heavily on personal contacts to ensure their future. Is, then, the upper-caste use of personal contacts about to become ‘forwardized’? And if so, what does this entail? It is to these questions we now turn.

‘Forwardization’ in the Use of Personal Contacts In 1993, when caste-based reservation was implemented for OBCs in addition to SCs and STs, upper-caste Hindus suddenly found themselves barred (at least in principle) from 50 per cent of all administrative posts, and 22 per cent or more of the government-owned colleges. At the individual level, the most common way to circumvent these more restricted educational and career opportunities was to step up the use of personal contacts. This normally implies establishing a link with someone – say, the brother of a colleague of one’s father – who holds a leading position within the administration or within politics, and asking him to bend or sidestep the formal rules and routines in order to ensure a speedy and favourable treatment in admissions, employment or promotions. Such favours are normally reciprocal. If the relationship between the helper and the helped is distant or asymmetrical in terms of power, the return is normally immediate, paid in gifts or money. If the relationship is close and/or fairly symmetrical, it might not be mentioned until a counterfavour is required, if at all. The use of personal contacts for obtaining certain goals is, of course, nothing new. As Arild Ruud points out in his study of corrupt and nepotistic practices in West Bengal (1998), helping one’s atmiya-swajan, which may include distant relatives, friends, neighbours and clients, has long been considered a moral obligation, even if it undermines the work-ethics of one’s employer.13 Two recent developments in the way personal contacts are used by



Utilitarian contact-building and networking are, of course, common elswhere, as Diane Singerman (1995) demonstrates from Cairo and Mona Christophersen (1994) from Beijing. Moreover, current processes of work recruitment and the corruption scandal in the European Union in 1998 should remind us that Europe is no exception either.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 189 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


upper-caste Hindus seem to be the following: (i) Such contacts are increasingly important for admission to higher education, employment, or promotion within the government, and (ii) The feeling of having their future prospects restricted, combined with the perceived threat to upper-caste supremacy, influences their use of personal contacts to other ends as well. Not only are the loyalties within the emerging ‘forward’ category strengthened; the loyalties across the boundary between ‘forwards’ and ‘backwards’ are also eroded, thus severing the vertical solidarity between persons and families that in other respects are related in patron-client-like ties. In this context, then, ‘forwardization’ has nothing to do with Sanskritization, in which lower castes adopt the rituals and life-style of forward castes, but refers to a segmentation of collective identities and loyalties. Let me give an example of the ‘forwardization’ process through a few episodes that all involved Babloo’s uncle, Pramod. One of his Brahmin friends, Puneet, was in financial trouble. He worked as a clerk in the city government, drawing a salary of 3-4,000 rupees a month. With three daughters soon to be married off with appropriate dowries, Puneet failed to live up to the expectations of his friends and relatives. Puneet’s own explanation for his financial shortcomings was that he had been regularly bypassed for promotion due to the reservation policy. Now, Puneet knew that Pramod was on good terms with a senior official in the same department where Puneed worked, and as an old friend, Pramod agreed to persuade this official to help Puneet somehow. Dressed up in a spotlessly white and starched kurta-paijama and sporting the gold-framed glasses he used when trying to impress notabilities, Pramod paid two visits to the office of this senior official. In the end, Puneet was transferred to the Home Stores department, which is in charge of supplies. As Pramod explained it, this transfer did not get Puneet a salary raise, but it would be profitable anyway as suppliers competing for contracts with the local government would be eager to grease Puneet’s hands. In fact, however, Puneet hardly took advantage of his new position, much to Pramod’s disappointment. Although partly proud of his friend’s honesty, Pramod considered him foolish not to have used the opportunity to enrich himself. What is significant about this example is not that a friend helped a friend, nor that both the helper and the helped were Brahmins – but that the reason for needing help, and part of the compulsion for extending it, were explained in terms of caste-based reservation. 189

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 190 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


The next example concerns the construction work in Pramod’s compound. Pramod and his family own a bungalow in the outskirts of the city, and Pramod has done what many other land-owners in suburban areas do: portioned off a part of his land, on which he constructs multi-story apartment buildings, which he then sells at a profit. The compound in which Pramod and his family lives, then, is both a residential area and a work place. One eight-story building with sixteen apartments has been completed and people have moved in; a second building is currently under construction, and a third one will be built when the second one is ready and the bungalow is demolished. Pramod’s main reason for undertaking the construction work himself rather than selling the land to a professional constructor was the profit it was likely to yield. But profit goes hand in hand with risk, and to maximize the former and minimize the latter, a certain amount of shady transfers and favours is locally considered as necessary – not only for success, but also for survival. Again, the point is not that Pramod, like so many others, resorts to corrupt and nepotistic practices, but that these practices were becoming heavily tainted by the increased tension between ‘forwards’ and ‘backwards’. When an apartment was sold, about two-thirds of the payment was given as nambar ek (‘number one’), that is, as a formal payment stated on the contract, whereas the rest was given as nambar do (‘number two’) under the table. In 1995 or 1996 (nobody seemed to remember exactly), Pramod came under suspicion from the Sales Tax Department. As the event was individually narrated by Pramod, by his brother and by his friend, the former District Magistrate (DM) in the city, who was of Scheduled Caste origin, had ordered the employees in the Sales Tax Department to be particularly strict with all Brahmins, Khattris and Baniyas, the three upper castes that tend to dominate the city’s economy. The ensuing scrutiny of Pramod’s construction business nearly got him arrested, as he was unable to pay the sum they demanded. The significance of this incident lies in the telling and not in the facts of the case: Whether the rumours concerning the District Magistrate’s order were true or not, they certainly made a deep impression on Pramod and his friends, and similar rumours circulated freely among upper-castes in other parts of the city as well: Scheduled Castes in the state administration, most of them ‘duffers’ that have entered the government ‘on quota basis’, are all set for revenging thousands of years of oppression. This impression is likely to have influenced a similar incident that 190

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 191 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


occurred a few years later, even though its immediate motive lies in the reservation policy. This time Pramod’s headache was caused by the Income Tax Department, which claimed that Pramod owed Rs 6.83 lakhs (approximately £17,000). Pramod was unable to raise such a high sum without selling the apartment he had decided to retain for his younger brother, so he made an appeal. But the appeal was turned down, and Babloo’s elder brother, in whose name the construction business was registered, was threatened with arrest. Searching frantically for a way out, Pramod suddenly remembered that a distant friend with whom he had played cricket in his college days now held an influential position in the Income Tax Department. Pramod contacted him, and it was agreed that Pramod would pay Rs 2 lakhs (approximately £5,000) to get the appeal reconsidered. Half of this was a ‘deposit’ that eventually would be returned; the other half would go towards ‘greasing’ the machinery. Eventually, the Income Tax Department reduced its demand to 8,000 Rs, no more than 1.2 per cent of the original sum. The nephew who had evaded arrest spontaneously drove to a far-off Hanuman temple to show his gratitude, and returned with several boxes of prasad (blessed sweets) which he distributed to family members, friends and visitors. Evidently, evading the law was not an activity he had to hide from the deities. The next evening he made a courtesy call to the Income Tax officer’s house, carrying a bottle of the finest whisky available in the city. It was not only the bribes that made the Income Tax officer willing to reduce Pramod’s income tax by almost 99 per cent. This man, who was a Brahmin as well, had worked for the Income Tax Department for several years, and, as Pramod explained it, would otherwise have been promoted a long time ago if not ‘those Scheduled Castes always were promoted before others’. As a result, the tax officer had deliberately started to favour other upper-castes, particularly Brahmins, in income tax matters. He would do his utmost to bend or evade the rules for their benefit, but would come hard down on any attempts at tax evasion from OBCs, SCs or STs – that is, to the extent they have any income to speak of in this city. The final example shows how Pramod refused assistance to one of his long-term employees, a low-caste tailor. In this city, where labour is cheap and few ready-made clothes are available in the market, large families like Pramod’s normally establish durable ties with a particular tailor, normally a poor, low-caste Muslim or Hindu. The tailor who worked for Pramod’s family, Kamal, belonged to the latter group, al191

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 192 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


though none of Pramod’s family members seemed to know his specific caste background. One day, after a long period of absence, Kamal suddenly appeared at an odd hour, late in the evening. Apparently he had not come to use the sewing machine, as he remained standing outside the door, looking down and asking for Pramod. As it turned out, he was in need of assistance, as his son had just been arrested. According to Kamal, his son’s only mistake was that he had happened to walk by a quarrel. Curious, he had watched the spectacle evolve into a minor riot in which Hindus eventually took sides against Muslims. When the police arrived, he was arrested along with the aggressors. Kamal now hoped that Pramod, his long-time employer, who had good contacts in the police, could help him to get his son released. But Pramod was busy playing cards and drinking beer with his friends, and his nephews refused to fetch him. Hesitatingly, Kamal went into the card room himself, but apparently to no avail. Later that evening, when I asked Pramod about the matter, he asked me if I hadn’t noticed that Kamal had been dead drunk (I had not), and told me that the son was probably not as innocent as Kamal had claimed anyway. Furthermore, Pramod reasoned, Kamal was likely to manage to sort the matter out himself, as it wouldn’t take more than 500 rupees or so to get the boy released on bail. ‘So why should I get involved?’, he asked rhetorically. Why was Pramod unwilling to make use of his contacts in the police or the judiciary to help his tailor? It was not that he suspected his tailor’s son to be a troublemaker, but rather that he did not consider the tailor worthy of his favour. As in the case of Puneet, assumed guilt or innocence was basically irrelevant for Pramod. What mattered was the strength and nature of the ties. Thus, when I asked him if he would have helped another person in Kamal’s situation, his immediate reply was that it would depend on the closeness of the relation. In fact, Pramod had recently tried to use whatever contacts he had to get a young man from his own jati – a very distant relative – released from jail. This young man had been arrested for involvement in the kidnapping of a wealthy businessman’s son. Though nobody thought him innocent, they claimed that the police had forged a number of additional cases on him to ‘extract money’ from his family. But in the case of Kamal, Pramod simply reasoned, ‘How often can one do these things? One thousand times?’, clearly indicating that the use of such contacts should be reserved for people belonging to some inner circle. Without a broader empirical basis, and without having observed 192

