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#India – Publicly Talking about Caste

A Report on Jātisamvāda in Prajavāni
Vol – XLIX No. 4, January 25, 2014 | Gopal Guru and Sundar Sarukkai
An unsual sociological experiment was conducted during the first half of 2013 in the Kannada daily Prajavāni to explore how we can collectively think about and through this ask whether it was possible for the public to challenge stablished beliefs about concepts such as , democracy and privacy.
Gopal Guru ([email protected]) teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and Sundar Sarukkai ([email protected]) at the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal University, Manipal.
We thank K N Shanth Kumar, Padmaraja Dandavathi, Executive Editor, and the editorial team at Prajavāni for their unstinting support. We also thank K V Akshara for the many discussions related to this project. The weekly production of the Jātisamvāda page as well as the online archive would not have been possible without the intellectual and professional support of N A M Ismail at Prajavāni and we are grateful to him for all his assistance. Madhava Chippali translated our articles into Kannada and his help is gratefully acknowledged.
An unsual sociological experiment was conducted during the first half of 2013 in the Kannada daily Prajavāni to explore how we can collectively think about caste and through this ask whether it was possible for the public to challenge established beliefs about concepts such as caste, democracy and privacy.
An initiative to generate a public debate on caste experiences, titled jātisamvāda, had its origins in the pages of EPW where the two of us explored the philosophical foundations of caste and untouchability as responses to each other (Gopal Guru, “Archaeology of Untouchability”, and Sundar Sarukkai, “Phenomenology of Untouchability”, 12 September 2009).
This “debate” eventually was enlarged into a book (The Cracked Mirror: An Indian Debate on Experience and Theory, Oxford, 2009). Among the many responses to the book, one theme was raised repeatedly: do caste experiences and untouchability really exist in India, particularly in urban and middle-class India? As one response to these concerns, we initiated this project of recording the public articulations of caste. An enduring concern we had was a continuing lacuna in public discussions of caste. That is, while caste was being discussed vigorously among individuals, and within small groups and communities, a public discourse on caste seemed to be mired in all kinds of problems. When one hears of caste issues in the public, they are largely news stories about reservation or about atrocities related to intercaste marriages or of dalits being punished for a variety of reasons. Through the continuous news coverage of such events, two things happen concomitantly: one, a rich narrative of caste experiences does not get recorded or discussed in the public domain, and, two, there is a consolidation of a public understanding of caste which is primarily reduced to these much reported events. Thus, there is this paradoxical elimination of a rich public discourse on caste and at the same time creation of a restricted imagination of caste in the media.
This restricted domain of the public record of caste experiences also encourages various stereotypes about castes. For example, many people, including politicians and business leaders, continue to claim that caste is largely absent, or at least irrelevant, in urban areas. The open access to public spaces, including restaurants, has removed the stigma of caste identity. While there is much in caste practices that undergoes change in urban areas, it is not clear whether caste identities were being consolidated in other ways. And the best way to get this information is directly from the people who may have experienced caste in various ways in the city. A collection of such experiences would at least indicate two things: one, that while restaurants have become open access, other spaces, such as housing, have become more closed, and, two, it would also show the trend of caste dynamics in a changing world which might inspire more detailed studies.
A Different Kind of Research
Thus, this initiative of ours began as a research project with a difference. Right from the beginning, we wanted to have a public research project. Most research projects in the academic (and even among the non-governmental organisations) are very specialised and their results do not really reach a larger audience. So this project right from the beginning was not about the ownership of the data we collected but more about creating a public archive of caste experiences in Karnataka today. The challenges we face in such a project are many. How do we meaningfully get information from a large number of people? How do we get people to talk publicly about caste? How do we get our respondents to not recycle the stereotypes of caste that they have absorbed from around them? Is it even possible to make sense of the dynamics of caste through such a project?
We decided that the best way to gather descriptions of contemporary caste experiences was in undertaking a partnership with an established newspaper. We wanted to use the medium of the paper to elicit responses from its readers on their caste experiences. We also wanted this material to be used freely by social scientists and others who want to study caste in our society and thus, right at the beginning, decided to create an online archive of these responses.
We also wanted to conduct this discussion in an Indian language. Our immediate choice of a newspaper was Prajavāni, given its long record of serious journalism. We were fortunate that the two of us could meet K N Shanth Kumar, the editor of Prajavāni, at the Ninasam Culture Course in Heggodu, a small village in Karnataka. We discussed this proposal with him and K V Akshara of Ninasam. To our delight, Shanth Kumar not only immediately agreed to this proposal but also promised to allocate the centre page of his paper every Monday for this debate, which we titled jātisamvāda. He also suggested that we continue this exercise for at least six months.
His editorial team was wonderfully supportive. So after our initial discussions with them, we decided to start the series in the month of December 2012. Given the terrific response that we received, we continued this series for six months, every Monday from 3 December 2012 to 27 May 2013.
We decided to have a few articles every week and pose various themes and questions for public responses. We wrote some articles and also solicited articles from people in specialised areas such as theatre, films and activism. We received thousands of letters and articles from people all over Karnataka although we could manage to print only a few of them every week. However, almost all of them have been put in a public archive managed by Prajavāni and available online at This material can be accessed by anybody and can be used in their own work, if relevant, with appropriate acknowledgement. The collection of all the material published as part of this debate is also being released as a book in order to sustain this debate over time.
