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WOMEN 48-49


The forgotten thesis

Abhijit Guha

A century has passed since Dr BR Ambedkar (1891-1956) wrote a perceptive article on caste. It is shameful that the original of this article remained unnoticed in  academic discourses on caste. The  distinguished French anthropologist Louis Dumont (1911-1998) in his book, Homo Hierachicus (1966), viewed caste as the typical expression of the Indian mind and culture in which hierarchy and inequality were deemed to be natural. This ran counter to the modern western notion of equality and democracy. The anti-Dumont scholars like the American anthropologist Mckim Marriott  gave more emphasis on the local and regional variations in caste perceptions. In the 1950s, the noted Indian sociologist, MN Srinivas, propounded a theory of social mobility within the caste system through a process which he termed ‘Sanskritization’. Earlier, the famous Bengali anthropologist who was at one time the personal secretary of Mahatma Gandhi proposed a theory of ‘Hindu Method of Tribal Absorption’. The Marxist scholars, on the other hand, viewed the caste system as a kind of class formation.

An interesting feature of these discourses is the absence of the contributions of one of the most original thinkers on the caste system. He was none other than  Ambedkar, who was not only a scholar but was also one of the greatest policy makers of Independent India. His views on caste were also neglected in the anthropology and sociology curricula in Indian universities and colleges. Ambedkar is still a nobody in the anthropology syllabi in the midst of his 125th centenary grandstanding all over the country. The students of anthropology, sociology, history and political science are familiar with such distinguished brains as Louis Dumont, HH Risely, JH Hutton, LSS O’Malley, GS Ghurye, DD Kosambi, Nirmal Kumar Bose, Ramkrishna Mukherjee, MN Srinivas, Surajit Sinha, Andre Beteille, Rajni Kothari, Mckim Marriott, Ronald Inden, Bernard Cohn, Nicholas Dirks, and Romila Thapar...  but not about BR Ambedkar. He has been regarded only as a leader of the Dalits and one of those who framed the Constitution. However, he was not given the status of a scholar in the  discourses  conducted  by social scientists. GS Ghurye, who had introduced the discipline of sociology, in his famous book Caste and Class in India (1957) mentioned the name of Ambedkar only once on page 226 and that too as 'the leader of the Scheduled Castes’ although he discussed the importance of endogamy (marriage within a social group) in  analysing the cast system, which was first pointed out by Ambedkar in his 1916 essay.

Neither Indian  nor Western anthropologists nor for that matter social scientists gave academic importance to Ambedkar’s views on caste. Ironically,  he remained an untouchable to the higher castes and European  discourses on caste in India. As early as 1916, he had made a novel attempt to explain the caste system in a presentation  at an anthropology seminar convened by Dr Alexander Goldenweizer (1880-1940) at Columbia University on 9 May 1916.

Ambedkar was then 25  and a doctoral student. His paper was titled Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development. It was a  pure and detached academic exercise on the nature of the caste system in India and there was no comment on the personal experiences of the  writer. The text of this paper was first printed in: Indian Antiquary Vol. XLI (May 1917) and then long after in Vol. I of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches (1979), edited by Vasant Moon and published by the education department of the Government of Maharastra, It was an erudite presentation on the existing anthropological and sociological literature on caste. The style was as lucid as it was argumentative. In the first part of the paper, Ambedkar dealt with the works of four famous scholars like Emile Senart (1847-1928), John Nesfield (1836-1919), SV Ketkar (1884-1937) and HH Risley (1851-1911) and without being biased towards these well-known authorities, he pointed out the shortcomings of all these scholars in understanding the essential feature of the caste system. But his method of criticism was quite interesting. While criticising the authorities, Ambedkar noted the positive aspects of their contributions.

It is important to review these definitions. Viewed separately, the definitions of three of the writers include too much or too little: they are neither complete nor correct. They  have missed the central point in the dynamics of the caste system. Their shortcoming lies in trying to define caste as an isolated unit by itself, and not as a group within, and with a definite relationship with  the system of caste as a whole. Yet collectively all of them are complementary to one another, each emphasizing what has been obscured in the other. [Ambedkar (1917): 1979:7].

Looking at caste as a system in which each jati is part of the whole was definitely a step forward in social and cultural anthropology as early as 1917 and Ambedkar was not ready to accept caste as a system of ‘division of labour’ which minimised competition among occupational groups. For him the system is a division among the labouring classes rather than division of labour. A closer reading of this article reveals that  Ambedkar used the Morganian social evolutionary methodology to approach the basic principle behind the caste system. He observed that marriage outside one’s own immediate kin-group ~ represented through clan exogamy ~ was the fundamental and universal feature of human society and in India the state of ‘tribal exogamy’  has survived  whereas in the modern world there is no such system.

