Book Review | Civility Against Caste | Zeeshan Husain

The moment one enquires  about the future of the Dalit movement, a series of pessimistic answers are parroted in response: the Movement is dead, young Dalits are no more interested/associated with it, Hindutva politics has subsumed  Dalit politics, etc. One also reads about the ‘NGO-isation’ of the Dalit movement, where the basic needs of the Dalit masses are fulfilled but at the cost of discarding the need or goal of a radical overhaul of the caste system.

Seen in this context, professor Suryakant Waghmore’s Civility against Caste (2013) persuades us to revisit our presumptions about the Dalit movement. Based on  intensive fieldwork, Waghmore asks his readers to reconsider the dominant understanding of the Dalit movement in academia. The book deals with both empirical evidence and theoretical advances made in the fields of Dalit studies, civil society and social movements.
At the empirical level, Waghmore explains Dalit movement in terms of two factors: Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Manavi Hakk Abhiyaan (MHA). MHA is an Ambedkarite NGO which works to uplift the socio-economic conditions of Dalits of Maharashtra. Demonstrating a solid grasp of  ethnography, Waghmore builds upon  data collected from the field to revisit the concept of ‘civil society’. A critical study of BSP and MHA leads him to rebuild and problematize the notion of Civil Society as usually understood by liberal, Marxist and postcolonial scholars. Let me start from ethnographic details, before going to the theoretical contributions which the book makes.
The study is based on intensive fieldwork in the Beed district of Maharashtra. This district is in Marathwada region which happens to be Maharashtra’s most backward in terms of socio-economic indicators. Nevertheless, the scope of the book can be extended to entire Maharashtra, if not whole of Western India. The fieldwork is both long-term and multi-sited, and was initially meant for a PhD. At the empirical level, the book makes four important points:
First, public space in the Marathwada region is public, only when it is devoid of Dalits. The moment a Dalit enters the space, 'upper-castes' (Maratha to be exact) use violence against the Dalit. Waghmore uses various instances where Dalits tried to cultivate public land, and violence was used against them. What makes the matter worse is the tacit support of  dominant castes (Vanjari and Kunbi to be specific; both peasant in origin) in the violence against Dalits. The public space of Maharashtra in general is dominated by the ‘kingly’ attitude of dominant castes and Dalits are treated as ‘untouchable citizens’.
Waghmore also studies a network of NGOs all of which work towards ensuring land rights of Dalits. Named Rural Development Centre (RDC), it is the non-political face of MHA. While it overtly supports secular issues, it equally asserts against forced labour (begaar) and undertakes mobilisation of Dalits for the cultivation of waste lands (gairan) controlled by dominant castes de facto.  Land is not merely a natural resource, but equally a source of dignity for Dalits. The  issue of land was tactically raised by those struggling for the upliftment of Dalits, to highlight the caste-based inequality considered as normal (and hence invisible) in India. Waghmore uses his training as a sociologist, to excavate the historical roots of MHA and notes that it is an organic part of Dalit movement. MHA uses its global connections to raise funds, and works on the local issues of Dalits.
Third and, I think  the most important contribution of the book, is the exploration of the social roots of BSP. Waghmore moves beyond the usual understanding of party politics and lays out the smaller day-to-day happenings of the social movements which fortify  the BSP at the ground level. The book looks at the cultural troupes that BSP uses for mobilising people. BSP is a classic mixture of past (Bhakti saints) and present (Constitution of India). BSP cadres tried to form a Bahujan identity by including all Dalit castes (like Mahars, Mangs and Chambhars), OBCs and Muslims. Even when it lost elections, the lamp of social movement was kept alight by its committed cadre. It is here that Waghmore is at his best. True to his field of sociology, he is undistracted by electoral calculations and party politics, and observes the everyday ideas and practices of grassroots workers. I found the same spirit among the BSP workers when I did my fieldwork for MPhil in late 2014 in eastern UP. This is a remarkable feat as many social scientists collapse Dalit movement with BSP’s electoral performance solely.
The fourth important contribution of the book is giving a detailed picture of the mobilisation happening among the non-Mahar caste(s) in Maharashtra. Mahar discourse generalises itself to become Dalit discourse. Waghmore breaks away from this and forays into the politics of another Dalit caste namely Mangs. Aptly titled ‘making of swabhimani mangs’, the chapter speaks about various instances where Mangs assert not only for material resources but also for dignity. One of the important features of this is redefining Hindu practices as humiliation of Dalits, a trajectory which usually Mahars follow.  
Apart from these, the book adds to the existing conceptualisation of civil society, apart from various smaller theoretical contributions on democracy, civility/ politeness and violence. Waghmore critiques both the liberal and the postcolonial understanding of  civil society. While the former assumes civility bereft of caste-based exclusions, the latter fails to move beyond the critique of colonial-modern roots of the concept. Partha Chatterjee’s much famous ‘civil society political society’ is critiqued for not only neglecting the intersection between the two, but also for negating the subaltern’s desire for a civil society. Waghmore persuades the reader, quite convincingly, to look beyond the liberal and postcolonial approaches. Waghmore argues for a re-thinking and reworking of civil society, as is shown by the workings of various facets of Dalit movement. Dalit movement works with the State and transforms it; both processes being undertaken simultaneously. By highlighting caste, Dalit movement places various events inside the broader socio-historical framework. This gives Dalit epistemology a razor-sharp edge over other epistemologies like Marxism, liberalism or postcolonialism. Civil society usually entails a kind of civility, which consists of space for dialogue, and debate. This work brings forth the dissenting aspect of civility, and locates even politeness within the caste practices.
I am sure Civility against Caste will cause some consternation among Indian academicians, due to its refreshing insights and piercing conclusions on the recent aspects of the Dalit movement. Some photographs of the fieldwork would have been like the proverbial icing on the cake. 

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