Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

'In the Past We Were a Bit "Chamar"': Education as a Self- and Community Engineering Process in Northern India./« Avant, Nous Etions Un Peu 'Chamar' » : L'education En Tant Que Processus De Creation De Soi et De la Communaute Dans le Nord De l'Inde

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

'In the Past We Were a Bit "Chamar"': Education as a Self- and Community Engineering Process in Northern India./« Avant, Nous Etions Un Peu 'Chamar' » : L'education En Tant Que Processus De Creation De Soi et De la Communaute Dans le Nord De l'Inde

Article excerpt

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, but this belief does not seem to find an echo amongst a community of Chamars, living in the village of Manupur in the large northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Manupur Chamars tend to see things differently. When they speak about their own community and society at large, their conversations are replete with words like sudhar (improvement, social reform) and vikas (development). This terminology refers to an idea of progress--more certainly social than material--and suggests a different picture from the degradation implicit in the Kali Yuga.

The Chamar evolutionist view of time, expressed by underlying ideas of reform and progress, points to the way in which informants value the present over the past. (1) Formal education lies at the heart of this dichotomy. Significantly, Manupur is situated in the outskirts of the city of Banaras, (2) a place renowned for Hindu religion as well as for education and learning, with three famous universities attended by students from all over India as well as by Manupur Chamars. The Chamars are the largest caste community amongst Dalits, spreading, under different names and subcastes, through most of northern and central India. Historically associated with impure activities such as leatherwork and the removing of dead animals--these occupations implying defilement, immorality, and lowliness--they often work as landless agricultural and manual labourers. As a result of their social origins, formal education has largely eluded them until, a few decades ago, they began gradually to enter educational institutions at all levels. Out of many Dalit communities in northern India, the Chamars are generally recognized as one of the most advanced in terms of educational credentials, and the numbers of government jobs by virtue of reserved quota destined to them by a policy of positive discrimination.

In everyday interaction in India, education as a civilizing 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, e.g., Balagopalan & Subrahmanian 2003; Subrahmanian 2003), and they have focused on education as an increasingly politicized resource against the backdrop of its commodification (Chopra & 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 to obtain employment through education has grown strong amongst the young generations. 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 & Jeffery 2004).

These findings certainly have a resonance amongst Manupur Chamars. During fieldwork I realized how discourses on formal education had penetrated intimate dimensions of social life. (3) In this article, 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.

Education is viewed by Manupur 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 Chamar substance. The latter carries derogatory characteristics, historically assigned to the Chamars as a result of their association with ritual pollution. …

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