THE GRAMMAR OF CASTE: Economic Discrimination in Contemporary India by Ashwini Deshpande. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2011.

Ashwini Deshpande’s book grapples with the vexed problem of economic discrimination in contemporary India. It aims to clarify the meaning of the concept and to discover the reasons for the sustaining sources of this discrimination. The book is primarily a critique of material disparities in our society despite the degree of change in the caste-occupation nexus in determining discrimination.

The author begins by engaging with the research and debates on the enduring caste categories already deployed by a vast pool of sociologists, historians, and political scientists. She then turns to her own field and engages with economic theories of statistical discrimination propounded by Arrow and Akerlof and the ‘taste for discrimination’ proposed by Becker to understand caste inequalities. But she also acknowledges that an economic investigation by itself cannot uncover all facets of caste inequality; hence insights from fieldwork accounts of other disciplines have been included across the various chapters.

In many ways this book continues the author’s research in discrimination in urban labour markets that undermine claims about inequalities being a result of past discrimination primarily confined to rural areas and about labour markets in urban areas in the formal private sector as being essentially meritocratic. Her present work becomes significant, as affirmative action in India is caste-based although the Indian census has not collected nationwide data by jati or caste since 1931. Despite the absence of reliable data, she extensively mines two all-India data sets – National Sample Survey and National Family and Health Survey – to make certain pertinent claims about how discrimination takes place when social or group identity matters in the private sector and when these further impact the wage gap between caste groups in urban labour markets. So those who claim that development is a multidimensional process that facilitates higher material standards of living, enhanced self-esteem, capabilities and greater freedoms would have to pause here; the perspective in this book focuses attention on how socio-economic development leads to a more unequal distribution of resources as wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of a small elite. What is more, key distributional issues are affected depending on the membership of a disadvantaged group.

The implications are manifold. Deshpande’s attempt leads to further support for studies on restricted social mobility in capitalist control of business by families in exclusion of certain groups, even as opportunities widen their net in global India. Irrespective of the data set and classificatory system used to define occupations, the evidence of inter-caste disparity in occupational attainment is clear and persistent. SCs and STs are clustered in the lowest rungs: casual labour, agricultural labour and the unemployed, while the others (upper castes) dominate in more prestigious occupations. Thus economic discrimination is a crucial variable which explains how the upper castes’ hold over prestigious better paying occupations, reflected in wage gaps, and in the field of education, landholding, and housing markets persists.

What is unclear in this analysis of labour market segmentation are two things: First, how do economic strategies of labour contribute in unintended ways to reproduce the same restricted labour market and frozen identities of SC, ST and OBC? Second, the principle that different groups should be treated equally does not describe how these groups should be composed. While there is hardly any doubt that caste is the prime axis of inequality, there is debate on the extent to which Muslim minorities are discriminated against, as is evident from the Sachar Committee Report. In fact, the SCR concludes that they are more deprived than other communities. How do we read these different types of discrimination of communities in the labour market?

Despite these quibbles, the strength of the book is that it highlights the way the state needs to create a new labour market in which most groups can get a share commensurate with their population in educational institutions and public and private employment. Since an open competitive market, in itself, would not allow many groups to access its facilities, the state needs to have multiple policies to address economic discrimination.

Vidhu Verma


SUBALTERN CITIZENS AND THEIR HISTORIES: Investigations From India and the USA edited by Gyanendra Pandey. Routledge, New York, 2010.

THIS collection of essays, edited by Gyanendra Pandey, seeks to engage with questions of marginality, citizenship and history in the two vastly different locations, South Asia and USA, by evoking the rather provocative idea of the ‘subaltern citizen’. Emerging from two workshops held at Emory University in 2006 and 2009, centred around conversations between scholars on the question of ‘changing modes of disenfranchisement and the historical struggles over them’ in the two aforementioned locations, the volume highlights the potential plurality of the term subaltern, and opens up a wide canvass for interdisciplinary theoretical engagement with conditions of subalternity across contexts varying in space and time.

