The Culturalization of Caste in India: Identity and Inequality in a Multicultural Age

The Culturalization of Caste in India: Identity and Inequality in a Multicultural Age

The Culturalization of Caste in India: Identity and Inequality in a Multicultural Age

The Culturalization of Caste in India: Identity and Inequality in a Multicultural Age


In India, caste groups ensure their durability in an era of multiculturalism by officially representing caste as cultural difference or ethnicity rather than as unequal descent-based relations. Challenging dominant social theories of caste, this book addresses questions of how caste survives the system that gave rise to it and adapts to new demands of capitalism and democracy.

Based on original fieldwork, the book shows how the terrain of culture captured by a new grammar of caste revitalizes castes as cultural communities so that the culture of a caste is produced, organized and naturalized in the process of transforming jati (fetishized blood and kinship) into samaj (fetishized culture). Castes are shown to not be homogenous cultural wholes but sites of hegemony where class, gender and hierarchy over-determine the meanings and materiality of caste.

Arguing that there exists a new casteism in India akin to a new racism in the USA, built less on biology and descent and more on purported cultural differences and their rights to exist, the book presents an extended critique and a search for an alternative view of caste and anti-casteist politics. It is of interest to students and scholars of South Asian culture and society.


In the now classic film Sugar Cane Alley, Medouze, an elderly sugarcane worker, tells José, a young boy growing up in the French colony of Martinique in the 1930s, about the changes that the official abolition of slavery in 1848 had brought upon his life. His memorable words, “we were free but our bellies were empty; the Master had become the Boss …”, are telling testimony of subaltern consciousness. For me, introduced to the film in the early 1990s by a trio of Medouze-like men – radical African American schoolteachers from the inner cities of the US with long experience of raising questions of race within largely white urban communist formations – meant a long immersion into the problematic of race and gender through the “entry points” of class, capital and colonialism on the one hand, and the redemptive and repressive powers of “culture” on the other. Medouze helped me attend to two facts of change and continuity – that capitalism incorporates earlier forms of domination and exploitation, and that racism changes its form to adapt to capitalist conditions – and that both of these are culturally available in subaltern consciousness.

The above conversations turned from time to time to the survival of caste and casteism in India and I found myself grappling with a response to the question: What has happened to caste in India under conditions of capitalist modernity? This book, which is an attempt to construct my response to that question, is very much influenced by the above conversations in / from the Americas about how ideas of “supremacy” and “difference,” key factors in the development of capitalism, are (re)generated through discourse around genes (as genealogy, descent, or “race”), gender and culture. Moreover, it is written from a perspective that “race” and “caste” are indeed conjoined cousins (sharing ancestry rather than parentage; both socially constructed and deserving of the quotes around them, both more resilient to changing social formations than conventionally imagined), or to use that delightful, now-globalized Thai phrase, “same-same but different.”

An early working title for this book, Caste Culture: A Left Critique of Liberal Bourgeois Anti-Casteist Discourse, was meant to convey the fact that this book emerges from a dissatisfaction with current dominant scholarly, official and some popular discourses about caste that were all self-consciously claiming to be “anti-casteist,” although the content of that term was itself left vaguely . . .

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