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Panel 5: Transformation of Caste


Chairs: Staffan Lindberg and Neil Webster


Four sessions:

1. Tuesday 20 Sept, 14.30–16.30
2. Wednesday 21 Sept, 10.00–12.00
3. Wednesday 21 Sept, 15.30–17.30
4. Thursday 22 Sept, 09.00-11.00

Venue: NYA FESTSALEN, Akademiska Föreningen (AF), Sandgatan 2, Lund

Format: Each author is given 15 minutes for presentation of her/his paper and then follows a general discussion of the paper during 20 minutes.



Tuesday 20 September 14.30 – 16.30,
Panel slot 1, Chair: Neil Webster

1. Shivan Bhawna M. Phil, JNU. ‘Stigmatized versus assertive identity of dalits in contemporary India’. 

2. Gopika Jadeja Phd candidate, National University of Singapore. ‘You call me ‘dher’: Naming and the Negotiation of Dalit identities in Gujarat’. 

3. Niloshree Bhattacharya Post doc. Fellow, Indian Institute of Management. ‘Caste identities in the university space: Understanding discursive practices’. 

Wednesday, 21 September 10.00  – 12.00,
Panel slot 2, Chair: Staffan Lindberg

4. Guro W. Samuelsen, Phd candidate, University of Oslo. ‘Caste as Political Qualifier: The Organizing Principles of the Bahujan Samaj Party’

5. Neha Singh Research scholar, JNU. ‘Modernity and the Changing Margins of the Bhangi Community’. 

6. Neil Webster Senior Researcher, Danish Institute for International Studies. ‘Social protection and caste in Nepal: a new social contract or and old political settlement?’ 

Wednesday 21 September 15.30 – 17.30,
Panel slot 3, Chair: Staffan Lindberg

7.  Subhadeepta Ray Dr., Tezpur University. ‘Unsettling the Science of Caste.’ 

8.  Karthikeyan Damodaran Phd Candidate, University of Edinburgh. ‘Traversing between the Plough and the Sword, the Pallar re-imagination as the erstwhile rulers of Tamil Land: Reinventions and Fissures in Dalit Identity Politics in Tamil Nadu.’ 

9. Radhika Kumar Dr., University of Delhi. ‘Fluid identities, Contested Categories: Elites and the demand for reservation in India.’ 

Thursday 22 September 09.00  – 11.00,
Panel slot 4, , Chair: Staffan Lindberg

10. Staffan Lindberg, Professor emeritus in sociology, Lund University  ‘Some Unity in Diversity: Analysing Inequality, Change, and Mobility in Rural South India.’ 

11. Aftab Alam, Dr., University of Delhi. ‘The Transformation of Caste: Modernity, Ambedkarite Politics and Hindu Right.’

Discussion: Summing up and comparative perspectives on caste in contemporary India.



– Shivan, Bhawna, M.Phil (4th Semester), JNU, India (Delhi)

Stigmatized versus assertive identity of Dalits in contemporary India

The question of caste identity is an implement for existence of an individual in Indian society. In Ancient and Medieval India, those who are located at the bottom of Indian society are known as ‘untouchables’, ‘exterior castes’, ‘Scheduled castes’ who were discriminated and exploited by other social groups. The upper rungs of Hindu social order were responsible for the construction of their subjugated and subordinated position through construction of polluting symbols attached to them such as beef eating, their traditional occupation such as scavenging, tanning, weaving etc and there several behavioural traits. In order to overcome, the burden of their stigmatized past and through rising aspirations and consciousness the untouchable groups of people fight back to self-define and self-construct their identity through re-structuring the Hindu social order while appending new meaning to the symbols of their identification.

The deliberate attempts in the form of militant self-radicalization by Scheduled Castes groups of India gave rise to a political category named ‘Dalit’. The term ‘Dalit’ is an outcome of mobilization of Scheduled castes in order to self-define and self-represent them in hierarchical order of society. The formulation of identity stemmed at grass root level (in form of protests) and via establishing their autonomous political parties. The process of mobilization of Scheduled Castes is imperative for structural transformation of the traditional order of society by the newer model where they attain cultural and symbolic capital.