In an instructive Introduction, Pandey opens up central questions regarding the possibilities – and even necessity – of deploying such an ‘umbrella’ term as the subaltern to understand the experiences of marginalized peoples in India and the USA. This leads to two empirical and theoretical clarifications respectively. The first concerns the commonality of the historiographic traditions of both nations which, despite significant differences in context, construct Indian and US exceptionalism primarily as a narrative of modernity and nationhood, democracy and justice, secularism and tolerance, leaving out the entrenched inequalities of race, caste and status so deeply instituted in both these societies.

The second concerns the hybrid of ‘subaltern citizen’ and what Pandey calls ‘the politics of subalternity’. Pandey points out that it is ‘citizen’ that qualifies subalternity and not the other way round. Subaltern citizen, therefore, does not imply the ‘subaltern’ status of certain citizens, but rather the potential of the marginalized to eventually become full members of society. The recognition of this potential underlines the historical agency of the subaltern to change his/her position in life. Citizen thus becomes an indicator of the political quality of subalternity. Subalternity is ‘always negotiable, and negotiated’ (p. 4) and hence is a fluid, evolving concept that needs to be understood through a critical consciousness and critical historiography of the sort Pandey aims to achieve through this volume.

The essays put together in the volume do a commendable job in identifying diverse yet common conditions of subalternity experienced in different locations which vary so greatly in terms of history and context, and thus succeed in creating the aspired awareness about shared experiences and shared struggles of the oppressed in the making of the modern world, while remaining sensitive to the particularities of their different histories and social conditions. The chief merit of the collection lies in the way the contributors complexify the condition of subalternity across historico-cultural life-worlds of class, race, ethnicity, gender, caste and sexuality and hence interrogate the idea of subalternity as monochromatic, frozen in time and space.

Pandey’s intention of working with ‘subalternity at the cusp’, elucidated in the Introduction, in this sense defines the effort. From questioning the foundational myths of Indian and US exceptionalism, to bringing the so far unlikely members – the black school teacher, the ‘girl child’ sworn to respectability in 19th century India, or a city whose status as a subaltern gets exposed by a hurricane – into the fold of the subaltern, the volume pushes back the existing boundaries of the concept to unravel the many more novel ways in which it can be put to use in making sense of the experience of marginalization in the modern world. As Jonathan Prude, in his insightful Afterword puts it, ‘…the [essays] simultaneously look ahead. Neither individually nor collectively do these essays suggest definitiveness. They close no doors. Quite the opposite, they declare themselves as moments… in ongoing conversations’ (p. 221).

The volume, with its broad transdisciplinary reach – stretching from literature and culture studies to politics, law and history – is an exemplary piece of interdisciplinary study, and successfully synthesizes varying locations of subalternity within its scope. But it is perhaps here that its weaknesses overlap its merits. Combining such variety of perspectives and pedagogies in a single volume calls for a high degree of expertise on the part of the reader to fully appreciate the essays, their methodologies and styles. Some of them, compact and accessible in themselves, would perhaps prove more useful as stand alone than within an anthology like the current one.

Also interesting is the term subaltern citizen, which Pandey effortlessly fashions out of the existing vocabularies of subjecthood available to the social sciences, comparing it to the fragment necessary for accomplishing the disruption required to challenge the existing boundaries of the concept. Nevertheless, one cannot but wonder if the bringing together of two such unlikely terms might inadvertently gloss over the acute conditions of marginality experienced by the subalterns, since the idea of the citizen, using Pandey’s phrase, ‘flies into the face of everything found in the commonly received narrative of subalternity’ (p. 7). Or maybe it serves as a beacon for a future critical historiography that Pandey aspires to institute through ongoing conversations among subaltern scholars working in various social locations in contemporary times.

Anasua Chatterjee


THE CULTURALIZATION OF CASTE IN INDIA: Identity and Inequality in a Multicultural Age by Balmurli Natrajan. Routledge, London, 2012.

