PEOPLE POWER: The Naxalite Movement in Central Bihar by Prakash Louis. Wordsmiths, Delhi, 2002.
BIHAR is notorious both for its poverty and a political establishment that has been appallingly insensitive to questions of development. Not surprisingly the state continues to be predominantly rural in character, implying that the scope for non-agricultural employment is extremely limited. Hence the main reason for the depressed economic conditions of members of the rural underclass, comprising petty tenants and landless labourers, is their partial or total deprivation from access to land, the principal means of production. However, as pointed out by Louis (pp. 114-15), the depressed conditions of the underclass cannot be understood only in terms of land relations or the concomitant class structure.
Their travails are also an outcome of what he categorises as a ‘semi-feudal social structure’, denoting an oppressive system of caste domination, compelling low-ranking castes, and especially dalits, to be at the receiving end. There is therefore a massive reservoir of discontent, and hence a huge potential for political mobilisation. As none of the important national or regional political parties, or the governments formed by them, have so far transcended populism, there is enormous scope for genuinely addressing the reasons for the poverty, oppression and exploitation of the people at large. Louis’ work shows how Naxalite politics in central Bihar provide possibilities of redeeming the downtrodden from the consistent betrayal by the dominant political establishment.
Data for the study have been assembled through interviews as well as through written sources, such as diaries, handbills, posters, newspaper reports and reports of civil rights groups. As many as 44 villages were covered. Those interviewed comprised both protagonists and opponents of the Naxalite movement, among whom some were hostile to the author’s work. In the process he risked physical harm as well as harassment by the police. His determination to pursue the inquiry in spite of such odds is not only a major achievement but is also a reflection of his political commitment to the plight of the downtrodden. However, it is strange that this commitment is not reflected in his handling of the basic postulates of two contradictory approaches to the study of society – the functionalist and the Marxist. The two approaches are simply detailed on pp.19-23, but they are neither critiqued nor is any indication given of the author’s preference for the Marxist approach that implicitly informs his study. I strongly believe that academics who study oppressive structures – whether based on caste, class, race, or gender – need to actively adopt the conflict approach as an analytical tool.
Louis’ work implicitly raises certain fundamental questions regarding the Naxalite movement in central Bihar. I deliberately say ‘implicitly’ because the work points to these questions without actually posing them explicitly in the form adopted below. In my view it is important to raise these issues in order to comprehend the basic thrust of the Naxalite movement as well as its chief limitations. The questions are: (i) the major difference between the Naxalite movement and earlier agrarian movements in Bihar; (ii) the principal contradictions in the contemporary agrarian structure of central Bihar, and the social forces against which the movement has to battle; and (iii) how the movement has addressed the crucial gender question, especially by way of regarding women and men as equal partners not only in the struggle for a better life but in inter-personal relations as well.
The Naxalite movement is fundamentally different from the agrarian movements that took place during the colonial period, notably those led by the Kisan Sabha, because it addresses the oppression suffered by the lowest strata of the agrarian population, both in terms of class and caste. The Kisan Sabha had mobilized mainly the upper stratum of the tenantry during the colonial era against zamindari oppression. Such tenants (designated as occupancy raiyats) belonged to the traditional upper castes (notably Bhumihar and Rajput) as well as to the upper layers of those designated today as Other Backward Classes (OBC), notably Yadav and Kurmi. The Sabha had not intervened significantly in addressing the oppression suffered by the insecure tenants-at-will and labourers at large by the strata above them, especially those designated here as the upper tenantry.
The uniqueness of the Naxalite movement also lies in its revolutionary solution to the oppression of these strata, because the capture of state power is essential for their emancipation. It should be noted, though, that the movement is deeply fragmented – a major problem, to which I shall return later – and comprises as many as 14 groups, among whom the following three are prominent in terms of influence and territorial spread: Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)-Liberation (henceforth Liberation), Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)-Party Unity, and Maoist Communist Centre. Of these three, the first operates openly, which includes participation in the electoral process, while the latter two are underground. All the three, especially those that are underground, have established front organizations to propagate the party line, such as organizations of labourers and cultivators, and women’s, youth and cultural wings.