The discourses of assertion and process of identity formation among Dalits surfaced during nineteenth century in forms of protests and social movements carried out at grass root level. The politicization of Dalits prompted through their active participation in Bhakti movements (Chokhamela, Kabir, Ravidas etc) and socio-religious reform movements like Ad-Dharm movement in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. One of the exceptional modes espoused by Chamars of Uttar Pradesh for accomplishing symbolic and cultural capital was re-defining their identity through rewriting their own history using genealogies of myths. Later on the establishment of independent political parties such as ILP (Independent labor Party), SCF (Scheduled Caste Federation), BAMCEF, BSP etc provides an autonomous place for making Dalit ‘public’ where they can raise their voices and a platform for effective leadership representing their own interests.

The processes of ‘stigmatization’ and ‘assertion’ are well connected to each other in Indian social system. Stigmatized identity is based on ascriptive characteristics and Assertion originated as a process of resistance, a process of achievement on the basis of their improved self. Therefore, while considering the case of Indian social structure with caste system at its epicenter both processes gained attention for defining and identifying one’s identity.

The main aim of this paper centered on understanding the significance of collective or individual mobilizations of Dalits for transforming their stigmatized identity into assertive one in contemporary times. It will further analyze the consequences of politicization of Dalits on their social relationships with other groups and improving their socioeconomic and political position in society. This paper will formulate a conflicting and contradicting relation between the recognition of Dalits in Indian social structure either through their stigmatized past or assertive future. Undoubtedly, the series and events of struggles and protests affected the social functioning of ‘caste’ as a defining feature of identity of any individual or group in Indian society. But still Indian social order cannot be fully dependent on achieved characteristics of individual without taking into account his ascriptive identity which again is rooted in his/her position in hierarchical structure of society.


– Gopika Jadeja, PhD Candidate, South Asian Studies Programme, National University of Singapore

You call me ‘dher’: Naming and the Negotiation of Dalit identities in Gujarat

When you call me 'dher' I am hurt

and wish to kick you in the belly

when you call me untouchable

I am offended

and wish to slap you on the face

when you call me 'Harijan'

I am humiliated

and wish to spit on your back

[…]when you call me Neerav  Patel

I suspect you called me convert

(a crow that dyed his feathers

white to be called a swan)

and wish to turn away my face

when you don't call me anything

I am annoyed that you neglected me altogether

and wish to call you back to call me…

Neerav Patel

Caste has been an organizing principle of social and political order in India and it is also an organizing principle that has been contested in various ways. One of the ways in which this has been contested is through the discarding and rejecting or claiming of identity through naming. Caste names have played an important role in the social sphere, allowing or denying access to individuals and groups based on their caste identity. As Ambedkar said in 1945, “the untouchables have no Press”. While this may not be entirely true in 2016, it is certainly true that in the literary sphere in India, Dalit writing still has to contest for space.
In 2007 Dalit students in Gujarat set fire to the guide book for Umashankar Joshi’s play titled Dhed na dhed bhangi which was a set text for their Gujarati literature course. Their objection was to the name ‘Bhangi’ in the title of the play, one of the many pejorative and now constitutionally banned words for dalits in Gujarat/i.
In this paper I examine the phenomenon of ‘naming’ in the literary sphere in Gujarat and its role in the contestation of social and political space for Dalits within the nation. I will explore this through a study of Gujarati Dalit poetry and other writing that exemplifies this contestation of identities besides examining other events like the burning of the guide book to Umashankar Joshi’s play within the Gujarati Literary Sphere. Through these I will be exploring questions of the symbolic value of caste names in the contestation of economic and social space as well as in raising cultural capital.


