Guest Post by N. Balmurli
Delhi chief minister Mr. Kejriwal’s claim that “khaps serve a cultural purpose” reproduces some popular myths about culture and caste. These myths predate AAP and have been put into place over the last few years by official and expert statements in public discourse such that they are now part of a “commonsense” of worldviews about caste and culture.
Consider two other statements made by political figures whose parties are at pains to show how retrograde AAP’s statements are.
The first statement sounds far less egregious but articulates a deeper hubris about caste and culture. In doing so, it prepares the ground for later statements such as the ones by AAP. Delivering the 13th Lester Pearson Memorial Lecture at Delhi University on April 23, 2007, Mr. Jairam Ramesh (then Commerce Minister) attested to India’s diversity thus: “Indeed, India has the greatest diversities seven major religions and numerous other sects and faiths, 22 official languages and over 200 recorded mother tongues, around 4,635 largely endogamous communities.” The number “4635” of course, refers to the approximately 3990 caste groups and 645 “tribal” groups in India. Such a positive rendering of the large number of caste groups as contributing to diversity becomes possible only if we view castes as cultural diversities, and endogamy as something benign, even admirable.
Such a view about caste and culture in India seems so “natural” that it seems counter-intuitive to ask: Why is the existence of so many castes viewed as positive, valuable and contributing to diversity? Could it not be that caste prevents the flourishing of the human spirit and creativity and hence is actually a hurdle to cultural diversity?
The second statement, far more egregious and combining hubris with a measure of cynical political stratagem, was made by Gujarat chief minister Mr. Modi who claimed that “manual scavenging is a spiritual experience” (2007). This justifiably got the rebuke it deserved for crassly misrepresenting a palpably forced labor within an oppressive system as if it were an edifying and voluntarily chosen experience. The point that such a statement exemplifies is the deep cognitive taking-for-granted that the social world with all its inequalities is something that is “natural,” or at least something that needn’t be tampered with, and hence deserving only of rationalizations. A more un-modern view of the world is difficult to come by.
The only way out of this morass of spiraling myth-making is to include some reflection on how myths about “culture” and “caste” are reproduced in everyday and expert speech. Myths are not simple fictions; they are the “stuff” of commonsense. They work through storylines or narratives that make the world of experience appear “natural” through the hidden assumptions within it which are rarely reflected upon. Myths about caste and culture are pernicious since they make historical and social configurations appear natural, normal and rationalized. Hence such myths need to be busted in multiple sites of social interactions (from within households to party headquarters to media and board rooms to playgrounds, streets, addas and yes, social media).
Myth 1: Culture is coterminous with group boundaries, i.e., one group equals one culture.
As the cultural anthropologist Frederick Barth has observed, culture varies according to people’s experiences (Barth, 1995). No two people – even within a small group such as a family – share the same experiences. Some overlap will be there of course (and that is what makes the study of patterns and groups possible and interesting), but the overlap or sharing need not conform to group boundaries. Thus, although a group’s culture is shared amongst the “youth” of that group, there are also “youth cultures” that crosscut across different social groups. This also points to the cultural differences between the youth and elders of any group. The same holds for women (or men) within a group, and so on even for those groups that are deemed to be homogenous, say, small, isolated groups living on an island. Such a continuous variation of culture makes groups and culture, complex. Individuals inhabit more than one cultural group or identity, forming what are called intersectional identities. Hence, culture is not coterminous with a group’s boundaries, i.e., one social group does not equal one culture, and one’s culture does not stop at the borders of one’s social group.
Myth 2: Culture is shared within a group.
This is a corollary to the above myth. Since culture varies continuously, changes continually and is transmitted with changes over time, we can expect that not all people within a group (even those claiming to be cultural groups) share the culture in totality. If one thinks about culture as never too far from one’s experience, then it follows that culture will be similar to and shared among clusters of people who cross social group boundaries. Differences of culture exist very much within any group, usually along lines of age, gender, sexual orientation, political disposition, class and occupation. It follows that culture is not shared in any simple way within any group.