The oppressors of the underclass in contemporary Bihar are those who constituted the secure tenantry during the colonial period. Ironically, due to the distortions in the implementation of the land reform programme in Bihar, the position of such tenants became consolidated. As mentioned earlier, they comprised the traditional upper castes as well as sections of the OBC. These groups are also well represented in the various organs of the state, including the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive (covering especially the police, revenue, and development bureaucracies). Indeed, due to this nexus, the wielders of caste and class dominance in the countryside are in a fundamental sense able to appropriate the organs of the state at the local level to sustain and promote their interests. Therefore, the wielders of social power in rural Bihar today embody caste power, class power and state power, and the basic contradiction is between such groups and the underclass at large. As such the Naxalite struggle is simultaneously against the local oppressors belonging to dominant castes as well as against state power.
It is a matter of regret that the schemes of agrarian classification used by the movement, as cited by Louis (see, for example, pp.172-73) do not throw much light on these contradictions, and the author fails to offer any critical insights on the issue. From the point of view of the movement, it seems that the degree of land control is the principal basis for delineating agrarian classes, and Louis too appears to share this view (see, for instance, chart 5.1). At one point, though, there is a hint that he might enlighten the reader by creatively linking caste and class (pp.25-27), but the connection is not carried through in the pages that follow. The scope of this review does not permit a detailed discussion on this problem, and only some observations are briefly offered here.
Schemes of agrarian classification based solely on the scale of landownership are analytically flawed because they fail to connect caste power with land control. Class power in rural Bihar – implying the ability to control the lives of the labouring population – is not attributable to landownership per se. Rather, it is membership of a socially powerful caste that also controls a substantial amount of land that accounts for class position. In spite of large differences in the distribution of land among the members of a dominant caste – some might be rich while most others might be poor – all of them partake of the culture of exploitation, implying a complex of norms imposed on the subordinate population enabling the former to control the life of the community. In this connection it is apt to recall the extremely insightful observation by Arvind Das that even the weakest Yadav in contemporary Bihar possessed the capacity to flex his muscles politically (‘Bihar: Torn Red Flag’, Economic and Political Weekly, 35, 7, 2000: 506).
On the vital gender question it is evident that the movement has still to overcome several problems. While the record of struggles, as pointed out by Louis, shows that women have actively participated in several of them, no serious attention has been paid by the Naxalite groups to dismantling the hierarchies between men and women, especially with regard to the distribution of material resources and political power. Also unaddressed is the vital question of dismantling the practically impregnable walls within the ranks of the exploited and oppressed castes by abandoning the ‘casteist’ obsession with ‘purity’ of blood and its corollary, endogamous marriage, which reproduces the caste system. Further, it hardly needs stating that the rejection of the concern for the purity of blood would diminish the need to control female sexuality within a caste group, which in turn would enable women to have greater control over their own bodies as well as greater agency in making choices in areas affecting their personal lives. I wish the author had probed such issues, because it seems difficult to imagine ‘people power’ in circumstances that exclude women from being deemed as full-fledged people along with men.
Some comments are in order on a few technical aspects of the book. The index lacks rigour. The bibliography lists works rather mechanically, because it appears that not all of them have actually been used to develop the author’s arguments. For instance, although my book (Social Power and Everyday Class Relations, Sage, 2001) has been listed, I have been unable to locate a critical reference to it in the text. On the other hand, I wonder why Bela Bhatia’s doctoral dissertation (The Naxalite Movement in Central Bihar, University of Cambridge, 2000) finds no place in the bibliography, although, to the best of my knowledge, Louis had access to it. The research was on an identical problem in the same region of Bihar.