– Niloshree Bhattacharya

Caste identities in the university space: Understanding discursive practices

Since the 1990s, a number of forces have made caste a modern political category – the Mandal Commission, the prominence of Bahujan Samaj Party, numerous Dalit student organizations, Dalit intelligentsia, Dalit feminist groups and the academic contribution of subaltern and post-colonial scholars. In the wake of student protests against Hindu nationalism, the recent suicide of Rohith Vemula has reminded us of the persistence of caste-based discrimination in educational institutions. Casteism, which has been associated with India’s ‘rural’ and ‘traditional’ past, makes its strong presence felt in ‘modern’, educational institutions today. This paper attempts to understand the discursive practices through which casteism perpetuates in a reconfigured form in the university space and its implications.
While education and English language are considered to be the vehicles of freedom from structures of oppression for Dalits, it is also true that, English becomes an impediment in their path to academic success, making them alienated. The university space replicates the same structures of hierarchy and discrimination and the cultural environment within universities does not let them escape from their ‘reserved’ status. Consequently, the university becomes a space where politics of identity and language plays out at multiple levels and forms.  
Having spent eight long years in the University of Hyderabad, witnessing also the suicide of another Dalit student, Senthil Kumar in 2008, I attempt to present an insider’s view of the everyday life practices within the campus community, as an illustration. First, despite reservation, is our modern education system, with its primacy for English language and notions of progress and modernity, well-equipped to recognize difference? Second, in what ways do caste identities adapt and reconfigure, and consequently what are the political and cultural expressions in the university space? Third, what are the wider implications of formation of ‘progressive’ student forums including Dalit, feminist and left groups?

Niloshree Bhattacharya is currently a post-doctoral research fellow in Public Policy at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Calcutta. A gold medalist in Masters in Sociology, she completed PhD in Sociology from University of Hyderabad in 2015. For her doctoral research, she worked on Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS), a farmer’s movement from Karnataka, where she looked at the processes of transformation in social movements during globalization. She is interested in social movements, political sociology and development studies and she has published in the Sociological Bulletin.


– Guro W. Samuelsen

Caste as political qualifier: The organizing principles of the Bahujan Samāj Party

This paper discusses how an anti-caste ideology and rhetoric is combined with the functional uses of caste as a primary organizational category within a local branch of the Bahujan Samāj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh (UP). While caste as legitimation for discrimination and exclusion is derided in official speeches as well as the unofficial rhetoric of BSP workers, the practical organization of the party’s working groups and committees is primarily based on caste considerations, from an election-time reliance on caste-specific ‘brotherhood’ committees to a parallel cadre system where Scheduled Caste (SC) party workers are surveilling and reporting on the work of the non-SC cadre. This use of caste as an organizational principle is based on its continued importance as a fundamental social category in the region. In the daily lives and practices of ground-level political party workers there is no perceived contradiction between aspirations of being ‘modern’ and the continuation of caste-based practices. One reason for this is the transition that the institution of caste has been through, from hierarchy to competing identities, a transition which has been facilitated and accelerated by the principle of competition that is so intrinsic to the workings of democracy. One question I will attempt to answer is how we can use detailed studies of caste as political practice as a means to transcend the longstanding, but analytically not so helpful dichotomy between ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’. The paper is based on eleven months of field work in an urban-rural constituency in Eastern UP between 2013 and 2015.


– Neha Singh, CSDE, JNU, India

Modernity and the Changing Margins of the Bhangi Community

The modern notions of individual autonomy, identity, suffering, discrimination, exclusion, problems and prospects etc of the Bhangi community can be stratified and looked from distance[1]bringing several points of hermeneutics of interpretation such as the intention behind using particular language, form of expression, practice of culture. It focuses on how the interpretation of sentences speak to each other and how/which dimension of caste is reflecting. While with the participation in the ethnographic field work some new category emerges from narrative which can be understood through existing paradigms of understanding. There are also some categories emerging which require new space within and outside the regime of theorization.  

Broadly, understanding of the Bhangi community in the Caste context can be approached from two ways. Firstly, through the understanding of the western theories and philosophies which have different context of theorization keeping western individual in mind and Hindu religious philosophies which shares the same context but has different politics of all theorization. Secondly, through the understanding of the experiences of the Bhangis which largely have been neglected by the Hindu religious philosophy.
The intentional exclusion of the untouchable Bhangis from the Hindu religious philosophy has been done explicitly to keep them marginalized and vulnerable. Consequently such dominant Hindu religious theories (Brahmanical theories) explain a false/incomplete side of self and self-respect to establish their hegemony. Therefore counter hegemonic theory comes from Dalit-bahujan and Subaltern perspectives. Moreover the tradition of Dalit Autobiography and narratives unfolds several new dimensions of self and self respect. These new dimensions encroaching into mainstream discussions have to be looked first and then testify existing theoretical positions both western and Indian. Therefore this work is an attempt to cover maximum theoretical paradigms of understanding concerning self and self-respect of the Bhangi community. In the process the study shall even seek how the Bhangi community experience, contest and negotiate modernity with the tradition. 

