Dalit Self-Affirmation

Is ‘thinking outside the box’ necessarily opening another box? Such is the question that the reader could reflect upon after following Debjani Ganguly in her ambitious study Caste, Colonialism and Counter-Modernity (2005). The book, subtitled ‘Notes on postcolonial hermeneutics of caste’, is meant as a profound questioning on the ways caste has been and is conceptualized, and how it could be understood differently. It is the latter that marks the aspiration of Ganguly’s essay: an attempt to challenge and transcend the few prevalent traditions of thought through which the lives and conditions of the Dalits and other unprivileged groups are perceived. Ganguly hopes, firstly, to present clearly the legacy of the colonial era, in order, secondly, to step as far as possible from it. At that stage, she tries a description of the Dalit existence liberated from the few major theoretical frameworks left by western classical scholarship, on western specialists but even on Indian anthropologists, sociologists, economists, including some of the post-colonial authors. Soon relating the inaccuracy of these traditions to the reductive risks of their respective theories, Ganguly finds herself in the complicated space of defending a new approach that should also avoid the pitfalls of theory itself. Is Ganguly suggesting a new way of conceiving of castes in Indian society, which would be bereft of a standard, general or potentially universal schemata? Is the author, then, left to undertake uncritical and purely descriptive accounts of Dalit narratives – if such an objective is possible? Or is she referring to a new way that could permit to conceive of subaltern communities without directly reducing them through the very process of theoretical conception? In the present essay, we will attempt to briefly discuss these profound and promising questions.

guill top left

The fundamental point missed by such scholars, according to Ganguly, was the link of casteism with modernity: if the practice of caste is old of several millennia, it also survived, and, arguably, was intensified, through the process of the post-Independence nation-building.

guill bottom right

While the final hope of Ganguly, in Caste, Colonialism and Counter-Modernity, may remain contested, one fact is undeniable: her study is minutely structured. The first part explores a few ‘theoretical horizons’ that have been used to understand caste. Within this part, Ganguly describes the theoretical landscape in three series of arguments. The second chapter presents the legacy of classical western scholarship under the banner of the massive Orientalist power-knowledge machine, which was developed during the centuries of European colonialism. Inspired by Edward Said’s magnum opus – who nonetheless remained broadly silent on the extent of this historical process in India – Ganguly uncovers the Orientalist ideology about India behind the scholarship of authorities such as Hegel, Marx or Mill, but also as late as with the nonetheless acclaimed Louis Dumont, and his 1980 Homo Hierarchicus. For these orientalists, “the category of caste featured as an essence in which was grounded the fundamental reasons for India’s ‘backward’, ‘static’ state” (Ganguly 2005, 33-34). Besides the condescending spirit, the fundamental point missed by such scholars, according to Ganguly, was the link of casteism with modernity: if the practice of caste is old of several millennia, it also survived, and, arguably, was intensified, through the process of the post-Independence nation-building. But Orientalism also expanded beyond the works of armchair anthropologists and philosophers: Said conceived of a Foucauldian economy of knowledge, where discourses are carefully held also by the major powers in actual control of the political and economic dynamics of a colony. On this point, a now well-known argument is the claim that it is the administrative ambition of British India that modified, if not, ‘created’ the caste, through the repeated All-India Censuses from the late 19th century onwards. According to some, castes were, till then, only more or less flexible regrouping of communities with some loose connections with their professional, geographic or religious belonging. The glorification, by a number of Indian anthropologists and philologists, of a skewed Indian antiquity, exclusively Sanskritic, also contributed to the radical simplification of the caste question.

The second group of arguments scrutinized by Ganguly in the first part of her study, occupies two chapters. In ‘The Anomalous Insider – Caste and Nationalism’, and ‘An Intractable Dualism – Caste and Marxism’, the author explains how and why the two major theoretical references after Orientalism and Independence, i.e. the nationalist rhetoric and Marxism, are both equally unable to offer an ultimately effective and non-Manichean explanation for the existence of castes and untouchability. Regarding the nationalist discourse, Ganguly enters an interesting, yet controversial terrain, since this discourse was located in the very political endeavours of the ‘Fathers’ of the Indian state, be they Gandhi, Nehru or Ambedkar, but also contemporary cultural authorities of the time, such as Tagore. The fundamental difficulty of the claim for a new nation is precisely its ideological core: the Enlightened values of an individual-based equality. While this promise was, and still is, a source of endless tensions in the countries of origin of these formulations, it was bound to be, on the eve of a new, independent nation, even more problematic in India. Liberal democracy is based upon the state’s ambition to set each citizen at a foot of equality. But in India, this implied a rather drastic negation of the long injustices perpetuated against low castes, as well as the naïve hope that banning castes would suffice to stop such deeply rooted social injustice. Ganguly’s conclusion is unambiguous: “The more the State attempts to constitutionally redress caste imbalances, the more firmly it succeeds in entrenching caste as a domain of effective difference in civil society. It is the paradox that the nationalists … could not foresee” (ibid, 65). In this context, any mention of one’s caste was perceived as an attempt to short-circuit the equalitarian project of the modern Indian nation. The ‘Fathers’ of the nation completed this hegemonic rhetoric by portraying a historical origin of the castes in India as “the epitome of racial and ethnic harmony” (ibid, 73). For them, the turn to an independent and ‘modern’ nation-state would suffice to eradicate all the remaining forms of caste in India.