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 193 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


change over longer time than five years, it is difficult for me to assess to what extent the instrumental use of personal contacts for ‘getting things done’ has actually increased due to the extended reservation policy. Reliance on personal contacts in ways that today are characterized as nepotistic or corrupt is nothing new. Nor should it surprise us that caste relations influence the compulsion behind extending with such favours. What these examples do indicate is that caste-based reservation and its negative outcomes for non-beneficiaries are emerging as new justifications for the use of personal contacts, thus relegitimizing the nepotistic and corrupt practices that increasingly are being questioned in the contemporary public debate in India. My observations also indicate an increased loyalty within and between jatis that now share the common ‘fate’ of being non-beneficiaries of the reservation policy, while loyalties between jatis hailing from the far ends of the social and ritual hierarchies are severed. To the extent that the practices of Pramod and his social circle are widely shared – as numerous newspaper articles indicate – they form the contours of an upper-caste retaliation against the official reservation policy. Although this retaliation apparently was stepped up following the extension of the reservation policy to OBCs, it first and foremost affects the weakest of the beneficiaries. Whenever the upper-caste Hindus I talked to referred to individuals who had managed to secure government careers or education through the reservation policy, they always referred to them as ‘Scheduled Castes’14 or, with far less precision, ‘those Chamars’. The anger triggered off by the extended reservation policy was directed primarily against the SCs, and here the castes traditionally considered the ‘most Untouchable’ – the Chamars (leather workers) and Bhangis (sweepers) – emerged as the main scapegoats. Nowhere is the desire to retaliate against the beneficiaries of reservation as explicit as in private enterprises. Let us now return to the construction business in Babloo’s and Pramod’s compound for a closer look at the hiring practices there.


Natraj (1999) recently made a similar observation in Karnataka. As he phrases it, ‘It is not uncommon (...) to hear upper castes expressing anger against the SCs and be seemingly unaware that their competitors are generally from the other backward classes’.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 194 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Boycotting Scheduled Castes in Private Enterprises? Babloo’s remark about no longer wanting to employ Scheduled Castes clearly indicates a desire to retaliate against SCs for being entitled to preferential treatment. But there is more to it than that. Mayawati’s political move to strengthen the implementation of the SC/ST Act was about to make the upper-castes quite apprehensive of maintaining close relations with SCs and STs whenever they had other options. Since the Act also seeks to protect SCs and STs from verbal insults, a widespread fear emerged among upper castes that, given the opportunity, SC employees might falsely charge them for violation of the Act for petty reasons. The logical consequence would be to boycott SCs and STs when it came to hiring. Up to this moment, Pramod had expressed great pride in telling me that the caste background of his construction workers and other outdoor employees was of no relevance whatsoever.15 What mattered, he said, were their qualifications, whether they appeared at the right moment (read: when Pramod was in a good mood, had work to offer and could afford to pay), and their demeanour (they should not appear cunning, but be respectful and submissive). This professed non-relevance of caste stood in sharp contrast to the views of his nephew, Babloo. Babloo favoured a boycott of SCs; later he also stated that the only jobs where he would be willing to consider an SC, was a job in which that person would work as an Untouchable, which in this context normally meant as a sweeper. Here I must hasten to add that this declared reluctance to employ Scheduled Castes was not shared by all the upper-caste Hindus I knew. For example, one of Pramod’s Punjabi friends had recently offered his jammedarin, the female sweeper who cleaned his bathrooms, to assist him now and then in his rice retail business, which he runs from home. The jammedarin was to clean the rice before it was transferred to onekilo bags and brought to the tiny general stores at the nearby market. On the other hand, remarks similar to Babloo’s are not unique, and are heard in other districts as well: A journalist reporting from a village near Bahraich in Uttar Pradesh cited a group of Thakurs who complained



The caste background of domestic servants was more important, particularly if they had access to the kitchen.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 195 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


that Dalits are being spoiled by the politicians: ‘We know how to tame them, for the economic power is in our hands – we can stop employing the SCs, refuse them loans’ (Ashraf & Singh 1998). A brief look at those currently employed in Pramod’s compound confirms that his assertion that caste was of little or no importance for outdoor employment had prevailed for a while. Most of the skilled workers had been recruited through a friend of Pramod’s father-in-law in Calcutta, who was a professional constructor. The skilled workers were all Bengalis or Oriyas and included a pillar and casting worker from the Behera community,16 a Thakur plumber, a Muslim electrician and a Muslim painter. Some of them had assistants or subordinates, whom they were responsible for recruiting themselves. For example, the man responsible for casting and pillar work hired local unskilled labour for carrying iron rods and bags of sand, and for doing the physical casting. These labourers were hired on a day-to-day basis and seemed to hail from the poorest layer of the urban proletariat, dominated by Scheduled Castes.17 The final workers involved in the construction were the three brothers (sometimes four) who worked as carpenters – all from a Barhai (carpenter) family (now classified as OBCs) further east in Uttar Pradesh. In addition to the construction workers there were other persons working in the compound: To keep watch at the gate, for security and for running errands, there were three chaukidars. The first was a Lodhi (OBC), independently recruited; the second was the son of the mahari



According to this casting worker, Behera is a middle-caste weaving community in which the men ‘are allowed to wear janeu (‘holy’ thread showing twice-born varna status) when they get married’. However, F. G. Bailey, who conducted fieldwork in a village in Orissa, writes that Behera is a washerman caste (1994: 73). Whether there are two different Behera communities, whether there is one Behera community which is ranked differently in different areas, or whether the casting worker simply attempted to conceal his low-caste status, I do not know. Regrettably, I never conducted any survey among these labourers, and am therefore unable to give a closer specification of their background. My assumption that most of them came from Scheduled Castes is based on the high number of unemployed SCs in the city, and writings on the urban proletariat and the recruitment of manual, unskilled workers for construction work. A summary of these studies is given by Mendelsohn & Vicziany 1998, Chapter 7.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 196 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


who cleaned the utensils in Pramod’s family’s kitchen; and the third was an illiterate Kori (SC) electrician who had begged Pramod for a job when the factory where he had worked shut down. The man who pressed the buttons in the tiny elevator was the brother of the casting and pillar worker, he too a Behera. The driver, a Boria (SC), was only temporarily employed by Pramod, as Pramod had agreed to ‘borrow’ him from a friend who had left the city for a few months. Finally, the sweeper, a young man who came in the mornings to sweep the courtyard, was a Valmiki (SC), as many Bhangis (sweepers) prefer to term themselves in this region. Most of the employees, then, had been recruited through some network or the other, and whether they were SCs or not seemed to have little or no importance as long as their work was outside the bungalow itself. Is it likely that the current employment pattern will change and that a boycott of SCs will be initiated? In the case of the construction business that Pramod and Babloo were involved in, the possibility of a boycott would seem to depend on three factors: the availability of cheap labour outside the SC/ST segment; that potential employees are specifically asked about their caste background; and finally, new recruitment practices. Especially the third point seems decisive here. Even though there appears to be no scarcity of poor labourers in this city, business owners seemed reluctant to employ anybody unless someone they knew – friends, family or subordinates – could assure them that the person in question was hard-working and trustworthy. This seemed far more important than caste background, even in the period after Babloo made his remark. Was Babloo’s remark, then, nothing but a rhetorical statement, never intended to be implemented in practice? It is hard to say. On the one hand, it is unlikely that a consistent boycott will be, or can be, implemented, given the current practices of recruiting workers through personal networks, and given the prevailing feeling, shared by Pramod and many of his friends, that it is inappropriate to ask a potential worker directly about his caste background. But on the other hand, if the caste background is known, or may be assessed, then caste could well emerge as the decisive factor, given the choice of workers who appear equally qualified and willing to be hired under the same conditions. Here, however, the important distinction would not be between the jatis eligible for reservation and the rest, but between the jatis considered ‘most Untouchable’ on the one hand, and other low- or middle-ranking jatis 196

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 197 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


on the other. The explanation lies in the way the SC category is used locally. Even though Babloo, Pramod and other upper-caste Hindus frequently used the concept of ‘Scheduled Castes’, they had only vague ideas about which particular jatis were formally included in these categories in addition to the jatis that they considered most Untouchable.18 Given the choice between, say, a Kori and a Chamar (both classified as SCs in Uttar Pradesh), Babloo would undoubtedly employ the Kori. This means that if upper-caste desires to boycott SCs are carried out in practice, they will first and foremost affect the weakest of them all: The jatis at the very bottom of the social and ritual hierarchy. Returning to the outdoor employees in Pramod’s compound, we notice that the only person who belongs to the ‘most Untouchable’ category is the sweeper. He is also the only employee who has been hired for the task traditionally associated with his jati, or, as Babloo put it, who works as an Untouchable. The other SC employees, who traditionally were considered somewhat less Untouchable, had been hired for work that had no direct link with their caste profession. Thus, it seems that the outcomes we might expect from a deliberate attempt at boycotting SCs in employment are very similar to what is found in current practices. Statements like Babloo’s, then, would not so much change today’s hiring practices as relegitimize the elements of caste-discrimination they entail. This is far from being an insignificant change; it reduces the cognitive dissonance between what people say and what they do. This may not only reinforce current discriminatory practices, but also return it to social fields where discrimination was about to become a thing of the past.


