Untouchable Pasts

Originally published in Contemporary South Asia, vol.8, no.3, Carfax Publishing (Bradford, U.K.), 1999.

Saurabh Dube, Untouchable Pasts: Religion, Identity, and Power among a Central Indian Community, 1780-1950. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

The prevailing narrowness of disciplinary boundaries in history and anthropology have prompted a now well-developed critique of the isolation of the archive and the field, respectively — the privileging of elite archival sources, textual authority, and their master narratives on the one hand, and the ahistorical essentialism, questionable epistemic and cultural perspectives of fieldwork on the other. The effort undertaken by the Subaltern Studies collective to use the anthropologist’s tools in the writing of history has, in the study of Indian society, introduced questions of culture and power, identity formation and representation, and everyday cultural and social practices into the historiography of modern India. This recent book deepens this project of ethnographic history through a study of the Satnami community of Chhatisgarh in contemporary Madhya Pradesh.

Dube navigates his analysis through the “overarching oppositions” of ritual and reason, myth and history, tradition and modernity, community and state by showing how each of these concepts is interwoven in the signification of its opposite in the historical and symbolic processes of identity formation of the Satnamis. The work documents the founding of the sect and elaboration of their organisation, the changes undergone in the community through shifts in land settlement, patterns of governance under the Marathas and British, and the experience and recasting of the community’s identity through contact with colonial administration, evangelical missionaries, and nationalist reformers.

This historical detail is enriched by an ethnographic perspective which places these wider processes within their everyday significance in local arenas of village life, ritual practices, and gender and caste authority. In the latter part of the book Dube explores the configurations of the past in the community both as mythical and historical truths, building on his explanations of the discursive construction of the caste-sect in earlier chapters and the formation of the group as modern self-recognising community in the field of modern politics opened by the colonial regime.

Within this narrative Dube intervenes in several important debates in different disciplines. Addressing the central category of Hindu religious identity and community, Dube argues for an understanding of the contested and negotiated nature of this category by marginal groups like the Satnamis. In the debate on caste, he argues against the rigid separation of definitions of caste and sect, ascetic and householder, and synthetic theories of caste based either on principles of ritual purity or kingship, claiming that they are intermeshed in their actual practices and symbolic constitution.

Arguing against the tendency in recent political and historical work to portray a too-rigid separation between state and community, Dube both argues for the internal differentiation of the community on issues of law, property, and gender, and he endorses a view that sees the community as fashioning itself through the symbols and metaphors of colonial governance in its notions of order, law and identity, and casting itself in the form of modern civic associations like the Satnami Mahasabha.

Dube’s elegant work is notable for its methodological insights most of all, complemented by solid archival research and fieldwork, both often narrated with a refreshing self-consciousness about the limits of knowledge production in the archival-ethnographic encounter. At times his arguments are unnecessarily repetitive, sometimes making an unnecessary theoretical flourish or clever turn of phrase at the expense of an otherwise clear and lucid work — an irritating tendency in much work in cultural studies, though here only a minor distraction.

Additionally, there is an slight unnevenness in his prose style between some chapters, which could have been eliminated by a better arrangement and editing of the separate papers that composed this volume. However, despite these slight defects, the book is very worthwhile reading for students of history, anthropology and sociology, religious studies and social and cultural theory.