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FW: Book Review - The Untouchables

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  • Ann Popplestone
    ... From: Danny Yee [SMTP:danny@ANATOMY.USYD.EDU.AU] Sent: Saturday, April 17, 1999 9:16 AM To: ANTHRO-L@LISTSERV.ACSU.BUFFALO.EDU Subject: Book Review - The
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      -----Original Message-----
      From: Danny Yee [SMTP:danny@...]
      Sent: Saturday, April 17, 1999 9:16 AM
      To: ANTHRO-L@...
      Subject: Book Review - The Untouchables

      An HTML version of this book review can be found at
      along with more than 450 other reviews

      title: The Untouchables
      : Subordination, Poverty and the State in Modern India
      by: Oliver Mendelsohn + Marika Vicziany
      publisher: Cambridge University Press 1998
      other: 289 pages, bibliography, index

      Untouchability has played an important role in Indian history and
      still affects many millions of Indians. _The Untouchables_ focuses
      on its connections with poverty and state politics, with a primarily
      political and historical focus, but also looks at its social construction
      and effects on the lives of individuals. With a broad approach not
      burdened with too much theory, it will interest scholars, students,
      and lay readers of history, politics, religion, economics, sociology,
      and other disciplines.

      Mendelsohn and Vicziany begin with the vexed question of the identity of
      "the Untouchables" and an explanation for their choice of that term for
      their title, over _Harijan_, _Dalit_, or Scheduled Caste. (They use
      all these terms and others in the text.) There has been a long-running
      debate over the nature of Untouchable identity and its relationship with
      Hindu culture. For Mendelsohn and Vicziany the key issue is

      whether the Untouchables share a social situation that is
      sufficiently common to be the basis or potential basis for their
      mobilisation as a distinct unit for some important purposes.
      ... There is indeed something of a `hard bar' separating
      Untouchables from the rest of Indian society, and Untouchables
      themselves have come to see that bar as the basis for a certain
      amount of common consciousness and action.

      The category as it exists now may be a recent construction, a response
      to British actions and Muslim/Hindu rivalry, but it was constructed on
      long-standing foundations: evidence from the _bhakti_ literary tradition
      shows that Untouchable ritual subordination existed in medieval times.

      Recent violence against Untouchables, the so-called "Harijan atrocities"
      has brought the issue of Untouchability to prominence. Mendelsohn and
      Vicziany argue "that the incidence of violence involving Untouchables has
      increased significantly over the post-Independence period". The violence
      can be divided into "traditional" forms and others that are responses
      to Untouchable resistance to ritual subordination, often taking the form
      of organised retaliatory violence by caste Hindus, sometimes abetted by
      the police and state apparatus. There are marked regional variations in
      such violence and it is often tied up with broader political violence,
      associated with mainstream electoral contests as well as with class
      conflict and Naxalite revolutionaries.

      Early Untouchable politics involved Hindu reform movements, often
      motivated by the threat, however nugatory, of Untouchable conversion to
      Christianity or Islam. Early organisation by Untouchables themselves
      was on a caste and regional basis, and relationships between different
      Untouchable castes were often difficult. The 1930s saw key struggles
      between Gandhi and Ambedkar, most notably over whether Untouchables would
      have separate electorates or joint electorates with reserved seats.
      Congress was the only national organisation with a large Untouchable
      following, but Gandhi failed to gain their commitment. Ambedkar, an
      Untouchable himself, developed a deeper analysis of Untouchability,
      but lacked a workable political strategy: his conversion to Buddhism in
      1956, along with millions of followers, highlighted the failure of his
      political endeavours.

      In the years since 1956 Ambedkarite political organisations have been
      riven by internal conflicts, notably between young, modernist, and urban
      elements and older, rural, and often Buddhist ones. But Ambedkar's
      legacy remains fruitful. Maharashtra and Karnataka have produced a
      Dalit literary movement, while there have been political success in
      northern India. In Uttar Pradesh, the Bahujana Samaj party lead by
      Kanshi Ram has, through alliances of convenience with other parties,
      attained minority government, installing Mayawati as Chief Minister.
      Though their achievements in power were limited, this illustrates how
      Dalits are now using their voting power directly rather than as simple
      vote banks at the service of mainstream parties.