This is understandable given the fact that no less than sixty-six jatis are listed as SCs and fifty-three as OBCs in Uttar Pradesh. A full list of SCs may be found in The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, issued by the Ministry of Law and Justice. My copy was issued in 1994 and includes amendments until that year. The original list of OBCs was printed in The Gazette of India Extraordinary, September 1993, and specified the OBCs accepted by the central government at the time. This list is included as an appendix in Yadav (1994), but is likely to have been subject to amendments since then.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 198 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Towards a Post-Mandal Untouchability? Pramod once told me a story from his childhood, in which he begged his grandfather for an ice-cream from a vendor who was passing by their house. The grandfather called the vendor inside, ordered one ice-cream for Pramod and one for himself, and sent Pramod inside the compound to ask whether his mother and grandmother wanted ice-creams as well. They didn’t, and as Pramod ran outside again, licking his ice-cream, he froze at what he saw: The ice-cream vendor was lying on the ground and Pramod’s grandfather sat on top of his chest, bashing his face. The grandfather had asked the vendor where he came from and what his jati was. As it turned out, the vendor was a rural Chamar. Upon hearing this, Pramod’s grandfather became furious: How dare a Chamar sell ice-creams in an area dominated by decent upper-caste families? How dare he put their dharma in jeopardy? Pramod frequently told me such stories in order to demonstrate how much things had changed in this city, and to show me how liberal Brahmins like himself had become. In many ways, Pramod is right. Apart from the oldest generation, no one in his family was reluctant to visit public eating places; even they have no guarantee that the food is not prepared or served by Untouchables. Furthermore, the idea that the touch of Untouchables is defiling seems to have become context-dependent. Pramod’s three-year old granddaughter was explicitly told to stay away from the carpenters and the woman who washed the floor, on the grounds that they were gande (dirty, bad). But whenever she was brought to her favourite ‘auntie’ in the apartment building behind the bungalow, it was the Kori electrician who took her by the hand and walked her over. Though he was from an Untouchable, or near-Untouchable, weaver caste, he was considered the most trustworthy of all the outdoor employees in matters that entailed assisting the women and children. In many respects, then, Untouchability is gradually losing relevance. Even in social fields where the idea of Untouchability remains a social practice, it has, as Béteille pointed out, become increasingly illegitimate. This has led to an apparent paradox: people deny, and argue passionately against, their own discriminatory practices. The relegitimation of caste discrimination outlined in this article is in many ways a counter-process. However, it differs from ‘traditional’ caste discrimination in two significant aspects. First, it does not necessarily relegitimize caste discrimination in the same social fields, or types of situations, in 198

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 199 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


which it previously was (or still may remain) common. Second, whereas ‘traditional’ caste discrimination was justified by reference to religion and cosmology, ‘new’ caste discrimination is rooted in (or re-routed to) politics. Both changes are striking, and since they are accelerated by the extension of preferential treatment to the OBCs, I am inclined to conclude that what we are now seeing form the contours of a transformed Untouchability – a post-Mandal Untouchability. References Ashraf, Ajaz & Sardar Jagat Jit Singh (1998) ‘How a Village Decides to Vote...’. The Pioneer: Agenda Supplement, 15 February. Bailey, F. G. (1994) The Witch-Hunt. Or, the Triumph of Morality. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Bains, Ravinder Singh (1994) Reservation Policy and Anti-Reservationists. New Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation. Béteille, André (1991) Society and Politics in India: Essays in a Comparative Perspective. London: Athlone Press. –– (1996) ‘Caste in Contemporary India’, in Chris Fuller (ed.), Caste Today. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Brass, Paul R. (1993) ‘The Rise of the BJP and the Future of Party Politics in Uttar Pradesh’, in Harold A. Gould & Sumit Ganguly (eds.), India Votes: Alliance Politics and Minority Governments in the Ninth and Tenth General Elections. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Christophersen, Mona (1994) Løvetannen spirer gjennom asfalten: Om Guanxi og byråkrati i Beijing. [The Dandelion sprouts through the asphalt: On Gunanxi and bureaucracy in Beijing]. Unpubl. thesis in social anthropology. University of Oslo. Duncan, Ian (1997) ‘New Political Equations in North India: Mayawati, Mulayam, and Government Instability in Uttar Pradesh’. Asian Survey, vol. 37, no. 10. Foucault, Michel (1997 [1972]) The Archaeology of Knowledge. London: Routledge. Fuller, Chris (1996) ‘Introduction: Caste Today’, in Chris Fuller (ed.), Caste Today. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Galanter, Marc (1984) Competing Equalitites: Law and the Backward Classes in India. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Hasan, Zoya (1994) ‘Party Politics and Communal Mobilization in Uttar Pradesh’. South Asia Bulletin, vol. 14, no. 1. 199

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 200 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


–– (1998) Quest for Power: Oppositional Movements and Post-Congress Politics in Uttar Pradesh. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Kothari, Rajni (1994) ‘Caste, Communalism and the Democratic Process’. South Asia Bulletin, vol. 14, no. 1. –– (1997) ‘Rise of the Dalits and the Renewed Debate on Caste’, in Partha Chatterjee (ed.), State and Politics in India. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Lochtefeld, James G. (1996) ‘New Wine, Old Skins: The Sangh Parivar and the Transformation of Hinduism’. Religion, vol. 26. Mendelsohn, Oliver & Marika Vicziany (1998) The Untouchables: Subordination, Poverty and the State in Modern India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Natraj, V. K. (1999) ‘Reservations: Seeking New Perspectives’. Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 34, 21-28 August. Pal, Sudha (1994) ‘Caste and Communal Mobilization in the Electoral Politics of Uttar Pradesh’. Indian Journal of Political Science, vol. 55, no. 3. Panini, M. N. (1996) ‘The Political Economy of Caste’, in M. N. Srinivas (ed.), Caste: Its Twentieth Century Avatar. New Delhi: Viking. Ruud, Arild (1998) ‘Corruption as Everyday Practice: Rules and rulebending in local Indian society’. Working Paper 1998.4, Centre for Development and the Environment (SUM), University of Oslo. Shah, A. M. (1996 [1991]) ‘Job reservation and efficiency’, in M. N. Srinivas (ed.), Caste: Its Twentieth Century Avatar. New Delhi: Viking. Singerman, Diane (1995) Avenues of Participation: Family, Politics and Networks in Urban Quarters of Cairo. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Yadav, K. C. (1994) India’s Unequal Citizens: A Study of Other Backward Classes. New Delhi: Manohar. Zelliot, Eleanor (1996 [1972]) ‘Gandhi and Ambedkar: A Study in Leadership’, in Eleanor Zelliot, From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement, 2nd edn. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 201 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie

8. Marie-Caroline Saglio-Yatzimirsky

CASTE AS A POLITICAL TOOL The Case of the Carmakars of Dharavi (Mumbai) Introduction This chapter1 examines the growth of political consciousness amongst the Untouchables in Dharavi, a Mumbai2 slum. The castes3 under study are leather workers of Maharashtra, who are Cambhars (shoemakers),




The field research for this chapter, which is part of a doctoral thesis, was carried out between February 1995 and April 1966 (EHESS, Paris, 1996). More information was added after six months fieldwork conducted during 1998 and 1999. A first version of this article was published in the CSH Contributions 97/8 of the Centre de Sciences Humaines, Delhi, which I wish to thank. Mumbai, capital of Maharashtra, was known as Bombay prior to January 1996. As far as the media and institutions use the form Mumbai, I will refer to the city as such, except when referring to it before 1996. Caste is an ambiguous term because it incorporates two different concepts: varna and jati. The former refers to a theoretical and religious division of ancient Hindu society into four varnas (colour) or classes (priests, warriors, merchants, servants) according to a ritual and functional classification. According to this scheme of things, the leather workers, in contact with all that is unclean, are at the bottom of the social ladder, and considered as being outside the varna, and therefore Untouchables. Jati, the vernacular term for caste, refers to the social group and has an empirical reality. It is kept for the hereditary group, within which one intermarries. Its members share common features, the most important being an ascribed occupation which only some of them practice and a defined status in the hierarchy of


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 202 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Dhors (tanners), and Holars (shoemenders). These castes, i.e. the hereditary group (jati) with a defined occupation and status, were considered to be at the bottom of ancient Hindu society and were excluded from it on account of their impurity. Political assertiveness has been one of their recent means of escaping the oppression from which they suffered. For a long time the groups of leather workers of Maharashtra made little effort to mobilize politically. They presented characteristics which were quite contrary to the political acumen and activism demonstrated by the Mahars, the other great caste of Untouchables in Maharashtra who were formally village servants. This dissimilarity between the two groups of Untouchables has a historical explanation, firstly as a result of the rivalry between them, and secondly as a result of their different economic circumstances, which assigned a distinct place to each in the social structure. In the last few years, however, the castes of leather workers of Maharashtra have started showing signs of growing political awareness. In the slum area of Dharavi in Mumbai, their first associations were organized strictly on the basis of caste in the sense of jati. This hereditary and endogamous group stands for a primary identity-giving agent. The new political awakening has resulted in the emergence of a broader association, which has widened the jati framework to create a community. The mobilization of Maharashtrian leather workers has led to their uniting as Carmakar, a sanskritized term4 by which they assert their belonging to the community of leather workers who share a common interest. When politics is at stake, the group is no longer restricted to the jati, but broadens and changes its nature. Certain features of caste such as occupation and status are underlined. Thus caste appears to be an evolving notion, that describes a more or less inclusive group depending on the context. The entry of the Carmakars onto the political stage has been on a caste basis and under the influence of nationalist Hindu political parties, in particular the Shiv Sena, who is dominant in Mumbai. This characteristic highlights the difference between the Carmakars and the Ma-



Hindu society. Jati is generally employed as a synonym for caste, which is the case in this chapter. Lit. Leather(carma)-to do (kr).

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 203 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


hars who have conducted their struggle from a democratic and anticaste platform since the end of the nineteenth century. One must ask the question whether the Carmakars are actively involved in this awakening and to what extent, or whether they are being manipulated by the electoral strategies of some political parties. Is their new caste consciousness working against their own interests or has it expanded their political horizons? The political movement for socio-cultural emancipation of the Untouchables is referred to as the dalit (‘oppressed’) movement. In Maharashtra, the awakening of the depressed classes started with various anti-caste movements at the beginning of the twentieth century. It continued with the mobilization of Mahars under Ambedkar,5 an outstanding political figure and himself a Mahar who took on the task of eradicating the segregation of the Untouchables, and with the rise of the Dalit Panthers, a militant organization consisting mainly of Mahars in the 1970s. Thus the flexibility of the term dalit must be stressed, sometimes indicating Mahars, sometimes used literally as a synonym for the oppressed and Untouchable militants. Because of local rivalry the Carmakars of Maharashtra would refuse to be called Dalits. Consequently, this chapter highlights the diversity inherent in the outwardly contradictory political streams of development of the Untouchables, and examines the notion of a common Dalit identity of all Untouchables, something that is very open to debate.

