Power of touch


Gopal Guru

(First published in December 2006)

The concept of untouchability travels from rural locations to the cities.

gopal_guru_copy_copy_copy_copyCAN categories of understanding be divided on the basis of spatiality? The answer to this question could be given in the affirmative. By and large, it is true that the scholars working on Indian society and politics have treated caste and untouchability as rural issues and communalism as an urban one. The attempts to treat untouchability primarily as a rural social reality may look valid because it is the rural social context that provides conditions both for its definition and neat articulation. Let us examine why the rural, and not the urban, becomes a 'privileged' site for the understanding and expression of untouchability.

First, in India, the discourse on untouchability is built up around the idea of touch. Unlike other societies, socially dominant groups within India have developed a distinct understanding of touch. The idea is embedded in their minds with enormous power to fragment, discipline, segregate and quarantine large chunks of humanity. What is so distinct about touch is its moral 'economy', which achieves this fragmentation with no investment of power; that is to say, it is withdrawal from, rather than engagement with, bodies that creates the other - the untouchable. Thus, touch is powerful because it privileges some bodies through insulation rather than assimilation.


The ‘Precariat’ Strikes

Anand Teltumbde

The occupation of the Indu Mills near Chaityabhoomi in Mumbai by dalit youth demanding that an Ambedkar memorial should come up there is a heartening development. In neo-liberal India, dalits are a significant part of the "precariat" – a section of the people with no job security, indeed, with no prospect of employment, and hence, ready to take on the risks of plunging into the struggle for a better world. Today it is Indu Mills; tomorrow it could be India!


Caste in India

Gail Omvedt

[Written in the year 2008]

(A Reply to the Hindu Council of UK essay on "The Caste System")

* I owe thanks to Michael Witzel for his note citing Vedic references on caste and his careful reading of an earlier version of this essay.


The essay submitted by the Hindu Council of the United Kingdom on "Caste in India" contains no surprises. It seeks to justify and legitimate the continuation of the caste system. It argues that in its origin the caste system was a way of maintaining a harmonious and integrated society, that it was not by birth but by "merit", and that today it functions as something like a "club" in which likeminded people can associate freely with one another. Caste, according to the Hindu Council, took on its severe and birth-related qualities only during the medieval period in India, when a wave of invasions, mostly by Muslims (though the report mentions at first the Kushans), forced a retreat into a defensive form of integration. It has not been stagnant, and is in the process of being reformed today. The Report concludes by saying that "Historically, varnashram has enabled Hindu civilisation to survive repeated invasions. It has made Indian society stronger....Today it has outlived its usefulness."

Does this mean it should be destroyed? Not according to the Hindu Council:

"The caste system should and will undergo reforms in the social arena. Through education and enforcement of existing legislation, unjustified discrimination and abuse will be eliminated and the original concept of caste re-established."

The Hindu Council apparently wants to maintain their idealized version of varnashrama dharma, in which caste functions like a "club", in which people perform their ascribed duties but are given "respect." Let us see what this means. We want to examine not just theirs, but the original (Brahmanic) concept and reality of caste.


Janeu, The Cat's Cradle

Gopal Guru

(First published in Outlook magazine in March 2009)

Brahmins are fashioning new political rhetoric from old stereotypes

gopal_guru_copy_copy_copyLet me begin this piece with a dramatic question: what are Brahmins doing in political parties? Let me make it even more dramatic: what are they doing in non-Brahmin, Dalit or Dalit-led parties? If these questions sound startling, it is because of a particular, idealised image of the Brahmin, who is supposed to keep out of temporal politics and devote himself to spiritual pursuits. The Brahmin's engagement in politics requires the dissolution of this supposedly sacred image. Therefore, the presence of Brahmins in politics could be taken to mean that the very definition of Brahmin has undergone a 'progressive' change. It is hence necessary to define afresh who these Brahmins are and to ask what is their location in the power hierarchy of these parties.


Manusmruti Dahan Din


Dr. K. Jamanadas

dahan divas2Today is Christmas, 25th of December. It is celebrated all over the Christian world as the birth of Jesus Christ. But for the whole world of Dalits, it is an important day as "Manu Smruti Dahan Din", as it was on this day in 1927 that Manusmruti was publicly burned by Dr. Ambedkar, during the "Maha-Sangharsha" of Mahad Satyagraha, and is an important mile stone in Dalit struggle against Brahmanism. Let us all remember this day with pride.

Manuvadis had arranged that Ambedkar does not get a ground for meeting, but a Muslim gentleman, Mr. Fattekhan, gave his private land. They had arranged that no supplies of food, water or anything else could be bought, so everything was brought from outside by our men. The volunteers had to take a vow of five items:


Corporate class and its "veil of ignorance"

Gopal Guru

(Published in Seminar magazine in May 2005)

gopal_guru_copy_copyTHE recent debate on the issue of reservation in the private sector in India is significant for more than one reason. This demand comes in the wake of a growing restiveness marking unemployed dalit youth in particular, and non-dalits in general. And it seems to provide a safe channel for containing this mood which could otherwise become more explosive. That is to say, this demand, though polemically attractive and seemingly radical, intends to provide a more pacifying impact on the constituency in question. As a subtext, it has offered a much needed opportunity to the 'champions' of dalits to remain politically relevant in the public sphere.


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