To quote from the original, with the evolution of history exogamy has lost its efficacy, and barring the nearest blood-kin, there is usually no social bar that restricts the choice of the bride or groom. But in  India, the law of exogamy is a positive injunction even today. Society still clings onto the clan system, even though there are no clans. This is evident in the law of matrimony which centres  around the principle of exogamy. Not that Sapindas (blood-kin) cannot marry, but a marriage within the same gotra is regarded as sacrilege.

This is the logical foundation on which Ambedkar advanced his arguments to elucidate the caste system. He cogently argued that since in India exogamy was the stronger rule, endogamy has been an alien concept in the  country. Then how was the caste system so entrenched in India? The manner in which Ambedkar addressed this anomaly is the most interesting part of the original paper. Before going into the details I would quote him again:

“Nothing is therefore more important for you to remember than the fact that endogamy is foreign to the people of India. The various  gotras are and have been exogamous: so are the other groups with totemic organisation. It is no exaggeration to say that with the people of India, exogamy is a creed and none dare infringe it, so much so that, in spite of the endogamy of the castes within them, exogamy is strictly observed and that there are more rigorous penalties for violating exogamy than there are for violating endogamy…Consequently in the final analysis creation of castes, so far as India is concerned, means the superposition of endogamy on exogamy”.

Additionally, Ambedkar explained  that since the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas were the most privileged classes, they began to “enclose” themselves to safeguard their privileges. Later, other groups also emulated the higher classes and the system spread over regions.

The writer is retired Professor, Dept of Anthropology, Vidyasagar University

The forgotten thesis -- II

Abhijit Guha

Classes in India preceded castes, which, according to Ambedkar were enclosed classes characterised by endogamy. He wrote -- “We shall be well advised to recall at the outset that the Hindu society, in common with other societies, was composed of classes and the earliest known are (1) the Brahmins or the priestly class; (2) the Kshatriya, or the military class; (3) the Vaishya, or the merchant class; and (4) the Shudra, or the artisan and menial class. Particular attention has to be paid to the fact that this was essentially a class system, in which individuals, when qualified, could change their class, and therefore classes did change their personnel. At some time in the history of the Hindus, the priestly class socially detached itself from the rest of the people and through a closed-door policy became a caste by itself. The other classes being subject to the law of social division of labour underwent differentiation, some into large, others into very minute, groups

Why did these sub-divisions or classes, industrial, religious or otherwise, become “self-enclosed” or endogamous? Endogamy or the closed-door system was integral to Hindu society, and as it had originated from the Brahmin caste it was whole-heartedly imitated by all the non-Brahmin sub-divisions or classes, who, in their turn, became endogamous castes. It is “the infection of imitation” that influenced all these sub-divisions on their onward march of differentiation and has turned them into castes.

Starting from a fundamental anthropological finding of tribal clan exogamy, Ambedkar had been able to show how caste endogamy was superimposed on the former. Secondly, his exposition of caste as an extreme form of class system as early as 1917 was also exemplary and this work of Ambedkar was never mentioned or referred to by the internationally renowned scholars on caste in India.

In his Economic Weekly article ‘Class and Caste’ published in 1965 (Vol. 17, Issue 35). Nirmal Kumar Bose admitted that caste can be regarded as a form of class in which the Brahminical classes tried to reserve their privileges in society. Bose did not mention that Ambedkar in his seminal paper in the anthropology seminar had already observed this fact nearly 50 years ago. Bose also missed the point that the reservation of privileges in the caste system was ensured through endogamy, a fact observed perceptively by Ambedkar. Bose in fact was highly biased towards the hegemony of the caste system which he tried to profess through his articles on ‘Hindu Method of tribal absorption’ (1941) and ‘Caste in India’ (1951). His idea was first proposed in a paper at the Indian Science Congress in 1941. His theory was based on his short field trips among the Juang tribal community of the Pal Lahara region of Odisha.

The essence of the theory was that the tribals, who had come in contact with their powerful caste Hindu neighbours, gradually lost their own tribal identity and were given a low caste status within the Hindu fold. This idea became very popular and acceptable among the mainstream Indian anthropologists and Bose’s paper turned into a compulsory text in the curriculum of Indian anthropology. There was hardly any review focused on the Juang area to recheck Bose’s proposition and the idea influenced Indian anthropologists for generations. The university and college students of India who studied anthropology were taught the theory of ‘Hindu Method of Tribal Absorption’ as an established sociological fact.

