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Geneologies of Discrimination


Meena Radhakrishna

SUBORDINATE AND MARGINAL GROUPS IN EARLY INDIA
Edited by Aloka Parasher-Sen
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 448, Rs. 695.00

VOLUME XXVIII NUMBER 10 October 2004

In recent years, the scholarship on dalit issues as much as dalit struggles on the ground have brought to the forefront the issue of discrimination in Indian society, both historical and contemporary. The book under review is a valuable exploration of several major strands in the genealogy of discrimination. It brings together eleven essays, written over the last few decades, on the issue of subordination, exclusion, and marginalization of disparate social groups in India before 1500 AD.   Using a variety of primary and secondary sources, the essays manage to build a nuanced picture of evolution over the centuries of complex social categories in India. The book is divided into two parts: Subordinate Groups and Marginal Groups. While the first part primarily explores the hierarchy of caste structures, the second tries to grapple with high caste responses to so called foreigners, tribes, and Muslims.   What emerges is a multifarious and fascinating picture : the sheer diversity of social groups which sometimes got categorized under a single nomenclature—‘untouchable’, ‘tribe’, ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’; the process of integration of subordinate groups into mainstream (brahmanical) society over a period of time inspite of their ritual exclusion; and the often contradictory representations of the everchanging ‘other’ in a variety of texts. Furthermore, groups which were perceived to be ‘alien’ by the brahmanical sections are shown to have been locked into an ambivalent relationship of simultaneous exclusion and inclusion.   Dev Raj Chanana’s essay on slavery in ancient India draws on varied sources like early Buddhist texts, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Arthashastra; among other facts, it has some startling information proving existence of slavery in the Buddhist monastries. He also shows that according to the Arthashastra, a slave did not necessarily belong to a particular varna, and ‘members in different stations of life, caste and class were also denoted by the term dasa or dasi’. It appears that there was no ritual impurity attached to such slaves, which is an interesting repudiation of the later brahmanical conflation of the dasa status with sudras and untouchability. Vivekanand Jha’s study brings home the fact that the notion of pollution grew historically during different periods, and was a result of steady incorporation of new groups into the category of an untouchable.   There are other interesting studies. From K.R. Hanumanthan, we get to know important details about the origin and evolution of untouchability, and from Richard Fick the ...


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