1 The Political Cultures of the Leather Castes 1.1 The leather worker castes of Maharashtra The principal Untouchable castes of Maharashtra include, in decreasing order of numerical importance, the Mahars, the Matangs, the Camb-


B. R. Ambedkar (1892-1956), Minister for Justice during Jawahar Lal Nehru’s prime ministership, was the president of the committee which framed the constitution. Today he is the national hero of the Untouchables.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 204 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


hars, the Dhors, the Holars and the Khatiks.6 Only the Cambhars, the Dhors and the Holars are still working with leather today and would refer to themselves as Carmakars, a term that includes all the castes of leather workers. Traditionally, the functional division of the castes reinforced their hierarchical position in the Brahmanic scale of purity and impurity. Their occupation, which brought them into direct contact with filth, dead animals and blood, placed the castes of leather workers at the bottom of the scale. The Mahars, the village watchmen, were the very lowest. One of their hereditary tasks was to remove carcasses. Immediately above them came the Holars, shoemenders, inferior to the Dhors, tanners, who themselves were inferior to the Cambhars, shoemakers. Over the past hundred years the Mahars have progressively given up their traditional occupation and developed a distinct identity as opposed to other castes of leather workers. How can we explain the differences of mobility between the Untouchables? 1.2 The mobility of the Mahars, and the conservatism of the Cambhars, Dhors and Holars Many researchers have studied the mobility of the Mahars.7 The outcome of a changing socio-economic context hastened their mobility. Later on, their political mobilization was strengthened by Ambedkar’s leadership. In comparison, the political backwardness of the Cambhars, Dhors and Holars needs to be explained. Firstly, for historical reasons, voting has been and still is determined by caste rivalry. Secondly, it is a fact that the castes of leather workers were less inclined to politics than the Mahars because their hereditary occupation ensured their socioeconomic status. This the Mahars did not have.




In the first census undertaken in the newly created state of Maharashtra in 1961, among the 11 per cent Scheduled Castes accounted for, there were approximately 35 per cent Mahars, 32.5 per cent Matangs (ropemakers), 22 per cent Cambhars, 1.5 per cent Dhors, 1 per cent Holars, and less than 1 per cent Khatiks (butchers). See Zelliot 1969, 1970, 1992, and Omvedt 1994.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 205 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


1.3 The traditional rivalry between the Cambhars and the Mahars At the beginning of the twentieth century, two anti-caste movements, the Satyasodhak Samaj (truth-seeking society) and the Mahar movement became a force in the Mumbai Presidency, particularly in its main political centre, Mumbai. These movements, both of which were the earliest signs of the political expression of the Untouchables, brought together many Mahars, whereas the participation of the Cambhars, Dhors and Holars was still in its infancy. The Satyasodhak Samaj, a non-Brahman movement founded by Jotiba Phule in 1873, spread chiefly among the dominant agricultural classes and urban merchants. But it also attracted Untouchables. It had two main policies: the education of the oppressed and the general eradication of the caste system, including the reduction of Brahman influence in religious and social life. Among other things, Phule’s movement created schools for Untouchables, and fought to secure their rights. The Mahar movement made its appearance at the end of the nineteenth century, when a few educated Mahars became increasingly aware of the disadvantages endured by the Untouchables. The leadership of Ambedkar, which started in 1920, gave a new incentive to the movement. With him were two Camars,8 Shivtarkar and Rajbhoj.9 The movement entered a more radical phase in the 1930s and became exclusively Mahar. In fact, over a period of time, the Dalit movement became poisoned by caste interests. The Untouchable cause was supported by other great figures such as Jagjivan Ram10 and Ka-

8 9


Camar is the generic term for the castes of leather workers in North India. P. N. Rajbhoj’s ideological conversion to Ambedkar’s cause was a slow process. He believed in Gandhian principles and signed the Pune Pact in 1932. But gradually he came to criticise Gandhi, as he could not understand why there were so few Harijans in the Congress and what the role of the Harijan Sevak Sangh was. He joined Ambedkar’s Independent Labour Party in 1939, and became the general secretary of the Federation in 1942. Jagjivan Ram, member of the National Assembly and Dalit leader in the Congress, formed the Depressed Classes League or Harijan League in 1937. Gandhian in his thinking, he tried to mobilize the Dalits who showed a preference for the Congress. Ambedkar challenged the political beliefs of Jagjivan Ram, for whom it was more important to abolish Untouchability than the caste system. See Omvedt (1994:


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 206 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


jrolkar,11 both from the castes of the leather workers, who opposed Ambedkar. Concretely, in the historical context of Maharashtra, the rivalry between the castes prevented the Cambhars, Dhors and Holars from joining Ambedkar’s movement: the Mahars had their own leader from their own caste, and their own political party which happened to be a Mahar party. The first party formed by Ambedkar in Mumbai in 1937, the Independent Labour Party, was accused of giving all the important posts to the Mahars. The same accusation was levelled at the All-India Scheduled Castes Federation12 started in 1942, and at the Republican Party of India (RPI) which was created subsequently. While a sense of political consciousness was gradually evolving among the Mahars, the Cambhars, Dhors and Holars were less inclined to activism. The course pursued by them led to their gradual commitment to the Gandhian cause: initially some of them joined the Harijan Sevak Sangh (a movement started by Gandhi in 1932 which aimed to assert the rights of the Untouchables) and later they joined the Congress party. In fact, the ideological opposition between Ambedkar and Gandhi had been growing since the 1920s and emerged during the Pune Pact in 1932, related to the question of a separate electorate for the Untouchables. Ambedkar’s aim was to abolish the outrageous caste system itself whereas Gandhi’s ambition was to fight against Untouchability but to preserve the basis of Hindu social organization. Even though only a brief mention of the different evolutions of the two communities has been made, it is clear that they were much more than mere strategies on the political chessboard. The very identity of the Untouchables was at risk. The Mahars’ leaders increasingly rejected the very basis of Hindu society and its hierarchy which belittled them. In 1956, a large number converted to Buddhism, as advocated by Ambedkar. The Carmakars, however, did not challenge the basic premise of Hinduism, as proved by their affinity to Gandhian concepts




263). N. S. Kajrolkar was a Congress Cambhar leader who opposed Ambedkar. He was elected to the legislatures, once from Bandra in 1948, then from North Mumbai in 1952. At the turn of the twentieth century, an official classification was undertaken and the Untouchables were listed as socially and economically backward groups or depressed communities. In 1935, they were listed as Scheduled Castes.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 207 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


and their endorsement of Hindu orthodox teachings. In the same way they also developed various strategies of sanskritization, that is, the tendencies of the inferior castes to copy the habits of superior castes so as to climb within the Hindu status hierarchy. Indeed, the Cambhars of Maharashtra liked to play on attributes of superiority to differenciate themselves from other Untouchables. They claimed to be of fairer complexion, their diet would exclude beef, which the Mahars are suspected of eating, and they would change their last names or add suffixes so as to give them a Brahmanical consonance. The division between the Mahars and the Carmakars was reinforced by the political strategies followed by each in order to acquire certain benefits. As early as 1960, the state of Maharashtra allocated reservation quotas for government service, education and political representation to the neo-Buddhists who are the Untouchables converted to Buddhism on Ambekar’s call, whereas these benefits were extended to them in the rest of India only in 1990. The competition between the Mahars and the Carmakars was all the more acute since the two groups were rivals for the same benefits ever since the creation of the state of Maharashtra. Thanks to the initiatives taken by Ambedkar and the RPI, the Mahars were better placed to obtain them. In search of political protection, the majority of the castes of leather workers turned to the Congress, the dominant party, in order to corner more benefits from the system of reservations. Today, the rivalry between the Mahars and the Carmakars is expressed in the political strategies adopted by the two groups. The Mahars remain faithful, if not to the RPI, at least to Ambedkar’s ideology. The Carmakars are divided between the Congress, their traditional party of allegiance, and the Hindu nationalist parties. Therefore, the local rivalry of the Mahars and the Carmakars cannot alone explain the lack of political mobility of the latter. A structural explanation has to be found. 1.4 Shoemakers and tanners: Castes without a political ethos? Poverty and a low level of education are factors which could explain the lack of political mobilization among the Carmakars. Numerically and economically they were too weak to form an autonomous party. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate to study the role played by their traditional occupation in political terms, by examining the legitimacy that it conferred within the social structure. The hereditary occupation of the 207

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 208 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Cambhars and the Dhors ensured them a place and a means of survival that the Mahars had lost a century ago. The Mahars had no particular craft or skill and were commonly known as village servants, providing a variety of services such as assisting the village headman in resolving conflicts or as messengers and watchmen. Some of these functions were highly polluting, for example removing the carcasses of dead animals and skinning them. They had to change their occupation once the new infrastructures provided by the British in the fields of justice, the police and the postal service threatened to make them redundant. Once divorced from the traditional Maharashtrian village or balutedari system,13 which assigned a function to each caste, they had to find other occupations. Possible careers for the Mahars were to be found in the army, the docks, the railways and in textile factories. This often resulted in their migrating to the cities. Consequently, in a short time, their level of education and political motivation surpassed that of the Cambhars and the Dhors. Later, Ambedkar insisted on the Mahars giving up their work involving leather because of the stigma attached to it. This reinforced their occupational mobility. On the other hand, as shoemakers and tanners and occasionally agricultural labourers, the Cambhars and the Dhors had a socio-economic status which conferred political legitimacy, that is to say, it gave them a certain standing in the political and social structure. Hence they did not mobilize to obtain their rights because they were able to survive within the system. The hereditary occupation which provided them with a job and political legitimacy played a central role in their political behaviour. However, Carmakar participation in Maharashtrian politics has intensified since the late 1970s. It is very difficult to determine the level of political awareness attained by a group, although there are visible signs of mobilization, such as the formation of support groups and associations.



