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Life at the Bottom

Life at the Bottom The Untouchables: Subordination, Poverty and the State in Modern India by Oliver Mendelsohn and Marika Vicziany; Cambridge University Press, published in India by Foundation Books, New Delhi; Indian paperback edition, 2000.

Oliver Mendelsohn and Marika Vicziany began their work in the late 1970s, hoping to investigate the increasing violence against untouchables in the Indian countryside. But very soon it became obvious to them that the particular instances of ‘harijan atrocity’ under study were situated within the larger problematics of subordination and poverty in modern India. And among the many communities that could be classified as subordinated and poor, they found that the untouchables constitute an analytically and experientially distinct, not to mention extraordinarily numerous, grouping. The original research project, centred on the victims of agrarian violence in the northern state of Bihar, thus expanded and deepened into a benchmark study of India’s 150 million untouchables in the 20th century.

This book is essentially a compilation of large amounts of heterogeneous data on untouchables and untouchability, along with a minimal explanatory gloss. The authors use diverse methods to compile and present their data: ethnography, field interviews, archival research, biographical sketches, government records, statistics and other documentation. Within a framework that we might best describe as that of political science, this book calls to mind the work of others who have written about violence, subordination and, more specifically, the untouchables, without actually referencing these authors. In my review I have put the book into conversation with the writings of some of those who seem to me to be most strongly interpellated. I have undertaken this exercise to illustrate the purpose that The Untouchables is most likely to serve for students of social science: it will act primarily as a source of field and archival data. Using this raw information, it will become possible to better ground second-order social, cultural and political analysis, as well as engage existing theories and critiques of the meaning of untouchability in India.

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