In her study of the Marxian understanding of castes, Ganguly’s demonstration is different on the content but it defends broadly the same argument. While nationalist discourses dreamed of an unrealistic equalitarian Indian state, the problematic manoeuvre of Marxian historians and Indian Communist leaders, was their transposition of Marx’s reduction of all disparities to economical classes onto the Indian terrain. The core of Ganguly’s demonstration, here, is to show how caste inequality cannot be translated in terms of economic injustice: the dynamics between high castes and the untouchables is markedly different from that of the 19th century British bourgeois with the proletariat. But the influence of this Marxian reading of history is particularly prevalent, since the post 1960s wave of Indian historiographers, including Habib, Kosambi and Sharma, but also Thapar, were mostly sympathetic with this class ideology. Ultimately, Marxist history suffers from its binary definition of the roots of injustice: class would be the only true location of social evil, while ideology, religion or castes would only be the superficial, replaceable and temporary elements of the superstructure. In Ganguly’s words, “Marxism as a grand narrative with its bourgeois-proletariat dichotomy is invariably sliced through with ‘difference’, with other intersecting relationships of power and dominance” (ibid, 99).

It is in the third segment of her theoretical exploration that Ganguly enters into a properly new sphere. In ‘On the Other Side of Revenge – Caste and Post-Orientalism’, the author evaluates the success of major post-colonial works in transcending the aforementioned two main frameworks of analysis for castes, before suggesting her own version of what may be a new satisfying method of approach. Post-colonialism, inspired by the breakthrough offered by Said, grew as a discipline acutely critical of both the impossible hopes of the nation-building, and of the inaccuracy of the class analysis for the Indian society. Led by the journal Subaltern Studies, this movement attempted a new discourse on the peculiarity of Indian culture and social organizations, away from the classical references of post-Enlightenment European scholarship. But an initial discomfort could be felt with regards to the very object of this new discourse: there were two subalterns in question, namely India as a member of the non-West, recovering from its historical subjugation and reduction by the West, but also the untouchables as equally subjugated and negated by the caste structures. As Ganguly notes, it took for the journal more than a decade to bring in accounts of the post-colonial situation focusing on castes, and signed by untouchables themselves (ibid, 116).

The creative and innovative part of Ganguly’s study emerges as she discusses three essays by Gyan Prakash and Partha Chatterjee. These lead towards a novel theoretical direction, because “both Prakash and Chatterjee read caste relations as inhabiting a field of power that is not subsumed either under the narrative of capital or that of the modern nation-state” (ibid, 118). In the first essay, Prakash invokes Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of everyday practice to coherently account for the surprising narrative of a spirited practice in south Bihar, where a higher caste almost comically ‘tweaks’ the habits of his caste to successfully get the superstitious act performed. The second oral tradition mentioned by Prakash shows how untouchables have been able to conduct subtle ‘resistances’ to caste hierarchies within the limits of their own self-defining, reflective discourses, and Ganguly thus comments: “the self-same nature of dominance is thereby fractured” (ibid, 120). This possibility goes against the trope of passivity of the untouchables and low-castes, as found consistently in the scholarly explanations of Orientalism, but also of nationalism and Marxian histories. Ganguly’s mention of Chatterjee builds upon this new direction, as the Bengali scholar suggests that this resistance of the untouchables can be understood only if we follow a new definition of the ‘political’, one that would step away from its universalizing, individualistic, emancipatory, equalitarian and participatory conception as set in the Western cannons. This is pointing towards “concrete forms of democratic communities, … a more performative notion of the term ‘democracy’, a notion that sees possibilities of democratic ways of being and living that exceed its pedagogical underpinnings in the liberal traditions of European modernity” (ibid, 124). In a peak of rhetorical clarity, Ganguly asks the fundamental question behind the very universal pretention of western democracy: “Could it be that modern democratic theory … has not considered whether human societies do not invariably have elements of genuine consensus built into them?” (ibid, 125). In other words, the anxious reliance of western scholarship of a rather narrowly defined democracy as only ultimate destiny for human communities, would stem from the reductive belief that communities were, and still are, basically chaotic or scandalously unjust in all other systems of governance and social management. Unfortunately, this culmination of clarity in Ganguly’s critique is also, simultaneously, the pinnacle of her theoretical exploration.