In the light of the radical objectives of the various Naxalite formations and their actual experiences on the ground, a question that arises is: how much ground has been covered towards the creation of a just social order? There is no doubt, as pointed out by Louis, that the movement has, despite tremendous odds, conscientized large masses of people in several areas of central Bihar, making them aware of the possibility of emancipating themselves from oppressive caste and class structures. The higher level of consciousness among such people goes beyond the exercise of organized pressure to ensure the payment of statutory wages or effect the distribution of ceiling surplus land among the landless. Thus, wherever the movement is influential, the lower castes, and especially the dalits, have achieved dignity in public spaces. (In a village with which I am familiar in Rohtas district, where Liberation has a presence, dalits today walk freely in public spaces and also have access to the main village temple.) Further, women labourers are no longer subject to sexual exploitation by upper caste employers. Clearly such achievements transcend mere economism, but unfortunately they do not lead to a substantially better future for the masses at large because the latter continue to be at the receiving end of material and political structures that deny them the means of well being.
In spite of the long road that clearly lies ahead for radically transforming the present, iniquitous social order, Louis shows that the movement is also fraught with destructive inner contradictions, resulting in mutual killings of activists and supporters. The consequences are enormously counterproductive, because they not only blunt the edge of the movement – indeed the momentum is dissipated among its various fragments – but also confuse and perhaps alienate the oppressed who constitute the basic source of support. Thus, each principal Naxalite formation is in a sense piloting its own movement, and that too only in part against the class enemy, while the rest of the energy is spent in eliminating their counterparts in other formations.
Louis is, no doubt, distressed by this problem, for he raises the following questions at the end of his work: ‘Will the Naxalite movement fulfil the hopes and yearnings of the masses? Or will it betray them like the state, with which it has locked horns for nearly four decades?’ (p. 282). Such questions call for some serious introspection on the part of the Naxalite leadership. However, I wonder whether it is fair to compare the failures of the Naxalites with the betrayal of the people at large by the state. The anti-people stance of the latter is deliberate: an inevitable consequence of the nexus between the interests embodied in it and social power. On the other hand the strategies adopted by the Naxalite formations, leading to mutual killings, could be viewed as aberrations rather than acts of betrayal.
REFLECTIONS ON META-REALITY: Transcendence, Emancipation and Everyday Life by Roy Bhaskar. Sage Publications, Delhi, 2002.
THE collection of lectures compiled together in this volume comes as a bit of a surprise for those who have engaged with the author’s earlier work. This is not because Bhaskar has departed from the critical realism that he has so carefully fashioned in a series of books. On the contrary, it is the scope of the philosophy of meta-reality, as he terms the new project, that is unanticipated. This philosophy is to be elaborated in a forthcoming volume of his entitled The Philosophy of Meta-Reality.
The dichotomies of modernity have given sleepless nights to many a philosopher and social scientist. In Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom and books that preceded it, Bhaskar developed critical realism as a philosophy that overcomes some of these dichotomies. In the volume under review a chapter addresses social science and self-realization. Bhaskar turns reflexively upon the origins of critical realism, for this is the platform from which he subsequently elaborates the philosophy of meta-reality. This discussion on the social sciences commences with a historical overview of the five phases in the discourse of modernity. Bhaskar anchors the origins of critical realism in the fourth phase, in the political upheavals of 1968 and the early 1970s that swept the western world. The other side of these upheavals was witnessed as a backlash against the forces of modernization and development that had been unleashed in the post-colonial nations and other developing societies. Clearly, the seeds of this unrest were already present in the hysteria of modernization and development pursued uncritically during the third phase of the discourse of modernity. While this book is more or less committed to discussing the implications of the generalized philosophy of self-realization, Bhaskar does provide us a glimpse of the method he employed to engage with the canonical contrasts of the social sciences: hermeneutics and positivism, naturalism and anti-naturalism, structure and agency, individual and collective. The strategy pursued was to identify the ‘grounds of the dispute’. The next stage involved pinning down the errors that both antagonists committed.
