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Introduction: Studying Caste Panchayats

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The chapter defines the two major goals of the book. These are to trace the transformation that the bodies we understand as caste panchayats have undergone over time and to focus on specific characteristics of the caste panchayats such as its deployment of the method of social boycott and enforcing caste endogamy. These two goals also define the two parts of the book into which it is divided. It then provides some elementary definitions of the categories of caste and caste panchayats as they must be grasped to understand the sense in which they are employed in the book. After having stated what motivates the order of the dialectic of the book, it describes the theoretical framework in detail. It does so by defining seven theses/assumptions, some of which have become orthodoxies in studies about caste and caste panchayats, that must be critically engaged with to develop the argument of the book. It then respectively develops the framework for each of these assumptions via an engagement with methods used by the scholarship that make them internally coherent. The chapter ends by laying down the structure of the book and its rationale, through a brief introduction to each of its chapters.


  • Jati
  • Caste panchayats
  • Brahmasabha
  • Sanskritization
  • Caste association

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  1. 1.

    Caste Panchayat Eradication Mission.

  2. 2.

    Translated, Superstition Eradication Committee is a non-governmental group based in Pune, which actively preaches rationalism and progressive social-scientific attitude to general masses through a network of activists in Maharashtra and some parts of Karnataka through publication of literature, various vigilantism drives against caste and superstition, lectures and legal activism.

  3. 3.

    Unlike what is often believed, caste panchayats do not always have a village as its location or sphere of organization and influence. Their influence often existed and, in some cases, continues to exist over its members across a group of villages and even in the cities. These panchayats move with their populations and have persisted uninterruptedly among the nomadic castes/tribes (Chavhan 2013; Hayden 1999). They have had textual sanction and sanction through religious and state practices since early times, and evidence suggests their prevalence in most parts of India from the south to the north (Altekar 1927; Gnanambal 1973; Chowdhry 1997; Gune 1953; Jha 1970). The most conclusive records for caste panchayats are found in Yajnavalka Smriti written around 1st c. CE, which mentions three tribunals of puga, sreni and kula. It describes the puga as the village court and the sreni as the guild court (Altekar 1927: 47). The third and most prevalent was the kula—translated as ‘family court’—an assembly of the caste and kin. This caste court was the most accessible and popular court. As centralization of power for revenue collection increased among the kingdoms, the caste panchayats were given state legitimacy by bringing them formally under the higher courts—the religious court, the Brahmasabha and the royal court, the Rajasabha. These bodies today exist in reformed avatars retaining and revising the details of caste loyalty and its enforcement.

  4. 4.

    The Manoj–Babli murder case took the country by storm in 2007 when mutilated bodies of a young couple who had consensually married were found in a water canal in Hissar district of Haryana. It was later found that the couple was murdered at the orders of the Khap panchayats of the Jats of Karoda village of Haryana with the complicity of the policemen assigned to protect them.

  5. 5.

  6. 6.

    Times of India, September 22, 2018.

  7. 7.

    Rank-boundary mechanism may be understood as a way of social organization in a society where cultural difference is ranked across a hierarchy of status and honour. These rankings then take different systemic forms (caste understood as one of them) when enmeshed with occupational, kinship and ‘loosely religious’ codes Guha (2013: 2).

  8. 8.

    Expiation was a grant of pardon or atonement which was mandatory for any caste member who was ostracized by their caste panchayat to be accepted back into the caste. The grant of expiation was often granted in written after the concerned individual had performed the penance as directed by the brahman guru.

  9. 9.

    It might be useful here to state in more detail the way in which purity and pollution feature at the inter-caste level as well as at the intra-caste level. Inter-caste pollution occurs when there is transgression by touch, exchange of food, bodily substances, etc., of the hierarchical boundaries of caste. This is a very familiar and well-known aspect of caste because there is no understanding what the caste hierarchy is without understanding this point. Intra-caste pollution is a much more theoretically interesting phenomenon. It arises when caste members do not practice their caste code properly. It may be easiest to explain it with examples. So take, for instance, a codified requirement within a caste, of a certain ritual to be followed by family members when there is a death (or indeed, a birth) in the family. Episodes of death and birth upset the equilibrium of the caste’s ecosystem, as it were, and the code requires a ritual restoration of the equilibrium. A family’s failure to carry out those rituals renders the family polluted. In general, breaches of everyday caste norms, renders the offender polluted. It is polluting for a Brahmin, for example, to return to the life of the household (grihastaashrama) after having taken the vow of abstinence (sanyasaashrama). It makes a potter (khumbhar) equally polluted if he fails to perform a proper ritual before he begins making a pot. In both cases, these caste men would become outcasts in their respective groups and would be ostracized until the prescribed penance and expiation is granted. When it comes to intra-caste purity, therefore, it is not the purity that is limited to the exclusivity of the caste gene pool. Rather purity and pollution are constituted by the everyday and lifelong normative practices of a caste. What makes this notion of purity/pollution theoretically extremely interesting is that the normative principles which practices must confirm to constitute what will count as pure and what will count as polluted. Unlike as in the inter-caste case, it is not as if there is a pre-given notion of purity and pollution (a notion that is constituted by the fact that caste is an exclusivist hierarchical system) and the norms are tracking this pre-given notion of purity and pollution. Rather the norms dictate what is pure and polluted because the norms dictate what caste members must do and failure to do it generates the pollution. This contrast is a bit like the famous contrast in Plato’s Euthyphro when Socrates asks ‘whether the gods love the pious because it is pious or whether the pious is pious because it is loved by the gods. The point is that in the intra-caste case something is polluted because it is declared to be polluted by the caste’s norms. It is not as if pollution is defined by something other than the intra-caste norms (like the exclusivism of the stratified gene pools that is inherent in the idea of caste hierarchy) and the norms are merely tracking that already understood notion of purity and pollution. Scholarship on caste has not sufficiently noted this important and interesting contrast. I will return to it later in the book.

  10. 10.

    The village servant system was a system organized around the dominant cultivating caste in a village which would act as a patron (jajman) caste whereas all the other castes were to provide services specific to their castes as servants of the dominant caste. The servant castes were typically those of the carpenter, smith, barber, the scavenger, etc., who served the needs of the jajman households throughout the year in exchange of a small share of produce of grains and crops during the harvest. The share and quality of produce was determined by the rank of the caste in the hierarchy.

  11. 11.

    For a brief exposition of such depositions, see chapter 2.

  12. 12.

    A phrase used to describe the rise of lower castes in Indian politics since the 1980s.


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Ingole, A. (2021). Introduction: Studying Caste Panchayats. In: Caste Panchayats and Caste Politics in India. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore.

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