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Politics of Identity Formation


Srimanjari

PEASANT PASTS: HISTORY AND MEMORY IN WESTERN INDIA
By Vinayak Chaturvedi
University of California Press, Berkeley, 2007, pp. 307, Rs. 695.00

CREATIVE PASTS: HISTORICAL MEMORY AND IDENTITY IN WESTERN INDIA 1700-1960
By Prachi Deshpande
Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2007, pp. 308, Rs. 650.00

VOLUME XXXII NUMBER 5 May 2008

These two books deal broadly with the politics of identity formation in the regional histories of modern India. Although the titles appear similar, the narrative style of the two authors is different and so is the choice of subjects. Vinayak Chaturvedi’s concern is with the restoration of the history of the peasant caste of Dharalas of central Gujarat. Prachi Deshpande, on the other hand, traces the making of Maratha memory and identity within the broad contours of the history of the Indian subcontinent from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century. Both the books deal with processes of non-brahmin identity formation through extremely invigorating and novel use of a wide range of sources. However, while Vinayak Chaturvedi resurrects the experiences of the Dharala peasants, Prachi Deshpande recovers historical memory and imagination embedded in Maratha identity. The individual strength and merit of the two works is evident from the richness of the two narrative styles and the unique manner of treating the subject matter.   Vinayak Chaturvedi observes at the outset that what set him off to write Peasant Pasts was an archival account of 1918 in which a District Magistrate had reported how the elite Patidar peasants of Kheda district were forcibly extracting labour from peasants known as the Dharalas. Ironically, the event was reported in the same year that Mahatma Gandhi had organized the Kheda Satyagraha of the Patidar peasants of the region. With this as the raison d’être the account rivets to the beginning of the resistance movement among the Dharalas in 1898 led by the self-proclaimed peasant-leader Ranchod Vira. Through this historical figure, who remains inadequately discussed in writings on peasant movements in western India, the author questions the assumption that since peasants operate in a world largely composed of illiterates their movements lack a written manifesto and that the ideology of peasant resistance has to be, therefore, reconstructed on the basis of archival accounts. Throughout the work, the author juxtaposes the power of the written word or ‘textuality’ and the contested sphere of ‘orality’ of traditions.   Vinayak Chaturvedi begins by establishing the caste hierarchy that operated in the villages of Chaklasi in the Charotar tracts of Kheda. A re-examination of the shifts in the caste-system in the history of the region in the nineteenth century shows the rise to dominance of the Patidars—who figured as the non-brahmin peasant caste of Lewa Kanbis till then. Ghanshyam Shah’s ...


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