The Pariah Problem: Caste, Religion, and the Social in Modern India
By Rupa Viswanath
Columbia University Press, 2014, 416 pp.
The struggle of India’s “untouchables” for equality is usually understood as a challenge to Hindu tenets that hold such people to be inherently tainted. But this innovative book argues that historically, the untouchables (or Dalits) were excluded less as a result of religious beliefs than on account of their economic role as bonded agricultural laborers. Viswanath explains that the religious aspect of untouchability began to take precedence only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Protestant missionaries started the process by trying to convert Dalits to Christianity. The landed castes’ response to this perceived threat was to claim that subordinating the Dalits was a native custom that should be protected according to the British colonial policy of respect for local religious norms. The British chose to view the Dalits’ condition as the result of a voluntary contract, ignoring the ways in which the Dalits’ ritual status robbed them of economic autonomy. Even after independence, the idea of untouchability as a deep-rooted cultural and religious custom has prevented a full assault on what continues in many places to constitute a form of hereditary slavery.