Is Caste Ethnicity and Why Does It Matter? On Heterophobic and Heterophilic Casteism and Anti-Casteism

Date- 14/8/2013

CHAIR          :  Dr Diya Mehra, Department of Sociology, South Asian University, India

DISCUSSANT: Dr Dev Pathak, Department of Sociology, South Asian University, India

PARTICIPANT: 

Balmurli Natrajan, Associate Professor, William Patterson University of New Jersey, U.S.A.

Opening his speech with a conversation he has had with a Kumhar of Chhattisgarh area, Balmurli Natrajan stated that they too consider it important to maintain their distinct caste identity which is based on their lifestyle. This phenomenon is referred to as “ethnicization of caste” in the contemporary theory by many scholars. Citing examples from the works of Mayer and Fuller, he went to elucidate how these accounts show that caste differences have moved beyond hierarchy and have turned into cultural differences, with castes being seen as disconnected ethnic groups. Therefore, a dominant strand of scholarly, official and popular discourse in India claim that caste has transformed into ethnicity with caste groups acting simply as ethnic groups. This process of “ethnicization of caste” is advanced alongside a discourse of “positive” changes with respect to caste and casteism in India that accompanies a triumphalist narration of an emergent neoliberal India.

Balmurli Natrajan in his paper produced a broad argument against this ethnic view of caste on three related grounds- that it is unable to explain the continuation of casteism in India, that it fails to raise questions about the production of caste as a groups with differences, and that it fails to capture the emergence of new forms of casteism that are juxtaposed with capitalism and Hindutva (Hindu supremacist ideology and movement). He concluded the paper by raising questions about what acceptance of the “ethnicization” of caste would mean for the ethics of “annihilation of caste”. 

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