NK Bose published three consecutive papers in 1928, 1929 and 1930 on Juangs in Man in India. These were later reprinted in his book Cultural Anthropology and other essays based on his short fieldwork in Odisha. Unlike the 1941 paper, all these three articles contained some hard ethnographic data and no theoretical formulation was attempted by Bose. After twelve years, he brought back his Juang field data in the famous paper on Hindu method of tribal absorption with a fresh vigour but his exposition in the 1941 paper seemed to lack logical consistency. I will first quote from Bose’s own account and then point out the inconsistencies.

The significant fact is that the Juangs had started worshipping a Hindu goddess, although it was done in their own way. The bath in the morning, the offerings of sun-dried rice, the terms satya, devata, dharma, all prove how strongly Juang religious ceremonies have been influenced by those of the neighbouring Brahminical people. In nearly all respects, the Juangs are a tribe living outside the pale of Hinduism. They have their own language, which belongs to the Mundari group. No Brahmin or Vaishnava priest serves them; and they perform their marriage and funeral customs all by themselves. They eat beef and carrion, and are not considered by the Hindus to be one of the Hindu castes. Yet there is clear indication that Hindu religious ideas penetrated into their culture. The Juangs seem to be losing pride in their own culture and are adopting Hindu culture.

Bose’s thesis was highly selective because he excluded all the non-Hindu customs, viz. eating of the rice balls by the two black cocks and their subsequent sacrifice and prayers made by the Juangs to their supreme indigenous gods in the 1953 paper.

Secondly, again in the 1953 paper he reported that the Juangs were not considered by the Hindus to be ‘one of the Hindu castes’. How then the Juangs were absorbed by the Hindus?

Bose himself admitted that the Juangs maintained their own ethnic identity but he at the same time stated that ‘the Juang seem to be losing pride in their own culture and are adopting Hindu culture with a certain amount of avidity’ which appeared to be contradictory. If the Juangs were worshipping the Hindu goddess ‘in their own way’ and retained their own customs and were not accepted by the caste Hindus to be one of the Hindu castes, then how were the Juangs being absorbed in the Hindu order?

Both Bose and Ambedkar had their own ideas about the origin of caste which were scarcely by western anthropologists and sociologists. While Ambedkar emphasised that the endogamy of caste was superimposed on tribal exogamy, Bose attempted to view caste as a superior socioeconomic system, which could absorb the less powerful tribal society.

Ambedkar’s method seemed to be better-knit theoretically than Bose’s and the former maintained a kind of academic detachment from his painful personal experience while presenting the seminar paper on caste at Columbia University. Bose on the other hand seemed to be less consistent methodologically and had certain simplistic biases which ultimately led him to ignore his own empirical findings. It is time that the original contributions of Dr BR Ambedkar are recognized in the pedagogy of the social sciences in India to pay proper tribute to this great man on his 125th birth anniversary.


Original thought - Demonetization is heralding a fundamental shift for the BJP

Swapan Dasgupta

The finance minister, Arun Jaitley, was entirely right to stress the significant improvement in the government's revenue collections in recent weeks as a pointer to the fact that the so-called calamitous effects of the November 8 demonetization have been overstated. However, while the full impact of Narendra Modi's audacious ethical cleansing is yet to be fully grasped, either by economists or other policy makers, it is clear that demonetization looks set to have a profound effect on the politics of India, at least in the short and medium term.

There are some interesting straws in the wind. The Opposition parties, particularly the Congress and the Trinamul Congress of Mamata Banerjee, for example, have not lowered the tempo of their anti-demonetization campaigns. They have convinced themselves (or so it would seem) that there is considerable political mileage to be gained by tapping into the dissatisfaction of groups or individuals who have been either inconvenienced or even devastated by the attack on the cash economy. Both Rahul Gandhi and Banerjee appear to genuinely feel that demonetization is a monumental misstep by Modi, and that it has opened a big window of opportunity for the anti-Modi forces. They have also been egged on by a big section of the media and the intelligentsia, who have other scores to settle with the prime minister and, consequently, see the attack on demonetization as a stick to beat him with.

Whether demonetization is as popular as the Bharatiya Janata Party claimed in its national executive meeting last week or a good idea marred by incompetent implementation, as some people insist, is a debate that will not be easily settled in the foreseeable future. However, a spate of local polls has thrown up results that could be interpreted positively by the prime minister.

