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Routledge New Horizons in South Asian Studies Caste and Equality in India A Historical Anthropology of Diverse Society and Vernacular Democracy


Akio Tanabe


364 pages, hardcover




July 30, 2021



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Caste and Equality in India

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This book presents an alternative view of caste in Indian society by analyzing caste structure and change in Indian local communities from historical and anthropological perspectives. It focuses primarily on agricultural society in Khurda district, Orissa, between the eighteenth century and 2009.
A core aim of the book is a theoretical, historical and ethnographic intervention in the recent debates on the moral basis of postcolonial India—whether it should be state-centered or society-centered, individual-based or community-based, secular or religious, modern or traditional—by paying attention to the long-term transformation of caste ethics in everyday practices in Indian society. This book suggests a third perspective beyond these postcolonial dichotomies by paying attention to the people’s capacity as reflexive and creative agents in negotiating interpersonal and intercaste interaction and relationships. Paying attention to this third perspective, which takes into account both diversity and equality, is crucially important today, as while the subaltern minorities are raising their voices more than ever, the classical elite liberalism is fracturing and majoritarian populism is gaining political ground.
The book contends that beyond ‘status’ and ‘power’, which are undoubtedly important values in Indian society, there is another value, ontological ‘equality’, which functions as the moral-ethical ground for asserting respect and concern for life of others. Ontological equality is the idea that the Absolute, while transcending all beings, is at the same time immanent, permeating each being in the world. All beings—whether human or non-human, alive or non-alive—are equal at the ontological level, as their essence is one and the same.
The three values—status, power and equality—also define the complex characteristics of caste. The book locates the value of ontological equality in relation to the dynamic transformation of intercaste relationships over the past three hundred years. It argues that the value of ontological equality has played an important role in providing the means and place of livelihood for diverse social groups, despite the hegemony of hierarchy and domination. That is to say, ontological equality has been the basis for creating ‘diverse society’ that has characterized India.
The book presents the historical longue durée of a region in Orissa in order to illustrate how the present-day transformation can only be properly understood if we go beyond colonial determinism and look at the socio-political system of precolonial India, its transformation under colonialism, and how the value of ontological equality is creatively mediated with today’s democratic ethos as a critique of (post)colonially fixed hierarchy and domination. It contends that the movement towards ‘vernacular democracy’ that has become conspicuous since the second half of the 1990s is a historically ground-breaking event supported by the affirmation of diversity by the subalterns based on the value of ontological equality. By ‘vernacular democracy’, we mean a form of democracy that embedded in the vernacular lifeworld, the formation of which involves both the vernacularization of democratic politics and democratization of social relationships.
In today’s world, contemporary India is emerging as a vibrant democracy with social diversity. For a long time, diversity in India has been understood only in terms of hierarchy and/or power. While discrimination and exclusion persist and indeed pose serious challenges, it is time that we also ask a different set of questions: How has India coped in creating a vibrant democracy with (not ‘despite of’) its diversity? What are the cultural values and social relationships through which India has managed to turn diversity to its advantage?
In order to go beyond both essentialist understanding of hierarchical India and colonial determinism that argues as if colonialism defined all that is Indian, this book 1) takes a long duration approach beginning from precolonial, early modern era to the post-postcolonial present; 2) pays attention to the moral-ethical agency of the subalterns in reformulating interpersonal and intercaste relationships; 3) suggests the importance of the value of ‘ontological equality’ as the basis for affirmation of social diversity; and 4) places the emergence of ‘vernacular democracy’ as an attempt at creative redefinition of caste from below as an alternative socio-political design, based upon the recognition of difference while securing equal participation.


(Written by TANABE Akio, Professor, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences / 2021)

Table of Contents

1 Introduction: Towards a cultural politics of ethics in everyday practice
2 Managing diversities: Frontiers, forest communities and little kingdoms
3 Local society and kingship: Reconsidering ‘caste’, ‘community’ and ‘state’
4 Early colonial transformation: The emergence of wedged dichotomies
5 Consolidation of colonial dichotomy: Political economy and cultural identity
6 Postcolonial tradition: The biomoral universe
7 Cash and faction: ‘The logic of the fish’ in the political economy
8 Ritual, history and identity: The Goddess Rāmacaṇḍī festival
9 Recast(e)ing identity: Transformations from below
10 Vernacular democracy: A post-postcolonial transformation
11 Conclusion: Beyond the postcolonial
Appendix 1: Deed of Sale of Village Office
Appendix 2: Details of State Tax

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