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Sudha Pai

CASTE IN QUESTION: IDENTITY OR HIERARCHY?
Edited by Dipankar Gupta
Sage Publications, New Delhi Contributions to Indian Sociology Occasional Studies 12, 2004, pp. 255, Rs. 480.00

DR. AMBEDKAR AND UNTOUCHABILITY: ANALYZING AND FIGHTING CASTE
By Christophe Jaffrelot
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 205, Rs. 495.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 8 August 2005

In recent years the Dumontian notion of caste as consisting of a clearly demarcated, single and accepted caste hierarchy in which change did not disturb, or was absorbed without changing its essential structure, has been questioned. There is broad consensus today among scholars that rapid socio-economic and political change has introduced significant changes in the caste system. In this context the central argument in the volume under review is that caste “as it was supposed to be has collapsed” (p.x) due to the emergence of multiple and often competing hierarchies. In his introductory essay Dipankar Gupta anchors this shift around three major developments: colonialism which did not create caste but introduced significant changes such as heightening of mobility; adult franchise that enabled castes to move out of their village boundaries to construct larger identities significant in politics; and identity assertion by lower, particularly peasant castes, which has effectively undercut the power of the erstwhile dominant Brahmin-Kshatriya groups. New identities are being constructed and reconstructed out of negotiations making them fluid and transitory. Yet Gupta cautions and the contributors agree that we cannot conclude that caste is disappearing; it is just that numerous field studies have made us more conscious of its changing role. Caste cannot fundamentally change as long as it is based on ‘difference’ drawing sanction from ideas of pollution and purity, and endogamy is practised. He concludes that democratic politics or the impact of the market cannot easily remove caste; in fact developments such as urbanization may give it a fillip.   These seminal debates on caste are addressed through eight field-based studies on various regions of the subcontinent. Collectively they indicate that generalizations are of no use, that specific contexts, historical traditions, economic developments and even local politics matter. The essays also demonstrate that the greatest diversity within the caste system is visible in the middle band or level across the country, historically the site of greatest mobility. Identity has become in all cases the driving force upsetting accepted notions of hierarchy and hegemony. At the same time the studies point to immense diversity in the manner in which the caste system has grown out of interactions with society and polity.   Each essay using empirical data analyses and draws lessons from changes taking place within caste groupings in a particular locality. Prem Chowdhry’s essay demonstrates both the tenacious hold of tradition and the strong challenges it ...


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