I am a Research Scholar in the Centre for the Study of Exclusion and Discrimination, JNU. I have had more than 5 years of work experience of working on the issue of Ambedkar and Caste and Gender. I had been associated with several research institutes like Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, Ministry of Social Justice, Indian Institute of Public Administartion and many more and have few published articles to my credit.


– Neil Webster, DIIS - Danish Institute for International Studies, Copenhagen

Social protection and caste in Nepal: a new social contract or an old political settlement?

The paper looks to contribute to discussions around the second thematic question raised in the panel: How is caste reproduced to fit the structures of the neo-liberal economy. Eg.  how the symbolic value of the caste name is used to advance economic, social and cultural capital.
Social protection can be a key state instrument to reduce social exclusion and inequality in a society by providing safety nets to the most vulnerable households, targeting the socially excluded and challenging inter-generational poverty. Linked to broader state-building, social protection can shape significantly the social contract between citizen and state. It can be an instrument affecting structures and accompanying identities based on such factors as gender, ethnicity, locality and caste, countering the monopolisation of political, social and economic capital by elite cultural identities. However, if handled merely as a technical approach to certain effects resulting from exclusion and marginalisation, then social protection can be part of a political settlement that maintains the positions of political, economic and cultural elites.
In 2013-14, 2.1 million persons in Nepal benefitted directly from government social protection, for which NRs 10.5 billion were allocated. The potential for generating a new social contract rooted in more inclusive political institutions, welfare programmes that challenged inequality and poverty, and economic growth that meet a broad range of aspirations is therefore considerable. While described as having a Scandinavian approach to social protection Nepal retains caste hierarchies that play a central role in reproducing deeply entrenched ‘intersecting inequalities’. The paper takes its point of departure in the Nepal’s approach to social protection to explore the tensions between a caste-based social exclusion and aspirations for greater social inclusion and change.

Neil Webster, Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies. Has researched and published on the politics of local development in India and Nepal for more than 3 decades. Has recently worked for three years on local development in Nepal as an advisor to the Government of Nepal on behalf of UNDP and UNCDF.


– Dr. Subhadeepta Ray, Assistant Professor, Tezpur University, Assam, India

Unsettling the Science of Caste

In August 2015, Prime Minister Modi accused his political rival Nitish Kumar of Bihar of being undemocratic and imputing that something was wrong with his ‘political DNA’.[2] The comment infuriated sections of the Bihari community which in protest sent hair and blood samples to the Prime Minister’s office. The oxymoron ‘political DNA’ conflates the binary dichotomies of ‘science’ (DNA, genetics) and ‘politics’ (caste identity, democracy). The trope of caste has received academic attention in terms of its articulation within modern institutions like capitalism and democracy. It is the articulation of caste with the modern institution of science that merits attention.

In this paper I attempt to unpack this conflation of science and caste by examining genomic studies conducted on the ‘people of India’. The scientists engaged in these studies presume that the endogamy of the caste system has ensured the survival of pure gene pools constituting an important bio-resource. According to them, India is the best place to do evolutionary studies of caste/tribal groups leading to the identification of ethnic specific genomic markers. These attempts in ‘molecularisation’ of caste have bearings on identity politics.

I argue that there are two registers of caste in operation. The scientists perceive caste as taxonomy or a cultural species that mates within while eschewing the messy world of caste as identity, affirmative action etc. that comprises the world of politics. This separation of caste as scientific fact or taxonomy and caste as social stratification or politics is untenable. Both are co-produced simultaneously. It is casteism that has resulted in the creation of taxonomy which the scientists need to account for. The world of identity practices informs our science just as much our scientific evidence torque our ideas about identity.

Drawing on Paul Rabinow (1996), I examine the idea of caste as a form of bio-sociality that is tied to issues of population and governance. More importantly, I argue that in order to practice a bioethics scientists need to go beyond informed consent and acknowledge caste as a ‘factish’. Factish is the neologism coined by Latour (1999) combining the terms fact and fetish thereby conflating taxonomy (science) and stratification (politics). We cannot purge caste from science when it forms the basis of sample collection and a successful bioethics project needs to acknowledge the factish of caste.


