Author and academic Badri Narayan, a social historian and cultural anthropologist and director at the Allahabad-based GB Pant Social Science Institute conducted a study on caste relations during the coronavirus pandemic. Through telephonic interviews with 215 migrants, his team tried to explore how caste functions differently in different time and space in the Indian society.
Narayan's survey showed that the pandemic displaced caste from our social discourse and pushed it to the secondary level (at least for some time) and brought the "biological body" at the centre of primary concern. Untouchability was out at the horizontal level functioning body to body, and made secondary vertical untouchability between castes.
Narayan spoke to News18.com on the "flexibility of the Indian caste system" that surfaced during the pandemic.
Can you tell us about the research undertaken on caste relations dynamics during the pandemic? What was the idea behind it?
This research is aimed at understanding how caste functions in Indian society during the time of disaster and emergency like pandemics. Do such pandemics break, dilute and weaken the rigidity of caste in our society? This research is centered on migrant labourers who returned to various destinations like Mumbai, Delhi, Surat, etc. and tried to document changes in the inner content of caste in their everyday life in five different experiential location and time, which is the workplace and destination of migrant labourers, their life in lockdown and after job loss, during their painful journey home, their life during quarantine and their experience of caste when they resettled in their village basti after completing their quarantine.
It is interesting to note these three months provide five different kinds of life conditions and set of experiences to the migrants. Its behaviour is not like a mathematical formula. It is not fixed or homogeneous but very complex and complicated and does not work merely as a defined structure but also as a "bhav", which may be called "jatibhav". That is why it is not always rigid as we analyse in our discourses. It does not work always in the same way but our "experiential capital" makes it sometimes diluted, flexible and benign.
This research also tried to see how social norms of normal time change its form and content, both in emergency such as pandemics. These changes may not sustain for long but "experiential capital", which we gathered during our life experiences, affects its functioning invisibly and slowly for a longer time. The exploring memories of their experiences were very crucial during our research this time.
How strong is the methodology of conducting this research over the phone covering 250 people? What were the hurdles due to the lockdown? What working group was selected for the survey?
We have interviewed 215 migrants comprising Dalit, OBC and upper castes who returned from places like Mumbai, Delhi, Surat and Pune to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. We selected six quarantine centres each in UP and Bihar to document everyday life experience of migrants there.
Most respondents have completed their quarantine period either at a quarantine centre or in home quarantine and then reached their villages and towns. Our research associates interviewed them, mostly over phone, and some of them face to face to know how caste identities remained with them in destination and during the pandemic.
The research staff and our students helped us with the interviews. We developed a network of local informants from local journalists, local leaders and social activists to map and procure primary information, contact numbers and location details upon which our researchers developed interview strategies.
For us, this is a "methodology of emergency" as during the lockdown we could not go to the field for "long term participatory interviews’. We know our problems. We were not able to engage our respondents for longer discussions over telephone, which is needed in such research. We were not able to read their faces because many things they were not able to express in a cohesive manner, their responses were fragmented and fractured. But we need to weave them. Some time they became silent, some time they cried, some time they just whispered. We need to read all these human emotions needed to understand experiential realities gathered in their memories as capital. This experiential capital is also scattered in their memory box.
As researchers, first of all, we had to open their memory box and then search for those "jama punji of vipat kal", which is a very difficult task for us. It was more difficult because we were compelled to do it telephonically. We know the shortcomings of telephonic interviews but this pandemic provided us with unique and rare moments to understand the functioning of social norms, such as caste in the time of health emergency.
You must have heard about the Brahmins declining food cooked by Dalits in quarantine. How do you see such incidents where even in crisis caste matters or there is nothing to be surprised about?
Indian society is not a homogeneous one and we are located at various levels of social consciousness. So various types of social behaviours appear in a time and space. The Indian society is a society of heteroglossia -- we need to accept it. We came to know about many incidences during our research where upper castes took food and water from the hands of fellow Dalits and OBC migrant travellers during their journey. One vulnerable poor upper caste respondent told us that: "us wakt jat nahi yaad aata tha, we wanted only to save our life and reach home". He said that only village and family was in their minds in those days, nothing else.
One Dalit respondent asked, in response to one of the questions, that "vipat ke mare ki kya jat bhaiyya" (what is the meaning of caste for sufferer of such disaster?)". When they entered a quarantine centre, caste consciousness which was diluted and benign during travel routes may have reappeared in some of them but we have documented various incidences where various castes ate and stayed together forgetting untouchability.
We observed that a new form of social distance and untouchability emerged during quarantine. A Brahmin youth from Mumbai returned to his village in Bundelkhand. For his society, he was more than untouchable at least for 14 days and was viewed with hatred. People called him corona. His wife was stopped by his own caste people to take water from the 'chapakal'. We find many cases of such experiences which may remain in the consciousness of the sufferer migrants of various castes and may weaken caste identities at least for some time.
In this period, we understood that a section of our society may slowly be moving towards caste-public to bio-public. Coronavirus displaced caste from our social discourse and pushed it to the secondary level (at least for some time) and brought "biological body" at the centre of primary concern. Untouchability was out at the horizontal level functioning body to body, and made vertical untouchability between castes, secondary.
We have also documented many cases where migrants from upper castes were opposed by Dalits and supported by people of the upper castes from which migrants belong for the fear of pandemic.
Has the pandemic given a new understanding about caste in India? Can you elaborate on the findings?
Yes, caste in Indian society is not merely a system and a fixed structure. It will not remain always in “one form”, it appears in various other forms. It can be flexible, benign in various moments of social life. This pandemic suggested that the social norm of 'vipat kalmay' not be analysed and viewed with the paradigm which we used to understand caste in normal time. It also showed us that experiential capital and emotional location also dilute the rigidity of our social system. The caste identity mutates and changes its form with changing context and time.