As mentioned earlier, critical realism forms the basis of the philosophy of meta-reality. This philosophy aspires to transcend the dualities that have hitherto marked the western philosophical tradition, and is premised on the understanding that the non-dual underpins modes of being, including human being and sustains the world of duality. The relationship between the two (the non-dual and the dual) that the book seeks to elaborate is crucial to critical realism’s concerns with emergence and stratification. One of the contexts of this effort is its emancipatory agenda – an agenda that has inspired Bhaskar’s earlier work as well. The reckoning with the non-dual commences with the recognition of the multi-level or stratified nature of reality. These subsist on a foundational level that is ‘beings ground state’. The properties of this level of being are necessary for being to be, as well as those that distinguish it as a particular being. The ground state qualities of human beings, differentiated though they are, are linked to those of other human beings through what Bhaskar labels the cosmic envelope.
Bhaskar introduces a number of notions such as cosmic envelope and co-presence to reveal the unfolding of the possibilities of being. Traversing through well-mined metaphysical territory, Bhaskar informs his reader that the philosophy of meta-reality stems from a radical critique of the socio-economic and philosophical discourses of modernity. The chapter on critical realism transcending both modernism and post-modernism and the one on social science and self-realization highlight the themes central to this philosophical project. They also disclose the genealogy from which Bhaskar formulates his critique of modernity and post-modernism. Marxism continues to provide a frame for Bhaskar’s philosophical departure. The philosophy itself is developed in a different idiom, but the flavour of Marx’s romanticism is constantly present: ‘…we are the only true experts, and each one will be an expert in his own particular way, affecting this extraordinary transformation, a truly universal but silent revolution.’
The justification for a philosophy of meta-reality derives from its engagement with a re-enchanted reality, for only in that manner, Bhaskar contends, can true novelty emerge in our times. The problematic of emergence and stratification is another running theme. This novelty does not emerge from a solid ‘causally efficacious paradigm’, but from ‘the space beyond, behind and between thoughts and things.’ This kind of novelty that emerges from the interstices ‘will be absolutely new, but absolutely universal…’ In the search for truly innovative solutions, however diverse their mode of presentation, it is necessary to plunge deeper to the depths of being.
It is on the question of ontology that Bhaskar proceeds to offer his critique of both modernism and post-modernism. This is where critical realism diverges from both modernism and postmodernism. He proposes instead four categories that are essential to the understanding of being: these could be summed up as the levels of universality, differentiation, geo-historical situatedness, and irreducible uniqueness. These categories are introduced in order to apprehend the concrete singularity of every universal and the dialectic employed for doing so is termed dialectical universalisability. This form of critique is constitutive of critical realism and is grounded in the proposition that a critique of the forms of thought is a critique of the forms of being. While the common ground of both modernism and post-modernism is their anti-ontological posture, the author goes on to suggest that postmodernism is a ‘true cousin’ of fundamentalism. Both share the essentiality of difference, and go separate ways on the question of morals – of right and wrong. This volume is a prolegomena to a work in progress and certainly marks a shift in Bhaskar’s evolution. The book states the problematic posed by our dualist theories of knowledge and indicates wherein possible resolutions exist. The next volume would probably proffer a fuller explication of some of the themes and arguments that this book touches upon.
CHILDREN IN GLOBALISING INDIA: Challenging Our Conscience edited by Enakshi Ganguly Thukral. Haq, Centre for Child Rights, Delhi, 2002.
EVER since the Centre for Science and Environment (ESE), Delhi pioneered the concept of citizen’s reports, sectorally specialised NGOs in collaboration with ‘socially committed researchers’ have produced a wide range of assessment documents. The belief is that in addition to providing data on different social sectors, these publications play a vital role in advocacy programmes. Unfortunately, many of these reports fall short on quality parameters – insufficient appreciation of the complexity of social statistics being just one glaring lacuna – and come across as overly driven by ideological concerns, in particular those defined by donors. Alongside inadequate coverage is a problem with deployed frameworks of understanding/analysis.
Nevertheless, it undeniable that the few reports that do make the grade help move both public and policy discourse in directions that conventional researches have not managed. In addition to the CSE reports referred to earlier, the work on Prisoner’s Rights by Colin Gonsalves et al, the PROBE report on elementary education, the VHAI report on the Status of India’s Health – just to name a few – need to be lauded for their role in highlighting socially neglected questions and sparking off attendant action.
