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Book Review: The Fraught Battles to Legalise Caste Equality

Mitta's book stands out for exploring a theme that has remained understudied – the intersection of caste and law.

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A number of books on caste hit the market in April coinciding with the celebration of Dalit History Month. Manoj Mitta's book, Caste Pride: Battles for Equality in Hindu India, stands out among them for exploring a theme that has remained understudied so far – the intersection of caste and law.

The books that have dealt with this theme in the past have mostly confined themselves to discussing the legal aspects of India's affirmative action policy for the lower castes, for instance, Marc Galanter's seminal book Competing Equalities: Law and the Backward Classes in India or the more recent These Seats Are Reserved: Caste, Quotas and the Constitution of India by Abhinav Chandrachud. Mitta's book, on the other hand, is not just more expansive in terms of the time period it explores – early 19th century to 21st century – but also the the issues it covers.

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The Scope of the Book

Mitta has divided his book in five thematic sections, examining legislations and legislative debates about crime, inheritance, marriage, access to public spaces, access to temples, untouchability, and mass killings of Dalits in post-independence India. Since the author has set the limit of looking at the intersection of caste and law, his archival material primarily includes legislative debates, enactments and court proceedings. While the book narrates some of the familiar episodes in the anti-caste movement's modern history, such as the Shanar women's fight to cover their breasts, Vaikom satyagraha or the massacres like Kilvenmani and Laxmanpur Bathe, the author has managed to shine light on many other significant incidents as well as attempts at caste reform and the individuals behind them. Some of this history would be unfamiliar to even senior activists.

For instance, only a few would know that the colonial government prohibited inter-caste marriages, except if the couple opted for civil marriage and forsook both Hinduism and inheritance rights. In 1900, the Bombay High Court invalidated a marriage between a Rajput husband Kaliansing and his Brahmin wife Bai Lakshmi on the grounds that "a marriage between a Rajput and a Brahmin girl is not allowed by Hindu law." In this context, Vallabhbhai Patel's elder brother, Vithalbhai Patel, moved a bill in support of inter-caste marriages in the Central Legislature in 1918. However, he faced stiff resistance from conservative Congress seniors like Surendranath Banerjea and Madan Mohan Malaviya, which resulted in Patel's bill getting lapsed. It was only after India's independence that the Hindus got the right to marry across castes without any fetters.

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In the first section of the book, Mitta looks at some of the earliest laws that dealt with caste. In the first chapter he gives details about a peculiar law of putting convicts into a stock for up to six hours, however this punishment was reserved only for the lower castes. This highly discriminatory law, which was enacted in 1816, was repealed only in 1919 – more than a century later.

The chapter dealing with the Shanar (Nadar) revolt in the 19th century in Travancore is important for the minute details it brings out. It shows the fervent petitioning and letter writing by the Nadar activists for decades to obtain the right for Nadar women to cover their breasts just like women from other communities. However, their demand was blocked by the combined forces of upper caste bureaucracy and British officers till the late 1850s.

The tone set by the first two chapters is carried forward throughout the rest of the book. The author goes on to explore other legislative battles and reforms related to varna status, marriage rituals, issues of adoption and inheritance, inter-caste marriage, enactments opposing untouchability, lower castes' right to access public spaces and temples, etc.

Mass Killings of Dalits and the Apathy of the Judiciary

In the last section, the book turns its attention towards mass killings of Dalits in the post-independence period. Even though the Constitution brought formal equality in force in all respects of life, the upper castes took to extreme violence in response to the growing assertion of the lower castes. The two chapters in this last section make for a chilling reading – for the merciless killings the dominant castes indulged in and the way the legal system let off criminals despite the heinousness of their crimes and the evidence in front of the judges. One can't but feel rage at the callousness with which some of the judges dealt with these cases, betraying extreme caste prejudice.

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In Tamil Nadu's Kilvenmani, 42 Dalits, who were striking for better wages, were burnt alive by the Naidu mirasdars (landowners) in December 1968. Despite such a high number of deaths, the courts exonerated all the accused.

A Madras high court judge, S Maharajan, made the following remarks while exonerating the landowners in 1973,

"Rich men, who have vast vested interests, are more likely to play for safety than desperate and hungry labourers. One would expect the Mirasdars to have kept themselves in the background and sent their hired henchmen to commit the several offences, which, according to the prosecution, the Mirasdars personally committed by coming directly to the scene."

The judge's classism and casteism was on full display here.

Work for the Future Writers

Since the book limits itself to legislative debates and court proceedings, it brings into focus how the colonial and postcolonial elite thought about the caste question. If we compare it to what we know of the anti-caste activism outside these spaces, we can't help but notice how timid the upper caste 'reformers' were and how those timid efforts too faced immense backlash from the upper caste conservatives.

Since this book does not look at the interplay between social reform activism outside the hallowed legislative bodies and how that may have set the terms of debates inside, it's a subject that can be explored in future works. The author has also limited himself to discussing caste reforms and enactments that affected only the Hindu society, however, we know that caste is not only a Hindu problem. This lacuna too can be filled in future works. Mitta himself is writing a second volume of his book, in which he will hopefully address some of these questions.

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Topics:  Books   Book Review   Caste 

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