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Table of contents :
Front Cover
Retro-modern India
Copyright Page
Orthography and Transliteration
Glossary of Selected Terms
Foreword by Mukulika Banerjee
Chapter 1. Chamar Modernity: Progressing into the Past
Chapter 2. ‘Today We Can Touch Anything’: Reflections on the Crux of Identity and Political Economy
Chapter 3. Ethnohistories behind Local and Global Bazaars: Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance
Chapter 4. 'We Used to Live Like Animals’: Education as a Self- and Community-engineering Process
Chapter 5. Nonrational Modernity? Religious Agency, Science and Spirits
Chapter 6. Beyond the Vote: Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity
Chapter 7. The Bourgeois Woman and the Half-naked one: Gendering Retro-modernity
Chapter 8. The Politics of Indian Modernity
About the Author
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Retro-modern India


Retro-modern India

Exploring the Political in South Asia Series Editor: Mukulika Banerjee Reader in Anthropology, London School of Economics Exploring the Political in South Asia is devoted to the publication of research on the political cultures of the region. The books in this Series will present qualitative and quantitative analyses grounded in field research, and will explore the cultures of democracies in their everyday local settings, specifically the workings of modern political institutions, practices of political mobilisation, manoeuvres of high politics, structures of popular beliefs, content of political ideologies and styles of political leadership, amongst others. Through finegrained descriptions of particular settings in South Asia, the studies presented in this Series will inform, and have implications for, general discussions of democracy and politics elsewhere in the world.

Also in this Series The Vernacularisation of Democracy: Politics, Caste and Religion in India Lucia Michelutti ISBN: 978-0-415-46732-2 Rise of the Plebeians? The Changing Face of the Indian Legislative Assemblies (Eds) Christophe Jaffrelot and Sanjay Kumar ISBN: 978-0-415-46092-7 Broadening and Deepening Democracy: Political Innovation in Karnataka E. Raghavan and James Manor ISBN: 978-0-415-54454-2

Retro-modern India Forging the Low-caste Self

Manuela Ciotti



Retro-modern India

First published 2010 by Routledge 912 Tolstoy House, 15–17 Tolstoy Marg, New Delhi 110 001

Simultaneously published in the UK by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, OX14 4RN

Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business

© 2010 Manuela Ciotti

Typeset by Star Compugraphics Private Limited D–156, Second Floor Sector 7, Noida 201 301

Printed and bound in India by Sanat Printers 312, EPIP, Kundli Sonepat 131 028, Haryana

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the publishers.

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record of this book is available from the British Library

ISBN: 978-0-415-56311-6

Ai miei genitori, per tutto (To my parents, for everything)

Contents Orthography and Transliteration Glossary of Selected Terms Foreword by Mukulika Banerjee Acknowledgements

viii ix xiii xvii

Chapter 1. Chamar Modernity: Progressing into the Past


Chapter 2. ‘Today We Can Touch Anything’: Reflections on the Crux of Identity and Political Economy


Chapter 3. Ethnohistories behind Local and Global Bazaars: Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance


Chapter 4. ‘We Used to Live like Animals’: Education as a Self- and Community-engineering Process


Chapter 5. Nonrational Modernity? Religious Agency, Science and Spirits


Chapter 6. Beyond the Vote: Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


Chapter 7. The Bourgeois Woman and the Half-naked one: Gendering Retro-modernity


Chapter 8. The Politics of Indian Modernity


Bibliography About the Author Index

263 282 283


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Orthography and Transliteration In the transliteration of Hindi words I have given preference to the sound of the words rather than to the rules of Sanskrit orthography. As a result, I have omitted the final ‘a’ from a number of words. The English plural form ‘s’ is often added to Hindi words to aid the flow of the text. When the possessive form for a Hindi word is required, the ‘s’ following the apostrophe appears in non-italicised form. However, for words widely used in Indological literature and for works on Hinduism, I have chosen the textual written form rather than the spoken one. I have also used this form for the names of places, people, communities, and religious buildings. All other Hindi words used in the text appear in italicised form, but frequently occurring Hindi words have been italicised only the first time they appear in the book. The glossary contains the words that appear several times in the main body of the text and for these, diacritical marks are given. Words used infrequently are translated as they arise, and in some cases this translation is repeated in subsequent chapters to aid the reader.

Glossary of Selected Terms achu¯t adharma adhya¯ andhvishva¯s bahujan sama¯ j ba¯ni basti ba¯za¯r bhakti bhu¯t-pret bigha¯ bira¯da¯ri brahm chaudhrı¯ cha¯i da¯¯ı da¯n deha¯t dharma dih ba¯ba¯ fa¯ida¯ g ya¯n girhast gotra gra¯m pradha¯n gula¯m ha¯rwa¯ha¯ izzat ja¯nka¯rı¯ ja¯ti ja¯tiva¯d kacca¯ ma¯l

Untouchable Unrighteousness, immorality Sharecropping Superstition The majority Weft; weaving putting-out system Hamlet Market Devotion, love (especially for a deity) Ghost Land measurement unit. 1.5 bigha¯ are equal to 1 acre. A bigha¯ is subdivided into 20 biswas. Caste The vengeful spirit of a Brahmin who died a bad death Headman Tea Midwife Unreciprocated gift Inner countryside Religious and moral duty Presiding deity of the village Benefit, advantage, interest Knowledge, understanding, wisdom Master weaver Lineage Village chief Slave Ploughman Honour Information, knowledge Caste Casteism Raw material


Retro-modern India

kala¯ ka¯m karhai ka¯rkha¯na¯ karma katha¯ kela khara¯b kothida¯r laga¯n laukik lota¯h mahı¯n ka¯m maulvı¯ mazdurı¯ mohalla¯ mota¯ ka¯m na¯rı¯ bharna¯ naukarı¯ ojha¯ pakka¯ pa¯n pancha¯yat pandit pa¯p parampara¯ parda¯h parha¯-likha¯ prasa¯d puja¯ puja¯rı¯ qasba¯ raj ra¯ja¯ ka¯ ka¯m sama¯j

Art Work Embroidery Workshop Action, deed and its consequences in this or subsequent lives Story Viscose Bad Owner of firm, businessman Revenue or rent Popular practice, not sanctioned by texts Metal vessel for drinking water Fine work One learned in Muslim law, i.e., a religion specialist Wage labour Neighbourhood Coarse work To reel the bobbins Government service Exorcist Made of brick Betel leaf, nut and condiments Council Brahmin priest Sin Tradition Literally, curtain; seclusion regime Literate, educated Blessed food given to the worshippers after puja has taken place Worship Worship specialist Rural market town Kingdom King’s work Community

Glossary of Selected Terms

samska¯r sarv sama¯ j sasura¯l sattı¯ sudha¯r tani vika¯s vya¯pa¯rı¯ zamı¯nda¯r


Influence, impress (of nurture), i.e., values instilled in an individual since birth All castes In-laws’ place of residence Wholesale market Reform, improvement Warp — vertical members of yarn Development Trader Landlord

Foreword In this, the fourth book in the series Exploring the Political in South Asia, we present another fine-grained monograph. Manuela Ciotti’s work is based on the village she calls ‘Manupur’ in eastern Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. The particular social group among whom she lived and conducted her research, the Chamars, are among the lowest in the social hierarchy of Indian society, and this traditional low-caste position inevitably led to their also being one of the most economically disadvantaged class as well. Their desire for progress was thus aimed at bettering economic standards and raising their symbolic capital. This book captures that process. As the title suggests, Ciotti’s interest lies in the transformation of the self that occurs when members of this lowly-ranked caste aim to become ‘modern’. Through a nuanced discussion, she pays close attention to how concerns regarding dignity and equality are incorporated into ideas about reform and civilisation, to create a ‘better person’. Her ethnography and analysis show how Chamars created new modalities to liberate themselves from disabling structures, entrenched hierarchies, the shackles of patronage systems, and the trap of ‘unfit’ personas in the religious/ritual systems. They achieved this neither through a rejection of high-caste traditions, nor through a mimicry of high-caste customs, but by subverting these disadvantages — by positively reformulating their own positioning within Indian society and their pasts. This, Ciotti argues, is an important characteristic of what she terms their ‘retro-modernity’. The book argues that an important part of the project of modernity is to engage with the past and the Chamars studied here do this by forging new traditions and new pasts, reverting to the colonial period, asserting those aspects of that time which were seen as liberating from caste hierarchies. Under colonial rule, Ciotti argues, the Chamars formed a social laboratory of a particular kind, for the implementation of universal ideas of democracy and equality in order to forge themselves as full-fledged citizens. In this the Chamar appropriation of the colonial past complements the nationalist master narrative for the liberating discourses and the opportunities for political contestations and socio-economic reform that saw their birth during British rule in India. The period also saw


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the growth of anti-untouchability movements and the consequent reexamination of traditionally entrenched social systems. Thus, in many ways, the story of Chamar progress is also a realisation of the Nehruvian blueprint for independent India, at the heart of which was the role of the State in rejecting old hierarchies and creating new opportunities of economic development while remaining committed to the principles of secularism, universal citizenship and equality. This book shows how Chamars engage with each of these new opportunities and ideas. The particular story of Chamar modernity presented here comes from a less rehearsed corner, but informs a bigger story about Indian modernity as well. The Chamars are not a group that the world commonly hears about, such as the Indian ‘middle classes’. There is no economic migration or transnational consumerism here. Rather, the Chamars have to make the most of the fragments of the development that reaches them. By virtue of living in a modern democracy that guarantees rights to the traditionally disadvantaged, the Chamars, somewhat ironically, have to claim backward status in order to gain access to the State’s privileges. At the heart of this transformation lies the use of education and the opportunities and status that it brings. But, as we see here, while education has the potential to create equality between classes, it also creates new divisions within the community. Through a layered description, Ciotti shows the repercussions of this: as new opportunities often come to the men of the community first, they can have very different effects across men and women. Thus, while men use the progress afforded by education to increase their self-respect, for women one witnesses a reversal to conservatism and confinement. This trend, born of the paradox of caste emancipation that leads to a greater conservatism in issues of gender, is a larger and more evident phenomenon nationally, as other studies also demonstrate. The model for modernity adopted by the Chamars is not one of Western modernity, but that of the Indian middle classes from the 19th century onwards. Ciotti demonstrates how — despite the continuous presence of Western modernity — the groups that the Chamars were measuring themselves against were other Indians. Thus, the modernity of the Chamars is not only about the fight for fundamental rights and erasure of untouchability, but also about the creation of distinction and class. We see here how ‘retro-modernity’ ultimately refers to the new



chasms that the recent rapid growth of the country has created. The tension between modernity as ‘process’ (as adopted by Chamars) and as ‘attribute’, which seems impossible to attain in India, is made evident. In the final analysis, this tension is played out and contested in the arena of politics, and the story of social movements and electoral politics in contemporary India are evidence of this. This book provides the reader with an account of the life-world of the Chamars of Manupur. By adding historical depth and paying close attention to their point of view in what she heard and saw, Ciotti provides here an account of ‘what it is to be Chamar’ in India today, and her account is a challenging, compelling and, ultimately, convincing one. London November 2009

Mukulika Banerjee

Acknowledgements This book is the outcome of the research and thinking which built on my PhD dissertation submitted at the University of London in 2002. In 2003, this research and thinking became progressively intertwined with a major project on low-caste women’s political participation in north India, which I undertook under the tenure of a Nuffield New Career Development Fellowship. Although this project is an altogether different one from my dissertation, and will culminate in the publication of a separate monograph, the arguments I present in this book owe a great deal to it, as it enriched me with new fieldwork experiences, triggered new ways to look at the dissertation material and helped in making some of the connections I had not seen until then. While researching in India for this book, I became indebted to a great many people. My thanks go first to the Chamars of Manupur village who gave me the opportunity to share their daily lives and their thoughts. I am extremely grateful to them, for each bit of knowledge I was able to acquire during this process was the result of their great patience and affection. I would also like to emphasise that this knowledge process was often accompanied by fun and surprises, and this helped me immensely in navigating through the difficulties of fieldwork. I also want to extend my thanks to all the inhabitants of Manupur for having welcomed and warmly hosted me in their homes. Fieldwork in 1998–99 could not have been conducted without the help at one time or another of Vidhushekar Chaturvedi, Gaurav Saigal and Hemant Sarna, my research assistants. They worked incredibly hard in translating not only words but also ways of being and living, which is a very difficult thing to do, but of which they have done an excellent job. My ability to communicate in Hindi I owe to the skilful and patient teaching of Virendra Singh. Indeed, Virendraji has been much more than a language teacher and has provided me with guidance, reassurance and advice. And thanks to him, during my subsequent fieldwork in the village and elsewhere in India, I was able to enjoy ‘life without translation’. In Banaras, Drupad Ram and his family helped me immensely during this time. During fieldwork, I was affiliated to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, where I was


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guided by Dipankar Gupta and received additional help from Anand Kumar, both of whom I thank. I also owe special thanks to Anand Kumar’s family, in particular to Ranjana Kumar and Alok Kumar for their great help, their hospitality, and for the time we spent together without which my fieldwork in India would not have been the same. I am grateful to Vivek Kumar, also at JNU, and his family for their generous hospitality and support, and the challenging discussions we have had over the years. I would also like to express my appreciation for all those who funded this research and dissertation writing. The Universitá di Roma ‘La Sapienza’, Italy; the Economic and Social Research Council, UK [RO0429734420]; the Central Research Fund, University of London; the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR); the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR), Italy; the Malinowski Memorial Fund, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE); the Radcliffe Brown Fund Award, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland; and additional funding made available to me from the LSE. Subsequent field visits were possible thanks to a travel award from the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and to a New Career Development Fellowship awarded by the Nuffield Foundation, UK. An award from the Development Trust Research Fund (DTRF) at the University of Edinburgh helped in writing parts of this book. I thank all these funding bodies for their very generous support. At the LSE, I thank Jonathan Parry and Christopher Fuller, my PhD supervisors, for the significant advice they provided throughout the years, and this book has greatly benefited from their influential writings. Since 2001, I have presented a number of this book’s chapters at several international conferences and seminars, and I am grateful to all the audiences for their comments and suggestions. I received encouragement and invaluable comments on earlier versions of this book’s chapters from Paul Brass, Francesca Bray, Radhika Chopra, Geert de Neve, Craig Jeffrey, Caroline Osella, Filippo Osella, and Wendy Singer, and I thank them all for this. Edward Simpson has helped me in several ways since the beginning of my PhD and this book would surely look very different had he not been so generous with me. I want to express my special gratitude to Patricia Jeffery, who not only read and commented on parts of this manuscript but also provided precious advice and support. Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan carefully read the entire manuscript, and I owe him a great debt for



the ways in which his expert overview suggested directions this book might take and for sharpening its arguments. I would like to thank Dipesh Chakrabarty for his writings have been a source of inspiration as regards many of the questions I attempt to answer in this book. Last but not the least, I would like to express my gratitude to Crispin Bates and the Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh for their invaluable support. Needless to say, all faults in this book are solely mine. Chapter 4 was published in 2006 in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute as ‘In the Past We Were a Bit “Chamar”: Education as a Selfand Community-engineering Process in Northern India’ (vol. 12, no. 4, n.s., pp. 899–916). Chapter 3 first appeared in 2007 in Contributions to Indian Sociology entitled ‘Ethnohistories Behind Local and Global Bazaars: Chronicle of a Chamar Weaving Community and its Disappearance in the Banaras Region’ (vol. 41, no. 3, n. s., pp. 319–52). Chapter 7 was published online on 12 May 2009 in Modern Asian Studies under the title ‘‘The Bourgeois Woman and the Half-naked One’: Or the Indian Nation's Contradictions Personified’. I would like to thank these journals and their publishers — Blackwell, Sage and Cambridge University Press, respectively, for their permission to reprint these articles in the book. Mukulika Banerjee, the Series Editor, greatly encouraged me to work and complete this manuscript at various points in time, and I am really grateful to her for this and for her patience. Nilanjan Sarkar, Publishing Manager at Routledge, New Delhi, has been very helpful and tolerant concerning the timing of submission of the final version of the manuscript. Richa Marwah, Routledge editor, and Martin Maguire provided invaluable editorial assistance. My thanks also go to a long list of friends who shared with me the difficulties I encountered in the long process of research and writing and much more: Fuambai Ahmadu, Monika Baár, Barbara Banchetti, Aditya Bharadwaj, Rossella Bonomi, Carla Boto, Amy Buono, Sabina Castelfranco, Francesca Cersosimo, Alessia Di Giuseppe, Ugo Garzia, Lucia Michelutti, Marco Musillo, Carla Muschio, Cristina Pinti, Francesca Sabatinelli, Deborah Simon, Patricia Taber, and Mate Nikola Tokic´. I owe to Alessandro Cisilin the original inspiration to embark on research in India, for it was then that it all started. Prem Poddar has supported me in many different ways, and this really means a lot to me. Francesca Giofré has always been there for me, and I consider this as a very precious gift.

Chapter 1 Chamar Modernity: Progressing into the Past Manav manav ek saman (All human beings are equal) I. Introduction: Issues of Water and Not-so-fluid Substances F

An unspecified year during the 1970s: a group of Untouchable Chamar men1 were returning to their native village called Manupur,2 after having taken part in a procession for the Chamar saint Ravidas’s jayanti (birthday). The event had been celebrated in the village of Seer Govardhanpur, near Banaras Hindu University (BHU), believed to be Ravidas’s birthplace. This site hosts a large temple dedicated to the saint, a prominent figure of the devotional Bhakti medieval tradition, a leatherworker who ascended to the purity of sainthood and an emblem of the low castes’ struggle for equality. The journey had made the group of Chamars thirsty and they had stopped at a tea shop run by an Ahir (Yadav, a cowherd caste), in 1 The term ‘Chamar’ is used herein from the ethnographer’s point of view. During fieldwork, the Chamars deployed the term ‘Harijan’ (coined by Mahatma Gandhi, and meaning ‘children of god’) to name themselves and were addressed as such by other castes. Chamars’ narratives, in which the words ‘Dalit’, ‘Chamar’, ‘Harijan’, ‘Scheduled Caste’, and ‘Bahujan’ appear, have been reproduced verbatim. (The Chamars’ original pronunciation of the term ‘Brahman’ has been reproduced verbatim too.) The term ‘Untouchable’ is used when I address these castes as they are dealt with in the anthropological discourse, and when scholars specifically address them so. Further, the term ‘Dalit’ appears in the book when used in connection with the homonymous movement, and with politics, leaders, a specific stream of feminism and individuals, all identifying themselves as such. During fieldwork I observed that amongst Chamars, the term ‘Dalit’ had a political connotation and was rarely used for self-identification. As a result of the complexity of both self-representation and anthropological representation, I have chosen ‘low caste’ to refer to a repertoire of identities, histories and mobilisation ‘from below’. In Chapter 6, I discuss the politics of naming, and how as a result of political mobilisation, the term ‘Chamar’ has gained acceptance amongst members of this caste. 2 A pseudonym. In this book, names of people and places have been changed.


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a village very close to their own. The Ahir denied the Chamars the use of the lotah, the metal vessel used for drinking water. After arguing with him, the Chamars, no doubt infused with the egalitarian spirit of the celebration they had just attended, headed to the kutcheri (court area), where they knew a local leader was staging a protest. They joined the protest and made public the episode of discrimination. However, this resulted in one of the Chamars, who was part of the group which had become a victim of the Ahir’s ‘contamination anxiety’, being jailed for a few days. The discrimination episode subsequently ended up in the hands of an Untouchable police inspector who began a legal case against the Ahir. Ultimately, the latter was prosecuted. The Chamars say of him: ‘these days he is a much better person’. (Field notes 1998) F Water is a tricky business when it comes to social relations: denying the lotah to ‘status-questionable’ clientele in what was possibly a roadside chai shop (tea shop) or a dhaba (food stall) has quite a genealogy. One ‘moment’ of this genealogy was crystallised in Burn (1902). Burn placed the Chamar caste in ‘Group XII’ classification, which included the lowest castes who eat beef and vermin and are considered filthy. Of these the Chamar is considered most respectable, and in fact one committee has pointed out that the touch of grooms who are chiefly Chamars does not defile and these men should be placed in the tenth group (castes from whose lotah the twice-born cannot take water). They are principally tanners, and the skins of the animals that die are their perquisite; consequently they are chiefly responsible for the cattle-poisoning that goes on in the eastern districts […]. As there seems some likelihood of a rise in status, however, the panchayats on one district have announced that any Chamar suspected in future of cattle-poisoning will be outcasted. (Ibid.: 232)

Where the denial of the lotah would still have allowed the possibility of ‘upgrading’ the Chamars to a less-defiling group, decades later Cohn remarked on the impossibility of food and water transactions between this caste and those of higher status as follows: ‘in North India this is a not a literal untouchability, but rather a situation where high-caste men will not take water or cooked food from the Chamars’ (1987: 284). The discrimination episode described at the beginning of the book is an iconic incident of untouchability, as the Chamars with whom I carried out

Chamar Modernity


fieldwork would undoubtedly recount, should I search their collective memory for events (or people) which had offended their personas and dignity. Rather than remaining buried in the succession of untouchability practices which members of certain castes have to confront sooner or later in life, the Chamars could join a public protest to voice their grievances and were lucky enough to find a sympathetic State official who shared their social origins, and therefore understood their plight and dealt with the case. What is more, the case of discrimination had taken place in a public space, and this had heightened the gravity of the Ahir’s gesture. In the end, according to the Chamars, the Ahir in question redeemed himself from his previous offensive behaviour and bias. Without forgetting the symbolic and psychological violence caused by this episode, this happy-ending story is more of an exception than the norm — Uttar Pradesh (UP) has the tragic record of the highest number of cases of atrocities against Dalits in 2006.3 Caste relations have never been idyllic in the village of Manupur (and its surroundings in eastern UP), the locality from which the stories I tell in this book originate. Fortunately, though, the village has only presented cases of minor gravity. I do not have information on the Ahir’s redemption path towards ‘becoming a better person’, which surely included renouncing, at least publicly, his beliefs. On the other hand, in many of the stories I collected amongst Manupur Chamars, a rather different project of ‘becoming better persons’ recurred — one which shared a semantic field of internalised ideology with the Ahir, but which had been triggered by compulsions about reform and civilisation. Together with concerns of dignity and equality, this project exuded a powerful discourse of identity and shaped the trajectory of social reproduction that the Chamars had embarked on, and inflected the material and symbolic resources mobilised to this end. This book is an empirical investigation of the configurations of modernity born out of this trajectory, and enacted and imagined by a historically marginalised community, inhabiting one of the many thousands of villages scattered throughout north India. These configurations tell of new entanglements between pasts and presents and of human agencies which defied, in many different ways, the dichotomy between tradition and 3 January 2009). 3


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modernity, while showing alternative ways to conceive the nexus between Indian modernity and its entanglements with powers, discourses and images which converged into the idea of ‘Europe’4 and the ‘West’ in India. The Chamar caste has a population of many millions fragmented into a vast number of subdivisions spanning across the states of central and

Europe here is what Chakrabarty has defined as ‘that [which] has historically haunted debates on modernity in India. This Europe was made in the image of a colonizing power and […] the making of such a Europe was not an act of Europeans alone. This Europe was, in the sense in which Lévi-Strauss once used the word, a founding “myth” for emancipatory thought and movements in India. Thinking about modernization, about liberalism, about socialism — that is to say, about various versions of modernity — assumed this Europe into existence. This was the Europe that was seen as the original home of the modern’ (2007: xiv; emphasis in the orginal). 5 In the Census of India, 1911(1912) all-India figures reported the Brahmins as the numerically most preponderant caste and the leatherworkers as second. In the United Provinces the figures are reversed, with Chamars being the numerically most preponderent caste, and the Brahmins the second. The Chamar community was recognised as the largest Scheduled Caste in UP in the Census of 1931 (the last one to contain a caste breakdown). According to the same census, Chamars accounted for 12.7 per cent of the state’s population (1931 Census of the United Provinces of Agra and Awadh, in Hasan 1989). Manupur Chamars might fall into a subcaste traditionally inhabiting eastern UP, be it Jaiswar or Jhusiya, though no one remembers their membership, so that this datum suggests a possible merger of Chamar subcastes in this region, as well as the absence of the importance of these subgroups. Marriage patterns too testify to the absence of the concern regarding matters of subcaste amongst Manupur Chamars. They, and Manupur as whole, are an exogamous community composed of fictive kin. The disappearance of subcaste records is a recent phenomenon when compared to earlier censuses which recorded a great number of subcastes under the name of Chamar caste. For example, Baines (1893) lists 1,156 of them. Despite the many internal subdivisions, the Chamars are divided into nine main groups (K. S. Singh 1993), with two, the Jatiyas and the Jaiswars, recognised as dominant in the United Provinces. Together these two groups represent two-fifths of the whole Chamar population (Briggs 1920). Both Jatiyas and Jaiswars claimed superiority over each other. The Jatiyas regarded themselves as the highest status group among Chamars, while the Jaiswars also claimed a high status for themselves on account of their refusal to perform some of the polluting tasks associated with Chamars. Jatiyas live in the north and west of 4

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north India.5 Burdened by a history of ‘impure’ activities, such as the removing of dead animals, leatherwork and midwifery — these implying defilement, immorality, and lowliness — the derogatory identity core associated with this caste has been crystallised, moulded and mobilised by a number of intertwined factors. Amongst these, the inheritance of authority contained within Hindu sacred scriptures, the transformation of the economy through colonial domination and the passage from rural to urban economy (S. Bayly 1999; Gooptu 2001), the process of social objectification by colonial administrators’ accounts (Charsley 1996; Cohn 1987; Dirks 2001), the State’s juridical action (Galanter 1984), low-caste identity politics, and the everyday practices of untouchability have all intervened in shaping the Chamars as a social category. Nonetheless, sections of this caste have been at the crux of development processes aided by the State policy of positive discrimination for communities such as theirs, and have been the protagonists of political-mobilisation movements for self-respect. Compared to other Untouchable castes in north India, the Chamars have been at the vanguard of reaping the benefits of these processes. While ‘polluting’ activities connoted only a minority of this large caste, they are, more significantly, generally suggestive of the profound class divisions of UP. Historical centres of the provinces and Briggs states that they can claim to have the highest status as amongst them many are well-to-do. They are field-labourers, cultivators, hide dealers, and shoemakers, and do not allow their women to perform midwifery, as it is considered a polluting occupation (ibid.: 22). Of direct relevance to the geographical area I examine in this book, Briggs reported a million Chamars belonging to the Jaiswar subcaste almost exclusively in the eastern part of the Provinces: Allahabad, Benares, Gorakhpur and Fyzabad Divisions, and more numerously in the Jaunpur, Azamgarh, Mirzapur and Fyzabad Districts (ibid.). The occupations of the Jaiswar subcaste are reported as grasscutting, shoe making and weaving. These occupations included both sexes and were found in several districts, including Benares (White 1882: 3). In addition, servants, as well as tanners, shoemakers and day labourers, for Europeans were recruited from the Jaiswar subcaste in urban centres. Some fought with Clive at Plassey (Briggs 1920: 23). On the relationship between the Indian army and the Untouchable castes during colonial rule, see Cohen (1969). Briggs also reports the existence of an additional Chamar subcaste called Dhusiya, (or Jhusiya), found exclusively in the Benares division and the district of Gorakhpur: ‘In the Ballia and Benares Districts are found nearly three quarters of the whole sub-caste’ (1920: 25).


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industrial employment like Agra and Kanpur aside, in this state, and especially in the eastern region — historically the theatre for upper-caste landlords’ domination — the Chamars have constituted a vast, landless agricultural labour force. As Brass has remarked, the ‘bottom of the economic hierarchy in rural UP corresponds strongly with the status hierarchy in the sense that most of the landless come from the lowest caste groups’ (1997: 205). In this book, I intend to illustrate how the Chamar production of distinctions in pursuit of the modern has been powerfully shaped and mediated by modernisation discourses, and the belief in progress, science and development, which have informed society, the economy and the politics of post-independence India. ‘“There is only one-way traffic in Time.” India had to march with it, discarding the old religious and social orthodoxies and hierarchies, and adopting science and the principle of equality, along with an economy system to match them’ (Prakash 1999: 211). The first sentence within the quote is from Nehru’s The Discovery of India. His message would have been met with enthusiasm by low castes such as the Chamars, for the promise of emancipation it contained. It valorised education, secularism, and economic and industrial development — a vision whose contradictory unfolding has been espoused by Khilnani (1998). This ‘idea of India’ saw its main actor in the State, which for communities such as the Chamars was the guarantee for implementing ad-hoc measures to uplift their condition and ‘fix’ the historical injustices perpetrated against them. State mythologies around development through education, employment and democratisation practices flourished amongst its most disadvantaged citizens. The Chamars were particularly attracted by the State’s vision of change, mediated by the ideals of equality put forward by Dalit historical leaders and movements. The Manupur Chamar community’s narratives resonated with echoes of modernisation, of education as a civilising tool, of a history of labour as a movement towards freedom and the depersonalisation of labour relations, of Western beliefs in progress and scientific rationality. What is more, the Chamars’ world-views were often shaped by dichotomies between the past and the present, illiteracy and education, as well as between backwardness and civilisation. Such binaries are not just to be found in India. In China, for example, Rofel encountered ‘strong views on “modernization”, “development”, “the West”, “backwardness”, and “progress”’ (1999: xi; emphasis in the original) — a testimony of the pervasiveness of these ideas in the pan-Asian context. Mosse has noticed how

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no sooner have we dispensed with the local/global, underdeveloped/ developed, traditional/modern, Indian/Western, etc., as universal ordering categories of knowledge, and redirected our energies to the stories of villagers or policy makers, than the same binaries reappear, now filling our notebooks as idioms through which social experiences are interpreted, social differences marked or aspirations expressed, whether in south Rajasthan or south London. (2003: 333)

My notebooks were similarly filled with the Chamars’ binaries. But what did these point to? Binaries sedimented over and intertwined with the vernacular organising principles which the Chamars used to order their present, past and future. Manupur Chamars were not just a case of ‘LéviStraussian subjects’: their binaries returned to the ethnographer those antinomies which had made up modernisation theory, and whose flaws scholars had endeavoured to demonstrate. Illuminating, in this regard, is the case of education which I discuss in Chapter 4: examining the changes education brings about, Chamar narratives and practices proposed almost the same ones which the widely criticised ‘literacy thesis’ had put forward. But why did binaries acquire such an explanatory power? This alerted me to the need for reflection on development’s ideological seeds, the ways they had penetrated the minds of their subjects, informed their world-views, and the inevitability of conceiving one’s life as one of betterment: after all, ‘what else can one strive for if not to develop?’ (Sivaramakrishnan and Agrawal 2003: 4). The need for reflection became intriguing in view of the fact that amongst most Manupur Chamars, development has been more discursively powerful than actually leading to significant life-changing consequences. It was the interplay between binaries and Chamar vernacular categories which formed one of the most interesting entry points into their modernity configurations.

II. A Démodé Enchantment? Historicism, Modernisation and a Particular Social Race for Progress The inescapability of development and its enticing teleology finds its roots in the historicist mode of thinking which the coloniser introduced in India (and elsewhere) in the 19th century, and in its transformation into a tool of intellectual and practical dominion. In the words of Chakrabarty, this mode tells us that in order to understand the nature of anything in this world we must see it as an historically developing entity, that is, first, as an individual


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and unique work — as some kind of unity at least in potential — and, second, as something that develops over time. (2007: 23)

This, according to Chakrabarty, allowed the coloniser to place nonEuropean people in the ‘waiting room’ of history — deploying a stagist notion of it — which was both rebelled against by nationalist elites but also used by them vis-à-vis the subaltern classes, and carried forward in independent India. Against this backdrop, the trope of the ‘peasant’, a shorthand for all the seemingly nonmodern, rural, nonsecular relationships and life practices that constantly leave their imprint on the lives of even the elites in India and on their institutions of government. The peasant stands for all that is not bourgeois (in a European sense) in Indian capitalism and modernity (ibid.: 11),

both endowed with citizenship rights and in need to be educated (ibid.: 9ff.), is a cogent example of the contradictory relationship between the internalisation of historicism and the developmental practices of the Indian State. This trope features in Chakrabarty’s idea of political modernity, and in the course of the book, I will show how the Chamars reshape the ways in which the ‘peasant’ has been envisioned and answer questions on the nature of her/his political performance. Intrinsically linked to the above issues is the creation of an identity and discourse of ‘backwardness’ amongst the Chamars, as a result of colonial and postcolonial processes of caste objectification. This was an additional backwardness to, and a rather different condition from, the one impressed by the coloniser upon their Indian subjects. The Chamars and others like them developed an internalised condition of backwardness as a result of their Untouchable identity vis-à-vis other Indian castes. My findings illustrate how, while showing little desire to resurrect and capitalise on a reconstructed ‘pristine’ or ‘indigenous’ Chamar identity, the attribute of backwardness had become a marker of their past, culture and habits. This consideration is pivotal to the understanding of the enactment of modernity within this community, and to the more general argument I make here on Indian modernity. Where A. Gupta has rightly pointed out how one of the dimensions in which the experience of modernity in the Third World is significantly different than in the West is that a sense of underdevelopment, of being ‘behind’, of being ‘not like’ powerful Others, is a constitutive feature of social and political life (1998: 103; emphasis in the orginal),

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the Chamar experience features other powerful others with whom they compared themselves, and these were to be found within Indian national boundaries. Further, for subaltern subjects such as the Chamars, the historicist approach worked in seemingly circular ways: if on the one hand, it created the ‘backward subject’ who had to be reformed and developed, on the other, narratives of modernisation and progress which were responsible for this approach served to obliterate this very discourse. In other words, this approach forged a ‘problematic subject’ and provided a solution to her/him at some stage in the future. What complicates the workings of historicism, however, is that for communities such as the Chamars, the discourse of backwardness became prominent in the formation of Scheduled Caste (SC) communities and individuals, symbolised by the jati patr or caste certificate, which entitled them to the benefits of the policy of positive discrimination. The importance of backwardness to qualify for special attention within the developmental State resulted in a peculiar condition identified by Parry in ‘The Koli Dilemma’ (1970). This article encapsulates the circumstance by which an SC community — in this case the Koli community in Kangra, north-western India6 — is pulled between assertions of superior status with a view to appear socially respectable and claims of their ascriptive status (and therefore of ‘backwardness’) in order to receive special provisions from the State.7 More broadly, this phenomenon has resulted in a ‘socially schizophrenic condition’ of progressing through claims of lagging behind amongst Untouchables and other protected categories. ‘Backwardness’ is an incredibly coveted attribute long after the constitution of independent India. If ‘the Mandal Commission listed three categories of backwardness, e.g., social, economic, and educational’ (D. Gupta 2005a: 424), with social backwardness being the most important of all (ibid.), in the post-Mandal era, more communities exercise pressure and protest to

6 The Koli, Parry argues, held an ambiguous position in the local caste hierarchy, as their status fluctuated between cleanness and pollution according to the type of social relations and communities involved with them (1970: 88–89). 7 In Parry’s account, the Koli had obtained these provisions through their SC status, which, however, had also assimilated them with other Untouchable castes (ibid.: 94). As a result, Koli aspired to an Other Backward Class (OBC) status, which would also entail a number of provisions, but detach them from the Untouchable label (ibid.: 96).


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be included in the list of privileged categories. The social discrepancies generated by the condition identified by Parry, are also reflected in the realm of the history of Untouchable citizenship. Chatterjee has analysed the life of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, the historical leader of the Dalit movement, ‘in order to highlight the contradictions posed for a modern politics by the rival demands of universal citizenship on the one hand and the protection of particularist rights on the other’ (2006: 8). Chatterjee concludes that ‘my burden will be to show that there is no available historical narrative of the nation that can resolve those contradictions’ (ibid). Still, the contradictions between the features of universal citizenship (of the developed subject) and the special provisions for a selected group of citizens (conceived as ‘underdeveloped’ subjects) make up the everyday experience of citizenship amongst communities such as the Chamars. The seeds of historicism, and subsequently the lure of modernisation, engendered amongst the Chamars an experience of temporality akin to that implicit in their impetus: the idea of history as a forward movement. Where on the one hand Hindus often blame the Kali Yuga (the last of the four ages of the world) for the occurrence of things that do not follow the rules of dharma (moral order) and lead the world towards degeneration, on the other, Chamars’ conversations about their own community and society at large were replete with words like sudhar (improvement, social reform) and vikas (development). This terminology refers to an idea of progress — certainly more social than material — and suggests a picture very different from that of the spiralling degradation implicit in the Kali Yuga. As a result of the modernist and socialist traditions, and now also because of the imperatives of a globalising economy, post-independence Indians (and not just Chamars) might find the cosmological discrepancies between the high-Hindu cyclical notion of time and a unilinear trajectory of progress to be not an insurmountable dilemma, but possibly two sides of the same coin. Interestingly, the unproblematic existence of two conflicting ways to conceive and experience time enriches the critiques of the fabrication of the Orient Other versus the West, through the existence of a circular and a linear concept of time as defining the two respectively (see A. Gupta 1992). Further, the Chamars’ evolutionist view of time pointed to the ways in which they valued the present over the past. While the dichotomy between a modern present and a backward past would seem to perfectly coincide with the temporal antinomies produced by modernisation, in this book

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I argue how this presentist idea was enacted through its very opposite, that is, through a return to the past. Not a Chamar local past, however, as it was imbued with a history of untouchability, and therefore appeared a difficult resource to mobilise. The Chamars had to mobilise someone else’s past. As a result, for the purposes of self and community transformation, they borrowed a number of features, techniques and distinctions which Indian middle classes had produced in their encounter with the colonial ‘civilising mission’ in the 19th century. Along with this process, as I will show in the course of the book, the Chamars were also able to capitalise on the pasts of a larger and politicised ‘imagined community’ (Anderson 1983) — of Dalit leaders and self-respect movements — but also on pasts which had been aptly rewritten by low-caste historians. A dual mission of imparting material and moral progress, the first aspect of the ‘civilising mission’, was accomplished through the copious deployment of technology in society and the formulation of an economic programme (Mann 2004: 13ff.). The second ‘turned out to be a more difficult task, because the envisaged principle of dissemination or permeation was idealistic and hardly controllable. Legal reforms were supposed to have a positive impact on the ‘superstitious beliefs’, ‘irrational thinking’ and ‘partially barbaric behaviour’ of the Indian people’ (ibid.: 17; emphasis in the original). To ease their civilising task, the British classified, and de facto fragmented, into different groups the targets of their reform. A number of these groups were educated in English to become administrators within colonial India subsequently formed the nationalist forces leading to independence (ibid.: 20). In the wake of the implementation of such a system of dominion techniques, a number of castes and communities, who could capitalise on pre-existing assets and privileges, found themselves in a position where they were able to embrace substantial socio-economic and political transformations. In his study of the formation of the middle class in Lucknow under the impact of 19th-century colonial modernity, S. Joshi states that ‘[n]ot only in India, but in most other parts of the world, the middle classes played a crucial role in defining what it meant to be “modern”’ (2005: 1). Joshi notes how the middle class in Lucknow found its roots in the upper strata (though not from the highest orders) of both the Hindu and Muslim communities. By capitalising on pre-existing statuses and traditions, this class forged a new cultural politics. Through its re-branding, and by


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taking advantage of Western education, this new middle class situated itself as equally separate from the old indigenous elites as from the lower strata, and asserted its difference from the British, while stating its power over the colonisers (ibid.: 8). But which were the areas of intervention that the aspiring middle class regarded as being the key to its self-fashioning project? According to S. Joshi, these consisted in the forging of new respectability norms based on a dual set of values: those of equality and meritocracy when these classes confronted traditional elites, and ideas of hierarchy, to keep distance from the lower classes; new constructions of womanhood — inspired by modern ideas of education and emancipation — while also reinstating old patriarchies; a new religiosity based on a unitary vision of Hinduism which fostered the creation of a Hindu national community, the membership of which could be deployed in the public sphere (2005: 18ff.). The creation of the distinctions that these processes gave birth to was the result of both novel ideas as well as existing statuses and privileges (ibid.: 20). In the course of the book, I will show how a number of these distinctions were appropriated by the Chamars and moulded by their own social standing, for instance, the belief in the civilising effects of education, science and progress, ideas of ‘free labour’, in line with the liberal tradition, girls’ education, community reform and women’s reform, pardah (seclusion regime), and the design of respectable domesticity. Over time, the appropriation of such distinctions conveyed a much broader socio-political and cultural breadth than the mere replication of upper-caste ways of life, termed as Sanskritisation. On the basis of such distinctions, I argue that the modernity recipe enacted by the Chamars had already occurred within the same national context. Aspiring middle-class Chamars took refuge in a passé symbolism of colonial make linked to the middle classes in north India and their experience of modernity in the 19th century. In short, in order to be modern in contemporary India, the Chamars appropriated the features of a past modernity. The time of borrowing of these features, techniques and distinctions depended upon the different socio-economic circumstances within the socio-economic history of the Chamar community. Of equal importance is the identity shaping the agency of the ‘borrower’ of modern distinctions and practices, that is, the way in which being Chamar (and equally an Ahir, Thakur, Brahmin, etc.) and having

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aspirations to a certain class milieu shaped the selection of particular distinctions over others, and thus their trajectory of modernity.8

III. Modernity, with Class As the 19th century, the repository of the imprints of ideal life, was ‘reborn’ in the Chamar trajectory of social reproduction in the late 20th century, the middle classes in the latter century have continued to occupy a leading role as representatives of modernity in India and beyond. New, large and sociologically heterogeneous middles classes strongly came to the fore in the early 1990s, an outcome of the processes of liberalisation of the Indian economy. Their fortunes grew exponentially in line with India’s impressive economic growth. Prakash acutely summarises their position as follows: The Indian middle class has also come a long way since its beginnings in colonial India. Schooled in modern educational institutions, running the bureaucracy, employed in modern professions, and powering capitalist enterprise, they function as the leading proponents of modernization. Even as they recognize the circulation of new technologies, commodities, and media as threats to indigenous culture, their enthusiasm for liberalization is unmistakable. (1999: 235)

He adds that as a result of the widening gap between the rich and the poor during this late phase of globalisation, the elitist character of Indian modernity is revealing itself more and more clearly (ibid.). The above classes are commonly regarded, and not unproblematically so, as the contemporary icon of modernity and those with the most assiduous interactions — and not just ‘imagined’ ones — with the West as well The importance of community (and gender) in the making of class has been highlighted by Fernandes (1997) in her critique of the unitary nature of the category of class found in Marx and Weber. Despite the different definition of class given by the two authors, Fernandes argues that her approach ‘class represents a social relationship constituted of three central tiers — structure, consciousness, and political activity. Each of these tiers is constructed in turn through the categories of gender and community. Thus, ‘the working class’ does not represent a singular unit but is constituted by status differences. In an attempt to bridge the formulations of both Marx and Weber, I integrate the Marxian concept of class with the Weberian notion of status’ (1997: 10). 8


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as with other regions of the world. Drawing from Varma’s The Great Indian Middle Class, Mawdsley has noted that ‘Varma (1998) argues that the 1970s marks the emergence and rapid growth of a brash, new middle class that for Varma contrasts very unfavourably with an older, more cultured and paternalistic middle class of the Nehruvian period (broadly the 1950s and 1960s) (2004: 85). Contrasting the contemporary middle classes with the Nehruvian middle class, Mazzarella (2005) says that while the latter were without financial resources, they held institutional power. The new middle classes have been pictured as avid consumers, as having appropriated cutting-edge technology, as cosmopolitan urban citizens, tied to the success of the IT industry, with transnational families, and whose financial fortunes often cling to the Sensex (Bombay Stock Exchange Index) growth. Scholars have also highlighted the middle classes’ contempt for status-seeking regional/peripheral groups and their desire for separation from the rest of the underprivileged majority, for disengagement from social concerns and the desire to ‘be elsewhere’ than India. ‘Escaping India’ has been an option available to increasing numbers of citizens, especially as a result of the global economy, but also because of expanding education and work opportunities, so much so that Khilnani has argued that professionals in Bangalore have ‘a secessionist understanding of the idea of India (Khilnani 1998 in Fuller and Narasimha 2007: 145). Scholars have been confronted with difficulties in formulating measuring parameters to pin down the exact size of these classes, so that the content of the middle-class category remains volatile and fluid. Also, the middle classes may actually not ‘shine’ as much as these depictions suggest (Fernandes 2000a).9 Nor do the middle classes consider consumption and consumerism, which in the public imaginary incarnate these classes’ ethos, as an unquestioned and unproblematic self-defining aspect of their social life (Van Wessel 2004). While Fuller and Narasimhan have provided a nuanced account of a representative section of the middle classes — IT workers — and re-thought many of the

9 Fernandes (2000a) has argued that a closer look at the effects of liberalisation on the new middle classes in Mumbai’s private sector reveals that they experience ‘retrenchment, increased job insecurity and a structural shift to subcontracted work’. These features, says Fernandes, are similar to those of the industrial labouring classes (see, for example, Breman 2004).

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common/places about them, namely their high salaries, their greed, their consumerism and their obsession with migrating to the West (2007: 133), these classes evoke a ‘certain set of imagined Indias’ (Mazzarella 2005), which somehow displaces the quasi-impossibility of sociologically defining them. These imagined Indias point to an aspired or experienced supralocal model of affiliation and/or imagined belonging, and evoke a dominant narrative of modernity. Not everybody agrees that the new middle classes monopolise the space of modernity in India, however. N. Kumar (2006) has opposed the trope of ‘provincialism’ to this thesis. She has argued that ‘provincialism, or provinciality, is a space recognizable instantly. It is marked by slowness, by absence of the new and the recent, by what is seen on the national level as a brake-effect in an otherwise promising march forwards’ (ibid.: 397). It is also a space connoted by ‘indifference to the rules of obedience to arbitrary external exercises of power’ (ibid.) amongst provincial citizens who predominantly use a regional language and not English (ibid.). Scholars refer to the emergence of political/regional leaders in north India, who incarnate what the middle classes feel distant from (Mazzarella 2005), and testify to the existence of life-worlds and discourses antagonistic to those of metropolitan India (N. Kumar 2006). Drawing on the emergence of these leaders, N. Kumar disagrees with the idea that ‘there is one discourse of Indian modernity, which is the secular, national one, positioning itself in opposition to the communal and backward’ (2006: 398). She argues: The defeat of Gandhian to Nehruvian discourse in history did not mean a permanent defeat of non-metropolitan India, as the appearance of provincial political leaders, Lallu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayavati , and others should announce. The nation’s metropolitan identity might valorize itself with a distancing from the provincial, and thus pose as modernity and Indianness, but this pose is flattering and convincing only to the metropole itself. It either rings hollow in the provinces or is actively resisted and counterposed by another discourse, for which the real India, the spirit of the nation, its power and beauty, resides in the provinces.(Ibid.; italics in the original)

These leaders have been a successful expression of what might signify ‘being Indian’ in the Hindi belt, for example in states like UP and Bihar, and they have attracted a considerable regional electoral consensus, which numerically might compare well with the size of the middle classes at


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an all-India level. Mayawati’s success in the UP assembly elections in May 2007, and the increasing importance that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) commands in national politics, only reinforces N. Kumar’s argument. The success of the identity politics put forward by the leaders mentioned by Kumar and the marks of provincial modernity which she attributes to this phenomenon go to confute once again the belief of caste identity and the modern being mutually exclusive. As I will explain, identity politics and the constitution of the Chamar political persona are in fact essential to it. With specific reference to politics, I will show how in the province identity politics worked as a parallel trajectory to that of the reproduction of the 19th-century distinctions that I had introduced earlier. It is interesting to note that the figure of BSP’s main ideologue, Ambedkar, is somehow antithetic to the provincialism which Kumar analyses. The rationalist approach towards the Untouchable question contained in his writings and his intellectual and political trajectory are telling in this respect. The iconography associated with him, which shows him wearing a Western-style suit and holding the Indian Constitution reinforces this point. G. Pandey has argued: To Gandhi’s choice of the loin-cloth, and his advocacy of vegetarianism, manual labour and the simple village life, Dalit spokespersons respond with the statement that they already have these, indeed they have had too much of them. What they need, instead, is the hat and the three-piece suit, the pipe and the spectacles. (2006: 1786)

As provincialism might borrow from the metropolitan modern, the former, with its irreverence for authority and its rules, might also indicate an anarchic space, but not just a geographical location, but one to be found in urban areas as well. For example, the insubordinate or messy way of life in the provinces might well encompass a much wider area than that of the provinces themselves, if one thinks of the confused boundary between the metropolitan and the urbanising areas, where ‘provincialism’ as a way of life might follow the masses of migrants dwelling on that boundary. I do not hold the provincial and metropolitan modernity to be mutually exclusive and separate. Rather, they represent a web of juxtaposed fields of powers, economies and identities. Also, I suggest that the dialectics of secular/communal and national/backward do not exhaust the range of the antinomies which are constitutive of modernity in India, and Kumar’s extensive investigation of the modernity of the subaltern classes certainly testifies to this point. One powerful way to look at the entirety

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of the fields mentioned above, and harness the absence of spatial dichotomies, of what these mean and how they shape people’s ways of life is to adopt Sivaramakrishnan and Agrawal’s framework of regional modernity. According to them, regional modernity has a spatial connotation, but it seeks to map the space between these binary polar extremes, refuses attempts at identifying it with a specific scale or geographical size, and focuses instead on the need to attend to the social networks and flows that give it particular form and content. (2003: 13)

According to the authors, this idea captures the geographical plurality of the production of modernity in its temporal and institutional variations, the emphasis being on ‘the influence of historically sedimented social, economic, and spatial structures that shape development’ (ibid.: 16). The focus on structures is counterbalanced by these scholars’ attention to the processes of subject formation — against and through the existence of the above structures — explored through narrative means (ibid.: 42ff.). The regional modernity template renders fluid the frameworks within which the study of modernity is inscribed (constrained in terms of time, space and culture) to allow the possibility for all modes of agency and structural entanglements. This model attends to both structure and subject and gives ontological independence to the ideal type of ‘region’ and its modernity configuration, both in its diachronic and synchronic latitudes.

IV. Modernity, with an Identity The analysis of structures and subject formation I carried out during fieldwork yielded important considerations to understand the dynamics of the Chamars’ race for social progress and the modern. Importantly, the Chamars did not see others in ‘developed societies’ as their main models or competitors. Although the imagination of the life of those others has recently been fostered exponentially amongst the subaltern classes by the spread of the media, historically, the Chamars have, on their path of social transformation, first and foremost found as their model citizens from the Indian upper-caste and middle-class milieu. It is this core observation which led me to a shift in the use of the comparative framework within which the analysis of modernity in nonWestern settings has historically been situated. A number of seminal studies have shed light on the trajectories of non-Western modernities


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and their differences vis-à-vis the Euro-American template, even as the limits of the latter have progressively come to be identified. For example, Kaviraj has argued how The historically declining imaginative power of the West […], despite its military dominance, makes it unlikely that diverging trajectories of the modern in other parts of the world can be folded back into recognisable Western patterns — that people can be persuaded to force their futures into versions of the Western past. (2005: 524–25)

Despite the acknowledgement of alternative trajectories to attain the modern, studies of non-Western modernities showed the West in the role of the yardstick. Rofel observes that what is defined as modernity is neither a purely localized matter nor a mere instantiation of a universal discourse. It exists instead […] as a repeatedly deferred enactment marked by discrepant desires that continually replace one another in an effort to achieve material and moral parity with the West. (1999: 9–10)

These considerations on the shape of non-Western modernities inform the arguments I present here. However, while the ideas and practices that emerged from the encounters with the West (for example, the Indian middle classes’ distinctions forged in response to colonial modernity) were deployed by the Chamars to articulate their race for progress and betterment, emperical research with this low-caste community also pointed to the idea that the West did not represent the sole term of reference against which to analyse their modernity configurations could be analysed. In other words, to understand Chamar modernity, we need to consider that the different facets of Western modernity, as they manifested themselves in India — and as they were embodied, contrasted and rejected by a plurality of actors at several historical phases, including the present one — represent a parallel narrative to the main one revolving around the relationship between the Chamars and other Indian caste communities.10 While the relational aspect between communities has been a core theme in the While the effects of a global economy are explored in this book, my argument reflects the ways in which exposure to a global media culture, including a Western one, is a relatively recent and youth-driven phenomenon in the community analysed and therefore can hold only a minor influence on the ways the Chamars have come to live and conceptualise the modern. 10

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study of Indian society, along economic, political, gender, and religious lines, amongst others, it is what this relational aspect signifies in terms of modernity which so far has not received attention. This question is intertwined with aspects of what G. Pandey calls ‘internal colonialism’, which has marked the Dalit struggle since the 1940s (2006: 1779). Pandey asks what happens to the ‘minority’, to Muslims or dalits in India (or to African–Americans in the US), if the ‘majority’ gains an apparently unfettered right to rule and to lord over the ‘minorities’, and a sense of colonialism persists even after the establishment of formal democracy? […] The problem with this kind of internal colonialism is that the colonised cannot escape in a physical sense. They have no independent territory of their own, they cannot emigrate, and they cannot send the colonisers home. What is more, they cannot easily claim to an independent history and culture: indeed they gain their identity at least in part by their incorporation into the dominant culture or society. (Ibid.: 1779–81; emphasis in the original)

Against this backdrop, I look beyond the tension between Western and non-Western modernities and turn my attention to ‘agency’. On this matter, Appadurai and Breckenridge have written: what is distinctive about any particular society is not the fact or extent of its modernity, but rather its distinctive debates about modernity, the historical and cultural trajectories that shape its appropriation of the means of modernity, and the cultural sociology (principally of class and state) that determines who gets to play with modernity and what defines the rules of the game. (1995: 16; italics in the original)

Here, I analyse the above trajectories through the lives of a specific group of Indian citizens. In this respect, I bring the investigation of forms of Indian modernity one level down. I lay the emphasis on how a specific set of actors appropriate, transform and desire master narratives of the modern born within the same national context at different historical junctures. I break down the sociological coherence of the agency of Indian modernity — and of the somewhat universal agency, and the sociological neutrality which theories of modernity generally imply — and bring to the fore the fundamental differences citizens from within the same nation state experience in their social transformation trajectory and in their enchantment with what they consider to be modern. As an


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empirical study of a metaconcept such as modernity, through a focus on individual and community agency, this book aims to ‘cage’ some of the dispersed realities that this concept invokes. In doing so, it distances itself from Appadurai’s idea of the ‘ethnography without the ethnos’ evoked by Gupta and Ferguson (2001: 2), to finally consign the idea of the boundedness of cultures to history. While anthropology is increasingly concerned with the power of ideas and practices which are embraced transnationally by hybrid and on-the-move subjects, as well as with the study of complex organisations, by contrast this book is saturated with ethnos. As I explained earlier, this focus on Chamars and their agency led me to shift attention from the relationship between them and Western modernity to the internal dynamics of the nation state. This ethnos who has not physically partaken global migration flows, with a limited exposure to global new media, and whose lives are structured by allegiances which find their immediate and vivid reference in the geographies of north India, is located in the trope of the anti-modern par excellence, the village. It is here that the agency of modernity analysed in this book is situated, and its significance needs to be explained.

V. Locating the Modern First, we need to acknowledge the complexity of action which comprises this space: ‘a “traditional” village was always part of a ramifying regional system that could not be directly investigated by the resident anthropologist’ (Assayag and Fuller 2005: 13). Second, I take the village as a rural environment functioning as a ‘filter’ of modernity: the village is its symbolic and material antinomy, conceived as a ‘waiting-room’ to industrial futures in pure Nehruvian style (Parry 2003); or as a category which needs reformulation given the massive urbanisation taking place in India (D. Gupta 2005b); or as a place whose significance can be fully encapsulated by neither of the two preceding images. Manupur is a village linked by a few kilometres of a qasba (rural market town)-like sequence of homes and businesses to a main road that leads to Banaras. This city resembles those provincial towns which emerged post 1990, and which are described by Khilnani as displaying the resources for leading modern lifestyles, like car salesrooms, hotels and fast-food outlets, stores selling international brands and having nothing to envy the metropolises (1998: 144–45). And some of these signs of the modern, spatial considerations notwithstanding, have penetrated inner city areas. Where the proximity

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to such signs matches the Chamars’ desires to distance themselves from the remoteness of the inner countryside or dehat, Manupur’s configuration as a village, with its cultivated land, also places it within ‘rural, India’, a trope which despite the tragedies which have marked farming in a number of Indian states, still commands a great power in the rhetoric of the contemporary national project as well as in the resources allocated to revitalise farmers’ livelihood and sustain agricultural production. Farming, however, is not a core issue of concern for the Chamars, as the extent of their landholdings is negligible and their role as agricultural labourers is almost extinct, with due exceptions, which I will explain in the following chapters. Urban–rural in-betweenness aside, it is the special space which villages have represented for Untouchables which also interests me here. The village was a contentious matter between State supporters Nehru and Ambedkar on one side and Gandhi on the other. While the former saw the village as backward, narrow-minded, and a source of violence and communalism, Rudolph and Rudolph argue that Gandhi’s postmodern vision of development, and its imaged village, focused on ‘human capital, decentralized production, and “appropriate technology”’, a vision which since the 1970s acquired salience with the growing unsustainability of Nehru’s industrial society (2006: 27; emphasis in the orginal). Contrary to the Gandhian emphasis on village life, G. Pandey has argued that ‘Dalit leaders have stressed the need for Dalits to look to the future, and to move to the towns where they could escape from some of the worst disabilities of the caste system as experienced in the countryside’ (2006: 1786). Indeed, for the Chamars the village has continued to be the repository of an oppressive ideological aura and oppressive socio-economic relations, of segregated residential settlements, of the absence of possibilities of mobility, while the city is often invoked as a resource for new living and working possibilities, not only to escape village conservativeness but also ‘uncivilised’ fellow Chamars. ‘The village is shrinking as a sociological reality, though it still exists as space’ (D. Gupta 2005b: 752), a space which this book shows to be a problematic one with regard to development prospects and one which has long triggered desires for the ‘urban’, as is testified to by the incessant masses of migrants to Indian metropolises. Understanding the workings of the modern from the viewpoint of Manupur implies evaluating the features of the village space. If ‘globalization is identified as an important part of modernity’ (Hannerz 1996: 54), what is the relationship between the village, globalisation and modernity? A dusty village in north India


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could be conceptualised as the micro-crossroads of ‘relations of disjuncture’ (Appadurai 2000: 5) which tie together the features par excellence of globalisation — the flows of objects, persons, images, and discourses. These relations, Appadurai argues, point to the ways in which the paths and vectors taken by these kinds of things have different speeds, axes, points of origin and termination, and varied relationships to institutional structures in different regions, nations or societies. […] Indeed, it is the disjunctures between the various vectors characterising this world-in-motion that produce fundamental problems of livelihood, equity, suffering, justice, and governance. (Ibid.: 5)

How are the Chamars who inhabit this space affected by these disjunctures? How does the presence/absence of the ‘paths and vectors’ interact with the ascriptive and self-reliant world of caste society and identity politics that appears to shape Chamar identity and practices in greater measure than the global flows of ideas and cultures?11 The book documents a great deal of flows, but this hardly presents the picture of a ‘globalising world’. Instead, it powerfully asserts the primacy of the ‘local’, the ‘supralocal’ and the ‘national’. As a result, I follow Sivaramakrishnan and Agrawal’s suggestion to ‘move away from the tyranny of the global or the local’ (2003: 13), and therefore focus on how the specific regions and forms of locality affect the experience of modernity. I will begin by portraying some of the features of the region and the village analysed. As I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, Manupur village is located in the eastern region of UP. A significant historical site in the anti-colonial struggle against British rule and a state of pivotal importance in national politics due to its sheer size (166 million inhabitants according to the Uttar Pradesh Census of India, 2001),12 UP is The Dalit cause and its politicisation is an example of the effects of relations of disjuncture in Manupur. While the former has acquired a global relevance, also fostered by Dalits living as diaspora, by contrast, many Manupur Chamars are not aware that the discrimination practices they have been subjected to for centuries as well as their political mobilisation are read about, commented and acted upon in the global public sphere. 12 About 21 per cent of the state’s population is SC. There are 66 SCs in the state, the Chamars being the most numerous, and more than a fifth of the SC population of India lives in UP (Census of India, 1991 in Hasan 1998: 130). 11

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considered the barometer of pan-Indian political life. With the exception of the ever-growing region around Noida, an industrial and service centre not far from New Delhi, this state would not evoke the ‘modern’ by any common standard. UP constitutes one of the most problematic regions in terms of governance and development, with appalling indicators and very unfavourable living conditions for its low castes and women. The state is part of the BIMARU group of Indian states that also includes Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, all of which share with UP poor indicators of human development and economic growth. Drèze and Gazdar have argued that ‘material poverty is not the main cause of Uttar Pradesh’s social failure’ (1997: 49), since this state shares poverty indicators with other Indian states, which, as compared to UP, have a much higher degree of social achievements. Rather, these authors argue, one of the main causes of UP’s failure is ‘the apathy of the state, but an equally important factor is the failure of civil society to challenge oppressive patterns of caste, class, and gender relations’ (ibid.: 61). Where Lerche and Jeffery describe state’s ‘social development record is dreadful and in the 1990s it has become known as one of the main development failures in India’ (2003: 18) and one characterised by ‘high levels of illiteracy and infant and child mortality; poor health and education provisions; and markedly unequal gender relations, (ibid.: 18), they also point out that historically, UP’s economic performance, mainly based on agriculture, in the 1970s compared well with that of the rest of India, but that since the 1980s the per capita income has not grown as fast as that of India as a whole, and there has been a neglect of social development in the state (ibid.). The State Development Report, included in the Eleventh Five Year Plan 2007–12,13 shows how UP saw a decline in economic growth during the 1990s, with a low and uneven growth in agriculture — the strongest sector of the UP economy — but also in the growth in its industrial and services sectors. Compared to fast-growing states such as Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra and West Bengal, where the tertiary and secondary sectors fuel most of the growth, in the period from 1994–95 to 2002–03, in terms of average growth, Uttar Pradesh has performed reasonably well in the organised manufacturing, communication, construction, banking, and State Development Report at: stateplan/upsdr/sdr_up.htm (accessed 12 November 2008). 13


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primary sectors. However, it has lagged in vital segments of infrastructure such as power, water supplies, and railways. Similarly, growth in real estate and trade, hotels and restaurants, and unorganised manufacturing has also suffered. Thus, a good performance in manufacturing despite poor infrastructure indicates vast potential of growth. The state must concentrate on infrastructure sectors to revitalise other sectors.14

The State Development Report also shows that the economic slowdown in the period between the 1991 census and the 2001 one in UP was paralleled by the highest demographic growth in the state compared to the whole of India.15 Further, the rate of poverty reduction proceeded below the national average, with rural UP faring better than urban areas. The eastern regions of the state are underdeveloped, densely populated and characterised by low agricultural productivity (the population’s main source of livelihood). Low agricultural productivity exists despite the region having some of UP’s most fertile land and heavy rainfall as a consequence of its tropical climate, and is the result of the poor impact of the modernisation of agriculture brought about by the Green Revolution in the 1960s in other states. The state as a whole signals a low rate of urbanisation, when compared to other Indian states which show a much faster rate. The majority of UP’s population (80 per cent) lives in rural areas.16 The population in eastern UP mostly lives in villages that are small in size compared to those in central and western UP. As mentioned earlier, only a few kilometres separate Manupur from Banaras.17 For centuries the city of Banaras has been, and still is, the hub of the sacred, of pilgrimage, of trade, of immigration, and over the last decades, of mass tourism as well. Commodities produced here were traded on what I call global bazaars long before the advent of the contemporary phase of globalisation. Besides, Banaras is an important centre of Brahminical Hinduism and is of high ritual significance. Regarded as sacred, as a ‘place to die, to dispose the physical remains of the deceased and to perform the rites which ensure that the departed attains a “good state” after death, this

Ibid.: 94. Ibid.: 91. 16 Ibid.: 110–11. 17 The city is also known by the names of Benares, Varanasi (used for administrative purposes) and Kashi. Banaras is the name used by Manupur Chamars. 14 15

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city attracts pilgrims and mourners from all over the Hindu world’ (Parry 1994: 1). Situated on the Gangetic plain, on one side of the Ganges river, and with a population of 1,200,000 (Uttar Pradesh Census of India, 2001), Banaras is a holy city to many religious communities, including Hindus, Jains and Sikhs. While the city is predominantly Hindu, Muslims account for 10 per cent of the population. The city’s original inhabitants are said to be Ahirs, Brahmins, Mallahs (boatmen) and Rajputs (N. Kumar 1988: 81), but it also includes numerous other communities who have migrated over the centuries from many regions in India.18 Brahmins constitute 15–20 per cent of the population and ‘set the dominant religious tone of the city’ (Parry 1994: 33). The city thrives on the profits of trade,19 traditional industry20 and pilgrimage. Banaras used to locally be known

18 Searle-Chatterjee (1981) notes the local ranking of Hindu castes as follows: at the top of the hierarchy are Brahmins, Bhumihars, Rajputs, Thakurs (Rajputs), in the Vaishya varna are Khattris (traders) and Kayasthas; Ahirs and Kurmis; regarded as semi-Untouchable are the Khatiks (butchers) and Dhobis (washermen), followed by a lower strata composed of Pasis (distillers) and Chamars; at the very bottom of the hierarchy lie Balmikis, Chuhras, Dhanuks, Helas, Nangarchis, Rawats, Turaihas (all sweepers) and the Doms (funeral attendants). 19 For the role of the city as a trade and a banking centre, see Mishra (1975); Cohn (1987); Freitag (1989a). 20 The Varanasi district lies on Grand Trunk Road and there are three national and state highways passing through it. The rail network is provided by the northern and north-eastern railways, and the junction of Mughal Sarai, 18 km from the city, has the biggest railway yard in India. There is a domestic and an international airport at Babatpur (22 km from the city). The impact of industry in the district has been limited, and agriculture dominates its economy. The total area in which kharif and rabi crops (monsoon and winter crops, respectively) are sown in the district is 58 per cent and 42 per cent respectively. Paddy is the main crop, followed by wheat, and these two represent 63.59 per cent of the total cultivated area. The main commercial crop is sugarcane, followed by sanhemp. The district is famous for its handicrafts, brocades and carpets. Handloom weaving is an ancient activity, and the renowned Banarsi silk sari is produced in the district. However, as will be analysed in the course of this book, this industry is experiencing a large crisis. Silk products used to be exported to the UK, the USA, Singapore, Malaysia, Burma, Sri Lanka, and Middle Eastern countries. The export-oriented manufacturing goods include woollen handicraft, jamdani,


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as ‘pakka gaon’ or brick village.21 The city, however, has transformed enormously over the past few decades: its population has skyrocketed and more recently, it has seen the setting up of shopping malls, internet cafés, ATMs, a plethora of five-stars hotels, along with a more general ubiquity of technological innovation and consumption. Lying at the edge of Varanasi Municipal Corporation, Manupur resembles a village in its residential distribution of castes, in its architecture and its fields, while signs and pressures of urbanisation are noticeable in the village’s territory and surroundings. One can easily envisage the village’s future as part of the city’s expansion. As I will explain in Chapter 2, the population pressure has not eased since colonial times and the village has been progressively populated by outsiders. They have settled all along the main roads, which crosscut the village and those which

silk, zari and zardosi, repoussi work, brocade, wooden toys, meenakari, among others (State Development Report accessed at http://planningcommission., p. 100). The most important goods manufactured in the district are diesel engines, silk saris and rice, whereas food grains, wool, cloth, sugar, colour, and hard coke are mostly imported. Tourism is also a valuable source of revenue for the region. The main industries of the district are Diesel Locomotive Wagon (DLW) in Maruadih, Vibhuti Glass Works in Ram Nagar, Sahu Chemical and Fertiliser in Sahapuri and Industrial Gases in Dulhipur. The State Development Report also mentions the publishing of newspapers, journals and periodicals, as well as the manufacturing of domestic appliances as industries in Varanasi (ibid.: 99). 21 Banaras is a polyglot city, the main languages spoken are Hindi, Bengali, Urdu (Bhatt 1998) and Bhojpuri. Varanasi district is a Bhojpuri-speaking area. Bhojpuri is related to the eastern branch of the neo-Indo-Aryan languages (E. B. Joshi 1965). The Bhojpuri spoken in Varanasi district is called Banarsi boli. It characterises the identity of the city, but it is only an oral medium of communication. Although Hindi is the official national language, known locally as khari boli, and is used in public life, education and politics, in Banaras, Hindi ‘stands in contrast to Banarsi boli which is not standardised, has little formal literacy tradition, and has a lower explicit social value’ (Simon 1993: 252). Most of Manupur’s Chamars use Hindi and Bhojpuri interchangeably, although elderly people would understand Hindi but mostly speak Bhojpuri. As my command over Hindi improved, I started to make sense of Bhojpuri too, although my comprehension of this language remained limited. Reported speeches throughout the book are translations from Bhojpuri and Hindi.