HAQ-Centre for Child Rights is a relative newcomer in this crowded terrain. Last year, HAQ had presented a decadal analysis of the Union Budget from a child rights perspective (India’s Children and the Union Budget) which helped deconstruct the various claims made by the government about what was being done to secure a better future for our children. Unsurprisingly, it made for a depressing read. Not only were the funds allocated for different child centred schemes low, the decade of the ’90s witnessed a declining trend. Worse, the efficiency of resource utilisation was abysmal.
Few people, however, care to look at budgetary analysis. Ever fewer understand them. It is likely, however, that the current offering – both more comprehensive in its coverage as also more reader-friendly – will enjoy a better reception. Crucial because few of us are aware of the gravity of the situation. Expectations of India’s position in the coming decades need to be read against the grim reality of the stress that our children, in particular those from the socially and economically deprived strata, are experiencing. And despite claims about growth rates, poverty reduction and forex reserves – the translation of ‘ostensible’ macro prosperity into improved status of children remains questionable.
All this becomes extremely troubling because India (unlike many other developing countries) is an enthusiastic signatory to dozens of child rights covenants. Yet, as the essay on the legal regime indicates, our national laws are often out of sync with UN conventions. Further, there is little pressure to comply with reporting requirements. A similar point is made more explicitly in the sections on ‘juvenile (in)justice’ and the ‘trafficked child’. If anything, when we look at the situation of marginalised children – orphans, beggars, those forced to live on streets – as also those who are sent to corrective institutions, the descriptions by Charles Dickens come alive.
Votaries of the glories of our civilizational greatness are unlikely to be pleased with the essay on the trafficked child – both girls and boys – and the growth of the prostitution and pornography industries. For far too long the shapers of our discourse have seen these as western perversions given their proclivity to push matters related to sexuality under the carpet. Worse, the few efforts at crackdown on the mafias controlling these trades, often further victimise the children. One suspects, the operation of a deep-seated contempt for the lower classes works towards converting the victim into a complicitous subject.
Equally grim is the essay on ‘Children in Armed Conflict’. A few years back Graca Machel bad authored an outstanding report, ‘The impact of war on children’. Meenakshi Ganguly enlarges the framework to include children affected by communal riots, possibly representing a less dramatic breakdown than J&K or the North East but more widespread and endemic. Treatment of trauma is in its infancy in the country and unless decision-makers, including NGOs, turn their attention to this problem, we will continue to produce new generations of maladjusted and disgruntled youth.
The one section I am uneasy about relates to child labour/the working child, more so regarding children out of school. It is insufficiently realised, despite the work of the Concerned for Working Children (CWC), that many children combine work and schooling. Equally that children drop out of school for many reasons, the need to work being only one. Thus, rather than treat all out of school children in the appropriate age group as child labourers and push for comprehensive legislation to ban all child work, a more realistic and realisable policy option would be to make schooling more attractive as also protect child workers. Of course, banning child labour participation in hazardous industries is necessary.
Overall, this volume represents a commendable effort in putting together a comprehensive picture of children in India. True, this picture veers towards the grim. But given the combination of both state and social apathy, this is only to be expected.
GENDER, CASTE, AND RELIGIOUS IDENTITIES: Restructuring Class in Colonial Punjab by Anshu Malhotra. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002.
Anshu Malhotra’s Gender, Caste, and Religious Identities falls at the intersection of, and makes contributions to, three important bodies of scholarship: recent scholarship on caste, group identity-construction, and South Asian women’s studies. This work carefully examines the changing dynamics of communal (whether religious or caste-based) identities in late 19th and early 20th century colonial Punjab. Malhotra illustrates how caste was reshaped in the colonial context to provide an important foundation for communal identity and class consciousness, and concentrates her analysis on its increasing importance to upper caste Punjabis. Malhotra’s principle contribution, however, is her examination of how women’s social position was redefined during the colonial period as a marker of status for upper caste groups. This study uses a wide range of sources to substantiate arguments, including colonial archival records, Punjabi and Hindi reformist literature, and interviews with members of the last pre-partition generation whose lives were marked by the transformations under study. By delving into both colonial and indigenous sources, Malhotra illustrates how multiple influences on social and religious reform during the period interacted with and transformed one another.
