P08


Dalit communities in India and diaspora: agency and activism, research and representation 
Convenor:
Manuela Ciotti (University of Vienna)
Location:
C406
Start time:
28 July, 2012 at 9:00 (UTC+0)
Session slots:
2

Short Abstract:

This panel focuses on Dalit communities in India and beyond. It calls for papers on Dalit agency in multiple socio-economic contexts and sites of contestation. Papers are invited to reflect on the construction and meanings of the Dalit category, the field of studies, and future research directions.

Long Abstract

This panel brings together an eclectic ensemble of papers exploring subjectivities, socio-cultural practices, and life-ways amongst Dalit communities across India and in diaspora. Not only do the insights generated through textual, economic, visual and legal investigation show emerging trends in the lives of such communities and beyond but they also suggest the need for broadening the empirical and analytical terrains explored thus far. Taken together, the papers point to the need for reflection on the Dalit category, the field of study which centres on it, and future research directions. In this respect, the panel fosters the aims of the newly-created British Association for South Asian Studies (BASAS) research group entitled: 'Dalit communities and diasporas in global times: Interdisciplinary perspectives'.

Accepted papers:

Authors:

David Mosse (SOAS)
Luisa Steur (University of Amsterdam)

Paper short abstract:

We examine how Dalit movements in India have recently taken a turn towards a 'development' agenda and how simultaneously development organisations (NGOs, international donors and United Nations bodies) now address the question of caste discrimination within their poverty reduction policy frameworks.

Paper long abstract:

This paper traces the turn towards a Dalit rights framework among development NGOs in south India and internationally. It traces the intersection of caste conflicts, Dalit movements and an emergent Dalit politics with the expansion of NGOs and their networks in the 1990s. First, taking the case of Oxfam-linked organisations it examines the mutual influence of donors and Dalit NGOs, and the emergence of a state-wide 'network of networks,' the Human Rights Forum for Dalit Human Rights (HRFDL). The paper outlines the imperative and implication of a Dalit rights approach to rural development, the implications for practical action and the necessity and effects of NGO networking. It shows how such networks are shaped by their local political context, how they have powerful discursive, communicative and social effects, but also how funding streams and networks become inter-twined in complex and problematic ways. The analysis concerns what networks do, and how they both expand and attenuate. It brings to light a variety of perspectives from Dalit NGO actors themselves to suggest the richness and complexity involved in the forging of a Dalit development agenda. Secondly, adopting a similar approach, the paper turns the national and international campaigns for Dalit human rights a decade on from the Durban conference of 2001 which began to place caste discrimination on the UN agenda, and involve yet more far-reaching network forms.

Author:

Kaushal Vidyarthee (University of Oxford)

Paper short abstract:

This study examines the trends and the context of participation of Dalits in the business economy as the owners of firms; and how this process varies spatially and sectorally across India. Using mixed methods approach, it elicits insights about the factors implicating Dalits’ entry to the business.

Paper long abstract:

Business ownership in the Indian economy has long been established as a mainstay of capital accumulation and economic mobility. However, Dalit community's incorporation (or marginalisation) into the business economy has not received any rigorous investigation. This interdisciplinary research makes an attempt to broaden the empirical & analytical understanding about the Dalit community in the business context by adopting mixed methods approach of analysis i.e. advanced quantitative tools such as GIS mapping and spatial regressions and qualitative tools- in-depth semi-structured interviewing.

Using data from the Economic Census of India, I have constructed maps showing the differing indices of participation by Dalits as business owners in the last twenty years. Such an analysis has allowed me to comprehend the spatial patterns of the participation of Dalits (and their marginalisation) as owners of firms across economic sectors; it has also enabled me to examine how various factors such as urbanisation, poverty, unemployment, education and access to credit affect their participation. Dalits' participation is highly differentiated in sector-specific ways. Dalits are relatively advantaged in the construction sector and consistently disadvantaged in service sectors.

This study draws from fieldwork in Raebareli district of Uttar Pradesh which involves interviews ranging from Dalit businessmen to policy makers. Whether entry barriers for Dalits for setting up businesses are economic, social, or both, and why that is, and why they vary sectorally are answered through this study. The results of this research are striking, have clear potential significance for policy, and provoke challenges for explanations and further research.

