FW: Book Review - The Untouchables
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From: Danny Yee [SMTP:danny@...]
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Subject: Book Review - The Untouchables
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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
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
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0-521-55671-6
%K India, politics, social history
17 April 1999
Copyright (c) 1999 Danny Yee (danny@...)
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