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Caste and Identity

Surinder S. Jodhka

By M.S.S. Pandian
Permanent Black, Delhi, 2006, pp. xi 274, Rs. 650.00


The political trajectories of regions of India have been quite varied. Different regions have not only had diverse pasts but their post-colonial presents have also evolved differently. This has been despite the common colonial experience and a shared national framework of politics and economics over the last six decades. Caste has, for example, been an important axis of talking about social and political processes almost everywhere in India, but the nature of caste alliances and the framing of caste based politics have varied significantly across regions.   As is suggested by its title, M.S.S. Pandian’s book is about the genealogies of two sets of caste identities, the ‘Brahmin’ and ‘non-Brahmin’, in Tamil Nadu. At some level the two categories appear quite obvious today in the larger context of national politics. However, they have had very specific history in the region. Pandian provides us an account of the making of these two categories in Tamil Nadu, their changing meanings over time and the manner in which different actors mobilized them. The subject ‘Brahmin and non-Brahmin’ began to acquire significance in Tamil Nadu with the emergence of a strong movement against hegemonic position of Brahmins in the Tamil society. It was from within the nationalist movement in Madras presidency that in 1916 a group of prominent actors broke ranks with the Indian National Congress and issued a ‘manifesto’ of the ‘Non-Brahmin’. The term ‘non-Brahmin’ was quite an unknown category at that time. The Manifesto set in motion a process of crystallization of a particular language of talking about castes and their politics in the region, a language that continues to be popular and relevant even today in the Tamil Nadu politics, and increasingly elsewhere in India.   It was not only the identity of non-Brahmin that acquired a specific meaning during the first half of the twentieth century. The caste identity of Brahmin was also rearticulated during the colonial period. Faced with the challenge from Christian missionaries on the one hand and their growing involvement with the project of modernity on the other, the Tamil Brahmin ‘exteriorized their religion as an object of discussion in diverse new ways learnt from the West. They, for example, justified the practice of untouchability and pollution by invoking the idea of hygiene, and occupational hierarchy by referring to ‘division of labour’, thus making caste appear as a ‘rational’ and ‘normal’ way of organizing social/ economic life, ...

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