– Karthikeyan Damodaran, PhD Candidate, University of Edinburgh.

Traversing between the Plough and the Sword, the Pallar re-imagination as the erstwhile rulers of Tamil Land: Reinventions and Fissures in Dalit Identity Politics in Tamil Nadu

Since the 2000s the fissures in Dalit identity in Tamil Nadu are becoming more visible than ever and one can see this in the machinations of Dalit identity politics. There is a calculated reinvention and making of cultural symbols. Amongst these, most importantly, the term ‘Dalit’ itself is being remade as it does not in any sense represent the current generation of Pallars, who were once responsible for the formation of the militant Dalit politics in the state. The 1990s saw the mass uprising of Dalit communities countering the dominance of intermediate castes. The emergence of a strong counter-mobilisation on the part of Dalits in the Pallar dominated southern districts resulted in unprecedented levels of caste based violence and resistance which went on for months together in Southern Tamil Nadu.
Having spearheaded the Dalit resurgence in Tamil Nadu, however, the Pallars now are caught in a double bind. Pallar groups have a Janus faced existence at present, using the category Dalit in national circles whilst they refrain from using the category in local contexts and - as the most advanced section among the Scheduled Castes in Tamil Nadu - refuse to identify themselves with the generic category of Dalits. This has resulted in a situation where, as argued by Pandian (2014), the generic category of Dalit is now identified with Parayars rather than unifying the various oppressed castes. This search for a new identity amongst Pallars is marked by contestations. The ascription of a new identity is problematic for the politically active Pallars who travel between the political usage of the term Dalit where necessary and their preferred term Devendra Kula Vellalar. Added into this mix are the emerging strategies of many small groups among Pallars, which are not involved, in electoral politics. Influenced by Tamil nationalism and Hindutva forces, they claim a hoary past as descendants of royal lineage and as lords of irrigated lands and use literary sources to claim that they were originally referred to as Mallars before being made Pallars and come up with strategically redefined slogans as Yerum Poarum Engal Kula Thozhil  (Ploughing the fields and fighting battles is our community occupation) thus reinventing their pasts.  
Through interactions with my Pallar interlocutors in the field the paper argues that Pallar identity claims emerge on the lines of a repressed community which had sacrificed a lot to quell upper caste dominance through violent struggle with their immediate oppressors the Mukkulathors, a dominant caste cluster which comprises endogamous castes of Kallars, Maravars and Agamudaiyars. Through an array of performances the Mukkulathors claim to be descended from the clans of Chera, Chola and Pandyas. In order to challenge their subjugation the Pallars now replicate the practices of Thevars and Nadars in disavowing their lowly pasts. Seen within the prism of Robert Deliege (1992)’s conceptualization of replication and consensus, Pallar imitation of Thevars – most visible in terms of Guru Pujas - could be seen as a mode of resistance, but the implications of such performances towards a common Dalit identity can’t be overlooked.


– Radhika Kumar, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Motilal Nehru College, University of Delhi

Fluid Identities, Contested Categories: Elites and the demand for reservation in India

Affirmative action policies have been typical to nations and institutions aiming to provide greater representation to marginalised groups and communities in various spheres of life. India has had a long tradition of affirmative action or ‘reservation’ policy for the socially and educationally backward communities, a policy deeply resented and opposed by the elite/forward communities. While these policies have only been marginally successful in ameliorating the condition of the backwards, it is the forward communities which are now aggressively demanding reservation. This shift in the elite discourse has three fold implications. Firstly it challenges the logic of the reservation policy which is now vulnerable to elite capture. Secondly it also flexes its muscle in the electoral arena revitalising identity politics and patron-client relations. Thirdly the elite demand resurrects the idea of a welfare state in an economy which is rapidly liberalising. Hence while compensatory discrimination policies need to be revisited and revised, a newer demand by economically secure groups threatens to jeopardise the very purpose of compensatory discrimination, reversing as it were the original intent behind the policy. Also the inability of the state to rethink compensatory discrimination also prevents it from rejecting these newer demands which come from vocal and visible forward classes. This paper attempts a sub-national comparison using the qualitative research method including secondary source references to traverse the field of identity formation and fleshes out the policy and politics that drives the contemporary demand for reservation with special reference to the Jats in Haryana, Patidars in Gujarat and the Kapus in Andhra Pradesh.


