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Confronting Untouchability

Untouchability in Rural India edited by Ghanshyam Shah et al;

Economic & Political Weekly EPW july 12, 200831book reviewConfronting Untouchabilitygopal guru Untouchability in Rural Indiaedited by Ghanshyam Shahet al; Sage Publication, 2006; pp 216, Rs 295 (Paperback).In the contemporary social and schol-arly imagination in India, there are a range of responses that are offered in respect of the question of caste and un-touchability. Thus, there are scholars who obliquely suggest that caste is a rumour and untouchability has become irrelevant in India. While the other kind of reaction is rather moderate inasmuch as it suggests that caste and untouchability have not dis-appeared but have changed their nature. It could be argued that those who tend to refuse the very existence of caste suffer from the guilty feeling or the sense of embarrassment that this social malaise causes to such people. On the other hand, there are those who take an objective view of these social phenomena and hence argue that caste and untouchability could not be wished away; it is there and exists but in a milder form. However, the volume under review takes a different and perhaps right view that untouchability as a totality of social reality still exists in its pernicious form. It takes a more obnoxious form both in terms of time and space. The volume records at several places that the untouchables exist only in frag-mented time while the upper caste exist in “prime time”. Dalits in some villages have to offer priority to upper castes in terms of occupying public space. This observationof the volume is further con-firmed by the more recentexamplesfrom the southern and the western parts of India. The example of a Tamil village where the upper castes raised the real wall of separation between the “toucha-bles” and the “untouchables” provesthe central concern of the volume. A similar wall of separation is reported to have been built in a village in Satara district of Maharashtra. Ironically both these re-gions have experienced radical anti-caste mobilisation by the non-brahmin castes, which are in the forefront in practising untouchability. It is for this reason, the volume acquires importance.The subsequent reports that keep ap-pearing in various kinds of media unfor-tunately confirms that the volume is not looking for the caste and untouchability practices; in fact it is confronting them. Hence, the volume surely succeeds in shaking the “castes of mind” from their convenient understanding that there is no untouchability and that caste is a rumour in India. The volume acquires significance for other reasons in that it tries success-fully to lay out the enormity of the prob-lem both in terms of intensity and magni-tude. It shows that Indian society (at least the rural component) continues to perme-ate the caste system and untouchability. This looks methodologically more con-vincing than the ethnographic perspective on the problem. In an ethnographic study the reality gets localised with specificity and does not lead us to know the patterns that are inherent in the social problem un-der consideration. Thus, the volume to my mind shifts the focus from authenticity to universality, assigning the height to the inquiry into untouchability. The volume under review also acquires importance for another reason. It calls into question the efficacy of public institutions like the social justice ministry and more pertinently the commissioner for scheduled castes (p 15) that are supposed to update our thinking about social problems both for social auditing as well as improving, tightening and revitalising the policy regime to address the question of untouchability much more meaningfully and effectively. These insti-tutions are supposed to provide back-ground material both for public appreciation of the social and institutional segments of society that have stopped practising untouchability and put those segments to severe public scrutiny if they have failed in this regard. However, the volume shows that it is not only the large part of rural society that practises the most heinous forms of untouchability but also public in-stitutions which harbour such practises. The study of 565 villages from 11 states is an attempt to prepare the register of the practice of untouchability in rural India. The volume suggests that the team of researchers have collected data based on different methods that consisted of structured questionnaires, case studies and available secondary literature. The chapter on dalit women makes a much desired reference to triple discrimination that the former are forced to undergo at the instance of the “social patriarchy”. Takingacue from the volume one could define social patriarchy as an ideology which suggests upper caste women in collaboration with upper caste men in thepractice of untouchability against dalit women. Dalit women are forced to per-form the jobs that are considered pollut-ing. They have to face multiple forms of discrimination that express their margin-alisation to the level where they virtually become part of the dirt