      Public policy on Untouchability has been "abstract and unrealistic"
      but not completely ineffective. One strand has been action against
      adverse discrimination. Discrimination against Untouchables is still
      widespread in rural areas in the private sphere, in ritual matters such as
      access to eating places and water sources. It has largely disappeared,
      however, in urban areas and in the public sphere, in rights of movement
      and access to schools. Mendelsohn and Vicziany argue, however, that
      this has been part of a broader movement towards a new civic culture
      rather than the result of legislative action: "court enforcement of the
      anti-disabilities legislation has not been a powerful force in bringing
      about an abatement of the practice of Untouchability".

      Compensatory discrimination has been more controversial. One success of
      Ambedkar's was the creation of quotas within public service for Scheduled
      Castes, though targets set after Independence are only being attained now.
      Complaints about this system are that it benefits an elite group of
      well-off Untouchables, that particular castes or regions benefit more,
      and that those in office do little to help their fellows. Compensatory
      discrimination in education, through scholarships and reserved places, has
      had some effects but has generally been poorly implemented. Despite this,
      basic literacy amongst Untouchables is gradually catching up to that of
      the broader population.

      Brief biographies of some Scheduled Caste politicians, national and
      state, show that they have indeed come from the better off among
      their communities. But their advantages have often been very slight:
      family ownership of a cow, for example, or a small plot of land -- just
      enough to alleviate the desperation of poverty and allow an opportunity
      for education. Along with public service reservations, scholarships
      (however small and corruptly administered) and the "Harijan hostels"
      associated with colleges have helped them overcome the barriers of
      poverty and Untouchability. While Scheduled Caste politicians have not
      been effective in representing Untouchables generally, Mendelsohn and
      Vicziany find little evidence of a "Harijan elite".

      Other public policy initiatives of key importance to the Untouchables
      have been the anti-poverty programs: famine prevention, land reform,
      food-for-work schemes, and the Integrated Rural Development Program,
      among others. Apart from the first, these have had limited success.
      There has been considerable regional variation in alleviation of
      Untouchable poverty. Along with the population generally, Untouchables
      in Kerala score extremely well on social indicators such as literacy,
      education, health, and fertility, but they face high unemployment
      and lack of opportunity. For contrast Mendelsohn and Vicziany look in
      detail at the village of Behror, located in a relatively affluent "Green
      Revolution" area mid-way between Delhi and Jaipur. Different Untouchable
      communities here exhibit great variation in their employment patterns
      and economic success.

      The Faisalabad stone quarries, just outside Delhi, provide an example of
      the new Untouchable proletariat being created created through urbanisation
      and migration: eight out of ten workers there are Untouchable and most of
      the rest are tribals. A case to have welfare legislation enforced and end
      bonded labor was taken to the Supreme Court by activist Swami Agnivesh,
      but ostensible success was vitiated by the failure of governments and
      employers to implement court directives and by an excessive focus on
      bonded labour. And union organisation amongst Untouchables faces many

      The negotiations between Gandhi, Ambedkar, and the British in the late 20s
      and early 30s had a key role in shaping subsequent Untouchable history.
      But the greatest changes have been gradual, brought about by improvements
      in education and possession of the franchise. Mendelsohn and Vicziany
      foresee no end to Untouchable poverty: with the decline of ritual
      discrimination, "Untouchables will become decreasingly differentiated
      from other Indians" in their poverty.


      %T The Untouchables
      %S Subordination, Poverty and the State in Modern India
      %A Oliver Mendelsohn
      %A Marika Vicziany
      %I Cambridge University Press
      %C Cambridge
      %D 1998
      %O paperback, bibliography, index
      %G ISBN 0-521-55671-6
      %P xviii,289pp
      %U http://www.cup.cam.ac.uk/Scripts/webbook.asp?isbn=0521556716
      %K India, politics, social history

      17 April 1999

      Copyright (c) 1999 Danny Yee (danny@...)

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