The main focus of Malhotra’s work is how gender relations and the status of women responded to changes in the social and political relevance of caste. Women were central to the reworking of caste because, Malhotra argues, ‘women and the management of their sexuality were the hallmarks of caste status’ (3). That caste should have taken on new significance in this period is not self-evident, and Malhotra shows how the ‘colonial gaze’ – the way that the colonial state understood Punjabi society upon its annexation of the area in 1849 – privileged caste (as well as tribe and custom) in Punjabi society. In response, indigenous Punjabis, particularly high caste Punjabis, saw caste as a means to negotiate status within the new colonial society and regime. For these groups, cultivating and projecting ideal female behaviour was intrinsic to the project.
Two organizations in the Punjab that were central to preserving caste norms, and in certain cases to creating them anew, were the Arya Samaj and the Singh Sabha. Malhotra argues that despite overtly embracing notions of equality both organizations (or significant branches within them) were intent on sustaining the social and political status of higher castes. These and other sympathetic organizations and individuals published newspapers, journals, novels, and tracts, and these materials provide Malhotra with the bulk of her source material. The first chapter of Gender, Caste, and Religious Identities introduces the genesis of the Arya Samaj and the Singh Sabha and the colonial context to which they were, in large part, responding. Malhotra adds to the extensive existing literature on these organizations by focusing attention on the central position of women’s reform in the Arya Samaj’s and the Singh Sabha’s negotiation of social status. In Malhotra’s words, ‘[M]en found it possible to stabilize status through regulating women’s conduct’ (46). The remaining four chapters of the work address the specific programme of indigenous reformers intent on maintaining caste and status in colonial Punjab.
The second chapter addresses the fascinating nexus between colonial concerns about female infanticide (linked in the colonial imagination to the high cost of weddings) and indigenous responses to the colonial state’s attempts to reform cultural norms. Malhotra argues that colonial officials associated certain cultural practices (high marriage expenses, for example) with high caste Punjabis and were keen to ‘reform’ such practices in the supposed interest of women’s social status. The result, however, was rather the opposite. In associating wedding expenditure with high caste status, the colonial state helped solidify a ready indicator of status. As Malhotra argues, ‘the colonial state’s meddling tended to give a fixity to ideal high caste customs, as such behaviour became a symbol of prestige, as indeed the state recognized the high-born through their "traditions"’ (61).
Chapter three concentrates on the treatment of widows arguing that Punjab’s high caste reformers were inclined towards advocating an ascetic widow-hood that would curb what was perceived by these males to be a threatening sexuality. While there was little space for the assertions of women’s selfhood in the social and economic structure of the period, Malhotra attempts to highlight those few women who tried to do so. Concentrating on the tale of one widow, Savitri Devi, Malhotra argues that she, and others like her, were able to ‘at times cut loose from the ideological shenanigans of the new patriarchy to assert their selfhood’ (115).
In chapter four Malhotra focuses on the idealized wife in reformist imaginations. This chapter shows the relationship between reformist educational agendas for women and how they supported the creation of the pativrata wife, a conservative concept of ideal womanhood. This ideal emphasized a controlled sexuality, a submissive nature, and proper religiosity. After outlining inter-organization debates between reformers on what constituted proper female education (uniformly conducted by men), Malhotra again shifts attention to women’s voices – however fragmentary – that tried to assert an autonomous and often contestatory vision.