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function as its boundaries. Many who have settled have established small business and shops, although the process has not altered the original residential configuration of the village. The Chamars are fully integrated into the city’s environment and make daily trips to offices, wholesale markets, universities or temples, or even to take a dip in the Ganges. Also, the political organisations of the city stretch to nearby Manupur, and the presence of the media in this Chamar hamlet renders information widely available. According to a survey of the village I conducted between February and March 1999, the total population was 1,628. The Chamars constitute the main SC caste in the village and about one-fifth of Manupur’s population. The village is entirely Hindu, except for three Christian households, two belonging to the Chamar community and the other to a Yadav. Manupur’s population is subdivided into nine castes and has a large Brahmin community with landholdings and many members in government employment. They occupy the village’s central settlement and own a significant portion of the land, the rest being divided amongst the other castes. The main staple crops in the village are wheat and barley.22 The other castes in the village are middle- and low-status communities such as Baniyas, Chauhans, Lohars, Kumhars, Dhobis, Rajbhars, and Yadavs. Many members of these communities have pursued and capitalised on ‘traditional’ occupations, with no different roles in paid employment for women and men. The minority of Baniyas is involved in commerce. The Chauhans — a Sanskritised name for a caste originally called Noniyas and traditionally salt makers and employed in welland pond-digging — are now mainly unskilled agricultural labourers and sharecroppers for the Brahmins. A number of Chauhans also migrated to big cities where they are now employed. The Kumhars are involved in their traditional business of producing earthen vessels, which they cater to Banaras and Calcutta markets. The Dhobis (washermen, a low caste) provide their services in the village and also work as sharecroppers. The Yadavs are involved in their traditional occupations as shepherds and milkmen, but they also work on the land and are sharecroppers for For agricultural work in their fields, Brahmin land-owners draw from a labour bank made up of the Chamar and Chauhan caste, although Chauhans, Yadavs, Dhobis, and Kumhars also work as sharecroppers in their fields. The Brahmins also recruit Yadav sharecroppers and female Chamar labourers from neighbouring villages. 22


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the Brahmins. Rajbhars are mainly landless unskilled labourers and a number of them have set up small workshops in their settlement for the manufacture of plastic beads. The Lohar community are blacksmiths and carpenters, own repair shops, and a section of them is visibly wealthy. The Chamar basti (hamlet) lies in the south-east corner of the village and it is separated from the village’s central settlement by a wide expanse of cultivated land. The basti is adjacent to the settlements of the Yadav and Rajbhar communities. They live in pakka (brick) and kaccha (mud) houses. A brick house is normally composed of one room and only rarely reproduces the structure of ancestral mud houses that are usually more developed. The traditional shape of kaccha houses is quadrangular, with a central, open-air vestibule where the entrance to all the rooms is found. Brick houses have often been built with the help of government subsidies for the SCs. Most houses do not have toilet facilities. There are a number of functioning private latrines, partly due to the implementation of a development scheme which provided Chamars with subsidies for their construction. At the time of my first fieldwork, the provision of electricity in the Chamar basti was quite erratic, with low voltage for most of the day, due to which people had to rely on more traditional systems of illumination. Amenities are very limited. Four hand-pumps and one well provide water in the Chamar basti. A few households own gas stoves, but for the most part kitchens in the village use natural fuel: cowdung and firewood. Appliances are still a rarity in the hamlet — with the exception of a few fridges, colour TVs and VCD players — though 1950s-style TV sets are to be found in quite a few homes. For transportation, Chamars use bicycles to make trips to Banaras, although a few government employees in the basti own scooters and motorcycles. Rickshaws and buses are available from the nearby main road. Here, one can find shops, tea stalls, a pharmacy and a government clinic. A telephone connection reached the basti a few years ago, and only one household has a landline. At the time of my last field trip, a few young men and one girl owned mobile phones. The global media culture in the form of movies and music is shared by the Chamar young generation. The Internet, that we think of as ubiquitous, will only have been experienced by a few young Chamars, despite the fact that each corner of Banaras is blessed with a Hindu temple or a shrine and an Internet access point. Children attend primary school in a nearby village (not in Manupur), though a secondary school is available in the locality, whereas for colleges, students need to make trips to Banaras.

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D. Gupta has argued that ‘villagers are leaving their agrarian pasts for an uncertain non-agrarian present. It would not be quite right to liken their contemporary situation as “urban” but it is not agrarian either though they continue to live, in the main, in what are still called “villages”’ (2005b: 751). In Manupur, this spatial in-betweenness was experienced at least throughout the 20th century, in particular, in the ways which made Manupur a site for immigration. As mentioned earlier, the village has historically seen a progressive influx of settlers from more remote rural areas and the building of residential colonies within its borders in more recent times. Half of Manupur’s Chamar community itself came to settle in the village primarily through kinship ties. Manupur can be classified as a satellite village, as much as others were in the political economy of colonial north India, in which production was articulated along urban and rural ties. The Chamars’ life histories show how men have benefited from their proximity to the city, as they found alternative employment to agriculture as early as the 1930s. That is how some of them started weaving the famous Banaras brocade saris, working for the Muslim community of the city. The Chamar life histories and their conceptualisation of the meanings of work would seem very different had this profession not been available. Ethnographic data conveys the idea that since the colonial period, the socio-economic geography in which the Chamars’ stories take place is wider than Manupur. The village represents more of an administrative unit than the sole focus of the Chamars’ lives. At the same time, Manupur’s proximity to the city has meant that long-distance male labour migration has not become a central part of the community’s way of life, although this is not the case for other communities in the village. Manupur Chamars’ educational, marriage and occupational patterns have largely followed a local track,23 while a number of migratory attempts in search for work have yielded very few long-term jobs in other Indian states. As a result, the Chamar community in Manupur has retained the character of a traditional settlement and much of the 23 The Chamars’ experience in this regard is not unusual, rather the contrary. In discussing the pitfalls of the study of the local and global, Assayag and Fuller note that ‘even if some people today really are “hybrid” transnationalists, the vast majority of the world’s population are not, because they continue to live and work in one locality only – and commonly do so for all or most of their lives’ (2005: 1; emphasis in the orginal).


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integrity of kinship ties. With the exclusion of their inward and outward movements as result of marriage, women have been tied to the perimeter of the village and its surrounding areas by agricultural casual labour, their work as fodder cutters, sellers and as sharecroppers, with their husbands at the service of the landed castes.24 While male Chamars gave up agricultural labour many decades ago, a number of their women still work in the upper caste-landlords’ fields for few months a year.25 Weaving provided a precious source of livelihood for many Chamar households for several decades. However, by the time of my last visit to the village in 2005, the weaving industry had practically disappeared, and men had to rely for livelihood on casual manual labour in the city and its periphery — building work, rickshaw pulling and autorickshaw driving, thereby joining other households in the pool of skilled and unskilled labourers in the informal sector of the economy. On the other hand, government employment supports 15 per cent of the Chamar households. It is this minority (the government employees and their families) which has most visibly taken up strategies of socio-economic transformation which, in turn, had been initiated through an exit from exploitative village agricultural labour, participation in the urban economy and progressive investment in education. This minority of Chamars has pushed class boundaries in an attempt to socially ascend, investing in material and symbolic resources in the process. It should be noticed that attempts at class transformation in this community are a product of the State policy of positive discrimination for the SCs, rather than of capitalist transformation and economic liberalisation. This datum is of key importance. As a result of the nature of its creation, the aspiring middle-class sections of the Chamar community apparently resemble the bureaucratic middle class of the Nehruvian period — who certainly held modern aspirations — signifying, in a way, another ‘return to the past’ in contemporary times. Not only does the Chamars’ estrangement from the opportunities offered by a liberalising economy exclude them from the middle-class ways of life, but also from experiencing neoliberal capitalism as workers. On the other hand, youth consumption of global culture aside, for many Chamar 24 I am not aware of women’s migration in this area for purposes other than those of marriage. 25 Chapter 7 is dedicated to the analysis of women’s work and changing gender regimes.

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women and men from different generations, the tangible meanings of a globalising India might well reside in the reasons why their local craft economy has drawn to a close, as I will explain in the course of the book. Against this backdrop, Manupur and the Chamar community have proved to be microcosms of trends noticeable on a large scale in the rest of the country. Manupur Chamars have witnessed phenomena such as the impact of global trade on the local economy, expanding education trends, educated youth’s search for employment, the wave of low-caste politicisation that has swept north India since the 1990s, the evolution of the marriage market, technological change, the consequences of the local rural-governance system (Panchayati Raj) and the legal provision of reservations for Scheduled Caste (SC) communities.26 These provisions led to the election of a Chamar gram pradhan (village chief ) in 2005, a first in the village history. Until then, Brahmins had held political power both through official posts such as that of pradhan as well as by means of traditional authority and political power through the Congress party.

VI. Locating the Contemporary Subaltern The investigation of modernity offered in this book is premised on that of the contemporary subaltern subject. Although the Subaltern Studies volumes have produced seminal work on this subject with specific reference to colonial India, her/his present condition, with few notable exceptions, is still an unknown terrain of investigation. Despite the fact that the literature on low castes and other historically marginalised communities has steadily grown over the past two decades, surprisingly, a number of scholars have pointed to the paucity of knowledge relevant to the understanding of the contemporary subaltern (although not necessarily of low-caste background) as a ‘subject of development’, regarding whom

26 This term was initially coined for the creation of reserved seats in legislative assemblies by the Government of India Act of 1935 (for a discussion on the creation of the SC category, see Charsley and Karanth 1998). This Act followed the Poona Pact in 1932, under which the SCs were granted reserved seats in the legislative assemblies (see Zelliot 1996). Those castes listed as SC by each state, are entitled to a set of provisions, such as reserved government jobs, reserved places in educational institutions and seats in assemblies. These provisions come under the policy of positive discrimination (see Galanter 1984).


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A. Gupta has highlighted how ‘although there is now a substantial literature on the creation of the national and colonial subjects, a parallel interest in the formation of subjects through and in development has not yet come to pass’ (2003: 71). Such accounts in turn would shed light on scarcely known histories of the present, which ethnographically address contemporary subalterns and modernity, and answer the ‘urgent need for the ethnographic, microhistorical, micropolitical turn in the study of development and regional modernities’ (Sivaramakrishnan and Agrawal 2003: 47). Despite the existence of literature on the history of Dalit politics and literature on the ideologues of the Dalit movement(s), as well as the more recent second democratic upsurge in the 1990s (Yadav 2000), 27 the subaltern still remains unexplored as a subject of politics, being mostly understood to mean living metaphor of caste, class, gender and religion, amongst others, rather than just a vote bank in election analysis. Thus, the search for explanatory models for contemporary subalterns’ political acts has emerged (see Kaviraj 2004) along with the investigation of ‘political society’ (Chatterjee 2006) — an analytical framework ‘to understand […] relatively recent forms of the entanglement of elite and subaltern politics’ following the expansion of the democratic process in the lives of the subalterns (ibid.: 39–40). In addition, the subaltern might be unknown as a subject of the nation: scholars investigating shifting masculinities have identified the relationship between the ‘Dalit man’ and nation building as ‘another of the modern South Asian nation’s problematic “Others”’ (Osella, Osella and Chopra 2004: 4; emphasis in the original),28 and I would add the Dalit/low-caste woman to these ‘Others’.29 The ways in which these calls for inquiry are interconnected and intertwined became manifest during my fieldwork. The original idea for this research consisted of an ethnography of the Chamars’ political mobilisation within low-caste politics. In particular, I was interested in the relationship between cultural and political ideologies. Subsequently,

27 On low-caste politics, and in particular on the ascendance of the Bahujan Samaj Party, see Chandra (2004); Corbridge & Harriss (2001); Jaffrelot (2003); Pai (2002), Mendelsohn & Vicziany (1998). 28 Ravinder Kaur (2008) has recently contributed to this exploration by rethinking the Partition master narrative through the experience of Untouchable refugees and their resettlement narratives. 29 An important starting point in this regard is Rao (2003).

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my fieldwork showed how there could not be such an ethnography of politics without a systematic analysis of socio-economic and cultural factors, so that the ‘political’ is properly combined with the ‘cultural’ (Spencer 1997). My fieldwork showed that the political cause among the Chamars was linked to a much broader range of interests than just electoral democracy or identity politics. Although low-caste politics has at times been construed as delivering symbolic empowerment rather than substantive equality, its transformative effects have irrevocably altered the grammar of social relations in north India. Also, during fieldwork, I did find politics in the unusual venues of education, everyday forms of sociality, food sharing and religion, amongst others. Many aspects of the socio-cultural life of the Chamars reverberated with politics, not just in terms of the celebration of low-caste mobilisation, but also with regard to their involvement in the Congress regime, its historical figures, and above all, with the ubiquity of references to Ambedkar and his mythical stature. Ambedkar and Ravidas were the figures from the Dalit pantheon most invoked by the Chamars. Not many conversations would start and end without the leader or the saint being mentioned, even after many months of ethnographic research with them. Similarly, the internalised principle of humanism reflected in this chapter’s epigraph — ‘all men are equal’ — was the liberal mantra provided in response to many of my questions on caste, discrimination and social relations during fieldwork. Whether I was collecting data on the trajectory of the weaving business or ritual practices, ‘politics’ would emerge as a commentary to many aspects of everyday life. Given the prominence of lowcaste identity politics in this region, the relationship between cultural and political ideologies, which had intrigued me since the very beginning of my inquiry, had found its most suitable subjects: Chamar politics revolved around the most intrinsic features of the community’s social persona. I concluded that attempts to separate the political sphere from the other spheres of social life would result in the creation of rather artificial boundaries. Along with the effort to rejoin politics with the cultural and the socio-economic conditions underpinning political discourses and practices during fieldwork, I felt the need to re-establish a balance between ‘Chamar’ as a ‘Dalit’(a term which was not in common usage in Manupur), that is, as a political construct and subject of political participation and ‘Chamar’ as a socio-cultural subject ‘hijacked’ by and subsumed under the politicisation of Dalit identities in public discourses and imaginary. Collapsing the analysis of Untouchable marginalisation


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and Dalit politics of self-respect with the analysis of the Chamar subject has led to the obfuscation of the modes of participation of these subjects in wider scapes of membership and belonging. Their investigation is as significant as that of the Chamars’ overtly subversive acts in the public sphere as a result of the wave of political mobilisation from below started in the 1990s, and has opened up the analysis of these subjects’ agency beyond (Dalit) caste. Where a great deal of this book deals with caste identity, I have also aimed to establish a dialogue between this and wider economic, cultural and political phenomena. Moreover, the criticism to the ‘armature’ of politics and caste essentialisation through which the Chamar/Dalit subject has been known does not imply a de-politicisation of Chamar/Dalit struggles for social equality or the undermining of its long and rich history.

VII. Arguments and Aims Before I proceed with my arguments and the aims of this book, I should stress the timing of my ethnographic investigation. I carried out the research on which this book is based for 21 months during the period of 1998–99, followed by short and long visits till 2005.30 This period coincided, on the one hand, with the almost total disappearance of artisanal labour amongst the Chamars and, on the other, a more decisive affirmation of marks of social mobility amongst a small group of salaried government employees and their families. In other words, I observed the unfolding of a socio-economic ‘short circuit’ within a circumscribed locality at a particular temporal juncture: a large group of Chamar households lost their livelihood while one smaller group of them began to consolidate the signs of class transformation. Even as the aspiring middleclass sections amongst the Chamars were unable to acquire membership of the contemporary Indian middle classes, and a large section of Chamar artisans lost their livelihood as a result of economic liberalisation, those years have seen the steady booming of the new middle classes Years for data collection have been specified on two occasions: for opening ethnographic excerpts at the beginning of the book’s chapters, as well as when knowing the specific year of the collection of ethnographic data was essential to the understanding of the argument. In all other cases, arguments draw on data gathered (through observation of participants, in-depth interviews and surveys) during 1998–2005. 30

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and of their political projects, until 2004, with the failure of the ‘India Shining’ idea, marked a halt to their national aspirations (while even as it saw its success at the level of a number of individual states), and until the US economic crisis started to hit India’s growth estimates. In this book I argue that the Chamars, in particular the aspiring middle-class section, are a phenomenon of ‘retro-modernity’, a neologism I coined to express the condition by which certain individuals and communities embrace a form of passé modernity, while remaining at the margins of what it means to be modern, in contemporary India. While the aspiring middle-class Chamars are unable to adopt the high-speed permutations required from them to be modern in the present time, a large number of Chamar households suffer from several and acute forms of exclusion. The models of modernity of aspiring middle-class Chamars and that of the new middle classes share codes of belonging, but they are not all attainable. While some features of local modernity are under the Chamars’ purview, the supralocal model constitutes a ‘social chimera’ insofar as membership into the burgeoning middle-class citadel constantly requires new and cutting-edge symbols of status and consumption, particularly as a result of India’s growing economy. Retro-modernity points to the mismatch between assimilating into a passé prototype of modernity through the adoption of distinctions and respectability believed proper of the 19th-century middle classes, and subsequently shaped by development and politicisation processes, and the existence of a supralocal and inaccessible model embodied by the new middle classes. The explanatory salience of retro-modernity lies in highlighting the tension between a past modern and a contemporary one in which the Chamars are caught up. In the following chapters, I aim to expose the social, economic and cultural histories that give content to this tension, while foregrounding the class (and the caste) of modernity and the particular forms of reflexivity it engenders. What is the trajectory of the Chamar retro-modernity? What is peculiar about it? And what does this tell about the career of modernity in India? The book attempts to answer these questions with several aims in view. The first one consists of building a more intimate connection between the debates and concepts of modernity emerging from postcolonial worlds and their actors. The idea of retro-modernity is articulated along the entanglements between two main trajectories, both of which are viewed as the outcome of the generative impetus of modernisation in India and


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its unforseen consequences. The first trajectory is one of reproduction (of practices, but also ideologies), and is marked by the Chamars’ return to the 19th-century modernity of the Indian middle classes, born out of their encounter with colonial modernity. The second process is of subversion through low-caste movements for self-respect, and political empowerment and the cultural production which has accompanied these movements. This second process, which could be assimilated to the process of ‘Dalit conversion’ to full citizenship but also to the ‘modern’ (G. Pandey 2006), is the outcome of the liberal values of equality and social justice which forcefully manifested their presence in India from the 19th century onwards. Subversion invests practices and ideologies too. These two processes do not collide, but it is in their dialectic that novel entanglements between the past and the present find an arena for expression. The processes I have outlined above cannot be exhaustively explained by Gaonkar’s framework of ‘alternative modernities’ (2001), which is based on rethinking the distinction between societal modernisation and cultural modernity, which has been pivotal to the analysis of modernity in the West. Gaonkar argues that when we analyse the workings of this distinction from the standpoint of a national–cultural site, the modernity outcome will be a different one to that observed in the West. This difference will be noted in the subversion of the features proper to this distinction: first, the difference is visible insofar as it might produce changes in the association of the mechanism of ‘convergence’ (thought of ‘in terms of institutional arrangements, such as a market economy, a bureaucratic state, models of popular rules, and so on’ [2001: 17]) with societal modernisation and with the production of similarities. Second, the difference will manifest itself in the ways it might disconnect ‘divergence’ (‘the lived experience and cultural expressions of modernity that are shaped by what is variously termed as “habitus”, “background”, or “social imaginary” of a given people’ [ibid.; emphasis in the original]) from cultural modernity, and from the production of difference. In this respect, alternative modernities foreground creative adaptation, that is, the way in which people are not made modern but make themselves modern (ibid.: 18). Ultimately, just as societal modernization (the prime source of convergence theories) produces difference through creative adaptation or unintended consequences, so also cultural modernity (the prime source of divergence theories) produces similarities on its own borders. This double relationship

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between convergence and divergence, with their counterintuitive dialectic between similarity and difference, makes the site of alternative modernities also the site of double negotiations — between societal modernization and cultural modernity, and between hidden capacities for the production of similarity and difference. Thus, alternative modernities produce combinations and recombinations that are endlessly surprising. (Gaonkar 2001: 23)

The alternative modernities framework revolves around the difference produced in one given national–cultural site in terms of modernity, read through the tools of the Western discourse on modernity (ibid.: 14), and aims to show how this difference manifests itself vis-à-vis Western modernity. This difference is expressed in the different permutations — from the ‘Western originals’ — which two independent variables (modernisation and cultural modernity) can assume along the lines of convergence and divergence. Alternative modernities, however, account for the difference produced by national templates of modernity, but not for reformulations of these templates within them, as examined in this book. Gaonkar’s analysis does not bring to light the internal differences generated in the modernity process, for instance, amongst those for whom modernisation has not delivered the features of modern living and who still lack the essential and basic requirements for their livelihood. The retro-modernity framework focuses on the consequences of modernisation through the analytical trajectories of reproduction and subversion (trajectories which encompass elements of both a material and cultural nature), to foreground different experiences of the modern within the nation state rather than differences between Western and nonWestern worlds. This theoretical repositioning is useful for the purpose of producing an account on Indian modernity in its own right (which, nevertheless, includes the historical entanglements with Western modernity) but also one where a comparative study with Western modernities would necessarily require communities of comparable status, i.e., rural and urban labouring classes. The focus on the consequences of modernisation has underpinned reflections on the nature and the career of modernity in postcolonial worlds and has highlighted the re-inscribing of these into new global political, socio-economic and discursive hierarchies. While interrogating the meanings of modernity in Africa, Ferguson discusses the ways in which the developmental failure in this continent has emptied modernity of its teleological element. Modernity is no longer a condition


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people will achieve in the future, as the modernisation paradigm promised, but only reflects the rich elites’ ‘first-class life’ surrounded by deprived masses (2006: 173ff.) who no longer have the hope of modernising. History shifts from being conceived of as a series of stages of development to a ‘dedevelopmentalized’ notion ‘which no longer has modernity as its telos’ (ibid.: 176).31 While there are no more sequential stages in the process of modernisation, modernity is now seen as something which societies negotiate in a plurality of ways, giving rise to ‘alternative modernities’. Outside developmental time, however, modernity ‘comes to appear as a standard of living, a status not a telos’ (ibid.; italics in the original). To different standards of living (accessed through birth rights and to the detriment of the excluded) corresponds a static global hierarchy which fixes new Western hegemonies and new legitimating subjecting discourses of the African populations who cannot attain the status of modernity (ibid.: 177). The comparison between the socio-economic dynamics in many African countries and those in India (with the State playing a strong role, its persistent vision of development and its growth rate) is beyond the scope of this book. However, what interests us as regards the arguments presented in this book is Ferguson’s extrapolation of modernity from its temporal frame and the ways in which it turns from being a process to status and privilege, from aspiration to terminal point and to absence of progression. Retro-modernity speaks of this passage, and the book analyses in detail the sets of inequalities which are produced in this process. However, one of the main driving forces of the phenomenon of retro-modernity has been the movement (antithetical to the one illustrated above) towards equality and self-respect. This was most notably actualised by a mode of emancipation from forms of hegemonic high-caste tradition incarnated both in the scriptures and in Hindu orthopraxy,32 but not from tradition per se. If we look at the Chamar pursuit of the modern, it is accompanied

Ferguson’s argument departs substantially from the idea that when progress is haltered by phenomena such as depression, wars and recession, we appeal to the idea of cyclical time to find reassurance (Harvey 1990: 248). 32 Alam (1994) has argued that dealing with the notion of heresy and heterodoxy in the Semitic sense of the word seems to be inappropriate in India. Here, in fact, it is not the spoken or written word which might denote a heterodox belief, rather 31

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by the revaluation and creation of new traditions and pasts. In the wake of low-caste identity politics, low-caste historical imagination has put forward a principle of social justice which invests not only the present but also the past: retrieving low-caste protagonists of Indian history makes the validity of low-caste politics’ claims of power and representation in the present possible. This phenomenon has thrived precisely on modern instruments such as literacy and printed literature. The reasons for engaging with high-caste tradition lie in the derogatory discourses for the low castes contained in it, discourses to which the Chamars have relentlessly opposed counter-explanations, identities and histories, though not before having powerfully internalised these discourses. The Chamars have replaced aspects of hegemonic high-caste tradition with more suitable ones to support the image of the self and the community which they seek to assert in the present. If the production of pasts, traditions and myths has flourished amongst low-caste communities, the book’s subsequent aim is to investigate the question of agency involved in the ways in which hegemonic traditions have been reformulated or erased by elites and subalterns, respectively. For both groups, these processes have had the ultimate scope of self and community empowerment. In some cases, the elites could rework high-caste traditions to their advantage, capitalise on them, and reinstate their authority over other communities. With reference to the case of the Lucknow middle class in the 19th century, discussed earlier, S. Joshi has argued: ‘Middle-class activists sought to be “modern”, but their own social positions also meant that they would use the resources of tradition to construct that modernity’ (2005: 22; emphasis in the original). More examples are needed to illustrate this issue. In his reflections on the trajectory of modernity amongst the Brahmin priests of the Minakshi temple in south India and their contextual emphasis on traditionalism and the authority of religious texts, Fuller has concluded that for the priests ‘not only […] modernity can engender traditionalism but also how traditionalism can constitute and promote modernity while simultaneously emphasizing the divine authority of tradition’ (2003: 167). Indeed, as Fuller acknowledges, the Brahmin priests are an unusual group. They epitomise tradition themselves, and this dual process of becoming condemnation is obtained when there is a behavioural deviance from the ritual norms. This absence of a dogma with which to judge anyone’s personal beliefs directly leads to condemnation for behavioural deviance. Nevertheless, orthopraxy is the measuring unit to each person’s accordance with Hindu faith.


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more traditionalist while also becoming more modernist (ibid.: 167), says Fuller, while encapsulating the priests’ experience, might not work for other communities in India — and Manupur Chamars are certainly amongst those. Weidman’s analysis of the ways in which the Karnaticmusic elite forged the idea of classical music between the late 19th and early 20th centuries testifies to yet another successful attempt by highstatus actors in re-inventing high-caste tradition as well as taking up a role to assert their distinctiveness from the West — a product of the colonial encounter. Weidman argues that it was precisely ‘oral tradition’ and within it, the voice, which came to be quintessential to the project of differentiating Indianness from Westernness: ‘It was not just that a certain kind of voice came to be valued, but that the voice itself came to be privileged as Karnatic music’s locus of authenticity, the preserver of its tradition in the face of modernity’ (2006: 5). Moreover, there is an association between the vocal character of Indian music and a ‘civilisational tradition’ in the discourses of those involved with music in the 20th and 21st centuries (ibid.: 6). From these examples emerges the ability of elites to mould tradition to assert a number of attributes which could address the ruptures caused by modernity, by securing themselves to the bedrock of a reworked tradition, historically associated to their social lineages. In this effort of innovating while preserving, elites had their interlocutors in the West rather than another powerful set of actors and discourses. This effort is inscribed in the wider discursive implications of the categories of tradition and modernity: Weidman in fact argues that one of the most powerful ways in which the project of modernity operates is by defining itself as representative of rationality, progress, change, and universality, in opposition to ‘tradition’, a category which comes to stand for all that is irrational or emotional, stagnant, ancient, and local (Bauman and Briggs 2003). Such oppositions gain currency, of course, by being mapped as the difference between the West and the non-West. (2006: 7; emphasis in the original)

There are, however, other alternative understandings of the dialectics between tradition and modernity, which detach them from their association with the distinction between the non-West, and the West respectively. Kumar has contended: ‘Tradition’ and ‘modernity’ are not actual experiences that are at war with each other. They are rather the names of a politics nominated by modernity

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for disempowering and derecognizing that there are other sites and contents of knowledge than that claimed by itself as normative, that may or may not share much with modernity, but certainly they share power, reflexivity, and history, all of which have been sought to be monopolized by modernity. (2007: 13; emphasis in the original)

Against this backdrop, I show how non-elites sought to reformulate high-caste traditions which reinstated their inferiority. In this process, the Chamars’ ‘civilising anxieties’ historically manifested vis-à-vis Indian upper-caste communities, and not vis-à-vis the West. It was high-caste tradition and its main bearers, Brahmin upper castes, which came under scrutiny, and the latter have been ostracised from being the administrators of Chamar ritual practices. As I will discuss in Chapter 4, as a result of the spread of modern education, the Chamars began to question the Brahmins’ religious authority and advanced their own claims to substitute their new literate and educated selves in place of the traditional knowledgeable Brahmin priest. The Chamar contestation points to the strategy that the subaltern classes deploy against hegemonic religious authority and the power stemming from it.33 The Chamar critique of high-caste Hindu tradition translated into a movement from subjection to authority (physical and textual) to freedom, while fashioning the Chamars into civilised beings. Unlike the upper-caste elites, the main tool through which the Chamars could ‘produce’ civilisation was to be found in modern education, rather than in the reworking of a (musical or textual) tradition. For the Chamars, civilisation resided with modernity, not with things of the past, and this modernity encompassed the effects which British rule had brought about in the Chamars’ struggle for rights vis-à-vis upper-caste elites. The spread of modern education and the discourse of its civilising properties initiated a process of obliteration of all that is ‘Chamar’ and backward. In this move, a widening gap between Brahminical and school knowledge on the one hand and ‘Chamar culture and knowledge’ on the other emerged. However, the pervasive affirmation of the value of 33 An interesting cross-cultural and trans-historical example of the action deployed by such classes is to be found in Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms. Here the author recounts how the book’s protagonist, a 16th-century miller destined to be executed following a religious inquisition for heresy, questions the Catholic clerics’ power deriving from their education, which, the miller claims, can be achieved by anybody (1999: 13).


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modern education did not erase other Chamar vernacular knowledges, of which much can be attributed to Hindu culture and popular traditions. Against the backdrop of this politics of knowledge, the repudiation of ‘Chamar-ness’ as a consequence of the ideology of education has worked in a direction opposite to the revaluation of Chamar identity following low-caste identity politics. This contradiction is born from apparently conflicting compulsions amongst the low castes: on the one hand, we find appeals to civilisation, rationality and progress; on the other, low-caste identity politics implies the subversion of high-caste tradition and its remaking through the production of ethnohistories and the celebration of ‘primordial’ identities. Along with the inquiry on aspects of the subaltern discourses and practices of engagement with the modern I have discussed so far, the need for confronting these with the distinctions which have analytically framed the emergence of the modern also forms an integral part of this book. In this I was inspired by the questions raised in Chakrabarty’s Habitations of Modernity (2004). He asks: How do we, for instance, characterize the intellectual worlds of the peasant and the subaltern classes who are our contemporaries, yet whose life practices constantly challenge our ‘modern’ distinctions between the secular and the sacred, between the feudal and the capitalist, between the nonrational and the rational? The old imperial option of looking down on them through some version of the idea of backwardness has lost its appeal. (2004: xx; italics and emphasis in the orginal)

Where the exercise of finding answers to these questions differs from analysing the meaning and place of the binaries I found amongst the Chamars (between past and present, illiteracy and education, backwardness and civilisation), I suggest that these binaries might bear a resonance with the distinctions which Chakrabarty has highlighted, for the reasons I now explain. While I have earlier discussed the internalised Chamar condition of ‘backwardness’ and how this impinges on their discourse of identity, I have also argued how idioms of modernisation were used to contrast it, and how this condition came to define the SC identity. As a result, whether the ‘imperial option’ of backwardness might well be obsolete as an explanatory tool, the Chamar internalised condition of backwardness and the production of binaries and the abovementioned ‘modern’ distinctions could be seen as the indirect and direct

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expressions of the matrix of European modernity respectively. In other words, the emic and etic categories under discussion here do not appear incommensurable. Subsequently, I also wish to question the idea that a challenge to the ‘modern’ distinctions can only come from the subaltern/ peasant and their life-worlds, as doing so would imply that the attributes of a secular, capitalist and rational life pertain only to the non-subaltern. Evidence in India has suggested quite the contrary: to examine only the first distinction quoted above, that of the secular/sacred, Hindu Rightwing politics represents one of the most striking examples of the upperand middle-ranking castes, the main supporters of such politics, actively challenging the boundaries of the secular State through the idea of a Hindu rashtra (nation). My search for answers to Chakrabarty’s questions is underpinned by the idea that the challenge to the modern distinctions should be separated from subaltern/peasant class identity and agency, and be investigated amongst all communities and classes. Moreover, and equally important, this task would involve the greater one of defining what exactly these categories mean to the communities analysed in a given context and what they translate into. The ethnography I offer here shows how the Chamars re-inscribe the modern distinctions into other kinds of relationships: from their being mutually exclusive, these distinctions are placed in a relationship of interdependence in an ante litteram post-Enlightenment and post-secular fashion. The strength of Chamar eclecticism is what lies at the heart of their approach towards the modern. One explanation for this eclecticism could be found in N. Kumar’s distinction between the elite and the non-elite in South Asia, and, more specifically, in the ways in which the latter ‘were not equally colonized in the epistemological sense of having to think inside Europe. The elite were more so’ (2007: 11). Kumar argues that the ‘Europeanization of the imagination’ was also a source of empowerment for the elite because of the ways in which they were able to combine different English and Indian learnings with a plurality of languages, identities, epistemologies, which formed the norm of the intellectual worlds of the 19th and 20th centuries South Asian intelligentsia (ibid.: 11–12). On the other hand, low-class and -caste individuals reaped the benefits of colonial education which triggered their expectations of social change. But what differentiates the elite from the non-elite in Kumar’s reasoning? In her view: Both are characterized by modernity, but while that of the elite is plural in its creative manipulation of different epistemological worlds and


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subjection also to the politics of these worlds, the modernity of the nonelite is more picturesque in the ways Doniger describes in her study of copies and originals (2005). Provincials imitate the elite while striving to be true to themselves, thus producing a self that is forever a mirror of a mirror, which is always claimed as authentic and produces no agony about authenticity’. (Ibid.: 15)

Historically, authenticity has not been a concern for non-elites such as the Chamars — and in this the difference between them and, for example those elites who redesigned classical music in Karnataka is striking. Similarly, non-elites have shown no anxiety about producing ‘Indianness’ as against the West, especially at the time about the nationalist struggle for independence. However, non-elites have shown ‘status anxiety’ vis-à-vis upper-caste Hindu tenets and practices, a concern which overwhelmingly features in studies of Untouchable communities, especially from a structuralist perspective.34 I suggest that status anxiety be viewed in this book as a powerful engine for other forms of imagination, and, as the production of binaries demonstrates, for example, these forms responded to precise civilising compulsions. Questions around the importance of ‘ethnos’ to contemporary anthropology intersect here with the genealogy of a social category, that of the Untouchable, and the ways in which their social presence and change has been portrayed in the sociology and anthropology of India. The explanation of social change passed through the question of whether those labelled as Untouchable accepted or refused the ideological foundations of the system in which they lived and framed this question in a relational framework. Informed by a structural concern, studies of Untouchable castes showcased debates on the nexus between untouchability and the consensus and replication of dominant Hindu culture. This question split scholarly research in the past. The debate was initiated by Berreman’s (1971) and Mencher’s (1974) critiques of Dumont (1980). They suggested that the ‘Brahmanical view of caste’ had been over-represented in his formulation of caste society and ideology and that the view of those at the bottom of the caste system radically differed from that of the high castes. Moffatt (1979), following Dumont, produced an account of an Untouchable community which forcefully reiterated the ideological unity between high and low castes, denying the latter an independent culture and world-view (1979). Following Moffatt’s classification of theories of caste with reference to untouchability, Deliège (1999) produced a useful critical synthesis of the many ethnographical studies that have addressed the Untouchable conundrum. Under the ‘model of unity’, which, 34

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Finally, my last aim in this book concerns postcolonial actors and their life-worlds. In displacing the West from its position of being a selfreferencing source of modernity, and focusing on the deep implications Deliège argued, emphasised the inherent cultural unity between the Untouchables and the rest of the caste system, can be placed all those studies where the caste system is portrayed as mainly a harmonious system. Amongst the proponents of this model we find Blunt (1960), Bouglé (1971), Hocart (1950), Hutton (1973), Leach (1960) Srinivas (1965, 1976), and Dumont (1980). On the other hand, within the ‘model of separation’, in which scholars have stressed the ‘discontinuity between Untouchables and society’, a thesis which Deliège said is emphasised by the majority of contemporary anthropologists, we find Berreman (1963), Mencher (1974), Bailey (1960), Mahar (1972), Lynch (1969), Molund (1988), Juergensmeyer (1982), Gough (1973), and Kapadia (1995). Deliège has pointed out that the studies of Untouchable communities by this last group of scholars have represented a ‘militant’ view of untouchability which does not reflect the condition of those castes who are not part of sociopolitical movements. As a result, Deliège recognised that recent studies, including his own, showed that ‘Untouchables are neither on the brink of revolution, nor completely satisfied with their position in society and always prepared to legitimize the oppression they endure’ (1999: 46). In addition to these models, Deliège has also defined ‘complementary models’. Representative of these models is that of André Béteille, whose study of systems of social inequality other than caste, such as power and wealth distribution, has argued that untouchability is ‘above all a problem of economic and social deprivation’ (Béteille in Deliège 1999: 49). Likewise, Oommen (1984) has argued that untouchability is a system of cumulative domination: ritual, economic and political. Deliège has concluded that the model of separation is untenable due to the pervasiveness of the ideology of caste, well beyond the upper castes. Likewise, the model of unity is not sufficiently explanatory because Untouchables are dissatisfied with their status. More recently, scholars have highlighted the importance of power relations in determining the Untouchables’ position within society. In an attempt to move beyond a structuralist account of Untouchable castes’ position within the caste system, following Dirks’s reformulation of the role of political power in Indian society (1993), Mosse has proposed a model for understanding the subordination of the Untouchables, in which he questions the ‘Dumontian notion of dominance as the non-ideological, non-religious “encompassed” aspect of social life’ (1994: 68). Mosse has argued that ‘religion and politics, purity and power are not separated in the conception of Harijan social subordination and dependence’ (ibid.).


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of looking at modernity through the lens of a subaltern community and the entanglements between political economy and identity, I aim to contribute to postcolonial studies’ new agenda of a ‘double disentanglement from the binaries of postcolonial studies in its formative period’ (Loomba, Kaul, Bunzl, Burton and Esty 2006: 34). This consists first in an analytical stir towards ‘a study of culture that does not detach from the claims and conclusions of socio-economic and structural analysis’ (ibid.), and second, in the need ‘to keep alive particular metanarratives for critical purposes, while minimizing and accounting for their Eurocentric traces’ (ibid.). These are the explicit premises on which I build this book but more importantly, I draw on Sivaramakrishnan’s critical remarks on the ways in which ‘a discourse-oriented postcolonial theory influenced by Said (1978) has attended more to elites, ideation, and representations, at the expenses of changes in the economic and political spheres — especially everyday practices, micro-political economies, and cultural politics’ (2006: 367–68). Fresh material on the postcolonial condition, and particularly on non-elite populations, must come from the analysis of ‘the contested construction of political modernities in postcolonial spaces of identity and

Historical research on the practice of untouchability, and on the construction of the category of the Untouchable itself, has challenged the premise of this debate. Mendelsohn and Vicziany have argued that in pre-colonial history, aspects of the subordination of different castes under the contemporary label of Untouchable are difficult to ascertain (1998: 259). Historical research on the colonial period has demonstrated that untouchability was not a clearly crystallised phenomenon. As I will discuss in Chapter 3, Bayly has argued that ‘untouchability as we know it is thus very largely a product of colonial modernity’ (1999: 226) and Untouchables have experienced significant, although sometimes only temporary, economic shifts in their position as a result of changes in occupation and in the political economy (Bailey 1957; Washbrook 1996). Concerning the Untouchable category, Mendelsohn and Vicziany have pointed out that ‘the Untouchables were a subordinate people long before twentiethcentury politics transformed them into a category of political relevance’ (1998: 2), and in response to postcolonial scholarship, they have argued that ‘it is not really true that ‘the Untouchables were “invented” during the colonial period. Rather, their description was simplified and objectified at a particular political moment so as to fit them into a bureaucratic and welfare model understandable to the modern state’ (ibid.: 260; emphasis in the original). Charsley (1996) has

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state formation. Questions of rights, civility, self-determination, public spheres, and citizenship have to be raised in the context of histories of postcolonial nationalism, development and globalization’ (ibid.: 381). This book provides a portrait of the Chamar modern condition ‘after the colonial’ — deeply embedded within political economy analysis; of the categories which the community itself has used to describe this condition; and of the engagement with the categories and frameworks deployed to problematise the same condition in India and beyond.

VIII. Chapter Outline To attend to the above aims, I discuss in detail key zones of the experience of modernity through an analytical grid made up of labour, education, gender, politics, and religion. I start my investigation of the Chamars’ experience of modernity with an analysis of their progressive disentanglement from the village economy and the occupational diversification that occurred amongst them as a result of the progressive decline of employment in agriculture. In Chapter 2, against the backdrop of the description of the Banaras region, I focus on the ideological meanings associated with scrutinised the category’s validity within the anthropological discourse. His critique throws light not only on the problems inherent in the category, but also on the idioms that have been premised on the category itself. He has argued ‘that the “Untouchable” as a twentieth-century construction which became both an interpretation of the past and the basis for affirmative action in the present must give pause to any theorising which takes the existence of the category, and of a section of the population corresponding to it, as axiomatic rather than problematic. The category is on the one hand too arbitrary, and on the other too deeply implicated in the processes and values of Indian society, for it not to be seriously misleading when used as a quasi-technical term by anthropologists concerned to locate and relate the village-focused studies. The current debate as to whether Untouchables replicate or reject the caste system which devalues them illustrates the danger here of creating an unreal problem by misreading the nature of the category’ (ibid.: 18). More importantly, Charsley has advocated transcending the category and replacing it with a study of how castes who come under this denomination are ‘differently placed economically, socially, culturally and politically’ in order to produce ‘configurations of relative disadvantage’ (ibid.: 19). More recently, the ethnographies of Untouchable castes have put into dialogue these communities with wider debates about agency, class, gender, development, the economy, nation, and modernity.


Retro-modern India

work (and significantly with ‘polluting work’), while providing a socioeconomic micro-history of this community. From ethnographic study it emerges that being a Chamar has strongly defined the work arenas which have been available to this community. As a result, this book contributes to literature on the ‘the relationship between culture and economy’ (Robb 1996: 4) and specifically to ‘the roles of Indian social norms in perpetuating disparities of employment, and also of the disparities in shaping attitudes’ (ibid.). Changes in labour, the different working statuses following these changes, and the need to de-ideologise notions of work (that is, to detach caste from profession) have had an enduring force on this community’s transformation. Following these analytical lines, Chapter 3 analyses the history of weaving in the Chamar community, the recruitment of the rural male workforce into apprenticeship for the city’s Muslim master weavers, the creation of a class of Chamar artisans and the weaving profession’s gradual disappearance from the 1990s onwards. It is argued that the weaving era represented a historical niche of relative prosperity for the Chamar community, which contributed to the progressive disentanglement from the local landed elite’s ties of domination, in particular as a result of the Chamar artisans’ interdependence with the urban Muslim weaving community. As a consequence, a positive Chamar self-representation was crafted in ways which contrast with the trends of identity consolidation among other Untouchable communities, as well as for other castes, which began during the colonial period. In this process, the emergence of notions of labour independence is also noticeable. This independence refers to the end of labour for a village, upper-caste elite, rather than the end of labour patronage tout court. Further, through weaving, an important phase of social mobility was initiated. But as weaving has now lost its momentum, and labour in India is increasingly marked by informalisation as well as by the shrinking of employment opportunities in the formal sector of the economy (trends which are increasingly present in global labour markets), weavers have progressively abandoned their occupation to join the ranks of unskilled casual labourers. Surrounded by compelling socio-economic imperatives that cannot be fulfilled through their meagre wages, former weavers appear to belong to a ‘lost world’ as they try to make sense of the laws of ‘local and global bazaars’ which, at times, escape them. As weaving as a source of livelihood provided limited opportunities for children’s education, the latter has largely been pursued by those children belonging to the minority

Chamar Modernity


of the Chamars’ small salaried elite which has been forming in Manupur. In stark contrast to the high percentages of illiteracy, especially amongst women, the ideological salience of education well surpasses its low educational indicators amongst the Chamars. Against this backdrop, Chapter 4 analyses education and, in particular, the ways in which it is deployed for self and community improvement. The discursive roots of this improvement go back to colonial civilising discourses around education, its appropriation by historical leaders of the Dalit movement (in particular Ambedkar) as well a more recent development rhetoric. Education is especially needed to forge an alternative to the inherited, essentialised, and derogatory Chamar identity. In order to grasp the nature and extent of the Chamars’ social transformation, I explore notions of the past, aspects of ritual, folk theories of socialisation and the nexus between karma, dharma and rebirth. These notions, which had been an Indological concern and a focus of anthropological research some decades ago, have almost entirely disappeared from contemporary ethnographic purview. These notions, popular in the West, adopted in popular parlance as a result of the repertoire of global Hinduism, continue to be organising principles for Hindu believers such as the Chamars. Most importantly, the analysis of symbolic resources, such as of karma, dharma and rebirth, sheds light on the ways in which these are transformed by the Chamars into tools of cultural and social critique. Where the ‘modern’ can be said to be a ‘karma’ in itself, as a result of the latter notion acquiring a mundane and agentive significance, drawing from this chapter’s findings, an underlying protean self and community substance emerges in which the remaking of the present is tied to the remaking of the past. Contextually, I show the contradictory nature of the effects of education. On the one hand, there is the constructed and shared ‘educated’ substance which acts as a unifying force amongst the Chamars vis-à-vis outsiders. On the other, education as an individualising experience and related processes of upward mobility fragment the community body politic, leaving the ‘liberating’ effect of education embedded in the production of new inequalities. Chapter 5 analyses elements of the religious and moral universe of the Chamars as a reflection of the making of the ‘modern’ in this community. In this regard, I will illustrate how religion has been an important site for the construction of modernity itself, going on to demonstrate thereby that the realm of the secular and that of the sacred are profoundly linked. If the confines of science and mythology are rewritten by the Chamars’


Retro-modern India

reformulation of myths of origin, this chapter also argues how the supposed incompatibility between reason and magic is dispelled by practices of spirit possession which see as protagonists both educated and uneducated Chamars. The attributes of the ‘civilised’ and modern rationality and of the ‘backward’ that the Chamars evoke in their selfrepresentation are shown to merge into an isomorphism when these religious practices are at stake. Finally, the chapter examines a powerful example of socio-cultural critique carried out through the oral reworking of a text of high-caste ‘tradition’. This is the Satyanarayan Katha, a wellknown worship of the God Vishnu. The reinterpretation of the Katha operates on the basis of a reversal of the moral universe and demonstrates a different order in which to address issues of social injustice. Where Chapter 4 introduces a new generation of educated young men active in the forefront of political mobilisation, Chapter 6 speaks of their involvement in the Chamar community’s transition from the long-standing allegiance to the Congress party to the BSP. This chapter shows how this transition rests on a local history of changing working relations, sociality, of increasing separation between communities within the village, with an increasing perceived feeling of casteism, especially amongst the young generation. In the Chamar narratives, this transition is intertwined with and builds on the history of the Congress party and the events which caused the low castes’ disenchantment with this party. In this respect, Chapter 6 analyses the underlying thread between political phases and how the more general phenomenon termed as the ‘second democratic upsurge’ (that is, the increased political participation of the low castes in the early 1990s, described by Yadav 2000), is deeply embedded in the local history of the Chamar community. Many of these chapters have narrated stories from a prevailing male gender angle, my initial interest in politics led me to concentrate on ‘visible’ forms of agency — also present in the nexus between education and political participation — and on the protagonists within these social spheres — often young men. By tying together most of the themes discussed throughout the book, Chapter 7 complements the ethnography of male discourse and agency: it explores the ways in which women have been affected in the process of the socioeconomic and political transformation described in the previous chapters, and how the elements of pardah, girls’ education, respectable domesticity, changing notions of women’s work, and the forging of high-status alliances through marriage have penetrated the social texture of the

Chamar Modernity


Chamar community and reflected on its womenfolk. This is analysed with a focus on young educated women who, ‘imported’ from urban areas, are married to the generation of upwardly mobile young, politicised, educated Chamars and therefore are part of the creation of a new ‘political class’. This chapter shows how the remaking of gender regimes is pivotal to the project of retro-modernity insofar as it evokes women’s reform, education and the redesigning of gender relations which took place in 19th-century middle-class households. While showing the dynamics of gender transformation amongst Chamar women, the chapter implicitly questions the idea of ‘Dalit/low-caste women’ as a uniform category. Alongside, I also investigate Chamar women’s potentialities to carve out alternative spaces within existing gender relations. Finally, Chapter 8 offers reflections on the faultlines between the dominant icons of Indian modernity, as embodied by the contemporary middle classes, and the Chamars. The Chamars are those who do not ‘produce’ modernity but have appropriated the delayed effects of its configurations which appeared earlier in Indian history. The idea of retro-modernity, with which I have termed the Chamars’ ex-perience, is nothing other than that that cannot be modern in ways which are widely acknowledged in contemporary India and elsewhere. The Nehruvian vision of development itself, which fascinated the Chamars, has failed to materialise for many of them, even as it produced phenomena such as political mobilisation and notable changes in social relations and community and individual self-representation. These, however, have engendered a politics of knowledge aiming to displace hegemonic hierarchies and subjecting world-views, and it is their consequences which form one of the most vigorous forces of change in contemporary Indian society.

Chapter 2 ‘Today We Can Touch Anything’: Reflections on the Crux of Identity and Political Economy I. Introduction F In the old days, studies were only for the high castes, but Ravidas and Ambedkar, who went to a foreign country to get educated, were from a low jati. In the old days, low-jati people did not even know English or Hindi, but now as Dr Ambedkar has set an example, low-jati people can get educated, and they can do any kind of business that people from other jatis do. So how come we are different when we can do all sorts of work which the high castes do? The Chamars can start chai and pan [betel leaf, nut and condiments] shops in the market and no one can stop us. Today we can touch anything.

(Fulchan, an elderly, retired male weaver, field notes 1998) F

The elderly Chamar man who called my attention to the highly symbolic and practical significance of being able to ‘touch anything’ in the labour market — and therefore of being able to be employed everywhere — points to the internalised ways in which caste has operated to determine the productive activities which the Chamars could and should engage in or were barred from. It is not surprising that work is the locus par excellence where caste identities can be consolidated, denied and rewritten. Where the ways of being modern amongst the Chamars are tied to a widespread set of transformations within this community and a particular conception of time in which they see themselves modernising by attaining independence from what bound them in the past, an analysis of the changing employment patterns along intra- and inter-generational axes demonstrates that, over four generations of Chamars, categories of work and the social relations they engendered have been altered radically. While these categories and relations bear the marks of the passage from agrarian to urban economy, Chamar self-representation of working activities is articulated along the lines of both socio-economic change and ideological beliefs. Against this backdrop, work categories and relations are reformulated according to shifting forms of exploitation which occurred

Reflections on the Crux of Identity and Political Economy


in the passage from their roles as bonded agricultural labourers to weavers in the proto-industrial setting of the colonial Banaras urban economy or to other casual occupations within the latter. This chapter illustrates the origins of these processes and the forces, movements, and ideas at work outside and inside Manupur’s Chamar community. The next chapter ties together the above analytical lines through an in-depth analysis of the history of the weaving business amongst the Chamars (which significantly marked their socio-economic histories), from its inception in the 1930s to its end at the beginning of the 2000s. As work is tied to the spectre of Untouchable identity, the process of its de-ideologisation is linked to the conscious efforts to abandon polluting professions. These efforts were the product of regional idioms of reform put forward through the social movements and awareness campaigns active in UP during the 20th century. Further, the processes fostering the Chamar vision of social change (as in the case of many other Untouchable castes) intersected with processes of religious community self-identification at work from the late 19th century into the 20th century. As will be explained in the next chapter, these processes shifted the terms through which the Chamars engaged in socio-economic relations with both the Muslim and Hindu communities which, in turn, were progressively experiencing a sharpening of their identities. Escaping ‘polluting’ occupations and breaking the tight nexus between caste and profession were not the goals of all Chamars in north India and other Untouchable castes elsewhere — and this choice was paralleled by diverging social and political outcomes in different communities. Processes of capitalisation on leatherwork taking place within the Ad Dharma movement amongst the Chamars in Punjab (Juergensmeyer 1982) and the Jatavs (Chamars) in Agra in western UP (Lynch 1969) were accompanied by strong movements for self-respect and political assertion.1 On the contrary, the socio-economic and political trajectory of the Balmiki community in north India, predicated on the professionalisation of a traditional ‘polluting’ occupation (stemming from their long-standing source of livelihood), took an antithetical direction to those of the Chamars in Punjab and the Jatavs in western UP. In his historical reconstruction of the Balmiki community, Prashad (2000) argued The case of the Jatavs is a regional phenomenon which does not encompass the overall community in UP and one which is in decline. On this matter, Knorringa (1999) has shown the progressive impoverishment of the Jatav artisans employed in the traditional leather industry, and the alienation of the Jatav ‘big men’ from the market at the hands of Punjabi merchants. 1


Retro-modern India

that their inclusion in Delhi’s colonial municipality as sweepers entailed a crystallisation of their occupation and their progressive exposure to the Hindutva ideology of their employers. Prashad further contended that after the 1980s, following the dismantling of the Congress party which, up to then, the Balmikis had been affiliated with, the latter came to be incorporated into the Hindutva fold and became directly involved in its activities, including anti-Muslim riots.2 Political considerations aside, Parry has explained the issues raised by the pursuit of polluting occupations as follows: Those low castes who pursue polluting occupations have always been in a position in which they have either had to opt for the economic advantages of their caste-specific duties, or renounce the profits and their traditional occupation in an attempt to enhance their status through Sanskritization. Whether they decide to abandon their traditional occupation or not will obviously depend, to some extent, on how profitable it is. The Chamars of Rajasthan, for example, were in 1958 attempting to dissociate themselves from leather-working. But, as a result of new market opportunities and Government subsidies, they were ten years later trying ‘to exclude “opportunists” from invading their ancient monopoly’ (Rudolph and Rudolph 1967: 134). The general point here is that, as so often in the caste environment, high status and material gain stand, as Marriott (1968: 146) puts it, ‘in a relation of complementarity’. (Parry 1970: 98–99)3

Explaining the nature of the social movements amongst the low castes in north India since the late 19th century, Jaffrelot has argued that caste associations amongst these were shaped by Sanskritisation and did not foster the constitution of caste federations, while ‘Untouchable castes For an additional account, see Searle-Chatterjee (1981). An alternative trajectory in the use of ‘polluting’ features consists of them being turned into tools of self-assertion. This is the case of the Parayars’ process of identity formation, which mobilised symbols of their Untouchable status in contemporary Tamil Nadu and sprouted from fighting the hegemony of the Vanniyars, the dominant high-caste group, with the aim of countering it (Arun 2007). Interestingly, Arun argues how the Parayars ‘focused on the symbols of the parai drum, eating beef and possessing control over land. In this phase, they deconstructed the polluting and negative meaning of these symbols and revalorised them by evolving counter-myths that attributed positive qualities to these symbols and thereby “de-polluted” themselves’ (ibid.: 82; emphasis in the original). 2 3

Reflections on the Crux of Identity and Political Economy


like the Chamars remained not only prisoners of Sanskritisation but also of the bhakti’ (2003: 185). Surely Jaffrelot’s analysis of the ways in which Untouchables have been influenced by the Arya Samaj, San-skritisation and the Adi Hindu movement,4 especially since the turn of the 20th century, shows the formation of a ‘framework of action’ which marked the unfolding of these communities’ socio-economic and political histories. So, for example, Manupur Chamars did not capitalise on their traditional occupations, nor did they draw inspiration from specific caste symbols in their processes of social change and in their revaluation of their identity or political mobilisation. Likewise, Bhakti had been a constant religious reference over the past decades and, in all likelihood, the genealogy of its worship in this community goes back considerably further. As I will explain in the following chapters, however, the nexus between social change, identity, religion, and politics is not exhaustively explained by the master narrative tied to the legacy of the above trends, but is intertwined by equally powerful processes of change, that is, self-conscious efforts to appropriate the modern. And these can only be brought to light through an analysis of the transformation of the local political economy and the opportunities which this has offered historically, combined with those of political mobilisation, and by engaging the ethnographic material with a broader set of questions. These questions should be ones not just strictly dictated by the legacy of the above framework and by a single politics of (Untouchable) identity, which would indeed return a ‘caged’ version of social change, but questions which interrogate the histories of the Chamars against the backdrop of wider scapes of action over time. As a result of the processes of de-essentialisation of identity through social movements and work mobility, Chamar individuals could reach new domains of sociality, in particular in the workplace and in being able ‘to touch everything’. These new domains required ‘quitting the touch of improper items’, such as dead animals or delivery fluids, as the campaigns for awareness promoted in this region in post-independence India. These considerations of a ‘tactile’ nature need to be inscribed in the framework

The Adi Hindu movement was initiated by Swami Achutanand in the 1920s in UP, and together with other similar movements in other parts of India, centred around the idea of the low castes as the original inhabitants of India, deprived of their lands and subjugated by Aryan invaders. See Chapter 5 for a discussion of the Chamar appropriation of the Adi Hindu theme. 4


Retro-modern India

of the progressive shrinking of the agrarian economy and employment possibilities for largely landless communities such as the Chamars. Their labour, which could not be deployed in the agrarian economy as a result of its progressive disintegration in the Banaras region, already densely populated in the colonial period, was absorbed by weaving. The proximity of Manupur Chamars to the city did not give rise to phenomena such as those described by Breman (1974) in his analysis of the hali system that existed between Anavil Brahmins and tribal Dublas in southern Gujarat. According to Breman, the hali system was one of ‘unfree labour mitigated by patronage’ (ibid.: 62), which prevented complete exploitation and guaranteed that the master performed a series of obligations for his labourers (ibid.: 65). This system resembles one in existence between landlords and harvahas (ploughmen) in Manupur. Breman argued that as a result of labour surplus, the need for bonded labourers by landlords ceased, and the latter aimed to end the patronage system because they were able to dispose of the economic profits from agriculture in the new market economy in ways which required them to untie themselves from the obligations to the labourers (ibid.: 220). The collapse of the hali system marked the end of the upper castes’ patronage and brought about a pauperisation of the labourers due to the loss of the social security they previously enjoyed with their patrons and the ‘transformation of a subsistence economy into a money economy […] at the cost of the economically weak Dublas’ (ibid.: 140). In addition, the Dublas were also affected by their ‘rapid numerical growth […], their powerlessness, the contraction of the agricultural economy, [and] limited employment outside it’ (ibid.: 217). This process has progressively led to the Dublas’ manifold isolation (ibid.: 256). As it will be explained in this chapter and the next one, in Manupur, following the contraction of the agricultural sector, the system of patronage operated by the Muslim master weavers and merchants of Banaras effectively substituted the patronage offered by the landed castes of the area, even as the diversification of occupation activities which took place was fostered by the village’s proximity to an urban centre. This suggests that while Manupur Chamars were not affected by the type of pauperisation which affected the Dublas, labour relations progressively ceased to be the main locus of caste domination in the village. Along with the above diversification, the abandonment of traditional occupations played a role in undoing the tight nexus between work and ritual status. The next section examines the crystallising efforts

Reflections on the Crux of Identity and Political Economy


of the colonial administrators to fix on census reports and other accounts the socio-economic, religious and political liminality of the Chamar status. Subsequently, it analyses the social movements for the abandonment of traditional occupations over the decades after India’s independence.

II. Redemption from ‘Dirty Work’ Scholars have written extensively on the Banaras region, in which Manupur village lies, as an area of religious, political and economic significance. This region is part of the Bhojpuri area, which includes eastern UP and a portion of the neighbouring state of Bihar (see C. A. Bayly 1978, 1983; Cohn 1987; Freitag 1989a, 1989b; Kumar 1988, 2000; Parry 1994). Before the 18th century, Thakurs dominated the region of Banaras (Hasan 1989: 135–37). Landlords in the eastern region such as ‘members of the higher Hindu (and Muslim) castes, i.e., rajputs, brahmans, saiyads, sheikhs and pathans, did not cultivate the land themselves’ (ibid.: 138) because of a taboo linked to touching the plough. Amongst them, Rajputs, Brahmins and Kayasths managed to control the most productive land and ‘the large caste groups of Kurmis, Muraos and Ahirs worked in their fields as cultivating tenants. In particular, Kurmis settled in large numbers in Banaras’ (Hasan 1998: 126). In 1738, Mansa Ram, a Bhumihar5 zamindar from the Banaras district, obtained from the nawab of Avadh the right to collect revenue from three districts — Banaras, Jaunpur and Mirzapur, which comprised the raj (kingdom) of Banaras, with Mansa Ram’s son attaining the title of ‘Raja’ from the Mughal emperor (ibid.).6 From the 1770s, the zamindari system was gradually placed under the control of the English East India Company and subsequently under British administration in 1795 (ibid.), and the Banaras state was the first region to come under direct British control in north India. As a result of colonial rule and British land-revenue policies, until the 19th century, lands passed ‘from rajput families to the bhumihars,5 Brahmans and the Muslims’ (Cohn in Hasan 1989: 140). Kayasthas and Baniyas also bought land in the Banaras region ‘by transferring income from public service and legal practice into land’ (ibid.: 141). G. Pandey (1983) has described the Bhojpuri region as mainly agricultural, in which Banaras was relatively the ‘most industrialised’ urban centre 5 6

Upper castes ranked between Brahmins and Rajputs. For a history of the Banaras region, see Cohn (1987).


Retro-modern India

(ibid.: 65). Small centres also existed in this area which revolved around trade, handicrafts (like weaving) and pilgrimage. ‘Most “urban” complexes in the region, however, were very much smaller centres of artisanal industry and trade, rural market towns (qasbas), or large villages classified as towns for reasons of administrative convenience’ (ibid.: 66–67; emphasis in the original). Within the status classification operating in north India in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Chamars were part of the group called razil (labouring people), as opposed to the sharif, the upper castes and highstatus Muslims of the region who did not labour (G. Pandey 1990: 84). The razil group included the ‘“clean” cultivating castes like the Kurmis, Koeris and Ahirs, and equivalent Muslim castes like the Zamindars […] of Azamgarh, to the “unclean” labouring and the artisanal castes, Chamars, Dusadhs, Lohars, Julahas’ (ibid.; emphasis in the original). Writing of the village organisation and economy in the Banaras region of the 18th and 19th centuries, Misra points out that with their women and children of working age the Chamars performed all sorts of rough out-of-door agricultural work for their employers. In return for their services they were usually paid in kind about five seers of grain a day for ploughing plus small gifts of grain at the two harvests. For harvesting they received every twenty-fifth sheaf of the total harvest and on special occasions, such as weddings in their masters’ family, they were given a gratuity in grain and clothes. (Raikes and Tennant in Misra 1975: 74)

Misra also spates that the Chamar men acted as artisans (cobblers and leatherworkers) and women as village midwives, concluding that because of the nature of their jobs and their meagre economic resources, and because they occupied the lowest rank in the Hindu social scale, the Chamars, who were the largest group of landless workers in the Banaras region, lived in a semi-servile status and could seldom aspire to attain the status of peasants cultivating lands of their own. (Ibid.: 75)

The colonial descriptions from the late 19th century which follow vividly describe the liminal and derogatory position which the Chamars supposedly occupied in their eyes, fixing it for future decades.7 Equally

7 In contemporary India, the word ‘Chamar’ is used with caution as it still carries offensive connotations and is considered a term of abuse.

Reflections on the Crux of Identity and Political Economy


important, these reports illustrate the servitude relations which bonded the Chamars to the zamindars and the landed castes. Take, for example, The Report on the Census of Oudh (vol. 1), in which Williams wrote: Chamárs are unclean feeders, eating even carrion, and are perhaps on that account despised by orthodox Hindús even more than Bhangís. They are a dark race and a fair Chamár∗ is considered an object of evil omen. ∗Sir H. Elliott gives a proverb which may be quoted in proof of this assertion: ‘Kálá Bráhman, gorá Chamár, in ke sáth na utriye pár’ ; that is, ‘do not cross the river in the same boat with a black Brahman and a fair Chamar’. (1869: 104)

In the same report, Williams spoke of the Chamars’ serfdom: But Chamárs are also the common drudges, the labourers and ploughmen, of northern India; and they as well as other low castes were until the introduction of our Government in these countries at the commencement of this century, the mere serfs and slaves of the zamindárs. Mr. Thomason thus wrote of them, and of some of the other very low castes, more than thirty years ago. ‘They neither have, nor assert in general, any rights other than the will of the zamindárs. They take what land he gives them, and pay the utmost that they can either in money or in kind. Besides their direct contributions to his rental they render him many personal services. If kahárs, they carry his palanquin, merely receiving in return food to support them during the time; other classes bring him wood, tend his cattle, or perform numerous other similar services for very inadequate remuneration. Under former governments this power was no doubt recognized and permitted. They were then practically slaves, who were beaten without mercy for misconduct, and were liable to be pursued and brought back if they attempted to escape. Their state is now much improved. The power is now conventional. A chamár can now sue his zamindár in the criminal court for an assault, and if detained against his will, can bring his action for false imprisonment. He can even recover in a civil court the wages of labour performed. Nothing vexes or annoys the zamindár in our whole system, so much as this. It has struck at the root of a power, which has long been exercised most tyrannically, and yet so strong is the force of habit and custom, that often as the power of the zamindár is still abused, it is very rarely that they are brought into court to answer for their misconduct’. (Ibid.: 103–4)

In his monograph dedicated to the Chamars, Briggs too stressed the marginality of this caste which ‘had its origin in that occupational class


Retro-modern India

on the borders of the ancient villages. This group, essentially nonAryan, has maintained itself through the centuries, in its traditional occupation’ (1920: 17). The Chamars’ is a marginality which matches with their religious impropriety: ‘although he does not meet any of the determining tests of Hinduism, the Chamar is a Hindu’ (ibid.: 19). Despite the Chamars’ inclusion within the Hindu fold, Briggs reiterated his predecessors’ emphasis on describing this caste’s quarters as ‘abounding with abominable filth and as having a proverbial foul mode of living’ (ibid.: 20). Chamar ideas of social change find their roots in the more general climate of reform which permeated Banaras and its surrounding region. SearleChatterjee (1981) points out that the presence of the Bhakti movement, reformist organisations and Gandhi’s fight against untouchability, amongst other factors, have unequivocally led to the weakening of untouchability prac-tices in Banaras. However, she also observes that in the city ‘the practice of untouchability is greater than in other northern urban areas’ (ibid.: 13). Searle-Chatterjee attributes these apparently conflicting views to ‘the distinctive character in Benares of the twentieth century confrontation between “traditional” and “modern” forces’ (ibid.; emphasis in the original). To support this point, she shows how the 1950s Congress movement for entry into temples for Untouchable communities was not met by violence in the city, since it was ‘“imposed from above” by the government’ rather than a result of the action of the low castes (ibid.: 13–14; emphasis in the original). The city has been the site of attempts to counter the caste system through religious and social reform. In addition to symbolising Brahminical Hinduism, Banaras’s importance lies also in the influence of saints from the Bhakti movement.8 The Bhakti movement has its roots in the 15th century and is postulated on the devotion towards a deity as the main mode of worship. Within this movement, two saints, both disciples of the same teachers Ramananda, are important in relation to Banaras: Ravidas, a member of the Chamar caste, and Kabir,9 originally a weaver who lived in the city itself. In the Bhakti tradition, the figure of the saint Ravidas is particularly revered by the Chamars in north India as a result of their common identity. Concerning the For a historical introduction to the Bhakti movement, see Lorenzen (1996). 9 On the saint Kabir, see Vaudeville (1993). 8

Reflections on the Crux of Identity and Political Economy


Ravidas movement,10 two main organisations are found in Banaras: the All-India Adi Dharm Mission (ADM) and the Raj Ghat Trust (Womack 1983: 56). The first has its origins in Sikhism, while the second is linked to the political leader Jagjivan Ram,11 who was the founder of the Trust (ibid.: 57ff.). The two organisations are rather different in orientation: the ADM is opposed to Brahminism, with an emphasis on the rejection of the caste system, whereas the Raj Ghat Trust shows a less strong antiBrahmin orientation (ibid.: 73ff.). Each organisation has built its own large temple in Banaras. The ADM research committee has discovered that the village of Seer Govardhanpur near BHU was Ravidas’s birthplace. The discovery traces back to 1963, and in 1965, a foundation stone was laid for the construction of a temple dedicated to the saint (Schaller 1996: 113–14). A large temple has been built on this site and it attracts pilgrims from India and abroad. A second temple of ample proportions dedicated to Ravidas was build by the Raj Ghat Trust on the bank of the Ganges in Raj Ghat, north of Banaras. On the basis of his research on the Ravidas movement in the region, Schaller argues: For the Chamars it is in part the very failure of the adoption of more Sanskritised behaviour to improve their socio-religious status that has hastened their embrace of more radically dissident ideologies such as that which is implicit in the worship of Sant Ravidas. (1996: 96)12

Pinch argues that a process of radicalisation has taken place among Ravidas’s followers and that ‘the modern Chamar followers of that saint have developed a clear social agenda and are in no way reluctant to seek reform openly’ (1996: 52). ‘Chamars of Shri Govardhanpur, on the southernmost edge of Banaras’, he continues, ‘have no intention of accepting their lot as if it were decreed by fate or religion’ and hope that a large Ravidas temple ‘will rival temples in other sectors of the city and become a familiar part of the pilgrims’ circuit’ (Hawley and Juergensmeyer in Pinch 1996: 52).

