ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Shifting Categories in the Discourse on Caste and Class

The categories of caste and class are undergoing radical change. Global capital has worked against the articulation of shared experiences of exploitation. This holds true for both caste and class. The left's historic failure in not comprehending the exploiting role of caste has militated against class solidarity. There are, however, incipient movements that try to overcome this traditional weakness of the left.

Let me start this article with three hypothetical positions. First, in times of globalisation, categories such as caste and class are undergoing radical change both in terms of their essence and existence. Second, as the present article would argue, at the methodological level these categories have lost their conceptual coherence because they have acquired new, perhaps more amorphous, descriptions. For example, working classes are now described as working masses and labour is referred to as footloose labour or labouring poor (Breman 1996).

Similarly, the concept of “caste” has either been modified or subsumed into broader categories such as ethnicity (Bailey 2002). Caste’s new avatar is evident in today’s ethnic politics that has acquired salience, particularly in urban contexts. This article’s third hypothetical claim is that the change in existence is the result of the corresponding change in the essence of these categories. The experience of humiliation or indignity that was the essence of caste, as a category, has now been replaced by the experience of exclusion. However, such experience has a specific basis within Dalit groups who are ambitious and aspiring. The aspirations range from becoming small entrepreneurs to making a mark as a Dalit capitalist. In contrast to those with such elite aspirations, the common Dalits continue to do the same obnoxious work such as scavenging and rag picking, generations after generations. Even “Dalit” as a category does not produce the kind of shared experience that formed the basis of the united Dalit movement till the early 1970s.

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