The balutedari system was the intra-village economic relationships prevalent in pre-British Mahrashtra and partly remaining during the British administration. Balutedar stands for the artisan receiving a baluta, that is, his due for the services he has given to the land owners. The balutedari system was very much like the jajmani system even if the balutedar was not only linked to the dominant castes but to the whole population of the village.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 209 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


2 The Political Awakening of the Carmakars of Dharavi 2.1 A slum colony of leather workers For a better understanding of the mechanisms involved in the political mobility of the Cambhars, Dhors and Holars, an examination of the associations started in Dharavi is necessary. Dharavi is a slum area in Mumbai and as such it is said to be the biggest in Asia. It is a product of industrialization, urbanization and rural migration. It is situated in north central Mumbai, between Sion Railway Bridge, Mahim Creek, and Matunga railway station. It has a population of approximately 500,000 people.14 Dharavi has a very large population of low income groups from the backward classes and the Untouchables, and of these, there may be 150,000 leather workers. Among the Marathi-speaking castes, the Cambhars, Dhors, Matangs and Mahars dominate. Then come the low castes from North India and from Tamil Nadu. The Muslim community is numerous. Dharavi was selected as the area of study on the mobilization of the Cambhars, Dhors and Holars for two reasons: it has a large proportion of these groups and it is typical of an urban slum, which is a consequence of the migration of the poorest rural classes to the city. It thus becomes interesting to analyse the formation of a new identity in fresh surroundings at personal and occupational levels. 2.2 The leather workers of Dharavi Dharavi has a great diversity of castes working with leather. The fact that it came to specialize in the tanning of leather and the manufacture of leather articles is explained by its proximity to Bandra where the great slaughterhouse of Mumbai was located at the beginning of the twentieth century. As the original inhabitants of Dharavi, the Kolis


It is difficult to know the exact population, which can only be evaluated through the figures given by the Mumbai Municipal Corporation and the number of registered voters. According to the last census (1991) Dharavi has a resident population of 364,341.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 210 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


(fishermen), refused to handle leather, the necessary labour force had to be imported. Thus, the first leather workers were adidravidas, that is, Untouchables from Tamil Nadu. Later on, traditional leather-working castes – tanners, shoemakers – came not only from Maharashtra but also from far-off states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal. They organized themselves according to their speciality, and also diversified, but remained in the leather trade.15 From the 1960s onwards, the growth of workshops and small scale industries and the capacity of Dharavi to absorb both skilled and unskilled labour explain the continuous growth of a population of diverse origins. 2.3 Spatial division of the castes There has been no intermingling of the various groups. A study of the settlement pattern in Dharavi reveals separate dwelling zones organized according to ethnic, linguistic, caste and religious criteria. Each group has its own internal living arrangements, which can be expanded depending on the number of migrants. Thus the map of Dharavi shows the relative concentration of the Tamils. Their isolation is reinforced by the Christian identity of a majority of them and their political activism led by Tamil regional parties.16 Muslim Nagar, to the south, is the area where the Muslims live, whereas they concentrate their commercial activity on the main road, 90 Feet Road. On the other hand, paradoxically few Dhors remain in their original settlement, Dhor vada. At present, they are to be found around Sant Kakkaya Marg, a street which bears the name of the saint they venerate.17 This residential and commercial area is surrounded by tanneries. The Cambhars are concentrated further north in Dharavi at Gopinagar, along Sant Rohidas Road,


16 17


Thus, for example, the Maharashtrian Cambhars produce sandals, the Moci from Bihar manufacture shoes, the Kakkaya Dhors are specialized in leather colouring process. See Lynch 1970. Kankhaya is a Vaishnava saint from the Bhakti movement (see Eleanor Zelliot’s chapter in this book) and is Tukaram’s brother. Kakkaya is a derivative and transformed form of the name of this saint, whom the Dhors have adopted as their saint because he was a tanner.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 211 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


which is named after their main saint. Another Cambhar pocket is to be found in the north, in the Kalakilla area. This clearly shows that the migrant communities in Dharavi are distinctly located in different areas. Urban migration neither eliminates differences, nor does it help to create a new identity. On the contrary, it seems to exacerbate differences, based chiefly on caste. In the same way, associations also function on the basis of caste loyalty.

3 The Cambhar and Dhor Associations: The Importance of Jati There are many associations in Dharavi, despite the fact that the traditional educative, judicial, economic caste functions have now been institutionalized and secularized, and have become the responsibility of the state. These associations are based on jati, the endogamous group which has a separate identity. It is necessary to analyse the extent to which caste in the sense of jati becomes a specific and effective factor of association. 3.1 Recent and exclusive associations The most important Dhor association is Sant Kakkaya Vikas Sanstha (Sant Kakkaya Institute of Education), created in 1962. Its history clearly shows its diverse functions. First a school was opened, then a temple dedicated to Ganesh was constructed. After that the association assumed a social role. It began to organize meetings. In September, a special feast (utsav) during the Ganesh festival promotes charity shows and donations. Not long ago the association was recognized officially and registered as a trust. Today, it helps to resolve the group’s internal and external problems which go from organizing less costly marriages to settling conflicts between couples or neighbours. These activities are restricted to the Dhors and also to the Sant Kakkaya sub-caste,18 which consists of Dhors from Maharashtra and Karnataka. Social interaction


A caste can be divided into sub-castes on the basis of various differentiating criteria


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 212 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


between castes does not cross the existing symbolic barriers. It would, for example, be unthinkable for the association to arrange a marriage between a Dhor and a Cambhar. At Kalakilla, a Cambhar organization, the Lok Seva Mandal, was formed in 1947. It plays an important social role through its social workers, it has a kindergarten (balwadi) and it organizes meetings, prayer and devotional ritual (puja) and celebrations. Its functions are restricted to the Cambhars. A religious group within the Cambhars, the Harale Vishnu Cambhar, has organized itself as the Shri Santa Rohidas Seva Mandal, named after the patron saint of the Cambhars following Bhakti tradition. This medieval Hindu devotional movement represents God as being merciful towards men. By means of utter devotion (bhakti) to God and through the teaching of the saints one can achieve salvation without having to leave society. The Harale Vishnu Cambhar are part of the great Maharashtrian Bhakti sect, the Varkari Panth. One of the most important manifestations of worship among the Varkari is the pilgrimage to Pandharpur, a town in Maharashtra, where the God Vithal is venerated. The Shri Santa Rohidas Seva Mandal association organizes a week-long stay for the Harale Vishnu Cambhars pilgrims while they are on their way from Mumbai to Pandharpur. Their dindi (religious procession) remains separated from the Sant Kakkaya Dhor dindi. Thus, there is no single association that unites the Cambhars, the Dhors and the Holars. The caste in the sense of jati brings out distinctive identities of groups and sub-groups and then serves as the basis for the formation of an association. 3.2 An identity rather than a functional role The associations visited were uncertain about their real role. It is true that they have an educational, economic, and social role. But the constant feature that I noted, exclusive membership, led me to conclude that they play an essential role in the construction of individual identities. They enable each jati to express its separate identity. For migrants coming from different parts of India and being from different castes, these associations

such as social and religious practices. There exists ample literature on the classification of castes and sub-castes that we will not consider here in detail. See in particular, Ghurye 1950, Dumont 1966, and Karve 1961.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 213 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


play an integrative role, based on their claim to a particular identity (the sectarian identity of the Harale, for example) and on social and religious practices. These associations help migrants to settle into their urban surroundings by organizing friendship networks and meetings. The associations fall into the same category as the immediate relationships between neighbours and between families. Thus, the slum seen as a distinct milieu has much to do with the specificity of the associations. Some associations follow certain practices and organize events only to stress their identity. This includes organizing meetings in the association’s hall intended for this purpose, publishing a caste directory where the so-called important families are listed, or giving a personal touch to festivals. In this way the caste can express itself through rituals and differentiating symbols. Lynch (1969) suggested that caste solidarity was on the wane. According to him there were increasing divergences between the unified caste group which was weakening, and on the other hand the growing external cohesion, a result of the greater competition between the castes, requiring them to strengthen their respective positions and defend their interests. Today, in the case of Dharavi, it would seem that internal unity does not become weaker but alters the nature of caste. Caste in the sense of jati gains in strength through the ritualization of a group’s practices, on the one hand, and through the formation of specific associations, on the other. This leads to the reinforcement of intra-caste solidarity. But caste can also be the organizational principle of political mobilization. In this way, the groups are extended under a common name, the Carmakar. The caste is no longer restricted to the jati, the endogamous group, but is a concept extended to the community of the castes of leather workers, sharing a common alienation within the Hindu caste system.

4 Carmakar Political Associations in Dharavi: The Importance of Community There are many political organizations in Dharavi. A regional Carmakar association, the Maharashtra Carmakar Sangh (the Association of the Carmakars of Maharashtra), was estab213

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 214 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


lished in 1990. Its founder, Gholap of Nasik, a member of the Maharashtra Assembly, is an active member of the Hindu nationalist party, the Shiv Sena. Gholap, in his editorial published in the newsletter of the association, has clarified the movement’s aims and ambitions: ‘Unite the Carmakars, promote education, fight for equality (which implies instilling a sense of self-worth in them), unite all Carmakar associations, solve social problems, and be independent of all political affiliations’. This programme calls for three remarks. The claim to neutrality and autonomy is probably a political strategy to separate the cause of the Carmakars from the broader issue of the Untouchables as a whole. The second remark concerns the unity of Carmakar political associations. The Maharashtra Carmakar Sangh considers itself the most important Carmakar association in Maharashtra. The rivalry between the Carmakars’ political associations indicates different strategies. In reality the objectives of the Maharashtra Carmakar Sangh outstrip its educational function and reveal its political ambitions. The editor of its charter, Kanade, himself a Cambhar, has been trying to organize the Carmakars, firstly on a regional level and secondly on a pan-Indian level. The first regional Carmakars’ meeting was in Aurangabad (Maharashtra) in 1986. But it was only in 1995, with the victory of the Shiv Sena party at the elections of the Assembly of Maharahstra and with the nomination of Gholap as Welfare Minister in the new government, that the association received the necessary support to extend itself (see further). The Rashtriya Carmakar Mahasamiti (the Assembly of the Carmakars of India) was formed after the Maharashtra Carmakar Sangh with a national aim. Its head is Mane, the Shiv Sena’s member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) of Dharavi. He speaks of the organization in the following way: ‘It concentrates on the progress of the Carmakars by considering their needs and requirements and granting them authorized stalls. It also made a request to the Vidhan Sabha (the state legislative assembly) for a Rohidas Bhavan.19 Another association in Dharavi is the Navyuvak Carmakar Sanghtana (the Association of the Young Carmakars). Its members are from the younger generation of Carmakars. This association is an organ of the Gholap movement, which assembled its militants here in 1994. Meet-