Author:

Mariko Kato (Seinan Gakuin University)

Paper short abstract:

This study will use household data provided by National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) to analyse changes in the intra-state migration and remittances of rural Dalits in Bihar, the state with lowest GDP but highest growth in 2000s. The paper will look at data from three decades.

Paper long abstract:

In the 1980s and 1990s, at the introductory stages of economic liberalization, the average per capita consumption expenditure (MPCE) level and distribution of households which receives remittances from out-migrant to within India were much lower than non-migrant households for SC and Non SC-ST(Scheduled Tribe) households. Also, mobility of poor SCs looked limited. However, in 2007-08, on contrary, the levels and distributions of MPCE of out-migrant households with remittance are higher than those of non out-migrant households for all social classes. Moreover, SCs showed increased mobility, which is very notable in rural Bihar, where the average consumption level of agricultural labour SC households with remittances from outside the state began to exceed ones of the NonSC/ST households without out-migrants, and the average yearly amount of the remittance sent to Dalits' households in Bihar is estimated to almost equivalent to yearly minimum wage in India. Also, this study tries to investigate how the distribution of mobile phone to Dalits in Bihar affected their mobility. Via migration, this increased access of SCs to enhanced economic resources outside may contribute to their empowerment for possible social mobility in rural Bihar, due to the recent remarkable economic growth led by constructing infrastracture and the increased access to the information such as growing use of mobile phone.

Author:

Meena Dhanda (University of Wolverhampton)

Paper short abstract:

Findings from survey-interviews of 300 dalits of Ludhiana profiling their living conditions, opinions and aspirations are presented. Using the idea of symbolic exchange to capture relations between dalits and upper-castes the paper seeks to explain the emergence of anti-consumerist dalit reformers.

Paper long abstract:

The paper will present the findings of a medium-sized survey of 300 dalits randomly selected from localities in Ludhiana, which has the smallest percentage of dalit population amongst cities in Punjab. It will describe their living conditions, including their economic status and household assets as well as their educational attainments, religious beliefs and political affiliations. It will also reflect upon the picture that emerges of their aspirations for the future, their expectations and their fears. The ways in which the lives of dalits have deteriorated in the last twenty years since economic liberalisation has taken place, resulting in a visible surge in consumerism in the general population, will be outlined and contrasted to the ways in which in some respects their lives have remained unchanged or even improved. Following the descriptive account the paper applies Jean Baudrillard's view on the centrality of 'symbolic exchange' in understanding social relations and the impact of consumerism on these relations. The paper argues that relations between dalits and the upper-caste are better understood in terms of the unpredictability, volatility and non-anticipatory character of all symbolic exchanges. But given that a rampantly rising consumerism tends to dismantle symbolic exchanges, the more consumerism rises the prospects of symbolic exchanges between dalits and the upper-castes also worsen. It appears that an incipient understanding of this logic is emerging in the rise of anti-consumerists groupings led by dalit reformers.

Author:

Mohita Bhatia (University of Cambridge)

Paper short abstract:

Examining reasons for the absence of Dalit political assertion in Jammu and Kashmir, this paper maintains that agency of Dalits become visible in social rather than political realm. It demonstrates that this agency operates in close interaction with the dominant structures.

Paper long abstract:

While many states in India have witnessed a strong Dalit assertion, Jammu and Kashmir remains an exception. Caught in the conflict between India and Pakistan, Jammu and Kashmir presents a political scenario that exclusively centres on the issue of 'Kashmir conflict' and evokes passionate nationalistic responses among its 'Hindu' population. In reaction to the powerful position of the Kashmiri leadership in the power structure of the state as well as the separatist politics of Kashmir, the mainstream politics of Jammu uses the 'marginality of Jammu' to generate strong regionalist and nationalist sentiments and create a homogeneous 'Hindu' platform. This paper uses ethnographic fieldwork to show that such politics, though upper-caste-centric has enormous appeal among Dalits. Transcending caste-class issues, an extremely nationalistic response dominates Jammu's politics. This paper highlights reasons for partial assimilation of Dalits into the mainstream politics of Jammu. However, going beyond this apparent political reality and invisibility of Dalit resistance, it explores the agency of Dalits in the everyday social realm, whereby the immediacy of oppression allows them to question dominant structures. This paper argues that in situations marked by an absence of any progressive political platform and economic vulnerability of Dalits, resistance operates not in a direct manner but rather, in subtle ways. Resistance occurs in dialectic relationship with - rather than in complete disjunction to - the dominant structures and politics. It illustrates the complex ways in which Dalits may identify with regionalist and nationalist sentiments of mainstream politics and yet contest the various aspects of this dominant discourse.

