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Paper 73

A people’s history of state: Caste struggle and state-building in India

Dr Kuriakose Mathew

Associate Professor, School of Liberal Arts, P.P. Savani University, Gujarat, India


Struggles against the caste system, in the form of various caste-based social movements, have immensely contributed to state-building in India. In fact, anti-caste movements are by default state-building social movements. State-building is a specific strategic dimension, not just one goal among many, of caste struggle because Upper Caste rule is by definition anarchist, in the philosophical sense of being anti-state (unsurprisingly Gandhi himself was a philosophical anarchist!). And, the state itself, thanks to its organising principle, is structurally an anti-caste institution; a realisation at the heart of anti-caste politics.

However, nationalist, liberal and leftist historiographies tend to overlook the state-building

impetus of anti-caste movements. Liberal scholars such as Ramchandra Guha, Pratap Bhanu

Mehta, etc. increasingly even Marxist thinkers, tend to highlight Nehru as the sole progenitor

of the Indian state, an institution-builder par excellence. Besides, theorists of various hues,

who criticise the Dalit and Lower Caste movements for multiple ‘identitarian trappings’ fail

to notice their incredible role in state-building in India, both at national and provincial levels,

before and after 1947, and in making it an instrument of welfare and distribution, especially

for the victims of caste system. Moreover, unlike the UpperCasteist political formations, the

anti-caste movements have singularly focused in creating what I term as a ‘Distributive State

Apparatus’ (Mathew, 2014 & 2019) within the Indian state formation vis-à-vis the

development of Repressive/Ideological State Apparatuses (Althusser, 1971), the latter is

preferred by the Upper Castes for the maintenance of their hegemony and domination. While the Upper Caste strategy is of taming the state, keeping it subservient to the Hindu Social Order, the anti-caste movements have fought for making the state stronger, especially against the Jati Hindus’ free competition over caste violence. The non-recognition of the state-building credentials of anti-caste movements leads to various fallacies such as enabling individualised projections of the role of Gandhi, Nehru and Patel in the making of modern India, and the mis-characterization of anti-caste movements as detached from materialist politics. Anti-caste movements fought caste not just as an ‘ism’ but a system that needs to be replaced with a new system based on equality and dignity, which necessitated the development of a state with a strong distributive apparatus.

The academic literature on ‘failed states’ amply demonstrates that a legitimate state, with

Weberian monopoly over physical force, that stands above sectarian strife/interests is a basic

necessity for realising freedom. In other words, state is a commons on which modern life is

constituted; for Hegel, ‘state is the march of God on Earth’. Societies that lack the vital ‘state

commons’ are telling cases of human misery. However, there is hardly any literature, be it in

India or elsewhere, on the differential contributions of different social groups in state-

building, and customising the state to the particular. Based on my doctoral dissertation (2019), and the ethnographic fieldwork carried out in Kuttanad region, archival research on state-building in Travancore/Kerala, and along with a critical reading of literature on state-building in India, the paper would examine how state-building strategies became the raison d' etre of anti-caste movements, and continue to animate the struggles for annihilation of caste.

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