The fifth and final chapter of the work shows how male reformers impinged upon women’s popular culture. She argues that many high caste women had historically enjoyed access to spaces (the Sufi shrine or local holyman’s hospice, for example) and practices that were not circumscribed by their household’s men. This threatening behaviour was a target for reformers for both its inter-caste predilections and its mingling of people from different religious communities. Malhotra argues that reformers were largely successful in curtailing women’s access to these places and practices by bringing their notion of proper conduct to bear on women’s lives.
Throughout her book Malhotra maintains focus on how Arya Samaj and Singh Sabha reforms helped maintain high caste status. In doing so, this volume contributes to a recent body of scholarship on caste, including Susan Bayly’s Caste, Society and Politics in India (1999) and Nicholas B. Dirks’s Castes of Mind (2001). Both of these works rethink the significance of caste and explore how caste was transformed in the colonial period. Malhotra’s study adds historical specificity to arguments about caste’s emergence during the colonial period as an important marker in a world of changing social relations. In looking specifically at the reformist agendas of the Arya Samaj and the Singh Sabha and how their programmes contributed to the construction of religious identities, Malhotra’s work also contributes to our understanding of the forces that contributed to the processes of self-definition that were underway in colonial Punjabi society. Hers is a welcome contribution alongside works such as Harjot Oberoi’s The Construction of Religious Boundaries (1994) on the Sikh community or Nonica Datta’s Forming an Identity (1999) on the Jat community, both of which also concentrate on the salience of identity formation in the context of the social and religious ferment of the period.
Most squarely, however, this work makes a marked contribution to South Asian women’s studies. In concentrating specifically on the reform of women’s behaviour, whether inspired by the colonial state or by indigenous reformers, this work provides insights into the forces that framed women’s lives. Malhotra explores multiple discourses on women (which often framed women as objects, not subjects) that were entwined in attempts to reinscribe a patriarchal high caste order in Punjabi society. That women’s voices are muted (although Malhotra makes a keen effort to resurrect them where possible) is a reflection on the limitations of the sources at a historian’s disposal for this period. Relying mostly on Arya Samaj or Singh Sabha reformist literature, invariably written by men, this book is able to give only limited scope to women’s perspectives. However, the Arya Samaj and the Singh Sabha were extremely influential on discourse in the region, and the careful analysis of their literature tells us much about the status of women in this period, the forces and discourses with which they had to contend, and which shaped many of their lives.
For its contributions, this work would have benefited from a more rigorous engagement with the question of class and modernity. In the introduction Malhotra posits that there was an ambivalent relationship between caste and class. She writes,
[t]he idea of caste, both as a marker of status, and as an organizing principle of daily life persisted. Nevertheless, it is clear that a certain amount of embarrassment with its praxis crept into the thinking of the middle classes now. This embarrassment is to be understood in the context of acquiring appropriate modernity, a project central to the contest among elites. (2)
The desire to be modern is again asserted when Malhotra writes that ‘the attitudes that a people harboured towards their women was also an index separating a successful from a failed modernity’ (3). The body of the work, however, does not address either the correlation and/or ambivalence between caste and class in significant detail, nor does Malhotra indicate what she means in her use of the concept of modernity, failed or otherwise. Given the contested nature of modernity’s meanings, particularly in different historical and geographical contexts (not to mention the critical interventions of scholars on this question) this reader would have benefited from clarification on what Malhotra intended with her use of the term.
Additionally, while Malhotra covers much ground in this volume, the discussion would have been more complete if it had incorporated more material, even secondary, on Punjab’s Muslim communities. While the emphasis on high caste status may appear to circumscribe discussion to Hindus and Sikhs, the topics Malhotra focuses on – colonial interventions in custom, questions of female infanticide, women’s education, and the attempted reform of women’s popular culture, to name just a few – were all areas of Muslim discourse as well. Drawing Muslim narratives into this work would have provided interesting insights into the nature of class consolidation during the colonial era. This would have been welcome given the scholarly emphasis on the consolidation of what are often deemed to be antagonistic religious communities during this period.
All in all, however, this book is a welcome contribution and valuable addition to South Asian scholarship. Many will undoubtedly benefit from its insights and arguments, as well as its careful bibliography.