10 On the history of the Ravidas movement in north India, see Juergensmeyer (1982: 83ff.). 11 On this Chamar politician, see Chapter 6. 12 I have omitted the diacritical marks used in the quotation.


Retro-modern India

In addition to religious movements seeking equality from within the Hindu fold, Banaras’s political history has shown attempts towards reforming caste relations. Banaras was not only an important centre of anti-colonial struggle in the last three decades of British rule (Hasan 1989: 132), but also a major point in Gandhi’s struggle against the practice of untouchability, and in 1932 the All-India Congress started inter-dining in the city. Similarly, reformist organisations, missionaries and the Temple Entry Movement in the 1950s have significantly shaped the attitude towards Untouchable caste groups in the area. The latter movement, led by socialist politicians, culminated in 1957 when Untouchables finally entered Kashi Vishwanath, the holiest temple in the city, dedicated to Lord Shiva. A new Kashi Vishwanath temple was built because Untouchables had been allowed entry into the old one, but the importance of the latter has remained unchallenged amongst its devotees (Eck 1993: 135). In addition, Searle-Chatterjee (1981) reports that pro-Untouchable organisations, like the Chamar Dalit Varg Sangh (The Depressed Classes’ League) and the Harijan Sevak Sangh (Untouchable Welfare Association), were active in Banaras, although in a state of decline, while the latter was controlled by upper-caste members. During the 1930s, movements against customary services led by the Jatavs in western and central UP took place in a number of districts, including Agra, Aligarh, Kanpur, Unnao, Etah, and Meerut (Ram 1999: 243–44).13 Such movements took place decades later in eastern UP. Narayan (2008) argues that in the 1950s and 1960s the Nara Maveshi movement spread among the Chamars of north India for the abandonment of traditional caste-based occupations. Particular to eastern UP, Ram reports on the Nar-Biyna Chhoda movement which aimed to ban the activities of cutting the umbilical cord of newly born babies, attending to caste Hindu women after the delivery and other traditional occupations. This movement was organised in Alimapur village in Ghazipur district, adjacent to Varanasi district. A Dalit school teacher initiated the movement and received the support of Dalit politicians and officials in Varanasi (Ram 1999: 243–44). Violence, social boycott and various forms of humiliation accompanied the movement, while the 1960s, 1970s and Information on movements against the Chamars’ customary services in the eastern region draws from Ram (1999), and on those in Varanasi from scholars and from discussions with Chamar leaders of the period. 13

Reflections on the Crux of Identity and Political Economy


1980s were characterised by similar activities in the region. An offshoot of the Nar-Biyna Chhoda movement, organised by Dalit students from colleges and universities in Banaras, Allahabad and other towns in eastern UP, took place in the early 1970s in villages not far from Alimapur. On this occasion, Chamar caste panchayats (caste councils) in each village of the area were involved in the campaign and agreed to boycott customary occupations as well as punish any fellow caste members who transgressed the ban. As illustrated in the following paragraph, the same sanction on these activities operated in Manupur and was upheld by the Chamar panchayat.14 During the post-independence period (1948–63), campaigns against traditional occupations were also started in Banaras itself and its surrounding areas. These campaigns, led by socialist leaders, including educated members from the Chamar caste, culminated in the abandonment of such activities.15 This protest also affected Manupur village: Chamar elders recalled that the upper-caste Brahmins from the village reacted with hostility to this decision. Subsequently, members of the Chamar community went to the police and the Brahmins received an order from the local authority supporting the decision. This incident suggests the influence of the State in enforcing laws and supporting the Chamars against the upper castes. It is difficult, however, to establish when the Chamars completely stopped removing and skinning dead animals, as almost none of the Manupur Chamars remembered dates or years, and their main terms of temporal reference often consisted of pre- and post-colonial rule and politicians’ regimes — and recollection patterns varied across generations. Nevertheless, it is almost certain that the Chamars have not been involved in such work for decades and it is just a memory for them.

During my first fieldwork, it appeared as if the institution of the caste panchayat informed the social life of Manupur Chamars. Meetings were held and people were made to follow the panchayat’s resolutions. Years later, people commented on the declining authority of the panchayat (which had until then been held together by the figure of the powerful, elderly Chaudhari). For instance, the Brahmin community in Manupur had long abandoned the practice of holding panchayat meetings and took their matters to legal courts. Chamars also used the legal courts, but the panchayat seemed to have a jurisdiction on matters such as morals, marriages and illicit relations. 15 On the socialist influence in Banaras, see Chapter 6. 14


Retro-modern India

Similar patterns are visible in adjacent areas, such as the Jaunpur district in which regard Cohn (1987) reported that the Chamars from Senapur village were not tanners in the early 1950s as they had been previously. While abandoning traditional ‘polluting’ work had a limited impact on the economic life of the Chamars, such work having been the occupation of only a few families in the basti (hamlet),16 the real significance of this change lies mainly in its ideological implications. At the time of my fieldwork, only one Chamar family from a nearby village continued to provide their customary services for other communities, and they had been ostracised by the rest of the Chamars in the surrounding villages. The ban on this particular Chamar family concerned what goes under the expression roti-beti ka sambandh (the exchange of food and brides). No Chamar was allowed to give or take food to or from them, or marry into their family. In addition, Chamars were forbidden from making marriage alliances with caste members who raised pigs. Chamars understood this proscription as a device to discourage community members from being involved in activities considered degrading for the community. They also pointed out that this ban did not translate into beliefs of untouchability amongst caste fellows. Rather, it aimed to avoid the other castes’ derogatory judgement, which would be extended to the entire community rather than being confined to the single individual who was continuing with the traditional occupations. When an animal died, the inhabitants of Manupur and surrounding areas, regardless of caste, removed it if the above mentioned Chamar family was not available for the task.17 By contrast, midwifery (baccho ko paida karana, to assist childbirth, and nar katna, to cut the umbilical cord) continued in the basti. ‘Childbirth pollution is the most polluting of all, far greater than menstruation, sexual intercourse, defecation or death. Consequently, touching the amniotic sac, placenta and umbilical cord […] and cleaning up the blood are considered the most disgusting of tasks’ (Jeffery et al. 1989: 106). Chamar women I use the term basti following the Chamars’ own denomination of their settlement. 17 A Brahmin family that has been performing rituals for Manupur Chamars confirmed that when this happens, the householder buries the dead animal in his fields and no ritual of purification follows the removal, normally considered a polluting act. Alternatively, they could call agencies operating in the municipality of Varanasi. 16

Reflections on the Crux of Identity and Political Economy


used to be village dais (midwives) and for their services received payments both in cash and kind.18 At the time of my fieldwork in 1998–99, there was only one Chamar dai working in Manupur, who mainly helped in the delivery of Chamar babies born at home, as hospitals and professional obstetricians could not be afforded (as was the case for many other communities).19 The dai had learned this profession from her mother-inlaw when she had moved to the village after her marriage, and by attending a training course at the Community Development Block’s premises. After her death, she has been replaced by her sister-in-law. Midwifery has been regulated by the caste panchayat in Manupur. The panchayat placed a condition on the dai that when she provided her services to other caste communities, she must only help in the baby’s delivery. Firstly, the community forbids her from cleaning (safai karna) in the room where the birth takes place, which, as Jeffery et al. (1989) noted, is considered a particularly polluting and disgusting activity. In addition to this prohibition, the dai should not give a massage (malish karna) to the woman who has given birth. Earlier, this massage practice entailed the dai staying in the Brahmin settlement for up to 15 days without going back to the Chamar basti.20 Following the restrictions imposed by the panchayat, only when the dai works for a member of On the role of the midwife in north India, see Jeffery et al. (1989). Upper castes do not need this customary service to be performed any more, as their babies are delivered in hospitals. The Chamars are puzzled by the fact that obstetricians and nurses in hospitals come from the upper castes and yet are not considered to be achut (Untouchable), despite constantly handling polluting substances. Professional figures like obstetricians and nurses enjoy ‘ideological safety’, as do doctors who are held in high esteem in India regardless of the inevitable contact with bodies and their secretions. On female nurses, cf. F. Osella and C. Osella (2000: 45). 20 When commenting on the professionalisation of occupations like midwifery, which upper castes perform in hospitals, one elderly Chamar man said that ‘there isn’t any difference now between Brahmans and Harijans, as now Brahman women are practising midwifery. Manav manav ek saman [all human beings are equal]’. While a relative liberalisation in the range of occupations available to the Chamars has taken place, their efforts to abandon customary activities has been paralleled by the taking up of these activities by the higher castes, either as a result of the professionalisation of traditional occupations, such as midwifery, or out of necessity, as for removing dead animals. 18 19


Retro-modern India

her biradari can she clean the premises where the birth has taken place and massage the mother. If the dai were to contravene these rules, she and her family would be boycotted by their biradari (caste) and a dand (fine) levied on her. The social boycott takes the form of a separation — alag kar dena (to separate) or hukka–pani band hona (to stop social and commensal relations) — and occurs any time caste members refuse to abide by the decisions taken by the caste panchayat. Separation from the rest of the community always involves all the household members of the boycotted family. Such ostracism also implies that they will not be able to seek the community’s assistance in times of necessity and will have to seek help elsewhere. Moreover, the common property of the basti’s inhabitants, such as vessels and furniture shared at the time of kaj-paroj (ritual occasions), will not be given to those who transgress the norms imposed by the panchayat. Fines paid are kept for collective uses, and the household that has been ostracised has to place a request in order to be re-admitted in the community. The principle underlying the ban on caste fellow from performing the activities of animal removal and skinning, and of the restrictions on midwifery, is understood by the Chamars as a means to avoid the derogatory values attached to the term ‘Chamar’(or ‘Chamain’ for women). Chamars recalled that they were given no recognition for performing these services, but rather were actually discriminated against on account of them. This despite their patrons benefiting (for instance, by making money from selling the leather obtained from the Chamars’ animal skinning) from the results of the labour they despised so much. In addition, they pointed out that when their women used to work as midwives for the upper castes, the latter hated them (ghrina karna) and considered them low on account of their work. The Chamars tended to explain the performance of impure occupations in the past as a result of being anparh (illiterate). This datum is significant as it introduces one of the main themes of the book that will be fully examined in Chapter 4: the dichotomy between illiteracy and education, which also takes the form of a dichotomy between the past and the present and informs the experience of the temporality of modernity. The association of impurity with illiteracy is a reflection of a Brahminical ideal, but also symbolically ‘detaches’ the Chamars from the image which they had gained in their past through their activities. Amongst Manupur Chamars, the passage from customary occupations to the spread of education occurred over the course of half a century.

Reflections on the Crux of Identity and Political Economy


In Chapter 4, I show how these occupations are translated in the language of kharab karma (bad deed) — notwithstanding the presentist and agentive features of karma de-linked from rebirth within this community — testifying to the internalisation of the moral implications of performing them.

III. A Micro Socio-economic History Manupur village lay in the territory of the pargana (revenue settlement) of Sheopur in colonial India, ‘an instance of great density of population’ (Baillie 1894: 92). Similar characteristics were recorded by Nevill: ‘the district is so highly cultivated and thickly populated that the area of waste land is necessarily very small’ (1909: 13). Basu reports how at the end of the 19th century, the districts of north and central Bihar and east UP saw large socio-economic transformations as a result of the demographic growth and therefore ‘[v]irtually all cultivable land were brought under the plough’ (2008: 54). The efforts towards using up the available land negatively affected pastures, so that pastoral communities turned into cultivators, holdings became reduced in size and sources of water supply, until then used for irrigation, were converted into land to cultivate, leading these areas (not rich in rainfall) towards increased dependence on the monsoon (ibid.: 54–56). These as well as increased control on the land by the zamindars in regions such as Bihar (as a result of the British Permanent Settlement in 1790), changes resulting from the commercialisation of agriculture, the growing condition of indebtedness and starvation among the small peasants, and famines and epidemics led to an agrarian crisis and decline in population in the late 19th century in both Bihar and eastern UP, and brought to the fore the need for alternative sources of livelihood for rural communities (ibid.: 57–58). These (resources) were found in mass migration, to the point that as migration flow from the above-mentioned regions increased, the jute industry in Bengal saw a fast growth in the 1890s, and after the first decade of the 20th century, these migrants had reached not only the whole of eastern India but also colonies such as British Guyana, Trinidad, Natal, and Mauritius (ibid.: 59). What emerges from the life histories collected in Manupur was that the Chamars there did not record outward migration — with a number of exceptions which were limited to other regions in India. Conversely, as far as the Chamar community was concerned, Manupur had become a destination of migration for those attracted by the vicinity of an industrial centre such as Banaras.


Retro-modern India

A map of the village dated 1893–94 shows the caste-wise settlements which are visible even today despite the increasing influx of outsiders residing on its administrative boundaries. The location of the Chamar basti within the village reflects ancient conceptions of spatial organisation in rural India. According to these conceptions, Untouchable castes must be located at the southern edge of the village, an inauspicious cardinal reference. However, as noted in Chapter 1, in Manupur, the southern location is not exclusive to the Chamars: the Yadavs, Bhars, and Lohars reside along the same axis as the Chamars. The basti is organised by territorial kin divisions, so that different areas are populated by agglomerations of family groups. The Chamar community, which according to my survey in 1998 consisted of 329 people (169 males and 160 females) articulated in 53 households, might well have been very small at the beginning of the 20th century.21 Genealogies were very difficult to draw as, for instance, the basti’s elders would not generally remember more than two ascendant generations.22 They recalled how in the surrounding villages there were very few Chamar settlements. Manupur Chamars were in a jajmani23 relation with their own village and three other surrounding villages (where the Chamar population was non-existent), that is to say, they engaged in their traditional occupations in these villages. Only two or three families performed such work and Manupur Chamars said According to the censuses conducted between 1961and 1991 (see Census of India 1961, 1971, 1981, 1991), the SC population consisted of 108 males and 114 females in 1961; 83 males and 57 females in 1971; 114 males and 99 females in 1981; and 155 males and 149 females in 1991. These figures include Chamars as well as Dhobis, the latter being very few in number. If we rely on this data, it appears that during the decade between 1961 and 1971, there has been a sharp decline in both the male and female SC population, whereas the rest of the data show a constant increasing trend. Though Manupur Chamars never mentioned any major event, such as an epidemic or a famine, taking place in those years, I later discovered that the years 1966–67 were characterised by drought in the nearby state of Bihar (Mendelsohn and Vicziany 1998: 157–58) and this might well have had a repercussions on eastern UP. On this occasion, the government provided ‘food for work’ to those affected by the drought in Bihar (ibid.). 22 The issue of genealogies is analysed in Chapter 4. 23 System of patron–client relations. Many scholars have written on this form of socio-economic organisation. For a critique of the jajmani system, as portrayed in anthropological literature, see Fuller (1989). 21

Reflections on the Crux of Identity and Political Economy


fellow caste members in the basti respected them. The Chamars’ conceptualisation of geographical boundaries and locations in the past was a flexible one. Earlier they thought that they lived not in Manupur but in Sharwa (attached to Manupur), and indeed part of the basti does lie within Sharwa village’s territory and Sharwa’s dih (the village protecting deity), used to be worshipped by the Chamars of Manupur in the past. The dih used to receive ritual prestations from Brahmin priests from both Sharwa and Manupur. Moreover, although at the time of fieldwork the Chamars were aware that they lived in Manupur, they continued to identify this village with the main Brahmin settlement, thereby reiterating the association of the village with the body of upper-caste community and the liminality and exteriority of themselves as dwellers situated in the southern ‘periphery’. Manupur Chamars’ small landholdings fall into the territories of three different villages and it is likely that this distribution reflects an old pattern, as the amount of land which has been purchased or acquired in recent times is minimal, with the exception of a few well-off families. Therefore, the land that the Chamars own is mostly inherited. Chamar elders of the basti narrate how in the past there were two ways to obtain land for members of their caste. The first was to work for the zamindar. Zamindars employed pyadas (henchmen), some of whom were from the Chamar biradari, and by way of compensation for the work performed, the zamindar would give them land. The second way to obtain land was to purchase it directly from the zamindar. The elders recalled that at the time of the abolition of the zamindari system, not only were the Chamars freed from the prestations of begar (forced labour) and the control of the zamindar’s pyada, but also those who had been cultivating land for more than 20 years acquired ownership rights over it. The three Chamar families who are considered to be the jar (root) of the basti all owned portions of land. The stories of these three families show different examples of changing economic fortunes: the first family achieved it by means of government service, the second, through weaving, but the third, involved in agriculture and partially in weaving, could not retain their lands and went through a process of impoverishment. The first family referred to is that of the chaudhri (headman) in power at the time of my fieldwork, who inherited the title from his father who owned a few bighas of land.24 The chaudhri’s family, in relative terms, is 24

1.5 bighas are equal to 1 acre. A bigha is subdivided into 20 biswas.


Retro-modern India

the most affluent section of the basti and a number of his male kin have government jobs. Six out of 11 government employees in the basti are members of the chaudhri’s family. Over a period of time, they bought land within the basti from impoverished caste fellows and enlarged their existing houses, when no other basti inhabitant has bought land in the past few years. Even as the basti attracted landless migrants over the past century, it was a desirable residential location for high-status Chamars too.25 The first government employees of the basti, both now deceased, were railway engine drivers, but they were not originally from Manupur. The first had been a driver since the 1930s and had married one of the chaudhri’s sisters. He moved to his sasural (in-laws’ residence) in the basti after his retirement in the 1970s and built a concrete house here. His native village, located in another UP district, was considered to be ‘backward’ and the practice of untouchability there was said to be oppressive. The second engine driver, who had no kin relations in the basti, purchased a few bighas of land in Manupur. His son became a farmer and started to weave before taking over the cultivation of land after his father’s death. He and his only son were the basti’s only farmers at the time of my fieldwork. They owned five bighas of land, the biggest landholding in the basti. The farmer’s son, educated to high-school level, helped his father cultivate the land. The family was considered wealthy. They were also the only remaining sharecroppers with Manupur Brahmins. The other two families owned what would now be considered a substantial amount of land. They cultivated the land and paid lagan (revenue or rent) to the zamindar. However, most of this land is no longer in the hands of these families and the process through which these families lost their lands is outlined below. The second family is composed of a number of households, all engaged in weaving. The ancestor of this family owned 14 bighas and, according to his relatives, used to drink great quantities of alcohol. For this reason, he failed to pay the lagan to the zamindar and, his family says, the land was taken away by an upper-caste person

25 There is a significant difference between old and new migration into the basti. In the past, land was relatively cheap, whereas today only government employees and a few others can afford to buy land within the basti. One of the reasons for this is the ever-increasing land price within the urban confines, as Manupur itself becomes part of the urban sprawl of modern Banaras.

Reflections on the Crux of Identity and Political Economy


living in a nearby village from whom the family had borrowed money. The Chamar family could only rescue a fraction of this land through legal action. In the meantime, some of the male members of this family had started to work as weavers for Muslims in Banaras. Over time, they became an example of entrepreneurship by setting up their own looms and a small business which linked their basti and a Chamar settlement in a nearby village. I analyse this in detail in the following chapter. The third family consisted of three brothers. One brother was a farmer with 13 bighas of land, employed labourers and used to be well off. However, his son sold off all the land and moved out of the village, and his remaining descendants face a great deal of hardship. The person considered the family’s only hope, a young man with an MSc in Chemistry, died from tuberculosis in Banaras a few years prior to the time of my fieldwork. Sadly, his family continued to receive job offers for him after he had passed away. The second brother used to be a mounted policeman during colonial rule. He had quite a few bighas of land, of which he eventually acquired ownership rights. Today, his eldest son is in his eighties, and owns almost nothing of the original property. He once used to live in prosperity, but now has hardly a roof under which to sleep. He is said to drink a lot of alcohol and to have sold all his lands as a result. The third brother also owned some land but his son, who used to be a weaver and a sharecropper, has sold it off. Again, he had a problem with alcohol, and all his family members, like many of the basti’s inhabitants, are said to believe in ojhas (exorcists) and to have sold their land in order to pay the ojhas’ fees. Elder members of this family commented on their condition, saying, ‘There are no more bhut-pret [ghosts] as there is no more land’, meaning that having sold their properties, they literally can no longer afford to be plagued by bhut-pret. Despite the fluctuating fortunes of these families, it is likely that some members of the three core Chamar families in Manupur were not disgraced, poor and landless. The remaining Chamar families gradually migrated to Manupur where they had links on the maternal side of the family or where they managed to buy a bit of land. However, these later additions to the original population were mostly landless. Such migration took place in the 20th century and the last family settled down in the basti during my first fieldwork in the 1990s. As mentioned in Chapter 1, half of the households currently inhabiting the basti derive from migration over


Retro-modern India

the last century.26 The phenomenon of migration is understandable in a community whose members are usually landless (see Cohn 1987). In the past, Chamar elders said, those who wanted to settle in the village were sent to the zamindar, to ask him for banjar (waste land), which was cheap and within three or four years would be ready for cultivation. Agriculture, however, did not ensure the Chamars a year-round income, as the need of hired labour was limited to the activities to be performed during agricultural cycles. As a result, 1930s onwards, the Chamars started searching for new avenues of employment within handloom weaving, as explained in detail in Chapter 3. The land issues in Manupur reflect the wider picture of UP. Hasan points out that ‘towards the end of British rule in India the rural economic structure of UP was marked by extreme inequality in the ownership of land and means of production’ (1989: 152) — an inequality which was higher in central and eastern UP (ibid.). As a result of the Zamindari Abolition Act of 1952, ‘in some areas, particularly in the eastern districts, the great thakur, bania, Kayastha and Muslim landlords lost a good deal of land which vastly reduced their economic influence. At the same time, not all large zamindars suffered irretrievably’ (ibid.: 158). In these regions, amongst the backward-caste beneficiaries were Ahirs, Kurmis and Lodhs (ibid.). In Manupur, Chamars narrated that very few people had the courage to claim the land from the zamindar. Some who owed money to the zamindar were made to relinquish the land in lieu of the debt. Those Chamars who were said to ‘know the laws’ and did not owe money to the zamindar had the courage to fight their case in the court and managed to become the owners of the land they had been cultivating. However, the abolition of zamindari did not introduce land ceilings and redistribution, neither did it resolve the problem of unequal land ownership. The situation of the bottom stratum of small peasants was to be addressed with subsequent land reforms in the 1960s and 1970s (Brass 1997). For instance, Cohn reports that before the More recent migration has seen not only people migrating to Manupur but also people migrating to and settling in the Chamar basti. These are Chamars from the surrounding areas who do not necessarily have kin links to Manupur Chamars. As a consequence of the ongoing migration, land has become very expensive, and is even more so in the city, especially along the roadsides where most of the migrants tend to settle. 26

Reflections on the Crux of Identity and Political Economy


abolition of zamindari in the village of Senapur in eastern UP, ‘no Chamars owned land in the strict sense of the word’ (1987: 301). Following the abolition, ‘very few of the Chamars got any rights in the land at all’ (ibid.) — a situation which culminated in labour migration, as many sought employment in nearby centres of commerce. A similar trend was found amongst Manupur Chamars with regard to their involvement in weaving in the Banaras sari industry. The trajectories of the three families of original inhabitants of the basti show how one largely benefited from government employment, the second moved into weaving and the third lost its lands, its members being employed in the more marginalised sections of the weaving industry before the business crisis hit this craft. The pattern of the occupational mobility of ‘migrants’ into the basti shows how they mainly took up weaving and unskilled labour. From an analysis of the male Chamars’ occupational break-up, it emerges that the ascendant generation of the living elders of the basti was mainly engaged in farming and agricultural labour. The living elders of the basti, aged between 50 and 80, are amongst those who were first initiated into weaving. They were trained by Muslim weavers from Banaras to weave the famous sari brocades. Muslims started to hire and train low-caste rural labourers on their handlooms in their mohallas (neighbourhoods). Weaving has been the first occupation provided to the Chamars by the city’s trading economy. However, as will be analysed in Chapter 7, one-fifth of women are still employed in landlords’ fields as casual labourers. Earlier generations of women used to work as fodder cutters and sellers, sharecroppers with their husbands or agricultural casual labourers. Unlike their uppercaste counterparts, many Chamar women did not and do not observe a regime of pardah, as far as restrictions on outside work are concerned. This observation finds confirmation in the features found amongst the labouring community defined as razil in this north Indian region (which includes the Chamars), amongst whom ‘a far larger proportion of […] women went out to work than among the sharif ’ (G. Pandey 1983: 71). Chapter 7 provides an analysis of the genealogy of the idea of pardah amongst Manupur Chamars and of the ways in which it regulates contemporary constructions of womanhood and gender relations. Notions of pardah were part of the social imaginary of women and men amongst earlier generations and were flexibly adapted to the socio-economic conditions of their households and families. These status and economic


Retro-modern India

strategies need to be analysed against the backdrop of male workers’ construction of their own status and ability to provide for household members. A number of the elders as well as women and men from the following generation used to be sharecroppers. Under this arrangement, the Chamars would receive either one-third or one-fifth of the crop. At different stages, members from a total of 13 Chamar households were sharecroppers on the lands of the Brahmins of Manupur, Srivastavas and Lalas (both Kayasthas), on the lands of the Kurmis of the adjacent village of Lalapur (bordering Manupur in the east), and on the lands of the Brahmins, Thakurs and Kurmis of Sharwa (south and south-west of Manupur). This list is consistent with the geographical location of the Chamar basti, which is actually surrounded by the settlements of these castes. Unlike other castes involved in agriculture through this arrangement, the Chamars have stopped sharecropping.27 Evidence suggests that two scenarios are possible: the first being a case of labour surplus, with the Chamars being discriminated against and laid off by the upper-caste landlords, the second, the Chamars leaving the fields of their own volition.28 The impact of new agricultural technologies during the 1960s’ Green Revolution29 did not have the same effect in eastern UP as in the western regions of the state, even though the former region had the more fertile and rain-fed land. Hasan attributes this to absentee landlordism, a general aversion to manual work, an apathy towards innovation in lands cultivated with rice, and a surplus of labour (1989: 164). Reforms, such as land ceilings and land redistribution, were

Mendelsohn and Vicziany point out that this system is ‘practiced widely in West Bengal, Bihar and the eastern areas of Uttar Pradesh, but not in most of the rest of the country. These three States alone comprise 44 per cent of the total Untouchable population of India, and we know from observation that a great many of the sharecroppers are Untouchables[…]. Sharecropping in north-eastern India is closer to agricultural labour than land ownership’ (1998: 31–32). 28 If the first hypothesis is correct, the Chamars can experience the same change in agrarian relations as that experienced by the tribal Dublas studied by Breman (1974), discussed in this chapter. 29 The Indian government’s investment in advanced agricultural techniques and seeds in order to modernise agriculture and improve its output. 27

Reflections on the Crux of Identity and Political Economy


ineffective, although ‘the government was able to provide land to 8 lakh SC families. Most allotments were a “mockery of reform” as only onethirtieth of an acre was allotted to the SCs and most of them received titles to land but no rights to cultivation’ (Hasan 1998: 81; emphasis in the original). Some Manupur Chamars acquired land through government redistribution. Indira Gandhi’s government effected a policy of land redistribution, with the amount of land given ranging from five to 15 biswas, and the right to this land was said to be inalienable. In Manupur, six Chamar householders were given a portion of land, out of which four decided they could not cultivate it as it was too far away from the basti and some gave it on adhya (sharecropping). Table 2.1 gives the the distribution of Manupur village’s landholdings in 1999. Table 2.1: Distribution of Manupur village’s landholdings Titled land (in bighas)

Population (in percentage)

0 0–0.5 0.5–1 1–1.5 1.5–3 More than 3

35 35 24 4 – 2

Source: Prepared by the author using Manupur village’s landholding records.

As Chamars do not secure their livelihood through agricultural labour, their small plots too do not provide any reliable source of livelihood. The crops yielded from the Chamars’ lands last for short periods of time only, and therefore for most of the year they have to buy their grains and vegetables. Further, the disappearance of surplus land, destined for redistribution, became a problem in UP. The district of Varanasi, along with other districts in the state, was an area in which the government could not get hold of land from the amount officially declared surplus, because big landlords and large co-operative agricultural farms managed to evade ceilings (Hasan 1998: 81).The relative ineffectiveness of land reforms for low castes such as the Chamars has meant that a large proportion of them are still employed as agriculture labourers in rural areas (Mukerji 1980; Hasan 1989), while urban Chamar workers in UP are mostly employed in manufacturing, services and household industries.


Retro-modern India

Occupational mobility amongst Manupur Chamars has been fostered by the village’s proximity to the city of Banaras. Rickshaws were introduced in Banaras in 1950–51 (N. Kumar 1988: 77). In the decades that followed, a number of Chamars began to work in the construction sector and as rickshaw pullers in the area surrounding Manupur and in the city. Out of the 53 Chamar households in the basti in 1999, 43 had at some stage been involved in weaving. Due to the increase in the number of households over time, this figure of 43 households suggests that almost all the male working population was composed of weavers at some point. A number of Chamars alternated between weaving and unskilled labour, depending on the market situation. For some Chamars, weaving had been their initial occupation, before they moved on to other forms of employment in the informal sector. In 1999, weaving constituted the main source of livelihood in 29 households, and for most, weaving had been the only occupation held by the male householder, although his status as a worker might have changed over time. In 20 households, involved neither in the weaving profession nor in government service, a number of Chamars were rickshaw pullers and two young men drove autorickshaws. As stated earlier, rickshaw pulling is a kind of activity that people can resume in times of need, as it requires only a guarantor at the local rickshaw garage and payment of an affordable daily rent. Some Chamars have bought their own rickshaws. During the period of 1998–99, a number of Chamars were employed in construction work as skilled masons, decorators or as simple labourers. They were almost all employed either on the outskirts of Banaras or in the city itself, but sometimes, albeit in very few cases, in other localities within the district that required them to stay away from the village until the work was complete. During the same period, wages from mota kam (unskilled labour), were normally higher than those that could be obtained from weaving. In the rest of the households, men work as blacksmiths, vegetable sellers, labourers in a fan workshop, sari sellers, trolley pullers, and, in one case, as a nurse for a private doctor. Outward migration has not been a major source of employment amongst the Chamars, and they are mostly employed in Banaras and its outskirts. At the time of my fieldwork in 1998–99, only one Chamar worked in a fan workshop in Calcutta, his family continuing to live in the village. Another Chamar man had migrated to Punjab to his sasural

Reflections on the Crux of Identity and Political Economy


(in-laws’ place of residence) and worked in a bicycle shop there. There has only been a small number of Chamars who tried, unsuccessfully, to find jobs in Calcutta, Bombay, Allahabad or further afield. Chamars tended to be reluctant to leave the village for employment further away. Including government service. For instance, a young Chamar, married and with children, went to Tamil Nadu to work in a steel plant, as one of his wife’s uncles was employed there. He stayed in the plant for two months, but ultimately came back because he missed his family and had difficulties with the language of the state. Another young Chamar man went to Punjab, where one of his brothers had moved to his in-laws’ house. But he missed his family and ultimately returned when he got the news that one of his sons was ill. A more striking example is that of Ramji’s. Ramji, 60 years of age, many years prior to my fieldwork, obtained a government job in the electricity board and was posted in a location far from the village. After just two weeks, he quit the job and has pulled a rickshaw ever since.

IV. Conclusion: From Exploitative Agrarian Pasts to Uncertain ‘Independent’ Futures The analysis of the Chamars’ occupational mobility shows how being a Chamar (and thus often landless, poor and uneducated) has affected the work prospects and opportunities which became available for them. This chapter has illustrated a number of trends which have accompanied the breakdown of the agrarian economy amongst the Chamars. The first consists of the start of weaving for sections of the Muslim community of the city. A second trend can be seen in self-employment in transport and construction. Labour in these sectors absorbed the male workforce, who abandoned agricultural labour and sharecropping and whose numbers were augmented by those who gradually settled in the basti during the 20th century, as proximity to Banaras offered more employment opportunities. However, the first trend did not guarantee permanency of employment or continuity of wages (rather the contrary, with the crisis in the weaving business). Although there are some with secure government jobs — the third trend — in the basti, the majority of the workforce is employed in the semi-urban informal sector. This testifies to Breman’s observations (1996) according to which ‘the expansion of the non-agrarian economy has not brought a commensurate increase in formal sector labour in towns and cities, while informal sector employment has not formalized, even when there was good reason for it’ (ibid.: 23).


Retro-modern India

The occupational mobility outlined in this chapter has taken place outside the village economy. With reference to Untouchable agricultural labourers and sharecroppers, Mendelsohn and Vicziany have argued that but for ‘a few regional exceptions, it is quite impossible to use the meagre wages or crop share as the basis of social advancement for the next generation’ (1998: 32). The trend of casualisation and occupational differentiation is the result of the shrinking agricultural sector in an area which colonial reports had described as densely populated and heavily cultivated. The agricultural sector has, to an extent, been mechanised and the introduction of newer/advanced forms of irrigation and the pressure of an increasing population have resulted in an excess of agricultural labour. In recent times, reduction in landholdings has occurred as a result of the municipal corporation’s land purchase for development purposes. Further, although the Chamars used to work the lands of a number of castes across three different villages (including Manupur), Manupur Brahmin landlords could always count on labour from other caste communities in the village, who might well have been in competition with the Chamar workforce. In the occupational mobility process, new socio-economic hierarchies amongst Manupur Chamars have progressively replaced the old ones based on land ownership, traditional authority and jajmani prestations. Internal socio-economic differentiation centres on the division between those employed in the formal sector and the overwhelming majority employed in the informal sector. In the basti, however, those in the informal sector cannot be considered as an undifferentiated body of workers, as they are employed in a number of different areas and under diverse arrangements. For instance, within those households that lie at the bottom of the economic hierarchy of the basti in the informal sector, low income has pushed women into agricultural labour and work outside of the household. As the internal differentiation amongst the Chamars changed its nature, new meanings of work and categories emerged. If, according to Chamar workers, ‘Mazduri [wage labour , i.e., in agriculture] makes people feel small’ compared to other work arrangements, it can be juxtaposed with the following notion in the words of one of their employers, a middle-aged Brahmin man from Manupur. He described the condition of Chamar labourers in the past as follows: We made Harijans do the dirty jobs and then we considered them dirty. When Harijans did work worth Rs 50, we paid only Rs 10. When

Reflections on the Crux of Identity and Political Economy


Harijans used to work as labourers in the fields, in the evening they were given grains to carry in their gamchha [cloth]. If the gamchha was old and worn out, it had a limited capacity. People suggested that, instead of replacing their gamchha, it was better that the Harijans did not eat enough, so they would come back the following day. A long time ago, a few Harijans worked under the system of adhya. Brahmans used to go to the Harijan basti to tell them to work or drag them to do whichever work and abused them. Now, if something happens, they could send Brahmans to jail. (Field notes 1999)

This narrative reminds us of the colonial account of the low castes’ serfdom. Similarly, as changes in the colonial state had led to zamindars being held accountable in front of the law for the treatment received by their labourers, the above-mentioned portrait of the dependence and subordination of the Chamar agricultural labourer reveals the preoccupation of the Brahmins, over a century later, with the changes that occurred to their position as landlords (and as citizens) following the empowerment of the Chamars who now have recourse to legal means. Equally important, as a result of work mobility, particularly in conjunction with weaving, new conceptualisations of dependence emerged in the claims of Chamar male workers from all generations. They pointed out that, unlike their fathers, they never worked for the Brahmin community in the village. During my fieldwork, it was not uncommon for Chamar male elders to assert that they were never anyone’s gulam (slave).30 Lack of education was an explanation for starting weaving work, as they did not have access to other sources of employment. Field labour was available only seasonally, and therefore could not guarantee employment all the year round. Agricultural labourers were in debt to landed employers; their dependence was expressed through a code of conduct. Chamars recounted: ‘Ham log Brahman logon ka samman karte the [we used to pay respect to the Brahmins]’ because ‘ham log un par nirbhar the [we used to be dependent on them]’. In the next chapter I will show how through weaving, the Chamars exorcised the evils of the exploitation remembered from Chamar agrarian pasts and their Untouchable identity. Their involvement with weaving also introduced notions of independent and depersonalised work, fostering expectations of social change. Where weaving changed the Chamars’ conceptualisation On the discourse of freedom and unfreedom, and the constitution of unfree labourers, see Prakash (1990). 30


Retro-modern India

of dependence and helped to de-ideologise work, it did this through emptying the notion of work of its caste content, that is, weavers found themselves in a working environment with diminished concerns about purity and pollution. Such relations of production, however, did not completely erase the relation between the artisan’s identity and commodity production. Overcoming notions of dependence on landed caste employers in a pre-capitalist agrarian economy was actualised through calling upon alternative ties of dependence — with Muslim girhasts (master weavers) — embedded in the logic of a capitalist accumulation of the city’s mercantile economy. These new conceptualisations of dependence rendered the Chamar artisans’ status more salient, rather than it being solely predicated on the caste element. At the same time, an improvement in ritual status and the prospect of more secure employment in the weaving industry, compared to agricultural labour, accounted for the Chamars’ decision to enter this profession. From the late 1930s, Chamar landless labourers and small cultivators from Manupur village had been hired to work as apprentices on the handlooms of Muslim master weavers in Banaras and had become part of the ancient local weaving industry organised along Hindu and Muslim lines. After the initial period of apprenticeship in the Muslim mohallas, Chamar weavers went back to the village, where they were employed in the production of silk saris in a putting-out system. While Chamar identity informed commodity production through internalised notions of untouchability in the very act of the weavers’ labour, their ritual status improved as a result of this craft and labour relations ceased to be the primary locus of the village landed elite’s dominance over this ‘unclean’ caste. As an instance of successful economic interdependence, Muslim patronage proved more effective in catering to the needs of the Chamars during changing demographic and economic circumstances compared to its Hindu counterpart.31 Over time, the status of most weavers, the weaving technology and the product-type changed. Thanks to state loans, many labourers working for Muslim employers became independent weavers, the jacquard loom was introduced and the production of more

Working relations between Muslims and Chamars have some interesting parallels in other regions of UP (see Lynch 1969 and, more recently, Knorringa 1999). 31

Reflections on the Crux of Identity and Political Economy


affordable saris made of kela (viscose) and nylon began. In the following chapter, I further the discussion initiated in this chapter on the nexus between processes of Untouchable identity transformation and work in pre-independence India. This discussion is crucial for understanding the shifting Chamar caste identity and the role of this community in changing inter-caste and inter-religious relations in the political economy of weaving in Banaras. In doing so, I also aim to highlight the distinctiveness of Chamar weavers within the Indian context and beyond. I then go on to describe the silk industry in Banaras and the wider socio-economic trends that occurred in the region, in order to situate the Chamars’ recruitment into the city’s economy. Next, against the backdrop of relations of production involving Muslim master weavers, I focus on the meanings that the Chamar artisans attached to sari production, their changing caste status and related notions of dependence. The analysis of the Chamar weaving community proceeds with a discussion of trends in the industry following the 1930s, the transformation of the status of Chamar workers and the signs of the incipient crisis in the early 1990s. I conclude Chapter 3 by bringing together the ethnohistories of Chamar workers and their conceptualisations of work, time regimes and tradition. Together with the analysis offered throughout this chapter, these conceptualisations testify to the little-known and rich local histories behind the often seemingly homogeneous ‘outcomes’ of the workings of global capital and trade: loss of jobs and consequent deprivation.32

This heterogeneity is all the more evident in the case of textiles and weaving in India, where getting linked to the global economy has not always or everywhere resulted in a loss of jobs and deprivation. In this regard, it would be interesting to compare the experience of the Banaras silk and sari industry (and the experience of the Chamars and other weavers within it) with the successful experiments of companies such as Fabindia and Anokhi (see Modak 2006 and A. Kumar 2006). 32

Chapter 3 Ethnohistories behind Local and Global Bazaars: Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance I. Introduction: On the ‘Political–Economic’ and the ‘Cultural’ F

Weaving had been Surendra’s only profession. He was around 40 years old in 1998–99, and belonged to the second generation of Manupur’s Chamar weavers. His experience with weaving traced back to his boyhood days, when he learnt the profession from his father. His father worked for a Muslim girhast (master weaver), and Surendra wove saris for the latter’s son. Surendra’s workplace and living place were adjacent, as he used a room in his ancestral mud house as workshed. This contained very few objects: the handloom situated in a pit dug into a room where he also sat, weaving paraphernalia and a radio, only the last of which belonged to him. Weaving is a solitary activity, and Surendra enjoyed getting news updates on what went on in the world. He used to maintain a daily routine at his loom, as part of which he first needed to straighten and make uniform the silk tani (warp, that is, the vertical members of yarn) of the sari he was weaving. To adjust the tani, he used to take a mouthful of water from a metal vessel, and then spray it from his mouth all over the tani. One day I sat with Surendra in the workshed and had chance to observe the ‘spitting process’. Surendra passed the following remarks: ‘If only upper castes knew what I am doing . . .’. By spitting water on the sari he made it asuddh (impure), and he imagined that (upper-caste) women going to the temple would wear these saris. He performed this action several times for each and every sari he had woven. More than an act of resistance, this practice shows how Surendra’s internalised Untouchable identity materialised in the process of the embodiment of labour. In 2005, Surendra was one of the very few weavers left in the Chamar community. However, he had to shut down

Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance


his loom in the village and resume the ‘lowest’ form of labour, similar to what he had done during his youth, at his master weaver’s loom, in the latter’s workshop. F This excerpt shows the salience of the weaver’s caste identity, and the peculiar concerns arising through his work practices testify to the caste ideology’s roots in cognitive structures. This chapter carries further the reflections on the construction of a modern notion of work started in Chapter 2, even as it also focuses on the legacy of the agrarian economy. It is through weaving that the desires of ‘de-ideologising’ work (to counter the tight link between work and Untouchable identity) find their actualisation. This chapter sheds light on these processes while analysing the unfolding of a crisis which hit the Banaras silk industry. Since the 1990s, the promotion of economic liberalisation policies in India have swept aside the protective barriers that had earlier sheltered Banaras’s silk weaving industry. The opening up of the handloom sector to competition from machine-manufactured textiles and the import of silk textiles from China led to the precipitate decline of Banaras’s silk and sari industry.1 The Chamar weaving community began to 1 On the impact of Chinese imports, see Razdan (2004). To the best of my knowledge, there are few systematic studies documenting the sari and silk industry crisis in this region. The phenomenon finds some mention in the global media. See, for example, south_asia/4784056.stm (accessed 7 March 2006) as well as in local press reports which focus on the hardships of the weaving community. See Zaidi (2007) on the severe hardships experienced by Dalit and Muslim weavers in Varanasi and neighbouring districts. An article by Sethi (2007), drawing on a publication by the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (an advocacy group in Varanasi), analysed the reasons behind the crisis: ‘A decade of liberalised textile policy saw the government reduce the number of items reserved for exclusive production by handlooms to 11 from the 22 recommended under the Textile Policy of 1985. Also, an increase in the prices of raw silk was accompanied by an increase in cheap Chinese remade silk imports. India also abolished quantitative restrictions on silk imports in 2001 on the basis of its agreements with the World Trade Organisation.’ (accessed 15 May 2007).


Retro-modern India

experience a business slowdown which culminated in the almost-total disappearance of their industry in the early 2000s. The laws of greater and global bazaars started to hit home when the saris that the Chamar weavers produced simply ceased to sell at a profit in local markets. The ramifications of this crisis in the countryside deprived half of the Chamar households of their livelihood. In an effort to make sense of the crisis, weavers invoked a series of folk explanations made up of international conjunctures, trade regulations and changes in clothing fashion. Weavers, who lacked institutionalised educational qualifications and the skills to enter alternative occupations, fell back on coarse manual labour, rickshaw pulling or other insecure and ill-paid forms of employment. The weaving crisis should be situated within the more general and unifying theme that marks recent literature and media reports on the working classes in India: the loss of jobs in the formal sector of the economy as capital shifts from large-scale industries to home-based production.2 In situations where unemployment and insecurity are generalised phenomena affecting the lives of the members of a wide and heterogeneous range of communities, the Dalit ‘labouring poor’ are often among the worst affected (see Breman 2004). While tying together the phases and features of the weaving industry and the weavers’ reflexivity on their own labour, this chapter aims to contribute to the understanding of the industrial working classes in South Asia and, thereby, to redress the lamented absence of studies on this subject (see Parry 1999a). The analysis of Chamar weavers and the crisis in the weaving industry is informed by the call to focus on ‘culture’: how Indian workers think and act differently from others located elsewhere (ibid.: xiii). As Parry notes, one precursor of the cultural approach has been Chakrabarty’s In this respect, scholars have pointed out the absence of a ‘teleological sequence’ in the industrialisation process in India. Breman (1999: 428) has argued that this process diverges from the development trajectory of the process of industrialisation of Western countries (see Carrier 1992). Breman observes how ‘the importance of agriculture has certainly decreased, but the labour expelled from it has not been absorbed by urban factories. The path towards industrial capitalism has taken a different route. The expansion of the formal sector has lagged far behind that of the informal sector. In fact, we clearly see a process of informalisation. While the so-called ‘normal’ transition to industrialised society assumes the transfer of home-based work first to workshops and then to large-scale factories, the trend has been the reverse in many industries in India’ (1999: 428). 2

Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance


study (1989) of jute-mill workers in colonial Bengal. In this work, Chakrabarty argued that ‘a theoretical understanding of the working class needs to go beyond the “political–economic” and incorporate the “cultural”’ (ibid.: 65; emphasis in the original).3 Parry, however, contends there is a tension between explanations ‘based on a universalistic logic intrinsic to industrial capitalism itself and explanations of a more culturally specific kind’ (Parry 1999a: xv). To overcome this tension, and to understand the relationship between the two orders of explanations, it is necessary to focus on the ‘situational context’ (ibid.: xxxiv).4 The present chapter focuses on this situational context to show the creation, transformation and gradual disappearance of the Chamar weaving community within a ‘protoindustrialist’ mercantile setting, where the commodities produced travelled abroad well before the advent of global markets as we know them. Further, I will illustrate how ‘being a Chamar’ affected the entry of labourers into the weaving industry, the establishment of particular relations of production with Muslim employers and the social consequences of these relations. But first, to complement the transformation of the agrarian economy and anti-untouchability movements analysed in Chapter 2, I will examine the changes brought about by the colonial urban economy in the lives of Untouchable workers.

II. Identity-hardening Processes within Colonial Modernity versus the Softening Powers of Traditional Industry The weaving era represented a historical niche of relative prosperity for the Chamars, where growing ties with the urban Muslim community enabled them to escape the domination of the local landed elites.5 Weaving made possible significant socio-economic changes (for example, Recent critiques of the Marxian notion of labour, oriented in favour of a non-instrumental interpretation and carried out in different settings, also point to similar ‘cultural’ directions. For example, drawing from his ethnography of wine growers in France, Ulin has argued that ‘grasping the meaning of work is principally a consequence of evaluating its cultural and symbolic embodiment’ (2002: 692). 4 See De Neve’s fine-grained analysis (2001) of the culture and politics of the shopfloor, of ‘relations in production’ alongside relations of production in the textile industry of Tamil Nadu. 5 A comparable short-lived period of prosperity was experienced by the Pariahs of south India in the late 18th century (Washbrook 1996). 3


Retro-modern India

enabling investment in children’s education) and the positive transformation of Chamar self-representation, which had previously been marked by notions of slavery and dependence, reinforced by a low ritual status. As has been said in Chapter 2, while working within a proto-industrialist setting, Chamar weavers appropriated a number of attributes of modernity in order to escape an exploitative agrarian past and their manifold dependence on upper-caste landlords. But what kind of modernity? Through weaving, the Chamars were able to celebrate ‘independence’ from upper-caste landlords and depersonalised working relations. The performance of work acquired a ‘secular’ nature and remained separate from ritual, unlike in Muslim weaving communities. At the same time, the Chamars evoked notions of work as art, and cherished pre-industrial time regimes and modes of production. This complex configuration of modernity was later overcome by yet another of its avatars, that of liberalisation and the expansion of global trade, leading to the disappearance of this artisan community. This analysis of the Chamar weaving community touches on the issue of modernity associated with colonial rule. I argue that through weaving, a positive Chamar self-representation was crafted in ways that contrasted with the trends of identity consolidation for Untouchable communities which began during the colonial period and which were linked to employment opportunities generated by British rule. As a result, the analysis of the rise and fall of weaving amongst Chamars offers an additional trajectory to the historical accounts available for Untouchable communities in the wider arena, in which the relationship of labour and identity in the colonial period is analysed. With reference to the geographical region where I carried out ethnographic fieldwork, Gooptu (1996) has pointed out that in the 19th century, the colonial transformation of the economy created employment opportunities for the low castes, leading to the migration of Untouchables from rural areas to the cities of Allahabad, Banaras, Kanpur, and Lucknow. With the consolidation of British rule, these cities saw an increase in the demand for menial services in municipalities, cantonments and civil lines. Although caste domination in employment relations diminished, Gooptu points to the compartmentalisation of Untouchable occupations and the spatial segregation within the cities that followed this division of labour (ibid.: 280–81). Susan Bayly (1999) has argued that with the entry of the low castes into emerging sectors of the economy, a new construction of untouchability took shape. At the height of colonialism in the period before World War I, the

Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance


‘pollution barrier’ (that is, the boundary between the superior castes and those considered unclean and inauspicious) gradually acquired a rigid character (ibid.: 24). This process did not originate from domestic traditions concerning pollution and untouchability, but rather from the employment of members of unclean castes in the modern arena, where workers were placed in a significantly different position from the one they had inhabited back in their villages (ibid.: 225–26). In these new environments, she has pointed out, workers were to encounter more powerful and essentialised caste conventions than they had in their village of origin. As a result, untouchability in its contemporary understanding was constructed ‘against a background of new economic opportunities including recruitment to the mills, docks and Public Works Departments, and to the labour corps which supported both the British and sepoy regiments’ (S. Bayly 1999: 225). The analyses by Gooptu and Susan Bayly, referring to historical events in the 19th and early 20th centuries respectively, point to a consolidation or hardening of Untouchable identity as a result of colonial modernity, as Susan Bayly has termed it, simultaneous with its objectification through the accounts of colonial administrators (Charsley 1996; Cohn 1987; Dirks 2001), a sample of which I have included in Chapter 2. As analysed in the same chapter, the accounts of economic, ritual and political practices, as well as of contemporary forms of exclusion and discrimination, that I documented in Manupur village, especially amongst community elders, all pointed to perceptions of the Chamars’ Untouchable status as a consolidated one at the time of ethnographic fieldwork and, through this, in Chamar reconstructions of the past. Actually, these accounts suggested an alternative trajectory to the processes of Untouchable identity formation. From the 1930s, working relations with the Muslim community of Banaras and the traditional craft of weaving were not only responsible for the partial transformation of the agrarian economy of the village (as Chamar workers found urban employment), but also contributed to the softening of the Chamars’ self-representation as Untouchable, a status linked to the continued discrimination against them in the village. Chandavarkar (1994: 226) points out that during the first decades of the 20th century, Maratha weavers refused to work with Untouchables in the Bombay mills, the reason being that replacing a weft bobbin implied sucking a yarn on to the shuttle, thereby violating the norms of caste purity and pollution. In contrast, untouchability


Retro-modern India

conventions were more relaxed in the karkhanas (workshops) of the Muslim master weavers because of the Muslim community’s different notions of purity and pollution from those of caste Hindus. For Chamar weavers, ‘traditional’ industry worked in the opposite direction from that of colonial modernity, that is, it contributed to the de-essentialisation of Chamar identity and the creation of a positive self-representation divested of the attributes of untouchability. Their new occupational trajectory changed the way in which the Chamars experienced their social location as Hindus vis-à-vis other Hindus as well as Muslims. An understanding of the Chamar weaving community and its relations with Muslim employers must be situated not only within wider industrialisation and social transformation trends in north India, but also along the lines of both Hindu–Muslim relations and the existing cleavages within Hindu caste society. During fieldwork, most Manupur Chamars defined themselves as Hindus. The meanings of what constitutes a Hindu person and community amongst the Chamars have shifted considerably during the 20th century. The attention to the historicity of religion by Asad (2008), and his understanding of religion as a historical product of discursive formation, is extremely useful to reflect on the ways in which the very idea of Hinduism was constructed and how believers’ construction of religious membership shifted across historical periods. One can only speculate about the meanings of Chamar ‘Hinduness’ in the past and relate those meanings to contemporary religious identity. Although the Chamars describe themselves as Hindus, their religious affiliation has undergone critical scrutiny among a few members of the community as a result of low-caste political mobilisation which began in the early 1990s. At that time, the Chamars ended their longstanding allegiance to the Congress party and moved into the folds of the BSP, appropriating supralocal critiques of Hinduism and Manuvadi (uppercaste) communities. Equally important, the city of Banaras has shaped Chamar ‘Hinduness’ both as a stronghold of Hinduism and, as explained in the previous chapter, as a major site for Bhakti worship, especially that of saint Kabir and, more significantly, Ravidas. My account of labour relations between the Chamars and Muslims provides insights on socio-economic alliances forged at particular historical junctures. The Chamars were caught up between two parallel processes: on the one hand, Hindu–Muslim identities saw a sharpening of their boundaries, on the other, conflicts between different Hindu subjects

Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance


(clean versus unclean castes) led to a renegotiation of the confines of social acceptability within Hindu society. These processes are explained in the next two sections which will shed light on the relationship between the economy and religious identity of the SCs about which not very much is known (Harriss-White 2003: 167).

III. The Banaras Silk Industry In order to contextualise the recruitment of the Chamars into the weaving industry, this section sketches the economic changes taking place in the Banaras region, the nature and features of the city’s silk industry and the ways in which communal relations are intertwined with this industry’s internal organisation. The manufacture and trade of silk fabrics has constituted a significant part of the economy of Banaras since pre-Mughal times. Once Muslims settled in the city, they became the weaver class and silk fabrics acquired motifs and designs of Islamic provenance (Showeb 1994). As a result of the mercantile nature of the city’s economy and the trade generated by its status as an important centre of Hindu pilgrimage, the silk business flourished (see B. P. Pandey 1981). In Banaras, weaving has historically been the occupation of low-status sections of the Sunni Muslim community, traditionally called Julahas.6 While low-ranking Sunni Muslims have constituted the main workforce, the wholesale business in silk fabrics has historically belonged to the city’s Hindu communities of traders, landlords and moneylenders, such as Gujaratis, Agrawalas, Punjabi Khattris, Marwaris, and Sindhis (N. Kumar 1988: 80), who migrated to the city over the centuries. Over time, the main division of labour between Hindu and Muslim communities changed in terms of who controlled the domains of production and trade. In her well-known account of the artisans of Banaras, N. Kumar has highlighted their communal solidarity, arguing that irrespective of the socio-economic backgrounds of the different communities in Banaras, ‘the nature of Hindu–Muslim relations in the city is exceptional’ (1989: 168). The division of labour along the lines of religious communities within the

Of this occupational group, Sherring argued that ‘Muslim Julahas are accepted as very likely converts of Hindus of the same caste’ (Sherring in N. Kumar 1988: 49). Similarly, Briggs noted that ‘a notable example of a caste formed from the Chamars is the Mohammadan weaver, the Julaha’ (1920: 32–33). 6


Retro-modern India

weaving industry and the changes that this division underwent in the 20th century are intertwined with the history of communal relations in the region as well as its economic vicissitudes, and form the backdrop to the entrance of Chamar labourers in the weaving industry. Although N. Kumar, following C. A. Bayly, has argued that communal relations in Banaras can be seen in terms of the ‘existence of a culturally homogeneous, “Hinduized” style of leadership in the city, with a tradition of political, antigovernment agitation rather than communal strife’ (1988: 225), the history of communal relations in Banaras over the past two centuries has also been marked by episodes of Hindu–Muslim violence. A grave episode occurred in 1809 (see Freitag 1989b: 36ff.; G. Pandey 1990: 25ff.; Parry 1994: 35), prior to which there had been no notable instances of communal conflict in a century (G. Pandey 1990: 26).7 Pandey argues : In major centres of cloth production such as Lucknow and Banaras [. . .], the weavers and spinners faced violent fluctuations in the conditions of their trade in the immediate pre-colonial, as well as the early colonial, period. A sharp increase in the demand for their goods and skills in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century was followed by a progressive erosion of their markets. One result in the long term was a forced shift from the manufacture of fine cloths to that of coarser and cheaper varieties; the silk industry of Banaras stands out as a notable exception in this respect, but even here new markets arose some time after the collapse of the old and the weavers were not able to easily protect themselves from fluctuations in demand. (Ibid.: 72)

The 19th century and the following period testify to these fluctuations in the Banaras silk industry. In the mid-1880s, the city’s weaving industry registered a period of crisis. By the 1920s, however, it witnessed a turnaround, part of the overall industrial growth in the UP towns of Allahabad, Banaras, Lucknow and Kanpur, as a result of the ‘processes of 7 The identity of the weaving communities was affected by the conflict. As a result of the Hindu–Muslim riots in north India, which began in the early 1800s in which the Julaha weavers took part, a process of colonial stereotyping of the Julaha community took place over the 19th century (G. Pandey 1990). The Julaha’s character was described as bigoted, fanatical, clannish, and turbulent (ibid.: 102).

Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance


mercantile accumulation and changing investment pattern and business priorities of urban sarrafs — moneylenders or bankers, who also financed trade’ (Gooptu 2001: 34). A multitude of small-scale units manufacturing a range of goods arose in these towns, and led to what Gooptu terms ‘bazaar industrialisation’ (ibid.: 35), in which the sarrafs’ investment was founded on the existence of intermediaries employing artisans on a putting-out basis (ibid.: 37). From the 1930s, the sari became the main artefact within the silk weaving industry over all other traditional fabrics in Banaras (N. Kumar 1988: 2). The early 1930s also coincided with the period of agrarian depression, and the subsequent years were marked by strong industrial growth that continued the spurt begun in the 1920s, most likely as a result of the concentration of capital in urban trade rather than in agriculture (Gooptu 2001: 37). These processes led to the revival of artisanal industries in the mid-1930s. Banaras handloom silk weavers who had faced falling demand and competition from low-priced Japanese and Chinese artificial silk during the depression, gradually switched to cheaper imported silk yarn and thus were able to produce fabrics at lower prices. Moreover, demand for specialised Benares [sic] silk, used for social and religious ceremonies, also began to pick up and the silk industry revived quickly. (Ibid.: 38)

During the same period, communal relations registered a new wave of violence. After more than a century since the 1809 episode of communal violence, riots took place in 1931 (see Freitag 1989a: 223ff.) and in 1939 (N. Kumar 1988: 51). Rioting affected business relations. For example, N. Kumar reports that following the Hindu–Muslim riots in 1939, the head of a Hindu company ceased business relations with Muslim weavers and employed only Hindus (ibid.: 51). These violent outcomes need to be contextualised in terms of the transformation of communal identities. While in 19th-century Banaras a process of polarisation of Muslim and Hindu identities was taking place amongst weaving communities, by the beginning of the 20th century, the city witnessed rising Hindu revivalism and reform (Gould 2002: 630). More importantly, the same period witnessed a transformation in the nature of Hinduism, which increasingly became marked by features of martial militancy (Gooptu 2001: 191). In the first decades of the


Retro-modern India

20th century, in fact, militant Hinduism was embraced by the Shudra castes, who competed for jobs with Muslims and Untouchables and who were in search of avenues through which to improve their status. They achieved this goal by becoming the ‘warrior guardians of Hinduism’ (ibid.: 192ff.). Gooptu also argues that this assertion is clearly in striking contrast to urban untouchable groups and their bhakti resurgence [. . .]. Being mainly located outside the bazaars and mercantile milieu, the untouchables had sought to reject higher-caste versions of Hinduism and to deny the caste system, instead of seeking higher status and importance within it. (Ibid.: 197; emphasis in the original)

IV. Recruitment Times Compared to the Muslim community mentioned earlier, the Chamars were not a traditional weaving community and were hired in the textileweaving industry only recently, if one considers the fact that they have produced hand-woven saris for less than a century. As stated earlier, the Chamars began to be hired as weavers in the mid-1930s as the silk industry revived. This period also coincided with or immediately followed a period of communal riots, which had made relations of production between Hindus and Muslims more fraught. However, Muslim master weavers employed external labourers, such as Chamars, who came from outside their kin and community networks. As a result, unlike the general situation of the Untouchable communities described by Gooptu (2001: 197), in the preceding section, Manupur Chamars were not located outside the bazaars and mercantile milieu, but were in fact recruited within the bazaar economy as workers for Muslim employers. The recruitment of Hindu Chamars into the Muslim weaving community suggests that in a situation of growing antagonism between Hindus and Muslims, the former may have felt threatened as a community, and chose low-caste Chamars as well as other Untouchable communities as allies (instead of the Shudra castes, who had embraced militant Hinduism). The recruitment of Chamars into the weaving industry is better understood when framed within N. Kumar’s argument, according to which ‘Hindus and Muslims from the lower classes share a similar lifestyle and ideology of work, leisure, and public activity. And while that of the upper classes has changed over the century, that of the lower classes has

Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance


remained structurally and culturally the same’ (N. Kumar 1988: 226).8 From the 1930s, the city became for Manupur Chamars a destination for ‘short distance’ daily migration rather than a new residential location. They joined the ranks of migrant workers, mainly poor cultivators and agrarian labourers, who, since the 1920s, had been drawn to Banaras as well as other towns in UP as a result of the growth of manufacturing activities there (Gooptu 2001: 41). This brought about a significant change in these towns, which had previously been inhabited by merchants and professional people (ibid.). This migration took the Chamars to the Muslim neighbourhoods of Alaipura and Baribazaar (in the northern and north-western periphery of Banaras respectively), where they were initiated as apprentices.9 With weaving, the community’s shift from rural employment to the urban economy of the city began, and subsequently continued throughout the 20th century. As discussed in Chapter 2, migration remained a minor employment avenue for the Chamars. As a result, the ongoing osmotic relationship between Banaras and Manupur village maintained the moral community and the integrity of the latter’s kinship ties.

V. ‘Putting-out’ Identities and Commodities Most of the Chamars belonging to the first two generations of weavers (aged between 50 and 80 years, and between 30 and 50 at the time of my first fieldwork stint in 1998–99) became apprentices to Muslim master weavers. They had been employed as labourers in the Muslim neighbourhoods for many years, up to 40 in one case. No fee was required for Recruitment patterns, which in a situation of labour scarcity led to the inclusion of communities with no previous weaving tradition, such as the Chamars, challenge the idea of weaving communities as closed ones. On the recruitment of labour force from outside traditional weaving communities in Gujarat and Maharashtra, see Haynes (1999: 146). Similarly, De Neve’s analysis of handloom and powerloom industries in Tamil Nadu shows how weaving communities have opened up to include workers whose social provenance varies (2000: 502), but not to the extent of including former Untouchables (1999: 382). 9 The area of Alaipura, which consists of the two wards of Adampura and Jaitpura, acquired importance as a weaving centre more recently than the central ward of Madanpura, the most ancient location for silk weaving. For this reason, Madanpura claims superiority over all other Muslim wards (N. Kumar 1989: 161). 8


Retro-modern India

the boys’ apprenticeship, but they were paid little by way of wages. Chamar apprentices were trained in silk-brocade sari weaving. This activity placed them in a different socio-economic position when compared to their counterparts elsewhere in northern India, who were also engaged in weaving, as well as other Untouchable castes. Chamar weavers’ narratives of their labour histories tell how they were an unusual group of artisans compared to other rural low castes. Termed ‘service castes’, the Chamars, as well as other low castes, of Punjab and the United Provinces, ‘who were primarily tanners, were known to practise weaving along with agricultural labour’ (Roy 1999: 69). These rural labourers were weavers of coarse cloth, and were among those most vulnerable to economic crises (ibid.: 83–84). However, whereas ‘in general, fabrics for the poor were woven by the poorest of weavers’ (ibid.: 83), the first generation of Chamar weavers in Manupur, and those from later generations who continued to weave silk saris, belonged to the category of skilled weavers who, albeit poor, wove precious fabrics for the rich. In addition to their peculiar position in terms of socio-economic status, weaving brought about a change in the Chamars’ ritual position. Like all traditional manual workers, artisans occupy a low status within Hindu society. Among artisans, the status of weavers is marked by ambiguity, and they are ranked on the borderline between clean and unclean castes (C. A. Bayly 1986: 293). In the case of the Chamars, however, weaving enhanced their status as it marked a shift from an association with unclean labouring to handicraft production — a notable occupational change that had some effect on their overall position within the hierarchy.10 The status of weavers also depended on the type of cloth they produced. Hindus consider silk to be particularly pure, not only on aesthetic grounds, but also because it is believed that the tight weave of this fabric makes it the least penetrable by pollution (ibid.: 289). The weaver protagonist of the opening ethnographic excerpt, Surendra, was probably not aware of this fabric’s virtue. As a result of the latter, silk weavers enjoyed the highest status amongst weavers (ibid.: 294). After a period of apprenticeship on the looms of Muslim master weavers in Banaras, sari production was shifted to Manupur on the basis ‘The Julaha is the typical illustration of how a group of people may rise in the social scale within the Brahmanic system. Originally a Chamar, he secured a better position by taking to weaving’ (Briggs 1920: 33). 10

Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance


of a putting-out system.11 Weaving was not an unknown activity in the villages on the periphery of Banaras.12 Patronage in the weaving industry signified a new set of meanings about the worker–employer relationship (not conceptualised solely in economic terms), which led to different evaluations of the exploitation it brought about. Being bonded and at the beck and call of a Brahmin landlord in the village was interpreted by the Chamars differently from being indebted to a Muslim master weaver in Banaras. This new debt system resembled the labour arrangements that accompanied the process of bazaar industrialisation analysed by Gooptu (2001). Gooptu argues that within this process, artisanal work thrived on a system of indebtedness through advances, in the form of loans, from merchants to artisans, who would then consign their products to the former. This system, called ‘baqidari or deferred payment’ (ibid.: 54), was based on the partial payment of wages to the workers as a guarantee of repayment of the loan. Gooptu terms baqidari as the ‘most usual face of “bonded labour” and “patronage” at the workplace in a surplus labour market’ (ibid.: 54–55; emphasis in the original). This system, however, revealed itself as being very effective for Chamar weavers, as it enabled them to provide for large families and meet ritual expenses even when they were the sole wage earners in their families. Labour exploitation by Hindu land-owners and Muslim master weavers may seem similar, but in each case the conditions of patronage and exploitation were significantly different, as were Chamar understandings of them. These arrangements need to be inscribed in the larger framework of labour in colonial India, which ‘in general was hardly ever entirely free and extra-economic compulsions in varying proportions dictated the existence of all forms of labour, ranging from the formal slave to the wage worker in the modern factory’ (Sumit Sarkar in Ahuja 2002: 807–8).

11 ‘With or without factories, the main mercantile contract in silk was puttingout’ (Roy 1999: 94). Writing about the Bombay handloom industry, Haynes argues that putting-out in general was a dominant mode of production relations both before British rule and during the colonial period (2008: 9). 12 C. A. Bayly reports how weavers used to supply the city with their cloth from two weaving villages, Baragaon and Shivpur. This arrangement, he argued, was typical of the relationship between the town and external production-unit villages till the early 19th century, ‘when village products were affected by imports from Europe’ (C. A. Bayly in G. Pandey 1990: 72).