Author:

Anna Bochkovskaya (Institute of Asian and African Studies, Lomonosov Moscow State University)

Paper short abstract:

The paper discusses the use of traditional symbols and images by Dalits in Punjab (India) in their quest for identity with special reference to the multifaceted activities of controversial religious/pseudo-religious communities (deras).

Paper long abstract:

Dramatic growth of various religious/pseudo-religious communities (deras) in the Indian state of Punjab became a matter of great concern for the state authorities in the past decade. Being extremely popular with Dalits residing in rural areas, the deras represent a serious threat as not only religious, but also influential economic and political agents. Mostly proclaiming the universal character of their ideology, dera leaders/neo-gurus tend to exploit various symbols of religious (predominantly, Sikh) identity for self-advertising and mobilization of new followers. These actions include mimicry of the Ten Gurus, appropriation of Sikh public rituals, compilation of own scriptures/"spiritual books" that imitate the Adi Granth, etc.

Mainstream Sikh leaders persistently vote for banning all communities whose leaders adhere to the living guru principle (Dera Sacha Sauda, Dera Nurmahali, Dera Bhaniarawala, etc.). In view of constant confrontation with orthodox Sikhs, a majority of controversial neo-gurus have been emphasizing the deras' commitment to comprehensive social work. At the same time, the "improvement" of ideology remains an integral part of their public self-representation. The paper will focus on recent activities of controversial deras - with special reference to Dera Sacha Sauda - aimed at adjusting their image to the needs of the day.

Author:

Ronki Ram (Leiden University, The Netherlands)

Paper short abstract:

Cultural heritage is fast emerging as a politically contested site where the hitherto marginalised and socially excluded Dalit communities are learning to deploy it as a viable agency in their identity formation process.

Paper long abstract:

Dalits in contemporary India are closely engaged in building their distinct civil society and exclusive centres of Dalit cultural heritage at the local as well as national levels. It seems that the ongoing diverse Dalit cultural heritage project finely coalesces tradition and modernity. Tradition ceases to be a value of the past and the modernity loses its aura in the fast acclimatising present in the images of yesterdays. Consequently, this has led to a sort of perennial conflict between the hitherto dominant communities and the ex-untouchables who find in their resurfacing cultural heritage a hope of reclaiming their long-overdue share in the local/national stuructures of power.

Author:

Manuela Ciotti (University of Vienna)

Paper short abstract:

Drawing on the comparison between Cohn’s work on a Chamar community in a northern India village in the 1950s (An anthropologist among the historians and other essays) and my work on the same community in a nearby village (Retro-modern India), this paper investigates the occurrence of ‘the new’.

Paper long abstract:

Drawing on the comparison between Bernard Cohn's work on a Chamar community in a northern India village in the 1950s (An anthropologist among the historians and other essays, 1987) and my work on the same community in a nearby village (Retro-modern India. Forging the low-caste self, 2010), this paper investigates the occurrence of 'the new'. The paper takes cue from Cohn's observation of a typological discrepancy in family models between Chamars and upper-caste Thakurs - showing an absence of synchrony between such models. This discrepancy, Cohn remarked, was also found in many aspects of social life - testifying to a distinctive social reproduction pattern among Chamars. Half a century later, I recorded comparable discrepancies among this community - signalling the presence of repetitions.

By taking the villages under analysis as 'conceptual spaces', it is argued that repetitions turn into new social practices when their enactment is engendered by new compulsions. Against this backdrop, the paper asks how the 'new' is actually detected: it is suggested that this is the result of empirical observation but, equally importantly, also of shifts in analytical paradigms (i.e. from modernization and Sanskritisation to modernity). The new might also emerge when both empirical observation and analysis shift the focus from collective to individual agency. By disentangling the question of the emergence of the new vis-à-vis ethnography/theory, the paper also wishes to examine how the multiple shifts outlined above have contributed to, complicated, or essentialised knowledge production on Chamar communities and the wider constituency of which they are part.