- Enforced Loyalties:Caste Panchayats and Caste Politics in India
Loyalty is an attitude and form of behavior reflecting one's allegiance to another individual or to a group. I will be concerned entirely with loyalties to a group, and the group that is my particular focus is caste.
As we normally think of it, the attitude or actions that get described as "loyal" are agentive—that is to say, they are held and done voluntarily, even when they are done unreflectively. So the word "enforced" in the title might seem, at least at first sight, to be an unusual qualifier of the term "loyalty." Yet we are surrounded by structures of sociopolitical norms and constraints that create visible or invisible enforcement mechanisms, which in turn generate loyalty. Examples abound, ranging from the crude (McCarthyite browbeating into nationalist allegiance) to the more subtle (trade union solidarities that are shaped by, for example, the stigma attached to crossing picket lines).
Caste, as a longstanding and entrenched hierarchical social phenomenon in India, may seem an obvious example of such enforced loyalty. Hierarchical systems, quite generally, are preserved by those higher up in the systems, ensuring that loyalty is enforced upon all others. Caste is no exception to this. But my interest is not primarily in the enforcement of caste loyalty on these grounds, persistent though such enforcement may be, despite the relative undermining [End Page 765] of social hierarchies by the development of modern democracy in India. In fact, I will not be concerned with enforced loyalty to the caste system but rather with loyalty to particular castes by caste members; i.e., intracaste loyalty. And I will explore the role of "caste panchayats,"1 or intracaste councils, which enforce such loyalty. With them, too, the enforcement mechanisms range from the crude and violent (such as ordering honor killings of caste members for noncompliance with caste norms) to the more subtle (the use of what has come to be called the method of "social boycott"2). This enforcement of intracaste loyalty and these panchayati agencies of its enforcement present a picture of what caste itself has become in contemporary India.
While making these preliminary remarks, let me present in the briefest terms a very general background of the nature of caste and caste panchayats. Since the subject (and phenomenon) of caste is one of the most complex in the social sciences, anything I say is bound to be utterly rudimentary, intended only to facilitate the points of detail and argument that the paper will develop.
Caste, as is well known, is a birth-based system of social stratification. It is routinely said to have taken three forms over time. (This taxonomy has not gone without question in the scholarship on the subject, but it is useful to proceed within a short paper, as it gets things very broadly right.) The first form is caste as varna, or the fourfold division of society into the priestly class of Brahmins, the warrior class of Kshatriyas, the traders called the Vaishyas, and the manual laborers known as the Shudras. The varna is a system of graded hierarchy (with Brahmins at the top and Shudras at the bottom) based on principles of "pollution" and "purity." The Untouchables or Ati-Shudras are left out of this fourfold system and are considered to be maximally polluting. This hierarchical classification claims ancient pedigree and a scriptural basis.
In the second sense, caste exists as jati, an endogamous subgroup of one or another varna. (Sometimes jatis spanned more than one varna, but this became less frequent as an indirect effect of the classificatory practices of the census introduced by British colonial [End Page 766] rule, which demanded more rigid specifications.) Jati, as a subgroup, is characterized by similar commensality practices in which intermarriage is almost always permitted, while there are complex taboos surrounding marriage and dining across jatis. Much of the enforcement of loyalty within castes is motivated to keeping things in line regarding such practices so as to preserve endogamy. A jati frequently maps onto a particular occupation. Thus, for example, in a given region there might be a jati consisting of barbers or weavers...