Rohidas Bhavan is a hall, named after the Cambhars’ saint Rohidas, where the Cambhars can gather. Interview with Mane, 6 February 1998.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 215 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


ings are held regularly and problems confronted by the young people are listened to, particularly problems relating to education, skills training and employment. The association helps them to secure jobs and loans. There is also a division of Andolan (Protestation), an association present in a number of Maharashtrian cities, with its headquarters in Colaba, in south Mumbai. In Dharavi, it goes by the name of ABC – the initials stand for Akhil Bhartiya Carmakar Andolan (Protestation of the Unified Carmakars of India). This political association does not want to continue the exclusive recruitment by caste. Its founder envisages a national organization of all the Carmakar castes, whether Dhor, Cambhar or Holar.20 The criterion for joining is membership of the Carmakar community. Most of the leather workers in Dharavi are familiar with these associations. Many branches of associations for young people and local associations have been formed. Consequently their means of expression have also multiplied. To ensure its popularity, the Maharashtra Carmakar Sangh gave a boost to caste pride, particularly that of the majority group, the Cambhars. The association’s logo represents the shoemaker’s three main tools, the hasti to hammer, the ari and the rapi to cut, all symbols of Cambhar identity and occupation. Two organizations, Andolan and Maharashtra Carmakar Sangh, publish eponymous newsletters. The Andolan newsletter publishes little pieces of information which reinforce Carmakar identity. These announcements have great symbolic value for caste recognition, as for example, the announcement of the inauguration of a ‘Sant Rohidas Nagar’ in a district inhabited by Cambhars, or of an award to the best worker, obviously a Cambhar.21 As in the case of social associations, the political organizations of leather workers in Dharavi were formed on the basis of a pre-existing institution, i.e. caste, but the role played by it is different. The first associations came together on the basis of jati, a selective principle, where the dynamics of recruitment are based on differentiation between jati, that is, specificity of forms of worship, and ethnic and linguistic differences. On the other hand, in the case of the political organizations, the recruitment base is much broader. The membership is not only dependent on belonging to a caste but also on being admitted to it.

20 21

Interview conducted on 11 November 1995. Taken from the issue of 26 October 1995.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 216 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


It was achieved by the fusion22 of a number of jati, Cambhar, Dhor, and Holar, to form a Carmakar community, which is the equivalent of a movement (sampradaya). The members, who are leather workers, share a common Untouchable status and similar socio-economic circumstances. The principle of a common identity is the basis of this political associative movement. Political organizations are less autonomous, and are not always initiated by the Carmakars residents themselves. In fact, we can see the hold that the most influential political parties, particularly the Shiv Sena, have over these associations in Dharavi. 4.1 Carmakars voters and representatives: The 1995 and 1996 elections Three political forces have essentially influenced the Dharavi Carmakars.The first of these is the Congress and its allies, who in 1991 held 80 per cent of the seats in Maharashtra. The second is the alliance of Hindu nationalist parties, namely the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)23 and the Shiv Sena. The third one is a united front of mostly securalist and socialist parties, the Purogami Lokshahi Morcha. Among the parties involved, the Shiv Sena requires further investigation. The Shiv Sena (literally Shiva’s army) is a Hindu nationalist party started by Bal Thackeray in Mumbai on 19 June 1966. One of the characteristics of Dharavi and on a larger scale, of Mumbai, is the more favourable response that the nativist policy of the Shiv Sena has always received there in comparison with other regions of Maharashtra. It is the social and occupational composition of the population of Mumbai, where Maharashtrians represent only 40 per cent of the population, that favours the nativist and communal ideology. In the late 1960s, especially when the situation was aggravated by unemployment, Dharavi, a locality of migrant workers, became a fertile ground for the pro-Hindu, anti-Muslim, anti-Communist arguments presented by the Shiv Sena. The nationalism that it preached was aggressive, and defended Marathi interests against those of the Muslims and the Tamils.

22 23


This chapter is not the place for a more detailed analysis of the various associations. See the analytical categories developed by Rudolph & Rudolph 1967. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), literally The Indian People’s Party. Established in 1980, it is a strong advocate of Hindu nationalism. See Jaffrelot 1993.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 217 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


During the 1990 elections for the Maharashtra state legislative assembly (Vidhan Sabha), the two Hindu nationalist parties, the Shiv Sena and the BJP, formed a solid coalition, and won 94 seats. In March 1995, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance won the elections to the Maharashtra Assembly for the first time. It obtained the majority of votes, i.e. 48.5 per cent, in the Mumbai region. In the Dharavi circumscription, the alliance gained nearly 60 per cent of the votes. Moreover, of the 18 seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes, 11 seats went to the Hindu nationalist coalition. The coalition managed to take a majority of the Untouchable votes. In April-May 1996, 543 seats were contested in the parliamentary elections (Lok Sabha), out of which 48 seats were from Maharashtra. The novelty of these elections was the formation of a union of backward castes and Untouchables, the Purogami Lokshahi Morcha. It comprised, amongst others, the Janata Dal, the RPI that decided to join to promote the cause, and the leftist parties, in particular the communist parties – CPI and CPI (M). The popular basis of this force was leftist and included Muslims and Dalits, specially the neo-Buddhist Mahars. The 1995 voting pattern was confirmed: the 38 constituencies of the Congress were reduced to 15; Mumbai affirmed its Hindu nationalist stance. In Dharavi the electorate voted massively for the Shiv Sena. 4.2 The effective representation of the Carmakars Since these two elections, the representative strength of the Carmakars can no longer be denied. There were eight Carmakar members in the new State Assembly as against two in the previous one. A more detailed analysis of the connection between the political affiliation and caste gives us a clear understanding of this representation. Among the seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes, four went to the Shiv Sena and eleven to the BJP. All the Shiv Sena candidates were Cambhars, whereas only three BJP candidates were from this caste. Of the remaining eight candidates, two were Matangs, four were Mahars, and two were from other Sheduled Castes. This proves the differences in the strategies of the two Hindu nationalist parties during the elections and the pointed targeting of the Carmakars by the Shiv Sena, who used an anti neo-Buddhist argument to win them over. Caste-based rivalry between the Carmakars and the Mahars was used as a political tool. The BJP, on the other hand, did not 217

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 218 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


hesitate to ally itself with the Mahars. After this, it was the powerrelationships between the various castes at the local level which dictated the parties’ immediate strategy. The parallel between the Shiv Sena’s growing success in Dharavi and the politicization of the Carmakars is remarkable.

5 Understanding the Carmakar Vote in Dharavi 5.1 A generational and casteist vote It is not easy to give a profile of the Carmakar voter. Apart from certain speculative conclusions drawn on the basis of election results (neither the Muslims nor the Mahars in Dharavi will a priori vote for the Shiv Sena), only field interviews really help to evaluate the meaning of this vote. Two structural elements of this vote are notable. First, it is a young electorate. Then, it is a caste-based vote. The vote is characterized by bi-polarity between two generations. The older generation of Carmakars traditionally vote Congress, whereas the votes of the younger elements go to the Shiv Sena. This is a striking feature in Dharavi, where the young element of the population is over represented. The Carmakar rhetoric is an expression of a casteist voting pattern. First and foremost, people vote for members of their own caste. In 1995, the Dharavi Carmakars are said to have voted for Mane because he was a Cambhar and not because he was the Shiv Sena candidate. 5.2 The attraction of Hindutva The concept of Hindutva is based on nationalist ideology and ancient Hindu myths. The classical Hindu period represents the golden age of India which vanished with the Muslim conquest. This ideology is the mainspring of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which acts as both a pressure group and a political organization and was started in 1925 to defend the interests of the Hindu community. Golwalkar, president of the RSS from 1940 to 1973, aspired to an India constituted of a single territory, a single race, a single religion, a single culture, and a


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 219 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


single language. India thus must purify itself of all foreign influence in order to build a homogenous nation. A decision taken in March 1994 by the Supreme Court pointed out that it was unconstitutional to mix religion and politics. In the 1996 legislatives, it was officially forbidden to use the Hindutva theme as a political platform. The chief issues which were raised during the national elections of 1995-96 involved the question of corruption and social justice. The vote was partly a reaction against the inefficient and corrupt practices of the Congress. The common people considered the bureaucracy and the political classes a single entity. As was evident from their speech, it was the young people who were most vehement in their denunciation of corruption. They were also attracted by the Hindutva argument advanced by the Shiv Sena. In an article published in the Shiv Sena daily, Saamna (Confrontation), of 27 November 1995, Manohar Joshi, BJP Chief Minister of Maharashtra, provided a detailed explanation of Hindutva. He said: Hindutva is not a religion. Hindutva means the reign of Hindu dharma, that is to say the respect for traditional Hindu principles. Hindutva includes the fact of being Indian. It is a cultural concept that goes beyond political and geographical frontiers. In everything the Shiv Sena says, one finds the same terms recurring: loyalty, nationalism, Hinduism, dharma. For the Shiv Sena militants, Hindutva is also a religious concept that directly challenges the concept of secularism. The Carmakars thus represent a potential ‘religious’ force that can be mobilized by Hindutva ideologists. The notion of ‘respect for traditional principles’ and Hindu orthodoxy are issues that repeatedly figure in the arguments of the Carmakar voters and representatives from Dharavi. The communal danger inherent in the Hindu-Muslim antagonism can easily flare up in Dharavi, where the two communities have lived in close proximity for a century. Hindutva militants are always reproaching the Muslims for having taken certain jobs. Portraying his political enemies, the Mahars from the RPI, as veritable heretics, Bal Thackeray, the charismatic and scandalous head of the Shiv Sena, plays the same communalist card and challenges the neo-Buddhists. 219

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 220 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Hindutva ideology, with its extreme viewpoint, permeates some very sensitive areas involving the respect for the values of Hinduism. One such area is the slaughter of cows and their young which shocks Hindu feelings.24 Hindu nationalist militants advocate the principle of ahimsa (respect for life) and the sacredness of the cow. During the 1995 elections, this topic, once again discussed in Maharashtra,25 had definite political overtones, despite having a religious form given by nationalist Hindus. In August 1995, the BJP-Shiv Sena government presented the bill banning the slaughter of cows and calves.26 It amended the Maharashtra Animal Prevention Act of 1976, by including bulls and oxen in its purview and recommending more stringent punishment for offenders. The political debate over the issue heated up. Hindu nationalist organizations, the most extremist of which is the Vishva Hindu Parishad, were pitted against the moderates – Congress led by Sharad Pawar, the former Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Dalit parties and Muslims – for whom the issue was simply economic, with no other dimensions. Seen in its proper context, the debate posed serious economic problems. Firstly, there were the direct repercussions on the industries at the processing end: tanneries, manufacturing companies, and the pharmaceutical industry. Secondly, the ban on slaughter created financial problems for farmers, who had to feed the unproductive animals. Lastly, there was the problem of food – the low castes and Muslims eat beef because it is much cheaper than other meat. The Carmakars were affected by these restrictions directed against the abattoirs. The price of leather went up and to obtain it became difficult. The measures particularly affected the poorer classes, small artisans and manufacturers, who had to take steps for themselves to obtain raw material and who did not have the option of learning other skills and changing their occupation. However, despite the apparent paradox, the Shiv Sena seems to have manoeuvred the issue so as not to offend the