Objectives of Project
Our objectives in embarking on this project were many. One, we felt that there was a continued disconnect between academic writing on caste and society, and popular narratives around it. Reading news reports on caste or watching the news reportage on issues related to caste might make one believe that there has really been no serious intellectual reflection on the dynamics of caste. The public discourse on caste in these mediums ignores the rich sociological literature on this topic. An objective was to bring this sociological literature to the attention of the readers, thereby doing two things: one, expose the readers to these theories and empirical results which might then have some impact on the naïve beliefs about caste and, two, make the readers challenge these theories about caste from the perspective of their own caste experiences.
In doing this, we were also exploring the viability of expanding the base of social science methodology through public participation. Knowing well that we would not be able to publish the many letters that we expected to receive, we began with a plan on an open archive where we would post these responses and discussions. Even after the debate in the newspaper ended, we wanted to keep this channel of web discussion open and thus the online archive as well as the book.
Another important objective was to discover how people talk publicly about caste in contrast to private articulations. We have repeatedly found that caste discussions have a different structure and content when discussed within certain groups. The public articulation of caste very often continues to emphasise well-entrenched beliefs about caste and its influence on today’s society. Many times while there is a community articulation of caste in the public space, there is little discussion or debate between the different communities who express these views. Thus, we see a growing “privatisation” of caste whereby beliefs about caste are becoming more and more closed within specific groups and communities, and increasingly are not even being discussed in the public domain. Instead of a discussion, there are only judgments.
Thus, a sociological experiment such as this is also an attempt to see how we can collectively think about caste and through this explore whether it was possible for the public to challenge established beliefs about concepts such as caste, democracy, privacy and so on. In the specific case of caste, we were hoping that this method would generate surplus views and rich narratives of caste, along with a critique of sociological concepts describing caste.
The process of this debate was as follows: every Monday, starting 3 December 2012, we published an article or two which would lead off the discussion. The first article we began with was about the debate itself and the challenges to our understanding of caste experiences today. For the first few issues we also suggested questions and themes on which we wanted responses. For example, themes included experiences of caste in cities, in the entertainment industry, in folk arts, in education and in jobs, in finding houses and so on. Since we did not want this exercise to be reduced to one of “mere complaints”, we also requested various other forms of responses about caste, including an issue on the recipes of food special to caste groups. There were also invited articles every week from specialists in different domains. We published these discussions every week for six months (25 issues) and the last issue was on 27 May 2013. Overall, we received over 3,000 letters from all parts of Karnataka.
Overall, we believe that the experiment worked very well in some aspects and not so well in others. As a methodology to derive “authentic” voices of a diverse group of people, we believe that it succeeded beyond our expectations given the thousands of responses we received. Whether social theory can arise from or be illuminated from these narratives is an open question since more people have to work on this archive to generate insights and analyses. We also believe that the objective of bringing sociological insights into a public domain was partly successful – of course, much more sustained work at disseminating academic work in mediums such as a newspaper must be undertaken. In this context, it is worth noting that one of the most influential ways of popularising science and spreading scientific knowledge is through regular columns on science and news reports about science in newspapers. A parallel initiative with respect to the social sciences and humanities is lacking.
We also believe that the focus on experiences was a reasonable starting point since caste practices are sustained by various myths and beliefs. Thus, to actually have specific examples of discrimination or differentiation based on caste allows us to gauge the dynamics around caste. For example, the discussion on caste in cities was an important indicator of the kinds of experiences which people from different castes faced. In particular, the information about how gated communities are now strongly and publicly becoming what we can call as “casted-communities” is an important one in the context of understanding the dynamics of caste in urban areas today. We must also mention that some people did feel fatigued by a “mere” experiential description. But this record of experiences was what we primarily wanted since we first wanted the “data” to be placed in the public domain before any analysis could take place. However, this recording of experiences was also fraught with difficulty since many responses also ended up as judgments.
We were also pleased with the interest by which well-known public figures wrote about some of these themes. In particular, the discussion on entertainment, films, theatre, music and folk arts which went on for a few weeks had a vibrant debate with well-known individuals describing their experiences and views about the presence of caste in their fields. On the other hand, we also found that quite a few public intellectuals were reluctant to write about the topic of caste.
One of the weaknesses which we observed was that there was some amount of redundancy in the responses. There were also many that followed politically correct utterances. Some of the responses did not seem to have followed the discussion earlier and were more intent on making their own points. One major recurrent theme, which is indeed a fault line in contemporary discussions on caste, is that of reservation. Our attempt was to catalyse a discussion around the idea of reservation and go beyond mere judgments but we are unsure of how successful we were in accomplishing this. We also noticed that there continues to be some reticence in talking about caste in the public domain. While there are these wild charges about caste groups, particularly from the more dominant groups, there is still a private space of articulation which is not easily translatable to the public domain. The limitations of a print medium meant that we could not accommodate all or even most of the responses nor continue the discussion beyond a limited time. However, web archiving of these responses has allowed for not only a continuation of this debate but also for accessing all the material that was sent in as responses and as articles to this debate. We invite social scientists to access this material as their own data. We also believe that this initiative can be attempted through major newspapers in other languages which may perhaps lead to a growing culture of public debate on critical issues that matter to all of us today.

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