– Staffan Lindberg, Lund University

‘Some Unity in Diversity: Analysing Inequality, Change, and Mobility in Rural South India.’

This chapter is going to appear in a forthcoming volume commemorating Ramkrishna Mukherjee (RM). Source: lecture at the Commemoration of Ramkrishna Mukherjee, Seminar, ISI, Calcutta, 28-29 March 2016. The use of abstract models, as suggested and practised by RM, provides a fruitful entry into a full-fledged analysis of various social phenomena. My reading of RM is that he gave ample evidence of sociology as the broadest of the social sciences in that it can be applied to all social relations across the human world. In this chapter, I will draw on this insight in proposing a sociological model for the study of inequality, change, and mobility, which I will illustrate with some field data from rural South India.


– Dr. Aftab Alam, Asstt. Professor, Deptt. of Political Science, ZHDC, University of Delhi

The Transformation of Caste: Modernity, Ambedkarite Politics and Hindu Right

Caste is still very central to Indian society. It is undergoing through continuous transformation in ‘modern’ times. We need to analyse caste in its contemporary forms. Although caste is a ‘traditional’ category, it has been acquiring a new meaning through its reproduction in ‘modern’ times.

What we have observed, far from being erased or weakened, caste has further consolidated with new forms and expressions. Even more important is to witness and analyse the process of formation of a ‘modern’ political identity category. The paper highlights that these identities have a material and moral basis. In contemporary India, changing nature and transformation of caste politics can be observed not only through their struggles over the symbolic values, but their fight for access to professional networks, educational opportunities and economic resources. It is here that identity politics gets transformed and finds new expressions and meanings. Rohith’s involvement in Ambedkarite politics and radical Dalit imagination/consciousness posed a threat to right-wing Hindu/Hindutva politics.

As someone who has closely observed and actively engaged with the movement for ‘justice for Rohith’, I would argue that radical Dalit politics is the direct opposite of Hindutva. The former in its Ambedkarite form stands for rational humanism, universal liberation, dignity and modernity, the latter’s motivating force is communal hatred, and its organising principle is religion based, patriarchal and violent nationalism and caste superiority.

Rohith will remain a symbol of this ‘transformative stage’ leading to modernity. Rohith suffered the exclusions, humiliation and discrimination along with other Dalit students. Yet, he refused to allow caste to break or confine him.

Those Dalit students who emerge in their own right, with their identity out in the open and for all to see, become the axiomatic Ekalavyas, yet not free being. Even the Dalit-Bahujan faculty are at the receiving end of ostracisation within these corridors of caste power. For Dalits, casteist India seems to become what Western Europe was for Jews once.

Paper interrogates some of the dominant understanding of caste. It demonstrates that caste identities have been reconfigured by ‘modern’ identity politics. Focusing on Rohith Vemula’s case, it critically examines the political struggles over the meaning of Hinduism and caste discrimination.

The paper reflects upon the processes, idioms, cultural past/resource, and subaltern (lower castes) historical figures through which Dalits seek to advance their symbolic value. Rather than concealing their identity, as it was the case in the past, Dalits are asserting their pride in their own historical icons like Babasaheb Ambedkar, and a long list of Dalit-Bahujan figures. Looking at these kinds of transformation from below, the paper argues that ‘modernity’ in India is being experienced, contested and negotiated in its own typical ways given the complex nature of its society.

The paper also dwells upon the processes through which caste is reproduced to suit the structures of the neo-liberal economy. There is ample evidence to suggest that the symbolic value of the caste name is used to advance its economic, social and cultural capital.

Short Bio. Dr. Aftab Alam teaches political science at ZHDC, University of Delhi. He has completed his Masters, MPhil, PhD in Political Science from Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His areas of interest include; Indian politics, marginality, caste, modernity, south Asia, and democracy. He has publications in the relevant field including one from Oxford University Press. He has participated in national, international conferences in India and abroad. He has been Member of various govt committees, research institutes, and civil society organisations.