Retro-modern India

The construction of Chamar dependence within agrarian relations was underpinned not only by their non-ownership of the means of production, but also by their low ritual status which justified discrimination against them and their ill-treatment on top of exploitation. The passage from the system of patronage linked to Hindu land-owners to one linked to Muslim master weavers not only changed labour relations for the Chamars, but also the ideological context in which these relations existed. Weaving, with its diminished concerns about purity and pollution, changed how the Chamars conceptualised dependence. This accords with Roy’s observation (2002) about the significance of economic changes and the market — as well as of political acts of resistance — in allowing the disentanglement of subaltern communities from their relationships with the elites. However, along with the benefits came a new system of exploitation, in which the patronage of Muslims replaced that of landed castes. The putting-out system tied the Chamars to their employers through debt, in ways similar to agricultural labour. However, according to Islamic precepts, debt was conceded interest-free by Muslim master weavers. Weavers under the putting-out system were locally called bani.13 Ram was one of the first banis in Manupur’s Chamar community. At the time of my fieldwork, he had retired and was experiencing difficult financial conditions. His elderly wife and their only living and co-habiting daughter were agricultural day labourers for Brahmins and Kurmis (an agricultural caste). Ram had spent all his life working for Muslim master weavers. He said he became swatantr (independent) after he was apprenticed in weaving as a child, through which he escaped the bondage that had tied his father, a harvaha (ploughman), to his patron landlord. As a labourer for the Muslims, Ram recalled, he used to earn a lot of money, and was sought after for the quality of his work. He used to produce scarves, fabric for umbrellas and saris. At one stage of his weaving career, he tried to set up an independent business but failed and returned to his Muslim master weaver. This attempt at moving out from the labour arrangement did not appear to have strained Ram’s relationship with his master weaver. This term is a regional expression for weaving and for weft. Bani consists of a putting-out system by which a master weaver provides his labourers with handlooms, raw materials and sari designs. Weavers are bound to give the saris to the master weaver and receive fixed wages in return. These represent payment for the previous sari given to the master weaver. 13

Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance


Ram claimed he never engaged in social relations with other Hindu castes, whereas Muslims supported him and his community in their upward mobility. He contrasted the role of Muslims with that of Hindus, pointing out the double standards used by the latter: ‘Hindus always believed in untouchability, but when it was a matter of work, they never followed this practice.’ That is, while Hindus did not exclude Chamars when they were needed as labourers, underlying notions of untouchability shaped working relations with them. Moreover, weaving guaranteed regular wages. By contrast, when labourers from his community used to work in the fields owned by Hindu castes, wages were not paid for several months. In addition, Ram used to be given financial assistance in the form of advances, by his Muslim master weaver: ‘If one had any debt, before the moneylender abused you, the Muslims used to pay off the debt.’ This appeared to be the way Muslims secured themselves a skilled labour force. The usual practice amongst bani weavers was to borrow money in their time of need. Bani weavers had very long-lasting relationships with master weavers — suggesting labour stability — and generations of master weavers kept the same families of Chamars as labourers.14 During his working life, however, Ram did not manage to save any money as he had had to provide for a family of 12. He could do it only by borrowing money from the Muslim master weaver. Ram was proud that his only living daughter had never laboured until she had turned 20. His claims testify to the existence of forms of pardah in this community and the revaluation of these in conjunction with favourable economic status. In Chapter 7, I will examine the issue of pardah in conjunction with household economic improvement. Ram’s remarks about his daughter pointed to notions of status that were appropriated by Chamars as a result of their entry into the weaving profession. With very few exceptions, Chamar men never considered the idea of training By contrast, Showeb (1994) points out that Muslim weavers in Banaras, often already indebted to a master weaver/kothidar (firm owner) and in need of an additional loan, shifted to another master weaver/kothidar who paid off the loan that the weaver owed the previous employer. According to Showeb, this process is endless (1994: 81). Shifting master weaver/kothidar in Banaras resembles the case of weavers in the powerloom industry in Tamil Nadu (see De Neve 1999), where too the factory employers’ practice of giving advance on a systematic basis, in order to retain a skilled labour force, does not prevent labour mobility. 14


Retro-modern India

women at the looms. During my fieldwork, the idea of women weaving was met with surprise amongst weavers. A number of them explained the absence of women in terms of a lack of zarurat (need) for them to weave. Chamar women were kept out of weaving waged labour, and came to have only an ancillary role in sari production, helping in the sari’s karhai (embroidery) and nari bharna (bobbin reeling). However, even these activities were not strictly their prerogative. This division of labour also existed in Muslim weaving communities, which had a much longer tradition in this profession (N. Kumar 1988: 53; Mehta 1997). The views of male Chamars on women’s weaving also echoed the claim made by Muslims from hereditary weaving castes in the Bombay mills during the first decades of the 20th century (Chandavarkar 1994: 225). In fact, these weavers, who were paid higher wages than others and placed in the weaving shed as a result of their higher skills, took pride that ‘their womenfolk did not work’ (ibid.). Haynes, however, reports subversions of such a division of labour which were otherwise typical of the artisan cloth-weaving household in the Bombay Presidency (2008: 14). He contends that despite the little mention in colonial sources of women’s engagement in weaving, interviews showed that this took place occasionally, infringing norms which looked negatively upon the practice, to the point of women’s weaving significantly contributing to the early business expansion of entrepreneurial families (ibid.: 16). While weaving led to a new construction of dependence as well as to higher status (as reflected in notions about women’s work) Chamar weavers, nevertheless, continued to bear the ‘marks’ of their Untouchable identity. Despite being involved with weaving, the stigma of untouchability could not be fully shed. As shown in the ethnographic excerpt at the beginning of this chapter, issues of purity and pollution never abandoned the weavers — whether at work or during leisure time or in the market — and these concerns informed identity, the role of patronage and commodity production. While at work for Muslim master weavers as bani or selling their saris to Hindu merchants when many of them became independent weavers (as will be discussed later), the Chamars never participated in decisions egarding sari aesthetics and used to reproduce what was considered fashionable, and therefore marketable, according to the advice of master weavers and merchant communities. Despite this, saris embodied the identities of the producers (as shown in the opening ethnographic excerpt) and the symbolic and cultural

Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance


embodiment of work could be considered an ‘output’ of the particular political–economic and cultural circumstances surrounding work in the Chamar community.

VI. Changing Roles within the Industry The history of weaving among the Chamars is marked by various successes and failures. Artisans’ fortunes depended not only on their degree of entrepreneurship but, more importantly, on the market dynamics of the silk weaving industry and its recurrent structural crises. The 1930s phase of a flourishing weaving business was followed by a crisis in the 1940s and 1950s (N. Kumar 1988: 20).15 At the same time, the number of Hindu weavers continued to grow over time, despite market fluctuations. Hindus from agricultural low castes inhabiting villages near Banaras — similar to Manupur Chamars — were employed in large firms, mostly by Hindu merchants, and commuted daily to work in the city (ibid.: 50). While Hindu weavers, including the Chamars, were drawn into a historically Muslim manufacturing process and worked for both Muslim and Hindu employers, the weaving industry in Banaras saw a change in the division of labour in the 1960s, with the ascendance of Muslim master weavers to the role of traders. N. Kumar (ibid.) points out that this was brought about by rising demand during 1960–90 and the standardisation of products which eased work mobility. This led to an increasing number of Muslim weavers becoming independent and being able to deal in the market without relying on middlemen. As a result, over the course of two or three generations, they could become master weavers (ibid.: 41). Kumar argues that subsequently, Muslim master weavers became kothidars (owners of firms), resulting in their controlling part of the manufacture and trade of silk fabrics; at the time of her study, Muslim owners of firms represented 20 per cent of the Banaras sari trading class (ibid.: 42). This change in the division of labour within the Banaras weaving industry had not been an isolated case of the advancement of sections of the Muslim community in north India. Hasan points out that some sections of the Muslim population have experienced accelerated economic

Along with economic fluctuations, there is also evidence that Muslims in Banaras had to shift to other occupations due to the problems in the silk industry generated by large-scale events such as the Partition (Kumar 1988: 55). 15


Retro-modern India

growth in the last few decades, a phenomenon which posed a threat to dominant Hindus in the trading and industrial sectors (1996: 94–95). Official reports in the early 1980s documented an increase in communal conflict in those towns in which ‘craftsmen, artisans and weavers reaped the benefits of trade with the Gulf countries and the revival of traditional handicrafts’ (Hasan 1998: 41). This trend was also reflected in Banaras where Muslim artisans and merchants have made direct contact with Middle eastern buyers and their expanding markets. This has coincided with an expansion of exports and a flow of cash remittances from relatives employed as migrant labour in various Arab countries and Malaysia into the pockets of other ‘castes’ of Muslims. Hindu middlemen have turned to the Hindu chauvinist parties. Religious identification is being harnessed ‘defensively’ by those who fear a decline in their high income and status. (Searle-Chatterjee 1994a: 153–54; emphasis in the original)

As was the case with riots during colonial rule, in subsequent historical periods too, working relations between the Hindu owners of firms and Muslim weavers became strained as a result of communal violence.16 This proved financially detrimental to the weavers (Showeb 1994: 2), and affected the collective religious celebrations of Hindu owners of firms and Muslims (ibid.: 57–58).17 As a result, whenever ‘the Ayodhya crisis 16 N. Kumar (1989: 168) has reported that since 1947, about half a dozen incidents have occurred that required police intervention. While agreeing with Kumar on the emphasis on the Banarasi, rather than Hindu, identity of the inhabitants of Banaras, C. A. Bayly has observed that ‘well before Hindu revanchism became active on the political scene in the late 1980s, communal relations in north India were edgy’ (1998: 320). Kumar’s view of harmonious communal relations in Banaras has been criticised by Parry (1994), who argues that the exceptional conditions in Banaras have to be seen in relation to the situation in other northern Indian cities. Parry argues that the 1930s marked a period of tension in the city, and rioting was frequent, starting from the 1960s, with more episodes in 1986 and 1991 in connection with the issue of Ayodhya (Parry 1994: 35). The most recent episode of violence reported by the global media was in April 2000, when there were violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims in the city. 17 For a discussion on the change in Muslim and Hindu festivals in Banaras, see N. Kumar (1988: 211ff.).

Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance


deepens, the behaviour of the kothidars/gaddidars becomes rather unusual. The procurement of silk fabrics becomes slow, the price of the raw material soars high and payment of weavers/master weavers becomes jittery and haphazard’ (ibid.: 59). While the general division of labour between Muslims and Hindus underwent changes, most Chamar weavers relinquished their working relations with Muslim employers and became ‘independent’ weavers. The transition from the condition of bani weavers to independent weavers was made possible by government loans to buy handlooms. Given the indebtedness of the bani weavers and their entanglement in the advance system, the fact that many were able to shift from being weaver-labourers to independent self-employed weavers suggests that the Chamars were debtfree at the time of leaving the employment of their Muslim master weavers, or had managed to pay off their debts. Chamar weavers never mentioned the difficulties of freeing themselves from Muslim employers. Despite owning looms and setting free from Muslim patronage, some weavers’ independence was mitigated by production and selling arrangements with Hindu merchants. In terms of labour and capital relations, there is a trend towards freedom from hierarchical and patronage ties in the Chamar community history of weaving, a trend which, however, proved to be fatal for those independent weavers who could not withstand the market crisis. I have previously highlighted the link between Untouchable identity and sari production. Similarly, local conceptualisations of identity and status are tied to the political regime under which many Chamars became independent weavers. Referring to the association between Chamars and traditional polluting occupations, an elderly Chamar ex-weaver said: ‘It’s the Congress party which started the business of handlooms as a result of which the bad name of the Harijans was cancelled. However, not all attempts to shift from bani to independent weaving were successful — even during ‘Congress time’, when Chamar weavers claimed their profits were highest. Those weavers who failed to establish an independent business reverted to the bani system, confirming the possibility of re-entering the labour market with Muslim master weavers.

VII. Manifestations of Local Entrepreneurship While independent weavers started producing more affordable viscose saris, silk saris were woven only by bani weavers, and by one extended


Retro-modern India

family who had set up a small business network with other Chamar weavers from a neighbouring village.18 They were the only organised unit within the basti, where production was centred on the household as a single production unit. This is because silk, compared to artificial silk, requires the investment of a much higher capital for the purchase of yarn. In the extended family of which we talk, four married brothers and an unmarried brother shared the same chulah (hearth), where food was cooked for a total of 23 family members. They were considered an affluent family in the basti. All the brothers believed that their living together was the key to their strength, and other people were jealous of their unity and tried to divide them. Their father, Ramesh, was a weaver; he had first worked as a bani and then an independent worker. He and his three brothers belonged to the second family described in Chapter 2 as composing the ‘roots’ of Manupur Chamars. The four brothers used to weave for the same master weaver. When their mother died, Ramesh went to the master weaver on behalf of all the brothers to ask for a loan to perform her last ceremony. The latter agreed to give money only to him but not to the other brothers, although they too were his labourers. Ramesh did not accept the master weaver’s money and quit his job. Subsequently, the master weaver asked Ramesh’s father to send his son to work for him

18 It is important to specify the lengths of time Chamar weavers require for weaving a sari. A minimum of three days of hard work is needed for the weaving of a viscose or nylon sari, whereas a minimum of seven days is needed for a silk sari, as its yarn is more delicate and complex to weave. The time taken to complete a sari also depends on the complexity of the design and the amount of daily working hours. Silk and kela or nylon saris often take longer than the scheduled time to be woven. Weavers are often busy with other activities, i.e., visits to or from relatives, attendance to rituals inside or outside the basti, or are prevented from working by illness. They cannot weave more than five to six nylon saris in a month, or three to four silk saris. A good deal of discipline is needed in this profession as the amount produced depends purely on the weaver’s motivation and financial pressure, and no one has a ‘deadline’. Those who work for Muslim master weavers are checked on by their agents if saris are not consigned within a certain number of days, although this is not strictly enforced or predefined. The master weavers also make sure that their labourers are healthy and, should they require any financial help, for instance, for medicines, they cover the expenses, deducting the cost from the weavers’ wages.

Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance


at his premises, but Ramesh’s father refused. Unlike Ramesh, the other three brothers, Surendra’s father amongst them, decided to return to work for the master weaver.19 Only one of them, Ramu, is alive today. In 1998, Ramu was about 70 years old and still weaving as a bani. Once, the Muslim master weaver refused to accept a sari woven by Ramu’s younger son, because he said it had been badly woven. As a result of this ‘slur’ after 37 years of working for the same employer, Ramu insulted the master weaver and quit his job. He decided to work for another master weaver and was satisfied with the new relationship. When he delivered the saris he would be treated to chai (tea), pan and pani.20 The master weaver used to get annoyed if he found Ramu had fallen ill and, most likely concerned there would be a slowdown in sari production, would provide Ramu with medicines, deducting the cost from his wages. Ramu decided to educate his first son and to train the second as a weaver. His eldest son has a postgraduate degree in applied maths and is married to an educated young woman from a nearby small urban centre. He eventually obtained a government job, while his father retired and his younger brother also left weaving and drove an autorickshaw. Ramu’s nephews, that is, the extended family of entrepreneurs introduced at the beginning of this section, continued the independent business started by their father. Two brothers were weavers and a third, called Ram Lal, although also a weaver, was mainly engaged in procuring kaccha mal (raw materials), selling saris in the market and supervising the functioning of the looms. Ram Lal was also the established head of the family, although he is only the second born. Of the remaining two brothers, one left weaving to work as a nurse for a doctor, as he was fairly educated. The other was unmarried and his elder brothers invested in his postgraduate studies. The brothers’ wives helped with nari bharna (reeling of the yarns into bobbins), but were never asked to weave. Similarly, none of their children was employed in weaving. Like other weavers in the basti, this family was reluctant to train its children in the profession. Instead, the family employed two labourers for weaving and an apprentice, none

The three brothers’ descendants, for example Surendra, still weave for the master weaver’s descendants. 20 Literally water, but there are always other refreshments along with it. 19


Retro-modern India

of whom are relatives. Ram Lal also provided four independent weavers of the basti with raw materials and dealt with the selling of their saris. Effectively, he had turned himself into a master weaver. Ram Lal also collected saris from the weavers of a nearby village, a network run in partnership with another Chamar household in the neighbouring village of Sharwa, which controlled the sari business in the much smaller Chamar basti of that village. They charged a fee for providing other weavers with these services and paid the weavers whose saris they sold in instalments. In addition, they lent money, without charging interest, to those in need within the basti, or those from whom they borrowed money themselves, and arranged items of dowry. This family’s organisation of a small, unified sari production business accounted for their relative success. Nothing similar has taken place elsewhere in the basti, leaving production fragmented in small units where work arrangements often varied, as shown in the foregoing paragraph.21 With the crisis, however, even Ram Lal’s family gradually lost their small business.

VIII. The Laws of the Bazaar The overall transition from the bani system to cottage industry was also accompanied by a change in the religious identity of the merchants to whom the saris were sold. Those Chamars who had become independent weavers found themselves dealing with Hindu businessmen. Where their fathers had entered weaving to escape dependence on and discrimination by Hindu landlords, the sons subsequently found themselves subject to the bargaining practices of Hindu businessmen and middlemen. However, the relations of production between Hindu merchants and Chamar independent weavers had undergone a process of depersonalisation: not only were the latter not subject to Muslim patronage, they also escaped the moral obligations attached to working in the employ of Hindu castes in the agrarian system of production. Alok, an independent weaver, summarised this development as: ‘With weaving, we are independent and free from According to members of the extended family, the reason for the lack of unity in the basti seems to lie in internal jealousies or suspicion amongst caste fellows. Generally speaking, weavers in the basti are not organised at any level. For instance, they do not belong to any association, nor they seem to be aware of welfare schemes available for them. Except for the loans to purchase handlooms, they have received no other form of help. 21

Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance


any interference from the upper castes. Even if they are in the same business, we are weavers, and the upper castes sell the raw material, we go to buy the raw material, we pay and leave.’ The weavers’ claim of freedom is shaped by caste untouchability and the relations of dependence framing village life and economy, rather than by the workings of the urban weaving business, which, similar to the experience of weavers from other castes, sees the Chamars as being subject only to the bargaining activities of caste Hindus. Though many Chamar weavers, both banis and independent ones, held the view that Muslims had helped in the uplift of their community, they also referred to the Muslim business acumen when the latter set up their business in the village. A weaver called Lalit claimed: ‘They set up the looms, collect the saris, sell them and as a consequence they have built multistorey buildings. They get their faida [interest].’ Or take the example of Surendra, the weaver mentioned earlier. He had to return to work at the workshop of his master weaver, with whom he had had a very good relationship. Surendra used to borrow money from him, and the master weaver did not charge him byaj (interest). However, Surendra claimed that his own mehnat (hard work) and the labh (profit) that his master weaver got from the saris he wove were the real interest. Independent weavers claimed freedom from the interference of caste Hindus. However, they became more dependent on the uncertainties and fluctuations of the market and the terms offered by its traders and brokers. A number of weavers sold their saris in the Chowk market in Banaras to Hindu traders, mainly Gujaratis, or to middlemen. A few others sold their saris to Muslim master weavers and middlemen in the satti (wholesale market) of Jalalipura in Banaras, or in Baribazaar on the city’s periphery. In these markets, Chamar weavers operated on the basis of a system which had been in place within the textile industry in India in the 17th and 18th centuries, according to which a ‘vertical link between marketing and industrial production’ had emerged (Chaudhuri 1996: 49). In order to coordinate output to demand, weavers ‘either wove cloth and sold it in the open market, or more frequently, worked for merchants who paid them in exchange for the cloth supply especially “tailored” for export markets’ (ibid.; emphasis in the original). In essence, weavers often did not deal directly with final customers, and a series of intermediaries existed between production and marketing (ibid.). Along similar lines,


Retro-modern India

a number of independent Chamar weavers worked on commission for merchants (which certainly reduced their degree of independence and gave control over labour to their sari buyers), with the exception of those who used to sell to middlemen in the absence of a work commission. Both bani and independent weavers used to consign their saris to merchants and wholesalers, who then proceeded to have the saris polished and ready for the subsequent stage of marketing. So neither category dealt with the final customers. Weavers were given instant cash by the middlemen, whereas the businessmen sometimes did not pay immediately.22 Independent weavers under financial pressure were sometimes compelled to sell their saris quickly, and would therefore sell to middlemen who would give smaller but immediate payments, which would also include a major cut in the price for potential flaws. Independent weavers usually changed the Hindu businessman they dealt with every two or three years, as the latter bargained a great deal when purchasing a sari.23 As a result of the fragmented organisation of production and marketing in Manupur, self-employed weavers were devoid of bargaining power, while Ram Lal’s family, running the sari business described earlier, was able to arrange matters more favourably. They would sell their saris in bulk to a Gujarati vyapari (trader), and were committed to sell saris to him in return for help from him in times of financial need. Ram Lal used to be in charge of the sari marketing and used to go to the satti with a stock of about 20 saris (collected as explained earlier), which guaranteed a fair choice of colours of the same During 1998–1999, a weaver in the basti could not earn more than Rs 60–70 per day as an independent weaver, and earned even less as a bani weaver. For comparison, I compiled a list of daily and monthly wages of common occupations amongst the Chamars, the findings of which are as follows: an unskilled labourer got about Rs 60–65 per day; a mason or carpenter, Rs 100 or more a day (up to Rs 150 a day for a skilled carpenter); a trolley puller Rs 100–150 (gross daily income, minus the vehicle’s rent where applicable); a rickshaw puller, Rs 60–100 (gross daily income, minus the vehicle’s rent where applicable); a worker in a fan factory, Rs 1,500 monthly. 23 The Muslim weavers described by N. Kumar experienced similar problems with merchants and middlemen. However, it is not clear whether, in the complaints reported by the weavers, they refer to members of the Hindu or Muslim communities. According to N. Kumar, Muslim master weavers were in a lucrative position and their image was ‘one of extortion and greed’ (1988: 42). 22

Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance


or different designs. He would go to one trader for kela or nylon saris and another for silk ones. In the past, his family used to receive kacha mal from the trader in the same manner as from the Muslim master weaver. This arrangement stopped, which was considered another sign that the market was shrinking. This datum also suggests that in the past, independent weavers also worked on a putting-out basis with Hindu traders and that this system was a profitable arrangement for the the former. Ram Lal would sell the saris to the trader and get a delayed payment, between 15 days to a month later. As with bani weavers, the payment related to the previous saris consigned. The weavers whose saris Ram Lal had to sell would also get delayed payments, although they could obtain the payment in instalments from him. These transactions are embedded in an honour economy: for example, when Ram Lal used to go to the market, he would be approached by brokers, but refused to sell to them as he and his family had good relations with the Gujarati trader, who made timely payments and gave them a good price for the saris. In addition to better prices paid by the trader, Ram Lal and his family would get samman (honour) for their vad-vyavahar (talk and behaviour) in the market if they met the trust of the trader. Moreover, the relationship between Ram Lal and the trader was said to be good and he used to advise the Chamars on fashionable designs and colours for saris. In the beginning of the 1990s, weavers started to suffer from what appeared to be one of the crises periodically affecting the sari industry. The market downturn affected the production of both viscose and nylon saris, the main commodities produced by independent Chamar weavers, as well as of the silk saris woven by bani weavers. The downturn became manifest when independent weavers found that their saris failed to sell at a profit in the retail bazaars and sattis. The weavers recalled how, in periods of peak demand, the merchants’ agents used to personally come to the Chamar settlement and buy saris from them. When this stopped, it was considered a visible sign of the contraction in demand. Adding to the crisis, weavers were also affected by the seasonality of their occupation, which peaks during the months of Phalgun (February–March) and Vaishakh (April–May), and again after Durga Puja (in the month of October), corresponding to the main marriage seasons. The weavers did not have the financial capacity to weave and store saris in order to wait for periods of good demand to sell them. Independent weavers and bani workers initially seemed to be differently affected by trends in the market. For bani weavers,


Retro-modern India

wages were fixed, and only partially related to market trends. Therefore, the bani arrangement appeared safer, as within it labourers continued to be paid wages and were employed all year round. In contrast, the work of independent or semi-independent weavers was remunerative when the demand for saris was high, but during a market crisis, these weavers were forced to take up other sources of employment, including mazduri (wage labour) in the city and neighbouring areas. Although weaving used to be considered a good and remunerative job, at the time of my first fieldwork, no one held this view anymore. Yet the vestiges of a better-off past linked to weaving were evident in the Chamar settlement. The presence of several looms, lying idle then, testified to the scale of production in the past when Chamar weavers used to hire labourers to work under them, and the still-standing concrete houses signified former profits and prosperity. Weavers traced the present decline in the sari business to the end of Rajiv Gandhi’s regime.24 According to them, it was during Congress times — the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi — that the weaving business flourished and they could set up extra looms, hire labourers and, in some cases, weave silk. The 1990s witnessed the progressive decline of the ‘Congress era’ in UP, followed by this party’s gradual return to a position of prominence over the past two national elections. More importantly, during this period, weaving ceased to accommodate the modern aspirations of the new generation of Chamars, especially its educated members. These aspirations were partly fostered by State policies and partly by the general political climate. As a potential avenue for community mobility, weaving gradually lost its momentum and almost completely disappeared. Weaving, which once signified a ‘modern’ occupation to aspire to, was superseded by other notions of desirable work, for instance, white-collar jobs enabled by formal educational qualifications, which weavers, the sons of agricultural labourers who were often bonded labourers, could not hope to secure.

IX. Work as Art, the ‘Golden Age’ and Capitalist Global Modernity In this chapter, I have traced the history of weaving in the Chamar community from its inception to its disappearance. I have shown how this 24 As mentioned in Chapter 1, the overall picture of UP shows that unlike other Indian states, economic growth here slowed down in the 1990s.

Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance


craft forged Chamars as workers, gendered caste persons, believers, and actors in communal relations within colonial and postcolonial contexts. The quality of the weaving thread used by the Chamars for their saris (historically a measure of the weaver’s socio-economic status) ‘descended’ from silk to viscose and nylon, and this downward movement was tied to the declining fortunes of the Chamar weaving community, which gradually led to impoverishment, insecurity and loss.25 In this section, I explore the Chamar conceptualisation of weaving work as produced by their social and economic history, and how it differed from that of Muslim weavers. Further, I aim to show how weaving in the Chamar community affected expectations and trends within its trajectory of social mobility. Weaving was viewed by the Chamars as a modern profession rather than a traditional and inherited one, a ‘borrowed activity’ from a traditional Muslim occupational domain. Although three generations of Chamars had been weavers, only a few of them described weaving as parampara (tradition). New typologies of work were formulated by the Chamars, typologies which depart considerably from the idiom of ‘slavery’ through which agrarian labour had been defined. Weaving was conceived as both kam (work) and kala (art), and considered mahin kam (fine work) in contrast with the mota kam (coarse work) that low castes usually perform and are associated with. However, unlike Muslim weavers in Banaras, almost no Chamar claimed pride in this occupation. Illiteracy and poverty were the compelling factors that forced the Chamars to enter the weaving industry. Although weaving conferred adar (honour) and man-samman (respect) on the Chamars, it did not have the prestige attached to other occupations such as naukari (government service), which became a viable occupation only decades after the adoption of weaving. Despite two or three generations in the profession, the Chamars believed that they had not completely mastered the art of weaving. As a relatively recent acquisition within this community, the transmission of craft skill and knowledge from the Muslim community to the Chamars only started in the decades just before independence. The Chamars described themselves as ‘inferior’

Where in 1998, 29 Chamar households out of a total of 53 relied on weaving as the primary source of livelihood, in 2005, only a few such households were left. 25


Retro-modern India

weavers compared to the Muslims with their vast experience and skills, which had been accumulated over centuries of practice. The analysis of the meanings of weaving needs to take into account a range of non-economic considerations, in particular the nexus between work and religion. Despite the Muslim lack of concern with purity and pollution, the existence of complex relations between the two communities, a degree of Muslim and Hindu syncretism in the city, and a similarity of lifestyle amongst the low castes of Banaras, the religious identities of the Muslim employers of the city and the Hindu employees in Manupur were never ‘mixed’, and boundaries were maintained. Despite the years spent in Muslim neighbourhoods, the Chamars never converted to Islam and weaving was never linked to a set of Islamic moral and religious practices in the way it was for Muslim weavers. Weaving amongst the Chamars never resembled the mixture of the sacred and the mundane observed by Mehta (1997) amongst Muslim weavers in central UP.26 There, the community of weavers is reproduced through working in a ritualised world of looms, woven cloth and Islam. Following G. Pandey’s account (1990) of the inseparability of work and worship amongst the Julahas, and the parallel he drew with E. P. Thompson’s description of English weavers who evoked ‘the legend of better days’, Chakrabarty (2007) argues that the fundamental difference between the two groups of weavers rests precisely on the relationship between work and religion. Chakrabarty states that ‘Thompson’s God’ was quite different from Pandey’s: in the first case, religion was separated from work, whereas in the second, religion was omnipresent in the Julahas’ work (ibid.: 79). Unlike the Julahas, however, weaving amongst the Chamars was lived as a modern and secular occupation, where ‘God’ and ‘work’ remained separate. The understanding of weaving as a modern occupation amongst the Chamars also flows from its historical role in severing this community from its past as agricultural labourers. To most Chamars, weaving was raja ka kam (king’s work), as time management was entirely down to the individual, although the workday usually followed a routine in most weaving households. Despite the weavers recognising the problem of discipline and motivation in their situation as self-employed workers, independent Nor amongst the Chamars were looms accorded special rituals or invested with cultural beliefs, as was the case with the Tukolor loom in West Africa (Dilley 1987). 26

Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance


weavers preferred to work within this regime rather than in a factory with a supervisor. They were usually attracted by the prospect of work in a factory only because they associated this work with government employment, job security and the benefits attached to it. On the issue of time and discipline in an industrial context, Parry (1999a) has argued against Thompson’s famous thesis (1991), pointing out that the latter’s notion of the time regime is premised on a romanticisation of peasant production which those who have now left it behind do not generally share; and on a demonisation of factory work as an inhuman all-day everyday grind in which the worker is enslaved to the tyranny of abstract clock-time’. (Parry 1999a: xviii)

In Banaras, merchants owned large firms and employed labourers on handlooms and power looms. According to N. Kumar, there has never been an increase in the size of the production units and workshops, which accommodate 10 to 12 people.27 Nor has the space, that is, the home, in which weaving was carried out, changed. Even when the artisan is someone’s labourer, the work context has remained a domestic one, and time regimes have been unvaried (N. Kumar 1988: 46–47). Kumar argues that the romanticism in Thompson’s portrayal of preindustrial life versus the factory is shown by Banaras artisans in their attitude towards their own work (ibid.: 47). She highlights the ‘ideology of freedom’ shared by them (ibid.: 92), their stated belief that they can enjoy the leisure opportunities offered by the city and ‘cannot do naukri (sic) because then we will become slaves’ (1989: 156). This ideology has a genealogy in a context of colonial industrial setting: Chakrabarty reports a similar conceptualisation of naukari in Calcutta jute mills, where ‘wage slavery, or nokri as it was called, often evoked a feeling of resentment caused by a loss of honor and freedom’ (1989: 187). But the experience of the Chamars, cannot be explained by Thompson’s conceptualisation of changing time regimes and work discipline, nor Kumar notes that a Banaras zamindar set up ‘the short-lived Banaras Cotton and Silk Mills in the 1920s’ (1988: 81). Gooptu reports that, according to the Royal Commission on Labour, despite 32 per cent of the total urban workers being classified as industrial workers by the 1931 census, there were no large factories in town with the exception of a medium-sized weaving and spinning mill (2001: 47). 27


Retro-modern India

by N. Kumar’s thesis of the weavers’ romanticism. As I have shown in Chapter 2 and in the course of this one, dependence has been a key issue in Chamar self-representation, in particular in men’s description of their socio-economic transformation over the past century. Chamars used to dismiss factories and the discipline and control that working in them entails. Their resistance to such time and work regimes are not uncommon within weaving communities. Indeed, the Chamars portrayed weaving as ‘raja ka kam’. However, for the Chamars, weaving was not that combination of work and leisure habits that N. Kumar described it was for the Muslim weavers of Banaras. Despite the sometimes protracted stays in the Muslim neighbourhoods for some of the Chamar weavers, weaving mainly took place in the village, and was conceived of as a modern occupation framed by a pragmatic logic rather than by tradition and a particular lifestyle. Following the same logic, Chamar weavers would gladly have taken up naukari, their claims being reinvigorated by the business crisis. Through weaving, and consequently through their proximity to the city and the symbolic appropriation of a number of its features, the Chamars circumvented the spatial, socio-economic and religious marginality they experienced in a rural setting. Banaras offered an alternative to the agrarian economy of the village and its social relations without the Chamar weavers being compelled to leave their native place and experience the nostalgia felt by migrant workers (see C. Joshi 2003: 108). The rejection of an exploitative agrarian life has been strongly reiterated in Chamar self-representation. As a result, no concept of the agrarian ‘golden age’ exists amongst them; nor does any nostalgia for a lost agrestic past. The only mythical accounts of a golden age that they may subscribe to are those that evoke the Adi Hindu theme, which sees the Chamars and many low castes as the original inhabitants of India, deprived of their lands and subjugated by Aryan invaders.28 For the Chamars, while the historical past was characterised by gulami (slavery) at the hands of landlords, the period when they took up weaving as an occupation used to be characterised by swatantrata (independence). Chamars are not nostalgic for the ‘old times’, nor do they lament the old ways that have disappeared. They showed the same ‘lack of nostalgia for the lost world of peasant production’ that Parry finds amongst the Satnamis employed The issues around this theme and the remaking of the past are examined in depth in Chapter 5. 28

Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance


in the Bhilai steel plant in Chhattisgarh (1999b: 118),29 for the historical circumstances of the region are as applicable to the Satnamis as to Manupur Chamars — ‘cultivation is [. . .] associated with subordination’ (ibid.: 118–19). The only time the Chamars showed any regret for the lost past was for the time of tej bazaar (strong market), and good business for weaving, when the Chamars owned many functioning looms and hired labourers, and when the sari market flourished. This datum strongly points to reflections on the ways in which agrarian labour and pasts are differently mobilised by different communities as material and symbolic resources to the end of socio-economic upward mobility. Chari’s sophisticated account (2004) of the modest and workingclass origins, albeit not Untouchable, of the Gounder caste in Tamil Nadu is a telling counter example to the ethnography of the Chamar weavers. Chari’s analysis concerns the Gounders’ ascendance from peasant proprietors to owners of garment export firms, competitive in the global market. Here, I will focus only on the usage of the Gounders’ agrarian pasts rather than on the dynamics of their industrial success, although the first is a commentary of the second. In achieving their success, the Gounders could skilfully deploy their own organisational skills, hard work and the capital derived from farming their lands under the favourable economic circumstances of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They subsumed their progressive success as self-made men and in capital accumulation under the idiom of ‘toil’, which came to signify an innate propensity of their caste community. Chari addresses the question of how a subaltern group such as that of the Gounders laboriously managed to establish their industrial hegemony, and how in this process they ‘articulate[d] their agrarian past to remake the industrial present’ (2004: 762). ‘Toil’ refers to a plurality of functions, not just physical effort, says Chari (ibid.: 782). However it

29 Parry’s ethnography of the Bhilai steel plant, in which a large number of Untouchable Satnamis are employed, shows how this caste group with a long tradition of reform and involvement in religious movements (Babb 1972; Dube 1998) has benefited greatly from the State’s policy of positive discrimination in terms of employment. This has placed the community in a rather privileged position and given them a different perspective on social mobility even when compared to sections of the same community.


Retro-modern India

points non-arbitrarily towards specific shared understandings that enable Gounder men to draw from their past to discipline labour in the present. Those who share an association with the specific agrarian past of Gounder farming in the 1930s can then hinge their retrospective narratives of success on their toil, naturalizing this sign as marking their difference as Gounders. (Ibid.: 782; italics in the original)

In other words ‘toil makes agrarian history an attribute’ (ibid.: 783). The Chamars’ roles within the agrarian economy resemble more those of the ‘captive sphere of casual labour’ (ibid.: 767) in which the Gounders kept the Madaris, who dealt with dead animals and leather and stitched water bags for irrigation. The servitude of these bonded labourers, as much as of the Chamars, distinctively signalled membership of a different and lower class to the Gounders. I argue that not all agrarian pasts possess the same potentiality to become resources to aid in industrial development,30 nor to forge an ideal continuity of community and labour between agrarian and industrial eras. What has been said so far about the Gounders suggests that the question of the subaltern challenge to the modern distinction between the feudal and the capitalist raised by Chakrabarty would be explained rather differently by Chamar weavers compared to other communities. How would one situate their passage from a patronage system with Brahmin landlords to that with Muslims, and then to the status of independent weavers? Most importantly, the Chamars valorised the absence of untouchability beliefs with Muslim employers and the benefits of interestfree debt, and in independent business, depersonalised working relations. However, they appeared to have forgotten the slavery of agrarian labour through yet another form of unfree labour within a system of patronage with Muslim employers, with tying relations of production with Hindu merchants once they became independent weavers. This leads us to Parry’s argument on how on the one hand industrial capitalism is classically associated with ‘free labour’, but on the other, in India, the presence of unfree ‘bonded’ labour in the industrial context is not ‘merely a carry-over from pre-capitalist relations of production’ and from forms of agrarian exploitation: industrial neo-bondage is, instead, born out of For the Gounder proprietors, land could be used as a guarantee to bank credit towards their firms, for example (Chari 2004: 776). 30

Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance


product demand and the need to secure skilled workforce (1999a: xv). Also, in the case of the Chamars, the passage from ‘feudal’ to ‘capitalist’ did not see the triumph of free labour. Instead, it only implied changes in the degree of unfreedom and the liberation from untouchability considerations up to the ‘freest’ condition of independent weavers — which was fatal for them, as it placed them in the condition where they were most exposed to the market crisis. I would argue that the challenge of the feudal–capitalist distinction can be answered through the realisation that being a subaltern and a subject of agrarian and then industrial relations implies several forms of unfree labour, while aspirations to modern and secular work are enmeshed in the experience of these forms and are constitutive of it. From this conclusion, it follows that the resilience of the subalterns’ unfree labour in the relations of production described in this chapter is not to be seen as adding to the list of existing ‘failures’ attributed to the Indian working class, when labour is analysed by positing community as opposed to class and the pre-capitalist world of agriculture as opposed to the capitalist one of industry, as Basu has argued (2008: 50 and 52). Concerning these worlds, Basu contends that there exists ‘a symbiotic relationship between the two in shaping workers’ work, social life and political consciousness’ (ibid.: 52). This is very clear from Chari’s account of not only the circulation of material resources across them but also from self-explanations of mobility.

X. Conclusions: Out of Weaving Shifting expectations reflect the peculiar experiences of social mobility amongst different communities. Interestingly, Chari reports how the Gounders ascended to a position of success without the asset of formal education (2004: 779). Amongst the Muslim weavers of Banaras, modern education meant ‘making a man unfit for his hereditary profession’ (N. Kumar 2000: 124). On the contrary, a number of Chamar weavers had invested in their male children’s education, sometimes teaching them the craft on the side. According to the division of labour within the household as a weaving production unit, children did not play any role. The first reason was the increased access to schooling. Moreover, parents did not wish to determine their children’s future working activity during their childhood, but preferred to initiate their children into weaving on the basis of their inclinations and wishes. The second reason was linked


Retro-modern India

with the decline in profits experienced by weavers in Manupur (which had already begun to be felt at the beginning of my fieldwork in 1998), leaving parents reluctant to train their children in a profession with an uncertain future. As some of the weavers’ children and others began to attend universities, university degrees, government service and marriages into high-status families began to represent the new expectations of social mobility in the Chamar community. The next chapter analyses the individual and community expectations fostered by education. These aspirations following the spread of mass education had become practically unattainable for former weavers. Weaving set into motion a process of transformation, which lost its potential as a result of the decline of the industry, but also because contemporary mobility processes demanded rather different targets. As weaving activities drew to a close, the gap between those who were a part of the informal economy, including former weavers, and those who were part of the organised State sector became wider, thanks, in the case of the latter, to access to regular salaries and aspirations to a middle-class lifestyle. Contrast these trends amongst the Chamars employed in the organised State sector with the condition of former weavers: patronage has come to an end, a market downturn has been in place for over a decade now, the community’s mobility expectations have significantly changed, the Hindu religion amongst the Chamars has ‘stayed’, although affected by low-caste politicisation, while the commodities that the weavers used to produce have further spread into global markets to cater to growing diasporas. This summary encapsulates the complexity of weaving as a historical process, as one of identity formation and as an economic endeavour. There is more to it, however. Those stuck in a capitalist global modernity are the weavers themselves, who failed to get a fair profit out of the commodities they produced and were finally confronted with the cessation of their activities. While their saris never had an internal market — a Chamar woman was never able to afford and wear one, even at cost price — Chamar weavers added to their concerns about profits a feeling of alienation from the saris they wove, as they interrogated themselves about their ultimate destination. Weavers noticed that they had never seen their saris being worn by women in public spaces. This hypothesis somehow conjured up the image of weavers going around the city searching for their saris, showing a desire to somehow be ‘in control’ of the destination of their products.

Chronicle of a Weaving Community and its Disappearance


They believed that their goods were being exported to foreign markets and, given the internationalisation of the markets in which saris are sold, this is probably true. To explain the phenomenon of the commodity’s invisibility, the following alternative hypothesis was advanced on one occasion by Raju, an elderly former weaver: Fairies assume human forms, buy the saris from the businessmen, wear them once and then burn them. Saris cannot all be exported! Human beings cannot consume all these saris, it must be these fairies who use them! The big businessmen sell the silk saris for Rs 3,000 to 5,000. They sell the saris in big numbers, who knows what happens to them? Who are we, we are like vendors, we are small people! You can travel all of India, but you can’t see these saris.

Fairies are a powerful esoteric metaphor for the often equally esoteric mechanisms of local and global bazaars in the lives of ordinary people, be they producers or consumers.31 At the same time, fairies provide a powerful image of ‘cultural production’, which can be equally considered an output of work itself, but one that is impossible to commodify.

This metaphor also points to the increasing incommunicability between the different understandings of the workings of globalisation by epistemic communities, state and inter-state fora and the poor, as noted by Appadurai (2000: 2). 31

Chapter 4 ‘We Used to Live Like Animals’: Education as a Self- and Community-engineering Process I. Introduction: ‘In the Past, We Were a Bit “Chamar”’ During my first fieldwork in Manupur during 1998–99, at an informal gathering of a group of elderly, uneducated Chamar men, I was surprised by the unsolicited comment of one of them, Ramji: ‘Ham log janvar ki tarah rahate the [we used to live like animals].’ To make his words understood, while he talked, he mimicked the gesture of eating food straight from large cooking pans, suggesting a rather unrefined eating etiquette. At the same time, the mimicry was accompanied not by any grave and composed attitude but an almost complacent smile. It is significant that community elders would describe themselves in such a derogatory way, even if they were being humorous. Similar reflections on the past recurred.1 On the other hand, these were not the sole representations of the past: elderly Chamars’ irony uncomplicatedly accompanied these with their claims of freedom from exploitative working relations with Brahmin landlords, owing their economic independence to their employment as weavers in Banaras, as discussed in Chapter 2. The absence or presence of education was often invoked by the Chamars to explain many social phenomena, past and present. The past symbolised a concentration of a derogatory substance, i.e., ‘Chamarness’, that could be present in a person, and assumed several degrees. Ram Lal, introduced in the previous chapter, once told me: ‘Pahele, ham log kuchh “Chamar” the [In the past, we were a bit “Chamar”].’ When Manupur Chamars reflected back on their ‘past of ignorance’, they found an explanation for it in the role of A striking similarity to the Chamars’ dichotomy — also inspired by local perceptions of the school — between the uncivilised lives of the elders and the civilisation of the present is found among the Piro of the Peruvian Amazonia, analysed by Gow (1991). Gow states: ‘For native people, “being civilized” is not opposed to an idyllic “traditional” culture which has been lost, but to the ignorance and helplessness of the forest-dwelling ancestors’ (ibid.: 2; cf. 231ff.). 1

Education as a Self- and Community-engineering Process


the Brahmins. As the latter were invested with the role of society ‘educators’ par excellence,2 the Chamars claimed it was their duty to uplift the low castes, a duty which the Brahmins failed to perform. By pointing to the Brahmins’ moral responsibility, the Chamars first excluded other actors (for instance, the colonial and postcolonial State) from responsibility for their ‘ignorance’, and, second, they characterised the knowledge they needed to acquire as mainly deriving from the figure of the Brahmin. The Chamars had to wait until vikas a gaya (development came), as they say — and education is part of this implicitly State-derived development — to realise that their traditional occupation was polluting, and as a result, other caste communities believed in the Chamars’ untouchability. Within this reasoning, when they positioned themselves in time or history, they used the expression piche hona (to be behind) or age hona (to be ahead), the latter indicating the state of being ‘developed’. This is a discourse to which the low castes are especially exposed and which shapes progress under the form of a ‘social race’ amongst castes.3 This idea of a social race points to other caste communities as the Chamars’ ‘main competitors’ rather than individuals or groups located in the West. In this race, the policy of reservations is a tool par excellence to measure the progress of one’s own caste. When the Chamars compared their condition to that of other castes, educated Chamars held the view that they had progressed ‘more’ than others, including the high castes: as a young male Chamar put it: ‘Our ancestors were not allowed to drink water from other castes’ wells. They tied a broom behind their back so that their footprints could be erased. Today, everyone can see the change’, and continued, in the past, Brahmans were on top of the varna system, and Shudras were at the bottom. Today, the Brahmans are forward at the level of education and jobs. But this community [the Chamars] is getting educated and is trying to find its way in society. The SC society is improving if compared to others, because they are getting educated, jobs and political recognition as ‘The respectable Brahman is a scholar and a teacher rather than a priest’ (Parry 1985: 210). The Brahmin exemplifies what Levinson and Holland call ‘indigenous conception of the educated person […] endowed with maximum “cultural capital”’ (1996: 21). 3 As a result of the policy of positive discrimination, the Chamars can evaluate their progress in fields such as education or jobs, where ‘figures of this progress’ are available. 2


Retro-modern India

a national party, the BSP. In comparison to Patels [Kurmis] and Vaishyas, we are improving. Today, Thakurs are on top because they are strong, educated and they can attack and defend. Brahmans do not have this capacity and this is why they come second. Earlier, Vaishyas came third, but now the Shudras are coming up and have got the third position due to their development in education and their position in the society. This time, Vaishyas are positioned at the fourth place. Everywhere the Shudras are more forward than the Vaishyas.

This narrative brings to the fore the collective agency of the social race for progress. Varnas are viewed as blocks and essentialised by fundamental traits. Reflecting on the trends which caste identities have experienced through their involvement in politics, D. Gupta has argued that ‘it is now a question of self over others and not self in relation to others’ (2005a : 414) and that ‘caste assertions today are not just to feel good in a attributional way (see Marriott 1959) but to make it good in highly competitive environment that disregards the interactional setting that the pure caste hierarchy recommends’ (ibid.). I would argue that for the Chamars the relational aspect of the caste/varna race is intertwined with the competition for scarce resources, and the former is particularly relevant to castes such as the Chamars for whom social relations contain the potential for discriminatory acts stemming from their Untouchable identity. In this chapter, I intend to show the ways in which education as a living category of progress, and the engine in the social race I have outlined above, is used in the remaking of the past in the present. The spread of education has triggered a reflexivity process leading to the Chamars revisiting their available past(s), whether transmitted orally or through the written word, and whether referring directly to the Manupur Chamar community or to the low-caste ‘imagined community’. Contemporary north India has witnessed the phenomenon of low-caste reinterpretation of the past, to make it suitable to these castes’ new selves. As a result, the past becomes a product of cultural imagination inspired by principles of social justice and translated into a suitable history. This chapter examines this process while furthering the analysis of the experience of temporality, tied to the pursuit of reform and progress, which marks Chamar modernity. As anticipated in Chapter 1, the experience of modernity for the Chamars is characterised by a strong liberating nature: emancipation from the non-modern does not consist in exorcising the archaic ‘evils’ of tradition, religion and superstitions, but in replacing or reformulating upper-caste tradition,

Education as a Self- and Community-engineering Process


religious beliefs and versions of the past with those crafted by low-caste communities, affirming the latter’s concerns with dignity and self-respect. In this process, this chapter returns a more fragmented picture than the one portrayed by N. Kumar’s work (2007) on those who were left out from the main narratives of education in India. She argues how these subjects ‘seemed to live in a world of games, performance, subversion, and irony richer than those more characteristically depicted in history. They were, moreover, self-centred and confident of their being’ (ibid.: 14–15). Here, instead, I portray the conflicting trajectories — of empowerment, of historical and cultural production, but also of the production of new identities and inequalities.

II. Colonial Prologue The discourse of self and community engineering finds its roots in the colonial period. Both the early experience of education amongst the low castes and Dalit leaders’ teachings pointed to the appropriation of the tool of education as a means of uplift as well as to the British colonisers as a powerful resource through which these castes could accomplish such an uplift. The idiom of progress and reform which marks most of the Chamar narratives of self-description contrasts with a different era in history, an era in which very few low-caste members had access to schools and universities. One exception to this was the Dalit leader Ambedkar (1891–1956). After pursuing studies in both the US and the UK, he became a central figure in the history of the Dalit movement as well as for Indian history in general, especially as a result of his having authored the Indian Constitution. Today, Ambedkar represents a shared pan-Indian and global socio-cultural legacy, and his iconography is very visible in UP’s public spaces as well as in other Indian states. In Ambedkar’s political agenda, education formed a pivotal point for the elevation of the low castes. He believed that ‘the spread of higher education . . . is the panacea of our social troubles’ (cited in Velaskar & Wankhede 1996: 121) and it could be used as ‘a means of intellectual liberation from the tentacles of Brahmanical mythology’ (Ambedkar 1989: 103). The leader’s corpus sparked an epochal critique of the Brahminical establishment. With the spread of education, and the mass publication of his writings, members of low castes were increasingly able to read them. Significantly, education was crucial for young low-caste members from western India in the late 1960s, who subsequently started the Dalit


Retro-modern India

Panther movement — inspired by the Black Panthers of America — in order to engage in literary production to express ‘their hatred of the Hindu caste system, their anger toward the ineffective mainstream Dalit political movement, and their disillusionment about the oppressive conditions of Dalits’ (Contursi 1993: 325). Decades later, educated lowcaste members are at the forefront of the organisation and management of political parties that have contested the power of upper castes and their cultural hegemony. As will be explained in detail in Chapter 6, in the Manupur of the early 1990s, young, educated Charmar men embraced the BSP and persuaded most of their community to abandon their longstanding allegiance to the Congress party. Very few Manupur Chamars could quote the title of any of Ambedkar’s books. However, there was hardly any conversation in the village, regardless of the Chamars’ level of education, in which the leader was not referred to and the virtues of his achievements not extolled. Amongst the events of Ambedkar’s life history, his personal experience with education, marked by discrimination because of his Dalit identity, is particularly important, an experience in which all low castes can recognise themselves. With a few variants, Ambedkar’s experience with education was relentlessly narrated in the Chamar community: The following is one version: We became insan (human beings) only because of the British. When the British came to India, they were fond of eating pork and meat in general. But the Brahmins were not supposed to cook pork, so the job of cooking pork was given to this biradari [caste]. Ambedkar’s father, Ramjirao, used to serve the British. A few years after Ambedkar’s birth, the British officer who was served by Ambedkar’s father noticed that the child was very brilliant. So he asked Ramjirao the reason why he had not sent his son to school. Ambedkar’s father said that he could not send him as studying was pap (sin) for his caste. The officer asked him to get his son enrolled into school. So Ramjirao and Ambedkar went to the school, and there they were asked to write the child’s name on the register. At that moment, people came to know that the child was a Chamar.4 Ambedkar was abused and sent back home with the excuse that studying was a sin for him. Father and son returned home and reported what happened to the officer. The British went to that school, shouted at the school staff and threatened Ambedkar was actually a member of the Mahar caste of western India, but in the narrative he has been included by the Chamars within their own community. 4

Education as a Self- and Community-engineering Process


to dismiss them all from their duty if the child was not registered. At that time untouchability prevailed within the Hindu community. (Middleaged, literate Chamar man, fieldnotes 1998)

Ambedkar’s life history introduces the role of British rule in the educational project for the low castes. History and ethnohistory show how education,as a tool for mobility, made the low castes more vocal vis-à-vis colonial rule, and how it had a role in ‘disturbing traditional social hierarchies’ (K. Kumar 1991: 35). Despite sparking a series of low-caste struggles in southern and western India, as they ‘found in the British presence an audience and an agency for fighting against Brahmin domination’ (ibid.: 98), colonial education only reached the elite amongst these castes. The low castes made educational opportunities one of the primary demands to the British. The case of the Satnamis of central India is illuminating; they are a sect of reformed Chamars who initiated the Satnampanth in Chhatisgarh in the 19th century, and whose denunciation of illiteracy as the source of their backwardness back in the 1920s echoes Manupur Chamars’ contemporary claims. Following a petition to the British, the Satnamis were granted special provisions in terms of educational facilities (Dube 1998: 153). Another telling example concerns the Jatavs (Chamars) of western UP. The Jatavs have been at the social, economic and political vanguard of upward mobility compared to the Chamars living elsewhere in the state. While counting on the expansion of their leather business during colonial rule, the Jatavs benefited from schooling received in institutions built either through their own means, or by aid from Christian missionaries and the government (Aloysius 1998: 67; cf. Lynch 1969). The pre-colonial educational system aimed to preserve the status quo: Crook, quoting W. Adam, points out that ‘by the time the British arrived, schools, we are told, represented a plurality, with each separate institution organising its own separate classes of institutions without any link or relation of any kind between them, each catering to a distinct class or community’ (1996: 9). Although this plurality makes any generalisation problematic, ‘nevertheless, there continues to be a hidden curriculum implicit in respect of who may and who may not attend. By excluding sudras and girls, most institutions had served to remind society of the stability of its class and gender structure’ (ibid.: 10). The setting described by Crook finds a perfect exemplification in Banaras. Here the


Retro-modern India

emergence of schools as a response to the movement for progress by several communities’ caste associations, as well as colonial education described by N. Kumar (2000), did not include low-caste communities. The advent of the British system of education did not mark a significant change in their history of exclusion from learning and education. It appears plausible that at the time of Indian independence only a small minority of Chamars in Banaras, and even less so in the surrounding rural areas, had received any formal education. In Manupur, the first male Chamar graduates and postgraduates are a phenomenon of the 1990s. More generally, to identify a specific educational institution associated with the low castes, we have to look to the very recent establishment of Ambedkar schools throughout UP, including the eastern regions. It follows that reflections on the ways in which illiteracy marks a prominent feature of the past and on how education shapes the present are a relatively recent phenomenon. Banaras is a place renowned for education and learning, with three famous universities attended by students from all over India as well as by Manupur Chamars. In terms of higher education, the Chamars are the most comprehensively educated within the village — Brahmins excepted.5 Higher education is a must for the coveted naukari (government service). Social mobility in recent times, in contrast with mobility trends over previous decades, has occurred mainly with education as a minimum requirement, but the latter is no guarantee of employment. A few success stories should not distract us from the high rates of illiteracy 5 Take, for example, the relations of educated young Chamar men with members from the Yadav and Rajbhar communities who live next to the Chamar basti. According to Suresh, the young BSP basti leader at the time of my fieldwork: ‘Yadavs of Manupur seek assistance of the educated Chamars for various matters. When some educated Chamars go to the Yadav basti, they do not take water from them. Yadavs have little concern for education and are afflicted by alcohol consumption as much as the Chamars are. They are also said to live a segregated life, with no concern for the future. Their children are not educated because of the way adults drink. Yadavs buy milk from Chamars, so they also depend on Chamars. As far as Rajbhars are concerned, they are even more backward and poor than the other backward castes in the village. They fear talking to educated Chamars, but feel superior when they deal with uneducated Chamars. When the level of education is the same for Rajbhars and Chamars, they will have an equal status. In turn, the uneducated Chamars do not consider Yadavs or Rajbhars to be superior, but the latter consider themselves superior.’

Education as a Self- and Community-engineering Process


amongst the Chamars, with women being the most uneducated of all. With special reference to education, according to a survey of the Chamar community I carried out in 1998, adult women with no education comprised 55 per cent (compared to 32 per cent for men), and represented a high proportion of those who had received only five years of schooling. (The percentage of adult men is also significant in this category.) Classes were attended by virtually no adult women, and by half as many girls as boys. Concerning higher education, 2 per cent of young men were studying towards a degree, 2 per cent were graduates, and 2 per cent were postgraduates. After 1998, a few girls started to attend degree colleges. English-medium education, a powerful agent of social mobility for other Untouchable castes (Osella and Osella 2000), was almost unknown in the basti, reaching only a tiny minority of children. The status of educated young women (both born in the village or those who had moved into it as a result of marriage) is explored in detail in Chapter 7, complementing the reflections on education offered in this chapter.

III. Becoming Better People In everyday interaction in India, education as a civilising resource is a common discourse across caste communities. However, not much has been written about the ideological uses and consequences of education amongst the underprivileged sections of Indian society, who have been the focus of State action in the decades after independence from colonial rule. Several recent publications have addressed developmental issues concerning education and its impact on these classes (see, for example, Balagopalan and Subrahmanian 2003; Subrahmanian 2003), and they have focused on education as an increasingly politicised resource against the backdrop of its commodification (Jeffery 2005). In this literature, education does not emerge unambiguously as a resource that guarantees social inclusion and upward mobility, especially in Dalit households; disillusionment about the chances of obtaining employment through education has grown strong amongst the young generations, so that increasingly the unproblematic assets that schooling and education usually carry have begun to be critically interrogated. However, research carried out in the western regions of UP shows how unemployed Muslim and Dalit young men continue to cherish their ‘educated identities’ as opposed to the traditional village ones (Jeffrey, Jeffery and Jeffery 2004) and the recognition ‘of the importance of post-educational landscapes as terrains of social and political struggle’ (Jeffrey, Jeffery and Jeffery 2008: 8; italics in the original).


Retro-modern India

These findings certainly have a resonance amongst Manupur Chamars. During fieldwork, I realised how discourses on formal education had penetrated intimate dimensions of social life. In this chapter, I focus on out-of-the-classroom ethnographic material, to analyse the ways in which discourses on education as an idiom of knowledge and progress are quintessential to self and community representation. This is certainly more vividly perceived among male Chamars, among whom the effects of education are more pronounced given their broader attendance at schools and universities. Education is viewed by Chamars as leading to the acquisition of a substance, often of a moral nature, which is seen as collectively shared (even though it is actually acquired by a minority) and believed to act upon an inherited stigmatised Chamar substance. In this respect, the ideological use of education carries forward the project of the de-essentialisation of identity which began with the abandonment of polluting occupations, analysed in Chapter 2. As a result of the deep implications of this received stigmatising knowledge about self and community and the degree of its internalisation, I regard the effects of education amongst Manupur Chamars as an ontological experience. I argue that there is a strong nexus between this received knowledge and the Chamars’ ideological use of education. Within the economy of self and community improvement, discourses around education encapsulate a large portion of the modern Chamar ethos, and reveal a deep and ongoing symbolic trade between an essentialised, derogatory Chamar identity and the Chamars’ attempts to shed their original selves through education and become better people. The process of becoming better people amongst the Chamars, through acquiring precious cultural capital (Bourdieu 1977), needs to be situated in a number of coexisting discourses: the ideas of ignorance of the masses and their moral decadence vis-à-vis the civilising effects of education as the inheritance of the colonial educational project (K. Kumar 1991); education as a tool to fight Brahminical hegemony in pre-independence anti-caste movements; and the Nehruvian modernist project in independent India and subsequent views of progress (see, for example, Khilnani 1998). Local constructions of cultural capital and what it means to be educated in Indian society bring to the fore the relationship between indigenous knowledge(s) and the knowledge derived from educational processes (see Bloch 1993). Manupur Chamars’ experiences of education echo the ‘rejection of indigenous knowledge’ as the central issue in

Education as a Self- and Community-engineering Process


colonial education (K. Kumar 1991: 68). Amongst them, any knowledge attained through prestigious, and socially remunerative, formal education appears to exist in a tabula rasa. By extolling the virtues of education and its civilising nature, caste knowledge implicitly becomes worth less, despite its usefulness to the community in a number of significant domains (see Chapter 5 for an analysis of religious practices). What is more, no scepticism is found around education and the possible dangers of obliterating one’s culture or identity through it; rather, the contrary. What is learned at school and university appears to go largely unquestioned, and appears as a monolithic construct. The contents of education do not come into play in the Chamar discourse, whether or not one obtained a Bachelor of Commerce, or a Master’s in chemistry, or simply attended high school.6 The appropriation of an undifferentiated bulk of educational contents has obtained primacy over indigenous knowledge and also stimulated the production of new knowledge, such as that about the past, explored in the course of this chapter. Educational contents aside, Chamar discourses point to the civilising effects of formal education, rather than it just enabling one to read and write — skills which not many of Manupur Chamars have. However, for a historically uneducated community like the Chamars, living in a society where meanings of the ‘educated person’ have a long and complex genealogy, literacy and formal education lie on an experiential continuum. When commenting on events or activities in the past that symbolise ignorance, backwardness and their traditional occupations, the Chamars use the phrase: ‘Ham log parhe likhe nahi the [we were not educated]’. In Hindi, however, parha-likha means both literate and educated. When this expression is used, the degree of education attained by the educated person in question is not explicit and could range from secondary school attendance to a college degree (see also Jeffrey, Jeffery and Jeffery 2004). I suggest that being able to read and write and, subsequently, being able to access knowledge and to become educated cannot easily be disentangled here. One is a process of acquisition of acquistion of skills and techniques, and the other is a synonym for refinement and civilisation; the former is preliminary to the latter. Both take place in educational institutions, and

These considerations do not include those on the ways in which low castes have figured in textbooks. 6


Retro-modern India

they are ultimately interdependent.7 Unlike the analytical necessity found in other contexts to separate literacy from education, this interdependence requires the adoption of an approach in which different levels of formal education are examined along the lines of the above-stated continuum. The interdependence between literacy and education in Manupur needs also to be framed in context of the fact that this historically uneducated community has passed from illiteracy on the part of parents to postgraduate degrees taken by their children. What is more, no other processes of vocational or religious learning have taken place amongst the Chamars that lead to literacy as distinct from formal schooling. There is also an element of diachronicity. Those very few male Chamars, now in their fifties and sixties, who were the first to receive schooling up to the sixth grade represented the ‘educated persons’ of the community; they were ‘surpassed’ by the next generation, who pursued studies further. More than anything, in the village, one senses a divide between those who can only sign and vote with a thumbprint (angutha chap) and (the various levels of) parhe-likhe people.

IV. The Technology of Literacy and Education and the Modern The Chamar ethnographical nexus between literacy and education calls into question the wider and long-standing debate on the consequences of literacy. Focusing on transformations that occurred in the West, mainly as a result of the advent of writing, the literacy thesis claimed a number of things: the enhancement of critical thinking; the adoption of evolutionary historical paradigms and associated notions of ‘progress’ replacing cyclical notions of time; and, lastly, socio-political consequences such as the questioning of tradition and the emergence of democratic forms (Goody 1977; Goody and Watt 1963). A great number of scholars, however, have shown the fallacy of the view of literacy as the ‘technology of the intellect’, as a consequence of which cognitive claims of a transformation of social A study on literacy amongst the Rabari nomads in western India points to a conceptualisation of literacy that is similar to my description of education in this chapter. Dyer and Choksi argue that ‘Rabaris’ perceptions of “literacy” encompass far more than technical skills [. . .]. Literacy emerged as a whole ideology, shaped by the social, economic and cultural capital into material resources and social authority’ (2001: 37). 7

Education as a Self- and Community-engineering Process


and mental life were put forward.8 The need for contextualised studies of literacy has led Street (1984) to identify two analytical models: the ‘autonomous’ one embodied by Goody’s supposedly universal workings of literacy in any given context, associated with ‘progress’, ‘civilization’, ‘individual liberty’, and ‘social mobility’ (ibid.: 2); and an ideological model, proposed by Street, that focuses on the cultural embeddedness of literacy, understood as a set of social practices, and therefore contextsensitive. The present account of the ideological uses of formal education, including aspects of literacy amongst Manupur Chamars, strikingly echoes the socio-political transformations implied by the literacy thesis, although it does not endorse any of its cognitive aspects. And given the circulation and borrowing of the literate person’s skills, my account does not support any divide between oral and literate culture. Rather, literacy skills can serve to bridge the gap between the two ‘worlds’. I argue that if the socio-political ‘predictions’ of the literacy thesis, shown to be fallacious in other contexts, hold true for this Chamar community, it is precisely because these predictions converge with colonial discourses on education, enforced by the modernist project of the Indian developmental State in the post-independence era and its mantra of mass literacy programmes. Moreover, all these elements have found a fertile terrain amongst the Chamars, who see them as tools to de-essentialise identity. This chapter shows how the modernist impetus has been appropriated by a historically stigmatised community wishing to reinvent its past to live better in the present, especially as status is still a charged and emotional social resource in northern Indian society. Whereas scholars have shown how literacy and literate traditions have been found reinforcing elite powers (Bloch 1989; Parry 1985), this chapter shows how the workings of literacy and education are tightly linked to the widening of the democratic project in north Indian society, which specifically appeals to the Chamar and other low-caste communities. With increased visibility from the 1990s onwards, educated generations amongst the low castes have led political mobilisation against the upper castes and proselytised among the masses of rural poor from within the folds of the BSP. More importantly, there are a number of domains of social life where Manupur Chamars’ process of self and community engineerings, as a result of the modernist 8 For a comprehensive review of the critiques of Goody’s work, see Collins (1995).


Retro-modern India

impetus, are best exemplified: conceptualisations of the past, ritual life, and present individual experiences of education and the interpretation of these through the laws of karma.

V. The Past, At Present The study of the colonial and postcolonial pasts in India is incessantly attracting scholarly attention, including much-awaited work on the ‘dark’ areas of Indian history, such as the Partition and the Emergency. Outside academic circles, this production has been paralleled by the remaking of the ‘symbolic’ past as a prominent feature of the above-mentioned recent process of low- and middle-ranking castes’ political mobilisation in northern India. The ‘thirst for history’ amongst a number of castes (and not only low castes) has led to their rewriting the past in order to be part of the nation’s history, and to the creation of supralocal political communities (see Michelutti 2008; Narayan 2004, 2006). Existing myths of origins have been questioned by low-caste communities and replaced with versions of historical subjection and symbols of self-respect and dignity. The need for self-respect and dignity and the denunciation of oppression are also reflected in the exponential growth of Dalit literature in Indian public culture. A shared history of discrimination, exploitation, and rights claims has emerged, underpinning a modern constructed Dalit identity for low-caste communities (Kaviraj 1997: 9). These supralocal trends are well reflected in Manupur; the ethnography shows how ‘local actors incorporate and use national and other translocal signs, ideologies, and forms to engage in their own local struggles’ (Mines 2002: 59). Bloch has argued that ‘the amount of social structure, of the past in the present, of ritual communication is correlated, with the amount of institutionalised hierarchy and that is what it is about’ (1977: 289; italics in the original). For a stigmatised community such as the Chamars, their ‘remaking’ of the past is an attempt to contrast and nullify the present hierarchy in which upper-caste elites also coincide with the archetype of the educated and knowledgeable person. This remaking is two-fold. To explain it, I borrow Bernard Cohn’s classification (1987), of the past included in his ethnography of a Chamar community in Jaunpur district, adjacent to Varanasi district, back in the early 1950s. Cohn distinguishes between the ‘historic past’, which ‘explains, supports, or provides a basis for action in the local social system’ (ibid.: 89), and the ‘traditional past’, which serves to validate and maintain a social position (ibid.). Concerning

Education as a Self- and Community-engineering Process


the first, Cohn points out the absence of genealogical knowledge amongst the Chamars, compared to the vast knowledge amongst their upper-caste landlords of their own ancestors. In Chapter 2, I have described some features of the Chamars’ historical past. For example, decades after Cohn’s study, the Chamar historic past in Manupur faces a ‘genealogical death’ similar to the one described by Cohn. When I would ask Chamars about their grandfather or great-grandfather, they would usually reply: ‘Why do you want to know about him? He is dead.’ In addition to a paucity of knowledge about their ancestors, Chamars are not aware of their subcaste, or of their gotra (lineage). Nor do they use genealogical specialists to record their lineage. The trajectories of the three families considered to be the roots of the community in Manupur, described in Chapter 2, provide information only up to three ascendant generations. In his explanation of the ‘traditional past’, Cohn explains that for the upper-caste landlords, this past traces back to the epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, whose heroes are considered as caste ancestors (1987: 90). Amongst the Chamars, Cohn argues, the traditional past consists of origin myths and Chamar holy men such as Ravidas. Cohn also points out the birth of a ‘corporate historic past’, which stemmed from a movement of Chamar and low-caste groups towards political power (ibid.: 93). Almost 50 years later, the politics of the past has gained increased salience in north India. Low-caste political ideologies have evoked the need for a dignified and unifying past for the constituencies they address with the incorporation of religious and historical figures of prominence. The Chamars do not appeal to epics such as the Mahabharata to build a respectable past; rather, the contrary. In Manupur, as elsewhere, traditional epics are seen by the Chamars as the source of the ideological justification of low-caste oppression and an example of evil characters being portrayed as low caste. Myths of origin amongst Dalits have also undergone significant transformations. Deliège (1999) argues that there is a common underlying structure in all myths recounted by Dalits in different parts of India. The ‘sibling’ myth, as it is called, narrates the story of four brothers, one of whom made the mistake of handling the body of a dead animal. He was labelled ‘Untouchable’, and is considered to be the ancestor of these castes. Deliège’s analysis supports the idea that while, on the one hand, Dalits criticise their position within society through these myths, on the other, ‘they do not question the


Retro-modern India

ideological foundations of the system, nor the system itself, which they present almost as natural’ (1999: 73). By contrast, to critique the unequal caste social order, Dalit politics has revitalised the Adi Hindu theme. The next chapter discusses in detail the reformulation of this theme and its locations in the intellectual world of the Chamars. The Dalit political project has created an ‘imagined community’ with a positive effect on Chamar and Dalit identity as a whole; other communities in India have also experienced similar symbolic transformations of the past. However, the creation of these imagined communities is not upheld by the same features and does not yield the same results. Where Bloch (1996: 217) has claimed a link between descent and ways of being in the past, Michelutti (2004: 49ff.) has convincingly shown how this holds true amongst the middle-ranking Yadav community of northern India. Together with the Chamars and other castes, although from within the folds of the Samajwadi Party, the Yadavs have been the protagonists of political mobilisation, challenging the upper castes’ power. Within the Yadav community, the idiom of descent is linked to the creation of sacred genealogies and the proliferation of a vast caste historiography supporting such versions of the past, which have found their best display and use in modern politics. The Yadavs have carried out their identity project through kinship and corporate local and national power. By contrast, the Chamars have used a modern tool such as education, understood as substance. On the one hand, the Yadavs believe in caste substance and in descent; on the other, the Chamars are affected by ‘genealogical amnesia’ and wish to build a new, but not specifically Chamar, substance through education and to get rid of their transmitted and inherited one. A critical approach to the negative connotations of structural or genealogical amnesia in anthropological debate has been taken by Carsten, in her study (1995) of the migration histories of Malay villagers. Amongst the latter, the past or people’s provenance does not hold any special salience, and, significantly, identity is not ‘handed down from the past or even given at birth’ (ibid.: 317). Carsten points out that ‘rather than seeing forgetting in negative terms as a loss, I consider it a crucial part of the way identity is actively acquired in Langkawi’ (ibid.: 318). As a result, she associates the unimportance of the past amongst Malay villagers with a fluid identity. In Manupur, genealogical amnesia is linked to the Chamars’ attempts to de-essentialise identity and disentangle it from the historical local past,

Education as a Self- and Community-engineering Process


which is an inadequate resource for improvement. In other words, the Chamars have selected which past to emphasise: they do not remember their own ancestors, have rejected high-caste versions of their origins and have instead appropriated and revitalised historical and religious figures and the Adi Hindu theme. In this process, the idea of the Brahmins’ ritual authority has also been questioned; literacy as well as education in this case have both provided the means to do so.

