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The Unequal Process of Social Change


T.K. Oommen

EMERGENCE OF A SLAVE CASTE: PULAYAS OF KERALA
By K. Saradamoni
People's Publishing House, 1980, pp. xiii 259, Rs. 45.00

VOLUME IV NUMBER 5-6 March-April/May-June 1980

The current widely shared concern for building an egalitarian and just society in India often prompts scholars to inquire into the prerequisites for achieving this laudable objective. An understanding of the processes of change specific consti­tuents of Indian society have experienced over a period of time can provide useful insights in this context. These insights are particularly valuable if they relate to the most oppressed section in Indian society, the Scheduled Castes, to use the official terminology. Inspite of the high pay-offs expected, such studies are too few, save a few exceptions such as the studies on Mahars of Maharashtra, Chamars of Uttar Pradesh, etc., considering the vast numbers and the considerable regional variations involved. Viewed against this background Saradamoni's attempt to ana­lyse social change among the Pulayas, the most populous Scheduled Caste of Kerala is most welcome. Available evidence suggests that Pul­ayas, the original owners of land were not only dispossessed of their land but were relegated to the position of an agrestic slave caste by the beginning of the 19th century. If one takes the title of the book seriously, one should expect a description and analysis of the process through which the erstwhile owners of land, the Pulayas, have come to be slaves. Instead, what the book describes is the process of gradual emancipation of Pulayas (although this is not yet complete) from their former status as a slave caste. To this extent, the title of the book is misleading. Having described the 'tortuous road to slavery abolition', Saradamoni concludes: ‘... the slavery abolition measures granted only de jure freedom and not de facto free­dom to the slaves’. It is important to note the reasons for this limited achievement. First, given the existential conditions—­illiteracy, ignorance, poverty, repression, exploitation- the slaves were not equipped to articulate the demand for slavery abolition, let alone protest for it. Second, there did not exist even a minority among the upper stratum of the then Kerala society to question the practice of slavery. Third, the de jure granting of freedom remained a shell without substance in so far as slavery abolition was not reinforced by economic emancipation, which alone could have rendered the legal freedom authentic and meaningful. Thus slavery abolition has led to a paradoxical situation: the erstwhile slaves have not yet become capable of chal­lenging their former masters as they conti­nue to be economically ...


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