DALITS AND ADIVASIS IN INDIA’S BUSINESS ECONOMY — Three Essays and An Atlas: Barbara Harriss-White with Elisabetta Basile, Anita Dixit, Pinaki Joddar, Aseem Prakash and Kaushal Vidyarthee; Three Essays Collective, B-957, Palam Vihar, Gurgaon-122017. Rs. 2000.
For long, I have realised India’s political economy cannot be explained in conventional sense rooted in Western tradition of analysis of capitalism and socialism. Almost every significant mind of India’s Marxist tradition came from upper caste background, and they failed to realise how pernicious the caste could be; and fell into the trap of class analysis — almost to the extent of not recognising caste at all. Consequently, Marx or Gramsci decisively displaced Ambedkar in the narrative of India’s suffering. In the radical intellectual world, it was more glamorous to be a Marxist than an Ambedkarite; and that romance with Marxism continues. Perhaps, sub-consciously, they became accomplices to what Gopal Guru calls the “silencing of Ambedkar” as much as India’s ruling regimes.
The never-ending debate whether class or caste has more explanatory power that dominated the 20th century remains alive even today. In the post-Mandal era, with the rise of caste-based parties, there is growing evidence that the intellectual wind has been in favour of caste rather than class. Barbara Hariss-White’s path-breaking book, India Working (Cambridge, 2003) shook up the class-inspired tradition of analysis. And it raised a few more questions that inspired further research that led to this book. In a way, it is a rehabilitation of the long-neglected caste factor in India’s political economy. In that sense, it is a pioneering work.
Given that the usual stuff has not addressed the issue of poverty either in India or elsewhere with adequate satisfaction, we have good reason why we should be generous in welcoming this unusual book. Three of its main chapters run to only 77 pages. The remaining 106 pages are full of maps depicting vital comparative data about the participation of Dalits and Adivasis in India’s business economy. These maps offer more useful insights than scholarly essays about discrimination, caste influence and general questions about capital or capitalism.
The first essay, about Dalit capital in market India, recalls how Jyotibha Phule and Ambedkar drew attention to two particular kinds of discrimination: British and Brahmanical. British colonial institutions gave some normative tools that some Dalits could use to fight the Brahmanical order and the fight continues. According to this research, caste is no longer a matter of pollution and purity after liberalisation but of difference and solidarity. But then in post-liberalised India, caste networks play a vital role. These networks are weak in the case of Indian Dalits. On the other hand, the state has become a primary means of reproducing caste ideology. Having failed to remove non-secular institutions, the state has also perpetuated deprivation caused by private property. Thus, the book argues that caste becomes an instrument of hegemony, and is a civil social institution of capitalist accumulation. It contributes to the blurring of the fine distinction between economy and society by being operative as ideology, as institutional structure, and as a set of political-economic relationships.
The next chapter is based on a case study of a small town in South India. It explores how scheduled and backward castes are placed and operate in the social structure of accumulation. It concludes that caste plays a key role in organising and sustaining accumulation. As labour and as employers and accumulators, Dalits are central to this process. Caste is the key pillar of ideology on which the town presents itself as a unified body. What is interesting to note is that the interplay of caste and the economy may be differentiated but is consistent with corporatism. This chapter recognises that education and reservations have helped Dalits change their professions from sanitary workers and agricultural workers to more diversified professions and even politics, but wealth creation for Dalits has to take place in India’s informal capitalist economy. This research suggests that caste plays a triple role. First, it provides what the author calls “ideological backcloth” for the corporatist organisations; Secondly, its working is consistent with the institutionalisation structure of the evolving corporatist organisations; and finally, caste also creates conditions for the overlap between economy and society necessary for the working of the corporatist project. The research findings suggest that the small town societal corporatist regime of accumulation resembles Gramsci’s concept of civil society. What is remarkable is that, according to the authors, the political, cultural and ideological hegemony of a single social group — the capitalist class — over the rest remains intact and operational.
The final chapter is about regions of discrimination against Dalits and Adivasis in India’s business economy. It examines the patterns of incorporation of both Dalits and Adivasis into the business economy not as labour but as owners of firms. More than 70 maps of state-level patterns are published in this Atlas, covering the period from 1990 to 2005, and they focus on 14 sectors of the economy. The data are drawn from Census, Economic Census and the National Sample Survey (NSS). They show uneven effects of discrimination across four dimensions: across scales — variations across macro-regions; secondly, variations across sectors of agriculture and the non-firm economy; thirdly, differences in the trajectory of incorporation of regions and sectors over time; and fourth, the differences between Dalit and Adivasis, the latter intensifying over time, Adivasis positively, but Dalits sometimes negatively.
This indispensable volume for students of India’s political economy and development studies offers fresh insights to a debate that seems to be frozen in various rival schools that either calls for state-led development or market-oriented reform, without realising that both institutions could be paralysed by caste factors. The exciting thing is that this book offers concrete evidence to that end.