Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Dynamics of class and caste polarisation - Radhika Desai

Radhika Desai teaches politics at the University of Victoria, BC, Canada. On 3 November she gave a lecture at Humboldt University, Berlin: "Caste, Class and Religious Community - understanding the dynamics of class and caste polarisation". This was the first lecture of the series "Insider and Outsider" organised by the Berliner Südostasienrunde, a group of academics (since 2007) working on South Asia, with the support of the Max Planck Institute which looks into the history of feelings (Geschichte der Gefühle).

Desai's extremely rich lecture contested what she termed common misunderstandings about Indian politics, such as the perceived dichotomy between a "tolerant, old" hinduism and "fanatical, modern" hindutva nationalism, the presumed irrelevance of caste issues in politics and the idea that caste and class represent separate logics. She spoke of the subtle ways in which the concepts of "Indian" and "Hindu" get equated, leading to othering of Muslims or, a recent example, Christians in Orissa, a graduation of acceptability for these "others" ("good muslim - bad muslim") and a reordering of hierarchy within "hinducity" (e.g. socialists and feminists are no good Hindus). It is orthopraxy, the practice of caste as a unifying pattern of socio-economic relations, that unites hinduism - not orthodoxy (there is no dogma, according to Desai).

I was particularly attracted by Desai's distinction between developmental, "Indian", nationalism and cultural, "Hindu", nationalism, the latter creating boundaries defining presumed "real" Indians. Also elegant: her reference to Pierre Bourdieu's La Distinction, which shows how the ruling classes create an idea of what it is to be good - things that come easily to privileged people, such as the capacity to distinguish different schools of painting or to appreciate certain types of expensive food. This mechanism is alive and well in Europe, too. In India, makes it possible to shroud the power of class and caste in a softening mist of education and refinement. Or, as Desai puts it, of course upper caste people have no problems with lower castes, it's because they never meet any of there representatives. "Or if they do, then the introduction goes - oh meet the brave untouchable leader, the amazing untouchable poet...".

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