VI. The Knowledgeable Brahmin Priest and the Literate/Educated Chamar We are not calling the Brahmans now because there is jativad (casteism), which did not exist in the past. People now vote for their own [caste] people. If the Brahmans were not offered a chair to sit when they came to our settlement for worship, they would beat us. So we became educated, and educated people advised us to avoid the Brahmans and their services. Educated people said we should do everything ourselves. Education was the main factor that changed our attitudes. (Anand, an educated 30-yearold skilled male labourer, field notes 1999)

Education, in conjunction with political mobilisation, has led Manupur Chamars to question those traditionally endowed with knowledge, in particular the Brahmin ritual specialists. For instance, 10 to 20 years prior to the time of my fieldwork,9 the Chamars claimed, they stopped calling the Brahmins to perform rituals. In other regions of India, a similar phenomenon took place amongst low castes and Dalits during the antiBrahmin movement in the 19th century. O’Hanlon argues that by the end of the 1880s, the performance of religious ceremonies without the assistance of Brahmans had come to occupy an important place in non-Brahman activity throughout the Deccan. Very frequently, these ceremonies were conducted with the Vedic texts which were appropriate to Kshatriyas. (1985: 301)

By contrast, the Satnamis (the Chamars who initiated the Satnampanth) rejected not only Brahmin priests, but also Hindu deities, temples and pujas (worship) (Dube 1998: 1). However, the Satnamis’ rejection of Hindu 9 As often happens during fieldwork, dates and years cannot be indicated with much precision.


Retro-modern India

deities and temples was short-lived and fairly superficial. With regard to north India, studies have cited different arrangements between Brahmin priests and Untouchable castes.10 Ritual is where the relationship between literacy (in the sense of using skills to access knowledge) and education as knowledge acquisition is most poignant. Literate/educated young Chamar men in Manupur are deployed to celebrate rituals that require the recitation of texts, which at times require knowledge of Sanskrit. It follows that the ability to read ritual texts, and the mass production of religious literature and its availability in local markets, has allowed them to substitute the new literate and educated Chamar for the traditional knowledgeable Brahmin priest. The link between literacy/education and the questioning of religious authority has not only been observed in India: Eickelman has shown how mass higher education in Arab countries has enlarged the circle of traditional and authorised religious figures through the reading of texts (1992: 652). Arguing against generalisations of the effects of literacy, Halverson has pointed out how ‘literacy is not some kind of independent force acting on passive recipients. What matters is what is written and read, not that it is written and read’ (1992: 315; italics in the original). For the Chamars, however, both elements appear to be important: first, as they gain knowledge through reading texts otherwise unknown to them; and, second, as they are able to allocate priests’ skills to themselves. Ritual culture and practices have been the domain of the uneducated members of the community, such as male ritual specialists who celebrate marriages. Brahmin priests used to be called upon for their services to 10 Cohn has pointed out that, unlike in the past when, according to colonial reports, Brahmin priests did not celebrate rituals for the Chamars, ‘in recent years Brahmins in Senapur have officiated at many ceremonies of the Chamars and rendered them certain services. The same Brahmin who officiates for the higher castes officiates for the Chamars’ (1954: 199). Cohn has also argued that as a consequence of the Chamars’ efforts to raise their status and, following the adoption of the Shiva Narayan Sect and their sanskritisation, weddings are celebrated in the upper-caste fashion and Brahmin priests are called upon for all wedding ceremonies, with the exception of the final rites (1987: 281). Mahar points out that none of the Untouchable castes, including the Chamars, in the village he studied in western UP received the services of the village Brahmins, barbers and washermen. As a consequence, rituals, including marriages, have been performed by caste elders (1972: 22).

Education as a Self- and Community-engineering Process


perform a few rituals prior to the marriage ceremony, as well as for the recitation of devotional stories. The Chamars’ decision to stop calling the Brahmin priests is a political and symbolic statement in their strategy of challenging hierarchical relations and touches on the essential rules of Hinduism. As Fuller has put it: Ritual action in particular is the context in which hierarchical relationships — between castes, rulers and subjects, or men and women as well as between deities and human beings — are repeatedly being constructed, and even when such relationships are not homologous with others outside the religious domain, the former are always present as a model of how the world might or even should be. (1997: 11)

The spread of literacy and education amongst the Chamars has underpinned their claims to dismiss the Brahmin priests. For instance, during fieldwork, literate Chamars proudly showed me their calendars, and claimed to be able to do without the Brahmins for choosing auspicious dates for marriages. Mahar (1972) noted that inter-college education amongst low castes in north India provided them with a knowledge of Sanskrit and, subsequently, access to the sacred texts: ‘This was most apparent amongst the Sweepers, who elevated a fifteen-year-old student to a position of prominence in their ritual life. This youth’s recitations from the Veda became a major feature of their life cycle and calendrical rites’ (ibid.: 27). In Manupur Chamar settlement, for example, the celebration of the popular Saraswati Puja — the worship of the goddess of knowledge performed every year by students — had consisted of a private occasion in a better-off household with children in higher education. Since 2002, however, this worship has become a collective event within the Chamar community. That year Chamar students of Sanskrit read out ritual booklets in Sanskrit, and a ceremony was organised in their settlement as well as elsewhere. This episode points to the existence of a student population as well as to the young Chamars’ desire to be part of the mainstream religious culture, in contrast with their caste’s history of ritual exclusion. Moreover, Manupur Chamars believe anyone can function as a priest. They say: By birth no one is Brahman. If someone is born in a Brahman family, he may not be a Brahman. A Brahman is an educated and talented person. Whereas Brahmans used to do the Brahman’s work in the past, today learned people are doing it themselves.


Retro-modern India

As Santosh, a middle-aged Chamar man, put it: ‘The role of the Brahmans is just dhakosla (pretence or deception). Everybody can become a priest and conduct a marriage. And especially since people became literate/ educated, they know how to perform the ceremony.’ These are symbolic attempts to substitute the knowledgeable Brahmin priest with the literate/ educated Chamar in ritual performances. But it is also a claim to an ‘ideal selfhood’ for a subaltern group such as the Chamars, albeit one which is found within Indian society rather than in the West. Indeed the Chamars do not need higher studies to read a calendar, as opposed to the skills needed to read a booklet in Sanskrit. Further, the Chamars do not need to be literate to perform a critique of texts from the Brahminical hegemonic tradition, by virtue of the existence and wide circulation of oral critical accounts—a process that is part of their political mobilisation. The Chamars are able to adopt or reject texts from the Brahminical tradition because of a wider notion of literacy that has been exercised at a supralocal level. Here, literate and educated Dalits and members of other communities have read and criticised Brahminical texts and disseminated their critiques of the tradition, which are then appropriated and further reformulated at the village level. In essence, literacy and education, whether actually owned or ‘borrowed’, show a profound relation to processes of politicisation and to the creation of pan-Indian communities, a large portion of whom never received formal education.

VII. The Individual Economy of Education As will be shown in Chapter 6, the political mobilisation of the Manupur Chamars’ assertive, educated generation has served to transform the community into a unified body where the attributes of the educated person are collectively shared vis-à-vis other caste communities. Moreover, in helping the uneducated (and not just those from their own caste) navigate the arcane bureaucratic procedures and paperwork and in helping with the knowledge transfer from State institutions onto them, the educated generation has served to provide an exegesis of everyday life. The technology of formal education, however, is not evenly spread amongst Manupur Chamars. As a result, individual experiences of education and subsequent processes of social mobility and embourgeoisement involving the educated generation have thrown up conflicting compulsions concerning notions of status and equality. Being part of the educated milieu often

Education as a Self- and Community-engineering Process


means replicating a mixture of upper-caste and middle-class lifestyle and gaining symbolic leverage in differentiated and competitive public and private arenas. As a result, an educated and unified community substance is fragmented internally into a myriad of individual paths of upward mobility. These strands of social mobility are defined and legitimated by those very distinctions that separated the Chamars from the refined and educated ‘other’ in the past. In the process of transforming the transmitted derogatory Chamar substance into a performative and fluid one, local ideas of education (a shared substance affecting caste qualities) are used by the Chamars when talking about themselves vis-à-vis others. In this respect, claiming a unified (and positive) substance on the basis of education serves a political and social necessity. By contrast, the everyday experience of education amongst Manupur Chamars inevitably remains individual, as the majority of adults are uneducated and many of them cannot afford to educate their children. As a result, a subtle dividing line is created between those who are educated and those who are not, and this line runs deep into people’s private relationships. Often, educated people espouse the ‘right lifestyle’: an emphasis on respectability, a higher marriage age for both sexes and a degree of sanitisation of cultural performances. At the same time, they engage in a social critique of and distaste for the ‘classic’ vices of the under-classes: excessive alcohol consumption, gambling, illiteracy, large numbers of children, money mismanagement, the use of abusive language, and the display of private affairs in public. Encounters between these two ‘worlds’ and their diverging ways of life and styles are analysed in Chapter 7. Education is used as an idiom to express social divisions brought about by processes of upward mobility. These divisions are often reinforced by a higher socio-economic status through different consumption patterns and access to a different social milieu amongst those households who have made it to salaried jobs in the government. The majority of households, however, face loss and instability as a result of global and local economic trends, which, for example, have brought the local weaving business to a standstill. As many of the caste’s ‘shortcomings’ are attributed to their lack of education, this is substantiated by an idea of the development of moral qualities through education. Although this idea is also found amongst castes without any legacy of derogatory identities, among the Chamars it differs in that it results in a reinforcement of the need to regain morality. Take, for example, the case of young Pramod, the last of six


Retro-modern India

brothers, four of whom are uneducated, who has obtained a number of degrees from universities in Banaras. What follows is an example of the kind of development that education can bring about, and it also reflects general attitudes and judgements concerning the value of education in the community: P: Pramod; M: Manuela P: I don’t like what they [the other Chamars] do or say and when they quarrel. M: Is it because people are not educated that they do not know how to behave or can anyone have good samskar11 without education? P: It is because they are not educated. But you cannot improve your behaviour. You may improve it a little but not a lot, because there are several things to know for which you need to be educated. For example, if I do something wrong and an uneducated person does the same, I will pity myself whereas the one who is not educated will never feel any pity. One day I will have to pay for what I have done, but the uneducated person will not think like this. The main reason for our backwardness is the lack of education. As uneducated persons, we have avivek (lack of judgement) and this is the reason why our people do not get better jobs. Instead of job reservations we should be provided with education so that buddhi ka vikas (development of the mind)12 will occur. (Field notes 1999)

Manupur Chamars view castes as bearers of different degrees of moral authority, reflected in the moral content of their actions. As Pramod had argued, they believe that people’s moral responsibility is directly proportional to their level of education and status. Similarly, uneducated Chamars see themselves as the most exposed to social injustice, and not as ‘big sinners in this life’, and believe that poor people are more readily excused when they commit adharma (immorality). In the next chapter, I discuss the Chamars’ strategy of transferring ‘immorality’ to those who are supposedly the embodiment of virtue, the Brahmins, to condemn their historical faults and re-establish moral equity between the two communities.

Samskar means the values which are instilled in an individual from birth. Buddhi has quite a few meanings: intelligence, understanding, mind, sense, and wisdom. 11 12

Education as a Self- and Community-engineering Process


Against the ever-present slogan of development to which all types of governmental schemes are devoted, Pramod clearly prefers another kind of development, that of the mind and wisdom. He does not look back at ancestral and traditional knowledge, but associates his community with a lack of education and judgement and with the need for buddhi ka vikas. Pramod believes that children from any caste are born as Shudras and are agyani (not knowledgeable). Interestingly, these characteristics correspond to the description Parry gives of Banaras Brahmins when they talk about the origin of the material body: All human beings are born through the same vagina (bhag), all emerge from the ‘place of urination’, and consequently all are equally Shudras

by birth. Brahmins are not born, but made by the life-cycle rituals through which they pass. Only the product of Brahman seed has the capacity for such transformation, however. (1989a: 498) Pramod described the process of socialisation into one’s own caste as follows: ‘Through karma and vichar [action and ideas], people establish their caste. The family makes the child understand her or his community. The child receives the samskar of the family or caste where she or he is born.’ Education, however, intervenes in this process and, as other Chamars have put it, brings about ‘a change of environment’, most probably one where the new environment is different from the environment of most of their families of origin. Growing up in a Chamar household is not quite the same as, for example, growing up in a Brahmin one. As Pramod commented: From the very beginning, Brahman children acquire jankari (information, knowledge) and others do not. Malnutrition and lifestyle influence IQ. These affect the IQ difference in different communities. Obviously in one good family, three children can have three different IQs. But malnutrition is not the main cause. Brahmans enjoy better food quality and their life routine is very systematic. They know better how to live in society and within the family. Therefore they perform better. The cause of this is education.

Pramod’s theory of socialisation draws boundaries between those like him who have acquired a certain degree of education or knowledge, and those who have not. However, it also asserts that different environments produce different individuals after birth. Similarly, many Chamars believe


Retro-modern India

that individuals are ranked according to the karma (action) they accomplish in their present life, rather than by their inherited substance. The liberating process of acquiring an educated substance clearly subverts the idea of the innate qualities of the Indian person (see Marriott 1989), which are, however, permeable and modifiable under the influence of external elements.13 Unlike Banaras Brahmins, Pramod’s ideas point to a ‘democratisation of social transformation’, made available to anybody through education, especially at a time when a ‘forced’ democratisation of social relations is taking place thanks to political mobilisation. The upper castes’ privileges must give way to the lower castes’ claims of equality, but the friction between the two ways of understanding social identities continues to feature in the everyday interaction amongst communities. It is certainly not just the dialectic between the Chamars and the Brahmins that is affected by the above-mentioned trends, as there is a more general process of resetting identities, spaces and practices.

VIII. ‘Democratisation of the Soul’: Karma, Dharma and Rebirth The Chamar modernist ethos, acquired through the tool of education, affects the past and the present as well as the Hindu notions of karma, dharma and rebirth which act as a trait-d’union between the two. Karma, dharma and rebirth have been the subject of indological research as well as anthropological investigation between the 1960s and the 1980s. While these notions subsequently seem to have disappeared from the study of the moral and religious landscapes of individuals and communities in India, at the same time they have increasingly become a shared global repertoire as Hinduism’s popularity expands, thanks to growing diasporas. A number of early accounts of Untouchable communities have examined the nexus between karma, dharma and rebirth as a testing ground for measuring the degree of acceptance of mainstream ideological fundaments which underpin their lowly position within Hindu society. In these accounts, scholars speak of ‘religious anxiety’ and the cognitive difficulties in reconciling the worldviews of these communities with dominant Hindu

13 For a discussion of the Untouchable concepts of a person, see Vincentnathan (1993) in the following note.

Education as a Self- and Community-engineering Process


religious and moral idioms and their implications for the self.14 Through an ‘intellectual revolt’, the Chamars have reworked the tenets of Hinduism in ways that reflect their self and community transformation. They have discarded the predestination and immutability of identities, lives and hierarchies inscribed in karma, dharma and rebirth on the grounds

Kolenda’s study (1964) of an Untouchable community of sweepers in north India deals with the karma–rebirth–dharma complex. She argues that this is not common amongst the Untouchables because of the implications of this complex. In fact, the implications of the karma doctrine would compromise the image of the Untouchables’ past and would justify the rightness of their low rebirth in accordance with dharma. The acceptance of such a belief would cause the Untouchables ‘religious anxiety’. In order to escape this condition, Untouchables avoid the use of karma as an explanation of their low position in society. Rather, they solve their predicament through appealing to a set of myths of origin. On the Untouchable castes’ disbelief in karma and rebirth, see also Juergensmeyer (1982: 97ff.). Vincentnathan’s work (1993) on the Untouchable concept of person and society in south India suggests similar features. Her neo-functionalist approach posits that although Untouchables share caste Hindu culture, they refer to something different when they use it idiomatically and symbolically. In fact, they possess their own concepts of the person and society that depart from those held by caste Hindus. The reason for this difference is to be found in ‘the idea that within the context of Indian social structure and in articulation with Hindu culture and ideology these subcultural concepts may help in part meet untouchables psychological need for self-esteem’ (Vincentnathan 1993: 55). The conviction that castes are equal, leads Untouchables to the conclusion that pollution is a state of all castes and does not pertain exclusively to them. Any person can attain advancement, and in this way they ‘cognitively escape the negative value accorded their identity’ (ibid.: 56). This view is in contrast with caste Hindus’ notion of the person (see Marriott 1976). Also, Untouchables’ caste myths of origin are confronted with those of caste Hindus: Vincentnathan concludes that the symbolism of the sibling myths is aimed at supporting the idea that people are inherently equal and that Untouchables’ position within society is not due to their ontological inferiority to caste Hindus but to external factors which can be modified. As a result, Untouchables do not see themselves as responsible for their position in society, as high-caste ideals of rebirth and karma imply. By contrast, in his study on Untouchables in Lucknow, the capital of UP, Khare highlights how the karma–dharma nexus is pervasive in their reasoning on justice, even though they ‘increasingly distrust and drop many exploitative Brahmanic rites and observations’ (1998: 202). 14


Retro-modern India

of their own achievements and performances and, through a symbolic extension of their own agency, the achievements of figures inhabiting the Dalit pantheon, such as Ambedkar and Ravidas. Classically, the theory of karma links past and present lives by a law of cause and effect. While they do not discard the organising principle of cause and effect, in the Chamars’ view, however, karma assumes a worldly meaning as it is not present at birth, while individuals are evaluated on their performance in this life. As a consequence, whatever karma is associated with being a Chamar by birth is dismissed. Ajay, an educated, young Chamar man, put it as follows: People are ranked karma ke anusar [according to karma] and education. Educated people are on top. For instance, Ambedkar went through painful situations when he was being educated. No one is up or down, people will be ranked in society according to karma. Karma is not present at birth, it is what you do after you are born.

The Chamar idea of karma takes on a mundane significance and becomes an organising principle for actions and social relations. Karma serves to show how education, more than any other activity or profession, is a particularly ‘liberating’ tool for the Chamars’ self-representation, as it also frees them from the notion of rebirth on the basis of actions committed by individuals in their previous lives. The notion of rebirth finds scarce relevance amongst the Chamars, and it is often dismissed by the younger generation. That the Chamars’ interpretations of the notions of karma (and other tenets of Hinduism) differ from those contained in the textual tradition is not surprising. The ‘classic’ interpretation, according to which ‘every action has its inevitable “fruit” or consequence, so that a person’s condition is determined by good or bad deeds in this and previous lives’ is not uniform in the scriptural texts either (Fuller 1992: 245). The various notions of karma found in these texts resemble those found in popular Hinduism (ibid.: 248).15 As part of this shared popular repertoire, the Chamar notion of karma resembles the one found in studies that portray popular understandings of the karma theory which, in turn, emphasise retribution in the present life (see Sharma 1973; Wadley and Derr 1989). I suggest an additional reading of the attribution of mundane meanings 15

On popular ideas of karma, see Keyes and Daniel (1983).

Education as a Self- and Community-engineering Process


to karma — one which eliminates the ‘randomness’ of an individual’s birth within a given caste, ‘fixes’ the historical continuity of an individual within her/his caste community and builds a stronger link with the political ancestry contained in the Dalit movement. In other words, by emphasising agency in the present life — and interrupting the circuit of cyclical time implied in the notion of rebirth — the Chamars establish a powerful continuity of action and ideas between them and historical and religious figures within the movement. Moreover, the mundane understanding of karma ‘disconnects’ individuals from the burden of adharma (immorality) committed in previous lives. ‘In Hinduism, karma is conceptually inseparable from dharma, understood as the moral code by which good and bad are evaluated, and samsara, the eternal cycle within which a person is successively reborn’ (Fuller 1992: 245). To the Chamars, dharma means social service for the downtrodden, to protect and practice the truth. For women, in particular, dharma means to serve their in-laws and children. In line with the historical association of philanthropic activities with the Indian upper classes, amongst upwardly mobile Chamars, there is an emphasis on dharma as social work. Dharma for them is not about being compassionate but teaching the downtrodden in order to improve their condition. As said above, the Chamars do not repute themselves as big sinners, an interpretation of moral standing influenced by their underprivileged social position. At the same time, as shown earlier, the educated Pramod has transformed education into a tool for assessing the moral/immoral content of action. In the Chamar view, the law of karma assures that if an immoral deed is committed, bhogadand (punishment) will occur, but only during the present life. A papi (sinner) will undergo all kinds of misfortunes: he or she will lose peace of mind, and his or her soul will be restless. After the punishment inflicted by human beings, divine punishment will follow. The interpretation of karma, mainly as action, also fits the disappearance of the doctrine of varnashramadharma, which establishes that there is a dharma assigned to different varnas. The Chamars do not have textual knowledge of dharma and believe that there is only one dharma for everyone, and this refers to duty and morality governing social relations. Varnashramadharma is believed by the Chamars to be a human, often a pandit’s (Brahmin priest), creation. Many Chamars believe that ‘God created one dharma and said that manav manav ek saman [all men are equal]’. One example given is that of the Chamar saint Ravidas who, ‘although he was a Shudra, made


Retro-modern India

his karma to do puja and to be a learned man. So he became a saint. A dharmik [religious] person, wherever he is born, will turn out to be a bara admi [big man] and will be worshipped.’ Tradition as a contentious issue has been highlighted in Chapter 1. Ideals of modernity in this Chamar community have been premised on the obliteration of one tradition imbued with derogatory elements constructing their caste, and the crafting of a more suitable one to replace the former. In this respect, the notion of karma as action has also been used by the Chamars as a classificatory element for aspects of this ‘tradition’: education, which is considered to be good karma, is placed in contrast with kharab (bad) karma performed by the Chamars in the past. In this context, karma is thought of as good or bad according to the degree of pollution associated with the action. Still informed by the purity and pollution principle, kharab karma consisted of the removal of dead animals and tanning. These activities were, in the view of Manupur Chamars, the karma of their past. Polluting work and bad karma were explained by the Chamars as having been due to their illiteracy. Education can be seen as the other end of this continuum.

IX. Conclusion: ‘Signs of the Times’ In this chapter, I have shown how the Chamar self- and communityengineering process begins with the remaking of the past. The contours of this process are highly political, and reflect the crucial nexus between three things: literacy and education as ideological resources; context — in particular, political mobilisation; and the social positioning of the communities analysed. Newly constructed self and community representations amongst the Chamars bring to the fore conflicting moralities between the upper and lower strata of Indian society. In a status-based society, these conflicting moralities are reflected in the very idea that all individuals share the same substance, which is made rather than ascribed. This idea remains the one that finds it hardest to meet wide acceptance, perhaps more than the principles of equality of opportunities and rights. The ‘educated’ substance only partially works towards acquiring social respectability. On the one hand, the ‘democratisation of the concept of the person’, substantiated by notions of literacy and education, and the attempt by Manupur Chamars to democratise social relations are often defeated by discrimination, even when it is not overtly manifested. (Episodes such as the one which opened this book and the Ahir’s overt

Education as a Self- and Community-engineering Process


gesture in that episode might well have vanished from the public sphere but can take refuge in the privacy of homes and social relations. In Manupur, untouchability finds new insidious ways to surface under other denominations and forms. Judging from the atrocities committed against Dalits in UP, there exist many more serious cases of social hatred.) On the other hand, at the supralocal level, mobilised low castes, including the Chamars, claim a share of national identity and power(proportionally to their numbers, as the politics of identity commands), and have also gained substantial political strength through the enlargement of their original and low-caste vote bank. Chapter 6 analyses the local political history in conjunction with national events and how these are remembered, commented and evaluated. In this chapter, I have described a number of twists in the unilinear master narrative of social and cultural reproduction. I have discussed the effects of literacy and education, which called into question the socio-political consequences of the literacy thesis, namely, the critique of tradition, participation in the democratic process and beliefs in progress. As a result of the processes of social mobility amongst Manupur Chamars, these effects are accompanied by the alluring middle-class way of life, leading some of them into mainstream public life, culture and consumption to which they aspire. Here, the homogenising effects of education appropriated by the Chamar community lead education to be a tool that created differences among the members of the same community. The interplay between the processes of development and middle-class formation and aspirations is being enacted at the village level by the country’s historically under-privileged citizens. In Manupur village, manifestations of this interplay have only just begun to be visible and have recently impacted on social relations and lifestyles, as I will illustrate in detail in Chapter 7.

Chapter 5 Nonrational Modernity? Religious Agency, Science and Spirits I. Introduction: Locating the Sacred and the Secular Icons of the leader Ambedkar, who is so much a part of the national and the low-caste imaginary, are not just a ubiquitous sight in official buildings at crossroads or in low-caste homes and hamlets: they are also found lying in the sancta sanctorum of Ravidas temples in north India. Such is also the case of the temple consecrated to the saint in Manupur (built by the Chamars themselves and completed at the time of my first fieldwork) and located in the space where public sociality takes place in their basti. When asked about the difference between the leader and the saint, Manupur Chamars would make it clear that a shared sacred space does not confuse them in differentiating Ambedkar’s worldly accomplishments as a statesman and leader of the Untouchables from those of Ravidas, who ascended to purity despite his engagement in ‘impure’ leatherwork. From conversations with the Chamars, a clear ‘division of labour’ between the sacred and secular realms emerged. However, nothing stops low-caste inhabitants in India, Chamars included, from circulating oral stories of Ambedkar’s life and constructing the leader as a myth of the present era. But the fact that the Chamars know well the nature of the accomplishments of the two figures only very partially answers Chakrabarty’s question, introduced in Chapter 1, about the peasants’ and subalterns’ challenge to the modern distinction between the sacred and secular. The Chamars’ answers would closely match the opinion of many, including the intellectual elite. To fully capture the meanings of these living categories, however, and of what these entail for the Chamars, we need to shift the focus to their interrelationship. In so doing, I will take further the analysis I began in Chapter 4. There, the eclectic nature of the modern amongst the Chamars saw its powerful exemplification in discourses around education, and the faultlines that education brings about between the past and the present and backwardness and civilisation. If on the one hand, these discourses symbolise the power of the modernist ethos, on the other, I show how for this ethos to acquire

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salience, individuals and communities needed to delve into national and local pasts, and religious practices. Interestingly, the effects of the modernist ethos in the Chamar community initiated changes in the ritual sphere too — most notably, ostracising Brahmin priests. What I have termed as the democratisation of social transformation — and the emphasis on achievement made available to anybody through education rather than on innate birth qualities — has entailed, amongst its other consequences, the appropriation of priestly prerogatives on the part of the Chamars. Further, what I have called the democratisation of the soul has broken the cycle of rebirth, tying the rewards or punishments implied in one’s karma to the present life. More broadly, the religious worlds of Untouchable communities usually evoke attributes of marginality, alterity and contestation, while often pointing to the phenomenon of conversion. ‘Religion’ for castes such as the Chamars is a tense site of social relations and intellectual effort in which colonial modernity first, and later the effects of modernisation and democracy, have left their marks in ways which depart from the Nehruvian secular idea of India. Religion for the Untouchables could never be delinked from the secular and from the project of their modernity itself; in fact, it was very much constitutive of it. And this observation surely applies to other communities. This is visible in all past Untouchable movements in which the religious element was a powerful drive for change even before the movement transformed itself into a political organisation. The Ad Dharm movement in Punjab, analysed by Juergensmeyer (1982), is a case in point. To answer the question raised by Chakrabarty (2004), the histories of Untouchable castes are therefore an excellent example of the nexus between the sacred and the secular, and of how they converge as the modern, rather than in antagonism to it. As stated in Chapter 4, the emancipatory nature of modernity amongst the Chamars does not lie in the liberation from elements of nonrationality, such as tradition and religion, but in replacing forms of oppressing traditions and religion with liberating ones. Following the profound critique of Hinduism put forward by Ambedkar, education amongst the Chamars meant liberation from Brahminical mythology, not from Hinduism as such. It is the incarnation of religion in the Brahmin priest and in those texts which provide a justification for the inferiority of the Untouchable castes that has come under scrutiny, rather than the idea of religion per se. A rationalist leader such as Ambedkar himself embraced Buddhism rather than quitting ‘religion’ altogether.


Retro-modern India

Not only do these findings form a particular language that subaltern communities use to express the modern, but are also illuminating vis-à-vis the revival of religion in the West, where too the presence and resilience of enchantment has been found as constitutive of the modern world rather than existing in antithesis to it. What is relevant to my argument here is that, as Talal Asad has argued, it is not only the vigorous presence of religion that has confuted the secularisation paradigm. He contends: In a sense what many would anachronistically call ‘religion’ was always involved in the world of power. If the secularization thesis no longer carries the conviction it once did, this is because the categories of ‘politics’ and ‘religion’ turn out to implicate each other more profoundly than we thought, a discovery that has accompanied our growing understanding of the powers of the modern nation-state. The concept of the secular cannot do without the idea of religion. (2003: 200; emphasis in the original)

The classification ‘secular paradigm’ or ‘post-secularism’ might not make much sense to define the Untouchable communities’ religious agency in history. What really matters here is the profound imbrication of religion with power in the ethnographic context analysed; these have both been constitutive of a sphere for the dominance of the upper castes, with priestly prerogative, as well as marking the contours of a battlefield for the Untouchables’ struggle for dignity and self-respect. And here the tight nexus between the sacred and the secular emerges. Moreover, the analysis of the collective religious experience amongst the Chamars shows how they have carved out their Hindu affiliation and acted upon ritual performance (for example, by banning priestly services) in the wake of the changing political and social climate. While the Chamar community’s agentive choices point to the ways in which the religious experience is intertwined with political movements and social transformation, it does not follow a unilineal trajectory in the way in which it ‘chooses’ practices from Hindu orthopraxy over time. Against this backdrop, in this chapter, I analyse religious discourses and practices as a language of modernity. I focus on the relationship between the use of science vis-à-vis religion to confer authority to low-caste myths; I analyse examples of spirit possession out of the ‘superstition framework’ as a tool of logical reasoning; finally, I examine the reworking of a text of the Hindu tradition,

Religious Agency, Science and Spirits


the Satyanarayan Katha, in which ‘religion’ becomes a powerful tool of social critique. But first, I introduce some issues which have characterised the representation of the religious identity and experience of the Untouchable castes in the Banaras region.

II. Idiosyncratic Believers? Separation and ritual exclusion have characterised the role of the Chamars in village ritual life. Manupur belongs to a number of northern-Indian villages described as being without collective festivals (Fuller 1992: 149–52). With the exception described below, major festivals in Manupur, including Tij and Jutiya Devi Puja (mainly involving women, as on many other religious occasions) are celebrated at the community level, all caste having their own separate celebrations in their respective settlements.1 I was told that in the past the village used to collectively worship the dih (the protecting deity of a village)2 with animal sacrifice (bali charhana) during Navaratri.3 This used to be overseen by a family of the low-caste Chauhans, from the large settlement in Manupur, who collected donations from the whole village (except the Chamars) and performed the sacrifice. By contrast, in south India the sacrifice would be the prerogative of the village Untouchables.4 In Manupur, however, the Chauhans substituted them. Excluded from this collective ritual, the Chamars used to collect their own money and purchase a separate animal for the sacrifice to be performed, not at the dih’s shrine, but in the village’s fields. A few years before the start of my fieldwork in 1998, Manupur Brahmins objected to the practice of sacrifice, and it was stopped in both the main settlement and the Chamar basti. After this ban, the worship began to take place in the form of hom (fire sacrifice)5 amongst Manupur villagers, but stopped completely amongst the Chamars. Even as Tij is a festival held on the third day of a lunar fortnight in the month of Savan (July–August). Jutiya Devi Puja is a special worship for offspring, which takes place during the same month. 2 The dih’s shrine consists of a Banyan tree located near the main settlement of the village. 3 Literally, ‘nine nights’. A very important festival in the Hindu calendar, in which the Goddess is worshipped. 4 For their role in village festivals, see Fuller (1992: 137–39). 5 When hom is performed, ghi (clarified butter) rather than an animal sacrifice is offered in the fire. 1


Retro-modern India

the worship of the dih testifies to the exclusion of the Chamars from the only common celebration in the village, it is in consonance with the picture of northern villages and the ritual role of Untouchables described by Fuller as: more a matter of marginality than ambiguity, which is consistent with the rarity of completely separate Harijan colonies outside the south. The complex design that requires Harijans to be included, so that they can simultaneously be represented as partially excluded […] is scarcely visible in any northern festival. (Fuller 1992: 148)

Combined with their religious exclusion, as described in Chapter 2, the marginal role of the Chamars is also translated into spatial isolation: the Chamar colony is located in the south (although not far from the backward castes’ hamlets), distant from the supposedly upper-caste core of the village. In the context of this Chamar ritual marginality, until a few years ago, services by Brahmin priests for this caste were a significant remnant of rank-defining caste relations operating in Manupur. Chamars would hire pandits from their own village or from a neighbouring one for ritual services. In Manupur, pandits were called upon to recite the Satyanarayan Katha before a marriage took place, and to perform two rituals held before the celebration of a marriage.6 As analysed in Chapter 4, the separation occurred in the socio-economic and political spheres, and extended to the ritual domain. Now Chamars have dismissed the priests and carry out

One ritual is called kangan pahanana (to apply a sacred bangle to the future bride or groom), and the second is called marava garana (the installation of a sacred bamboo at the centre of the mandap [the place where the marriage ceremony takes place]). Both rituals, the Chamars said, are short, inexpensive and held when pandits are not very busy, as they are performed on days which others consider to be inauspicious dates. On the occasion of marriages, Manupur Chamars claimed that ‘Harijans did not have enough to pay the purohit [Brahmin priest], so they borrowed money from him, thereby being obliged to work for a long time in order to pay off the debt’. Elderly Chamars pointed out how ‘the Brahmans used to cheat us by telling us the wrong auspicious dates, but since people in the Chamar basti became educated, we can do this work by ourselves. Chamars had their own deities and Brahmans would come for the marriage, make them worship Brahman deities and pay for it. Brahmans, on the contrary, would not worship Chamar deities’. 6

Religious Agency, Science and Spirits


marriage ceremonies by themselves. In ceremonies celebrated in Manupur, the bride’s phupha (father’s sister’s husband) traditionally acted as pujari (worship specialist), and the women of the bride’s family and at times the turkiya nau (Muslim barber) from a neighbouring village both ensured that the rituals were conducted properly. At the time of the wedding ceremony in the village, pandits were abused in songs by the women when performing the hom, which takes place on the occasions of two pujas, once before the marriage and once after the actual ceremony. It is said that these abuses have been sung since time immemorial and, it is claimed, they used to be sung in front of the pandits themselves. In Chapter 3, I raised the issue of the shifting Hindu religious identity of the Chamar community against the backdrop of a sharpening of Muslim and Hindu identities, which had begun in Banaras in the 19th century. Further, this process saw, in the first decades of the 20th century, the Shudra castes progressively joining militant Hinduism, while Untouchables experienced a resurgence of Bhakti worship. The sharpening of these divisions between religious communities (marked by the occurrence of communal riots), and within the Hindu fold itself, increased during the 1980s and 1990s. Hasan (1996) has argued that two major trends are found in UP politics in the 1980s and early 1990s: the acute polarisation of upper castes and backward and lower castes in the political struggle for power, and the intensification of Hindu–Muslim conflict. What is more, during these years, a rising antagonism between backward castes and low castes also emerged. To make sense of local understandings of the religious location of Manupur Chamars, I draw on Searle-Chatterjee’s findings (1981, 1994b, 1994b) from her ethnographic study of Banaras’s Untouchable sweepers, carried out during the 1980s and 1990s, which captures the transition within the UP polity. She points out that the sweepers do not subscribe to their Hindu identity and ‘use the term “Hindu” very differently from the way the high castes do, in terms of a different set of conceptual oppositions’ (Searle-Chatterjee 1994a: 160). She also includes Chamar leatherworkers in her discussion, arguing that their use of the myth of the Aryan invasion — the Adi Hindu theme — further strengthens the division between Hindu upper castes and Untouchable original inhabitants (ibid.: 161). ‘We are neither Hindus nor Muslims. We are the original inhabitants of India’, claimed the Ravidasi priest of a large Banaras temple dedicated to Ravidas (Searle-Chatterjee 1994b: 18). Searle-Chatterjee also states that the difference between the


Retro-modern India

Scheduled Castes and Hindu upper castes has come under scrutiny following the greater prevalence of Hindu nationalism, which forces these groups to choose to be either Hindu or Muslim. This contrasts with the absence of similar differentiation amongst the low castes (ibid.: 19ff.). In addition to the fact that the members of the Untouchable communities with whom Searle-Chatterjee carried out her research could not place themselves in either Hindu or Muslim categories, she observes that they ate pork, buried, or immersed their dead and visited minor Hindu shrines and Muslim tombs. Against this backdrop, Searle-Chatterjee concludes, ‘it is inappropriate to use the term “Hindu” in relation to the “lowest castes”’ (ibid.: 162; emphasis in the original). Notwithstanding the importance of the periodisation of Searle-Chatterjee’s findings, while they provide us with a glimpse of the issues revolving around two Untouchable castes’ religious membership in the locale of Banaras, two things should be noted here: first, the different socio-economic and political location of sweepers vis-à-vis the Chamars, and the involvement of some of communities from the latter group in Hindutva; second, as rightly noted by Searle-Chatterjee herself, the 1990s saw a process of polarisation of identities between Hindus and Muslims in north India, which might have differently affected sweepers and Chamars. Moreover, the definition of what constitutes a Hindu person is rendered more complex by the analysis of the features that Searle-Chatterjee has found amongst sweepers which, in her view, would make the usage of the term ‘Hindu’ inappropriate. Manupur Chamar Hindu membership includes eating pork (reported amongst some cast members); visiting both major and minor temples; and mainly burying their dead on the bank of a nearby river. It is interesting to note that the social practices described by SearleChatterjee, which sweepers and Manupur Chamars share, have usually been the target of reform through Sanskritisation. However, as Srinivas (1962, 1995) has pointed out, this strategy had hardly any effect on upwardly mobile Untouchables. In eastern UP, one manifestation of this process amongst the Chamars was recorded by Cohn in the adoption of the Shiva Narayan religious movement, founded by a follower of Ramananda (1987: 262ff.). This movement found no members amongst Manupur Chamars, who mainly worshiped another disciple of Ramananda, Ravidas. But Ravidas worship, described by Cohn as also being practiced amongst the Chamars of Senapur in the nearby Jaunpur district, cannot be considered as a sign of Sanskritisation. Cohn has

Religious Agency, Science and Spirits


pointed out that ‘it is almost impossible to sort out those traits which are Sanskritic and those which are non-Sanskritic in the rituals and beliefs of the Chamars’ (1954: 174–75). When Senapur Chamars began to adopt high-caste rituals and practices, Brahmins started to officiate at their rituals. Whether a similar process took place in Manupur, and if so, when and how, is impossible to ascertain. In Manupur, social practices (like those mentioned by Searle-Chatterjee, discussed in the previous paragraph) were not modified in the wake of Sanskritisation processes, and by banning Brahmin priests, the Chamars have chosen a strategy of mobility through which their status is not promoted by the priests’ traditional authority. They, however, aim to appropriate this authority through the tools of literacy and education. Likewise, later in this chapter I will describe Manupur Chamars’ relationship with ojhas (exorcists). Ojhas’ practices are far from being Sanskritic, but continue to be patronised by the Chamars (although the former’s influence seems to have declined and apprentices for these practices are no longer drawn from the basti). Further, the passage from burial to cremation has been an important element within Sanskritisation. However, past and contemporary death ritual practices amongst Manupur Chamars (including accounts by elderly men) reveal that both cremation and burial were and continue to be practised. This is a striking element, given the importance of the cremation grounds of Banaras. Very close to the ‘city of death’, however, stories of cremation grounds circulating amongst Manupur Chamars emphasise the discontent caused by the treatment the dead receive. For instance, they would argue that the dead are ‘beaten’ by the Dom (an Untouchable caste whose members attend to cremations) funeral attendants. An additional factor adduced to this explanation is that cremation is more expensive than a burial. Nevertheless, the Chamars do celebrate some of the rituals associated with cremation, although the length and procedures of these differ considerably from those of the upper castes. As mentioned earlier, there is no evidence to suggest that the practice of burial has been the subject of reform according to high-caste ritual practices, and there is no visible trend suggesting that cremation is preferred amongst high-status Chamars. The Chamar community’s relations with other faiths further describe their religious eclecticism. Chapter 3 has shown that the meanings of the Chamars’ Hindu identity remained unaffected by the development of long-term working relations with the Muslim community — relationships which, significantly, took place during periods of communal conflict.


Retro-modern India

A few years before my fieldwork, a couple converted to Christianity following the cure of the woman’s eye disease by a Christian-run hospital. At the same time, two women from another household also converted. During my fieldwork, members of a nearby Catholic mission were proselytising in the village. Although critical stances and claims of rejections of Hinduism have been asserted by a number of Chamars, the Hindu identity of the overwhelming majority of them has not been greatly affected by the anti-Hinduism legacy of Ambedkar, or by the BSP political rhetoric before its recent ideological change towards an inclusive pan-caste identity, which toned down the staunch anti-upper caste rhetoric of its beginnings. Neither has Chamar religious identity been affected by the conversions taking place in the nearby Buddhist centre of Sarnath or the conversions of Untouchables which take place at a pan-Indian level.7 In contrast with the numerous instances of religious reforms and conversions which have marked the history of the Dalit movement, the option of Buddhism or other religions has not been considered by Manupur Chamars, although a few individuals within the basti have professed an interest in Buddhism, and one extended household has publicly rejected Hindu rituals in favour of this religion. Reflecting on the concern of high-caste Hindus about members of the Scheduled Castes converting to other religions, Searle-Chatterjee argues that given the tenuousness of the link between Untouchables and Hinduism, it is not surprising that in Banaras such attachments to other traditions have occurred in the past and continue to do so. There is hardly anything to convert away from except the caste. Even the word convert seems inappropriate in this context. Dalits have joined religions or sects which appear to promise spiritual and social equality. In the mediaeval period, low caste weavers in Banaras joined Islam en masse. The Doms of Maldahiya were partially drawn into the Methodist Church in the nineteenth and early twentieth century and still retain memories of this. In 1972 many chamar leatherworkers became Buddhists. Very recently, some have ‘converted’ to Islam. Although the number of converts is hardly a deluge, it is noteworthy because there has been virtually no such movement in Banaras, except as a result of marriage, for over a hundred years. (1994b: 22; emphasis and italics in the original) 7 See, for example, the BBC website report on thousands of tribals and Dalits converting to Buddhism in Mumbai at asia/6695695.stm (accessed 27 May 2007).

Religious Agency, Science and Spirits


Banaras’s ‘religious density’ might well explain a great deal of the Chamars’ resistance to religious change. In Manupur, Hinduism is considered by a number of Chamars as parampara (tradition), and despite its having come under scrutiny by some of them, the majority is not willing to change its religion. Conversion has also been labelled as a tool for ‘oppressed people’ who live in dehat, but not as a suitable strategy for them. As Vinod, a young postgraduate man, explained: This is not the time to change religion because society is progressing fast, and earlier Ambedkar was helpless as a Hindu and that is why he changed his religion, because that was the demand of his time. Today, we don’t need to change religion, as without changing it we can fight and progress.

Although the ritual domain continues to be the key locus for transforming social relations, as shown in Chapter 4, these findings signal that the most salient site of contestation now resides within the Indian polity, and social contestation bears a higher degree of efficacy if supported by political power. Popular religiosity is well connected with political transformation: as I will explain in detail in the next chapter, for two decades now, UP has been the stage of Dalit political assertion and Dalit conquest of power, as well as the creation of an unprecedented public imaginary made up of low-caste histories, religiosities and cultural critiques. I now turn my attention on other aspects of the relation between the sacred and the secular: I will analyse how the Chamars have creatively deployed the modern categories of the rational and the nonrational by engaging with the above-mentioned imaginary engendered by political assertion.

III. The Past between Myth and Science I have to go back to the Vedas and Puranas in order to explain the origin of untouchability. A panditji [Brahman learned person] was walking in deep mud, and he found a cow. He saw the cow in the mud and he put his foot on the cow’s head to cross the mud. He was followed by another person who was moved by the cow’s plight, stopped, went into the mud and rescued the cow with all his energy. Panditji turned back and looked at the man, who had become very dirty, and said, ‘This man has done a very dirty thing and he is all dirty and from today we will call him Chamar.’ On the other hand, scientists and educated people claim that the land of India was inhabited by Adivasis [original inhabitants]. At that time,


Retro-modern India

there was no caste, no inequality. Then Kshatriyas from Asia wanted the land and they knew that the Adivasis would not let them settle here. So, they used the way of divide and rule to conquer the land, and they divided society into two and the weakest ones became the lowest. I don’t know the real truth, but I trust more the second story, because the first one is mythology. (Surendra, an uneducated weaver, fieldnotes 1999)

The Adi Hindu theme made its appearance in Chapter 3, when I contrasted this mythical age to the attributes of slavery and exploitation, which in the Chamars’ view are associated with their agrarian past. In Chapter 4, I focused on the difference between the Untouchables’ acceptance of the system shown in Deliège’s understanding of origins myths (1999), featuring a similar structure all over India, and the inherent critique contained in the Adi Hindu theme. Here, I shift my attention to the use of important categories which transcend the dichotomy between upper-caste and low-caste versions of history and show instead the longstanding traces of the ‘civilising mission’. In the excerpt by Surendra which begins this section, the progression of the passage, from the ‘mythology’ of the Vedas and Puranas to ‘science’ marks a rather radical change in the way Surendra, uneducated but learned and well-respected in his community and beyond, interpreted his caste’s mythical origins. From the array of ‘solutions for one’s own past’ present in the supralocal cultural sphere, he elaborated two versions of caste and the origins of untouchability, and solved the dilemma.8 The Adi Hindu theme originated with the 19th-century ideologue Jotirao Phule (regarded as one of the founding fathers of the contemporary Dalit movement) from the western Indian state of Maharashtra. Omvedt (2001: 484) argues that this leader took up the ‘Aryan theory’ which the Brahminic and nationalist elite of the time 8 It is important to note that the rejection of these texts by the Chamars contrasts with their appropriation by other low-ranking caste communities. Hebsur points out that ‘the arya samaj movement was particularly strong among the jats in western UP and the yadavs in eastern UP. Both of these groups were attracted by the process of Sanskritisation as a means of attaining equality with the upper castes. This preoccupation excluded the Scheduled Castes who could not dig into the puranas or remote history to adduce proof that their caste once upon a time held a higher status. To the extent upper peasant castes resorted to Sanskritisation, they have generally been unable to make common cause with the lower, backward scheduled castes’ (Hebsur in Hasan 1989: 178).

Religious Agency, Science and Spirits


were using to justify their ascendancy and equivalence to Europeans, and turned it around to celebrate the middle and low castes as descendants of an original non-Aryan peasant community, which had had its traditions of equality and prosperity until it was conquered by the cruel, invading Aryans. This explanation formulates a view of the Dalit past as a history of oppression, rather than one linked to handling impurity. While the Adi Dravida movements seem to have been the first to formulate the concept that the Scheduled Castes were the original inhabitants of India, and from there apparently the idea spread north and lent its name to the Ad Dharm movement in the Punjab and the Adi Hindu movement in what is now Uttar Pradesh (Juergensmeyer 1982: 24),

it cannot be ascertained whether the north and the south movements were in contact. However, it is certain that those in Punjab and UP, which emerged in the 1920s, were (ibid.: 25). The series of Adi movements which were born at the same time in north India did not, however, stem from a central decision but their ‘simultaneity is more simply explained by the similarity of political and social issues which pertained throughout India at the time’ (ibid.: 26). With specific reference to UP, the Adi Hindu movement was organised from Kanpur by the Jatav leader Swami Achutanand during the 1920s. Since the 19th century, the city had attracted a large number of Chamars and their subcastes to work as tanners in its bourgeoning hide and leather industry as a result of European demand (Bellwinkel-Schempp 2007: 2177–78). Interestingly, Juergensmeyer suggests that Ad Dharma and other Adi movements were created shortly after the discovery of the site of the pre-Aryan Harappa civilisation, which inspired aspects of the Adi Hindu theme (1982: 48).9 The theme of Surendra’s narrative is a critique of upper-caste hegemony over the past and of the project of naturalisation of social categories 9 It is also interesting to note how the Adi Hindu theme, as a narrative with no definite scientific nature, had been circulated a long time before genetic research had advanced scientific claims of this theory (see, for example, an article published on (accessed 20 December 2005). Genetic research had a resonance in Manupur. During my fieldwork, an educated Chamar man quoted an article from a local English-language newspaper where the Adi Hindu theme was validated by the discovery of a different DNA for the low castes, testifying to their claim of being the original inhabitants of India.


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within Indian society which this hegemony has subsequently engendered. Moreover, the label of mythology attributed to the Vedas and Puranas shows a devaluation of dominant religious traditions in favour of the authority of science. Prakash (1999) has analysed the career of science’s ‘universal reason’ as an instrument of cultural authority, governmentality and modernity in the British ‘civilising mission’ which began in the early 19th century. ‘The British saw empirical sciences as universal knowledge, free from prejudice and passion and charged with the mission to disenchant the world of the “superstitious” natives, dissolving and secularizing their religious world-views and rationalizing their society’ (ibid.: 4–5; emphasis in the original). Prakash (2003) argues that one of the consequences of this mission consisted in the effort by Westerneducated elite to reinvent some classical texts into an indigenous product, to align them to the colonisers’ Western modern science. In the late 19th century, the Arya Samaj took on the remaking of Hinduism into a ‘modern religion’, through a focus on Vedic Hinduism and the parallel creation of the categories of magic and superstition to separate from the Vedas accretions such as the Puranas (ibid.: 50–51). The creation of Vedic Hinduism as the ‘true religion’, purified from myth and magic, contends Prakash, ‘was born in failure, a failure to appropriate […] the other that is incommensurable with the self, and hence outside its understanding and resistant to suppression’ (ibid.: 58). Surendra, the Chamar weaver whose reasoning on his caste origins have been illustrated at the beginning of this section, affirmed the primacy of science through narratives such as the Adi Hindu theme. As the Western-educated Indian elite used the attribute of the science of the Vedas to contrast the myth and superstitions of the Puranas, and to align the former (and the entire Indian nation) to the coloniser’s rationalising framework, so too Surendra called upon the validation of science for a low-caste origin tale to contrast with what he believes to be the mythology of the Hindu scriptures. Ultimately, the Chamar’s narrative represents an effort to assert a low-caste knowledge system through the cultural authority of science — a legacy of the coloniser’s use of universal reason — operating a division between their system and the mythology of stigmatising Hindu scriptures.

IV. Spirit Possession: When Modernist Ethos Marries ‘Classic Magic’ The call on science as an attribute of the Adi Hindu theme to contrast Hindu scriptures, as well as the widespread beliefs in progress, has not

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undermined the beliefs in ghosts’ presence and spirit possession. Surendra himself acknowledges ghosts’ supernatural power in everyday life. The religious experience in Manupur’s Chamar community includes a history of several cases of spirit possession: its salience, interestingly enough, has not been questioned by the educated Chamars, or pitted against other (or assumed ‘scientific’ and rational) explanations of misfortune or illness. This is significant, especially when we consider the negative and superstitious connotations that spirit possession has among upper castes. Widely labelled as ‘superstition’ by Brahmins in Banaras, beliefs in bhut-pret (ghost) and the practices that surround them are considered laukik (not sanctioned by texts). Such things are predominantly thought of as affecting low-caste rural women (Parry 1994: 227ff.). According to the Brahmins with whom Parry carried out fieldwork, Shudras and Untouchables are most prone to possession as a result ‘not only of their lack of purity, but also to a lack of spiritual power’ (ibid.: 233). In addition, the high castes’ performance of the complete sequence of mortuary rites implies reducing the probability of generating a ghost after death (ibid.). If one were to agree with the Brahmins’ argument, Manupur Chamars are a standard example of believers of spirit possession: the number of illnesses attributed to the action of bhut-pret is high, as at times is the intensity with which bhut-pret torment people’s lives in the basti, women being the most afflicted of all. In addition, the Chamars rarely cremate their dead, but bury them without performing the many rites that form part of this last ritual.10 Uneducated Chamars narrate how in the past their community was totally under the control of ojhas: One elderly Chamar man told me how ‘they were our pujaris, now their influence has lessened’. But it is not clear if their influence has lessened as a result of education. A few of the living elders of the basti used to be ojhas but are not any more. However, with the exception of the Chamar ojha living in the basti, no one from the following generations has become one or been an ojha disciple in the basti during my fieldwork. Most Chamars do consult ojhas and maulvis (religion specialists), who are almost always from outside the village, live in far-away locations and always with a better reputation than local ones. Afflicted Chamars also visit temples and shrines, known locally to be most powerful in fighting bhut-pret. In contrast with Banaras Brahmins’ opinions, There is no evidence that the elite in the Chamar basti prefer cremation to burial. 10


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Parry reports how upper castes in the city also consult exorcists and he describes the activity of an ojha of the city who had a quite an ‘up-market clientele’, including the Brahmin priest of a big temple (1994: 238). Likewise, it is not only Chamars who consult ojhas in Manupur. A Kumhar (potter caste) ojha living in the village is consulted by the Brahmin community. Moreover, the sacred geography of Manupur includes a brahm (the ghost of a Brahmin) temple owned by a Brahmin family, usually built to appease the ghost haunting the living. Beliefs in bhut-pret have come under scrutiny by educated Chamars not because of the nature of the belief, but because of the economic toll that the ojha’s fee takes on the already small budget of a number of households.11 However, none of them has accused caste fellows of ‘ignorance’ or superstition because of their beliefs (cf. Carstairs 1957) and there is no divide between knowledge acquired through education and beliefs in bhut-pret. Pramod, a convinced supporter of the beneficial effects of education on people’s minds (as illustrated in Chapter 4), is a case in point. His health had deteriorated a great deal during the period of my first fieldwork due to a combination of typhoid and possibly malaria. In the concrete room where he lives, besides a TV and a stereo, there is a cabinet full of medicines. On the occasion of one of my visits, he told me, ‘I have tried everything…’, including visits to ojhas. In the case of a supposed illness, the usual practice in the basti is first to pay one or more visits to an allopathic doctor, and if this does not work, it is followed by a visit to the ojha. Many of Pramod’s family members are habitueés of ojhas. All his bhabhis (elder brothers’ wives) have had miscarriages and his brothers have spent large sums of money paying the ojhas’ fees. But Pramod is not the only educated person who believes in bhut-pret. The most notorious case of possession throughout my first fieldwork was not that of an uneducated female agricultural labourer, as one might mistakenly assume, but that of the fairly educated Sunita, the wife of Sanjay, probably the most influential Chamar man in the basti. Sunita has been afflicted by bhut-pret for a long time and her health has always been precarious, including an episode of tuberculosis. Most of the time, In Chapter 2, I gave the example of one of the families considered to be part of the original nucleus of the Chamar community in Manupur, and the way in which people reported they dissipated their landholdings in order to pay for the ojha’s fee. 11

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she would exhibit signs of exhaustion, which at one point led to her hospitalisation. During my fieldwork, she used to go into possession (khelna, to play) in her home. Sunita was taken to different exorcists and other specialists by Sanjay, including a maulvi and a Brahmin healer who held surgeries on Sundays and Tuesdays at premises close to Manupur. Patients from far-away locations would come to see this Brahmin healer who, at no charge, would assist all those possessed, talk to the afflicted (mostly women) and distribute camphor. Sunita went to see the Brahmin healer with her mother, who would reply to the questions the healer asked her during Sunita’s possession. After possession at the healer’s premises, she would make her children eat camphor in the form of prasad (blessed food given to worshippers) back home. The educated Sanjay was also involved in the bhut-pret case, not only because he accompanied Sunita to see exorcists and healers, but in a more active role. One day I encountered Sanjay as he was on his way to his paternal uncle’s house to talk to him, as the uncle was held responsible for Sunita’s illness, an opinion also shared by Sanjay’s mother. A cohabiting young male relative, who at the time of my first fieldwork was studying towards his university degree in Banaras, would provide descriptions of Sunita’s behaviour inside the home which, he said, could only be explained by the presence of bhut-pret. A few houses away from Sunita’s lives Ravinder. He is a middle-aged, self-taught man who lived in Banaras during his youth, and spent his free time consulting city libraries. He is also a member of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist organisation), the only one amongst Chamars in the village. His discourses are imbued with the idiom of purification from the ‘improper’ habits of his caste fellows in order to be included into the Hindu/upper-caste fold. Nonetheless, he is a strong believer in bhut-pret and is extremely careful about taking food from other households in the basti, as he believes the food might contain ghosts. While discussing these issues, he resolved the issue of the apparent conflict between the modernist view brought about by education and the lingering accusations of superstition which beliefs in bhut-pret might attract by arguing that ‘dharma and andhvishvas [superstition]12 are two sides of the same coin’. Ravinder’s all-encompassing notion might well circumvent the accusations of backwardness and impurity to which the


For the meanings of andhvishvas in Hindi, see Parry (1994: 228).


Retro-modern India

low castes are more vulnerable. The absence of conflict between religion and beliefs in spirit possession grouped together and knowledge gained through education amongst the Chamars stems from the incomparability of these two types of knowledge. That obtained through education does not interfere with pre-existing ritual knowledge and beliefs in the supernatural. Unlike the latter, however, that knowledge has the ability to confer status on to people, superior buddhi and moral qualities in the modern public sphere, and is used to criticise a set of behaviours and habits for which reform is needed. The presence of beliefs individuated under the label of andhvishvas in the Chamars’ lives is not just confined to the lives of Manupur Chamars: Chakrabarty’s reflections on superstition in public life in India (2008) help link the intimate world of rural Chamar religiosity to a wider community, i.e., the Indian nation. Chakrabarty begins his reflections from the existence of a vast repertoire of means of risk management, that is, the modern disciplines, for example, medicine, whose workings come under Foucalt’s notion of governmentality. These are subject to and distinct from a form of power which Chakrabarty calls ‘political’. According to him, the objective of political power to ensure the construction and survival of a moral community (ibid.: 18). He also argues that the separation between governmentality and political power leads to the displacement of superstitions as tools for taming chance. Pointing to a feature of Indian political modernity, this separation, argues Chakrabarty, has never been fully attained. If, for example, the modern doctor coexists with the healer (as in the case of the Chamars and many others), this derives from the fact that [p]ower in the domain of politics was assimilated in Indian nationalism and democracy to imaginations of the powers that were seen as governing people’s life-chances. Politics, in other words, became yet another resource in the pursuit of well-being and not a separate project by which the state and its rule of law could be expressive of a new idea of India as a ‘moral community’. (Ibid.: 19; emphasis in the orginal)

If governmentality could not emerge as a separate sphere in India — and Chakrabarty’s analysis of power shows how its nature was not ‘strictly political’ but enmeshed with ‘other powers’ which could directly intervene in people’s well-being, like the miraculous powers of Gandhi referred to in Amin’s essay, evoked by Chakrabarty (ibid.: 18) — not only does this

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point to Chakrabarty’s ultimate question on the nature of the political but also to interrogating the nature and alternative uses of ‘modern magic’. Amongst the Chamars, I found how modern magic is deployed also for argumentative and expressive purposes, and not just in substitution of a bio-power technique. Why would something labelled as ‘superstition’ be used in this way? And where does its power reside? I attempt to answer these questions in the following section.

V. Re-establishing the Moral Order: The Satyanarayan Katha Not only do the doctor and the healer coexist amongst Manupur Chamars, but ‘superstitions’ are used in moral argumentations of social justice amongst them. During my fieldwork, critical accounts of religion and culture saw their circulation through story-telling in which the uneducated were able to transcend the constraints of literate skills and participate in the production of low-caste national narratives. Narratives on Ambedkar’s life history testify to this phenomenon. It emerges that the ‘written word’ is not in opposition to orality, but is actually moulded, expanded, complemented, and propagated through oral means. Chapter 4 has already highlighted the critique of the Hindu epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, while here the Vedas and Puranas are posited against liberating versions of caste origin. In addition to these efforts, during my fieldwork, I encountered a striking example amongst the vast oral production of Manupur Chamars in the form of a syncretic product in which the oral reinterpretation of a written text from the Hindu tradition was reformulated through the tools of spirit possession leading to practical consequences in Chamar ritual habits. Interestingly, the oral narrative in question does not invoke science to argue about social justice, but spirit possession. This was the case of the Satyanarayan Katha, a devotional hymn to Vishnu, the god of truth, often recited on the occasion of marriages and on any auspicious occasion by the pandits.13 This Katha’s text is available in booklets for purchase and also on the Internet.14 For contents of the Katha and the procedure of recitation, see Planalp (1956: 801ff.). 14 Flavia Agnes reports that the Shiv Sena’s mobilisation of women in Mumbai centred on a series of activities related to socio-economic welfare (1995: 140). However, this also involved the ‘public celebration of Hindu festivals like Ganesh Utsav and Satya Narayan Pooja, which had been popularised by Tilak during the nationalist struggle in pre-independence India’ (ibid.: 140). 13


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Generally speaking, a katha is a story the recitation of which is believed to bestow auspiciousness upon the audience. This excerpt shows how a textual source, usually recited for ritual purposes, can be re-narrated by uneducated Chamars in ways that subvert entirely the purpose of the recitation and its very contents. The Satyanarayan Katha is one of the few ritual tasks that the Brahmins performed for the Chamars. It used to be recited at the time of sait (auspicious occasions), but since Brahmin priests are no longer called upon for ritual services, the chanting of the Katha has stopped. Dube points out that the Satnamis of Chhattisgarh started to use religious Hindu texts for worship in the late 1920s (1998: 188). The Satyanarayan Katha was amongst these texts, along with the Gita and the Ramayana. According to Dube, it is not clear whether by reading these texts through the aid of literate members of the community, the Satnamis’ intent was to attract the Brahmin priests’ services. At the same time, however, the Satnami community claimed that, ‘we were self-sufficient. No, there was not place for the lying coward of a Brahman pandit’ (ibid.: 189). Oral accounts also suggest that the Satnamis rivalled the Brahmins from Banaras in their knowledge of the sacred scriptures (ibid.).The Satnami appropriation of Hindu texts does suggest that this community’s aim was to remain within the Hindu tradition and to exploit literacy as an instrument to access these texts, like in some instances amongst Manupur Chamars. Equally interesting, in her exploration of the spread of the Adi Hindu movement, Bhakti saints and Buddhism in Kanpur, Bellwinkel-Schempp reports how An important element of the formation of a dalit identity was Ram Charan Kuril’s (1882–1956) book on Ravidas, called Bhagvan Ravidas ki Satya Katha (‘The True Story of God Ravidas’). Ram Charan modelled Ravidas dharm on the Judeo-Christian tradition. The book was written in 1941 and is the ‘first modern Indian study of Ravidas’ [Callewaert/Friedlaender 1992: 27]. He proposed that the Ravidas Katha was meant to replace the Satyanarayan Katha of brahmanical Hinduism. (2007: 2179; italics in the original)

While the educated Chamars have often blamed the Brahmins for having excluded them from learning, those who have not been exposed to formal or informal education have instead attacked the very substance of ‘Brahmin-ness’ in their interpretation of the Katha. It is impossible to ascertain when and how the tradition of the recitation of the Satyanarayan Katha started in Manupur, if it was introduced to conform to ‘Hindu practices’ and whether the Chamars were aware of Kuril’s book, as no

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records exist. Instead of an exhortation to the worship of Vishnu, uneducated Chamars have radically transformed the original plot of the Katha, and according to this new interpretation, it has become the love story of a Harijan man and a Brahmin woman. The Chamars narrate thus: A Brahman girl called Satya fell in love with a Harijan boy called Narayan. They got married. This aroused the anger of the Brahman community. The Brahmans chased the couple away from the village, so the couple went to live in the jungle. The Brahmans followed them into the jungle and set fire to the hut where the two were living as well as to the couple. After this, Brahman women started to have miscarriages and animals could not conceive. Then, a knowledgeable Brahman reached the conclusion that the soul of Satya was causing all the abortions under the form of bhut-pret. They erected a temple in her honour and started to worship her. Since that time, all the troubles have stopped.

The Chamars hold the view that the original version of the two characters falling in love and meeting their death at the hands of the Brahmins has been disguised by a later Brahmin interpretation. The central theme of the story is not the worship of Vishnu, but rather the infringement of the rule against inter-caste marriage and the death of the couple that follows. The Brahmins are ashamed of these events, and while reciting the story, twist it in order to avoid these embarrassing elements. The Chamars’ version of the Katha offers a view of caste relations mediated by a case of spirit possession, which re-establishes the moral balance within them. The violent death of Satya had caused her to become a brahm and to take revenge over her oppressors in life. As is the usual practice with brahms, it was best to acquiesce her by building a temple for her to reside and be worshipped in. The Katha is usually a means of acquiring auspiciousness by those who attend the recitation. Instead, the Chamars see the Brahminical version of the Katha as a way for the Brahmins to distribute sins (pap bamtana) to the audience, sins which they have committed and which are narrated in the Chamar plot of the Katha. This interpretation, and the need to stop the Brahmins’ recitation of the Katha, was reinforced by inauspicious events that occurred in the basti. A middle-aged Chamar woman recounted how, around 10 years before my first fieldwork, a Brahmin priest recited the Satyanarayan Katha and everybody present at the event fell sick after having eaten the prasad. The Chamars regarded this as an inauspicious event, and they have not had the Katha recited since.


