Contesting Community and Nation: Caste, Discrimination and Reservation Politics in India
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This dissertation traces debates about reservation policy in India. Reserved quotas in public institutions for communities stigmatized on the basis of caste comprise an enduring and comprehensive form of affirmative action. However, the policy provokes deep resentment among upper castes, manifested in virulent protests, judicial challenges and failed implementation. The purpose of this dissertation is to understand how meanings of caste, community and nation are shaped within and through debates about reservation and in turn, how the politics of reservation contribute to the formation of political subjectivities. Drawing on a variety of sites, including the Constituent Assembly debates, the English press and government reports, I chart the development of a dominant discourse about reservations. I interrogate this discourse in relation to anti-caste perspectives on the issue, found in creative and activist writings and studies of Dalit activism. I argue that dominant discourses conflate the issue of caste discrimination with a series of terms that designate inequality more broadly, such as poverty and unemployment. This enables the portrayal of “lower caste” beneficiaries of reservation as inferior subjects that are unable to understand their “real interests”. Thus trivializing discrimination, the discourse naturalizes caste privilege and conceals the historical contestations over the meaning of the quota. In anti-caste discourse, advocacy of reservations is articulated to a critique of the domination of upper caste interests in Indian democracy and the hegemonic vision of the nation through which this domination is naturalized. Thus, power and representation are underscored as integral to assessments of reservation policy. Attending to the affective registers of the debate, I demonstrate that statements about the quota are also statements about history, nationalism and political subjectivity. Reading dominant discourse through anti-caste analytics reveals that the anger against reservations as a threat to the nation is historically related to the antagonism of institutionalized nationalism towards Dalit politics. Through rights claims, Dalit activists contest dominant meanings of caste and in turn, the meanings of community and nation. This epistemological challenge illustrates the contingent relations of group rights and social transformation, as struggles against discrimination generate novel understandings of difference, commonality and personhood.