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The Caste Panchayat, Caste Governance, and the Role of the State: The Long View

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Abstract

The chapter tries to trace the evolution of caste panchayats from their earliest available records to the present. Rather than trying to develop a temporally continuous or an all-India-level narrative, it focuses on developing a timeline of the character of these bodies from the available records in particular regions. I rely for the information about the early period on the Vedic religious texts, later written records from the Bahamani kingdom, Maratha Kingdom, and the Vijayanagara Kingdom, actual documents of the cases tried by these panchayats or their records present in the Mughal arhsattas, the Maratha mazhars and nivadpatras, and the pothis of the religious mathas in Southern India. For the British period and immediately after, the census records and other anthropological records compiled by both English and Indian anthropologists are employed. The works published in the Anthropological survey of India are used by me to analyse caste panchayats in the immediate post-independence period. As the records of caste panchayats as caste panchayats become rare after this period, I use primary sources and analysis of the secondary literature, in order to present my analysis of the latter in postcolonial and contemporary India.

Keywords

  • Puga
  • Kula
  • Watan
  • Matha
  • Balutedari
  • British census

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Altekar (1927) does point out that in South India there were more stable and continuous institutions of caste-based village councils than in the west.

  2. 2.

    Excavated from present-day Sylhet district in Bangladesh, these plates are dated as belonging to the seventh century.

  3. 3.

    The Kamapura Kingdom spanned from Guwahati and Brahmaputra valley to Bhutan, north Bangladesh, and parts of west Bengal and Bihar at its peak. The Kamapura kings ruled the region from 350 CE to 1140 CE.

  4. 4.

    The autonomy assertion can be noted in the caste solidarity mobilisations that came up from several quarters during this period. Protests were organized under dominant caste heads or desais with the caste headmen of all respective castes of the village attesting support for solidarity actions against the state. In the fifteenth century, the Vijayanagara and Bahamani kingdoms were at the receiving end of obstructionist actions by caste panchayats (Karashima 1997: 82). Excessive taxes and fees under the Nizamshahi were protested under caste chief- the Desai in 1575. Historians cite at least three instances of the state actively reorganizing the caste organization in Konkan and Goa regions in the period between sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which resulted in resistance in the form of caste solidarity actions. As a result, the new rulers of the East India company made fresh resettlement with these caste groups to suit the new demands of revenue collection and methods of taxation. In fact, such actions continued in the later British period. The pargana deshmukhs of the Khandesh region launched a massive protest in 1852 in defiance of the British land revenue survey. In reference to the broad mandate that these bodies took upon themselves Guha makes it clear that ‘(caste) adjudication was as much a political process at restoring balance in local society’ and it thereby reinforces the exploitative and unequal aspects of caste (Guha 2014: 86). In other words, the intra-caste actions of these periods hardly ever challenged the hierarchy of caste. Their documentation by the British officers is ripe with such examples (See for example Hutton 1946: 82–83).

  5. 5.

    As I will discuss later, the brahmasabhas grew to have a special relationship with the state in a relationship of mutual gain for each. The state provided land grants to them for a wide variety of benefits it gained from this relationship.

  6. 6.

    Mathas or Peethas were the centres of religious learning, which often developed at places of religious importance such as temples, sites of pilgrimage, etc. Most brahmasabhas were part of these mathas.

  7. 7.

    There may, however, be some exceptions. Intra-caste governance in some nomadic castes, for whom the Brahmins declined to serve as gurus, are served by ‘guru castes’ whose hereditary occupation is to serve as gurus to caste panchayats (Hayden 1999: 44).

  8. 8.

    Reference here is to two Saiva mathas in Madras, two Virasaiva mathas in Mysore, and two Vaishnava mathas called the Sankara mathas [one in Sringeri, Mysore, and other in Kumbakonam, Madras].

  9. 9.

    Holding of a caste panchayat meeting and respecting its decisions as a religious, duty necessary for caste purity is a widely prevalent belief. This is a repeated motivation for caste panchayats activities, given by both caste leaders and people who abide by their rules, and even by those who choose to complain about them. It is common for some caste panchayats to refer to religious texts in their rulings.

  10. 10.