Retro-modern India

The Chamar interpretation of the Satyanarayan Katha suggests three important conclusions. First, the Katha is not only a critique of Brahminical religious authority, but also of its moral foundations. Even as the Brahmins dispense their ritual knowledge, they also dispense their sins and become a vehicle of inauspiciousness. By means of the Katha, the Chamars have projected on to the Brahmins the attributes of the sinful, the immoral and the inauspicious, usually associated with the Chamars themselves. Through the episode of the Katha, they resolve the hierarchical relationship between the Brahmins via their refusal to absorb the sins of the latter, in the same fashion in which they refused to keep the Brahmins from impurity by abandoning traditionally polluting occupations. Brahmins therefore cannot depend any longer on the Chamars to maintain their superiority. As result, the Chamars have broken the hierarchical complementarity between the Brahmins and themselves, and in this way they have undermined the logic of caste hierarchy. More importantly, the Chamar plot of the Katha questions the moral qualities with which the Brahmins are endowed by virtue of their knowledge, their spiritual power and their reluctance to ‘infuse’ the lower castes with these. Second, the Chamar reinterpretation of the Katha contradicts and subverts the principles underlying the ideology of dan (unreciprocated gift) as analysed by Parry (1986, 1989b, 1994). The ethnography of the priests of Banaras shows how by being the recipients of dan from donors such as pilgrims and mourners, the priests accumulate the sins of their jajmans (clients) embodied in the dan. In a neat contradiction of this ideology of dan, the Chamar jajmans, who certainly give dan to the priest for the Katha recitation,15 claim that the priest, rather than assimilating the sins, actually ‘circulated’ his own to the Chamars. Third, the Katha’s central event is represented by cross-caste marriage between a Harijan and a Brahmin. This might suggest that the Chamars would cherish this practice. But there is no evidence that this trend is found amongst Chamars in the basti.16 Interestingly, the only cases of same- and intercaste love marriage I encountered in Manupur village were amongst its Brahmin community. Planalp pointed out that on occasion of the Katha ‘feeding Brahmans and giving them alms is stressed’ (1956: 804). 16 This is also consistent with Deliège’s findings in the Paraiyar community: ‘inter-caste marriages, including those into higher castes, are not looked upon with favour. Paraiyars do not consider it a curse to be a Paraiyar’ (1999: 75). 15

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VI. Conclusions: Neither Rational Nor Nonrational With regard to the distinction between the superior religious practices sanctioned by the shastras (scriptures) and the laukik practices upheld by Banaras Brahmins, Parry has argued that the inferior cult is degraded as much on account of its unenlightenment as on account of its impurity, suggesting that the opposition between knowledge and ignorance is quite as significant a structuring principle as the opposition between purity and pollution. (1994: 247)

By contrast, this chapter has shown how the modernist views introduced by education have not led beliefs in spirit possession to be labelled as superstition. Despite the existence of a knowledge/ignorance binary amongst Manupur Chamars, education has not created a knowledge divide between that which is acquired through education and superstitious religious beliefs and practices, nor has it introduced customs unknown to the previous, uneducated generation. Dharma is one with the ‘superstition’ of spirit possession and is also part of the modern. Moreover, as a profound critique of social practices (such as the violent condemnation of inter-caste marriages by the Brahmins) accomplished by reworking a religious text through spirit possession, the Katha displaces the distinction between the rational and the non-rational as defining the argumentative logic. Rather than being a product of unenlightenment, the beliefs and use of spirit possession signals the inadequacy of the Enlightenment framework to explain the intellectual worlds of the Chamars, just as the secular paradigm (and consequently the post-secular one) cannot be explanatory of their religious ones (as argued in the beginning of this chapter). Rather than ‘nonrational modernity’, these findings show how reason was never ‘purified’ from the religious element as much as the sacred is involved in bringing about changes in the secular sphere and therefore ends up intrinsically linked to the former. Spirit-possession beliefs and practices are often the domain of uneducated people, such as the male ritual specialists for marriages and the almost exclusively uneducated Chamar women, most of whom are the repository of ritualistic knowledge in the household. While there is no schism between ritualistic knowledge and beliefs and knowledge acquired through formal education, the latter is an instrument of status and social mobility in the modern public sphere, something that cannot be


Retro-modern India

said for ‘traditional’ beliefs such as spirit possession, despite the power attributed to individual healers and therefore their numerous clienteles. Nonetheless, spirit-possession beliefs and practices remain widespread amongst both the educated and the non-educated, and well beyond the Chamar community. And if these beliefs have not been dismissed, educated Chamars are as ‘traditional’ as their parents are, or in other words, as ‘Chamar’ as their parents. ‘Tradition’ as a contentious issue has been highlighted in Chapter 1. Ideals of modernity in this Chamar community have been premised on the obliteration of one tradition imbued with derogatory elements constructing their caste, and the crafting of a more suitable one to replace the former. This points to a selective idea of ‘tradition’: those elements which belong to high-caste tradition are contested and rejected when they point to derogatory understandings of this caste. By contrast, as shown in this chapter, popular religious traditions and practices, which might bear the label of ‘inferior cults’ or superstition, are pursued by both educated and uneducated Chamar individuals. This also testifies to the flourishing of those myths and superstitions which both the ‘civilising’ mission and organisations such as the Arya Samaj sought to eradicate. But there is more to it. In this chapter, the language of modernity has shown an uneducated, middle-aged man appealing to the authority of the ‘science’ contained in the mythological account of the Adi Hindu theme against the ‘mythology’ of high-caste tradition religious texts such as the Vedas and Puranas in explaining his caste origins. It is interesting to recall the Arya Samaj’s efforts of founding Hinduism as the true religion based on the Vedas. This chapter also saw the educated, young Pramod (an ardent supporter of the moral transformation resulting from formal education) consigning himself to the experience and knowledge of spirit-possession practitioners. Examining classic theories of magic and modernity, Pels has rightly remarked how ‘the modern rationalist and the magically backward subject constituted by such theories are modernist myths that need to be scrutinized by empirical research’ (2003: 31). This chapter has shown the importance of this scrutiny for a study of modernity. Further, this scrutiny has not shown the triumph of universal reason dear to the colonial project, while religion, including those forms which some would label as ‘superstition’, has been shown to, at times, need the cultural authority of science to be validated. More importantly, this chapter shows how the absence of conflict between indigenous

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knowledge systems (including religious beliefs) and science (and I would also add to it the ideology of modern formal education that is so powerful amongst the Chamars) has generated a powerful critique of the status quo. Finally, the Chamars have made use of an oral reinterpretation of a written tradition, whether the Hindu scriptures or the Katha, to set up a powerful critique of hierarchy using a moral discourse, rather than a pure rights-based one, to fight the evils of untouchability and lay claims to equality and justice. The moral discourse and the rights one are not antithetical, rather the contrary. They should be seen as complementary ways in which the Chamars assert their principles using different means and in different aspects of social life, in primis political participation. In the next chapter, I explore forms of this participation and political consciousness as a parallel struggle against untouchability, as well as for claiming equal socio-economic and political rights.

Chapter 6 Beyond the Vote: Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity I. Introduction: ‘Food for Politics’ F A member of Manupur’s Brahmin community, interested in establishing his influence in the Chamar basti, accepted food on the occasion of a ritual celebration held there to which he had been invited. Later, his Chamar hosts realised that accepting food had been a political manoeuvre on the part of the Brahmin, who wanted to establish a fruitful alliance with them in anticipation of a local election in the village, which one of his relatives was going to contest. Some Chamars were disappointed and have stopped giving much importance to inter-dining as they know it can be just a formality. A young Chamar man commented on the incident: ‘Unhone khana kha liya lekin nahi khaya [he — the Brahmin — ate but ‘did not eat’]’. (Field notes 1999)


As the desire for power spoiled the spirit of sharing and bonding which eating practices are a living metaphor for, this ethnographic passage captures a tense moment in the relationship between political and cultural ideologies. Alliances with the Chamars are easily forged through food because of the traditional stigma attached to having commensal relations with them. For the Chamars, taking and especially giving food to a Brahmin is a matter of pride because in so doing they think they have been accepted by the upper castes. Strict rules of commensality are bent, and if Chamars feel accepted, as they often claim they do, and share food with Brahmins, it is held as representative of the general friendly atmosphere conducive to the two communities making political alliances. The meal in the ethnographic passage which begins this chapter explains a great deal of the political history of north India: masses of Untouchables have been lured to stay in the Congress party, in a patronage system dominated by the upper castes, by a rhetoric of equality aimed at erasing the often insurmountable social distance between the two tiers of castes.

Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


Food exchange had often been a channel in that direction. Gone are the days when the Manupur Chamar Congress leader Jagdish used to (and sometimes still does, although he is not a leader any more) serve food to guests, normally Brahmins or high castes, during feasts in the house of a Brahmin Congress leader from Manupur. On one of these occasions, an elderly Brahmin from the village complained about a Chamar serving food, only to be reprimanded by a fellow caste member, who told him that if he complained again, Jagdish would not give him any food. While Jagdish used to serve food to Brahmins as a servant, epitomising the asymmetrical caste relations under the Congress regime, during the BSP era, educated Chamar young men were invited to dine with the former Brahmin pradhan inside his house.1 In turn, the pradhan had non-vegetarian food at one of the basti leaders’ house and in the houses of the Chamar government employees. On these occasions, Brahmins and Chamars consumed meat and alcohol together.2 The Brahmins needed to establish good relations with the upwardly mobile section of the Chamars. For the sake of politics, caste beliefs are put aside without necessarily forgetting who an Untouchable is and why one should be cautious about interacting with her/him. Politics remakes sociality by A Chamar guest said that the bartans (vessels) which were used to serve him food were the same as for anyone else. I lived for brief periods in the Brahmin pradhan’s house, which was visited by many people. The caste identity of the visitor dictates whether the women of the house use the usual vessels or separate ones to offer water, tea or food. For any caste other than Brahmin or Thakur, different utensils are used and the utensils used for lower castes are never kept inside the kitchen. The women were very liberal with me, allowing me to enter their kitchen and to eat from their plates, despite knowing that I used to mix with the Chamars. The Chamars used to joke with me, saying that Brahmins would not have given me any food because I was staying with them and so had become achut (Untouchable). The food issue was always raised by Brahmin youngsters when they approached me for the first time. They always asked the same question: ‘Do you eat their [the Chamars’] food or do you cook?’. 2 The ambiguity that the Chamars experience in food transactions, such as the one described above, is somehow reinforced by the existence of a double standard in the eating practices amongst upper castes. This double standard lies in the accepted practice of upper-caste people overriding the rules of commensality outside their village, rules they would observe at home under the strict control of their wives (see Parry 1979: 102). 1


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removing strong social barriers where they are found, while often leaving deeper cognitive structures untouched. And while a Dalit-led powerful party governs UP, untouchability remains chameleonic in its modern permutations across communities, spaces and times.

II. Chamars in Political Modernity Circumventing caste conventions in the public sphere is one important feature concerning members of the low caste as subjects of political modernity. But certainly it is not the only one. In his sophisticated argument in support of an alternative history of Indian modernity, Kaviraj (2005) argues that the conditions which saw the emergence of democracy in the West and in India are rather different: one of these conditions, which concerns us more specifically here, is literacy levels. Kaviraj contends that while in the West literacy was almost universal, when the Constitution was adopted in India, it was below 30 per cent (ibid.: 513).3 Chakrabarty (2007: 9–10) observes how the adoption of the universal adult franchise in India escaped the European historicist logic by which the electorate should have been literate first and then considered suited for voting. Kaviraj adds that ‘actors who construct a democracy in a setting where 70 per cent of the electorate are illiterate, they have to adjust to this condition in their institutional design. Otherwise, the institutions simply would not work’ (2005: 521). In this respect, he argues for the importance of ‘improvisation’, that is, the way in which actors do not simply appropriate institutions such as democracy from other geographical locations, but adjust them in consideration of the circumstances of their own societies. Kaviraj claims that this process of historical improvisation is constitutive of the ‘unfolding of the modern’ (ibid.: 522). While this argument concerns those who set up democracy in India (and here the issue of the agency of the modern introduced in Chapter 1 emerges as particularly salient), how did historical improvisation affect the uneducated low castes’ participation in democracy and the appropriation of its ideals? If one has Jaffrelot reflects on the problem of Indian voters’ illiteracy in recent times: it ‘hinders the domestication of the act of voting for the very simple reason that many Indian citizens cannot read the names of the candidates’ (2007: 78). However, he also observes that while according to the 2001 census 34.7 per cent of the population was illiterate, the same percentage was literate 30 years previously (ibid.). 3

Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


to rethink political history through the lens of the uneducated, and this chapter does offer a re-telling of this history by Chamar citizens and voters, how did the actors who set up democratic institutions in India calibrate these institutions for such citizens? Concerning electoral issues, Jaffrelot argues that the symbol system, used regularly since the 1962 national elections, was the means through which illiterate voters were guaranteed ‘independence, adequate information and secrecy’ (2007: 97). Moreover, Jaffrelot contends, this system had the unintended consequence of ‘institutionalising the party system’ (ibid.). But in terms of political choice, how did illiteracy, which was not just a feature of the low castes at the time of Indian independence but a much wider phenomenon, affect the course of Indian democracy? Would post-independence political history be different had the low castes been literate? With specific reference to UP, the Chamars and other low castes accepted the Congress government’s patronage and exchanged this with their votes (Brass 2008: 105). If most of their members had been literate, wouldn’t the low castes have withdrawn their support for the party decades before the advent of the BSP? It is impossible to re-imagine the outcome of the universal adult franchise for communities such as the Chamars in a situation of widespread literacy in India at the time of independence. Further, this experiment should also take into account the ways in which the policy of positive discrimination as a whole affected the more recent history of political modernity. However, the reason why I focus solely on literacy is that although there continue to be many millions of uneducated low-caste voters in UP, the major political transition which they underwent on a large scale in the state over the last three decades, and by which they progressively left the Congress to become the core vote bank of the BSP, owes a great deal to the spread of mass education, as well as to ‘borrowed literacy’, as explained in Chapter 4. With increased visibility from the 1990s onwards, educated low-caste generations, including young Chamar men in Manupur, have led political mobilisation against the upper castes and proselytised among the masses of rural poor from within the folds of the BSP. However, literacy is not the only factor responsible for political change. Although the spread of literacy and education has capsized politics in UP decades after Indian independence, this has taken place in conjunction with changes in the political economy. Kaviraj (2000) enlightens us also on


Retro-modern India

the state of the Indian economy at the time of the introduction of electoral democracy. He argues that trends in European modernity show that at the time of the introduction of electoral democracy, industrialisation had reduced agriculture to a minor role, so that the proletariat and the middle classes were important electoral categories, while the economy was able to subsidise a small sector like agriculture (ibid.: 158). On the contrary, the beginnings of electoral democracy in India saw a marked power of the agricultural sector because of its sheer size, so that this sector held an extremely important voting power. As a result, state policies had to accommodate the demands of agrarian interests (ibid.). Agricultural labourers (for example, Manupur landless Chamars) on the other hand saw their main experience of political participation as one of a patronage system under the Congress. It is therefore not surprising that there is a nexus between the breakdown of the village economy and the rise of low-caste political mobilisation. D. Gupta contends: The reason for the rise of scheduled caste political assertion in recent times is primarily because the propertied classes in rural India can no longer exercise economic domination over the landless peasants. As they cannot employ the landless any more because of the shrinking size of their own landholdings, the power of landowners as patrons and as political leaders has also diminished over time. (2005b: 753)

If this holds true at the general level, the case of the Chamars demonstrates that a wide temporal gap exists between the (progressive) abandonment of agrarian labour by the Chamars (despite the prolonged involvement of Chamar women in landlords’ fields) and their mobilisation in low-caste politics more than half a century later. I have explained in Chapters 2 and 3 the forms of internal differentiation within the Chamar caste which emerged during the 20th century and the greater involvement of the Chamars in the local urban industry. This testifies to a number of elements: first, the long-lasting relations of dominance between landlords and them; second, the absence of a political organisation able to mobilise and capitalise on the low-caste vote, until the advent of the BSP in the mid-1980s as a result of educational and employment reservations amongst the SCs; third, the charisma of the Congress party and its populist policies amongst the low castes. Against this backdrop, despite the general success of the BSP amongst the Chamars and other low-caste communities, and electoral support and power aside, it remains crucial

Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


to investigate the effects of the changes in electoral democracy vis-à-vis local systems of power and changes in local politics.4 My argument of retro-modernity sees in the Chamars’ engagement with the world of power and politics a parallel narrative of change which has shaped individual and community trajectories of social transformation. This engagement emerged vividly in post-independence India. Until Nehru’s time, Kaviraj argues, Indian democratic politics resembled politics as it was practiced in the West, where the fundamental political identifications were on either class or ideological lines (which were internally connected). But, contrary to all historical scripts, as democratic awareness spread to the lower strata of society and formerly excluded groups began to voice their expectations, the outcomes began to grow ‘strange’. Since these groups interpreted their disadvantage and indignity in caste terms, social antagonism and competition for state benefits expressed themselves increasingly in the form of intense caste rivalries. The dominance of caste politics in India is thus a direct result of modern politics, not a throwback to traditional behaviour. It appears strangely disorienting, as this kind of caste action is impossible to classify as either traditional or modern, leading to dark murmurings about the inexplicability of Indian history. (2000: 156–157; emphasis in the original)

As I will explain in detail in the course of the chapter, Manupur Chamars were part of the Congress folds until the beginning of the 1990s, while some uneducated Chamars from the generation before that of young BSP leaders were politically active within this party. The issue of caste, which began to be salient for backward communities in UP since the 1960s as a result of increased wealth and claims to power, was successful in mobilising the Chamars and other low castes only decades later. The exception to this was the political mobilisation of Agra Jatavs,

4 For example, Jeffrey, Jeffery and Jeffery (2008) have highlighted shifting relations of dominance between Jats and Chamars in the Jat-dominated district of Bijnor in western UP. They argue how ‘social change in this part of rural UP is best characterised as a shift from a period of direct dominance, in which power was exerted primarily through control over land and labour, to mediated dominance, in which access to social networks and cultural capital are increasingly significant’ (ibid.: 200; italics in the original).


Retro-modern India

documented by Lynch (1969) as one resting on a history of social mobility based on the leather industry, and involvement in the Ambedkar movement. This brings us to the question raised by Chakrabarty on the condition of the peasant and subaltern within India’s political modernity. First, he identifies the tension caused on the one hand by the peasant ‘who has to be educated into the citizen and who therefore belongs to the time of historicism; the other is the peasant who, despite his or her lack of formal education, is already a citizen’ (2007: 10). This dual condition of the peasant intersects with the peasant’s possibilities of political action. Chakrabarty then asks: How do we think the political at these moments when the peasant or the subaltern emerges in the modern sphere of politics, in his or her own right, as a member of the nationalist movement against British rule or as a fullfledged member of the body politic, without having to do any ‘preparatory’ work in order to qualify as the ‘bourgeois-citizen’? (ibid.: 10–11; italics and emphasis in the original)

My answers lie first in the specification of the features of the particular political persona and her/his participation, beyond the identities of the subaltern or peasant. I have already argued how the spread of literacy, and therefore the ‘formal preparation’ the subaltern received in postindependence India, triggered the formation of an autonomous political force, the BSP, which in turn brought about significant political change. It follows that citizenship rights are fostered by literacy skills and by processes of social mobility in general. In turn, answering Chakrabarty’s distinct but interrelated question on the emergence of the political participation of the ‘unprepared’ subaltern in her/his own right, requires us to think of the political causes which animated different periods of Indian history in which subaltern activism manifested itself, and the type of leadership which allowed the subaltern or the peasant to participate politically without being ‘instructed’ on the modalities of bourgeois citizenship. To answer this question also implies to provide an account of the ‘meanings embedded in the act of participation, electoral or otherwise’ (Yadav 1997: 186), which were forcefully signalled by the Dalit mass mobilisation in UP. In this chapter, I aim to illustrate the role that these questions play in the lives of the Chamars by focusing on a number of interrelated aspects: first, the Chamars’ increasing participation in local politics as a result of empowerment from the BSP in state politics; second, the Chamars’ understanding of political histories and cultures, from their

Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


standpoint of BSP voters, that have involved them as citizens from an underprivileged social background; and third, shifting identities as a result of their participation in Dalit politics. While many accounts exist of the emergence of the BSP, its ideology and its performance (Chandra 2004; Hasan 2000; V. Kumar 1999; Mendelsohn and Vicziany 1998; Pai 2001, 2002; Jaffrelot 2003), in-depth ethnographic accounts of its supporters are rare, accounts which tie the general and widespread phenomenon of electoral support for this party to detailed socio-economic and cultural community histories, as I do in this book. Even rarer are analyses of these accounts through the lens of the development of political modernity in India. In turn, I connect the analysis of the deeper transformations which led to new political allegiances, as part of the trajectory of Indian political modernity, to the Chamars’ own pursuit of the modern.

III. Politics the UP Way The Chamars of Manupur are amongst those Indian citizens who have contributed to what Yadav calls ‘the second democratic upsurge in postIndependence India’ (1997: 182), which took place during the 1990s. From the wider perspective of India’s political history, this phenomenon can be viewed as part of the cycle of expansions and contractions of democracy, and a stage of that ‘caste succession’, which Brass (1985) describes as one by which a number of members from the SCs and backward castes gradually enter electoral politics with their own leaders. The 1990s have been marked by the Chamars’ and many other SC castes’ shift of affiliation from long-lasting support for the Congress party to the BSP. Yadav argues that the democratic upsurge in the 1990s was marked by higher electoral participation and points out that in UP ‘the odds of Dalit turnout are substantially higher than for the upper castes’ (2000: 132). This is a visible phenomenon amongst the Chamars, and indeed the vote is considered a very important means of political expression. The SCs have traditionally formed the social base of the Congress party’s support, along with Brahmins and Muslims. From the 1920s, the Congress party dominated UP, and it is here that the party has shown the very essence of its politics (Hasan 1996). In UP, the anti-colonial struggle was led by Mahatma Gandhi, whereas in Maharashtra Ambedkar played a major role.5 Agitation involving the low castes took place in the 5

On the issue of untouchability and the Congress party, see Zelliot (1988).


Retro-modern India

colonial period under the aegis of the Kisan Sabha6 while these communities were involved in the political debates and mobilisation which animated UP during the Partition years (see Rawat 2003). Concerning the same period, Lynch (1969) analysed the political mobilisation of the Jatavs of western UP in the 1940s, as they formed the Scheduled Caste Federation of Agra, forged links with the Ambedkar-led All-India Scheduled Caste Federation and subsequently became involved in the Republican Party of India (RPI) in the early 1960s. These accounts aside, low-caste political mobilisation in UP, particularly in the eastern region of the state, in colonial as well as postcolonial history, with the exception of BSP politics, remains largely unexplored. Caught up in factionalist politics (Brass 1985), the success of the Congress party rested on its ability to accommodate a wide range of interests and to co-opt an extremely diverse set of groups such as those that exist amongst the SCs. Congress support was progressively restrained by ‘the limited success of state intervention and opportunities for economic development’ (Hasan 1996: 84). In UP, the state’s underdevelopment, the failure of the Congress to ensure social equality and the fact that the party’s leadership was dominated by upper castes, all contributed to the alienation of the backward-caste strata of the population. From the 1960s, the Brahmins’ political domination started to be contested by castes such as the Yadavs, Kurmis and Jats. The SCs, the target of Indira Gandhi’s policies for poverty reduction, supported the Congress until the early 1980s, although from 1977 they, along with Muslims, had started to search for a political alternative. As the Congress’s power declined in UP, the 1980s also saw improvements in the conditions of the SCs with the end of patron–client relations, the opening up of urban, menial employment and the creation of a small elite within the Chamar community, the first to benefit from reserved employment and education (Pai 2001: 268). As mentioned earlier in the book, two major trends are found in UP politics in the 1980s and early 1990s: the acute polarisation of upper castes on the one hand and backward and lower castes on the other in the struggle for political power, and the intensification of Hindu–Muslim In 1920–21, there was agitation by the Kisan Sabha, and in 1930–31 the Civil Disobedience and rent campaign took place in which ‘low caste tenants and labourers participated in large numbers and even produced a SC leader’ (Pai 2001: 261). 6

Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


conflict (Hasan 1996). Power instability and conflicts worsened the communal situation, as a result of which there was an increase in the frequency of communal rioting. The 1990s saw the conquest of state power by the BJP and the defeat of the Congress party in the 1996 elections in UP. In 1984, the BSP was created and began its electoral rise in the northernIndian political stage, and especially in UP. The history of the BSP is now well known. Supported by an association of SC government employees called BAMCEF, the party was founded by Kanshi Ram, a Ravidasi Chamar from Punjab and an ex-government employee, and has gradually played an increasingly large part on the national political scene. Historically, the BSP’s success lay in its appeal to an exclusive group identity, underpinned by the party’s political rhetoric. According to the latter, there is a fundamental power imbalance within Indian society, where 85 per cent of the population, the majority (bahujan samaj), are dominated by the other 15 per cent, represented by the upper castes. As a consequence, the BSP’s main political goal was to reverse this power equation through the conquest of political power, with social transformation following. In doing so, the party would fulfil the ideal of social justice which ‘will provide Dalits their rightful socio-economic and political position in Indian society’ (Pai 2001: 271). The party draws on a repertoire of symbols and names borrowed from previous Dalit movements and parties, and on a pantheon of historical Dalit leaders.7 Of these, the BSP manifesto draws its main inspiration from Ambedkar, who is seen as a pan-Indian icon amongst the low castes.8 Manupur Chamars are an excellent example of this phenomenon. The party’s ideology evoked Ambedkar’s radical philosophy, based on the creation of a new social order. However, this new social order was not to be achieved within the framework of Hindu religion and caste as Mahatma Gandhi had theorised. While Gandhi ‘attacked untouchability and not caste, Ambedkar argued that the

For instance, the word bahujan, meaning the majority of the people, was borrowed from the terminology of the non-Brahmin movement of the 1920s (Omvedt 2001). For a discussion on the BSP as a political party as well as a social movement and the construction of the Bahujan identity, see V. Kumar (1999). 8 On the history of the Dalit movement and Ambedkar, see Omvedt (1994); Zelliot (1996). On the leader’s contemporary fame and iconography, and conflicts around Ambedkar’s figure in different regions of India, see Zelliot (2001). 7


Retro-modern India

heart of untouchability was the caste system itself’ (Isaacs 1972: 385). ‘Educate, agitate, organise’ was the strategy to be adopted for the Untouchables’ mobilisation and to instil a new form of consciousness.9 Ambedkar saw political representation as the means of annihilating caste and ending the Brahminical culture that sanctioned socio-economic inequality. For the SCs, ‘political power was the key of all social progress’ (Zelliott 1970: 58). Ambedkar’s political involvement culminated in his and his Mahar followers’ mass conversion to Buddhism in 1956 as a final rejection of the evils of the caste system. The BSP originally adopted an equally radical and equally anti-Brahminical stance in politics. The Chamars, along with a large section of other low-caste communities, and sections of the backward castes and Muslims, formed the BSP vote bank’s bedrock.10 Along with central UP and Bundelkhand, eastern UP has become a stronghold of the BSP, while these central and eastern regions of the state have also a tradition of Left-wing parties’ struggle (Pai 2001: 274–75). In the Banaras region, SC political mobilisation and ideologies trace back to the end of the 1970s. Ambedkar visited Banaras in 1956, shortly after his conversion to Buddhism and just before his death, and delivered speeches at both Banaras Hindu University and Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith. Banaras has been centre of socialist and communist influence, both of which challenged the presence of the Congress party in eastern UP. More broadly, socialist activity was strong in eastern UP, and in particular in the universities of Banaras, and was supported by the middle classes and sections of the peasantry (Hasan 1998: 28). Under the Socialist Party, Ambedkar’s ideas were spread by Acharya Moti Ram Shastri, a local Chamar leader who had also led a movement, between 1948 and 1963, for quitting traditional Chamar occupations. Shastri was also involved in the movement to gain entry for the Untouchables into the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Banaras, which members of these castes entered in December 1957. After that, he contested the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the Indian parliament) and Vidhan Sabha (state assembly) elections in the constituencies where

On this slogan and Ambedkar’s ideology, see Gore (1993). For example, the Chamars voted en masse for the BSP in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections: in UP 74 per cent of the Jatavs (Chamars) voted for the BSP compared to 39 per cent amongst other SCs. 9


Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


Manupur lies, for the Socialist Party and for the Bharatiya Kranti Dal.11 Except for this Chamar leader, who moved to Lucknow in the late 1960s, and a few others, the Ambedkar movement had neither leadership nor cadres in this area before 1978. Between 1956 and 1979, knowledge about Ambedkar in Banaras and the surrounding areas was scarce. In addition, the SCs of eastern UP were influenced by the figure of the Chamar Congress leader from Bihar, Jagjivan Ram. In 1979, an association of SC government employees, called ‘Ambedkar Dal’, was formed in Banaras. Following the constitution of this association, social work started at the beginning of the 1980s, comprising teaching about Ambedkar and measures for personal and community hygiene. A formal structure was created in each village in the area, and many cases involving low castes were taken to the courts. Banaras also saw the birth of local branches of the organisations that preceded the creation of the BSP at the national level.

11 Manupur village falls within the Chandauli constituency for the Lok Sabha elections and in Chiraigaon for the Vidhan Sabha ones. Since the first election in 1952, these constituencies have seen a range of different parties come to power. The electoral results for Lok Sabha are as follows: 1952–62 elections, Congress; 1967, Samyukta Socialist Party; 1971, Congress; 1977, Bharatiya Lok Dal (Janata Party); 1980, Janata Party; 1984, Congress; 1989, Janata Dal; 1991–98, Bharatiya Janata Party; 1999, Samajwadi Party (SP), in 2004, BSP; and in 2009, SP. According to Bhatt (1998), the main caste communities inhabiting the parliamentary constituency of Chandauli are as follows: SCs, 23 per cent ; Ahirs, 13 per cent; Brahmins, 9 per cent; Rajputs, 8 per cent; then Koeris (cultivators), Bhumihars (cultivating Brahmins), Kurmis (peasants) and Bhars (agriculturalists and labourers of tribal origin), all around 4 per cent each; and finally a minority of Kayasthas (notables). Muslims constitute 8 per cent of the population. Within the SCs, Chamars are the largest community and represent 16 per cent of the population. The electoral results for the Vidhan Sabha since 1952 are as follows: 1952–67, Congress; 1969–74, Bharatiya Kranti Dal; 1977, Janata Party; 1980, Congress (I); 1985, Congress; 1989, Janata Dal; 1993, Bharatiya Janata Party; 1996, Congress (in electoral alliance with the BSP); in 2002, Samajwadi Party (Reeves, Graham and Goodman 1975; V. P. Singh and Bose 1984, 1988). In the elections held in 2007, BSP won this seat.


Retro-modern India

The party’s ideology and its vote bank’s social composition have undergone major transformations since the party’s creation. The political performance of this party has been increasingly successful in the 1990s, and the Chamar party leader Mayawati became UP Chief Minister three times, supported by different coalitions, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the other major representative of the backward castes, the Samajwadi Party (SP). She was the first Dalit woman ever to achieve such a high post. The decline of Hindutva politics and the Congress’s waning influence in UP (until its recent success in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections) left the BSP and the SP as the two major actors of politics in this large state. Outside UP, the BSP has not yet found significant recognition. None of the previous low-caste movements and parties had succeeded in expanding beyond the regional and state confines of their origin and remained the local expression of a specific caste’s political interests. The Election Commission recognises the BSP as a national party, but the party still draws its support primarily from UP. In the general elections in 2004, BSP candidates contested all over India but all the 19 elected MPs (Member of Parliament) were fielded from UP. In the most recent Assembly elections, the party gained one MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly each) from the states of Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh respectively, eight members from Uttarakhand and in 2007, 206 from UP. Over the past years, the BSP, under the increasing pressure of expanding its vote bank for the sake of electoral politics, has begun to attract a number of communities within its folds, including upper castes. The BSP’s initial anti-upper caste focus diluted over time to leave room for the more inclusive idea of sarv samaj (all castes), replacing the idea of bahujan samaj. The UP Legislative Assembly elections in 2007 saw the BSP’s efforts to enlarge its vote bank by encompassing upper caste and other communities, including Muslims, and finally this strategy yielded its fruits: the party secured the absolute majority of the Assembly seats, ending a period of unstable coalition politics. The party leader Mayawati became Chief Minister for the fourth time. In more recent times, the BSP has become a very important subject in national politics: the 2009 Lok Sabha elections were marked by high expectations around the party; the media was also abuzz with speculation about Mayawati as possible Prime Minister. The results returned 21 elected MPs, all in UP except for one in Madhya Pradesh.

Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


IV. The Social Behind the Political Crucial to the SCs’ political shift from the Congress party to the BSP were changes in India’s social and political climate and the gradual increase of education. As shown in the previous chapters, occupational mobility amongst the Chamars had led to their almost-total independence from the village economy, even when as artisans they were involved in a patronage system with Muslim employers. However, I have argued that notions of dependence and independence amongst Chamar labourers were informed by notions of untouchability over and above forms of exploitation within a particular mode of production, be it agrarian or proto-industrial. The Chamars’ position within the division of labour has also been viewed as having shaped their political choice. Prashad (2000) has argued that Jatav and Mahar militancy against Hindutva may be traced both to their independent location in the economy (as artisans) and to their vibrant anti-Hindutva ideological traditions (such as Raidas and Chokhamela). The institutional and ideological independence of these castes, despite the atrocities visited upon them by dominant castes, allows for a certain amount of political flexibility. (Ibid.: xiv–xv)

On the nexus between the Untouchables’ socio-economic conditions and their affiliation to Hindutva, Prashad reports how ‘Engineer astutely observed after the 1982 Meerut pogrom that only the “poor and illiterate” Balmikis had “fallen into the RSS trap. The Chamars who are more educated are nowhere on the scene”’ (Asghar Ali Engineer in Prashad 2000: xiv). The expansion of schooling, especially higher education, and political assertiveness appear to be a constant in the rise of previous Dalit movements and parties. An example is J. Singh’s study (1998) conducted amongst the Jatavs of western UP, who, as mentioned earlier, joined the RPI in the 1960s. Singh describes the Jatavs’ participation in the grassroots process of ‘Ambedkarisation’. This has led to the spread of knowledge about Ambedkar’s life and ideas, the erection of statues of the leader, the construction of libraries and schools, the celebration of Ambedkar’s birthday, and other cultural activities. After the RPI, mobilisation continued in the 1970s with the second generation of Jatavs, who attended colleges and universities and mainly sought employment


Retro-modern India

outside their villages. This was followed by a third generation, involving a wide socio-economic range of Jatavs supporting the BSP.12 A similar link between education and mobilisation for the BSP exists in Manupur. However, there is no trace of caste associations, trade unions or participation in organisations such as the precursors of the BSP amongst them. Manupur Chamars recalled how they only ever voted for the Congress. Evidence of their political mobilisation with the BSP traces back to the early 1990s. Political mobilisation has been accompanied by a general climate of assertiveness, especially amongst young Chamars, vis-à-vis upper castes. Young Chamars started to manifest increasing discontent about not being treated as equals by the upper castes, began to dismiss old gestures of submission, like saluting the upper castes first.13 Education, and as a consequence politics, reinforced caste barriers in response to the persistence of traditional beliefs. On the other hand, educated Chamars began to be perceived by others as projecting an image of superiority for the very reason of their education. For instance, an elderly Brahmin called Shankar viewed the relationship between Brahmins and Chamars as cordial, even though when he used to go to the Chamar basti, some people there were disrespectful. He would not eat in the basti, but if ‘Harijans’, as he called the Chamars, went to his house they could eat. Young Brahmins, including his own sons, eat in the ‘Harijan’ basti. The elderly Brahmin continued, ‘Harijans do not perform polluting occupations anymore, such as midwifery and the removing and Similarly, in a study of the successful trajectory of the BSP in the Hoshiarpur district of Punjab, Chandra argues that ‘the precondition of the Bahujan Samaj Party lies in the emergence of an educated generation of Scheduled Castes as a consequence of the government’s affirmative action policies in education and employment’ (2000: 28). 13 ‘For a Brahman, being greeted by a Chamar is asubh [inauspicious]’, said a young postgraduate man, who also said that Brahmins did not return such greetings and as a consequence, he has dropped the habit. The habit of squatting on the floor when Brahmins are sitting on a string bed has also been dismissed. The old generation continues to pay respect to their traditional superiors, but the middle and young generations do not. Another young postgraduate man told me he did not go to the village shop to purchase goods, as he disliked seeing elder Chamars squatting on the floor in the presence of Brahmins. Mendelsohn has argued that this resistance on the part of the Untouchables ‘can only reflect a major change in the structure of authority’ (1993: 808). 12

Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


skinning of dead animals. However, once they get some education, they consider themselves as superior’. Since the Chamars started to become educated and to claim their rights, they have begun to face hostility. This hostility is confirmed by the discrimination experienced not only in the village but in colleges as well. Vinod, a young, postgraduate Chamar man commented as follows: Jativad [casteism] is increasing day by day. Earlier there were no educated persons and that is why we were weak. Now with education, we have become more powerful and so we use virodh [resistance] in society. For this reason, people are more against us nowadays. That is why the SCs created the BSP. Even for small issues, we protest and we demand. Now we interfere on every issue of the village. We are against the Brahmans, whether we get any results or not. But we stand up against them.

As stated at the very beginning of this book, caste relations have never been unproblematic in Manupur. In the village, assessing episodes of discrimination against the Chamars carried out by most castes and how discriminatory practices have changed over time depends on the age and gender of the narrators, as well as the differing circumstances in which episodes of untouchability practices took place. Two trends can be identified in the Chamars’ discourse on untouchability practices, and these correspond to a generational divide: the views of the elders and those of the younger generation. The older Chamar generation sees a decline in the practice of untouchability, in the transition from the observance of strict rules of segregation to more liberal forms of behaviour. Elders might be more tolerant of discriminatory behaviour in the present as they have been less exposed to the rhetoric of the ideologies of equality compared to the younger mobilised generation. To youngsters, discriminatory practices are alive and well. The stories of college students tell of the strategies they employ to hide their name and identity, to avoid discrimination. They believe that untouchability is not on the wane, but is getting worse, and increasing awareness of caste identity and political rights has heightened their sensitivity towards any form of discriminatory practice. While young Chamars do not observe the rules of behaviour with higher castes, intercaste relations have lost their characteristic of defining status, a situation which is very problematic for other castes. Young mobilised Chamars think that, as one of them put it, ‘no improvement has occurred and what is apparent is just a show and nothing else. Anywhere they [Chamars]


Retro-modern India

will go, Brahmans will hurt them and they will not accept them. So people avoid encounters to avoid humiliation or fights’. To avoid discrimination, however, many Chamars, and particularly the young generation, stay away from other castes, especially upper castes, and prefer separation as their modus vivendi in the village. The Chamars have historically faced social isolation and discrimination, and therefore the absence of social interaction amongst castes can be located in a historical continuum of rarefied sociality. Young Chamars, however, practise a reversed type of caste separation which bears a relation to the political climate. As in the case of untouchability practices, Chamars’ views on the degree of separation between castes vary across generations. Young Chamars hold the view that log alag alag rahate hai (people in the village live in isolation) and nahi milte-julte (they do not mix), and relationships between castes are apcharik (formal). Contrary to this, the older generation still holds to the idea that interaction amongst different castes does take place. This reflects the past involvement of the elder generations in the rural economy of Manupur and the surrounding areas, which at times entailed interaction with other castes. The elders are more integrated into the rural economy and therefore engage more in inter-caste transactions than the younger generation. This is confirmed by the elders’ idea that arth (interest) constitutes the main reason for meeting other castes. Other reasons, such as prem (affection) or formal occasions like marriages, are far less frequent. While the views discussed so far represent the ‘male view’ on untouchability practices and social relations, it is Chamar women who have frequent contacts with Brahmin landlords, as a number of them are hired for casual agricultural labour. Trends and issues around agricultural labour are analysed in the following chapter. By virtue of their interaction with their male landlords, but also with Brahmin women within the landlords’ settlement, Chamar women have witnessed changes of attitude amongst Brahmins towards them. These women believe that there are only two or three Brahmin women who still behave ‘in the old way’, i.e., discriminate against them on caste grounds. An example of these ‘old ways’ was given by Asha, an elderly Chamar woman, who narrated how on a visit to a Brahmin house she was given prasad after a puja. As the Brahmin women were handing over the prasad to her, they let it drop from their hands into the Chamar woman’s, so as to avoid contact. And although angry at this, the sacredness of the prasad prevented the

Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


Chamar woman from throwing it away. Further, in line with a ‘classic’ manifestation of untouchability practices, Chamar women labourers cannot draw water from the Brahmins’ wells, and as the Chamars have their own handpumps within the basti, they normally do not find themselves in situations of conflict over drawing water from sources used by other castes. However, women labourers spend a long time outside their homes and when they find themselves in the Brahmin settlement and in need of water, Brahmins draw water from the well for them and pour it into the Chamar womens’ earthen pots. Likewise, when Chamar women labourers are given food by the Brahmins, separate vessels, disposable earthen pots or leaf plates are used — a rule which applies to both Chamar and Chauhan labourers. Chamar women are allowed to enter Brahmins’ houses, but not their kitchens, in case they touch things. However, when Chamar women are in the Brahmin settlement, women from the latter community always inquire what these women labourers had done before coming to their houses, in order to make sure that they had not done anything ‘polluting’. To some extent these practices have now been relaxed amongst Brahmin women, and some of them will go as far as to take surti (tobacco) from Chamar women labourers’ hands. How do Chamar women explain this change of behaviour? Rather than the Brahmins having changed their attitude towards the Chamars, it is Chamar women and men who have initiated the change. As Usha, a middle-aged woman labourer, put it: Because of Ambedkar, Jagjivan Ram and Saint Ravidas the Chamars’ situation has improved. Since Chamars have had their raj [when BSP leader Mayawati became Chief Minister], Brahmans have become afraid and have started behaving differently. Since this raj, we have stopped marrying within families who are still removing dead animals or doing midwifery, not because we consider them to be achut, but to discourage people from continuing to do these things. With our raj we stopped going for domestic work in the Brahman basti. Now we have our own party, as the upper castes do, and we will not merge with them.

These vernacular understandings of political change might not have foreseen recent political developments regarding the BSP’s expanding vote bank to include upper castes. However, this Chamar woman vividly summarised the ways in which symbolic as well as practical empowerment has benefited the Chamars and other low castes. More importantly, this narrative testifies to how issues of identity, labour, power, history, secular


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leader, and saints can all be intertwined by a popular commentary of a change deeper than just one within electoral politics.

V. Politics at Home As a result of the general climate of caste and political awareness and the spread of education, from the 1990s, the Chamars began to actively engage with village politics. Manupur Chamars, however, do not fall within the small category of full-time political activists and the educated young men used to attend a few political rallies and meetings, brief fellow caste members, and campaign during national and local elections. For several years, the post of gram pradhan (village headman) in Manupur had been held by candidates from backward castes, supported by the sections of the Brahmin community with members in the local Congress party leadership. On the occasion of the 1995 panchayat elections, the Chamars presented their own candidate for the first time. Before the elections were held, it was rumoured that the post of the gram pradhan was going to be reserved for a woman SC/ST (Scheduled Tribe) candidate. The Chamars called an all-village meeting, which was attended by very few people. In the event of a reserved seat, the Brahmins were thought to rely on the Dhobi family that lived in the Brahmin settlement for a candidate. In the basti, a middle-aged literate Chamar woman, married to a government employee and mother of seven children, was proposed as a candidate for the post of pradhan in the elections. Other Chamar men presented their own women candidates, with the consequence that the unity of the basti was disrupted. However, people recall that elections had brought about a great deal of fervour in village life and that meetings were constantly held. Ultimately, this exercise proved futile, as the post of pradhan was not declared a reserved one. Following this, the Chamars offered support for a candidate of the backward castes’ choice. However, members of the backward castes said they were not interested in contesting the elections, at which point educated, young Chamars decided to choose their own candidate, Drupad, a 30-year-old high school-educated weaver. Young Chamar men promised to help him with the political campaign and the work that he would have to do if he became pradhan. In Manupur village, the number of votes is such that the Chamars would never be able to win an election without the support of other castes. Once the Chamars presented their candidate, backward-caste communities also put forward their own candidates. The Brahmins had two candidates, although

Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


one of them, in order not to split the votes of their community, eventually resigned. Ultimately, in the words of the Chamars, ‘Backwards preferred to bow to the Brahmins rather than make a coalition with the Chamars’, and thus a Brahmin pradhan was elected. On the occasion of the panchayat elections, the Chamars were faced with not just political isolation, as they could not count on the votes of the other communities, but also with the fact that half of the Chamar households either supported the Brahmin candidate eventually elected or a candidate supported by a different Brahmin faction, rather than their own. The split vote straddled the divisions of age and educational achievement discussed earlier, with the elderly and less educated tending to support Brahmin politics, testifying to the long-lasting effects of the Congress’s patronage politics. Internal political fragmentation at the level of village politics followed the more general lack of unity perceived by Manupur Chamars. Similarly, political fragmentation is seen as a problem also by Chamars who are not part of the educated elite. For instance, as Shiva, an uneducated weaver, explained: This biradari is weak. This community is not united and they do not have knowledge. They are not united because of the lack of education in our community. If an educated person is teaching us to fight for our rights, half of the people will support him and half will oppose him. Few people are also neutral. So, no movement can succeed.

The 1999 Lok Sabha elections, however, which I observed during my fieldwork, showed a different voting pattern from local politics. Prior to the voting day, no party came to campaign in the Chamar basti in search of votes. It appeared that the Chamars were considered such a consolidated vote bank that they could not be persuaded otherwise. Only workers from the BSP came to the village to recruit Chamars to help with their campaign within the locality. However, canvassing and campaigning before the election was something the Chamars were not particularly interested in. ‘People in the village are busy in their activities, and those people who campaign have nothing to do’, people said. On voting day, by the early hours of the morning, Chamar women and men were found queuing at the polling station located in the nearby primary school to cast their vote, as they had been advised to do by the young, educated men of the basti. The Chamars, along with all the other castes living in the village, were present in small groups around the polling station. The young BSP Chamar leader spent the day of the election inside the school,


Retro-modern India

along with the representatives of other castes and parties, checking voters off his list and making sure that no irregularities took place, and ultimately the elections passed off peacefully. Educated young Chamar men have succeeded in becoming the ‘intermediaries’ of national politics for the rest of the basti’s inhabitants, and have been successful in uniting them under the banner of the BSP. However, the belief that ‘uneducated people will vote for anyone under the direction of educated people’, in the words of the young, postgraduate Chamar man named Vinod, introduced earlier, has been defied by the outcome of the 1995 panchayat elections, which epitomised the lack of internal unity among the Chamars. Whereas in the case of the Lok Sabha elections, Manupur Chamars often say that ‘the basti decided to vote for the BSP’ and all the Chamar votes went to the party’s candidate, at the local level Chamars hold a different set of allegiances that involve the Brahmin community. The pradhan elected in 1995 was widely respected among the Chamars, and after he had taken up his post a number of development schemes were implemented. The same pradhan was elected again in the 2000 election unanimously. The administrative life of the village is the locus wherein most of the relations between the Brahmins and the Chamars take place, but also a place in which inter-caste alliances are forged. These are ‘sanctioned’ by inter-caste food consumption. In Manupur, commensal relations between Chamars and others are rare.14 As shown at the beginning of this chapter, the ‘food for politics’ strategy changed its nature over the decades. Inter-caste alliances between Chamars and Brahmins forged over the last 10 years were rewarding when, in 2005, the village seat for pradhan was declared reserved for an SC candidate. Benefiting from the fragmented Brahmin vote along the lines of internal factions which also polarised the vote amongst other caste communities in Manupur, and the support of the former pradhan and his following for Vinod, the latter was elected to the post after an enthusiastic and arduous campaign. This was considered an exceptional event, in which a Chamar ascended to a position of power in the village

In the literature on caste, inter-caste commensal relations have been a primary source of information on rank. See, for example, Marriott (1968) and Parry (1979). 14

Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


for the first time in its history. Vinod could not have won without the support of a Brahmin faction (though this community traditionally supports the Congress party) and the consensus they managed to build through upper-caste help. This election was not framed by national politics and political parties did not play a role in the contest, but it followed a local logic of rivalries and caste alliances. Interestingly, the inter-caste coalition which led to the election of the Chamar pradhan in 2005 resonates with the increasing heterogeneity of the BSP’s vote bank, in particular the party’s appeals to upper and other castes which led to its victory in the state elections in 2007, testifying not only to the necessity of reflecting on a post-‘classic identity politics’ scenario, but also to a return to an SC–upper-caste (and Muslim) party, Congress style, this time led by the low castes, however.

VI. From the Congress to the BSP In this section, I focus on the Chamars’ popular perceptions of the process that led them to wider political participation and awareness through support for the BSP. The narratives that follow in this section (collected during 1998–99) show why the political discourse of the BSP has been successful in this community and also how political events have been locally re-interpreted and appropriated. Political change is inextricably linked with the end of the Congress regime and the development of new kinds of political identity and autonomous practices. In fact, as the BSP leader Suresh put it in 1999: Five to ten years ago people from all castes were free to vote for anyone at the elections. These days, they are still free to vote. We were voting for the Congress even after the BSP had been created, but other parties’ members would not believe that we had voted for a party other than the BSP. Then we decided that if these people do not believe us, we would vote for the BSP.

This view is shared by a large number of Chamars and strongly suggests that their political shift towards the BSP was initially the product of the overall political climate. ‘Nothing had happened to the Congress party’, many Chamars would say when asked about their decision to support the BSP. It was jativad that had made them form their own caste’s party and vote for it just as other castes had already done. The Chamars did not see themselves as starting the phenomenon of jativad, rather they


Retro-modern India

were compelled to follow its powerful effect. This reasoning is accompanied by memories of the Congress regime, which, despite the present support for the BSP, form an important part of the political culture of many Chamars. These memories are intertwined with symbols such as the figure of Ambedkar, and issues of contemporary relevance such as the concern with social and economic equalities. The older generations (those preceding the present educated one) remember with admiration the time of the Congress regime and its charismatic figures. Indira Gandhi is much revered and considered to have alleviated the grip of the upper castes over the Chamars, introduced development schemes for them, and worked towards redistributing resources amongst the lower strata of the population.15 In Chamar narratives of the leader’s populist politics, there is no mention of events such as the Emergency and the curtailing of freedom and unpopular projects which were implemented during her leadership. ‘Since her, Brahmans’ oppression has lessened and this has paved the way to the BSP’, said Surendra, a middle-aged uneducated weaver with a past of political mobilisation in the Congress. He described Indira Gandhi’s regime as follows: Ambedkar’s ideas were not implemented by any PMs [Prime Ministers] since Nehru. But Indira Gandhi was the only PM who supported Harijans and Backwards, because she wanted Indian people to have equal rights. She started to employ low-caste people in offices, where the practice of untouchability was very high. Low castes like Chamars were given the post of water bearers in offices, so they were called pani-pandey.16 Office people were compelled to drink water from them. If anybody opposed the low castes in the offices, Indira Gandhi would immediately take action. She followed Ambedkar’s policy and dream. Another example of Indira Gandhi’s policy concerns wheat and rice. These are considered as crops for rich people. Barley and peas were food for poor people and animals. Indira Gandhi seized the godowns of businessmen and big farmers. She ordered them to keep only five kilos of wheat per person. Wheat prices went down in the market and rich people started to buy barley and peas to eat. This was the equal food distribution policy by Indira Gandhi.

15 Paul Brass found the same reverence for Indira Gandhi among the Chamars and other low castes all across UP during his election tours over the years (personal communication). 16 Pandey is a Brahmin surname in UP.

Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


This account testifies to the popularity of Indira Gandhi’s slogan of ‘garibi hatao’ (remove poverty), which had been part of the political propaganda during the 1970s. This slogan was aimed at particular sections of the Indian society, such as the poor, the SCs and Muslims. Hasan argues that the Scheduled Castes benefited in fair measure from various government schemes and policies, particularly the distribution of government-owned land for house sites and even surplus agricultural land under the new ceiling laws. Those who benefited and others who expected to benefit from these poverty alleviating schemes, attributed their advantage directly to government efforts, thus contributing to the credibility of the garibi hatao programme. They certainly did not blame Indira Gandhi for the government’s failure to control the price of food grain or for shortages in the supply of essential commodities. (1998: 34)

Indeed, a number of Chamar households in Manupur benefited from land redistribution during Indira Gandhi’s regime (as noted in Chapter 2). Chapter 3 has highlighted how the Congress regime is seen as a golden age for the weavers’ business. After the death of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, however, business profits have declined without showing any sign of a recovery. In addition to this image of prosperity, the Congress era is also viewed as a time of low-priced foodstuffs, which contrasted with the daily increase of prices at the time of my fieldwork. These findings are not peculiar only to Manupur Chamars. In the early 1990s, A. Gupta encountered similar reactions to Indira Gandhi and her regime in Alipur village in western UP: ‘Many lower-caste people told me that their lives improved considerably during the tenure of Indira Gandhi’ (A. Gupta 1998: 71). Jatavs’ voices recorded by A. Gupta are particularly insightful here: ‘Most of all [the thakurs’] power has been slashed since the raj of Indira — Indira hung them up to dry […], got rid of untouchability, abolished unpaid labour, increased the wages of laborers, and introduced subsidies for the Scheduled Castes in all programs’ (ibid.: 72). More importantly, Gupta found out that this impressive list of achievements was attributed to Indira Gandhi by virtue of the heightened and unprecedented presence of the administration to enforce even the existing laws, the use of mass media (the radio) for this purpose, and by placing the idea of social justice at the centre stage of the project of national development (ibid.: 72–73).


Retro-modern India

It is not just the stature of Indira Gandhi which explains the popularity of the Congress regime amongst the Chamars. During the Congress era, an important figure amongst the Chamars was Jagjivan Ram, a highprofile Chamar politician, particularly popular in eastern UP. In the words of a weaver called Lalji, Ram is considered to be ‘the one who advised Indira Gandhi in politics. He was the brain and his work was in the same pattern written by Ambedkarji’. His caste identity had already become important during the Congress’s time: ‘Ram visited our community, so we supported the Congress. If at that time, Ram had made a party, we would have supported him. But this happens now. Our people made our own party’, said Lalji. Another middle-aged, uneducated weaver added: ‘On Jajivam Ram’s name, many votes were given. As he departed from Congress, the image of the party declined.’ The politician, however, is also remembered for the discrimination he endured during his political career. On one occasion, he was invited to unveil a statue of Sampurnanand (an important Congress politician and UP Chief Minister) located in the campus of the Sampurnanand Sanskrit University in Banaras. After the ceremony, the statue was washed by upper castes in order to purify it from the polluted touch of the Chamar politician. Part of the decline of the Congress party can been seen in the problem of leadership which afflicted the Congress after 1991. Sechan, an uneducated weaver said that ‘after Indira Gandhi and her son were killed, nobody remained in the party, only the daughter-in-law. So the status of the party went down. The BSP was the best option’. Views on the Congress decline are also accompanied by reflections on political practice during its regime; Ravi, an uneducated weaver, commented thus: In order to attain the Chamars’ votes, the Brahmans used a dual policy. They told us that everybody is equal, while they did not think so. Other castes supported the Brahmans in this policy, and the Chamars were alone, and that is why the Brahmans have been successful in their strategy. Chamars supported the Brahmans because they were suppressed and were afraid of them. Now Chamars have realised that those whom they supported within the Congress were those who needed only their votes under the cover of egalitarianism.

Attitudes towards the Congress’s politics and the way that politics affected the low castes show that a clear generation divide characterises the Chamars’ views on untouchability and the degree of inter-caste relations.

Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


In particular, the lack of political unity in the basti during the Congress’s time is explained by educated Chamars as follows: It is because of people’s feeling of ego that people in the basti would not reveal to each other whom they had voted for, and they would consider it insulting to go to someone’s house to tell him how to vote, and in turn they would not like such people.

However, as all Manupur Chamars always voted for the Congress party, it appears that the problem was primarily the lack of community-wide consensus. Moreover, the question of whom to vote for was simply not an issue and was not considered to be a ‘public affair’. The absence of a ‘public politics’ refers to a form of ‘routine voting’, which contrasts with the politicisation of the vote introduced by BSP identity politics. A young postgraduate further commented on the passive political attitude of the elders, saying, ‘People used to put a stamp on whichever emblem was there, without much thought. But now they know the value of this party and their strength.’ Elders started to call voting ‘a birth right’. This vote awareness explains the numerical strength noted by Yadav in his explanation of the ‘second democratic upsurge’ (2000), and how this was in fact marked by the low castes’ high turnout at the elections. Younger Chamars elaborate further on their choice of the BSP. Their narratives tell of the failure of long-standing political allegiances, such as that to the Congress party, in conveying social equality and the rights that today fill the language of low-caste political rhetoric. They also put forward additional reasons to account for the Congress’s political failure, with emphasis on its inability to deliver the rights that would lead to equality for lower castes within Indian society. For example, Sanjay, a young male government employee said that: as long as Rajiv Gandhi was alive, the Congress had the vote of the SCs. Gradually, after the party started to disintegrate, the votes shifted to the BSP. There was no point in voting for a baseless party. Within the party, the SCs and STs were being discriminated against. Also, if a Brahman Congressman was pradhan in a village, he would exploit the SCs. Incidents like Jagjivan Ram not becoming PM, the feeling that the Congress was pro-savarna17 people, there was the necessity of a balance, and then the BSP


Those who belong to the four varnas.


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was created and the SCs and STs joined in. This is good because I am not discriminated against in the city, but if I go to the countryside and people know about my jati, they would discriminate against me. Such a tendency can only change if there is a party which can change things.

The failure of the Congress to secure the SCs’ rights is echoed in many of Manupur Chamars’ remarks. Young Suresh said: When the BSP was created, nobody knew about its existence and it was only after 1989 that it started to acquire some popularity. In the first place, Chamars were committed to the Congress because of the legacy of Indira Gandhi and Jagjivan Ram, who were given high regard in the political culture of the SCs. But the BSP, in the person of its president Kanshi Ram, told the Chamars that the Congress had not done much for them. He informed the Dalits of what they were entitled to in society. In the meantime, some leaders of the Congress who had found out about the BSP, shifted to the BJP, because the Congress, without the SCs, was going to lose its identity.

The language of rights and entitlements put forward by young Chamars stems from the powerful symbol of the Mandal Commission. In 1991, the Indian government decided to reserve 27 per cent of the posts in the central government for members of the OBCs, following the recommendation of the Backward Classes Commission, alias the Mandal Commission. In 1981, the Commission identified 3,743 castes as ‘backward’ (Hasan 1996) and therefore in need of protective measures. The UP government, which due to upper-caste dominance had previously put obstacles in the way of the policy of reservation, raised the reserved quotas for the OBCs by an additional 12 per cent (ibid.). The decision by V. P. Singh in 1990 to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations and the subsequent social and political turmoil reinforced Manupur Chamars’ political choice in favour of the BSP. The following narratives testify to the popularity of V. P. Singh amongst the Chamars.18 There is a question regarding the reasons for this popularity, as the Mandal

18 Omvedt confirms the stature of V. P. Singh amongst the lower castes: ‘though the BSP still remains a party to be reckoned with in UP and Haryana, in the rest of the country V. P. Singh emerged as the effective spokesperson of the Dalit and low-caste aspiration to power through reservations’ (2001: 501).

Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


Commission benefited OBCs rather than the Chamars, who were already eligible for provisions by virtue of the policy of positive discrimination. As the following narratives show, the Chamars believe that the Congress ‘had hidden’ the reservations for the SCs that Ambedkar had included in the Constitution, and V. P. Singh had the merit to make them public again. As a result, these narratives not only speak about the power of jativad but, more importantly, they communicate the spread of a notion of social justice which marked a definite change from the idea of democracy in the pre-Mandal era. V. P. Singh’s role in the Chamars’ political imaginary corresponds to what Jaffrelot says about the more general climate around the ascendance to power of V. P. Singh’s party, the Janata Dal: ‘the political context created by the Mandal affair gave more visibility to the claims of the Scheduled Castes while Dalit politics had receded into the background after the death of Ambedkar’ (2003: 387). In Manupur, the appreciation of V. P. Singh and the appropriation of the motives that stand behind the Mandal Commission, as they are popularly understood, are used in critiques of the Congress regime. ‘In the Congress era’, said a young postgraduate man, ‘there was no fast development, and when the BSP put forward the SCs’ development, the Congress party hid the Mandal Commission. The Congress party always won with SC votes but never gave place and rights to the SCs’. Arvind, a college-educated young man, also shared the view that the Mandal Commission Report was hidden by the Congress during its regime: The Congress kept the people of India in darkness. If what was disclosed by V. P. Singh had been disclosed by the Congress, then the votes which went to the BSP would have remained within the Congress. Only a few illiterate people would have turned to the BSP, whereas educated ones would have supported the Congress.

Abhey, a skilled Chamar mason, argued, ‘V. P. Singh implemented the Commission for the welfare of the SCs. No other leader showed his courage for the SCs’, while a weaver commented that when ‘V. P. Singh implemented the Mandal Commission, he installed statues and photographs of Ambedkar in the Parliament. The Congress did not give importance to the leader’. BSP leader Suresh pointed out: If SCs and Backwards represent 85 per cent of the population, why are they not in power? By implementing the Mandal Commission, V. P. Singh has just made public that people like the SCs are entitled to reservations and


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his job was not different from Kanshi Ram’s. The latter just came first to reveal this information. It was only Ambedkar who did something for the SCs by including the provision for reservations within the Constitution. These provisions have been in the Constitution for the last 50 years. This is also a response to those who think that during the Congress’s time they obtained material gains from the government, whereas they never received anything.

All these narratives capture the feeling that the birth of caste politics in the 1990s coincided with the revelation of rights and entitlements that had earlier been denied to the Chamars. Moreover, the Chamar narratives have also suggested that the merit of opening up political participation and promoting political awareness amongst the lower castes does not pertain exclusively to the BSP. What is more, the transition from the Congress era to that of the BSP and other parties’ identity politics is not unanimously seen as a new phenomenon. There are, in fact, voices of discontent which point out that jativad suggests a feeling of déjà vu and an image of caste antagonism merely being reproduced under different circumstances. As Virendra, a young government employee, put it: ‘Jativad existed from earlier times. In the Vedic times, people were divided into four varnas. Politicians remind people about this system and renew it. So there is nothing new.’ The limits of jativad introducing a specific criterion for representation are also highlighted. Virendra stated, ‘I should vote for a good candidate, but in people’s mind there is the idea that each caste member should vote for his own party.’ In the Chamars’ views, voting for the BSP has taken on a set of meanings that highlight the party’s importance for a historically powerless caste community. In order to analyse the meanings of the Chamars’ inclusion within the political process, it is important to investigate the Chamars’ view on the main actor of identity politics, the BSP. They view the BSP as instrumental in the SCs’ progress and as a guarantee of representation at the national level. Raj, a weaver, said: ‘If we vote for the BSP, the party will get strong, will come into power and work for the development of the SCs.’ Arjun, a young postgraduate man, said that in society there are two categories of people: Bahujanwadi and Manuwadi. One is formed by the majority of the people and the other one by the minority. The BSP has emerged for the welfare of the majority. This party is fighting for our rights and to secure us a place in society.

Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


Political affiliation to the BSP has primarily had an effect at a symbolic level. Chamars have positive opinions about the achievements of Mayawati’s governments, such as the fulfilment of the reservation quotas, the implementation of initiatives like the Ambedkar Village Scheme and the changing of names of several districts.19 Commenting on the power of the symbolic, Corbridge and Harriss have said: People are not empowered by land or wages alone, which is perhaps how the Left has understood power and poverty in India; the victims of discrimination can also be empowered by a heightened sense of their worth or honour (izzat), and this is where the BSP made a difference. (2001: 216)

Chamars also claim non-symbolic benefits from the party. For example, Sandeep, an uneducated weaver, explained it thus: ‘However, if in a village, the Chamars are few in number, Brahmans and Thakurs will suppress them, whereas in the society outside they are associated with the new samaj, that is the party.’ Naresh, another weaver, remarked: If someone blames us, we will go to the party, then the party will listen to us and try to take action. Earlier, the police never listened to us. But when the first BSP government was formed, the police was afraid that we would go to the higher levels of the hierarchy.

By virtue of the creation of a larger community, the party protects the SCs from upper-caste oppression, and also guarantees a chance of adequate political representation. The latter, however, does not involve a strict ethnic criterion in matter of candidate choice. For the Chamars, the identity of the election candidate is not relevant and the candidate does not have to necessarily belong to the Chamar community.20 Here might well lie the party’s secret of success in ensuring that it never loses its low-caste electorate, even if the candidate’s identity changes. The Chamars give their votes to the party, not to the candidate. It follows that they do not support a specific caste-based political identity, On the achievements of Mayawati’s earlier governments, see Hasan (2000: 159ff.). 20 In both the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha constituencies, no Chamar candidate contested elections for the BSP in the past few Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections. 19


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but subscribe to the idea of a political constituency made of different communities, according to the BSP’s idea of bahujan. In other words, it is what the party represents, rather than the politicians themselves, that makes the BSP popular amongst the Chamars. Coalition politics is not only favoured because of the importance of the numerical strength of a vote bank. Manupur Chamars also believe that the affiliation of a number of different castes, including upper castes, to the BSP is a sign that other castes are not reluctant to join a party whose base in UP (at the time of my fieldwork in 1998–99) was predominantly constituted by the Chamars. On the other hand, while voting for the BSP is a sign of assertion for the Chamars, it also attracted comments and abuse from a range of castes who associate the BSP with the Chamars. The Chamars also give the example of the local Rajbhar community who, they said at the time of my first fieldwork, might not vote for the BSP because of the close link between this party and the Chamars, despite the fact that in the Lok Sabha constituency where Manupur falls, the BSP candidate in the 1999 elections was a Rajbhar.21 Vinod explained it thus: Everybody says that the BSP is a Chamars-only party. But when they know more about the party, they get to know that this party is for the bahujans. There was tension amongst the Brahmans after the creation of the BSP. They think that the BSP is doing well, and nowadays they are very afraid of this party because other bahujan communities, like Rajbhars and Kurmis and other Backwards, are joining in. The party is growing and the Brahmans are keenly watching over it because castes like Brahmans and Thakurs, who do not believe in jativad, have been BSP candidates in this and in the past elections. This shows that intelligent people who are not affected by jativad do join the party.

The party’s project of gaining support from communities other than the SCs has been successful, as the steady increase in the party’s vote bank with every passing election confirms. In addition, a diversification of the identity of electoral candidates has taken place in the conquest for political power under the banner of the party. This datum was an additional confirmation of the importance of the BSP in the eyes of the Chamars, Similarly, in the Vidhan Sabha elections held in February 2002, the BSP fielded a Rajbhar candidate, as did the Samajwadi Party. The latter won the seat. 21

Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


as is the fact that it attracts people from different caste backgrounds. ‘In the beginning, the Chamars were not supporting the BSP openly, but now they are proud as it has become a very good party and now even upper castes have joined in’, said a postgraduate young man. As said earlier, the BSP’s strategy of expanding its vote bank by attracting other communities, especially upper castes, translated into an important electoral success in 2007. The narratives in this section suggest that an increasingly heterogeneous vote bank might well be seen by the Chamars as a positive effect, as such a development indicates that the derogatory meanings attached to the Chamar caste are being superseded by the very fact of other castes joining the party. This is again an example of politics bending the rules of the social. Also, BSP Chamar supporters do not cling to the Chamar identity of a candidate; rather, they support the party as a whole. These insights at the grassroots level might have proved beneficial to the new strategy of the BSP and avoided the feeling of alienation and loss of power amongst voters who have been at the core of this party’s successful trajectory. Low-caste support for the BSP, regardless of the candidate’s caste and community background, and the ideological formula of sarv samaj are also very important data which add new elements to the model of patronage democracy based on the BSP as an ethnic party, as formulated by Chandra (2004), before the above-mentioned changes took place. Attracting the vote banks of other communities revitalised Dalit politics in UP. The party aimed to ‘deethnicise’ its original formula by attracting other communities within its fold — a move which the BSP accomplished through ethnic/caste lines. The party renounced its practice of overtly appealing to caste and shifted from its exclusive interest in the Dalit cause to a broader agenda.

VII. Reconstituted Identities As I have shown in the previous chapters, the political imagination of the Chamars is dominated by a set of political figures, each representing different stages of Indian political history which held significance for the Chamars. The most recent history is ‘inhabited’ by BSP leaders, in particular Mayawati. Her distinctive political rhetoric and style has affected the way the Chamars view themselves. The Chamar identity has not usually been considered as a ‘matter of ostentation’; on the contrary, Mayawati’s aggressive and defiant proclamation of her Chamar identity in front of masses of supporters, has left upper castes increasingly puzzled.


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‘I don’t understand why Mayawati shouts in rallies that she is a Chamar’, Shankar, the elderly male Brahmin introduced earlier, once told me. By contrast, Ram, the elderly Chamar introduced in Chapter 3, claimed that the ‘BSP leader Mayawati cancelled the feeling of smallness amongst people belonging to the lower castes’. These two elderly men belong to the same generation and have lived all their lives in Manupur village. Ram, as previously described, is a former sari weaver who gave up his faith in the Congress to follow the newly constituted BSP. Shankar, now deceased, was a retired government employee in the Varanasi court area and the head of a powerful Brahmin family associated with the Congress party. Their conflicting views show how the BSP has challenged existing ideas about the Chamar caste status and vocally upset traditional hierarchies. On this matter, Khilnani has argued that figures like Mayawati — a woman drawn from a caste group categorized as ‘Backward’, who in 1995 became chief minister to Uttar Pradesh’s 139 million people — vaunted their social and cultural origins, using them openly to challenge the dominance of the upper castes. (1998: 57; emphasis in the original)

Politicians like Mayawati have also demonstrated that low-caste origin is no bar to political power, and they have appealed to larger constituencies than single ethnic groups. The narratives of the Chamars often refer to a community of lower castes, the Bahujans, testifying to the creation of a larger national community/party. Low-caste politics has created a political community through the revaluation of unifying symbols that point to the construction of a respectable past, as shown in Chapter 4. One such symbol is the saint Ravidas. However, it is the figure of Ambedkar which holds a special place within the Chamars’ imagination for being the pivotal figure in the history of the Dalit movement and for his authoring of the Indian Constitution. Throughout my fieldwork, he was invoked in almost all discourses on social relations and caste progress. Although the figure of Ambedkar was known to the generations born before the creation of the BSP, in recent times, the promotion of the figure of the leader has received a tremendous impetus from the party’s political propaganda. In north India and elsewhere, Ambedkar has not experienced such popularity since his death in 1956. Following the resurgence of his teachings with BSP’s growing popularity, Ambedkar has become a modern icon of progress for the low castes, particularly in UP and especially amongst the Chamars, the BSP’s main supporters.

Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


This heritage is also reflected publicly in the politics of space in UP which is constellated by symbols and statues of the Dalit pantheon. If this politics serves to remind the low castes of their strength in the public space, the Chamar community’s contemporary understandings of Ambedkar testify to his mythical status and to his being a source of inspiration for self-respect for one’s own inner self. Chapter 4 showed how Ambedkar’s history of suffering during his school years has become an ‘emotional heritage’, shared and cherished by those who experienced similar forms of discrimination. Amongst the Chamars, Ambedkar belongs to a mythical realm that somehow contrasts with the world of realpolitik. Ambedkar’s figure remains untouched by the dynamics of electoral democracy and of power-seeking strategies of modern politicians. All Chamars are convinced that the BSP is moving along the path suggested by Ambedkar, and that it is working towards the fulfilment of the leader’s dreams for the SCs. The slogan he used during his life for his socio-political project for the SCs — ‘educate, agitate, organise’ — is believed by the Chamars to be the strategy of the party in a nutshell. A shared version of significant events in Ambedkar’s life exists and these narratives are popular within the Chamar community, representing the modern version of the leader’s life history, transformed and mythicised by the political imagination of the Chamars. These are narratives of ‘shared suffering’ in which the Chamars can identify themselves. Having completed postgraduate studies abroad, thanks to the patronage of the Maharaja of Baroda, Ambedkar became a prominent figure in the pre-independence Indian political scenario. An important moment in Ambedkar’s political career that is often narrated by the Chamars is a reinterpretation of the sessions of the Round Table Conference. On this occasion, the leader had initially proposed the constitution of separate electorates for the Depressed Classes, a proposal that was opposed by Gandhi, who began a fast unto death in protest.22 The Chamars tell how ‘Ambedkar faced Gandhi in order to create a separate country for the SC population within India, the so-called Chamaristhan. But Gandhi started a fast unto death and Ambedkar quit his ideas about a separate land for the SC community’. Another key episode of Ambedkar’s life These events led to the Poona Pact where the SCs were granted reserved seats in the legislative assemblies. For a detailed description of these events, see Zelliot (1996). 22


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history is represented by his role as chairman of the committee that drafted the Constitution. His role in State crafting is crucial for the Chamars, as the Constitution is always invoked as a repository of their rights, although the Chamars also claim that Ambedkar did not write the Constitution just for them, but for the entire society. They narrate how the British asked for a constitution within 24 hours before granting independence to India. Neither Nehru nor Gandhi were able to write it. Only Ambedkar could and this Constitution still runs the country. Towards the end of his life, Ambedkar married a Brahman woman who poisoned him, making him drink crushed glass.

A few minor variants exist for all the narratives on his life history, but the main events narrated are unvaried: his experience with education; his efforts towards the creation of a separate country; his role in drafting the Constitution; and his death at the hands of a Brahmin wife. However, all versions of Ambedkar’s life history fail to mention Ambedkar’s and thousands of Mahars’ conversion to Buddhism, despite the Chamars’ knowledge of it.23 The revaluation of Chamar identity as a result of low-caste politics might appear in opposition to the transformation of the Chamar ‘substance’ analysed in Chapter 4. The conflict is only apparent, however: while the ideology of education has been used for identity engineering in order to exorcise the essentialised features of identity in the past as well as in the present, low-caste politics has affected caste’s public selfrepresentation and transformed it into a source of symbolic and material power through affiliation to a supralocal organisation and a panIndian (and global) rhetoric on Dalit ideologues. These two trends of identity change reflect the dichotomy between compulsions of status fostered by education and its ideological value, the desire to obliterate an essentialised caste identity versus those compulsions of equality which dominate discourses on citizenship and its legal entitlements within the Indian State.

VIII. The Politics of Naming The signs that ‘Chamar’ identity has been revived by modern BSP politics are found in the versions of Ambedkar’s life history circulated 23

For a study on Mahar converts to Buddhism, see Burra (1996).

Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


in the basti. Although the leader is a symbol at a pan-Indian level, his figure is appropriated by the Chamars by turning his Mahar identity into ‘Chamar’. This transformation goes together with his plan to create a separate country called Chamaristhan. The creation of a larger low-caste community has brought about a change in the way Chamars view their own problematic identity in matters of self-representation. ‘Harijan’ is the term currently in use amongst the Chamars and other castes too refer to them using this term. However, following political propaganda, this term has been seen as derogatory, although no collective attempt has been made to discontinue its usage. Virendra once commented, ‘I don’t like the word Harijan. Mayawati once said in a meeting that if SCs are Harijans, then are the rest of the people children of the devil? I prefer the word Chamar.’ Prasad confirmed Virendra’s view: ‘I prefer Chamar, there is no point in hiding it. I don’t like the word Harijan because Mayawati taught us about Gandhi and the term Harijan.’ The term ‘Chamar’ is rarely used in public speech, and its use is not devoid of contradictions within the Chamar community itself, as it is sometimes used by some upwardly mobile Chamars living in the basti to label lower-status fellow caste members for derogatory purposes. One such episode is analysed in the next chapter. At the same time, as mentioned earlier, Chamar students, including members of the upwardly mobile section, prefer to conceal their identity when at college, in order to avoid unnecessary discrimination. However, there are those who would ultimately choose the term Chamar for self-representation. The RSS activist Ravinder said, ‘I would choose Chamar because Chamar is an ancient name, whereas Harijan was given by Gandhi.’24 The term Chamar also eliminates misunderstandings that may arise when other terms are used. Politically active young Rakesh stated that within Harijans, there are many communities. Bahujan means all except Brahman and Thakur and Lala. Eighty-five per cent is Bahujan. Bahujan is a party name, is political. Dalit means lower caste, any person who is financially weak and below the poverty line. Anyone can be a Dalit, even a Brahman. I prefer Chamar, said in a polite way, so that I won’t feel bad.

24 The figure of Gandhi and the term Harijan have acquired a negative connotation amongst the Chamars due to the political propaganda of the BSP leaders. For a perspective on Gandhi, see Kothari (1997).


Retro-modern India

When I was a child, I had to fight with my friends because they called my community Chamar. Now, though, why should I feel bad as, as a Chamar, I am getting a lot of facilities?

The term Dalit is used in conversations as a political allusion. Likewise, Bahujan, the preferred term amongst BSP politicians, is rarely used by the Chamars and, as with Dalit, when its usage does occur, the context is highly political. Both terms therefore remain political creations and are not used for everyday needs. The term SC, like Harijan, does not really suit modern exigencies of declaring one’s own caste identity. Ashish, a young weaver, clearly explained this situation: I don’t like Harijan because if you want to get a government job, there are no reservations for Harijans. When we write Harijan, I put down Chamar in brackets. If I have to write Chamar in brackets, why should I write Harijan? If someone asks us about our jati, we say Chamar. In this modern time, it is not good to hide your caste. If I am hiding my caste, it means that I am hiding my karma. Nowadays people eat from Brahmans’ plates.25

At the local level, legal and political labels are seldom used. While the Chamars have started to value their own long-despised identity, due to persisting forms of discrimination, the use of the term Chamar is not devoid of contradictions amongst the caste members themselves. This is, however, an important step towards acceptance and marks a change from previous attempts by Chamars elsewhere to change their name.26 Discrimination following names remains a problem, nevertheless. As mentioned earlier in this chapter, Chamar students suffer from forms of exclusion in universities and colleges. There they hide their names through which they would immediately be recognised as SC. Instead, they adopt high-caste surnames such as ‘Singh’ to disguise their lack of them, and thus attract further questions about their background and address which would easily reveal their caste identity.

This comment refers to the widespread custom amongst the upper castes of using different or disposable vessels for those individuals considered to be ‘polluting’. 26 I refer to the case of the Satnamis, accorded the right to be called as such by the government in the 1920s, thereby abandoning the stigmatised term ‘Chamar’. See Dube (1998: 150ff.). 25

Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


IX. Conclusions: After Political Democracy The exploration of the political amongst the Chamars qualifies and enriches some of the trends and dynamics of Indian democracy, in its historical ‘expansion and contractions’. The present chapter has shown the micro-level significance of a larger political community, a community that conjures up ideas of numerical strength, security and common interests. The Chamars have seen their representatives placed in high posts at the national level and the BSP has grown significantly as a political force. Beyond the major electoral shift which communities such as the Chamars have made, from their long-standing affiliation to the Congress party to the BSP, lie changing socialities, contested hierarchies and a vivid political imagination. Through the latter, individuals envision their past and political present by reinterpreting leaders and events in narratives in Indian political modernity as ‘seen from below’. Similar political experiences are shared by a large number of Chamar electors who en masse decided to shift their support to a party that was championing their rights during the 1990s. The previous chapters as well as this one testify to the fertile terrain which was available to political organisations like the BSP and which eased its mobilisation efforts. In this book, I have also aimed to show the process which I have termed ‘democratisation of the mind’. This is a product of a historical process of everyday disenfranchisement from relations of dominance visible in wider phenomena such as the abandonment of the agrarian economy, of empowerment through education, and certainly through autonomous political mobilisation. This disenfranchisement has been accompanied by the production, circulation and reproduction of themes, myths and histories, of which Chapter 4 has shown a sample. This vernacular commentary on political modernity has been produced through written and oral means, and, as I have shown in Chapter 5 through a detailed analysis of the Chamar reformulation of the Satyanarayan Katha, there is no hierarchy amongst these means, i. e., these critiques are made more powerful by members of the Chamar community, whether they are educated or not. Kothari has pointed out that for a long time ‘consciousness of caste was the preserve of the Brahminical upper castes. By contrast, something quite different is happening: the very sufferers from the system (including the caste system) are invoking caste identity and claims’ (1997: 441). In the case of the Chamars, jativad appeared to be an irreversible process that they had to follow, but one that other communities initiated. As a result


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of this process, the Chamars were also ‘identified’ beyond any doubt as BSP voters, confirming the crystallised equation between caste and party which was very much part of the public imaginary of the 1990s. In this period, the main effects of jativad on the Chamar community lay in the acquisition of the knowledge, through a number of political actors and organisations, of what they were entitled to as citizens of India. The material presented in this chapter is a snapshot of political participation at the time when the BSP was still largely a party of the Dalits and, in particular, of the Chamars. Following the changes in the BSP rhetoric and electoral strategy, with the original supporters clinging to the enlarged social base as the secret of its success, the new appeal to a plurality of caste communities under the Dalit leadership is yet another permutation of patronage democracy. Chandra (2004) argues that the model of patronage democracy encapsulated India’s political institutions post 1947. In the new version of patronage democracy, however, the ethnic factor is downplayed in the name of strategic alliances between communities constructed as antagonistic in the BSP’s original formula. But the new one can only mobilise voters along ethnic lines, as the only mode of recruiting support that the party knows. The persistence of caste in the BSP’s new political formula should also be seen as yet another chapter of the resilience of ‘traditions’, i.e., caste: in Kaviraj’s view ‘traditions, when faced with the challenge of entirely new structures like industrialism or electoral democracy, might seek to adapt to these, altering both the internal operation of traditional structures like caste or religious community and the elective institutions themselves’ (2000: 156). The new BSP façade is a sign of the expansion of this process, of the modernity of Indian politics and of a new politics of caste after caste politics as we know it. In this project, to answer Chakrabarty’s questions on the subjects of political modernity, the peasant and the subaltern, I have shown the links between development, social mobility, autonomous political participation and political change. In the case of the formation and development of the BSP, there was a need for a number of former subalterns to enter the folds of the local and supralocal elites to create a party separate from the Congress, which could engender political change. The ascendance of the Chamar (and other low-caste) subaltern to the new elites also provides insights into Chatterjee’s search for models of interaction between elites and subalterns within political society (2006).

Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


Political change has also been visible at the village level. Here, however, the logic of caste identity appeared to be less effective than in the national electoral process. At the local level, the Chamar community was divided, as the case of the 1995 panchayat election has shown, while in 2005, Chamar unity was gained with the election of a fellow caste member for the post of village pradhan, thanks to an SC reserved seat. In both circumstances, however, the politics of identity marked an increase in the Chamars’ participation in the democratic process. The Chamars’ membership in a large, and more recently, heterogeneous political community has led them to positively rethink their own particular identity. This should be seen in light of this community’s past and their present role within the political economy and the history of the region. For this historically suppressed community, autonomous participation in local and national politics is a recent phenomenon. However, this conclusion would leave out forms of political activism within the folds of the Congress party by Manupur’s middle-aged Chamar men. A broader portrait of Manupur’s Chamar community shows how politics has produced amongst them neither the desire for an exclusive, sectarian identity, nor for a separate place within society. Social separation in the village is a local strategy put into practice in order to avoid discrimination, but it does not correspond to an ideal of social relations. The Chamars usually prefer to avoid confrontation with members from other castes who discriminate against them. However, this pattern of sociality cannot be generalised, and inter-caste friendships and relations have existed (although in small numbers) and still continue to do so amongst different Chamar generations. This account of local democratic culture and practices testifies to the Chamars’ profound desire for integration into society (cf. Deliège 1999: 201). In this chapter, I have also analysed narratives of political imagination. This also encompasses the Chamars’ knowledge of the meanings and workings of loktantra (democracy). In a village located in a semi-urban area within one of the most underdeveloped states of India, members of the Chamar caste talked about democracy in ways which testify to the pervasiveness of this idea. Ramji, the elderly rickshaw puller (one of the first people to go to school in the basti) introduced in Chapter 4, claimed that ‘earlier there was hereditary succession of a raja to the throne, but Babasaheb [Ambedkar] gave us the Constitution and that system stopped,


Retro-modern India

and the system of elections came about’, while Pramod argued that democracy is ‘government by the people and for the people’.27 Prasad, a high-school student, noted that ‘democracy means people have equal rights to vote and to speak. But in kingship, there was only the king’. Likewise, Ravinder, a casual wage labourer, observed: Earlier there was kingship and only one person had the right to take any decision. But in democracy, we select a group of people and they take decisions for the welfare of the people. This is democracy. If there were no democracy we would not be in this situation. If our people were not sitting in power, how can we know what is happening at the centre?

Mahesh, a young postgraduate, said that ‘democracy means government of people, people select their representatives amongst people and the representatives do the best for the people’. And Bechan, a high schooleducated government employee, stated that ‘it is the right to vote for anyone, but I don’t have any idea of democracy. It is a right for everyone and no one can forcibly make anyone vote for another person’. The findings presented in this chapter have shown that Chamars do exercise the formal means of democracy in order to support their own party. However, this datum leads to the question of the broader project of substantive democracy involving the overcoming of social and economic inequalities. The hiatus between socio-economic inequality present in contemporary Indian society and political equality had been envisaged by Ambedkar. In a famous and often quoted passage, he contrasted the egalitarian principle of ‘one man–one vote–one value’ in democracy with the denial of equality in economic and social life. Over 50 years have elapsed since that speech. In her conclusive analysis of the political changes that occurred in India over the two decades prior to the time of her writing, Hasan has argued that the logic of democracy has made it possible for hitherto marginalised groups to increase their political participation in the legislative process but this has failed to speed up progress towards altering unequal power relations outside formal political institutions, thus increasing the gap between political equality and socio-economic inequality. (1998: 235) 27 This is actually a phrase borrowed from a speech made by Ambedkar in London at the time of the Round Table Conference, where he advocated India’s autonomy (Deliége 1999: 182).

Politics as Sociality, Imagination and Identity


The ethnography of the political amongst the Chamars strongly testifies to the salience of a ‘dual citizenship’, one empowered by national political forces and one which often lacks the socio-economic requirements for a full exercise of rights, a gap that urgently invokes a redistribution policy that will encompass both beneficiaries of positive discrimination and those in need of socio-economic development, irrespective of their caste background. This is even more significant when a political formation like the BSP, which successfully opened up to other communities by combining realpolitik with social consensus, is in power in UP, and has therefore the responsibility to engage with the serious development concerns which lie at the heart of the above mentioned gap.

Chapter 7 The Bourgeois Woman and the Half-naked One: Gendering Retro-modernity I. Introduction: Class Metamorphosis and the Remaking of Gender Regimes F On my way to an upper-caste house, I met two adult Chamar women friends by mounds of cowdung, the ‘produce’ of the cows and buffaloes belonging to the former. Their arms were deep in excrement, a scene which metaphorically speaks of their conditions of poverty. At first they seemed embarrassed by my presence, but in the span of seconds, they started to crack jokes, making sexual references about me and the uppercaste male cattle owner towards whose house I was headed. We all laughed. To my eyes, through that gesture they had immediately symbolically ‘redeemed’ themselves from the awkwardness of their circumstances being so unceremoniously unveiled. (Field notes 2005) F In this chapter, I explore the interplay between development, identity politics and middle-class aspirations amongst different classes of Manupur Chamar women. I argue that this interplay has reinvigorated notions of women’s domesticity, education and modern conjugality as they emerged in the reform and modernising efforts of sections of Indian society since the 19th century in their encounter with the colonial ‘civilising mission’. I show how the long-term effects of this legacy have reached a historically marginalised community in their pursuit of middle-class aspirations, and the ways in which this legacy is re-configured through its appropriation by members of a low caste. This process epitomises the idea of ‘retro-modernity’ and subsumes under it many of the themes I have so far discussed in this book, such as modern education and work, the idiom of reform, the ascendance of a new class of political subjects, amongst others. In addition to the criticality of Indian women and their gender roles as sites where nation and community transformations are symbolically and

Gendering Retro-modernity


practically negotiated, scholars of South Asia have also highlighted the separation between historical and anthropological discourses on women. In this chapter, I bring these discourses together and address this gap. I contend that the Chamar appropriation of the modernising agenda has resulted in a dual process: on the one hand, a minority of women have embarked on an embourgeoisement trajectory predicated on education, suitable motherhood and aspirations to white-collar employment, on the other hand, underprivileged women with their ‘unfit’ personas (like the labourers I introduced in the opening excerpt of this book) have become increasingly vulnerable to stigmatisation as a result of their menial labour. As I have done previously in this book, here too I use a dialectical relation, in this case that between the ‘two types of Chamar women’, as a heuristic device. This device shows how the reproduction and affirmation of 19th-century idioms of gendered reform amongst women requires the annihilation of the unreformed ways of life incarnated by the noneducated and the poor in ways similar to those which I have shown in my discussion on the liberating and subjecting aspects of education. While the dialectic between the two types of Chamar women is a particularly insightful lens through which the inner conflicts within low-caste communities in contemporary India may be understood, this lens is also more generally suggestive of contradictory trends concerning women, their development prospects and their membership in the nation.

II. Elite and Subaltern Women A great deal of fine scholarship has coalesced on the theme of reforming and modernising women in British India, with particular reference to the history of Bengal, as a pivotal effort to counter and respond to the colonial ‘civilising mission’ from the 19th century onwards (see Chatterjee 1993; Fischer-Tiné and Mann 2004; R. Kumar 1993; Sangari and Vaid 1986; Sarkar 2001). The establishment of a template of a Hindu (middleclass), gendered modernity for women, which saw its birth in this process, centred on education, respectable domesticity and suitable motherhood. Accounts of middle-class women in postcolonial India have investigated their activities in status production work through dispensing charity to the lower classes (see Caplan 1985; Hancock 1999) as well as through women’s presence in national politics.1 Usually tied to a representation For an account of middle- and upper-class women in politics, see Forbes (1998), Agnew (1979) and R. Kumar (1993). 1


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of acquiescent reproduction, the idea of the middle-class woman and the gender roles attached to her have been reformulated to reflect the advent of new national and supranational phenomena. Sunder Rajan (1993) has analysed the construction of the ‘new Indian woman’ as a result of global consumer capitalism and national State broadcasting. This ‘new woman’ mainly draws from the ‘urban educated middle-class career woman’ (ibid.: 130) and constitutes ‘in media and official discourse in India today, a construction which serves not only to reconcile in her subjectivity the conflicts between tradition and modernity in Indian society, but works also to deny the actual conflict that women existentially register as an aspect of their lives’ (ibid.: 129). Along these lines, to contrast the neocolonising transnational danger of globalisation, the criticality of women and gender as sites where the threats to national identity and integrity are exorcised has been reinstated. Fernandes has argued: Gender […] serves as the socio-symbolic site which attempts to manage the destabilizing contradictions which globalization produces in the Indian nation. […]. The potential disruption is managed through a remapping of the nation’s boundaries through a politics of gender which centers around conflicts over the presentation of the purity of women. (2000b: 623)

While this reconfiguration of women and gender serves to symbolically counter globalisation, there is evidence that the effects of such trends have penetrated intimate dimensions of Indian social life.2 As colonialism, economic liberalisation and globalisation showcase women and gender as social, economic, political, and cultural ‘battlefields’ for epochal transformations, women’s agentive responses to these have often been inscribed within the trope of women ‘producing the nation’ through their stereotyped nurturing role, where the effects of economic liberalisation and globalisation suggest how women increasingly appear to be ‘produced’ by the nation and supranational forces alike. In this 2 Based on research on middle-class women and children’s early education in Kolkata, Donner contends, ‘Although mothers have contributed to schooling for generations, the emphasis on employment in multinational companies has brought about a shift in educational strategies towards private English-language education. This is increasingly seen as a precondition for occupational choices offered in the “global” market, which demands the reorganization of parenting practices and the division of labour in the household’ (2005: 119; emphasis in the orginial).

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chapter, I analyse the juxtaposition of the trends outlined in this chapter so far, and the complexity of plural cultural role models as accretions of different eras, in the lives of Chamar women. In particular, I examine how experiences of development, political mobilisation and middle-class aspirations have linked a supralocal historical model of women’s reform and embourgeoisement to a renowned pocket of underdevelopment in north India — UP — and its regional identities. Unlike upper-caste and middle-class women, low-caste women have not figured as protagonists in historical accounts of gender reform, or in the nationalist struggle for independence from British rule. It is only very recently that scholars have begun to retrieve their roles in anti-untouchability movements in colonial India (see Rao 2003). These efforts will contribute towards the production of knowledge on the relation between Dalit /low-caste women and nation building. These women have usually been part of the labouring poor, defined by their menial work as well as depicted as outspoken and as having greater sexual freedom and mobility than upper-caste Hindu women (see Kapadia 1995, for example).3 In Manupur, where the overwhelming majority of women belong to the category of the labouring poor, incipient signs of class formation have emerged. These signs have become visible in changes in the marriage economy: a number of educated brides from nearby urban areas were suitably married to the nascent class of rural politicised educated young men in Manupur, whose portrait has emerged in Chapters 4 and 6. These men’s families expected their children to secure government employment, and a number of them managed to obtain the much-coveted jobs over the years. Amongst the Chamars as well as other communities in their socio-economic position, marriage to a man with a government job is the most sought-after alliance.4 Following post-marriage virilocal rules, 3 On the problematic nexus between education and employment opportunities amongst western UP Chamar youth, see Jeffrey, Jeffery and Jeffery (2008). 4 I have mentioned in Chapter 1 the absence of subcaste membership amongst Manupur Chamars. Moreover, where the existence of gotras (lineages) in the Chamar caste is reported by Briggs (1920), neither gotra nor kuldevta and kuldevi (lineage god and goddess, respectively) are present in Manupur’s Chamar community. As a result, choices of marriage partners reflect the importance of other criteria such as occupation and status. Amongst Manupur Chamars, it is the middleman’s duty to ascertain that no actual blood relations are to be found between the groom’s family and the bride’s. Chamars should not marry parallel


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educated young women shifted from urban areas to the village rural environment, and some of them entered the small group of aspiring middle-class Chamar families. As mentioned in Chapter 1, these families’ changing socio-economic status was tied to their location in the lower echelons of government salaried employment rather than to economic liberalisation and the opportunities offered by global labour markets, which connote the ranks of the Indian ‘new middle classes’. As a result, the Chamars’ ‘buying power’ (discussed later in this chapter) does not compare in the least with the swelling incomes of the ‘new’ middle classes. It is precisely shifting gender roles and regimes which result from the process of becoming middle class amongst Chamar women that I focus on in this chapter. I will argue that the presence of urban, educated young Chamar women revitalised notions of women’s honour and strengthened gender regimes inspired by respectability and other distinctions forged during the 19th and 20th centuries, as outlined at the beginning of this chapter. As a result, Chamar women often began to be confined to the home to attend to their children’s education, following a known path of social reproduction in Indian history. Rather than a simple reproduction narrative, however, I will show how these women enacted a series of agentive choices towards their self-realisation in the interstices of the process of middle-class formation. My focus on elite Chamar women is also linked to the worrying trends noticed at a pan-Indian level by scholars concerning the problematic nexus between women, development and change in gender relations. Kapadia has argued that ‘in the recent decades there has been a strengthening of male-biased (‘patriarchal’) norms and values across all castes and classes in India, simultaneously with increasing economic development’ (2002: 4; italics in the original). One of the most striking manifestations of this phenomenon is the unfavourable sex ratio vis-à-vis women found amongst affluent communities and districts. These reflections call into

or cross cousins and their descendants. Generally speaking, everybody has very extensive kinship knowledge about others’ kin networks, and I have not heard of anyone breaking a marriage engagement because distant blood relations were found between future spouses. Middlemen are not fixed within a family and are usually relatives or friends. Anyone can become a middleman, and arranging a good match for someone is generally recognised as a highly moral action.

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question Bourdieu’s capital circulation (1986), and precisely the ways in which Indian families convert their economic capital into cultural capital through their investment in young women’s educational credentials, which are subsequently spent on the marriage market. Kapadia’s findings (2002) would suggest that the presence of economic capital — very often linked with an increase in women’s level of education — causes a strengthening of patriarchal rules. This link led me to interrogate the ethnographic data on urban, educated Chamar women, in search of the reasons behind the powerlessness intrinsic to women’s economic and cultural capital, and their inability to translate these into symbolic ‘recognition’. Although this inability is revealed at the general level by national trends such as female foeticide or dowry violence, fortunately these phenomena have not signalled their presence amongst Manupur Chamars. While Bourdieu’s different types of capital ‘are invariably theorised in ungendered ways’ (Reay 2004: 60), the analysis of capital circulation and the symbolic profits which might follow education (if applied to Chamar women, for example) needs to include an investigation of the particular gender asymmetries in which this process takes place. I argue that the analysis of the possibility for young women to transform their cultural capital into symbolic recognition, in ways which would contrast women’s devaluation, needs to focus on the gender regimes inflecting the capital circulation’s process. Moreover, as a result of young urban women’s marriage migration into the village, the space(s) in which capital circulation occurs represents a further and crucial element to the analysis. First, as a result of women’s transition from an urban to a rural milieu, the conditions for women’s agency register a further obstacle to the often disempowered status of newly wed daughters-in-law. In the village, these women might find themselves in a socio-economic and political cul-de-sac as a result of the more restrictive gender regimes in place in a rural area as compared to an urban environment. Further, the village does not provide women with the same range of opportunities as the city. Second, I will show how the home, as the place for seclusion and reinvention of respectable domesticity in opposition to the outer world, is accorded different meanings according to different classes of Chamar women and serves different purposes in their respective socio-economic trajectories. Finally, the analysis of women’s capital circulation needs to be inscribed in a much wider landscape, that of the economic liberalisation


Retro-modern India

of globalising India in which pressures of heightened consumption and class status have gradually altered the marriage economy and caused an exponential increase in costs and spiralled dowries, a trend which, in relative terms, has affected the Chamars.

III. Historical and Anthropological Women Through the analysis of Chamar urban, educated women, my purpose here is to address the limitations highlighted in the relationship between the anthropological and the historical discourses on South Asian women. In this regard, N. Kumar (2005) has pointed out how the two disciplines, although influencing one another, speak of ‘two kinds of women’: the progressive, the reformed and active colonial version of the historian versus a more ‘vernacular’ type present in anthropological accounts. Kumar contends that It is unlikely that the subjects and sites of the anthropologist (local, usually village-based, little-educated, seen-from-the-inside) and that of the historian (colonial–national, usually metropolitan or at least urban, contextualised-in-a-larger-whole) would come together. This again produces a thinness of interpretation as we speak, seemingly, about two Indias. (Ibid.: 167)

In addition, Kumar argues that it might well be women such as those described by anthropologists, with their popular practices such as the abusive songs they sang at weddings both in the 19th century and today,5 who were the targets of women reformers. Chamar women epitomise the aims underlying the usage of the idea of retro-modernity, that is to capture how compulsions of the modern bring the imprint of the historical (high caste) into the anthropological (low caste). In this chapter, I consider Chamar educated women as a trait d’union between the modernising endeavours embodied by the ‘historian’s woman’, and the ‘anthropologist’s woman’ with her vernacular (and at times seemingly ‘irreverent’) semblances and performances. The Chamar embourgeoisement trajectory reverberates with the traits of reform. The most important of these traits is identifiable with shifting ideas of pardah For a contemporary account of the salience of these songs for women’s articulation of north Indian ideologies of gender and kinship, see Raheja and Gold (1994). 5

Gendering Retro-modernity


(or the seclusion regime in place for women, characterised by practices such as veiling and abstaining from outside employment), women’s education and the crafting of modern conjugal relations in which husbands have taken up the role of ‘educators’ of their wives, within a hetero-normative family framework, supporting them in the attainment of modern personas and avenues of self-realisation. As described in Chapter 2, the adoption of upper-caste gender roles and the abandonment of demeaning activities has been a strategy of social mobility used amongst the low castes. With specific reference to women, F. Osella and C. Osella have argued that the Izhavas of Kerala, south India as a group have, over the course of the twentieth century, strategically attempted to move away from two forms of labour associated with stigmatised identities: manual — especially agricultural — labour and toddy-tapping: Izhava women have meanwhile followed their Nayar counterparts in adopting the bourgeois ‘housewife’ ethic and Hindu ‘seclusion’ identity. (2000: 79)

This movement towards embourgeoisement of an upper-caste matrix is linked to the betterment of economic conditions. With reference to Untouchable Pallar women in contemporary Tamil Nadu, Kapadia has observed: From the perspective of ordinary, impoverished Pallars, considerations of ‘appropriate’ female behaviour are quite irrelevant. These considerations only arise when a certain level of economic security is reached and women are being withdrawn from work outside the home. In short, they exist only in the context of the upwardly mobile groups in whom the desire to emulate upper-caste and upper-class norms is strong. It is among them that ‘appropriate’ female behaviour suddenly becomes the coin of new social status for men. The point at which women start to be withdrawn from outside work marks the division between the upwardly mobile and those below them. (1995: 169–70; emphasis and italics in the original)

I would claim, however, that Chamar women’s embourgeoisement trajectory is not just an emulation of upper-caste norms and postures. Surely the process of reform of midwifery illustrated in Chapter 2 obeyed upper-caste ideology of purity and pollution. However, not only does the embourgeoisement trajectory aim to gain a higher status but also to


Retro-modern India

appropriate the ‘modern’. Moreover, it is linked with the city space and with distancing from village life. On this matter, I will show how in order to pursue their trajectory and establish their class status, aspiring middleclass Chamar women need to exorcise the ‘vernacular woman other’, who lives within the confines of the same residential community. This trend of separation bears resemblance with a similar dynamic noted in colonial India. Chatterjee observes that in the project of the Indian nationalists of 19th-century Bengal, not only was the reformed ‘new woman’ modelled in a way so as to contrast with Western society by virtue of her superiority derived from a purified tradition, but she also stood in opposition to ‘the “common woman”, who was coarse, vulgar, loud, quarrelsome, devoid of superior moral sense, sexually promiscuous, subjected to brutal physical oppression by males’ (1993: 127; emphasis in the original). Significantly, Chatterjee points out how in the literature of that period a host of lower-class female characters […] make their appearance in the social milieu of the new middle class — maidservants, washer women, barbers, peddlers, procuresses, prostitutes. It was precisely this degenerate condition of women that nationalism claimed it would reform, and it was through these contrasts that the new woman of nationalist ideology was accorded a status of cultural superiority to the Westernised women of the wealthy parvenu families spawned by the colonial connection as well as to common women of the lower classes. (Ibid.)6

The dialectic between the aspiring middle-class Chamar woman and her ‘other’, which finds its archetype in the women pairs Chatterjee and others have analysed, may be fully grasped in the light of the regional ideas of status, work and education. As explained in Chapter 2, the Chamar caste was included in the razil classes as opposed to the sharif, a status classification identified by G. Pandey (1983) and operating in north India in the 19th and 20th centuries. Amongst other defining elements, this classification was predicated on the presence of womenfolk in paid

On the process of separation between the colonial Bengali middle-class woman from the lower classes, see also Banerjee (2006). It is also significant that the pair made of upper- and middle-class families and their servants can serve as an observation point for the contemporary experience of modernity in globalising India, as analysed by Qayum and Ray (2003). 6

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employment amongst the razil group.7 However, the observance of pardah and women’s absence in paid employment outside the home was not an unknown practice within the Chamar community, and elderly village women’s narratives testify to its practice.8 Forms of pardah were observed in the past in this community, as an expression of its internal socio-economic differentiation, for example, between landed families and those without holdings. An elderly Chamar woman, a native of Manupur who did not move out of the village after marriage, described how her wealthy dadi (paternal grandmother) only employed labourers in her fields and used to distribute sugarcane juice to the Chamar community in the village after the harvest was complete. Subsequently, it would be inaccurate to assume that in the past all Chamar women were impoverished and had to work on the land, as the sharif–razil distinction and accounts on the Untouchable castes and their histories of menial work would suggest. However, the Chamar observance of pardah was not as rigid as amongst upper castes, because it could disappear under financial pressure and vice versa. For example, the eldest woman in the Chamar community, now deceased, told me how she was forced into agricultural labour after she was widowed and had to support her children. As shown in Chapter 3, the Chamar male weavers’ ethnohistories that I collected in Manupur tell of how weavers had not considered their wives’ work at the loom as a result of the absence of the need for women’s wages and the high status conferred to their households by this decision. Ultimately, the point here is that pardah, or more precisely the form it has taken in C. Gupta reports how in colonial UP as well as elsewhere, ‘women’s roles affected the status of a caste’ (2002: 25) — a number of communities were discriminated against because their womenfolk engaged in work in public, while others, including the Chamars, began to seclude their women to raise their status (ibid.: 25–26). 8 Manupur Chamars were not alone in observing pardah during the 20th century. Lynch described this practice amongst the Jatav (Chamar) community in Agra as follows: ‘Married women are expected to practice ghunghat (lowering the veil of the sari to cover the face). A newly married girl is expected to do this completely so that the whole face is covered before any man of her husband’s neighbourhood, since he is like a potential husband to her. As time goes on, however, with age and children she is expected only to keep the veil over her head, and is allowed greater freedom in speaking to other men of the neighbourhood into which she has married’ (1969: 174; italics in the original). 7


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the Chamar community, is not just a modern phenomenon but is part of the existing social alphabet of caste society which has been resuscitated by aspiring middle-class individuals and households, in conjunction with improved economic circumstances. The search for educated Chamar brides in Manupur signalled the increased importance of education in the marriage economy of the low castes. With reference to the ethnographic context, the history of women’s education in the Banaras region testifies to girls’ education as a relatively recent phenomenon. Despite the city being a renowned learning centre, N. Kumar argues: ‘There is little evidence to suggest that women received any kind of formal schooling in late nineteenth-century Banaras at all’ (1994: 212). It was only in the 20th century that girls’ education became an issue in the modernisation agenda of individual caste communities (ibid.: 13). Since the beginning of that century, a number of girls’ schools were opened in Banaras by women educators (N. Kumar 2005: 171). However Chamar women were almost certainly amongst the last to be able to benefit from private and state schools. Education amongst urban Chamar brides instilled in them the desire for respectable employment, as much as young men aspire to white-collar jobs — a rather different prospect if compared to the menial occupations and agricultural labour Chamar women have historically been associated with. As a result, the practice of pardah amongst educated Chamar brides gradually took up new meanings: their process of embourgeoisement shifted the definition of respectability from the idea that womenfolk should not perform any outside (menial) working activity to a more middle-class oriented image of the working woman, similar to the ‘new middle-class career woman’ examined by Sunder Rajan (1993). The working woman model represented a novelty in the established pattern of the village’s gender relations where the nexus of women and work (the latter being only of low and menial nature) was one allowed to exist only under difficult circumstances within the household. Educated women’s work aspirations now signalled a higher, but above all a modern, status. Moreover, educated women’s appropriation of middle-class gender roles did not draw on a local community history, but on a national history and repertoire which offered strategies, idioms and roles for class reproduction. As women’s work was included in the attainment of a higher class and gendered respectability in Manupur, the shift towards the new model of the village

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middle-class woman was deeply embedded in a ‘traditional’ gender setting: this shift could only take place through the consent of ‘enlightened’ young men.9 This role is powerfully reminiscent of that which male reformers took up in their encounter with colonial modernity, and in their efforts to re-cast women into suitable personas to attend to family life in British India. In this process, ‘a younger generation of men sought to undercut family authority through the creation of more nuclear, exclusive, and dyadic relationships between husbands and wives’ ( Walsh 2004: 4). In Manupur, it is only when Chamar men secure education and employment for themselves that they may pay attention to their female relatives and spouses’ condition. Educated women are often supported in their upward-mobility process by male relatives and husbands who are both knowledgeable and relatively financially sound. These women, however, depend on their husbands and in-laws for decisions regarding their careers. While enjoying a better socio-economic condition than their uneducated and underprivileged counterpart, educated women hold a different bargaining power from the latter (but not necessarily a greater one), in so far as they may be able to use their educational credentials 9 It might well be that the process of embourgeoisement changed women’s bargaining power in the household and placed them under the increased control of their male family members. However, the Chamar ‘traditional’ gender setting needs to be stressed, as it challenges the assumption of equal gender relations amongst low-caste communities. Although they might not endure the severe pardah registered amongst upper-caste women in the region, nevertheless, Chamar women’s gender relations follow patterns found within Hindu communities. Lynch’s observations on Agra Jatavs (1969) testify to this point. He argues: ‘In Jatav families the relationship between husband and wife is one in which the wife is expected to show respect and deference to her husband. A man is allowed to strike his wife but she cannot strike back. A husband can scold his wife but she ought not talk back, though she may privately do so in an indirect way. It is often said that a wife must treat her husband like a god. […] The act which best expresses and even ritualizes the relation of husband and wife is that she will not eat her evening meal until he has eaten, no matter how late he may return (ibid.: 173–74). For a more recent example of women’s subordination amongst Chamars in Lucknow, see Khare (1998: 212). Further, the emergence of Dalit feminism, as a distinct voice from mainstream (often upper-caste dominated) Indian feminism, has brought the issue of Dalit patriarchy to the fore (see the essays contained in Rao 2003).


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to seek employment outside the household. As I have argued above, middle-class formation amongst urban, educated Chamar women was predicated on the creation of a social distance between them and the Chamar woman ‘other’: the labourer, rowdy and uncultured. The next section explores an encounter between the ‘two groups’ which vividly illustrates the issues at stake.

IV. Class(ic) Encounters On my visit to the Manupur village Chamar community in 2002, Sushila, an agricultural labourer, wife of a former weaver and a grandmother in her early forties, attracted my attention by waving her hands. Sushila was married to a descendant of a landless Chamar who had migrated to Manupur in the course of the 20th century. Sushila and I often joked about dancing in marriage parties and, on these joking occasions, she would immediately show a few moves. That day, she furtively looked around to see if anybody was in sight, lifted the blouse under her sari and started to dance with her breasts exposed in an effort to embarrass me. I said to her I would go to see her later. After a while, I visited her house. One of her fellow women agricultural labourers, also a neighbour, joined us. Sushila literally jumped on her and started mimicking an unequivocal sex scene. We all burst into laughter. Since this episode, I noticed that she was a ‘habitué’ in the ways she threatened to expose her body and in the ways she joked. A few years prior to the episode described above, at a time when I was not familiar with her performances, I had seen Sushila physically fighting with another of her women neighbours over the revelation of an illicit relation that Sushila’s son was allegedly having with a married girl of the village, who had not yet left for her in-laws’ house — social anathema in communities such as these, given the web of fictive and actual kin relations which holds them together. Sushila and her neighbour had beaten each other up with wooden sticks. I had been watching this episode from an adjacent house belonging to the well-off section of the Chamar community. Predictably, this manifestation of violence, the disclosure of ‘immoral’ matters and the public and loud display of its consequences as stereotypical traits of the popular classes, elicited people’s disapproval. I was first advised not to get too close to the scene and then Radha, the Chamar wife of a government employee, a little older than Sushila, and a grandmother herself, commented, ‘They are

Gendering Retro-modernity


Chamar and they do kharab karma [bad deeds]’.10 I have labelled Radha as ‘bourgeois’; however, she has not received any formal educational training, nor is she ashamed to attend to her plot of land beside her house or feed her cattle. She just happened to come from a well-off family and was married into a similar milieu in Manupur. This implies that the ways she conceives of gender roles for women, and the room for manoeuvre they have according to these roles, differ, at times substantially, from those of her neighbour Sushila. And Radha enforces these roles on her co-habiting aspiring middle-class daughters-in-law. Over the summer of 2005, I saw these ‘two worlds’ (the bourgeois Radha and the half-naked Sushila) coming together. On the occasion of a Hindu festival celebrated in an upwardly mobile Chamar household in Banaras’s southern urban sprawl, in order to serve and feed a large number of guests, Sushila had been called upon to work as a servant in exchange for money and food. The recruitment of labour amongst members of the same caste is yet another unequivocal element pointing to the ongoing process of class formation. This is also reminiscent of the dichotomised relationship between middle-class women and those from lower castes employed in menial work as previously discussed. These vignettes epitomise the dilemmas and contradictions around class metamorphosis in the Chamar community as they are reflected in different images and performances by women. However, I do not wish to offer a dichotomised image of Chamar women: many agricultural labourers would not talk and act freely like Sushila, while not all government employees’ wives would call the two fighters ‘Chamar’. As a result of the processes of internal differentiation, in which women have often only followed men along as a result of their marriage careers, Chamar womenfolk form a heterogeneous group. Notwithstanding the presence of ‘many’ (Chamar) women, Radha and Sushila are emblematic of how women are being affected (differently from men) by changing political economies, of how the gap between the elite and the rest of the Chamars is widening and 10 As stated in Chapter 2, given the derogatory meanings assigned to the Chamar caste in north India, the term ‘Chamar’ is used as a term of abuse. Also, as specified in Chapter 5, the word ‘karma’ amongst Manupur Chamars is used to signify ‘action’, rather than referring to the law of cause and effect that in Hindu texts links the past to present lives.


Retro-modern India

of how women from both groups embody these trends through ‘uncontrolled’ bodies and speech. Radha and Sushila also speak of processes, of growing significance within caste society, whereby caste communities are increasingly becoming heterogeneous socio-economic bodies. As part of these processes, a number of caste community members in villages in India are enmeshed in worlds not only governed by caste rules — endogamous marriage is still the preferred mode for alliance in India, for example — but are increasingly sharing wider (global) communities through consumerism, the media and the use of technology. While the socio-economic gap amongst the Chamars is widening, poor and underprivileged Chamar women, while often more visibly vocal and unconstrained by bourgeois gender models, have been increasingly stigmatised because of their casual labour. To fully grasp the salience of the changes in urban, educated women’s status and roles, the following section analyses women and agricultural work in the Chamar community and the ways in which labourers like Sushila are caught between the consolidation of notions of caste pride and honour linked to politicisation, middle-class aspirations and their often irretrievably poor condition.

III. Women’s Work and Political Fields: ‘Cultivating Disrespectability’ Four white pinnacles in the middle of Manupur’s cultivated fields separating the upper-caste Brahmin and the Chamar residential settlements are reminiscent of a different past for women. The pinnacles are a satisthan or a site where, in unmemorable time, women performed sati or selfimmolation on the dead husband’s funeral pyre. I was told two of the women who had performed sati were Brahmin and two were from the Dhobi (washermen, low-caste) community. This revered place reminds people, and in particular women, of other pasts and of expectations linked to womenfolk. From the social background of the satis, it seems that both low- and high-caste women were expected to uphold this Hindu practice. It is in these fields that Chamar women’s labour history unfolds. According to the accounts of elderly Chamar women, earlier generations of women used to work as grass cutters. Many of them also worked in the fields as labourers. A number of Chamar women claim that a degree of sudhar (improvement, reform) has taken place for them in Manupur, as they have managed to leave employment in the fields and return to their homes. However, as said in Chapter 2, many decades after Chamar

Gendering Retro-modernity


men had abandoned agriculture as their main occupation and found alternative employment in Banaras and surrounding areas, at the time of my fieldwork in 1998, one-fifth of Chamar women were still employed as agricultural labourers in the fields of the landed castes for a total of three months a year. As a result, agricultural labour could only provide limited financial help to the households. Pursuing what seems to be a ‘dominant’ model of social transformation has not been a possibility for all Chamar families and women, however. Independence from the village-based economy described in Chapters 2 and 3 entailed a control of socio-economic sources of livelihood, viewed as a sign of household and community status and progress. But against this backdrop, there is a significant gender divide within occupationalmobility patterns and the abandonment of traditional modes of subservience and dependence. This is linked to the range of employment opportunities available to women and men. Where Chamar men could claim independence and freedom from exploitative agricultural labour, women continued an occupation no longer considered suitable for men. Most of the women employed in agriculture were generally amongst the poorest in the Chamar community. Despite the use of tractors and threshers, at the time of myfieldwork, the Brahmins’ demand for a female labour force to perform a few types of agricultural tasks continues,11 and there is competition amongst Brahmins for securing women labourers from the Chamar basti. Women’s labour often existed in relation to the extent to which men failed to provide the household with enough income due to illness, old age or alcoholism. Women claimed that they usually started agricultural labour after the birth of two or three children. Agricultural labour aside, as women did not control any autonomous or remunerative work domain within the village or outside, and some of

11 Chamar women are employed for gehum ka katai (wheat harvest), during the month of Cait (March–April), and are busy for one-and-a-half to two months. In Asarh (June–July), they do ropai (to plant the seedling of rice), which lasts for around 15 days. In Agahan (November–December), first they perform nirvai (weeding) for around 10 days and then dhan ka katai (paddy harvest) and finally pitai (threshing the paddy). Agricultural work is performed in teams of about six women, and they work from morning till lunchtime, after which they have an afternoon shift. At midday, they go back to their houses to attend to the children.


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them were not used to agricultural work, those in need of work were forced to seek petty employment in the informal sector, as vegetable sellers or casual labourers in the surrounding areas, while young daughters-in-law attended to children and domestic chores. Women’s working activities became the object of a controversial intracaste debate in Manupur about the community’s and its women’s image. A group of Chamar men, in the wake of mobilisation in Dalit politics, attempted to stop women’s work in the name of preservation of women’s izzat (honour). Before 1998, a Chamar panchayat (caste council) meeting was held with the intention of stopping the domestic work Chamar women did for all castes, which consisted of making cow-dung cakes for domestic fuel as (in the case of the two women described in the ethnographic excerpt at the beginning of this chapter), cutting fodder in others’ fields and helping in the food preparation at weddings. The objective of these meetings resonated with similar efforts to regulate midwifery (as described in Chapter 2), an activity Chamar women usually performed in villages and a source of stigmatisation for its inherently ‘polluting’ nature according to the purity and pollution ideology. The activities discussed in the panchayat meeting were criticised by its main representatives for reproducing relations and images of dependence, which many Chamars strongly opposed. Women’s agricultural work too came under the scrutiny of the panchayat. Not only did the panchayat impose a ban on domestic work at any outsider’s house, but also ruled that agricultural work must be carried out in teams which could be composed of both young and old women. As usual, penalties were fixed for those found contravening these rules and the panchayat threatened to ostracise the households which would not abide by its decisions. Subsequently, a few women stopped domestic work and agricultural labour was performed in teams. During my fieldwork in 1998–99, more panchayat meetings were held to reinforce the prohibition on some kinds of women’s work. Again, the reason for the meetings was that not only did women’s work project an image of caste dependence but was also an izzat issue. The problem highlighted by Chamar men was that unmarried and newly married girls would carry out domestic work for the Brahmins for the entire day. Young women who engaged in domestic work, some Chamars claimed, might be faced with the chance of earning ‘easy money’ with Brahmin men. This was not regarded as honourable for them, the Chamar community, or the women’s relatives who would visit the village. In Manupur, it is

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hard to say whether cases of harassment took place, as there is no data available to confirm this hypothesis. In addition, panchayats were never held to discuss relationships between Chamar women and men from other castes. Nor were meetings convened to discuss molestation, although this does not mean that such cases never occurred. Women labourers, however, offered a different explanation concerning the performance of agricultural work from that given by the panchayat. They believed that if a newly wed woman worked in the fields, Brahmins could assault and rape her. However, they claimed that ‘if a woman had already had two or three children [as is usually the case with women labourers], she was no longer beautiful and therefore she could work safely’. However, women labourers could not intervene in the panchayat meetings when the labour issue was being discussed as they are run by male representatives only, and could not publicly complain at the panchayat about men’s alcoholism or other problems afflicting women. Years after the panchayat’s resolutions on women’s labour, things did not change. Men did not stop drinking and employment opportunities for them did not increase, rather the contrary. Women continued to be involved in occupations for which they were stigmatised. Their households were not ostracised, and with the progressive decline of the weaving business that occurred from the 1990s and its almost total disappearance by 2005, more women and their families faced hardship.

IV. A Tale of Two Classes As introduced in Chapter 2, government employment in the basti is not a recent phenomenon and can be traced back to the period before independence. Employed in the government and able to count on a regular salary, an invaluable asset considering the degree of casual labour existing in the basti, the workers employed in the formal sector and those in the informal sector are gradually taking the shape of two different class formations.12 In 1999, government salaries contributed to the livelihood of 10 per cent of the households (see Table 7.1).

Concerning class formation within low-caste communities, Cohn’s 1950s ethnography of the Chamars shows that despite a proportion of workers seeking occasional outside employment and the presence of a tiny minority of school teachers, this occupational change does not appear to have created a significant 12


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Table 7.1: Distribution of income among Manupur Chamars (for 1999) Income (in rupees)

Number of households (in percentage)

0–500 500–1,000 1,000–2,000 2,000–3,000 3,000–5,000 More than 5,000

13 31 34 10 8 4

Source: Survey by the author.

Government employees’ individual salaries ranged from Rs 3,000 to Rs 10,000, although there were only one or two employees in this last bracket. Amongst government employees, only two people held clerical positions at the time, while all employees usually supported large families. As mentioned in Chapter 2, of those who are working, the overwhelming majority of Chamar women and men are manual workers, skilled or unskilled, in the informal sector. Household income within this group is hardly higher than Rs 3,000 per month, despite there usually being more than one wage earner in these households. For example, in the case of weavers, the figure of Rs 3,000 would be the result of the combined earnings of two independent workers, e.g., a father and a son. In 1999, the number of people who were directly benefiting from government internal stratification (1987). Lynch (1969) highlights the distinction between bare admi (big men) factory owners within the shoe business and the majority of the craftsmen. This division of labour gives rise to two ‘economic classes’ (ibid.: 35), both of low status due to their shared caste background. In his ethnography of the Untouchable Paraiyars in South India, Deliège (1997) addresses the issue of internal differentiation within this community, employed in both the traditional and modern work sectors. The former concerns brick-making, coolie work and agricultural labour, whereas the latter includes government employees (municipal scavengers are the most numerous within this category) and selfemployed workers. On the basis of the analysis of income and status differential between the two categories, Deliège argues that ‘it is not possible to speak of true social classes or even of the formation of classes’ (1997: 77). He points out that between the two groups there are not significant income, cultural and social differences. There is a tendency within the well off section of the Paraiyars to marry with equally wealthy caste fellows, however this does not constitute an established practice.

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wages can approximately be calculated as 55 people, or one-sixth of the Chamar population. The ‘salaried’ households had an average of nine members per household, versus an average of six members amongst the rest of the basti, ranging from a minimum of five to a maximum of 14 members in the former group and from one member to 23 in the latter. For instance, Ramji’s elder son, Virendra, is a constable in the police. Virendra, one of the first graduates of the basti, gave up an MA when he got his job. Since Ramji’s family can count on a government salary, women in the household, such as Virendra’s mother, have stopped agricultural labour, Ramji now has a more relaxed lifestyle, and his youngest children and grandchildren have assured financial support for their studies. Virendra’s younger brother is studying for a BA from a reputable institution in Banaras, and Ramji’s nephew’s family also gets help from Virendra’s government wages. Therefore, directly and indirectly, Virendra supports a large number of family members. Amongst government employees, the ‘economic’ elite is small. Those with lowly jobs who have to provide for large families are only slightly better off than those weaver households with fewer members and more than one wage earner. For instance, Sunil has numerous family members to support on an income of about Rs 3,500. His eldest son works as a driver. Although Sunil’s household does not rank amongst the basti’s poor, and despite having a government employee as the main wage earner, their lifestyle was not significantly better than that of the largest extended family of weavers in the basti who had set up a small business, as detailed in Chapter 3. The latter also sustained a much larger household — 23 members — than any government employee. With regard to financial matters in the basti, an examination of the trend of money lending, which often occurs between members of the same caste, whether relatives or basti inhabitants, suggests that, with one exception, government employees do not use their income for lending purposes but for various kinds of consumption. In the basti, those who are involved in moneylending are mainly workers in the informal economy, such as the business weaving family or shopkeepers. The Chamar government employees in the basti and their families certainly enjoy security and a higher pattern of consumption in clothes and food. These patterns of consumption, however, must be seen in relative terms: these households cannot vaunt what could be considered lavish expenditures. For example, just a few government employees’ households have gas


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stoves, while black-and-white television sets are owned by approximately one-fifth of the Chamar households in the basti, and while almost all government employees own them, the rest belong to a mix of other backgrounds, such as masons and weavers. This figure is striking because inhabitants of the many hamlets in Manupur (with the exception of the upper castes and sections of other castes) rarely own one. Expenditure on education is higher in this section of the basti supported by government employment, with a few students, including girls, possibly being sent to private schools, and some members having postgraduate degrees, which have relatively high fees. By 2005, a few more Chamars obtained government employment which ended up supporting nine households and therefore an increased number of people in the basti. In these, 11 Chamar male employees work in a number of different government agencies and enterprises. This group of upwardly mobile Chamars has consolidated and expanded its position in the basti. An analysis of the internal differentiation in the basti shows the emergence of an elite group of Chamars, representative of the lower echelons of the public sector, with some disposable income, which has opened up a catalogue of, albeit limited, lifestyle possibilities. For example, a ‘consuming status’ has been expressed by the minority of aspiring middle-class Chamars through the appropriation of modern cultural events such as birthdays, marriage anniversaries and Valentine days. Limited technology consumption might make Chamar mobile phone buyers ‘equal’ to other communities’ members. Also, VCDs of marriage events and pandit-led ceremonies have made their way into the Chamar basti, a sign of a very relative degree of wealth of a tiny minority of households and their desire to make alliances with high-status families in a pan-Indian fashion. Contrary to the political line of the Chamar community highlighted in the book, more than a process of Sanskritisation, pandit-led ceremonies testify to a process of commoditisation of religion. This might be evaluated as a micro example of the ostentatious religious expression of the urban middle classes (Fuller 2003: 37–38). Increased consumption has opened up ‘identity possibilities’: in her work on class mobility in south India, S. Dickey has argued that ‘[o]ne reason that class is so significant in urban life is that class standing, unlike caste membership, is highly visible’ (2002: 216). Likewise, in this rural setting, young Chamars have particularly benefited from the visibility of class identity and from a higher consumption level as their social origins and caste membership have become increasingly invisible. This has been particularly noticeable

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in clothing consumption. The absence of what Tarlo has called ‘sartorial boundaries’ informing clothing traditions for a number of castes, except for Untouchables (1996: 276ff.), has allowed these communities to adopt styles and fashion, liberating their identity from stigma, at least outside the sphere of the village (where inhabitants’ social origins are well known). In the absence of ‘sartorial boundaries’, increased consumption possibilities have led to a ‘democratisation of the body and its attires’, in addition to that ‘of the mind’ through education and politics, and that ‘of the soul’ through changing notions of karma and rebirth. Shifting clothing patterns are significant as they have attracted the ire of those who once controlled dress codes. Wearing one’s ‘best clothes’ might well follow fashion but attracts attempts to redefine social boundaries by the once powerful. The village environment, though, has only consented men to benefit from this form of democratisation: especially for young men, wearing a shirt and pants, with the exception of formal or political occasions when a kurta pajama is often required, is the norm. Women remain attached to the sari and if unmarried, salwar kamiz. Not only have they been confined to traditional forms of attires, but they have also been the protagonists of a phenomenon of ‘ruralisation’ as a result of the marriage of some of them with educated young Chamar men.

V. ‘Women’s Movement(s)’, or the Geographical Production of Gender Inequality After her marriage, Suman is transported from her well-to-do home in a rural district to the stench of the narrow lanes in the inner city and the claustrophobia of the small dark room in which she houses with her elderly husband.13

In the novel Sevasadan by the famous writer Munshi Premchand, Suman is an upper-caste, refined rural girl in fictionalised Banaras and surrounding districts at the beginning of the 20th century. Her family is unable to find a suitable groom from village areas and she is married to a Banarasbased groom. She is then obliged to make the painful transition into the city, which results in Suman’s abandonment by her husband and her becoming a city courtesan. Premchand is celebrated for the realism with From Vasudha Dalmia’s ‘The House of Service or the Chronicle of an Un/Holy City’, introduction to Premchand’s Sevasadan 2005: viii–ix. 13


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which he portrayed the Indian society of his time. This would lead us to think that marriages similar to Suman’s might well have taken place. By contrast, the Manupur Chamar community has frequently showcased the reversal of Suman’s arrangement. Marriage exchanges amongst Chamars had mainly taken place between villages, and most married Chamar women of all ages were born in villages within a 25-km radius. However, the emergence of an educated generation of young Chamar men increasingly led to the need for suitable educated brides who could not be recruited in rural areas, given the very low education levels found in villages, especially amongst low-caste communities and more so amongst women from such communities.14 As a result, Banaras and other nearby urban areas became a source of marriageable young women.15 The city provided brides to other caste communities in Manupur too, including upper castes. Subsequently, a number of Chamar women were married into Manupur and they represent the most highly educated women in the Chamar community. It is very likely that this transition from the city to the village would be regarded as unfeasible in other regions of India, and it might also be considered as a strong sign of a more general ‘environment of subjection’ women in this part of UP have to endure. The influx of urban wives stretches back approximately two decades.16 Prior to this, only the uneducated wife of the Chamar community’s elderly headman, the daughter of a city-based government employee, had moved into the village as a result of her marriage. In her generation and prior to that, the desire for an educated bride within this community A similar phenomenon was observed by Lynch (1969) amongst Agra Jatavs. He argued how ‘[e]ducation and improved economic status have also influenced the distance at which marriages are contracted in two ways. In the first place, it is somewhat difficult to find a mate of comparable education or wealth within Agra, and one must look further afield. Secondly, the educated generally are in government service and are posted to different areas throughout Uttar Pradesh. They are often asked to look for a match either in their home place or at their post’ (ibid.: 178–79). Based on a census he carried out on a sample of Jatav families based in Agra and their daughters’ marriage destination, Lynch reported that ‘the radius for this marriage circle is about 120 miles’ (ibid.: 179). 15 It should be also noted that not all urban Chamar women who were married into the village are educated. 16 I collected data on the influx of urban brides into Manupur during my last fieldwork in the village in 2005. 14

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and in this region was not common, even amongst high-status Chamars, in consideration of the overall very low literacy rates amongst both men and women in both urban and rural areas. A first wave of urban women (comprising eight marriages) is constituted by those educated up to 12th class as well as uneducated women, all aged up to 40 years and with a maximum of five children. In this generation, educated women completed many more years of schooling if compared to those in the same age group who married into the village from rural areas. Within this generation of better-educated women, a number of government employees’ daughters living in the city had been married to the educated sons of sari weavers or labourers from Manupur with the prospect of a government job. Amongst the above-mentioned group of young men were the first Chamar graduates of Manupur. A number of them were successful in obtaining a government job years after their marriage. The second wave of urban women (composed of eight marriages) is a heterogeneous group ranging from uneducated to postgraduate women. In 2005, they were aged up to 25 years and had a maximum of four children. The postgraduate wives married into the village a few years before the first Chamar girl from Manupur had started her postgraduate degree. The Manupur Chamar community has only recently begun ‘producing’ educated girls. The time gap between the first male and the first female graduate (born in the village) is about 15 years. Half of the married women in the second wave are daughters of government employees, but of these only 50 per cent were married to government employees, whereas the rest of the women’s husbands cannot aspire to enter salaried employment. The meanings attached to the urban space of Banaras have only slightly shifted from Suman’s times. First, it is interesting to notice that Premchand’s portrait of Banaras’s space is reminiscent of 19th-century colonial considerations, but not only, regarding the local attitudes towards waste: The civilising ambitions of the British Raj were routinely rehearsed in the city. […] A city like Benares, for instance, seemed to the Western eye defective in its reluctance to rationalise social life by quarantining activities in different parts of the city, by assigning them to European definitions of the public and private realms. (Khilnani 1997: 117–19)

Manupur Chamars view the narrow lanes of the old city as dirty and constraining, much in the same way as Suman did. However, the facilities offered by the city which the village still lacks, and the new imperatives


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around children’s education have made aspiring middle-class women consider the city a better option than the village.17 Spaces do not carry the same salience for the different sets of people taking part in the organisation of a marriage. The lack of amenities in the village and its distance from the city do not seem to play a role in parents’ arrangements of their daughters’ marriage. Members of different castes told me they wish to marry their daughters into a ‘good family’ (which amongst Chamars means marrying an educated man with a government job or with prospects of getting one), irrespective of the groom’s family’s urban or rural location. Moreover, I was told that marriage costs remain unvaried across these locations. The consequences of a marriage of an urban young woman with a rural man are borne entirely by the former, who has to move into a household often lacking the basic amenities she used to enjoy in her paternal home and, often a lack of security about her husband’s employment prospects. An exemplification of this trend is the case of a young woman called Kavita, the daughter of a government employee living in the city. She was married into Manupur about 20 years ago. Her husband is one of the first graduates of the community. Following her wedding, for several years she lived in a mud house with her children and her husband who, only years later, obtained a post in the electricity department. Many years after his appointment, they started the construction of a concrete house with several amenities. In addition to the distance between the village and educational institutions, offices, markets, hospitals, and cinema halls found in the city, young daughters-in-law also encountered stricter mobility restrictions in place in the village. On the other hand, Manupur Chamar girls’ marriages arranged over the past years in the upwardly mobile section of the Chamar community show the early signs of elite formation.18 The current marriage patterns The desire to move to the city was expressed by both women and men. Women asked their husbands to move to the city for the sake of their children’s future. Some men despised what they thought of as a degraded village environment in which fights occurred and uncivilised language was used, and expressed their preference for the city over the village. 18 F. Osella and C. Osella argue that amongst the low-caste Izhavas, longestablished middle- and upper-middle-class people marry amongst themselves and separated themselves from their toddy-tapper and manual worker caste fellows (2000: 82). While these authors report that the Izhavas practise hypergamous marriage as a mobility strategy (ibid.: 115), a comparable pattern is not clear-cut amongst the Chamars. 17

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seem to show how Chamar parents have often married their daughters outside the geographical area in which alliances have historically been forged in the community. Young women have been married to men in government or private-sector jobs, and these women are the only ones who have had a chance to make the transition from Manupur village into urban areas. However, even in the case of these marriages, the groom’s urban or rural location did not make a difference in the way parents thought of his suitability. As government employees living in the city would marry their daughters to rural grooms, similarly girls born in highstatus Manupur Chamar families were sent off to rural areas where they faced the same uncertainties outlined above.

VI. Future Women of Worth: The Gender Imprint of Class Metamorphosis Many are opposed to the idea of education for girls, but now young girls are being educated. There are schools and pathshalas in most localities. Parents think, ‘All right, she will soon go away to her in-laws, if she is literate then she will be able to write to us and not have to depend on others.’ Not only that, these days when people come to select brides they are not content with merely asking the girl her name and then letting her be. The reason for asking her name is obviously to ensure that she is not deaf or mute. But now they need to test her intelligence and learning and hence they ask, ‘What do you study?’ Unless the girl is educated, it is difficult to get her married. Most college and university-educated young men now insist that mere good looks will not do, the bride will have to be educated too. If at the wedding the educated groom realises that his bride is not literate it makes him very sad indeed. (Chaudhurani [1891] 2003)

Eastern UP, over a century later: On the occasion of the worship of the Goddess of knowledge, Saraswati, in 2004, I attended a cultural programme in a private school near Manupur. The school caters to students from all castes. Amongst other performances, a natak (drama) was staged by the students. The plot was as follows: Two Brahmin friends — a school master called Tripathiji and his friend, Pandeyji — talk about the latter’s wife. She wears saris and speaks Bhojpuri [the local language spoken in both urban and rural areas]. Pandeyji tells his friend that he and his wife had once gone to a party where all guests, with the exception of his wife, had worn Western-style clothes and danced to a Waltz. His wife had shown up wearing a sari and had danced in the traditional village style. Pandeyji is evidently ashamed of her. As a consequence, he decides to employ his school


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master friend to teach his wife English [the school where the play was taking place is both Hindi and English medium]. The school master starts to teach his friend’s wife the alphabet letters but there is always a misunderstanding over the pronunciation of English words, which she mistakes for inappropriate words in Hindi and Bhojpuri. In each class, the woman ends up beating up the teacher with a stick, and chases him away from the house. Her husband comes back home and regularly asks his wife about her progress in her studies. Finally, she confesses to him her inability to learn the English alphabet. As the play draws to a close, Pandeyji conveys the ultimate message to the audience: ‘Don’t get married to an uneducated woman!’ Evoking the making of the ‘modern woman’ of 19th-century Bengal in the excerpt opening this section, the drama staged by the students near Manupur advocated girls’ education in this region of UP, an indispensable currency within the contemporary marriage economy, as indeed it appeared in the Bengali author’s writings. The drama, however, did not provide any advice on how many underprivileged families in the nearby villages could afford to send their daughters to a private or even to a government school. The play also suggested a particular kind of gendered modernity linked to the idea of girls’ education: it showed how the husband’s interest in ‘civilising’ his wife through education was aimed at saving him from losing face in public. Further, Pandeyji’s ‘civilising mission’ around his wife centred on the repudiation of the Bhojpuri language and the village ways by making the English language the repository of modernity and refinement. Lastly, it might have been pure coincidence in the drama, but it may well have contained a ‘caste message’. Tripathi and Pandey are Brahmin surnames in UP and therefore the awareness about girls’ education might have been conveyed through the traditional authority which this caste embodies. This might have also equally meant that the supposedly beneficial message to educate girls is necessary amongst all castes. Unsurprisingly, a high percentage of Manupur Chamar women are uneducated. With the exception of the daughters of government employees, girls are withdrawn early from school and normally study only up to the 5th class. Anita, the mother of two Chamar girls who made it to college, argued: We provide our girls with education so that at least they can stand on their feet. After marriage, if they are unable to work in the fields, feed the cattle or do other works in their husbands’ house, they are educated, they can do other services. If the girls are educated, they are safe from the

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hands of their mothers-in-law: because of dowry, girls are killed in their husbands’ house. The other reason for girls to get educated is that when a girl is married and lives away from her mother’s house, at least she can write a letter back home. (My field notes 1999)

Again, there is a striking resemblance between Anita’s words and the passage by Saratkumari Chaudhurani quoted at the beginning of this section. Being independent and literate and able to write home is a precautionary measure against the dangers of marriage and a way to be in touch with their families of origin. But both Chaudhurani’s and Anita’s words speak of education as an imperative for marriage. Chamar government employee households can afford girls’ schooling and possibly a reasonable dowry to marry them into high-status families. However, dowry is said to overcome obstacles such as the girl’s looks, her skin colour or even the lack of a high level of education. Unsurprisingly, education has led to an increase in girls’ and boys’ marriage age. The ceremonial bringing of a wife from her father’s to her husband’s home (or gauna), usually performed years after a girl’s marriage, is now considered suitable for chote log (small people), as in aspiring, middle-class Chamar families both grooms and brides are grown up and educated. Also, a two-child policy is considered a norm for the new couples. However, the desire for a small family is not found amongst educated married young women and men alone. Education can be considered a relatively new element within the Chamar community. According to Meena, a young woman from a household supported by government employment, ‘marriage is parents’ main concern when they provide their daughters with education as well as for the latter, when they pursue their degrees’. Education, however, is not perceived as something purely ornamental by women, even if it does not mean a college degree and even if the overwhelming majority of educated women will never find employment outside the household. Unlike previous research carried out in the western region of UP which showed that rural, educated women considered education useless because they are only deployed to cook and perform household chores (Jeffery and Jeffery 1994), Manupur’s educated women do not consider education in the same way, despite their domestic roles within the house. Most women do not think of education as useless (bekar) for a number of reasons: through education they acquire ‘knowledge’ or gyan, a cultural capital that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Further, ‘an uneducated girl’, young Chamar women would say, ‘does not know how to behave in public


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(uthna-bethna) and cannot tell right from wrong’. For instance, even if someone is educated up to 5th class, ‘she will get “knowledge” [Chamars often used the English term]’, and ‘if she wants to learn sewing, she will learn it easily because she knows how to count’, said Chandra, in her mid-thirties. Kavita, introduced earlier, thought that ‘in case of divorce, an educated woman will be able to find employment in the city’. Educated brides’ ideas can be located within a shared rhetoric of education as having civilising properties, as I have explained in the course of the book and in more detail in Chapter 4. Equally important, their narratives resonate with the seeds of the idea of women’s nurturing role benefiting the family and producing good citizens. Veena, an aspiring middle-class married young woman, argued in fact that ‘a woman’s education is faida [benefit, advantage] which will be helpful to the whole family’. These narratives and my fieldwork with Chamar women also pointed to a transformation of motherhood roles. Many Chamar mothers evoke the category of ‘non-mothers’ coined by N. Kumar insofar as ‘their poverty and insecurity makes their mothering invisible, by implication deficient and unsuccessful’ (2005: 170) as compared to the mothers of the Indian intelligentsia she examines in the same context, the product of colonial modernity. The Chamar labourer mother’s ‘inadequacy’ is substituted in public and private spaces by the educated mother, suitable for a proper upbringing of her children, for instance, in her being able to help them with their homework. Together with the new workingwoman model, modern motherhood as a result of women’s education is an entirely novel gender role in this Chamar community: it does not have a precedent in local history precisely as a result of the earlier lack of education among women. Where motherhood is being reconfigured in the span of a few years, work prospects do not look optimistic for these women. The first wave of urban high-school educated women are not able to find suitable employment because they do not have adequate educational credentials and because they are still involved in childcare, so that it would often be difficult for them to leave their children behind and work in the city, even in cases where they would be allowed to. Sometimes, their willingness to educate themselves further has been severely hampered by restricting seclusion rules operating in their households. On the other hand, compared to their uneducated peers, they do not struggle for a living. Highly educated members of the second and heterogeneous wave of urban young women find themselves in a more advantageous position. Their government-employed husbands and their families have allowed

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them to pursue further education and seek employment.19 They might still be deployed for cooking and cleaning activities but they have some chance to pursue their interests in the future, particularly in view of the fact that these women and their husbands have decided to have only two children. They also might start to rebel against the pattern of rural living: for example, Meera, a postgraduate young woman married to a graduate government employee, managed a rather different trajectory from those of the remainder of the married women of her generation. She never moved to her in-laws’ house in Manupur as she was involved in a professional training course in the city, and she planned to pursue further studies while she applied for jobs. She only visited the village on festivals or other occasions. When I asked her if she wanted to work after she had acquired all her qualifications, she replied, ‘Of course, I do not just want to give birth to children!’ If an aspiring middle-class young woman is not be able to talk in public and openly fight with her in-laws, she might, on the other hand, be able to turn her husband’s position to her advantage and capitalise on his assets. These women’s husbands might also offer protection to their wives against their in-laws. These women might benefit from their husbands’ support regarding their participation in Panchayati Raj institutions (surely only through reserved quotas for women), from which they have always been excluded. Chapter 6 has highlighted how political participation is an all-male phenomenon. This is the case for each caste in Manupur village and in other parts of UP. As has happened in other instances, the first to engage with ‘change’ are men, and this has been the case with Dalit political mobilisation as well. Where Dalit politics has empowered educated young men, women’s participation in local-governance institutions has been nominal, just as state and national politics have primarily been known through the male lens.20 Until 2005, no educated woman worked outside the household or held a government job. 20 Women, however, when supported by husbands, might sometimes develop an interest in participating in local governance bodies. I found this to be a common element in my research with urban low-caste women political activists in Lucknow (often married to government employees). Kavita (urban and highschool educated) expressed her desire to contest elections as gram pradhan and at other levels of the village administration. Should she have a chance to contest for this post, by virtue of reserved quotas for women in place in local governance system, she would be supported by her husband. 19


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Unmarried young men also show the makings of new gender relations, with their willingness to cook along with their future wives, with the rejection of customary eating practices that see women eating last in the household, and with the adoption of modern rules of conjugality and ideas of the modern ‘working wife’. Although their futures are shaped by their husbands and families, and despite being brought into the unfavourable village environment, education — one of the requirements for educated women’s marriage — will perhaps allow them to lead a different life from the rest of the village women and experiment with different avenues for their self-realisation. However, these possibilities only concern a very tiny minority of young women with the highest educational credentials in the community. At a more general level, the attainment of these credentials is linked to the socio-economic status of Chamar households which, in turn, appears to be still largely dependent on government employment, so that any changes in its availability will affect young women’s lives and their marriage prospects.

