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Untold Story from Rajasthan

Bureaucratic Literacy and the Politics of Complaint

While analysing the Dhanka's scheduled tribe status in Rajasthan, this anthropological account sheds light on the complications faced by the members of this backward community while they struggle to access their legal rights with insufficient means to access the institutions that are supposed to ensure these very rights.

In this article, I want to describe one scheduled tribe group’s struggle to transform constitutional guarantees into bureaucratic practice. In some ways, this is a predictable story in which we will encounter a painful gap between law-as-written and law-as-enforced and the inevitable disappointments of those who try to claim rights through the channels ostensibly established for just this purpose. In other ways, however, the story may surprise. Reservations, particularly those in government service, are often seen by commentators – both academic and everyday – as an impediment to the developmental objectives of the state (Sharma 2011). However, the ethnographic material presented here presents a much more complicated picture, one in which both the limitations and some unexpected, heretofore unremarked-upon, benefits of government service reservations come to light.

A recent call by Rob Higham and Alpa Shah (2013) asked scholars to contextualise the anthropology of affirmative action in the political economy of the state. Following this, I argue that one of the under-discussed effects of privatisation is that marginalised groups, especially scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (SCs and STs) who have been the beneficiaries of the reservation policy, are less likely to come into a particular kind of daily contact with legal language, administrative structures, and, quite literally, officials themselves. Such contact can be useful in pushing rights claims or registering grievances against discrimination. In this context, privatisation refers both to devolving public enterprises and to the undermining third- and fourth-class civil service positions through the widespread use of temporary contract labour in government departments.1 These shifts put SCs and STs at an even greater disadvantage when they are faced with legal or bureaucratic challenges to their status or downward mobility in the face of a shrinking state.

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