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Caste Panchayats Today

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The third chapter assesses in detail the assumptions of modernization theory which were brought to bear on the study of caste organizations in Indian politics, their largely uncritical internalization by these studies (even those studies that claimed to be critical of modernization theory), and the ways in which it preempted an alternative, more plausible way of understanding how caste loyalty continues to function in Indian society and politics. Many of the theses expounded in the first introductory chapter surface in this discussion of the long legacy of modernization theory in the study of caste and caste panchayats. I proceed, then, to an empirical grounding in evidence of these more critical points by looking at the cases of caste panchayats in Haryana and Maharashtra in particular. I use these cases to expound how their very different trajectories but increasingly similar methods of loyalty enforcement are employed in the service of not just social conservatism but also political mobilizational functions thrown up by democratic politics.


  • Khaps
  • Honour-killing
  • Gaavki
  • Governmentality
  • Mandal Commission
  • Modernization
  • BKU

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-981-16-1275-6_3
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  1. 1.

    By political functions I mean both functions directly related to electoral process such as deciding on the candidature of the local representative to be elected by the caste members or owning caste allegiance to a particular party and functions that are indirectly political in nature like mobilizing the caste identity over political goals, developing a narrative of caste identity that is political in character etc.

  2. 2.

    There is an increasing consensus on this point among the scholars. (see for example, Shankar and Rodrigues 2011)

  3. 3.

    Parties that have originated on the basis of and appeal to explicit agendas related to clusters of castes. These mostly include parties formed by the leaders of erstwhile lower castes around the 1980s as the two major national parties dominated by the upper castes for a very long time could manage upper caste dominance without having to articulate agendas in caste terms. Social justice prior to the 80s comprised a constitutional promise that was not conceptualized as related to the issue of democratization as electoral representation.

  4. 4.

    Nehru’s views on the subject are famously developed in his work Discovery of India.

  5. 5.

    Thus for instance it was often said in the scholarship (the Rudolphs explicitly say it) that the most significant aspect of the caste association was its ‘capacity to organize the politically illiterate mass electorate’. This organizing they argued was a modern function. A caste group mobilizing itself to seek a higher caste status (sanskritization), for instance, was considered one such modern function. Now, seeking sanskritization from the colonial State was a marker of a ‘new caste association’ for the Rudolphs. The underlying assumption being that only when a caste group seeks an official imprint from the modern British state does it get properly called a ‘caste association’. However, I have substantiated, that caste panchayats had been seeking sanskritization from the pre-British states through the royal or the religious court for a long time before British rule and continued to do it even during the British reign. In fact, the martial races too, when they came to power had to in some cases seek and struggle for achieving higher ritual status. So the structures of organizing politically illiterate masses, the structures of mobilizing for higher caste status, the structures for seeking one or other form of political or economic advantage from the state, were all present in the earlier period of pre-modern states. What this shows is that there is a virtual tautology in what the Rudolphs are inserting here to what I have shown. A new and modern form of association, distinct from traditional caste panchayats, is theoretically demanded as a category only when the state being appealed to is a state of avowed modernity (colonial). The theoretical structures are uniform in the pre and postcolonial period, the only differentiating term is ‘modern’. It is this idle and redundant use of the modern that I am claiming is a tautological theoretical insertion. It plays no explanatory role.

  6. 6.

    Let me illustrate this point here. O’ Malley (the Bengal Gazetteer) for the 1911 British Census of India gave three examples of why he thought ‘the caste sabha was modelled on the European associations and conferences’. First was the Goala caste sabha of Bihar, which abolished two practices: the practice of infant marriage as well as the practice of the women going to the market to sell milk. The second example was that of the Doshadhs (described as a ‘degraded cultivating caste’ by Risley in 1891) who served as village watchmen. This caste had ruled for excommunicating its members who were caught stealing. The final example was of the Saha caste panchayat, which had collected funds to send some students of its own caste to Japan (Census of India 1911: 392–393).

    All these bodies were characteristic caste panchayats using primordial methods such as excommunication and loyalty enforcement. Yet, because of the functions they were performing by employing these methods, O’Malley thought that the ‘degrading cultivators’ were finally modelling themselves after the modern civilized Europeans. It was this very caste sabha that was characterized as the caste association in the concerned literature, without recognizing its continuity with the caste panchayats, a continuity which, is established by one of the two defining criteria for caste panchayats that I have given –the traditional methods they employ to carry out functions, traditional or modern, The assumptions of O’ Malley were uncritically adopted by the scholarship because of their failure to get this defining criterion right. As a result, the term ‘caste sabha’ came to be often used interchangeably with the new term ‘caste association’.