25 26


The cows and their young (less than three years old) are protected: in theory cows are always taken away when they fall, and are not slaughtered. Similarly only aged oxen and buffaloes are killed. The law however is far from being always respected. The debate is not a new one. It is raised periodically in all the Indian states. Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have a total ban on the slaughter of cows. This bill was to be presented before the Legislative Council during the winter session and was finally rejected.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 221 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Carmakars, but with scant regard for the Muslims, especially the butchers, the Kasai. It was these very Carmakars who, despite their obvious distress about the bill’s economic impact, were the first to support the ban on the slaughter of cows. The issue was further confused because of the quibbling over the distinctions between the occupation of butchers and artisans. The Carmakars’ reaction, paradoxically enough, reveals the deliberate strategy of the Shiv Sena, exploiting their efforts at sanskritization. Are we therefore dealing with independent voters or a caste manipulated by the Shiv Sena? An examination of the Shiv Sena strategy for the mobilization of the Carmakars suggests that the party is taking advantage of latent casteist tensions.

6 Shiv Sena Strategies and the Creation of a Carmakar Community The Shiv Sena’s two principal tools for mobilizing the electorate in Dharavi were, one, their constant presence in the slum and, two, the promotion of a Carmakar identity. 6.1 A strategy of nearness The Party knows how to attract the ‘young people’, the ‘have-nots’ and the ‘workers’, all those categories which constitute potential vote banks and are therefore prime electoral targets. The shakhas (political branches) which keep multiplying in Dharavi, and of which there are seven at present, are organized in close proximity to the residents. The Shiv Sena has borrowed the method of the major Hindu nationalist ideological movement, the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS),27 to establish itself. The shakha functions like a local association, while they


The RSS conducts special training programmes for its members – for example daily meetings in all its branches (shakha), special disciplinary training for young people and uses a Hindu symbol (saffron flag, etc.). See Basu et al. 1993, and Andersen & Damle 1987.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 222 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


are in fact political bastions. They deal with day-to-day problems and deliberate regularly on issues like water, electricity cuts, school results (etc.). The shakhas provide not only substantial material help, but psychological support as well. During the 1995 campaign, the future-elected member of the legislative assembly (MLA) sent his emissaries, the Shiv Sainiks, who are mostly part of the young people the party helps, into Dharavi to rally support. The inhabitants, the majority of whom are migrants in the slum, often far from their homes, live in an atmosphere of insecurity and sometimes violence. They welcome the social worker as they would a benefactor and look upon the elected leader, the pramukh (chief), as a father figure. Through its institutions, the party is intimately involved in the daily life of the Carmakars. One such example is its participation in Carmakar festivals. It has infiltrated itself into the Dussehra festival,28 one which has great symbolic value for the Carmakars. The leather workers celebrate this festival by a ritualized display of their hereditary occupation. While each family performs a private puja, the shakhas make the event into a popular and festive demonstration. They cover the stalls with saffron-coloured cloth and place on them statues of Shivaji, founder of the Maratha empire and cult figure of the Shiv Sena. Another form of infiltration is through the workers’ unions. The unionization of the informal leather sector, to which the majority of Carmakars belong, is in fact negligible. To the extent that they work in unregistered units, they do not have any legal standing on the basis of which to make their demands. They therefore possess no means of exerting pressure. The workers’ group is not substantial enough, work culture is non-existent, and consequently the specific conditions for the formation of unions are not fulfilled. Nonetheless the Shiv Sena continues to make inroads into the medium-sized and large-scale industries,



Durga puja or Dussehra is one of the most important festivals in the Hindu calendar. Durga’s nine-day fight against the demon Mahisha and her victory are celebrated. Many people celebrate the victory of Rama over Ravana. The labour festival, Dussehra or Vijayadasmi, is the day on which all artisans venerate their tools and, through this cult, their work. According to the Hindu calendar, it takes place in late October.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 223 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


where the Congress and other parties are unable to make an impact.29 Therefore, leather units in Dharavi are too small to have their own unions. But the Shiv Sena has managed to infiltrate the independent workers, shoe polishers, and shoemenders, who were organized into shakhas after the 1990 legislative elections. Undoubtedly they are less an occupational group than a ‘class’ of small workers making a precarious living. So a group emerged based on similar living conditions and socioeconomic status. The Shiv Sena also gave the voter the means to express himself. One of the most common demands made by the leather castes of Dharavi is the desire for their own political organization and programme. By giving them top positions in the shakhas and providing election tickets to the Cambhars during the last elections, the Shiv Sena fulfilled this aspiration. At the same time the Shiv Sena succeeded in boosting its own popularity. 6.2 Promotion of a community: The Carmakar meeting of 26 November 1995 The emphasis laid on a specific caste was a strategy developed by the Shiv Sena during the last two elections. In this way caste is given encouragement and self-esteem. The Carmakar meeting of 26 November 1995 underlined the role of caste as a political tool, namely for rallying support. The event was more or less ignored by the media. On the other hand it had enormous repercussions on the Carmakar community of Maharashtra, even in rural areas, for whom it signified their recognition as a matter of principle. All Carmakar publications as well as the BJP daily Loksatta and the Shiv Sena daily Saamna carried reports of the meeting. The gathering was a marked political success for the coalition government. On 26 November 1995, a huge Carmakar rally was organized at Shivaji Park in the centre of Dadar, a district bordering Dharavi. Caste was the watchword: it was not a gathering of leather workers, but of Carmakars – its sanskritized form was deliberately employed by the organizers. The idea was to have a non-selective rally, because all the


The Bharatiya Kamgar Sena (Indian workers’ association) is an organ of the Shiv Sena, and was established in 1968 as part of the anti-Communist strategy.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 224 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


Carmakar castes were invited to participate. However, there was not one participant who was unaware of the meeting’s Hindu nationalist complexion. According to official sources and newspapers of non-BJPShiv Sena orientation, 30,000 Carmakars were present. According to the organizers themselves, they were rather 200,000. Even though there is a huge difference in the figures, what is undeniable is the importance of the meeting. The banners in Shivaji Park bore the slogan ‘Hindutva manale Carmakar’ – Carmakars who believe in Hindutva. The rally was opened by Manohar Joshi, Chief Minister of Maharashtra. To transform it into an important event, eminent political figures of the State were invited: the Minister of Agriculture, the State Minister of small-scale industries, and the President of the Mahatma Phule Vikas Mandal (a credit association for the Scheduled Castes). The Chairman of the meeting, Kanade, from Maharashtra Carmakar Sangh organization, outlined the problems faced by the Carmakars and presented their demands to the Chief Minister. These were: • The inclusion of a lesson on the community’s saint, Sant Rohidas, in primary school books, that is from first to fourth class. • Simplification of the procedures for obtaining caste certificates; the removal of all red-tape, and automatic postal delivery of the certificate by the authorities. • Provision of financial aid to the leather industry on the lines of the subsidies granted to sugar co-operatives; tax exemption for Carmakar businessmen. • Arrangement of loan facilities by the government. • Opening of technical institutions and training schools for leather workers in Kolhapur, Solapur, and Ahmadnagar. • Availability of loans for the promotion of higher education. The first two demands are related to the status of the Untouchables. The inclusion of a lesson on Sant Rohidas, patron saint of the Carmakars from the Bhakti tradition and of great symbolic value to the Cambhars, is a casteist demand. By means of this, they are trying to find recognition. Similarly, automatic delivery of the caste certificate is also a way of asserting caste differences. The Cambhars want extended benefits. These two demands contain an implicit reference to their symbolic oppression: their lack of status in Indian society whose ‘middle class culture’ is what is projected through school books, and material oppres224

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 225 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


sion, the blackmailing resorted to by the authorities who hold the key to the benefits, which the caste certificate represents. The caste certificate concerns the state authorities. The state is perceived as an accomplice of the dominant classes. The state is also roughly equated with the Congress Party, whose links to the rich farmers and sugar barons of Maharashtra are well known. The insistent scheme of the Carmakars, the promotion of the leather industry with easy access to financial aid and loans, is a reminder of the corruption and the indifference of the State. This oversimplified image of the State goes to prove the feeling of oppression. These demands were perceived as legitimate by all the Carmakars interviewed during the meeting, whatever their socio-economic status. There is a combination of social, economic and status demands. Manohar Joshi’s response was: I know this community, its people (samaj) and their problems well. I hope that it can jointly form a great non-political movement. A commemorative book was presented showing Manohar Joshi in the company of leaders of Maharashtra Carmakar Sangh. The stage was thus set to promote the Carmakar, who must have felt that he had at last gained recognition: It is the first demonstration of this magnitude. It is a dharmik community which looks up to illustrious saints, this is why we are so close to each other. The Carmakars have suffered. I have come to the meeting to bring them an answer. In Manohar Joshi’s speech, the Carmakars are referred to in terms of samaj (society), lok (people), and sampradaya (movement, community). Joshi addresses a gathering, giving it the importance the gathering merits and characterizing it in terms of the suffering it has undergone, and despite everything, its quality of uprightness. He manipulates the words so to portray the community in a manner which inevitably strikes a chord in the heart of the masses: practice dharma, sacrifice the self, obey the illustrious teaching of the saints. His semantics are based on sanskritized notions, preying upon the audience’s susceptibility to the principles of Hindutva. Through the voice of Joshi, the BJP-Shiv Sena militants refer to themselves as the ‘brothers’ of the Carmakars. When one 225

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 226 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


thinks of the social origin of the founders and leaders of these movements, the demagogy is flagrant. Joshi’s words are, however, very well received by the participants. This event crystallized the manner in which the Hindu nationalist parties were able to exploit the Carmakars’ desire for recognition and were able to exploit their emerging political mobility by manipulating their caste consciousness.