Myth 3: Culture is a property of a group.
Too often people think of “culture” as something that groups “have” or “own” as their distinctive sign. Groups thus come to be viewed as if culture were a natural or legal property held in common. However, culture does not get passed down legally, nor is it a property of a group in the sense that sweetness is a property of sugar, i.e., something essential in defining the group. Culture is socially transmitted in everyday ordinary life, is less tangible than property, and typically diffuse – i.e., not easily described in terms of essences. Of course, claims to cultural essence exist in any group, but such claims are better viewed as part of the process of group formation – if accepted, they held groups cohere. Groups are socially formed by factors that range from external aggression, systemic oppression, governmental policy, internal attempts to cohere such as the claimed of shared identity, interests and experiences, and other historical factors that prepare conditions for groups to become conscious of their own selves. Culture is only one factor, albeit critical, in this process of group formation. Instead of a product such as property, or as a natural inheritance such as genes, it is usefully viewed as a social and collective process of production of meanings (about the world, life, relations, ways of doing and being) that are encoded as information (beliefs, values, worldviews) and embodied in practices. Viewing it as a process instead of as property allows us to see how culture is continually produced and not simply a given at any point in time.
Myth 4: Culture is fixed, static and transmitted as such over generations as “tradition.”
It follows that culture cannot be something unchanging (even if that is what many people desire it to be or claim it to be). Like life and the world of nature, social life and culture are always changing, in flux. We can accept this more easily if we think about how cultural transmission takes place. Unlike a photocopy machine (which too is not precise), and as the cognitive anthropologist Dan Sperber has argued (Sperber 1996), cultural transmission is never replication. Its normal mode of transmission is through small changes that allow the next “copy” to be merely sharing very general resemblance with the “original.” This allows for culture to be changing through micro-processes over time. The idea then of a fixed unchanging thing called culture or “tradition” is largely an imagined reality emanating from the desire for such fixity, typically in order to control culture and the group.
Myth 5: Culture is not about power, only about identity:
Since culture is so important to living meaningful lives, it is always contested. People fight over what is culture; but we need not assume that such contestation only occurs between groups. It occurs very much within groups too. Culture is thus always connected to power differentials within a group, any group. Those who control “meaning-making” within a group decide what that group’s culture is. Better still (or worse?) they get to represent that group and its culture to others in society. Thus, one of the first things to highlight when discussing culture is “who is claiming that something (information or practice) is the culture of a particular group?” Attending to this reveals the workings of power behind identity.
Myth 6: Caste is a cultural community, i.e., one caste differs from another due to their different cultures.
Increasingly, caste groups claim to be simply culturally different (not “higher” than others, simply “different”). Aided by electoral political realities, this takes the form of assertion of castes as identity groups. Not surprisingly, caste leaders and those who share their worldview portray the “culture” of their caste as defining their identity. This need not however lead us to conclude that the difference between any two castes is that they “have different cultures.” In times of crisis and conflict (could be over resources, prestige or inter-caste marriages) castes make it quite clear about how they view themselves as “higher” and more “honorable” than the other castes. Even in todays’ India, caste is about social status and the organization of that status to enable the exploitation, domination, and stigmatization of castes ascribed “low” status. Other castes are by definition different in status, not necessarily in culture. This attribution of different status to other castes (and hence to one’s own caste) is what we need to think of as casteism. We can then say that casteism forces caste groups to be and remain different. As historian Uma Chakravarti points out in her work on the gendered nature of caste, we need to remember “…how it [caste] is masked…as the culture and tradition of specific communities…” (Chakravarti 2003:172). Caste is thus not about culture and difference, but about differential status and exclusion. Cultural difference – the extent it appears to exist between any two castes – it itself only a function of the force of casteism which seeks difference, separation and hierarchy.