    The Rudolphs in particular confuse defining criteria with further non-defining properties of these caste organizations. In fact, most caste bodies retained their legacy of non voluntary methods of loyalty enforcement. You even find the Rudolphs acknowledging this when they note:

    They have been closely bound together by an organization managed by one of their caste, who was a prominent person in these parts….and their esprit de corps is now surprisingly strong. They are tending gradually to approach the Brahmanical standard of social conduct, discouraging adult marriage, meat-eating, and widow re- marriage…. In 1904 a document came before one of the courts which showed that, in the year previous, the representatives of the caste in 34 villages in this district had bound themselves in writing, under penalty of excommunication to refrain (except with the consent of all parties) from the practices formerly in existence of marrying two wives, and of allowing a woman to marry again during the lifetime of her first husband (Thurston quoted in Rudoplh and Rudolph 1960: 345) These are clearly methods used by caste panchayats and these bodies are entirely continuous with those panchayats, but the Rudolphs fail to see it and add the following to the above:

    When these new caste associations turned to politics at the turn of century, their main target was the census office, for its listing of caste and caste descriptions became more “real” than reality itself, carrying as it did the authority of official imprint. (Rupolph and Rudolph 1960: 345)

    This is the confusion of method and function that I am suggesting gets the identification of the bodies wrong. It is a confusion of what defines and identifies the body with a further descriptive property of it that is not definitional.

  7. 7.

    By to some extent, I mean that it became impossible to maintain the dominance as ordained by the caste hierarchies as occupational rigidities could not be maintained anymore. In professional public life due to the force of the constitutional guarantees, law, education as well as the demands of the changing economy hierarchical aspects of caste did get dissolved.

  8. 8.

    Marathas are an example in case. Let me also state here that the Mahars (a caste considered untouchable in Maharashtra) too, invoked a martial past- a cultural memory still available to mobilization today. Ambedkar, however, gave a more definitive modernist turn to the Mahar struggle and identity.

  9. 9.

    It might be worthwhile to note here that there is a disagreement between historians and sociologists in the matter of the date of origins of the Khaps. At the centre of disagreement is the work by sociologist M. C. Pradhan (1966) who relied on Kanshi Ram’s pothi as a historical document. Sociologists such as Sangwan (2008) who continue to build on his work cite royal decrees [at least two, issued by the Mughal Emperor Akbar (dated 8th Ramzan, 987 A.H. and 11th Ramzan, 989 A.H.)] as quoted in Pradhan, whose historical accuracy is contested (Bharadwaj 2012). I rely here, on the works of the historians rather than these sociological accounts.

  10. 10.

    The word gotra means a clan, which is understood as a direct patrilineal group lineage from a common male ancestor and must be thus treated as an exogamous group to avoid incestuous marriages. Sagotra means within one’s gotra and a sagotra union is therefore outlawed by customs. Khaps have earned notoriety over the adoption of violent methods of enforcing the gotra-dictated rules of marriage.

  11. 11.

    Honour here means a notion of mutually accepted and observed norms among groups directing the exchange of respect as well as a marker of collective status and standing of a group. Control over female sexuality thus is a cause of great anxiety amongst groups which observe such honour codes.

  12. 12.

    Marriages as they are pre-dominantly understood take for granted the groom’s family taking the bride into their family, and the bride severing all relations both material and of familial responsibility from her maternal family. The ritual observed in all Hindu marriages to mark this severing of relations is called the ‘Kanyadaan’ (giving away one’s daughter) performed by the bride’s parents, whereby the bride vows to owe her love and loyalty to her husband and his family.

  13. 13.

    Gifts in cash and kind to be given by a bride’s family to the groom. Though often projected as voluntary gift given by the bride’s family to her, the practice is quite mandatory as the daughter’s treatment and standing in her husband’s family is often determined by this dowry. The practice involves the groom’s family making certain demands and the bride’s family complying to it with or without some negotiation.

  14. 14.

    Brahmo Samaj was a religious movement started in 1828 by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Debendranath Tagore to reform some practices of Hinduism from within it, spearheading the process of social, religious and educational uplift of the Hindus.

  15. 15.

    Prarthana Samaj (Prayer Society) was a theistic and social reform movement that was started in Bombay in the 1850s which had reforming of certain practices within Hinduism such as observance of the caste system, widow remarriage etc. as its early goals.

  16. 16.

    Tracking here the percentage of OBCs in the Indian population.


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

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