Mukulika Banerjee on the Cultivation of Democracy in India
Guests featured in this episode:Mukulika Banerjee, Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science where she was also the inaugural director of its South Asia Centre from 2015 to 2020. Working at the intersection of social anthropology, politics, and history, Mukulika has published widely on South Asia. She edits also the excellent Routledge series, exploring the political in South Asia. Her most relevant publications to this episode are; Why India Votes  and Cultivating Democracy, Politics and Citizenship in Agrarian India.GlossaryWhat is the caste system in India?(16:15 or p.4 in the transcript)In South Asia, the caste system has been a dominating aspect of social organization for thousands of years. A caste, generally designated by the term jati (“birth”), refers to a strictly regulated social community into which one is born. Some jatis have occupational names, but the connection between caste and occupational specialization is limited. In general, a person is expected to marry someone within the same jati, follow a particular set of rules for proper behavior (in such matters as kinship, occupation, and diet), and interact with other jatis according to the group’s position in the social hierarchy. In India virtually all nontribal Hindus and many adherents of other faiths (even Muslims, for whom caste is theoretically anathema) recognize their membership in one of the hereditary social communities. Among Hindus, jatis are usually assigned to one of four large caste clusters, called varnas, each of which has a traditional social function: Brahmans (priests), at the top of the social hierarchy, and, in descending prestige, Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (originally peasants but later merchants), and Shudras (artisans and laborers). The particular varna in which a jati is ranked depends in part on its relative level of “impurity,” determined by the group’s traditional contact with any of a number of “pollutants,” including blood, menstrual flow, saliva, dung, leather, dirt, and hair. Intercaste restrictions were established to prevent the relative purity of a particular jati from being corrupted by the pollution of a lower caste. A fifth group, the Panchamas (from Sanskrit panch, “five”), theoretically were excluded from the system because their occupations and ways of life typically brought them in contact with such impurities. They were formerly called the untouchables (because their touch, believed by the upper castes to transmit pollution, was avoided), but the nationalist leader Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi referred to them as Harijan (“Children of God”), a name that for a time gained popular usage. More recently, members of that class have adopted the term Dalit (“Oppressed”) to describe themselves. Officially, such groups are referred to as Scheduled Castes. Those in Scheduled Castes, collectively accounting for roughly one-sixth of India’s total population, are generally landless and perform most of the agricultural labor, as well as a number of ritually polluting caste occupations (e.g., leatherwork, among the Chamars, the largest Scheduled Caste). sourceWhat is a panchayat?(26:03 or p.7 in the transcript)Panchayat is the most important adjudicating and licensing agency in the self-government of an Indian caste. There are two types: permanent and impermanent. Literally, a panchayat (from Sanskrit pañca, “five”) consists of five members, but usually there are more; the panchayat has a policy committee, however, often numbering five. The panchayat sits as a court of law. Cases are heard in open meetings in which all members of the caste group concerned are entitled to take part. Any evidence that has any conceivable bearing on the case is admissible; it can be produced by either party, by onlookers, or by members of the council. Types of offenses adjudicated in meetings of the panchayat are breaches of eating, drinking, or smoking restrictions; infractions of marriage rules; breaches of a caste’s customs in feast; breaches of its trade rules; the killing of certain animals, notably cows; and the injury of a Brahman. Less commonly, the panchayat handles criminal and civil cases actionable before a court of law. Panchayats of Muslim castes try only a few of the offenses, as the rest fall under fiqh, or Islāmic law. Penalties take the form of fines (paid by distributing sweets to a caste group or by contributing to a caste fund), the obligation to offer a feast to the berādarī (family brotherhood) or to Brahmans, and temporary or permanent excommunication. Pilgrimage and self-humiliation are sometimes levied, but physical punishment is now uncommon. The passing of the Evidence Act by the British in 1872, with its strict rules of admissible evidence, led to a bypassing of the panchayat by some caste members who began to take their cases directly to the state court (see Indian Evidence Act). Some castes try cases that have come up before a state court or retry them after the verdict of the state court has been given. The Congress Party in India made a point of creating village panchayats as local instruments of government, the so-called panchayat raj, or government by panchayats. source Democracy in Question? is brought to you by:• Central European University: CEU• The Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy in Geneva: AHCD• The Podcast Company: Novel Follow us on social media!• Central European University: @CEU• Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy in Geneva: @AHDCentreSubscribe to the show. If you enjoyed what you listened to, you can support us by leaving a review and sharing our podcast in your networks!