associated with their occupation. The volume covers this ontological link between dirt and the human being in the chapter on “unclean occupation”. The volume also talks about the relationship betweenviolence,caste and the practise of untouchability. There is a chapter on dalit women, ‘Denial and Discrimination: How Does Untouchability Play a Role in Foregrounding Denial’. Narratives of ResistanceThe most important aspect of the volume is that it offers to us narratives of resist-ance put up by those who are forced to endure different kinds of indignities and situations leading to humiliation. The volume has used boxes that are normally useful in inviting focused attention, on the dalit struggle against untouchability. The heroic struggle led by the dalit youth from Dhediya Vabsajda village from Gujarat, for example, bears this out (p 156). The dalit used reverse social boycotts against the upper castes and forced the latter to accept a dalit woman Senama as their
BOOK REVIEWjuly 12, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly32sarpanch. The volume proves beyond doubt that the dalits have learnt the use of radical language in order to establish their right to dignity and equal concern. However, the volume seems to be warranting our attention to points out of which one is substantial and the other one is relatively minor. First, the volume admits that the selection of the sample villages is influenced by the presence of the NGO Action Aid in those villages (p 49). As a matter of convenience, there is nothing wrong in se-lecting such villages as it can save time and energy. But this gain for pragmatic reasons results in losing sight of those villages not covered in the sample simply because of the absence of a NGO. For example, it would have been absolutely fascinating to study those villages, such as the single caste vil-lages in Kumaon region in Uttarakhand where mostly upper caste villagers, reside, dalit villages (satnamis)inChhattisgarh and Borivillage in Tulzapur taluka in Osmanabad district of Maharashtra.These villages would have elevated the problem from mere descriptive empiricism to the phenomenological level of understanding. In such an understanding, it is not always necessary to have socially hierarchised vil-lages, in fact untouchability gets perceived both in terms of time and space. Since the volume is based on the study of multi-caste villages, such an exercise has been completely ruled out from the inte-llectual ambit. Secondly,the volume does not seem to define what is a village. In anthropological and sociological literature different schol-ars have defined “the village” for us. Even the state offers an administrative defini-tion of village which luckily includes seg-regated localities of dalits. But that is the definition from above. There is also a defi-nition of village that exists in the under-standing of the dominant castes. In this perception, dalits do not constitute a part of the village. There are fixed boundaries within “the castes of mind”. Third, the volume claims that it has followed a dalit perspective in addressing the question of untouchability. However, the volume no-where spells out the perspective. Does one have to believe that the perspective is integral to those social groups which are ontologically linked to the problem of un-touchability? In other words, does the vol-ume suggest that the perspective becomes available at the intuitional level? These are some of the problems, which to my mind are substantive in nature. Finally, the volume intends to draw other concepts like discrimination, exclusion and exploitation and humiliation into what Charles Taylor calls “hermeneutic circle” of which untouchability serves as the anchor concept. The study under-standably uses market as a context for establishing relationship of the concept of untouchability with other concepts such as discrimination and exclusion. Discrimination according to the volume takes place in the differential and arbi-trary (based on caste) distribution of wages. This claim, in certain cases or even in most of the cases, could be true. But the contrary could also be true that enlightened and progressive rich farmers pay more wages to dalit women than the upper caste women. Moreover, what connects untouchability to discrimination is not only wages but the
BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW july 12, 200833Mine Now, Mine Forever?Manshi AsherCaterpillar and the Mahua Flower: Tremors in India’s Mining Fields editedby Rakesh Kalshian; Panos, New Delhi, 2007; pp 207, Rs 150.According toRich Lands, Poor People: Is ‘Sustainable’ Mining Possible? (State of India’s Environ-ment: 6th Citizens’ Report) published re-cently by the Centre for Science and Environment, of the 50 mineral producing districts in India almost half are domi-nated by tribal or adivasi populations with about 28 per cent of their area under forests. Between 1951 and 1991 more than 26 lakh people were displaced by mining in India, of whom more than half were adivasis. Forty per cent of the mineral-rich regions are also affected by the Naxalite movement. These regions are inOrissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. A comparison of mineral production and per capita domes-tic product figures demonstrates that there exists an inverse relation between mining and economic growth. This trendisamply evident in the three mineral-rich states of Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. These critical facts and figures are like dots on the board. Joining them gives us a picture about the mining scenario in India. Caterpillar and the Mahua Flower: Tremors in India’s Mining Fields edited by Rakesh Kalshian brings us tales of death, deceit and destruction, of pride and prej-udice, behind these facts and figures, making the picture clearer and horrific. Narratives from the tribal hinterlands of mineral-rich Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh by experts, activists and journalists engaged with the issue of mining and its socio-political, economic, cultural and environmental consequences make this book a significant piece of work. The stories of mining and mine-based industries in Jharia, Jadugoda, Lanjigarh, Dantewada, Bailadila, Jharsuguda, Kalinganagar, Mainpat, Keonjhar, Kashipur are unique in their perspective, yet they reiterate, repeat and virtually drill a single point home – that the state, its arms, on the one hand and thecorporation, on the other, effortlessly reverse roles as abettors and perpetra-tors of what could be termed as “ethnic genocide combined with ecological devas-tation” in the mineral-rich states of this democratic country.The mining industry in India has grown at more than 10 per cent in the post-reforms period (between 1993 and 2003) as the mining sector was opened up for private and foreign investments. In this period 73 FDI mining project proposals have been cleared. Some of the major companies include POSCO, De Beers,BHP Billiton, Mittal and Rio Tinto. It is evident that the current growth rates are driven by the glo-bal demand for products like aluminium and steel and the investment rush by the greedfor access to cheap mineral and otherresources. The book aptly takes off with Roger Moody’s ‘Iron in the Soul’ which analyses the adverse role played by global mining giants like Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton with their unethical mining practices in countries like Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Mongolia, Burma and now India.Moody challenges the possibility of“sustainable mining” that the industry harpsabout, terming it a “transparent oxymoron”. “At the end of the day, and after weighing the human and environ-mental consequences of that reality, we may be driven to one overwhelming con-clusion: that decisions over the what, when, where, how and by whom of extract-ing irreplaceable mineral resources must no longer be entrusted to ‘the industry’”, he concludes.But India has begun opening the sector to private players only in the last decade nature of crop, its context and intensity of labour. I would like to argue that it is growing certain crops like cashew nuts or cocoon processing that produces discrimi-nation based on untouchability. Dalit women are excluded from these units because they touch cashew nuts. But the subtext is that the upper caste women do not want competition in such sector and that they want to monopolise it. This logic is similar to the one that was used by upper caste textile workers against the untouch-ables in the textile industries in Bombay during the 1930s and 1940s. Hence, some-where one gets the feeling that these con-cepts escape this circle as they often stand in isolation of each other rather than together. The study does not show us as to how untouchability as a concept gets implicated into other concepts. Therefore untouchability seems to appear as mere assertion and fails to empower the argu-ment that is so necessary for developing a dalit perspective.Minor Problems Apart from these, there are minor problems that could be avoided while the volume goes into subsequent print. The field workers should have more accurate knowledge of the complicated settings in changing locations of the caste system. Caste and sub-caste groups deploy different technologies to seek social ele-vation within the overall hierarchy. For example, the Mangs (sub-casteofdalits from Maharashtra) have adopted a new identity Matang which is a sanskritised version of the original Mang identity. But the Maharashtra segment of the study fails to capture this move and treats Mangs and Matangs as if they are two different social entities (p 86). However, as mentioned in the begin-ning, the volume seeks to unsettle the sta-bilised understanding of those for whom untouchability has become a settled ques-tion. Secondly, it can also orient the poli-cymakers to rethink the already available packages that address the issue of un-touchability. Finally, it has a pedagogical role to play not in terms of bringing out the guilt from within the tormentor but force the social dialogue on those who are still interested in the eradication of un-touchability practises. The boxes in the volume would achieve this pedagogical target to begin with.Email:

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