Myth 7: Caste is separable from patriarchy, control over sexuality, and class:
Too many times caste has been portrayed and discussed as if it were a strange kind of group – devoid of anything outside of itself. This is however not how groups form and exist in reality. Groups (including castes, “tribes”, religious, linguistic and ethnic groups) always exist as forms that are shaped by processes of class and patriarchy (among other factors). This is because of the simple fact that people do not just live on identity alone. Two of the fundamental relations that everyone enters into when making their lives are those with nature and with other people. They (usually) have to work for a living by participating in collectively extracting energy from nature and have relations with other people. These are, also of course, relations of power. Ideas and relations of gender, sexuality and class then are very much part of any group’s existence. Groups like caste are some of the most dependent upon drawing and maintaining group boundaries. This is where endogamy – the practice of trying to marry within one’s own group or caste – becomes the site for patriarchal practices. Not surprisingly, caste groups engage in boundary-patrolling since they seek to reproduce their sense of identity and culture. Khaps of course do an additional patrolling work – of ensuring gotra exogamy (making sure people do not marry within their own gotras since many gotras make up a caste). This necessarily makes castes enforce patriarchal codes of conduct on women (and men) and on the youth whose life experiences (and hence, culture) are expectedly quite different from their elders.
Myth 8: Culture is outside of state purview.
If khaps are cultural, so is untouchability (i.e., they are both meaningful practices for those who benefit from it). Yet, as we know it, untouchability has been banned and rightfully so (although it continues illegally in many parts of the country) and so were khaps the last time I checked (Supreme Court of India, 2011). To his credit, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made the clear statement that “The only parallel to the practice of untouchability was apartheid” (2006). This logic could be extended to caste in toto. For, so long as caste boundaries are monitored, caste is a system founded upon keeping socially and historically constructed groups separate, exclusivist and monopolistic over resources including honor and prestige. It would be useful to also bear in mind two other points in this regard. One, that khaps routinely delegitimize the existence of the lowest levels of governance, i.e., the legally instituted panchayats. Anyone interested in good governance needs to acknowledge khaps as a problem for governance. Secondly, if khaps are kept beyond the purview of the Indian state, we could remind ourselves of the ethical possibility pointed out by political scientist Gopal Guru about Dalits taking their case to the UN at Durban in 2001 – that, when the mother, i.e., the Indian state, does not listen to their grievances, Dalits rightfully took them to the grandmother, i.e., the international community represented by the UN (Guru 2009). Such logic would rightly extend to anyone oppressed by khaps.
What then can we say about khaps? Kejriwal’s statement on khaps falls into what I have called “the culturalization of caste” – the tendency to portray castes as cultural groups rather than as groups formed from casteism (Natrajan 2011). It is part of what casteism which needs to be thought of as an ongoing social process of recognizing and relating to others as “different” in status and culture due to their descent and lineage. It is casteism then that brings castes into existence. Castes, in other words, cannot exist without casteism. And, culturalization is the most fecund way in which caste reproduces itself today in Indian society. It ensures that we continue to practice casteism and delude ourselves about what we do and its implications. It remains to be seen whether AAP shows cognizance of this. It is possible that Kejriwal’s statement was made with the intention of working for reform of caste from within khaps (rather than state intervention to ban them). But this assumes that khaps can be reformed by social forces. Arguably, so long as castes exist, so will khaps since they are simply the local forms of caste power which acts to discipline the group from within from time to time as an agreement between the khaps from various castes. Can castes exist without khaps? Facing this question becomes important if one is serious about democracy.
Here Yogendra Yadav’s tweet justifying the AAP position on khaps – despite exemplifying the possibility of a reflexive AAP that could contrast with the stranglehold on imagination desperately held onto by more established parties – is nevertheless far from convincing and indeed reproduces many of the above myths.
