The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India

The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India

The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India

The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India

Synopsis

This innovative work of historical anthropology explores how India's Dalits, or ex-untouchables, transformed themselves from stigmatized subjects into citizens. Anupama Rao's account challenges standard thinking on caste as either a vestige of precolonial society or an artifact of colonial governance. Focusing on western India in the colonial and postcolonial periods, she shines a light on South Asian historiography and on ongoing caste discrimination, to show how persons without rights came to possess them and how Dalit struggles led to the transformation of such terms of colonial liberalism as rights, equality, and personhood. Extending into the present, the ethnographic analyses of The Caste Question reveal the dynamics of an Indian democracy distinguished not by overcoming caste, but by new forms of violence and new means of regulating caste.

Excerpt

This book tells the story of how untouchables became Dalits. It is an account of how the stigma of being “untouchable” was redefined as an identity about historically specific forms of suffering and exclusion, and of how this identity eventually became politically powerful. It is also a story about the reorganization of caste under political modernity. The Caste Question thus addresses the constitutive relationship between Dalit emancipation and Indian democracy.

Dalit emancipation is an unfinished project, initially conceived by the Mahar Dalits of Bombay Presidency who challenged both colonial and nationalist ideas of personhood and political subjectivity in fundamental ways. Their struggle for rights and social recognition utilized diverse strategies, ranging from the demand for separate political representation to conversion to Buddhism. These strategies produced the Dalit as a specific political subject, a non-Hindu, a political minority, and finally, as a suffering subject who required state protection. Efforts to redress complex cultural forms of discrimination thus produced a unique set of religiopolitical resolutions to the problem of Dalit suffering. The signal efforts of a key figure, the political thinker and activist Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956), were critical in resignifying a political universal, equality, as caste equality.

The history of Indian democracy is thus inseparable from the politics of caste and from the activism of anticaste radicals who struggled to render caste, a culturally and historically specific form of embodiment, uni-

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