The anthropology of caste in India has conventionally rendered caste as a category of traditional religion, something that has been challenged by a historical anthropology of caste and its transformations under colonialism. Given this deconstruction of caste as tradition, how are we to approach its highly charged and contested presence within contemporary democratic politics in India? Examining the everyday institutional workings of secularism and democratic citizenship through the key institution of education, the article situates caste in relationship to secular modernity. In an analysis of the cultural politics of caste, religion, and secularism in a low-caste college in Kerala, India, that caters to the Ezhava caste community, the article argues for an understanding of caste as a fault line for the contested negotiations of tradition and modernity, the private and the public, the religious and the secular that mark contemporary cultural politics in India.
Religion and Education in Kerala, India
Craig Jeffrey. Timepass: Youth, Class, and the Politics of Waiting. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010. vii + 221 pages.
Manuela Ciotti. Retro-Modern: Forging the Low-Caste Self. London, New York, and New Delhi: Routledge, 2010. xvii + 292 pages.
Subaltern politics in contemporary India
The ethnographies presented in this article point to the ways in which members of oppressed communities imagine emancipation. Instead of analyzing emancipation as stemming from statist precepts of citizenship, I want to direct attention—along with other articles in this special section—to the “arcadian” spaces in which exploited, marginalized, and discriminated populations forge membership in the political community in contentious engagement with both state and society. I draw on ethnographic fieldwork with Musahar landless laborers in the Indian state of Bihar during the winter and spring of 2009–2010, with follow-up visits in September 2013 and July 2014. I focus on their engagement with two organizations, one a leftist political party and the other a cultural organization, to advance my claims. The ethnography reveals that, for the Musahar laborers, ideas of emancipation are anchored in reclamations of social equality rather than a telos of state-centered citizenship.
Negotiated Spaces in India’s School Meal Program
Sony Pellissery, Sattwick Dey Biaswas and Biju Abraham
In human rights literature, human dignity is the foundation of human rights. Thus, scholarly literature has focused on rights to further enchance dignity. In this article, we argue that rights alone provide only a minimum of dignity. We examine India’s right to food legislation and its implementation in school meal programs. Based on our observations, we argue that discretion and negotiation are complementary institutional spaces that can be developed for the meaningful enjoyment of rights and thus dignity. The negotiations that take place between school management committees and schoolteachers determine the dignity of the midday meal by improving meal quality and nutritional content, infrastructural facilities, and working arrangements for the cooking and delivery of meals. The findings are based on a study of four schools in the states of Kerala and West Bengal and on a review of studies on the midday meal programs in other Indian states.
A Personal Journey
Starting with a reflection on the experience of his own analysis, conducted in German by a German analyst, the author explores the problems of psychoanalytic work carried out in a cross-cultural context. First, the Hindu world-view and its three major elements, moksha, dharma, and karma, are explained. The cultural belief in a person's inner limitations is contrasted with the Western mind-set of individual achievement. The high value that Hindu society places on connection as opposed to separation and how this affects notions of gender and the sense of one's body is discussed. The article then returns to the author's experiences in analysis and his conclusions about the nature of cultural transference and counter-transference and the optimal approach toward psychoanalysis with regard to differing cultural backgrounds.
Ethnographies of affirmative action
Alpa Shah and Sara Shneiderman
This is the introduction to a special section of Focaal that includes seven articles on the anthropology of affirmative action in South Asia. The section promotes the sustained, critical ethnographic analysis of affirmative action measures adopted to combat historical inequalities around the world. Turning our attention to the social field of affirmative action opens up new fronts in the anthropological effort to understand the state by carefully engaging the relationship between the formation and effects of policies for differentiated citizenship. We explore this relationship in the historical and contemporary context of South Asia, notably India and Nepal. We argue that affirmative action policies always transform society, but not always as expected. The relationship between political and socioeconomic inequality can be contradictory. Socioeconomic inequalities may persist or be refigured in new terms, as policies of affirmative action and their experiential effects are intimately linked to broader processes of economic liberalization and political transformation.
