The Pariah Problem

The Pariah Problem: Caste, Religion, and the Social in Modern India

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 416
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Pariah Problem
    Book Description:

    Once known as "Pariahs," Dalits are primarily descendants of unfree agrarian laborers. They belong to India's lowest castes, face overwhelming poverty and discrimination, and continue to be a source of public anxiety. Drawing on a wealth of previously untapped sources, this book follows the conception and evolution of the "Pariah problem" in public consciousness in the 1890s. It shows how high-caste landlords, state officials, and well-intentioned missionaries conceived of Dalit oppression and prevented substantive solutions to the "Pariah Problem" -- with consequences that continue to be felt today.

    The book begins with a description of the everyday lives of Dalit laborers in the 1890s and highlights the systematic efforts made by the state and Indian elites to protect Indian slavery from public scrutiny. Protestant missionaries were the first non-Dalits to draw attention to their plight. However, their vision of the Pariahs' suffering as a result of Hindu religious prejudice obscured the fact that the entire agrarian political-economic system depended on Pariah labor. The Indian public as well as colonial officials came to share a view compatible with missionary explanations, which meant all subsequent welfare efforts directed at Dalits focused on religious and social transformation rather than on structural reform. Methodologically, theoretically, and empirically, this book breaks new ground to demonstrate how events in the early decades of state-sponsored welfare directed at Dalits laid the groundwork for the present day, where the postcolonial state and well-meaning social and religious reformers continue to downplay Dalits' landlessness, violent suppression, and political subordination.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53750-6
    Subjects: History, Religion, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VIII)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. IX-X)
    (pp. XI-XII)
    (pp. XIII-XVI)
    (pp. XVII-XX)
    (pp. 1-22)

    The “Pariah Problem,” as it was initially called, irrupted into administrative consciousness and public debate in the Madras Presidency of the early 1890s. What was to be done about the plight of those we today call Dalits, members of the so-called untouchable castes and descendants of unfree agricultural laborers? Among the very first public statements of the problem was an editorial published in the presidency’s leading daily,The Hindu, in June 1891, which proclaimed that

    the condition of these castes is truly miserable. The Hindus do not recognize them as part of their community and nothing can be more humiliating...

  7. Chapter 1 LAND TENURE OR LABOR CONTROL? The Agrarian Mise-en-Scène
    (pp. 23-39)

    Our story of the Pariah Problem must begin as it were,beforethe beginning, when Pariahs were not yet a problem, but were quite simply slaves, and known as such in official and native sources alike. As the antislavery movement gathered steam in Britain, however, and especially when abolitionists began to push in the 1830s for the banning of not just the slave trade but of all forms of slavery throughout the British Empire, including in India, official discourse in the subcontinent rapidly underwent a process of self-censorship.¹ Slavery proceeded more or less as before—certainly legal abolition had no...

  8. Chapter 2 CONCEPTUALIZING PARIAH CONVERSION: Caste, Spirit, Matter, and Penury
    (pp. 40-70)

    A remarkable episode in the social history of rural colonial south India was the abrupt and unexpected “mass conversions” to Christianity beginning in the late 1870s.¹ These group accessions, primarily to Protestant Christianity, came almost exclusively from the “untouchable” castes, and their scale was unprecedented. In areas where previously a handful of converts had been hard won by decades of dogged evangelism, Pariahs now came unbidden, by the hundreds, oftendemandingto be converted, with dramatic effects on the basic lineaments of the lives of rural Pariah laborers and on the operation of the caste–state nexus the previous chapter...

  9. Chapter 3 THE PARIAH–MISSIONARY ALLIANCE: Agrarian Contestation and the Local State
    (pp. 71-90)

    In order to lay the ground for how missionaries interacted with the throngs of Pariah converts who demanded their attention from the 1870s onward, we have been forced to confront the implausibility of missionaries’ accounts that stress their role as proponents of humanitarianism and opponents of caste who quickened the subdued and quiescent Pariah masses. What thendidconversion to Christianity actually entail for Pariahs? To what, in short, do missionaries owe their success in evangelizing the Pariah? The answer to this question lies in the concrete effects of Pariah–missionary alliances on Pariahs’ relations with their masters. These effects...