guill top right

When a community has been, arguably, only distinguished in relation to another for several millennia, it is not a vengeful counter discourse that is necessary, but an independent definition, that is, here, a definition of the Dalits on their own terms. This would be the affirmation that Nietzsche encouraged in the later parts of his discussion on morality.

guill bottom left

It is undeniable that the forceful imposition of western categories on the rest of the world –  either through Orientalism, nationalist rhetoric or Marxian historiography – is due to the tragic lack of thorough self-critiques on the part of western scholarship, regarding the complacent consensus behind western democracy. But Ganguly makes brief mentions of the few instances of such critiques, for instance by insisting on the post-structuralist and deconstructive inspirations of her own work. She mentions Slavoj Žižek in the end of this last chapter on theory, but the names of Derrida, Badiou or Critchley are missing. When she reduces – probably without any judgmental intention – deconstruction and poststructuralism to “the notion of discursivity, in short” (ibid, 125), she omits the refined discussions of those contemporary voices on problems that are, undeniably, very close to her own. Derrida, for instance, tried to construct a conceptualization of the political that would expand upon the ethical urgency of the call of the Other, found in the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (also mentioned in passing in Ganguly’s study). Cardinal in this project is the desire to think of new ways to undertake political life, in a manner that would refrain, as far as possible, from an imposition of one community over another. More fundamentally, it is to the ancestor of post-structuralism that we must go here: Nietzsche. Interestingly, Ganguly starts the chapter on post-Orientalism with an epigraph and a first sub-heading alluding to Nietzche’s discussions of reaction, self-definition through revenge or ressentiment, and the real solution of self-affirmation. But Ganguly does not explicitly develop the theoretical implications of Nietzsche’s historical reading of morality, for the question of castes in India. The fundamentally hierarchical dynamics of communities and events through history, as discussed by Nietzsche, is clearly visible as a major influence upon the post-structural discussions of Derrida (who also borrowed from the German philosopher a method based on careful philological examination.) Derrida had focused on pairs of binaries where one element is always defined in contrast with the first, which thus appeared as prior and purer. His studies first focused on the pairs writing-speaking, but it soon expands into culture-nature, female-male, etc. Ganguly could have found, here, a ready-made theoretical structure to present the disproportionately high-caste conceptions of untouchables throughout virtually all discourses on the matter. In other words, Brahmins and untouchables would be yet another binary pair, where untouchables are only understood, and defined, as the lower opposites of the Brahmins. And it is, perhaps, the Nietzschean solution that we can adapt here. When a community has been, arguably, only distinguished in relation to another for several millennia, it is not a vengeful counter discourse that is necessary, but an independent definition, that is, here, a definition of the Dalits on their own terms. This would be the affirmation that Nietzsche encouraged in the later parts of his discussion on morality. Ganguly is definitely reaching this point, but she misses the insightful contributions of Nietzsche and its implications on a Levinas-influenced Derridean politics. Because, indeed, if a new politics should attempt to sustain a respect of the Other as Other, this also means that the self or Same, here a political agent, must refrain from imposing its categories on the Other.

line 1

Ganguly’s invocation of death, exhumation and memory of the dead ones in her analysis of a Dalit myth could serve to illustrate our plea for an affirmative self-definition of the untouchable communities, through the construction of a collective past permitting a reinforcement of the community, independently from other castes.

line 2

These theoretical suggestions are only meant to reinforce Ganguly’s argument and comfort her project. In the second half of the book, she examines a series of narratives in an attempt to illustrate what could be concrete instances of this new political, and of a new approach to caste that would see untouchables not anymore as only the passive victims of a hegemonic system. There are many hypotheses, and interpretations on the part of Ganguly, which would deserve long commentaries and responses. One thinks, for instance, of her invocation of death, exhumation and memory of the dead ones in her analysis of a Dalit myth (ibid, 148), which could also serve to illustrate our plea for an affirmative self-definition of the untouchable communities, through the construction of a collective past permitting a reinforcement of the community, independently from other castes. Other passages would also deserve their due analyses. Ganguly’s attempt is remarkable as it marks a sense of receptivity to the message of the aforementioned, recent and still marginal western critiques of western democracy. On the larger scale, it is also praise-worthy because it seeks precisely to find frameworks of analyses of Indian society, in the collective values and tropes as found in the plethora of ancient Indian narratives. And more than only a theoretical call, Ganguly, herself, starts this major endeavour by undertaking to explore such accounts. This is, we believe, the only way in which scholars on India could perhaps, ultimately, find frameworks as powerful as those of the nation-state and of class in Europe, to successfully account for the enigma of caste. And this, in turn, would be only the starting point, but one that is absolutely prerequisite and unavoidable, towards more effective attempts to properly deconstruct caste. Or, perhaps, indeed, at least to find a new ‘box’ for this ‘out of the box’ re-thinking of caste.

References

Image courtesy: Meera Sinha

Share!