Conclusion The political mobilization of the Carmakars of Dharavi shows us an example of the mobility of an Untouchable group and reveals the new role of caste in general. Whether it is a matter of organizing social support networks or political associations in the strict sense of the term, it is always caste consciousness which forms the basis and which structures the mobilization of the Untouchables. The Cambhars, Dhors and Holars do not see their caste simply as a political category, as Scheduled Castes, by virtue of which they are entitled to special benefits. Indeed, it is first and foremost an element conferring identity, on which new political aspirations are grafted.30 Thus caste consciousness can, on the one hand, act as a factor of differentiation and serve as a basis for sectarian organization. It is jati that is mobilized in this case. On the other hand, caste consciousness can also serve as a basis for politicized demands which have their place in the general debate, the issues being the economic demands of the poor, and the social and status demands of the depressed classes. In this case it acts openly as a mobilizing agent, a community, a movement (sampradaya, samaj). This example shows us the Indian electoral scene and its paradoxes. In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena was able to create a feeling of



The novelty of the recognition of their caste by the Untouchables has been examined in a recent article by Kothari (1994). Till now caste consciousness had been a monopoly of the Brahman upper classes. For the author, caste as an institution has the potential to become an instrument of democratisation, and needs not be a factor of exclusion and communal violence.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 227 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


caste consciousness among the Cambhars, Dhors and Holars, and to manipulate it during the last elections. This went as far as constructing a Carmakar identity which could be mobilized for communal issues. The low status and precarious socio-economic conditions of the leather workers enabled the Party to amalgamate the different castes. The awakening of their Hindutva enabled the party to mobilize them. In a context where caste rivalry is exacerbated by the government’s reservation policy, caste mobilization is made easier. It promotes a new way of adhering to one’s caste and expressing its identity. Castes have become increasingly competitive, antagonistic and militant. The paradox lies in Hindu nationalist parties, like the Shiv Sena, using casteist and communal arguments to facilitate the political awakening of the Untouchables. The question is whether this new caste consciousness gives way to narrow jati interests, or whether, on the contrary, it broadens their political ambitions and includes the interests of all the Untouchables. The same polarity of the Untouchable vote is apparent in other Indian states, divided between Dalit parties and Hindu nationalist parties. The paradox of this vote can be explained as an effect of local rivalry and electoral gimmicks. This very same divergence may be observed in Uttar Pradesh. The Jatavs took advantage of the phenomenon of ‘Ambedkarization’ and joined the RPI in the 1960s, and later the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) which is the Dalit party of Uttar Pradesh, which was started in 1984 by Kanshi Ram, a Camar. Less advanced socio-economically, the Balmikis manifest a very different type of political socialization. Led by the Arya Samaj and later by the Congress, they unified by exacerbating their Hinduness. The Balmiki community, a result of the union of three castes of similar status and social background, was thus created and manipulated.31 Today, the older generation of Balmikis vote for the Congress, the younger generation votes for the BJP. The division between the Jatavs and Balmikis highlights the manipulation of their status and of their economic rivalry32 by political parties, although it emphasizes also their active role as voters. Different types of political socialization between Untouchable

31 32

See Prashad 1994, 1996. For a more detailed analysis, see the article by Pai & Singh (1997) who use the term social jealousies to designate this rivalry.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 228 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


castes can thus be observed. The energy of Mahar and Jatav militants in fighting for their rights is in striking contrast to the slow awakening of the Carmakars and the Balmikis, who look for the dominant parties for guidance. This polarity underlines the difficulty of creating a unified movement of Untouchables. In Maharashtra, Ambedkar failed in his aim of creating a united party of Dalits with the RPI.33 However, there are signs of common Untouchable aspirations, as is attested to by the recent success of the BSP in Uttar Pradesh.34 The riots which shook Mumbai in July 1997 are also an example.35 It was initially a demonstration against the BJP-Shiv Sena, but then the demands of the Untouchables spread throughout the whole country. The Untouchables, united regardless of jati, condemned even their own leaders and proclaimed their intention of obtaining greater political participation. Use of the term ‘dalit’ in order to qualify such a movement is misleading. To the common people it refers to Untouchable activists. But in the local context of Maharashtra, it refers to the Mahars and their political culture which is quite different from that of the Cambhars, Dhors and Holars. The contradictions and paradoxes of the Untouchable vote show us that we should differentiate between electoral methods and the political cultures of the Untouchables. The methods are local, caste based, and easily influenced. The conflict is one of Carmakars against the Mahars, Balmikis against Jatavs, exacerbated by daily tensions and ri-


34 35


‘We cannot ignore the fact that the majority of the militants and the electorate of the RPI is made up of Mahars and neo-Buddhists. The saffron alliance’s endeavour to woo the other Dalit sub-castes, which constitute 30 per cent of the Dalit population of Maharashtra, has succeeded. Dalit solidarity under the RPI banner has reached its limits’. Frontline, 17 May 1966: 113. In December 1993, the BSP and its ally, the Samajwadi Party, won the elections in Uttar Pradesh. 11 July 1997, the State Reserve Police fired on a Dalit mass-meeting at Ghatkopar in north-east Mumbai, protesting against the defilement of Ambedkar’s statue. Ten people were killed and forty-three wounded. The Dalits rose in protest and many demonstrations took place in Maharashtra and other states, particularly in neighbouring Karnataka and Gujarat, and in Delhi. On 13 July, the Dalit leader R. Athavale was attacked by the crowd during a meeting on the site of the incident. The Dalits and their allies, in particular the RPI, demanded the resignation of the BJP-Shiv Sena government, who did not comply.

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 229 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


valries which are also part of their struggle for survival. Beyond all these rivalries one cannot deny the gradual affirmation of the Untouchables as a pan-Indian political force. References Andersen, W. A & S. D. Damle (1987) The Brotherhood in Saffron. London: Westview Press. Basu, T. et al. (1993) Khaki Shorts and Saffron Flags: A Critique of the Hindu Right. Delhi: Orient Longman, Tracts for the Times. Bhatt, G. S. (1961) ‘Trends and Measure of Status Mobility among the Chamars of Dehradun’. Eastern Anthropologist, vol. 14: 229-241. Dumont, L. (1966) Homo Hierarchicus, le Système des Castes et ses Implications. Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque des Sciences Humaines. Ghurye, G. S. (1950) Caste and Race in India. Mumbai: Popular Book Depot. Gupta, D. (1982) Nativism in a Metropolis: The Shiv Sena in Mumbai. Mumbai: Manohar. Guru, G. (1995) ‘Assembly Elections in Maharashtra’. Economic and Political Weekly, 8 April. Heuzé, G. (1995) ‘Cultural Populism: The Appeal of the Shiv Sena’, in S. Patel & A. Thorner (eds.), Bombay, Metaphor for a Modern India. Mumbai: Oxford University Press. Jaffrelot, C. (1993) Les Nationalistes Hindou: Idéologie, Implantation et Mobilization des Années 1920 aux Années 1980. Paris: Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques. –– (ed.) (1996) L’Inde Contemporaine. Paris: Fayard. Karve, I. (1961) Hindu Society. An Interpretation. Pune: Deccan College. Katzenstein, M. F. (1979) Ethnicity and Equality: The Shiv Sena Party and Preferential Policies in Bombay. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Khotari, R. (1994) ‘Rise of the Dalit and the Renewed Debate on Caste’. Economic and Political Weekly, 25 June: 1589-1594. Lynch, O. M. (1969) The Politics of Untouchability. New York: Columbia University Press. –– (1970) ‘Political Mobilization and Ethnicity among Adi-Dravidas in a Bombay Slum’, in A. R. Desai & S. D. Pillai (eds.), Slums and Urbanisation. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 230 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie


O’Hanlon, R. (1985) Caste, Conflict and Ideology: Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Low Caste Protest in Nineteenth-Century Western India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Omvedt, G. (1976) Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The non-Brahman Movement in Western India. Mumbai: Scientific Socialist Education Trust. –– (1994) Dalits and the Democratic Revolution. New Delhi: Sage Publications. Pai, S. & J. Singh (1997) ‘Politisation of Dalit and Most Backward Castes’. Economic and Political Weekly, 7 June: 1356-1361. Pendse, S. (1995) ‘Toil, Sweat and the City: Bombay’, in S. Patel & A. Thorner (eds.), Bombay, Metaphor for Modern India. Mumbai: Oxford University Press. Prashad, V. (1994) Revolting Labour: The Making of the Balmiki Community. Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago. –– (1996) ‘The Untouchable Question’. Economic and Political Weekly, 2 March: 551-559. Quigley, D. (1993) The Interpretation of Caste. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Rudolph, L. I. & S. H. Rudolph (1967) The Modernity of Tradition. Delhi: Orient Longman. Searle-Chatterjee, M. & U. Sharma (eds.) (1994) Contextualising Caste: Post-Dumontian Approaches. Oxford: Blackwell. Vaugier-Chatterjee, A. (1997) ‘Les élections générales de 1996: perspectives sur la déroute congressiste au Maharashtra et au Penjab’. Contributions CSH, vol. 97, no. 3: 35-52. Zelliot, E. (1969) Dr. Ambedkar and the Mahar Movement. Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania. –– (1970) ‘Learning the Use of Political Means: The Mahar of Maharashtra’, in R. Kothari (ed.), Caste in Indian Politics. New Delhi: Orient Longman. –– (1992) From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement. New Delhi: Manohar.


JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 231 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie

JOBNAME: 5. korrektur PAGE: 232 SESS: 25 OUTPUT: Fri Aug 6 08:31:09 2010 /first/tusculanum/ODT2/263_FromStigmaToAssertions/Materie

CONTRIBUTORS Mikael Aktor, Associate Professor, Institute of Philosophy, Education and Study of Religions, University of Southern Denmark. Simon Charsley, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Department of Sociology, Anthropology & Applied Social Sciences, University of Glasgow. Jocelyn Clarke, Professor of History (retired), Victoria, Australia. Robert Deliège, Professor of Social Anthropology, Unité d’anthropologie culturelle et du langage (ACLA), Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium. Kathinka Frøystad, Associate Professor, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen. Marie-Caroline Saglio-Yatzimirsky, Professor of Social Anthropology, Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, Paris. Andrew Wyatt, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of Bristol. Eleanor Zelliot, Laird Bell Professor Emerita of History, Department of History, Carleton College.