BASED on field work carried out among the artisan caste called Jhariya Kumhar from the central plains of Chhattisgarh, India, the book is a provocative theoretical journey supported by empirical data, largely qualitative in nature. The author argues that despite castes assuming new avatars, casteism is still prevalent in modern India. This new avatar is the logic of expressing caste and associated collective identities in the logic of culture. What was once seen as caste inequalities based on hierarchical principles is now rendered into ‘benign’ cultural differences. Popular, scholarly and official discourses now argue that caste has transformed with the changing reality of modernization, global capitalist growth etc. In the Indian context, this is also inscribed in the logic of multiculturalism. The book tries to demonstrate that such proliferation of discourses of cultural differences is indicative of a failure to understand a process whereby the terrain of ‘culture’ is captured by the ‘grammar’ of caste that revitalizes caste groups in the form of samaj. Samaj is the result of the process of culturalization of caste. Through this process, caste groups attempt to reconstruct and represent themselves as ‘cultural groups with "pre-existing", "natural" cultural differences or identity rather than caste as jati’ in a traditional sense. Inequality, domination and exploitation, that is, casteism continues in ‘modern’, ‘democratic’ Indian society; however, it is normalized through the culturalization of caste. The author terms this casteism as cultural or differentialist casteism.

With reference to the Kumhar, the author probes into the ‘culturalization of caste’. As a process, it signifies efforts by the Kumhar elites to form a cultural identity of ‘ideal’ Kumhar through a caste association called the Chhattisgarh Kumbhar Samaj (CKS). The Kumhar elites of CKS (largely middle class, engaged in professions other than traditional pottery) display a zeal for ‘modern’ reforms for their ‘backward’ Kumhars brothers. The former try to fix, define and encode individual traits and behaviour through a discursive construction of ‘Kumhar culture’ inscribed within a community rule book, commonly referred to as ‘niyamabali’. Through ‘niyamabali’ and subsequent publications as written documents, the elites strive towards building up an ‘aadarsh’ (ideal) Kumhar type. Moreover, the CKS elites actively attempt to ‘discipline’ recalcitrant members through imposition of fines and threats of excommunication. Beginning with the discursive and written production of ‘niyamabali’, to its implementation – all are in the process of producing identities, caste boundaries and group memberships. The production of such caste boundaries and identity by the elites through the caste association strives towards flattening internal differences among several Kumhar communities and represent them as a unified whole, samaj.

Samaj, however, is not a complete and homogenized cultural whole. The author argues that such a holistic ideal of the elites to project a homogenized Kumhar self to the external world is often contradictory. Practising working class artisan Kumhars often contest such a highly sanskritized, brahminical making of samaj, arguing that it is more associated with changing power configurations. Through the ideological discourse of samaj, the elites in the process emerge more powerful than traditional elders. The game of ‘culture’, i.e. making samaj, also camouflages the changing power structure on the lines of class within caste. Samaj increasingly portrays a ‘classed’ construction of Kumhar elites rather than the cultural identity of Kumhars. Referring to such a process of the culturalization of castes, the author then notes, ‘…the interesting problem is not that castes have cultures…but that cultures (or at least what parades as culture) are not the basis of the formation of castes but rather the effects of caste groups attempting to reconstruct themselves as cultural community’ (p. 79).

Culturalization of caste in the case of Kumhar perpetuates casteism in so far as samaj plays the same role that caste as jatis used to perform. It sustains and reproduces the material conditions based on patriarchy, exploitative production relations etc. Or, in other words, referring to the mode of functioning of CKS leaders in different contexts, the author argues that caste even in the era of samaj continues to foster monopolistic practices by conflating ‘status discrimination with cultural discrimination and caste identity with cultural identity’ (p. 6). In logical continuity, the role of caste associations like the CKS under the rubric of samaj, therefore, has been nothing but a taming of the Kumhars’ ‘politics of protest’ within the fold of a docile ‘politics of petitioning’. Playing an intermediary role between civil society and political society, caste associations like the CKS have denuded all radical possibilities of subaltern politics of castes and instead have perpetuated monopolistic practices in favour of capital and elites.

Casteism hence continues despite the popular belief that though caste exists there is no casteism. In a sharp departure from such ‘anti-casteist’ discourses, the author argues that the only consistent anti-casteist discourse can be that of the annihilation of castes, as proposed by Ambedkar, almost a century ago.

Ujithra Ponniah


PATRONS OF THE POOR: Caste Politics and Policy Making in India by Narayan Lakshman. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2011.

Narayan Lakshman’s multi-disciplinary and rigorous work builds a compelling case for situating caste politics in the matrix of policymaking processes in the country through dissecting the polity in Tamil Nadu (TN) and Karnataka (KR). The book seeks to resolve complicated questions concerning divergent patterns of state performance in their poverty alleviation/redistributive policies by looking extensively at caste politics and its impact in carving out pro-poor (or anti-poor) policies.