  10. Chapter 4 THE STATE AND THE CĒRI
    (pp. 91-117)

    While missionaries and the Dalits with whom they were in alliance began to alter the conditions of rural life and to bring the Pariah to the attention of the colonial state, the state took a different route to the Pariah. If the previous chapter showed how Dalits themselves enlisted missionaries in their own ongoing projects until missionaries were compelled to raise the issue of the Pariahs’ immiseration, this chapter will show the very different route administrators took toward the Pariah, and how missionaries intervened at critical points—a process whose beginning we saw in the previous chapter—so that by...

    (pp. 118-143)

    Reverend Johannes Kabis wrote in 1897 that he had discovered it was difficult to maintain a strict conceptual distinction between spirit and matter with respect to the Pariah. In him, “bodily and spiritual [degradation] are so closely connected that they can scarcely be separated.”¹ Other missionaries in Madras came to concur, and this increasingly gave rise to the belief that education alone was insufficient to ensure the Pariah’s salvation. What was in fact required, they began to believe, was a more thorough project of training and supervision that would improve the Pariah not only spiritually, but materially. The method upon...

  12. Chapter 6 THE MARRIAGE OF SACRED AND SECULAR AUTHORITY: New Liberalism, Mission–State Relations, and the Birth of Authenticity
    (pp. 144-167)

    Religious neutrality emerged as key in conflicts between Pariahs and their masters in the countryside in the 1890s. What we trace in this chapter is a new concern with religion, namely a concern on the part of Indian elites with authentic religious selfhood and “genuine” conversion, which emerged as the settling of Pariahs on their own cultivable lands became a scheme openly pursued under the auspices of government and represented as thoroughly legitimate. A new governmental rationality took hold in the late 1890s, whereby settling the Panchama (as Pariahs came to be known at this time), with the explicit help...

  13. Chapter 7 GIVING THE PANCHAMA A HOME: Creating “a Friction Where None Exists”
    (pp. 168-189)

    By the 1910s, the colonial regime in Madras would come to perceive that its duties included allowing Panchamas to experience at first hand the “magic of property” by granting them ownership of their house sites and thereby inculcating in them an investment—both affective and economic—in their home. Of singular importance to this book is the range of reactions provoked by the founding of this small scheme (“small,” because like most programs for Panchama welfare, its effects cannot have been felt by any but a tiny minority of that population). Yet the furor occasioned at all levels of society...

  14. Chapter 8 EVERYDAY WARFARE: Caste, Class, and the Public
    (pp. 190-216)

    Protest against the grant of house sites to Panchamas, as expressed in four venues we will now examine—in petitions to government, in the Legislative Council, in district courts, and through violent means in thecērisof Tanjore—would all depend upon not only how caste and class were understood to be related but also on howgenuinePanchamas’ bids to transform the conditions of their subordination were judged to be.

    We saw in chapter 6 that an aspect of missionary debate that found a new venue in elite discourse was the question of Pariah motives. Now the question of...

    (pp. 217-239)

    The strains of antagonism we heard in the preceding chapter came to a crescendo in the late 1910s, as dyarchy was extended in India.¹ From 1918 onward, Dalits themselves were included on legislative bodies as representatives of their own communities. These first-generation Dalit representatives brought to center stage the question of routine violations of their own rights as “citizens” (the term by which they referred to themselves), and this in turn elicited a critical response.² Just as the policy of religious neutrality had once placed matters of Dalit welfare firmly outside the purview of the official state apparatus, at this...

  16. CONCLUSION: The Pariah Problem’s Enduring Legacies
    (pp. 240-258)

    The problem of the “Pariah,” as unfree Dalit laborers were then called, was in the 1890s forced upon the reluctant attention of the colonial state and India’s elite public sphere. Prior to this, the fact that Pariahs had been required to labor for others under conditions of extreme hardship, were confined to ghettoes set well apart from the villages where other Indians lived, and were openly despised by one and all, was well known but failed to register as a matter of general concern. The trope of gentle servitude, first formulated by British officials as an argument to prevent the...

    (pp. 259-260)
  18. NOTES
    (pp. 261-344)
    (pp. 345-348)
    (pp. 349-376)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 377-396)