The most interesting of these are centred on urban India. The BJP registered resounding victories in municipal elections in the mid-sized towns of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. These victories were supplemented by big victories in the Union territory of Chandigarh and the industrial town of Faridabad (Haryana) on the outskirts of Delhi.

It may well be argued that municipal polls are fought over local civic issues and grave issues of national importance are inconsequential in determining voter preference. In normal times, such a narrative is appropriate. The question is: was demonetization a normal, run-of-the-mill government decision?

Judging by media reports, anecdotal evidence and the political noise it generated, demonetization was anything but mundane. Rarely has an issue touched (and affected) the daily life of every Indian in such a profound way. Every Indian, however high or low, has a demonetization story to tell.

The sheer magnitude of Modi's November 8 decision prompts an obvious conclusion. Even if we assume that all those who supported the decision, either passively or more vocally, need not necessarily have voted for the BJP in a set of local elections, there is also a converse logic. If the move was extremely unpopular, either in conception or implementation, and left communities economically distraught or devastated, it would follow that such communities and individuals would have clubbed together to vote determinedly against the BJP. This would certainly have been the case in a city such as Chandigarh, which has a high percentage of government servants, traders and retired folk. It would have been more the case in a town such as Faridabad, which has a large presence of manufacturing units of different sizes and a very large working class. It is also the case that both Chandigarh and Faridabad, while having a presence of the saffron party, have never been BJP strongholds.

In both places, the BJP won decisively, defeating the Congress - the party that campaigned aggressively against demonetization.

The results pose curious questions. The few available quantitative studies of the effects of demonetization suggest that the small-scale units, particularly those in the twilight zone between the organized and the informal sectors, have been very hard hit. My personal conversations with BJP functionaries revealed that the traders in market towns, who have been traditional BJP supporters, have also been very hard hit. It has been suggested that many of them feel utterly betrayed.

On the other hand, the support for demonetization has come from two quarters. First, there is a section of the salaried middle classes that, despite not being totally conversant with the joys of low-cash existence, is happy that the entire expansion has resulted in that section, which avoided paying tax altogether, being dragged into the tax net. Secondly, there are those on the margins of the poverty line that are overjoyed at the discomfiture of tax-evading fat cats. For them, demonetization has about the same meaning as Indira Gandhi's anti-rich, socialist measures of the 1970s.

If we assume that a section of the BJP's traditional supporters in the places where municipal polls were held shied away from supporting the party, it implies that newer voters must have rallied behind Modi. This, in turn, raises an interesting possibility: has demonetization changed the nature of support for the BJP and made the party more acceptable to those lower down the income ladder? The BJP was always a party that epitomized middle-class (defined in the broadest sense) aspirations and values. Has it now managed to percolate downwards in the economic ladder? If so, it is a development of huge consequence. Over the years, the BJP has quite consciously reinvented itself as a party of a large chunk of the other backward classes. If this is now combined with significant support from the poor- a traditional bastion of the Congress - it would suggest that Modi and the BJP president, Amit Shah, are on the verge of forging a dramatic socio-political realignment.

The suggestion isn't necessarily fanciful. Those reading or listening to the prime minister's recent speeches endorsing demonetization may be struck by the frequency with which he couples his invocation of modernity with concern for India's poor. Commentators have indeed been struck by the apparent similarity between Modi's recent speeches and Indira Gandhi's rhetoric between the Congress split of 1969 and the general election of 1971 when she won a resounding victory.

The circumstances and the controversies may be very different. But there is one arena where comparisons may be warranted. Between 1969, when she split the party, and the 1971 general elections, Indira Gandhi adopted ' Garibi Hatao' as her plank. Her turn to the left was, however, expedient. She used it for two ends. First, to rejig the Congress leadership and throw out those leaders with independent bases. Secondly, it enabled her to rejuvenate the Congress's social coalition and supplement its traditional upper caste, Dalit and minority votes with an overarching constituency of the poor.

Apart from its ethical cleansing role, Modi's demonetization programme appears to be heralding a fundamental social change for the BJP. With the leading Opposition parties determined to forge a grand alliance against him, Modi has little alternative but to enlarge the BJP's social base. Good governance can win the party brownie points. However, as the 2004 elections showed, it is by no means sufficient to add votes to the kitty. Emotional appeal based on aggregative identity is a possibility, but it has damaging social ramifications. Mobilizing the poor to supplement the party's middle class core seems to be Modi's preferred approach.

This doesn't make him socialist. At its core, the Modi agenda remains economic modernity and State efficiency. His strategies of political mobilization are, however, whether by design or accidentally, more innovative.


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