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Mapping the Caste Debate

Vijaya Ramaswamy

Edited by Ishita Bannerjee-Dube
Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2008, pp. 303, Rs. 695.00


The editor of this volume quotes Nicholas Dirks from his book Castes of Mind to show the ubiquitous presence of caste in today’s India. Caste continues and ‘continues to trouble’. Caste names and jati classifications have found their way into every Performa, ranging from school admissions to student scholarships and plush jobs. Today it is more important to identify oneself as a ‘Meena’ a ‘Gujjar’ a ‘Mahari’ or any other jati rather than to think of oneself as Indian. Can the resurgence of caste and at times, aggressive assertion of jati identities, be seen as a step towards greater democratization of the Indian polity? In the present volume Ashutosh Varshney has specifically raised this question. To quote from his essay ‘Is India Becoming More Democratic?’: Weighed down by tradition, lower castes do not give up their caste identities; rather they ‘deconstruct’ and ‘reinvent’ caste history, deploy in politics a readily available and easily mobilized social category (‘low caste’) use their numbers to electoral advantage, and fight prejudice and domination politically. (p.216)   The inference is that historically and culturally perceived as the signifier of inequalities and hierarchies, ‘caste can paradoxically be an instrument of equalization and dignity’.   Ishita Bannerji brings together a wide range of essays which raise vital issues related to caste—its historical roots, theoretical underpinnings, contemporaneous relevance and every day reflections. Forming a part of the Oxford University Press ‘Themes in History’ series, the present volume continues the dialogue commenced by the earlier publication on Subordinate and Marginal Groups in Early India edited by Aloka Parashar-Sen.   The essays are foregrounded by the editor’s attempt to map the caste debate in terms of history, historiography and present-day relevance. She briefly goes over the well trodden ground from G.S. Ghurye’s Caste, Class and Occupation (1931) to M.N. Srinivas’s Social Change in Modern India and Dumont’s Homo Hierarchicus (1970). The last section of the introduction profiles each piece in this collection. What I would like to comment on are the two sections sandwiched between these well established borders. One is called ‘The past in the present’ and the other is titled ‘Formative Geneologies’. Caste issues have become vital in the formation of ideologies and political alliances. The policy of Reservations, perceived variously as ‘affirmative action’ by pro-reservationists or as ‘compensatory discrimination’ by those who feel that the principle of reservations for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other ...

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