Lakshman’s thesis is stated upfront in the introduction itself (p. 1-50). Through background information on state politics in TN and KR, he shows that TN has achieved marked success in alleviating poverty as compared to KR. In the first chapter (p. 51-80), Lakshman examines agenda-setting in the two states by studying budget trends and identifying policy interventions that may impact on poverty reduction efforts. By noticing different political priorities and fiscal commitments of parties in power, he coherently unpacks the agenda-setting process in great detail.

Next (pp. 81-132), he unravels political (and bureaucratic) determinants of budgeting process as shown to be emerging from caste politics. Lakshman deduces how TN has come to be charaterized by competitive populism and KR by clientelist patronage-based distribution policies. He examines the political economy of the mid-day meal scheme and the irrigation sector, in addition to illustrating party politics of both states being rooted in caste dynamics (dominance or lack thereof).Since the divergent caste equations of the states (and therefore the policy orientation) are embedded in path-dependent social history, Lakshman in the next two chapters (p. 133-220) historicizes the origins of political orders in both states, thereby outlining a powerful summary of policymaking processes that have linked patterns of caste dominance.

The force of Lakshman’s argument arises from the simple yet comprehensive nature of his analytical framework. He theorizes two conditions necessary for states to favour pro-poor policies: (i) the poor must be a politically cohesive group (and their leaders dissociated from clientelistic alliances of non-poor groups), and (ii) greater centralization of power for ruling party and/or exposure to political competition (p. 32). In this rubric, he locates policy of TN and KR. His descriptions fit neatly. TN’s politics is marked by the emergence of regional parties (DMK, AIADMK), a result of mass mobilization due to Dravidian ideology/identity (condition I) and centralized distribution of party power revolving around a charismatic single political leader (condition II). KR, on the other hand, highlights the patronage network of two dominant castes (Vokkaligas and Lingayats) biasing political economy in favour of middle class (condition I) and propelling accommodationism to minimize dissent, thereby diffusing political power between fragmented parties (condition II).

Lakshman’s work marks a third wave to understand poverty reform through the lens of caste politics (the first two being Atul Kohli and John Harris) and is distinguished by an in-depth outlining of the political economy of pro-poor policies in India and a mapping out actual flow of causality between regime type and pro-poor public expenditure.

The book merits praise in its rich doctrinal research and data analysis. It cross-navigates between sociology, politics, history and economics, attempting to frame an interesting (caste-based) approach to oft-cited questions of politics and redistribution. Lakshman’s work is an extremely useful addition to several social fields of inquiry. However, to keep the content unalloyed with non-serious connotations, the narrative lacks cosmetic or aesthetic appeal; nevertheless, though dry and at places repetitive, it only reinforces the author’s point.

The book engages with the critique of neoclassical economics which has largely remained blind to caste politics and identities in explaining market behaviour and public policies, particularly in India. Any understanding of public policy is incomplete without understanding politics and that is meaningless without bringing caste into the Indian question. It shows that fractured caste dominance leads to greater flexibility for political mobilization. Such mobilization, in turn, leads to a situation where inter-caste (but intra-class) ties become more important than vertical relationships within caste groups – case of Tamil Nadu, with more pro-poor policies. Exactly the opposite is reflected in Karnataka (pp. 232-233).

One central issue, however, is that Lakshman’s work focuses on the period between 1985 and 2000 and therefore reflects temporal flexibility determined by changes in caste politics dynamics that may have crept through in the states studied. The spatial extension of the study – a much needed exercise – would require reconfiguration of the theoretical skeleton. Every state in India has a characteristic caste politics that requires different models to explain the linkages between caste politics and poverty alleviation programmes in the state. And Lakshman deserves credit for offering a robust methodology for such an exercise.

The author displays remarkable depth in exploring the intellectual framework of caste and politics for understanding institutional design of public policy. Although Lakshman has dodged the question of policy recommendations (p. 233), the book is sure to drive attempts to rethink several of our stereotypical ideas of how policymaking functions.

Yugank Goyal


THE CASTE QUESTION: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India by Anupama Rao. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2010.