    This case relates to two Yajurvedi Brahmins and a bride and whether she is “properly” married to one of them—a pujari/priest from Karhad—or not. The dispute seems to have arisen because her uncle instead of her father did a particular ritual in her marriage. The interesting facts here are that this case is tried before the brahmasabha at pargana khatan and has in attendance senior state officials (8 watan holding officers from the two parganas or districts of Oundh and Balaghat). The brahmasabha is a gota (lower level) brahmasabha and thus the dharmadhikari is not present at the hearing but the decision is taken on the basis of written depositions by the purohit who administered the marriage ceremony; scrutiny of the rituals is performed in accordance with the shastras and on the basis of previous decisions. Furthermore, the brahmasabha, while declaring the result in favour of Girmaji Lakshman of Karhad, also declared that anybody who questions it is not only an offender of the Brahmasabha but also ‘diwanicha gunhegar’—offender of the state.

  11. 11.

    It is useful to make an explicit distinction here, something that is often left only implicit in the scholarship, that much of sanskritization, i.e. the elevation of a caste in the hierarchy through one or other means, happens without renaming the now elevated caste. Elevation merely amounts to becoming acceptable in ways and in locations, which they were hitherto not. It is only in some cases, as the one I have just mentioned, where the caste actually gets a new name.

  12. 12.

    Such a correlation has persisted in post-independence India despite social and political caste reforms. Intellectual labour, which was monopolized by the higher castes, remains highly valued both socially and materially as opposed to manual or skilled labour traditionally forced on the lower castes, which is not only considered less dignified but also draws the least remuneration.

  13. 13.

    ‘Uparis’ and ‘Mirasdars’, as labels, apply both to the cultivating classes involved and to the system of land tenure.

  14. 14.

    The term ‘nat-gota’ is used to refer to one’s relatives and caste kin in reference to the caste community.

  15. 15.

    Elphinstone records that according to ‘Hindu opinion’ the land that fell out of cultivation due to excessive taxation by the Muslim rulers led to this development (Elphinstone 1886).

  16. 16.

    This is in contrast to the cases concerning religious or moral matters that came to the royal court. The records have just one such request. Moreover, the judgement in this case simply validated the decisions taken by the Jaatsabha and the follow-up procedure by the brahmasabha. Overall, matters of religion and family are absent in these records.

  17. 17.

    Such centralized authority by the state went beyond economic issues in East Bengal, where one finds that there was a considerable change in the internal organization of caste and an elevation of caste status among some groups owing to the directives of King Ballal Sen (Census of India 1911).

  18. 18.

    One must mention here, that this policy was caliberated depending on the dominance of resistance by the Brahmin orthodoxy who had hitherto monolpolised education. In places like Poona where this was the case, British were not principally committed to education of the non-Brahmin castes.

  19. 19.

    Meta-caste panchayats are smaller caste panchayats of the same caste from a particular region coming together to form a larger panchayat.

  20. 20.

    ‘It is not so much the ill treatment of the higher castes, but your faults that have been the cause of your poverty and degradation…Your habits of drunkenness, and your utter disregard for education, have made you a poor, degraded and despised people’ (From the 1908 address delivered by K. Ranga Rao, Secretary of the Mangalore Depressed Classes Mission to a gathering of the Pancham-Holeya caste; quoted in Bayly 2000: 184)

  21. 21.

    Politics in India in the first few decades after independence was dominated by the Indian National Congress, which had been central in the freedom struggle for more than a half century. Its dominance took a particular form that commentators have sometimes described by saying that all of Indian politics happened within the party—that the party metonymically represented the entire political system of the country. “Indian politics is ‘the Congress System’” is how one prominent political analyst put it (Kothari 1964).

  22. 22.

    An umbrella organization with no specific political affiliation or leadership, which has been at the forefront of the huge mobilisations of the Maratha population for demanding reservations for the Marathas in educational institutions and government sector jobs.

  23. 23.

    Referred to as Mandal Commission after its chairperson B.P. Mandal the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Commission (SEBC). It was given a mandate to ‘identify the socially or educationally backward classes’ of India in January 1979 by the Janta Party government. It recommended 27% reservations in public sector jobs and educational institutions for the non-untouchable lower castes that constitute roughly 50% of the country’s population, now termed as the Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

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Ingole, A. (2021). The Caste Panchayat, Caste Governance, and the Role of the State: The Long View. In: Caste Panchayats and Caste Politics in India. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-16-1275-6_2

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