First, calling khaps a “routine dispute resolution mechanism” conveniently erases the working of power behind the authority of khaps within a caste. Khaps are, afterall, only a powerful segment of the membership of any caste group – a section that is built by excluding other members (usually based upon age and gender, but also on favoring particular lineages within a caste). By definition, khaps have to be coercive by definition, since they are in the thick of internal struggles. Theirs is “domination without hegemony” if you wish. For no group (including caste), is internally homogenous or without dissent. Khaps are “routine” no doubt, but that cannot be a reason to legitimize their existence. From the point view of, say, a Babli and Manoj, khaps are routine in their oppressiveness and that is a huge problem. For such “aam aurats” and “aam aadmis” khaps are power structures within caste groups, and exist to reproduce the power of their caste vis-à-vis other castes – by using whatever means possible. Culture and legitimacy should not be means given on a platter to khap leaders. They are already seeking judicial cover behind “cultural rights.”
Second, assuming that castes are a “communitarian organization” does not take into account a deeper reality. Groups (including castes) do not simply form first and then get their leaders. They form through the ideological and cultural “work” of leaders who in this process “make” the community or group. Forgetting this portrays groups as preconfigured realities. It equates khaps and caste associations to “the community.” But, as some scholars of caste pointed out a long time ago, “externally, the caste association tried to convince outsiders that behind the leaders stood a united community” (Arnold, Jeffrey and Manor 1976:373). It would be good for AAP to call the bluff of khap leaders. They would find support within caste groups, as much as outside.
Third, the caveat that “the trouble begins when this dispute resolution becomes coercive and violates the law of the land” is not a sustainable argument. Casteism and patriarchy are social phenomena. They are never captured thoroughly by the legal lens of discrimination, crucial as these laws are for any fight against injustice. As pointed above, khaps are always coercive. One can only wait for the trouble to begin if one does not view already existing coercion within groups as trouble.
Even if khaps may be viewed as cultural in the sense that they are institutions primarily dealing with values, beliefs and meaning, this does not mean that they need to be blindly accepted (as the chief minister of Haryana, Mr. Hooda is now insisting we accept). If culture has any essence, it is only that it is always contested, there is always a struggle over meanings, values and beliefs. It is therefore always about power (who decides these meanings, values, beliefs)? Endorsing khaps is endorsing the worldviews of the powerful. It was culture (of the liberty, equality and fraternity kind) that prompted the pro-Nazi character in the 1933 play by Johst to exclaim: “When I hear the word culture …, I release the safety on my Browning!”
N. Balmurli (email@example.com) is Associate Professor of Anthropology, William Paterson University of New Jersey. This essay has benefited from comments by comrades.
Barth, Frederick. 1995. “Ethnicity and the Concept of Culture.” Paper presented to the conference “Rethinking Culture,” Harvard.
Chakravarti, U. 2003. Gendering Caste: Through a Feminist Lens, Calcutta: Stree.
Kejriwal, Arvind. Interview with Thomson Reuters on January 30, 2014.
“Khap Panchayats are Illegal: Supreme Court,” 2011. http://ibnlive.in.com/news/khap-panchayats-are-illegal-says-supreme-court/149663-3.html
Guru, Gopal. 2009. “What It Means To Be Dalit: Dalit Responses to the Durban Conference.” In Against Stigma: Studies in Caste, Race and Justice Since Durban.
Modi, Narendra. 2007. Karmayog. Excerpts from (pp. 48-49) reproduced in http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/true-lies/entry/modi-s-spiritual-potion-to-woo-karmayogis
Natrajan, Balmurli. 2011. The Culturalization of Caste: Identity and Inequality in a Multicultural Age. Routledge.
Ramesh, Jairam. 2007. “How India and Canada Manage Diversities,” http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-opinion/how-india-canada-manage-diversities/article1833713.ece
Sperber, Dan. 1996. Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Wiley.
Yadav, Yogendra. 2014. “On Khap Panchayats,” January 31, 2014.