Journal of Arts & Ideas, no. 25-26 (Dec 1993) p. 115.


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Caste and the Secular Self

dVivek Dhareshwar

The sex [caste] of the addresser awaits its determination by or from the Other/ (Derrida, The Ear of the Other)

I would like to focus on the solipsism of the secular self with regard to caste. It will not be denied, I think, that until V.P. Singh decided to implement the Mandal Commission Report, caste had no place in the narrative milieu of the secular self. It was not that caste was ignored, but a certain opacity was nevertheless always attached—no doubt, still is—to it; its use was always surrounded by embarrassment, uneasiness, ambivalence and, sometimes, even guilt. It is important, it seems to me, to reflect on the historical and cultural reasons for the nonavailability, as it were, of caste as a category for critical reflection (you will, of course, recognize the retrospective wisdom of this question, but it should tell us something about the constitution of the secular self). Why has caste become, to use Clifford Geertz's term, an 'experience-distant' concept? (Interestingly, Geertz gives caste as an example of experience-near concept for Hindus and Buddhists!) (see Geertz 1983: 57-58).

What I wish to explore here is the place of caste in the cultural narratives of the secular self. In a recent article, Gyanendra Pandey has argued that the nationalist historiography has basically been writing the biography of the Indian nation-state (Pandey 1992). We could extend this insight to claim that a large part of our intellectual discourse has in fact been an autobiography of the secular (read:

upper-caste) self, its origin, its conflict with tradition, its desire to be modem. The intimate, and, doubtless, interanimating, connection between the biography of the nation-state and the autobiography of the secular self structures, in ways that we have barely begun to understand, our relationship to caste. It would not be difficult to show, I think, that these diverse narratives have the structure of a Bildungsro-man, if, with Bakhtin, we take that term to mean: learning to be a citizen in the modem state (Bakhtin 1981: 234). The term 'secular" has of late got locked into a

Numbers 25-26


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