VII. Conclusions: Movements of Women, Men and Capital In this chapter I have analysed the tension between the Chamar community’s struggle for respectability and their middle-class formation and the consequences of underdevelopment and how this translates into contradictory outcomes for womenfolk. I have attempted to single out the ways in which aspiring middle-class women engage with and distance themselves from the construction of the ‘vernacular woman other’, and how the former might manage to channel circumstances to their own advantage in a sanitised ‘agency style’ proper to their emerging status. A history of power vis-à-vis Chamar women would contain different demands and different kinds of powers on their part and different ways to be vocal according to their status and the local historical phase we analyse. The success of women’s agency would be measured in terms of their respective demands. With reference to the educated Chamar women analysed in this chapter, women may well increase their education levels, but this asset might be negated by a mismatch between their educational credentials and the rural environment in which they find themselves, which does not offer suitable employment opportunities. In addition, despite both elderly and younger women’s claims that pardah within the community (in the sense of daughters-in-law veiling themselves in front of elders and in-laws) has lessened, young daughters-in-law are

Gendering Retro-modernity


constrained by a more conservative interpretation of gender roles in the village compared to the city, and due to their distance from the city’s facilities. The combination of the daughters-in-laws’ education, the assets of their families of origin and their husbands’ roles may allow them to cash in on the symbolic profits derived from their cultural capital over time. Still, this is a possibility only for a tiny elite of young women. Moreover, in the process of converting their cultural capital into a symbolic one, they will have to fight the stereotypes attached even to those women holding a government job. In local parlance, these women are called dudh-daru gaya (milch cow), because they provide the family with a monthly salary. So, even a high-status breadwinner role is surrounded by derogatory meanings when embodied by a woman. Since an asset such as government employment might yield different status gains according to gender, this datum points to the need for attention to what constitutes symbolic capital and recognition for women in a specific geographical context and social class, the gender roles attached to it, and the specific avenues to achieve recognition. Along with the analysis of the historicity of women’s demands for themselves, their agency styles, the potential for change, and the symbolic profits contained in women’s starting economic and cultural capitals, there are a series of ‘movements’ which different sections of women are envisaging for themselves, movements which intersect with capital circulation and with the control that local gender regimes exercise on them. These movements concern the locus par excellence for respectable domesticity: the home. In Manupur, Chamar women agricultural labourers cannot wait for the city to ‘take over’ the village land so that field labour will be over and they can return to their homes. This group as well as those women engaged in petty employment are the ones who are forced to leave their homes out of necessity. On the other hand, those few girls who are busy acquiring credentials for a good marriage attend city colleges, and therefore spend time outside the home in order to accumulate cultural capital. They can also delay their departure to their in-laws’ homes if their marriage takes place while they are still completing their studies. The city is also cherished by educated married young women born in urban areas who want to take up opportunities offered by it, escape the village environment and build a better future for their children. Therefore, they are willing to go out from their homes. While the city means the end of the labourers’ labour and plight, it simultaneously means the opening up


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of opportunities for the educated. In the process, in an interesting spatial reversal, the home, a middle-class site par excellence, has paradoxically become a desired place for underprivileged women and a burden for the aspiring middle-class, educated ones. At the same time, the centrality of the city and urbanisation processes is confirmed in both groups of Chamar women, while the village environment appears unable to provide employment opportunities and careers for either group. This statement also raises questions of whether and how village development can cater to women of different classes and status. On the basis of Manupur’s proximity to the city and its likely inclusion within its municipal boundaries in the future, women might see their expectations fulfilled. But any positive consequences are unlikely to be visible any time soon. Chamar women’s imagined ‘movements’ also complicate low-caste women’s idea of pardah and gender regimes. As I have explained in the course of this chapter, the number of Chamar women employed in the fields has declined over time, while the idea of high status associated to the non-work of womenfolk was present in this community amongst earlier generations of women and men. Under the imperatives of a modern middle-class lifestyle, criticisms of outside domestic and agricultural labour were advanced with an emphasis on women’s izzat in defence of the community’s image. However, in the span of a few years following the panchayat meetings described earlier in this chapter, educated women were granted the possibility of respectable work, possibly within the safe environment of a school or an office. For women themselves, their izzat is predicated on a number of elements other than the observance of pardah: on language, posture and education, amongst other things. And on class more than on religion. The bourgeois woman and the halfnaked one analysed in the course of this chapter could not be further away from each other. An analysis of married, educated young women’s prospects would not be complete if we did not take into account shifting masculinities amongst Chamar husbands and the young male generation. There are ethnographic examples of how the assertion of Dalit youth has led to hyper-masculine behaviour, including harassment of upper-caste women and tightened control over Dalit women themselves (see Anandhi, Jeyaranjan and Krishnan 2002). Despite continuing control over Chamar women, the masculinity of protest has not taken a similar path in Manupur. I have shown how some young men might be in a position to help in their wives’

Gendering Retro-modernity


self-realisation. They might also be protecting their wives against their in-laws. Where young men can be seen as advocating for themselves the role of reformers of women’s status, their shifting masculinities are firmly reinforced by their educational and employment assets. To educated Chamar women, the modernity of the middle-class ideal might appear liberating from the village ways of life. As both young women and men embrace an embourgeoisement trajectory, whether contemporary Chamar middle-class imagination and formation can benefit women’s status in the long term remains an open question. Whether this will lead to a worsening of their status in what appears to be a unilinear and widespread trajectory across castes, as Kapadia (2002) has highlighted, is rather difficult to predict. On the other hand, it is amongst marginalised women like the half-naked woman Sushila or the other women agricultural labourers and their families, who are also furthest away from the national template of respectable wife, mother, educated subject, and educator — that such a trajectory has not put down roots. However, Sushila and others are caught up between the disadvantages of underdevelopment and the stigmatisation which descends upon them as a result of caste self-assertion and middle-class formation. The analysis of the two groups of Chamar women leads to further reflections on their respective membership in the nation, in addition to the trope of women as ‘producers of nation’ or in the role of ‘being produced’ by it. The reflections arising from this chapter suggest contradictory outcomes. On the one hand, membership in the nation for Chamar women passes through the known route of education, proper marriage and modern motherhood in ways in which this formula materialises a history of reform, modernisation and development within their lives. In this process, however, it is necessary for them to shed the semblances of their dangerous alter ego, women like Sushila, who might live only next door to them. On the other hand, this alter ego and others like her possess vernacular credentials which are a social currency no longer recognised in contemporary India. Where these women could find no place in the national bourgeois middle-class realm, paradoxically, they might well find one as ‘human artefacts’ of Bhojpuri folklore on display in one of the museums or fairs of ethnic and traditional arts and crafts catering to both local and international visitors in India. Women’s dances and the irreverent songs they sing at weddings, resembling the women N. Kumar (2005) has identified as the reformers’ target, might well end up


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as part of a traditional village cultural repertoire and advertised as the ‘real India’. Vernacular village women might be retrieved from oblivion under the nation’s compulsion to preserve and exhibit its traditions for local and global consumption. But more importantly, for this group of women, the process of capital circulation, the dynamics of which I have examined with regard to educated women, lacks its quintessential raw material: capital.

Chapter 8 The Politics of Indian Modernity I. ‘Why Pardah is “Affordable” but the Sensex Isn’t’ In introducing the ubiquity of modernity, Appadurai and Breckenridge made the observation that there ‘is no justification for regarding the modernities of the world as pale reflections of a Euro-American original, or of looking at them for enactments of a recipe we have lived through (or past) already’ (1995: 2). The significance of stopping looking westwards in search of modernity is now evident. While the epistemological endeavour of ‘provincialising Europe’ is an ongoing process, rich studies on the templates of non-Western modernity have been produced. In these, attention has been catalysed by the assertion of the latter’s diversity vis-à-vis the Euro-American yardstick. Explaining the diversity of nonWestern modernity became the telos of scholarly investigation, and rightly so. Parallel to these processes and studies, the global economy has progressively conferred ontological legitimacy and visibility to ‘new centres’ of propagation of the modern, including India. This legitimacy has begun to stretch over to the career of modernity in these regions of the world. In this book I have not pursued the exercise of finding a ‘new centre’ of emanation of the modern. It existed already. Rather, I focused on the agency of a particular community to look at some of the features of this centre. A careful investigation of the experience of modernity amongst the Chamars showed that this was not a recipe which had already been lived in the West, rather one that the Indian middle classes had crafted, starting from the 19th century, under the influence of the British ‘civilising mission’. These classes provided a model which the Chamars, and others, were allured by over a century later. The pace and timing of the appropriation of this model varied according to the regional and social location of such communities, and was contingent on the opportunities of change offered by each historical phase. In relation to many aspects, Chamar modernity rehearsed a script which had been written and personified by other Indians a century earlier, and within India itself. But this is not the full story. My analysis of Chamar modernity also showed how, despite the continuous presence


Retro-modern India

of manifestations of Western modernity — first under the semblance of the colonisers’ classificatory, legal and ruling acts and their legacy, and later under those of a globalised Euro-American culture — the groups against which the Chamars were ‘measuring themselves’, in their efforts to ‘become better people’, were mainly fellow Indian citizens. Rather than explaining the diversity of Chamar modernity vis-à-vis the Western one(s), the telos of my investigation necessarily involved understanding how the Chamar return to the Indian middle classes’ way of life in the 19th century corresponded to their idea of contemporary modernity. In the book, I tried to show how modernity has come to be not an analytical term to be defined and applied, but a [. . .] what anthropologists call a ‘folk category’, in this case, a folk category shared by an enormously heterogeneous population of natives. Vague and confused as the term undoubtedly is when considered as an analytical tool, it remains the center of a powerful ‘discourse of identity’ (as Mary Louise Pratt has termed it), […] and a keyword that anchors a host of transnational discussions in and out of the academy about an emerging global social order. (Ferguson 2006: 166–67; emphasis in the original)

An emulation of the social practices of the higher classes is quintessential to histories of reproduction. In this book, however, ‘modern as identity’ came to be intrinsically associated with low-caste status, with the ‘Chamar’ social category and with the vicissitudes linked to these. In the book I identified modernity as the result of a dual process: one of appropriation of high-status ideals and social practices from the past, but also one of subversion of that very caste ideology which permeated the lives of the proponents of those social practices. Appropriation of the middle classes’ ideals and practices was shaped by idioms of rebellion and redemption asserted first in the social movements around Untouchable identity, and later in political mobilisation combined with cultural reinvention. What I found compelling in the ethnography of Manupur Chamars was the synergy of these two conflicting processes as observed through subaltern agency and expressed by the Chamars’ cultural commentaries on Indian society’s economy, politics and religion, amongst others. Both the processes of reproduction and subversion went to publicly and privately act upon the ideological and material ‘captivity’ constructed around Untouchable communities. What I also found cogent was the resulting alternative narrative of the nation that

The Politics of Indian Modernity


emerged at the intersection of the consistent rejection of the Chamars as fully-fledged citizens on the one hand (and therefore the inherent partiality of the very idea of nation) and this community’s journey into full citizenship on the other. When we think of Indian modernity, we need to pluralise this idea on account of the genealogy it finds within each community, a modernity which then gets inflected along the lines of gender, age and social status, amongst others. This plurality is not only found in the difference between the Chamars’ experience and that of the upper castes: the Ahir and the Chamar citizens I introduced at the very beginning of this book, and the ‘moral chasm’ produced by their different world-views at the time of the episode of untouchability described in the opening excerpt, were exposed to the same rhetoric and praxi of the colonial and, subsequently, national projects, and surely they reverberate patterns of those in their lives — in the ways they individuate and pursue the modern along the lines transmitted by these projects. However, these patterns cannot be naturalised as all-encompassing and normative. As mentioned in Chapter 4, ethnographic studies have indicated how the Ahir/Yadavas’ kinship organisation, their religious and political revival have capitalised on pre-existing resources in ways dramatically different from those of the Chamars.1 As a result, the more ethnographies will be produced on middle- and low-ranking communities and tribes, the more Indian modernity will acquire its shapes and colours, and the more the general trends which make up modernity will be broken down along the lines of these different communities’ discrete histories — to be subsequently recomposed in and as national ones. They will show alternative accounts to those of the new middle classes, as well as their common matrixes of belonging, as in the case of the present ethnography. In this book, I registered the absence amongst the Chamars of what constitutes the hegemonic configuration of modernity in India, personified by the swelling group of the middle classes. However, in doing so I have not denied the possibility of being modern for the Chamars, rather the contrary, as the book is entirely dedicated to the features of this social transformation and the categories which the Chamars have forged to express it. And it is not only on the basis of the incomes vaunted by


See Michelutti (2008) for an account of an Ahir community in UP.


Retro-modern India

the new middle classes that they represent modernity in India: without undermining the power of material resources, the middle classes’ role is underpinned by the symbolic value their life-ways communicate to wider publics (national and global) and to themselves. Around the world, they are the ones who unmistakably bear the ‘torch of progress’ in India and are sociologically assimilated to other growing Asian middle classes. By contrast, the leaders in the provinces, such as those in N. Kumar’s argument (2006) discussed in Chapter 1, and the masses they mobilise, might not be recognised as modern according to the ‘global registers’. The overwhelming majority of the Chamars and others like them find themselves in the territory of the excluded and might be assimilated to those marginal players who have recently reached global audiences through award winners Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. In an interesting time conjuncture, and all criticisms aside, literary and cinematic productions have begun to publicise representations of the ‘other India’ to the rest of the world. But the analytics of this ‘other India’ have long been exposed in literature. Ferguson (2006) has identified the modernity of African elites, and the non-modernity of the underpriviledged masses, as a detemporalised status rather than as a stage inserted in a historical progression. I have already discussed how this might not be entirely the case with regard to India, given the extent of the State’s commitment and action in India and the difference in the dynamics of the Indian economies and those in several African countries. However, Ferguson has also brought to light the consequences of deploying the concept of modernity outside a teleological framework. In this book, a hiatus emerges between the actors who can vaunt this status (of modernity) and the symbolic value attached to it, and those who cannot. Within the same country, there are many individuals and communities, such as the Chamars, who are not located at the epicentre of modernity, and who have to rely on a modernity which ‘occurred’ in the past and whose identities are not formed by educational migration, transnationality, jobs created by the liberalisation of the economy, heightened consumerism, amongst others. Rather, they have to rely on the fragments of development that reach them. Retro-modernity points to new forms of macro inequalities within India, stemming from the peculiarity of the socio-economic, political and cultural conjunctures of a country simultaneously developing and globalising and the many profoundly diverging trajectories unleashed by this dual process. The acknowledgement of this hiatus also speaks of the incommensurability of the

The Politics of Indian Modernity


principles which underpin the two economic models of development — one driven by the State and one by neo-liberal capitalism. But how did retro-modernity feature in this ethnography? To begin with, Chamar education, confined to what N. Kumar has called ‘provincial schools’, including English-medium ones, according to her, cannot confer on students ‘the rewards of the national–global’ comparable to those provided by metropolitan education (2006: 420). Where the workings of global trade have left their indelible mark on Manupur Chamar artisans’ lives, those Chamars who possess more educational credentials find it very difficult to spend these in local labour markets.While the Chamar youth is far away from elite educational institutions and urban facilities ‘at the centre’, they are even more distant from the phenomenon of migration abroad for educational purposes, increasingly experienced by middle-class youth. Although not to be taken as fully representative of such phenomena, recent research shows how the latter migrate abroad not only to attain a specific degree but to apply for a permanent residency in a foreign country (see Baas 2006). However, ‘escaping India’, in tune with the separation desires of the contemporary middle classes, is certainly not an option, or perhaps even a desire, for the overwhelming majority of Indian youth including the Chamars, and the modernity of life in diaspora and transnational families very often concerns middle-class youth alone. The jobs that Chamar youth dream of (and very rarely manage to get) are not those of the new IT generation, but the highly coveted ones within the public sector. The Chamars’ consumption possibilities are limited to the possession of a few motorcycles (the ‘highest status’ transportation means), appliances and mobile phones, and to some incipient signs of religious ostentation, which has led them to call back the previously ostracised pandits to celebrate a number of high-status marriages. A number of features mark the formation of a semi-rural lower middle-class elite: girls’ education, a tiny minority of children attending English-medium schools, more distant marriage alliances, the building of new homes, and increased consumption, while the ownership of a car still remains an unfulfilled aspiration. A history of material culture drawn from Chamar households would be very revealing of the hierarchy of furniture, objects and technology which are slowly beginning to be found in their homes and of those being replaced. Where the first future owner of a ‘four wheeler’ will have to literally make her/his way through the narrow lanes of the Chamar basti, aspiring


Retro-modern India

middle-class Chamars have manifested space concerns. It is in the basti that the enclosure of modern privacy has taken place through the building of ‘individualising homes’. Unlike the images of villages where people sit outside their homes, a number of Chamars have attempted to recreate modern urban living in the village. At the same time, Chamar aspirations of moving to the city, for instance, for the sake of their children’s future, for their better education, for a better access to urban facilities, appear as a prohibitive and distant dream, whose likely unfeasibility is eased by the possibility of commuting to the nearby city. The Chamar aspiration to individualising homes — particulary to those situated in a ‘sanitised’ urban neighbourhood — remains unfulfilled and they might have to continue to daily cope with their loud and ‘uncivilised’ fellow caste members. While the Chamars appropriate the idea of ‘individualising homes’ in the symbolic effort to separate from the rest (an attitude reminiscent of the more general one of contemporary middle classes), these efforts have been anticipated by the phenomenon of ‘individualising cities’ mushrooming all over India. This is still an unexplored but significant phenomenon and omnipresent in the Indian media. More and more urban enclaves and ‘separate cities’ are being built and advertised with their separate infrastructures, power and technology. In these gated communities, being the focus of investment by NRIs (Non Resident Indians) as well as locals, brand-new communities are being created along with a new ethos of modern living. Also, one should not forget the deep internal differentiation within the Chamar community itself, along the lines of gender, for example. We have seen how modernity brings about change for men first. Forms of occupational mobility aside, men have carved out a place for themselves as ‘subjects of the nation’ through their grassroots mobilisation into a now-powerful organisation ruling the state and which has imposed its presence in national politics, whereas the Chamar women examined in this book have not followed a similar path. Constrained by village and local gender regimes, the more fortunate amongst them are instead carving out their membership of the nation through other avenues — that of respectability, new motherhood based on the figure of the educator and ideals of salaried employment. Whereas models of (male) subaltern politics appear to be marked by a ‘rupture’ with long-standing inequalities and founded on self-respect, Chamar women’s roles in shifting gender regimes repropose a known and more conservative template, for example, new uses and politics around the symbolic resource of pardah.

The Politics of Indian Modernity


The aspiring middle-class households can afford this resource, while in many others, women have to ‘expose’ themselves in public through the performance of menial work. It might well be that the association of the new middle classes’ fortunes to the growth of the Bombay Stock Exchange Index (the Sensex) is an essentialising portrait of these classes and their lifestyles. However, the Sensex is a good heuristic device to make sense of retro-modernity. I have used the pardah and the Sensex as two extreme symbols, apparently incomparable, but vividly reflecting the dissonance between becoming modern and an aspiring middle-class person in a provincial space like Manupur and being modern and middle class in contemporary metropolitan India. I had thought of this comparison well before the markets around the world were shattered by the US financial crisis at the end of the summer of 2008. After this, the Sensex, like all other indices around the world, has become a more powerful symbol of capitalism’s immanent fragility. If the Chamars (whether aspiring middle class or not) are not the main actors of modernity, it is because this is produced elsewhere, though within India, and also through direct engagement with forms of Western modernity. The Chamars are more of its spectators, which could be a useful metaphor to understand a society with a cinematic production as remarkable as the Indian one. The issue at stake here lies in the limits of the Nehruvian inclusive vision of development which fascinated the Chamars but which has not materialised for many of them, and whose possibilities of well-being will be further restrained by neoliberal agendas. The experience of temporality accompanying modernity, understood as an uninterrupted race towards progress, had already shown its fallibility with the end of the weaving business, with the continuation of women’s backbreaking labour and youth unemployment, amongst many other hardships. A great deal of this book was about the search for some form or other of capital: economic, social, symbolic, and political, but also the consequences of the dynamics of capital in the landscape of global trade on these forms of capital.

II. Some Reflections on the Study of the Modern In this book, not only do I point to the fundamental inequality of living modernity in India as a hegemonic and exclusive project, but also raise a number of issues regarding the study of modernity itself. Kaviraj has observed how


Retro-modern India

[O]ne of the major new developments in social knowledge has been the addition of a vast body of careful historical knowledge about nonEuropean societies to the immense documentation of Western life that already existed. But this extension has also led to an underlying theoretical crisis, because the more interesting and perceptive work on other societies is evincing increasing discomfort with the structure of received theory, simply because its major presuppositions, arguments, examples and generalisations were all drawn, quite naturally, from the stock of European historical experience. It is proving impossible to force this new body of intractable evidence into the received theoretical architecture. This might suggest that social sciences have imperceptibly reached a significant threshold. The methodological dispute in German sociology in the early 20th century indicated that the common methods of natural science do not easily cross over into the very different field and materials of social science; scientific enquiry needed a methodological retuning when it crossed this boundary. In contemporary social science, we have reached a similar boundary between the West and other societies — a threshold that requires the social sciences to have significantly different concepts and theoretical generalisations. (2005: 525)

In Chapter 1, I discussed the ways in which this book is situated vis-à-vis theoretical frameworks emerging from the study of modernity from locations ‘other than the West’. It is from within these frameworks that I now turn to how this book’s arguments go to shape the study of the modern. First, I have brought to light the salience of the ‘identity and class of modernity’, following which the process of modernisation and becoming modern yields very different outcomes according to the communities we seek to analyse. Modernity has been theorised as the advent of a set of new practices, featuring a certain experience of temporality. Those studies of Indian modernity which seek to locate them empirically might reveal how these practices generate a range of very different outcomes and highly political contents according to what exactly a nuanced theory seeks to explain and to whom. Second, not only does my account depart from considering the West as the main yardstick for an analysis of the modern, but in breaking down the unitary history of modernity in India through the tool of Chamar agency, my investigation underscores a tension between the dynamicity of modernity as a ‘process’ (the process of modernisation amongst the Chamars) and the immobility of modernity as an ‘attribute’ (the limitations prohibiting them from being recognised as modern in contemporary India), and the politics which follows from this tension. The purpose of this book lies in capturing the reverberation of this

The Politics of Indian Modernity


politics in non-elite life-forms, and this could solely emerge, in all its specificities, by observing modernity through the lens of the condition of subalternity of Manupur Chamars. Third, it is precisely this condition which has suggested new modalities for the actualisation of modernity in this community and to its political nature. Amongst these modalities, there is the one of emancipation. A process of emancipation, however, might well be associated with the trope of modernity, as the eradication of what has been constructed as traditional. But Chamar emancipation is different. This has directly pointed to the Chamars’ liberation from a series of disabling structures such as entrenched hierarchies, their subjecting roles within the agrarian economy, their political ‘infancy’ within patronage systems, and from the trap of ‘unfit’ religious personas. Rather than mobilising and reworking high-caste tradition (as in the case of the Indian elites) or obliterating this tradition tout court (as in the case of radical Dalits such as Ambedkar), Manupur Chamars needed to subvert the former through narratives positively reformulating their positioning within Indian society using a number of pasts — mythological, local and national. The experience of retro-modernity is also a way to engage the past and tradition. This means that to empower themselves, the Chamars needed to forge new ones. What is more, the understanding of Chamar modernity is firmly embedded in their colonial pasts, in ways that complement the nationalist master narrative for the liberating discourses and the opportunities (legal, socio-economic and political) which saw their appearance under British rule as well as for the anti-untouchability movements which sparked from the entrenched critiques of the social system. This book has suggested how aspects of the colonial experience were identified by the Chamars as beneficial vis-à-vis caste hierarchy — an experience which is not unique to the Chamars. Under colonial rule, they formed a social laboratory of a particular kind: the spread of universal ideas such as rights, democracy, equality was to be used to lay claims to fully-fledged citizenship in the future Indian nation. Unfortunately, some of the past scholarship on Untouchable communities held a narrow focus on issues of reproduction or replication of shared upper-caste values alone (which surely form a main concern in this book too) as an end in itself, without framing those debates within wider discourses. Moreover, I would suggest that the separation between the historical and anthropological discourses that N. Kumar (2005)


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has apprehended in the literature on women in South Asia (discussed in Chapter 7) can similarly be discerned in the detachment between the history of the colonial Untouchable subaltern and the ethnography of the contemporary one. What is more, this applies to studies of Untouchables as the primary target of the development efforts in postcolonial India. While Chatterjee has emphasised ‘the overarching power of the concept of development as the very idea of modernity’ (2003: vii; italics in the original), here I have shown how the nexus between development and modernity amongst the Chamars becomes intelligible only through the understanding of this community’s past (in this book, the Chamars’ remembered one and not the fruit of archival research), which preceded the era of the developmental State. In an interesting inversion, part of the experience of retro-modernity for the Chamars is, as a result of their own development, a return to a ‘pre-development era’, the 19th century. The driving principle which engendered a great deal of the Chamars’ social transformation as well as new modalities for the enactment of modernity has been social reform. In India, the device of reform has been appropriated in a downward movement by communities of different ranking, gender-wise, and at different historical conjunctures which vary geographically. The mechanism of reform is intertwined with modernisation and development and with the process of modern politics. Along with the binaries between past and present, backwardness and civilisation, illiteracy and education, these historical processes have thrown up many dialectical relations within the Chamar community. These relations express the reflexive experience of modernity in ways which bring to light the peculiar features of the ethnos analysed. This reflexivity also points to the inner ruptures and anxieties of individuals and the community, in a way, the pains and the contradictions they encounter in their experience of modernity. These ruptures point to what Taylor calls ‘negative theories of modernity’ (1995: 25) — despite their being of an acultural type — which depict the transformations inherent within modernity as loss and decline rather than the unfolding of capacities (ibid.).2 Amongst the Chamars, the above ruptures are the Taylor argues how in these negative theories ‘Modernity is characterized by the loss of the horizon: by a loss of roots; by the hubris that denies human limits and denies our dependence on history or God, which places unlimited confidence in the powers of frail human reason; by a trivializing self-indugence which has no stomach for the heroic dimension of life, and so on’ (1995: 25). 2

The Politics of Indian Modernity


terrain for the construction of new subjectivities. These are made up of the tension between ‘being’ and ‘ought to be’, in the past as well as in the present, as a sign of transforming society, caste, household, and individual. Further, the Chamars experienced a tension as citizens: the language of reform, predominantly moral in nature, has been accompanied by the equally modern language of rights, power and political representation. As a result of State action, they found themselves in the condition, espoused by Parry in ‘The Koli Dilemma’ (1970), of having to claim a backward status, with all the moral consideration this implies, in order to be entitled to reservations and progress. The dialectic between the two is further complicated by the dynamics of class transformation. The spread of education was a first stage in this transformation. I have highlighted the conflict between the liberating and the subjecting power of education which produces equality between communities on the one hand and inequality within the community itself on the other. My analysis has shown how changing notions of the person and translocal political projects underpinned by notions of equality of opportunities and of rights respectively, appeared to be at odds with social mobility and class reproduction driven by status. These sets of tensions intersect with lifestyle-related conflicts between the Chamar poor and the aspiring middle-class. These tensions exploded in all their virulence when I analysed them in the transformation of gendered subjects; the bourgeois woman and the half-naked one were their exemplification. Taken together, these tensions emerging from the ethnography have proved to be telling heuristic devices for understanding what constitutes ‘being a Chamar’ (and a subaltern in pursuit of modernity) in contemporary north Indian society. The above-stated dialectical relations also animate life ‘after the colonial’ within this community. The tensions the Chamars live by do not translate in a unlineal outcome but in the juxtaposition of conflicting processes of revanchism of low-caste identity, embourgeoisement, appropriation of the modernisation ideology, selective contestation of traditions and pasts and crystallisation of normative gender identities, amongst others. What these processes point to is that the ‘modern’ for a community such as the Chamars is not only made of the attainment of full citizenship rights and the fight against untouchability practices, but includes the pursuit of distinctions which mark class, reflected in the dual processes of subversion and reproduction dicussed here. The relations and tensions outlined so far also foreground forms of individualism, which


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one might think a sign of the incipient modern. While in the book the fundamental changes brought about by the experience of modernity were often articulated through community identity and claims, I also showed the individualistic trajectories and claims arising from the fragmentation which the social body has experienced over the decades. There is, however, a powerful counterpart to these forms which bring to light another important layer of diversity in the actualisation of modernity: first, the shared locality of a village, and second, electoral politics and communal voting which point to the presence of a ‘collective individualism’. An additional layer of understanding the new modalities of the enactment of modernity is most visible in my answers to Chakrabarty’s questions on the subalterns’ challenge to the modern distinctions, introduced in Chapter 1 and addressed in several parts of the book. My investigation has shown how the Chamars rendered fluid and mutually constitutive many of the binaries through which modernity has been conceptualised. And I now turn to these distinctions as they have emerged in Chamar discourse and practice, of which I first analyse the feudal/capitalist one. Against the backdrop of recent studies which have highlighted a continuum between workers’ agrarian and industrial worlds in India, I analysed the Chamar conceptualisation of forms of work connoting these worlds. In contrast with a past of exploitative agricultural relations of a ‘feudal nature’, weaving had been an idiom in which modern conceptualisations of work as a ‘free sphere’ were opposed to notions of dependence and servitude. The romanticisation of agriculture (a driving engine of the growth of the nation) gave way to the attribute of slavery assigned to it by the Chamars. This shows how myths of the nation are differently conceived according to social class. But weaving was far from being a ‘free’ activity, while, contextually, Chamar weavers cherished preindustrial time regimes as well as depersonalised working relations. But above all, weaving marked the passage from a status of slavery to one of patronage with Muslim master weavers and business relations with Hindu merchants, that is, from a feudal to a capitalist mode of production. This passage is also marked by the disappearance of employers’ untouchability beliefs. I also showed how the softening of Untouchable identity within traditional industry contrasted with the hardening of this identity within the economy of colonial modernity as a result of the compartmentalisation of Untouchables in professions which reinforced their status. Conversely, the modern (i.e., the liberation from Untouchable identity) resided in a traditional industry. Further, my analysis of the

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relationship between the rational and the nonrational (Chakrabarty’s distinctions) amongst the Chamars evokes forms of post-Enlightenment reason. In the course of the book, I showed how amongst the Chamars the primacy of science can coexist with low-caste mythology in a combined attempt to critique the Hindu scriptures. I demonstrated how the Chamars’ faith in progress can live side by side with a composite religiosity made up of Hindu gods, goddesses, Bhakti saints, and ghosts. In short, the rational and nonrational categories appear in an eclectic fashion which accommodates Chamar traditions, the modern and cultural critique. This argument raises questions regarding an anthropology of knowledge, and in particular the relationship between indigenous knowledge and science. This question reflects broader issues of cultural heritage versus all-encompassing narratives of modernity. Where I have shown the powerful role of the ideology of formal education in the Chamar community, I have also suggested how the transformative effects of education have not explicitly translated into the revitalisation of a ‘pristine’ indigenous Chamar culture. However, there was a cultural reportoire which was called upon by the Chamars at each life-cycle event, for example, or other aspects of social life, shared with mainstream Hindu public culture as well as part of a politicised Dalit one. These considerations are intertwined with the ways in which the distinction between the sacred and the secular manifests itself in the context analysed. While I have highlighted the deep relations of Chamar forms and expressions of religiosity with the realm of social relations and politics, I have argued how modernity has meant the replacement of aspects of tradition and religion that devalued the Chamars with those suiting their past and present selves. At the same time, moral and religious discourses have been moulded by the modernist ethos and rendered suitable for the new Chamar selves and their engagement with local and national politics; for example, the moral basis of action contained in the notion of karma has been reformulated by the Chamars in ways that can only gain salience in the present life, reflecting an emphasis on performance and achievement. As a consequence, in the Chamars’ view ‘modernity and rebirth’ cannot be reconciled — while they might well be in the view of other individuals and communities. Moreover, while religion has been as an important site of contestation and assertions of equality for the Untouchables, the secular sphere of politics has increasingly gained primacy for expressing social contestation and gaining full


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membership in the nation. While the Chamars’ eclectic arrangements of the modern distinction between the sacred and the secular signal the existence of a common ground between non-Western modernities and more recent understandings of Western ones, the attribution of post-Enlightenment is inappropriate to describe aspects of the Chamar intellectual and religious world. Harvey has prophetically written about how the postmodern theological project translates into achieving the combination of divine truth with reason (1989: 60). Over the past two decades, the phenomenology of modernity in the West has been replete with insurgent and aggressive religiosities, with ecumenical emanations on the commensurability of reason and faith, and with the daily infringement of the principles of secularism and the formulation of religion-based moral counter-legislation on very critical bioethical issues. Surely, the modern has not tamed religion (including aspects of the so-called superstitions), and finally the crisis of the secularisation paradigm has led to a recognition of a plethora of ways of living simultaneously with the sacred and the secular. If only one had looked eastwards (as well as to other regions of the world) and not through an Orientalist lens, one would have foreseen how modernisation can thrive along with religion, and the future roles of religion in shaping the modern.

III. Conclusion: Modernity — is it all about Knowledge? Chamars and other subalterns are legitimate speakers of their times: they are a living answer to the fundamental question put by Rancière about how ‘those whose business is not thinking assume the authority to think and thereby constitute themselves as thinking subjects?’ (2004: xxvi). How can they author knowledge? A great deal of low-caste assertion in north India has focused on the production of alternative knowledges and the formulation of intellectual objectives which have come into collision with established histories, religiosities and social practices.3 The Chamar (and definitely the Dalit) knowledge project has immensely benefited from the spread of mass education in the lower And while we think of these knowledges, we also need to remember that, as Mosse has argued while trying to move beyond the rigidities of a structural analysis, to the Untouchable castes, ‘social protest need not be premised upon cultural disjunction, and cultural consensus does not imply political conservatism’ (1994: 99). 3

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strata of the population and the use of what I call ‘borrowed literacy’, so that the body of myths, historiographies and life histories of saints and leaders which are divulgated through print (see Narayan 2006) are exchanged and re-narrated through an ‘oral web’ of social relations. Over the past few decades, a pluralisation of knowledges and authors has taken place which has produced alternative histories and worldviews to the hegemonic ones. And I need to go back to these. Prakash contends that colonialism and nationalism shared the task ‘of bringing the timeless “native” into the present, into the time of History’ (1999: 233). He proceeds by saying that both colonialism and nationalism shared the conviction that science and technology would have accomplished this task: the result was an Indian modernity suspended in time, as a post-Enlightenment phenomenon, estranged both from European time and from those in India — all classes and castes — it was supposed to engulf. (Ibid.)

But I really would like to call attention to the passage that follows: Like colonial rule, the nationalist imagination was never able to purge its others; rather, it was in the impossible effort to appropriate nonnational forms of knowledges and subjects, an relativize them as minor, backwards, and traditional that the nation-state instituted itself as the realization of community. (Ibid.)

If the appropriation of science and technology of Western imprint was nonetheless destined to become a hegemonic system of knowledge in India, I would argue that the nationalist imagination already had its own reservoir of minor, backward and traditional knowledges amongst native subjects, and these were personified precisely by all those Untouchable or low-caste communities such as the Chamars and by their world-views. The progression of Untouchable movements in north India (to consider only the region under analysis), starting from the early 20th century onwards, testifies to the incompleteness of that vision of community underpinning the idea, in fieri, of the nation state. Many decades after India’s independence — and building on from the early movements of that period — the politics of the subaltern classes has reclaimed a space of power for itself. And the spread of knowledge, resulting in the revelation of the rights these classes were entitled to, has been key to their assertion. The forms, rhetoric and performances of this politics are the


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objects of ongoing debates, and persisting and profound socio-economic inequalities continuously interrogate the efficacy of this politics. The subaltern classes’ ascendance to power and their knowledge projects are some of the missing tesseras in the belated construction of the moral community underpinning the nation state, an effort which has vigorously appeared at the centre stage, in the north of the country, half a century after the constitution of independent India. However, what this politics and the knowledge impetus behind it have powerfully shown are not just power-seeking strategies and adequate representation for historically marginalised communities but, equally important, the conscious effort to displace the stigmatising master narrative at the root of the denial of humanism to communities such as the Chamars. For the Chamars and others, this master narrative has constituted yet another subjecting project like the dominion of Europe and the West as epicentres of universalising history, thoughts and practices which have moulded the configuration of the modern in India from the 19th century onwards. The eclecticism and richness of the Chamars’ knowledge and the processes of modernity which have produced such knowledge suggest that research is still lacking on the unfolding of the idea of modernity in India. Along with the role of emblems such as industries, markets, cities, much more still needs to be known about who inhabits and works in these and other spaces, especially concerning those non-elites, like the Chamars, who are rarely associated with the ‘modern’, and who are most likely to be those carrying out its most creative interventions to become such. A. Gupta has argued that ‘what makes the experience of modernity different in India is that, within experience, the selfrepresentation of modernity is never absent’ (1998: 37), and continues, ‘Modernity’s representation of itself is a social fact in the villages of northern India, and not “merely” an analytic choice available to the scholar’ (1998: 38; emphasis in the original). Before we discard the idea of modernity, then, given its ubiquity and its richness in the lives and in the self-representation of its actors, we need to be knowledgeable about its phenomenology amongst many more communities and individuals, and contextually produce critiques of its master narrative and refine our investigation tools. And I do not think we have reached that moment yet.

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Srinivas, M. N. 1976. The Remembered Village. Berkeley: University of California Press. ———. 1995 (1966). Social Change in Modern India. New Delhi: Orient Longman Limited. Street, B. 1984. Literacy in Theory and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Subrahmanian, R. 2003. ‘Introduction: Exploring Processes of Marginalization and Inclusion in Education’, IDS Bulletin, 34(1): 1–8. Sunder Rajan, R. 1993. Real and Imagined Women: Gender, Culture and Postcolonialism. London: Routledge. Tarlo, E. 1996. Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India. London: Hurst & Co. Taylor, C. 1995. ‘Two Theories of Modernity’, The Hastings Center Report, 25(2): 24–33. Thompson, E. P. 1991 (1967). ‘Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism’, in E. P. Thompson (ed.), Customs in Common, pp. 352–403. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Ulin, R. C. 2002. ‘Work as Cultural Production: Labour and Self-Identity among Southwest French Wine-Growers’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (n.s.), 8(4): 691–712. Van Wessel, M. 2004. ‘Talking about Consumption: How an Indian Middle Class Dissociates from Middle-class Life’, Cultural Dynamics, 16(1): 93–116. Varma, P. K. 1998. The Great Indian Middle Class. Delhi: Penguin Vaudeville, C. 1993. A Weaver Named Kabir: Selected Verses with a Detailed Biographical and Historical Introduction. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Velaskar, P. and G. G. Wankhede. 1996. ‘From Old Stigma to New. . . Exploring the Changing Identity of Urban Educated Dalits’, The Indian Journal of Social Work, 57(1): 115–34. Vincentnathan, L. 1993. ‘Untouchable Concepts of Person and Society’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 27(1): 53–82. Wadley, S. S. and B. W. Derr. 1989. ‘Eating Sins in Karimpur’, Contributions to Indian Sociology (n.s.), 23(1): 131–48. Walsh, J. E. 2004. Domesticity in Colonial India: What Women Learned When Men Gave Them Advice. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Washbrook, D. 1996 (1993). ‘Land and Labour in Late Eighteenth-Century South India: The Golden Age of the Pariah?’ in P. Robb (ed.), Dalit Movements and the Meanings of Labour in India, pp. 68–86. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Weidman, A. J. 2006. Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern: The Postcolonial Politics of Music in South India. Durham: Duke University Press.


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About the Author Manuela Ciotti is a social anthropologist with a PhD from the London School of Economics. She is currently Research Associate at the Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Edinburgh. She has published several articles in leading journals on topics ranging from education, labour ethnohistory, gender and class transformation, and women’s political activism. Drawing on research she carried out during the tenure of a Nuffield Foundation New Career Development Fellowship, Ciotti is completing her second monograph entitled Political Agency and Gender in India (forthcoming). An edited volume entitled Femininities and Masculinities in Indian Politics (forthcoming) develops the different aspects of the gender and politics nexus. Ciotti’s focus on South Asian Studies is intertwined with her interests in anthropological epistemologies and the politics of location and representation; converging on these, a monograph provisionally entitled Producing Knowledge in Late Modernity: Lessons from India is under preparation.



Index Ad Dharma movement, 53, 147 adharma (immorality), 138, 143 adhya (sharecropping), 75, 79 Adi Dravida movement, 157 Adi Hindu: movement, 55, 157, 164; theme, 55n, 112, 132, 133, 151, 156, 157, 158, 168 agency: individual and community, 20; modern distinctions and practices, 12; religious, 146; subaltern, 248; tension between Western and nonWestern modernities, 19; universal, 19; ‘visible’ forms of, 50 agricultural labour, 6, 30, 73, 74, 75, 77, 78, 80, 94, 96, 186, 221, 222, 224, 227, 228, 230, 231, 244 agricultural labourers, 227; casual occupations of, 53; code of conduct of, 79; patronage under Congress, 174; role of Chamars as, 21, 110; unskilled, 27; Untouchable, 78; women, 224, 225, 243, 245; working as bonded labourers, 108 Ahir, 1, 2, 3, 12, 25, 57, 58, 72, 145, 181, 249 All-India Adi Dharm Mission (ADM), 61 All-India Scheduled Caste Federation, 178 Ambedkar Dal, 181 Ambedkar, Dr Bhimrao, 16, 49, 121, 146, 198 Ambedkar Village Scheme, 199 Anderson, Benedict, 11 andhvishvas (superstition), 161, 162 animal sacrifice, 149 anti-caste movements, 126

anti-untouchability movements, in colonial India, 215, 255 Appadurai, Arjun, 19, 20, 22, 117, 247 Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger, 250 Aryan theory, 156 Arya Samaj, 55, 156, 158, 168 Asad, Talal, 88, 148 Assayag, Jackie, 20, 29 Babb, Lawrence, 113 backward-caste beneficiaries, 72 Backward Classes Commission. See Mandal Commission backwardness: categories of, 9; Chamar condition of, 42; idea of, 42; importance of, 9 Bahujan, 1, 200, 206 bahujan samaj, 179, 182 Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), 16, 31, 50, 88, 120, 122, 124n, 129, 154, 171, 173, 174, 175, 176, 177, 178, 179, 180, 181, 182, 183, 184, 185, 187, 189, 190, 191–201, 202, 203, 204, 205n, 206, 207, 208, 211 Bahujanwadi, 198 Balmiki community, in north India, 53, 54 BAMCEF, 179 Banaras, 20, 24, 25, 26n, 27, 28, 29, 47, 53, 56, 57, 58, 60, 61, 62, 63, 67, 70n, 71, 73, 76, 77, 80, 81, 83, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 93, 95, 99, 100, 105, 109, 110, 111, 112, 115, 123, 124, 138, 139, 140, 149, 151, 153, 154, 159, 161,


Retro-modern India

164, 166, 167, 180, 181, 194, 222, 225, 227, 231, 234, 235. See also Varanasi Banaras Hindu University (BHU), 1, 180 Banaras’s silk weaving industry, 83, 89–92; recruitment times, 92–93 bani, 96, 97, 101 bani weavers, 97, 101, 106, 107 Baniyas, 27, 57 Basu, Subho, 67, 115 Bayly, Chris A., 57, 90, 94, 95, 100 Bayly, Susan, 5, 86, 87 bazaar (market): global, 24, 48, 82, 84, 117; industrialisation, 91, 95; laws of, 104–8; local, 48, 117; retail, 107; tej bazaar (strong market), 113 begar (forced labour), 69 Bellwinkel-Schempp, Maren, 157, 164 Bhakti: movement, 60; tradition, 1, 60; worship, 88, 151 Bhangis, 59. See also sweepers, in north India Bharatiya Kranti Dal, 181 Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), 182, 196 BIMARU group, of Indian states, 23 binaries, amongst Manupur Chamars, 167 biradari (caste), 66, 69, 122, 189 Black Panthers of America, 122 Bloch, Maurice, 126, 129, 130, 132 bonded labourers, 56, 95, 108, 114 borrowed literacy, 261 Bourdieu, Pierre, 126, 217 bourgeois: citizen, 176; gender models, 226; ‘housewife’ ethic and Hindu ‘seclusion’ identity, 219; Indian capitalism and modernity, 8 Brahmin, 57, 59, 63, 65, 66, 74, 119, 120, 124, 135, 136, 138, 139, 150, 165, 166, 171, 199;

agricultural day labourers for, 96; attitiude towards Chamar women, 186; as city’s original inhabitants, 25; and Congress, 177; demand for female labour force, 227; and ‘democratisation’ of social transformation, 140; high-caste rituals and practices, 153; jankari, 139; objection to practice of sacrifice by Chamars, 149; oppression by, 192; political domination of, 178; political power through official posts, 31; as preponderant caste, 4; recruitment of Yadav sharecroppers and female Chamar labourers, 27; relationship with Chamars, 184, 189, 190; ritual authority, 133, 166; superstition, 159 Brass, Paul R., 6, 72, 173, 177, 178, 192 Breman, Jan, 14, 56, 74, 77, 84 British land-revenue policies, 57 British Permanent Settlement, 67 BSP. See Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) Buddhism, 147, 154, 164, 180, 204 capital: concentration in urban trade, 91; cultural, 126; 128, 217, 243; economic, 217; human, 21; global, 81; symbolic, 217, 243 Carsten, Janet, 132 caste domination, in employment relations, 86 caste panchayat, 63, 65, 66 caste succession, 177 Chakrabarty, Dipesh, 4, 7, 8, 43, 84, 85, 110, 111, 114, 146, 147, 162, 163, 172, 176, 208, 258, 259; Habitations of Modernity, 42 Chamar Dalit Varg Sangh, 62 Chamaristhan, 203, 205


Chamars: Ad Dharma movement amongst, 53; appropriation of modernising agenda, 213; backwardness amongst, 8; basti, 28; becoming better people, 125–28; buying power of, 216; capitalist transformation and economic liberalisation, 30; categories of work and social relations, 52; changing roles within industry, 99– 101; colonial prologue of, 121–25; culture and knowledge, 41; distribution of Manupur village’s landholdings, 75; educational, marriage and occupational patterns, 29; election of gram pradhan, 31; empowerment of, 79; employment opportunities for, 77; idiosyncratic believers, 149–55; inter-caste and inter-religious relations, 81; karma, dharma and rebirth, 140–44; laid off by upper-caste landlords, 74; landholdings, 21; as landless labourers and small cultivators, 80; leatherworkers, 151; legal reforms, 11; locating: contemporary subaltern, 31–34; modern, 20–31; marriage exchanges amongst, 234; micro socio-economic history of, 67–77; migration to big cities, 27; modern condition of, 47; occupational mobility among, 76, 77; oppressive socio-economic relations, 21; past and present life, 130–33; phenomenon of migration, 72; political mobilisation within low-caste politics, 32; in political modernity, 172–77; politics of naming, 204–6; reconstituted identities, 201–4; redemption from ‘dirty work’, 57–67; as rickshaw


pullers, 76; role as agricultural labourers, 21; self and community transformation, 11; signs of class transformation, 34; social transformation, 49; socio-economic hierarchies among, 78; Statederived development of, 119; tale of two classes, 229–33; technology of literacy and education, 128–30; vernacular knowledge, 42; weavers, 80; weaving community, 83–86; weaving occupation, 73; manifestations of local entrepreneurship in, 101–4; young men, 28, 50, 76, 125, 171, 188, 215, 222, 223, 235, 242, 244 Chamar women: class encounters, 224–26; emulation of upper-caste norms and postures, 219; and gender imprint of class metamorphosis, 237–42; importance of education among, 222; movement(s) or geographical production of gender inequality, 233–37; roles in shifting gender regimes, 252; types of, 213; white-collar jobs for, 222; work and political fields, 226–29; young, 125, 215, 216, 217, 228, 237, 239, 240, 242, 243, 244, 245 Chandavarkar, Raj, 87, 98 Chandra, Kanchan, 32n, 177, 184n, 201, 208 Chari, Sharad, 113, 114n, 115 Charsley, Simon R., 5, 46, 47n, 87 Chatterjee, Partha, 10, 32, 208, 213, 220, 256 chaudhri (headman), 69, 70 Chopra, Radhika, 32, 125 citizenship, 8, 10, 36, 37, 47, 176, 204, 211, 249, 255, 257


Retro-modern India

civilising mission, 11, 156, 158, 168, 212, 213, 238, 247 class transformation, 30, 34, 257 Cohn, Bernard S., 2, 5, 25, 57, 64, 72, 87, 130, 131, 134, 152, 229 collective individualism, 258 colonial prologue, of Chamars, 121–25 communal voting, 258 community engineering, 121, 144 conceptualisation of work, 81, 258 Congress party, 31, 50, 54, 88, 101, 122, 174, 177, 178, 179, 180, 183, 188, 191, 195, 197 Contursi, Janet, 122 Corbridge, Stuart, 32, 199 Crook, Nigel, 123 cultural politics, 11, 46 dais (midwives), 58, 65, 66 Dalit feminism, 223 Dalits, 1; during anti-Brahmin movement, 133; atrocities and violence against, 3; caste identity vs compulsions of equality, 204; conquest of power in Uttar Pradesh, 155; identities in public discourses and imaginary, 33; movement, 49, 143, 154, 179, 183, 202; politics in Uttar Pradesh, 201; and selfrespect movements, 11; struggle since 1940s, 19 Dalit Panther movement, 121–22 dan, ideology of, 166 Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, 250 dehat (countryside), 21, 155 Deliège, Robert, 44, 45, 131, 156, 209, 230 democratisation: of body, 233; of mind, 207; practices, 6; of social relations, 140; of social transformation, 140, 147; of soul, 140–44

De Neve, Geert, 85, 93, 97 Depressed Classes, 203; League, 62 development: economic models of, 251; efforts in postcolonial India, 256; Nehruvian vision of, 253 dharma (moral order), 161; folk theories of socialisation and, 49; movement amongst Chamars, 53; and rebirth, 140–44; rules of, 10 Dhobis (washermen), 25n, 27, 68 Dhusiya, 5 Dickey, Sara D., 232 dih (village protecting deity), 69, 149 Dirks, Nick B., 5, 45, 87 ‘dirty work’, 57–67 The Discovery of India (Nehru), 6 discrimination: 2, 3, 22n, 33, 87, 96, 122, 144, 185, 186, 194, 203, 205, 206, 209; positive discrimination, policy of, 5, 9, 30, 31n, 113n, 119n, 173, 197, 211 distinction: between elite and nonelite in South Asia, 43; between societal modernisation and cultural modernity, 36; between superior religious practices sanctioned by the shastras and Banaras Brahmins, 167 Doms, 25; of Maldahiya, 154 dual citizenship, 211 Dube, Saurabh, 113, 123, 133, 164 Dumont, Louis, 44, 45 economic liberalisation: capitalist transformation and, 30; effects of, 214; global labour markets and, 216; livelihood of Chamars and, 34; policies in India, 83, 217–18; women and gender, 214 education: of Chamars, 136; ideological use of, 126; individual economy of, 136–40; knowledgeable Brahmin priest and literate/educated Chamars, 133–36


Eck, L. Diana, 62 Eickelman, Dale F., 134 electoral politics, 177, 182, 188, 258 Eleventh Five Year Plan, 23 employment patterns, along intra- and inter-generational axes, 52 English East India Company, 57 ‘Escaping India’, 14 ethnos, 20, 44, 256 ‘Europeanization of the imagination,’ 43 Ferguson, James, 20, 37, 248, 250 Fernandes, Leela, 13, 14, 214 food for politics, 170–72 Forbes, Geraldine, 213 ‘free labour’, 12, 114, 115 Freitag, Sandra B., 25, 57, 90, 91 Fuller, Chris J., 14, 20, 29, 39, 40, 68, 135, 142, 143, 149, 150, 232 Gandhi, Indira, 178, 192; garibi hatao programme, 193 Gandhi, Mahatma, 177, 179, 180 gender: inequality, 233–37; regimes, class metamorphosis and remaking of, 212–13 Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, 41n Galanter, Marc, 5, 31 Gaonkar, Dilip P., 36, 37 ‘globalising world’, 22 Ginzburg, Carlo, 41 Goody, Jack, 128, 129 Gooptu, Nandini, 5, 86, 87, 91, 92, 93, 95, 111 government employment: wage slavery, 111; white-collar employment, 213; naukari, 109, 111, 112, 124 gram pradhan (village chief ), 31, 188, 241n


Green Revolution, 24, 74 gulami (slavery), 79, 86, 109, 111, 112, 114, 156, 258 Gupta, Akhil, 8, 10, 32, 193, 262 Gupta, Charu, 221 Gupta, Dipankar, 9, 20, 21, 29, 120, 174 Hannerz, Ulf, 21 Harijans, 1, 78–79, 101, 184, 192; social subordination and dependence, 45. See also Dalits Harijan Sevak Sangh, 62 Harriss, John, 32, 199 Harriss-White, Barbara, 89 Harvey, David, 38, 260 Hasan, Zoya, 4, 22, 57, 62, 72, 74, 75, 99, 100, 151, 156, 177, 178, 179, 180, 193, 196, 199, 210 Haynes, Douglas E., 93, 95, 98 Hindu epics, of Ramayana and Mahabharata, 163 Hindu–Muslim: violence, 90, 91; riots, 91; and effect on Banaras silk industry, 91 Hindu orthopraxy, 38 Hindu Right-wing politics, 43 historicism, 7, 8, 9, 10, 176 hom (fire sacrifice), 149 idiosyncratic believers, 149–55 imagined community, 11 Indian upper-caste communities, 41, 69 India Shining, 35 inter-caste marriage, 165, 167 internal colonialism, 19 Jaffrelot, Christophe, 32, 54, 172, 173, 197 jajmani system, 68


Retro-modern India

Janata Dal, 197 Jatavs (Chamars), 53, 123, 178; militancy against Hindutva, 183 jati patr (caste certificate), 9 jativad, 133, 185, 191, 197, 198, 200, 207, 208 Jeffery, Patricia, 64, 125, 175, 215, 239 Jeffery, Roger, 64, 125, 175, 215, 239 Jeffrey, Craig, 65, 125, 127, 175, 215 Joshi, Sanjay, 11, 12, 39 Juergensmeyer, Mark, 45, 53, 61, 141, 147, 157 Julaha community, 58, 89, 90, 94, 110 Jutiya Devi Puja, 149 Kali Yuga, 10 Kapadia, Karin, 45, 215, 216, 217, 219, 245 karma doctrine, 141n karma–rebirth–dharma complex, 140–44 Kaur, Ravinder, 32 Kaviraj, Sudipta, 18, 32, 130, 172, 173, 175, 208, 253 Khare, Ravindra S., 141, 223 Khilnani, Sunil, 6, 14, 20, 126, 202, 235 Kisan Sabha, 178 knowledge: agyani (not knowledgeable), 139; Chamar culture and, 41; politics of, 42 Kolenda, Pauline, 141 ‘The Koli Dilemma’, (Parry), 9, 257 Kothari, Rajni, 205, 207 Kumar, Krishna, 123, 126, 127 Kumar, Nita, 15, 16, 25, 43, 76, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 98, 99, 100n, 106, 111, 112, 115, 121, 124, 218, 222, 240, 250, 251

Kumhars, 27, 160 kutcheri, 2 land reforms, 72 leatherworkers, 151, 154 literacy theory, 7, 127, 128–33 loktantra (democracy), 209 low-caste politics, 39, 42 Lucknow, 11, 39, 86, 90, 141, 181, 223, 241 Lynch, Owen M., 45, 53, 123, 176, 178, 221, 223, 230, 234 magic, 158–63 Mahabharata, 131, 163 Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith, 180 Mallahs (boatmen), 25 Mandal Commission, 9, 196, 197 Mann, Michael, 11, 213 Manupur village: caste-wise settlements, 68; distribution of income among Chamars of, 230; distribution of village landholdings, 75; micro socio-economic history, 67–77 Manuwadi, 198 marriage exchanges, amongst Chamars, 234 Marriott, McKim, 54, 120, 140, 141, 190 maulvis (religion specialists), 159 Mayawati, 182, 202 mazduri (wage labour), 108 Mazzarella, William, 14, 15 Mehta, Deepak, 98, 110 Mendelsohn, Oliver, 32, 46, 68, 74, 78, 177, 184 Michelutti, Lucia, 130, 132, 249 micro-political economies, 46 middle class: career women, 214, 222; colonial modernity and, 11; emergence and growth of, 14;


gender roles, 222; Indian, 11, 18, 34, 36, 247, 248; IT workers, 14; lifestyle, 116, 137, 244; modernity in India, 15, 245; phenomenon of ‘retro-modernity’, 35; social positions, 39; upper-caste, 17, 215 midwifery, 5, 64, 65, 66, 184, 187, 219 Mines, Diana, 130 modernisation, 6, 7, 9, 10, 24, 35, 38, 42, 147, 222, 245, 254, 254, 256, 257, 260 modernity: alternative, 36, 37, 38; with class, 13–17; colonial, 11, 18, 36, 46, 85, 87, 88, 147, 223, 240, 258; with identity, 17–20; political, 8, 46, 162, 172–77, 207, 208; regional, 17, 32 Mosse, David, 6, 45, 260 mota kam (unskilled labour), 76 Muslim weavers, 73, 83, 91, 97, 99, 100, 106, 109, 110, 112, 115; Muslim weaving communities, 86 Narayan, Badri, 62, 130 Nar-Biyna Chhoda movement, 62, 63 naukari. See under government employment Nehru, Jawaharlal, 21, 192, 204; The Discovery of India, 6 Nehruvian modernist project, in independent India, 126 O’Hanlon, Rosalind, 133 ojhas (exorcists), 71, 153, 159, 160 Omvedt, Gail, 156, 179, 196 Osella, Caroline, 32, 65, 125, 219, 236 Osella, Filippo, 32, 65, 125, 219, 236 pap (sin), 122; papi (sinner), 143 Pai, Sudha, 32, 177, 178, 179, 180


panchayat (caste council), 63, 229; caste panchayat, 65, 66; Chamar panchayat, 228; elections, 188, 189, 190, 209, 228 Panchayati Raj, 31, 241 Pandey, Gyan, 16, 19, 21, 36, 57, 58, 73, 90, 95, 220 pan-Indian political life, 23 pani-pandey, 192 pardah: elements of, 50; forms of, 221; low-caste women’s idea of, 244; observance of, 221; practice amongst educated Chamar brides, 222; vs sensex, 247–53 Parry, Jonathan P., 9, 10, 20, 25, 54, 57, 84, 90, 100, 111, 119, 159, 166, 171, 257 past: agrarian, 77, 79, 86, 110, 113, 114, 156; backward, 10; Chamar local, 11, 132, 147; colonial, 255; conceptualisations of, 130; historical, 112, 131; politics of, 131; postcolonial, 130; reinterpretation of, 120; remaking of, 49, 87, 112n, 120, 130, 144; rewriting of, 130 Pels, Peter, 168 Pinch, William R., 61 politics at home, Chamars, 188–91 politics of naming, ‘Chamar’ identity, 204–6 ‘polluting’ activities, 5, 48, 64, 144 pollution, 9, 64, 80, 87, 88, 94, 96, 98, 110, 141, 144, 167, 219, 228 postcolonial studies, 46 Prakash, Gyan, 6, 13, 158, 261 Prashad, Vijay, 53, 183 Premchand, Munshi, 233 progress: Chamar modernity and, 120; historicism, modernisation and social race for, 7–13; social relations and caste, 202


Retro-modern India

provincialism, 15, 16 Puranas, 155, 156, 158, 163, 168 qasba, 20, 58 Rajbhar communities, 28, 124 Raj Ghat Trust, 61 Rajputs, 25 Ramayana, 131, 163, 164 Ram, Jagjivan, 61, 181, 194 Ram, Kanshi, 179, 198 Rancière, Jacques, 260 Rao, Anupama, 32, 215, 223 Ravidas Katha, 164 Ravidas movement, 61 Ravidas, Saint, 143, 146, 152, 202 Ravidas’s jayanti, (birthday), 1 razil (labouring people), 58, 73, 220, 221 Reay, Diane, 217 reconstituted identities, of Chamars, 201–4 reform: gender, 215; Hindu revivalism and, 91; socio-economic, 10; through Sanskritisation, 152 Republican Party of India (RPI), 178, 183 retro-modernity, 35, 38, 51, 175, 212, 218, 250, 251, 255 rickshaw pullers, 76 Robb, Peter, 48 Rofel, Lisa, 6, 18 Round Table Conference, 203 Roy, Tirthankar, 94, 95 RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), 161 Rudolph, Lloyd I., 21, 54 Rudolph, Susanne H., 21, 54 Samajwadi Party (SP), 182 Sanskritisation, 12, 55, 232

Saraswati Puja, 135 saris: fashionable designs and colours for, 107; hand-woven, 92; produced by Chamar weavers, 84; production of silk, 80; woven by bani weavers, 107 ‘sartorial boundaries’, 233 sarv samaj, 182, 201 sati (self-immolation), 226 Satnamis, of central India, 123 Satyanarayan Katha, 50, 149, 150, 163, 164, 165, 166, 207; Chamar interpretation of, 166, 207; for reestablishing moral order, 163–66. See also Ravidas Katha Scheduled Caste Federation of Agra, 178 Scheduled Castes (SCs), 1, 9; conversion to other religion, 154; economy and religious identity of, 89; legal provision of reservations for, 31; political shift from Congress party to BSP, 183, 191–201 science: cultural authority of, 158, 168; low-caste myths, 148; past between myth and, 155; relationship between indigenous knowledge and, 259 Searle-Chatterjee, Mary, 25, 54, 60, 62, 100, 151, 152, 153, 154 Seer Govardhanpur, 1, 61 Sevasadan, by Munshi Premchand, 233 sharif (upper castes and high-status Muslims), 58, 73 Shudra castes, 92, 143 Singh, Jagpal, 183 Singh, V. P., 181n, 196, 197 Sivaramakrishnan, Kalyanakrishnan, 7, 17, 22, 32 Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle), 250


Spencer, Jonathan, 33 spirit possession, 158–63; beliefs and practices, 167; beliefs in ghosts (bhut-pret), 71, 159 Srinivas, M. N., 45, 152 State Development Report, 23, 24, 26 Street, Brian, 129 Sunder Rajan, Rajeswari, 214, 222 superstition, 148, 158, 159, 160, 162, 163, 167, 168 sweepers, in north India, 141, 151 Tarlo, Emma, 233 Taylor, Charles, 256 Temple Entry Movement, 62 Thompson, E. P., 110, 111 Tij festival, 149 time, experience of temporality, 10, 120, 253, 254 tradition: Bhakti, 60; high-caste, 39, 40, 41; and modernity, 40 untouchability: against Chamars, 185, 186; and Dalit identity, 122; by Hindu landlords, 104; State policy, 5, 30, 173; practices, 3; Gandhi’s fight against, 60 untouchables, 1, 6; agricultural labourers and sharecroppers, 78; community of sweepers in north India, 141, 151; disbelief in karma and rebirth, 141; and dominant Hindu culture, 44; identity vis-àvis other Indian castes, 8; influence of Arya Samaj on, 55; nexus between sacred and secular, 147 upper-caste: Chamar’s struggle for rights, 41; community, 41, 69; dominance of, 196; gender roles, 219; landlords, 6, 74, 86, 131; lifestyle, 137; Sanskritisation, 12


Uttar Pradesh: Adi Hindu Movement in, 157; average growth, 23; poverty indicators, 23 Varanasi, 20, 24n, 25n, 26n, 28, 62, 64n, 75, 83n, 130, 202; colonial urban economy, 53; Dalit and Muslim weavers in, 83; Kurmis in, 57; landless workers in, 58. See also Banaras varnashramadharma doctrine, 143 Vedas, 163 Vedic Hinduism, 158 Vicziany, Marika, 32, 46, 68, 74, 78, 177 village local politics, at home, 188–91 Walsh, Judith E., 223 weavers: caste identity, 83; manifestations of local entrepreneurship in, 101–4; women, 98 weaving: Banaras silk industry, 89–92; of Chamars, 73; changing roles within industry, 99–101; girhast (master weaver), 82; ‘golden age’ and capitalist global modernity, 108–15; Hindu–Muslim working relations, 29, 73, 86, 88, 89; identity-hardening processes within colonial modernity vs softening powers of traditional industry, 85–89; inter-caste and inter-religious relations in political economy of Banaras, 81; laws of bazaar in, 104–8; ‘political– economic’ and ‘cultural’, 82–85; ‘putting-out’ identities and commodities, 93–99; recruitment times, 92–93; vyapari (trader), 25, 89, 99, 105, 106, 107; worker– employer relationship, 95


Retro-modern India

Weidman, Amanda J., 40 White Tiger (Aravind Adiga), 250 women: bourgeois, 212, 219, 225, 226, 244, 257; conjugal relations, 219; elite and subaltern, 213–18; historical and anthropological, 218–24; kinds of, 218; in postcolonial India, 213. See also Chamar women

Yadav communities, 27, 28, 68, 124, 132, 156, 177, 178, 195 Yadav, Yogendra, 32, 50, 176 Zamindari Abolition Act, 72 zamindar, 59, 67, 69, 70, 79 zamindari system, 57; abolition of, 72, 73 Zelliot, Eleanor, 31, 177, 179, 180, 203