Title: Violence and Accommodation as Caste Hierarchies Wane in Rural India
Name: James Manor
Year: 2010, 2012
Type: Research Grant

For over 20 years, we have had solid evidence to show that across most of rural India, the acceptance of caste hierarchies by the so-called lower castes has substantially waned. Caste, which remains strong, has increasingly come to denote difference more than hierarchy. Caste hierarchies have decisively shaped social and political processes in villages for generations, so this is a fundamentally important change.

This research project sought to understand the implications of this change for social interactions and power dynamics within villages, where most Indians still live. As the old dominance of higher castes is challenged, especially by Dalits or ex-untouchables, what ensues: more violence or something else?

Research over two years among villagers and social scientists in nine varied regions of India, which support from the Foundation made possible, has found that we mostly see something else. Dalits continue to suffer humiliations, and there are occasional spasms of violence as formerly dominant castes seek to enforce the old hierarchies. When it occurs, it is often more savage than it was 20 or 30 years ago. But surprisingly, it is much more common to find grudging accommodations between higher castes and Dalits.

Those accommodations result not from a change of heart among higher castes, but from a change of mind. There is next to no evidence of empathy among them for Dalits. Their self- restraint when inter-caste tensions arise is the result of calculations that violence will ensnare higher castes in unacceptably severe difficulties.

Dalit organizations and other progressive civil society organizations now extend into far more rural localities than before, so that violent actions will be reported  to the media which will publicize them, to government bureaucrats, and to politicians who often intervene because they need Dalit votes. A 1989 Act to combat atrocities against Dalits may be invoked. It places the burden of proof upon alleged perpetrators and, even when it does not result in convictions, it entangles the accused in years of expensive, time consuming legal proceedings which make it hard for them to get on with other important things (developing lands, investing in enterprises, educating and marrying their children, etc.)

This study, unlike many which focus mainly on the sufferings of Dalits, examines the lives of both Dalits and higher castes  since it is about caste interactions. It also explains how most accommodations are forged. In so doing, it identifies a trend which may make accommodations more difficult in the future. The same changes which have facilitated Dalit challenges to caste hierarchies are also eroding the authority of village elders within both Dalit and higher castes. That authority is essential if accommodations are to be forged and, once they are forged, are to be made to stick. So the encouraging trend toward greater accommodation may not endure, and inter-caste violence may yet become more common.