Author:Joel Lee (Williams College)
Paper short abstract:
To foreground the history of Dalit occult power is to rethink 'untouchability' in classic and current theorizations of caste in South Asia.
Paper long abstract:
The anthropology of caste in India has tended to represent the Dalit or 'untouchable' inhabiting one of two roles: the abject bearer of pollution in culturalist accounts of Hindu society, or the vanguard of political modernity in historicist, caste-critical narratives. A careful examination of the ethnographic record from the late nineteenth century onward reveals a third pattern, as widespread as it is undertheorized, of Dalits as sorcerers, of the segregated Dalit hamlet as a feared and sought-after site of supernatural power alternative to brahminical power. This paper, drawing on fieldwork among the Dalit sanitation labor castes of the north Indian districts of Lucknow and Bara Banki, relates oral traditions of these communities to a broad range of historical ethnographic sources in order to argue for a revised account of how pollution works in the 'traditional' caste order. I put descriptions of Dalit occult power into conversation with Bourdieu's analysis of the religious 'field' and its exclusions, contending that Dalit 'pollution' is inextricably entwined with Dalit occult mastery, both in the internal perspective of Dalit oral tradition and from the point of view of dominant groups who patronized Dalit sorcerers.
Towards a transnational anthropology of power: legacies and linkages of caste, race, and gender