"State-made" Dalit youth in rural North India
This article explores histories of social separation, impermanent encounters, and lasting political alliances between Dalit (“untouchable”) Chamar male youth and members of the upper-caste Brahman community in a village in eastern Uttar Pradesh, North India. The entry of young Chamar people into educational institutions followed by political mobilization and, for some, the transition into employment, has led them to appropriate spaces often beyond the purview of previous generations. Against the backdrop of Chamar histories as agricultural laborers, powerless political subjects, and actors of religious marginality, new forms of masculinity, sociality, and class formation have come into being. The article focuses on young Chamar men’s involvement in village politics, particularly during the 2005 local elections. It is argued that village politics—rather than inter-caste friendships, which remain short-lived as a result of caste discrimination—has engendered an arena of sociality where caste-driven interest produce more durable social links between young low-caste men and members of the upper-caste community. As India’s political history illustrates, the episode of electoral politics analyzed in this article brings together differently situated communities within the nation, highlighting how the unresolved question of caste discrimination conflates with the compulsion to political power. If young Chamar men are the new protagonists in this history, their role is the outcome of broader changes in the consciousness around political participation and the opening up of democratic possibilities for minority populations in a postcolonial setting.
Henry Lord's A Display of Two Foreign Sects in the East Indies (1630)
Amrita Sen and Jyotsna G. Singh
This article examines the politics and rhetorics of early modern ethnography via Henry Lord's famous treatise A Display of Two Foreign Sects in the East Indies (1630). Lord, a chaplain with the East India Company, attempted to classify Indian religious and caste identities—particularly those of the Banians—at a time when England's trading fortunes in India were still tenuous, though promising. Turning to the Shaster which he understands as the Banian Bible, Lord offers his readers a glimpse into Hindu mythologies—stories of genesis and the flood—which result in the creation of the four Indian castes. Understood in terms of humoral, psychological, and moral taxonomies these castes fall within emergent proto-racial hierarchies. Simultaneously, the journeys of the four brothers—Brammon, Cuttery, Shuddery, and Wyse—progenitors of their respective castes reenact familiar tropes of European travel writing combining the logic of profit with the “discovery” of hitherto unclaimed lands and erotic bodies.
Dalits, reservations, and "caste feeling" in rural Andhra Pradesh
This article examines the social effects of India's affirmative action policy (“reservations“) on the relationship between dalits and the dominant castes. Drawing on fieldwork in rural southern India, this article looks at the way people use their knowledge of reservations (however imperfect) to form opinions that shape behavior in everyday life. I argue that this policy is used to vindicate upper-caste antipathy toward dalits and has become an important part of new discriminatory attitudes. While discrimination on the basis of pollution has become muted, in its place reservations (combined with ideas about habits, morality, and cleanliness) have become the principal idiom through which the dominant openly express resentment toward dalits. In this sense, the language of reservations enables and legitimates an upsurge of anti-dalit feeling. This leads us to consider whether the positive effects of the policy can effectively counteract the caste antagonism caused by it in everyday life.
Affirmative action and strategic voting in Uttar Pradesh, India
Lucia Michelutti and Oliver Heath
This article focuses on the struggles and shifting political strategies of two major political players in northern India: the Yadavs (a low-to-middle ranking pastoral agricultural caste) and the dalits (former untouchables, which in the region mainly come from the Chamar caste) and their political parties, the Samaj wadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, respectively. Both communities (and political parties) have strongly benefited from affirmative action policies over the last three decades. We argue that that these affirmative action policies, and the political rhetoric that has tended to accompany them, have been “vernacularized“ in local sociocultural structures, which in turn has helped to produce folk theories of democracy and social justice that are directly and indirectly legitimizing conflict, and producing new forms of caste-based strategic voting, based on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.