THIS ambitious book traces the making and remaking of the Dalit subject through politics in India, focusing largely on Dalit politics in Maharashtra. It succeeds in making a seminal contribution to the huge body of literature on caste by engaging with questions of subjectivity, stigma, violence and body in relation to caste. Broadly, Rao uses the method of historical anthropology to trace the formation of Dalit subjecthood along with the genealogy of modern Indian democracy. Her theoretical engagement with categories of liberal political thought in relation to caste makes this book useful for interrogating critical assumptions of western political theory. She underlines the significance of redeployment of universal liberal categories and democratic ideas of citizenship, equality, freedom, rights and representation, and conception of new terrains of politics and new forms of political subjecthood for emerging Dalit politics. Individual emancipation was contingent on collective emancipation for Dalits and freedom meant freedom of their community from stigma rather than freedom from their community, disturbing standard liberal narratives of freedom and emancipation.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part introduces readers to the framework of arguments and debates the book seeks to engage with; the second part looks at the emergence of caste radicalism in Maharashtra, its negotiation with colonial, nationalist and upper caste power and its implications for post-independence democratic order in India; and the third part focuses on the question of caste violence and the possibilities of politics it entails.

Dalit politics is premised on the construction of a political collectivity constituted by resignifying Dalit’s negative identity within the caste structure into a positive political value. The contradiction between the experience of stigma and possibility of emancipation through institutions and ideologies of colonial and later post-colonial modernity grounds the development of Dalit politics. Stigma becomes a source of making claims for equalization, but these claims are made on the basis of exception marked by stigma. Dalit subject-hood is anchored on this paradox of refusing stigma but also reproducing it through claims for inclusion. Stigma becomes the very ground of politics that anticipates its end. Thus, someone identifying herself as Dalit is also someone seeking to escape this identity. The challenge of recovering a self marked by stigma and reinterpreting stigma in revolutionary terms has to be constantly negotiated by Dalit politics.

Her work challenges the prevalent overdetermination of the contribution of colonial liberalism and ‘modernity’ in the political struggle of lower castes. Colonial governance offers a possibility of emancipation through modern institutions and liberal values, but in practice exclusion based on caste can be perpetuated through these very institutions and values. Rao highlights this contradiction by focusing on the collusion of liberal notions of rights with caste values to perpetuate exclusion in the case of struggle for temple entry and use of common water resources by Dalits. The right to private property was used by caste Hindus to exclude Dalits in these cases. Rao sees this as an alignment of custom with a contract based regime of private property to produce caste based civic exclusion.

Dalits, unlike Muslims, could not be seen as another religious community with fewer numbers. Ambedkar conceived Dalits as a different kind of political minority based on the stigma and historical discrimination they faced. Under his leadership, Dalits resisted efforts made by nationalist forces to locate untouchables within the Hindu fold, making untouchability an internal problem to be addressed by upper caste reform. The controversy over separate electorates manifests this conflict. These developments sharpened the need for constituting a separate political entity for Dalits. This eventually culminated in Ambedkar’s turn towards Buddhism as a source for a separate Dalit identity. Buddhism became a counterpoint to Hinduism by crafting a distinct political history of opposition to Hinduism for Dalits. The recovery of a Dalit past as broken men, defenders of Buddhism against Brahaminical hegemony, enabled the emergence of a new political subject: the Dalit Buddhist.

The politicization of Dalit identity is seen as Dalit militancy and has, in turn, often led to retributive forms of violence from the upper castes. This violence is not simply retaliatory, though it may be constructed and imagined as such. The threat of Dalit violence is often magnified and used to delegitimize Dalit politics. Rao talks of anti-Dalit riots in Worli and Marathwada in the 1970s where being Dalit meant being a target of violence irrespective of political commitment. The symbols of Dalit identity, such as pictures and statues of Dalit leaders like Ambedkar, were desecrated during the riots. Such acts are motivated towards the symbolic annihilation of Dalit identity and politics seeking social death of these social and political forms. Anupama Rao’s, The Caste Question shows how Dalit politics expands the political and discursive spaces of democratic liberalism in India. To address the problem of Dalit disenfranchisement, the democratic Indian state had to produce political adequation through equalization, and at the same time recognize historical exception of Dalits as an ethically normative community.

Tanvi Sirari