Theses Doctoral

The Fights of the Forsaken Kings: Caste Conglomeration, Heroism, and Sovereignty in Contemporary South India

Gross, Victoria Gabrielle

This ethnographic and archival study offers insight into Dalit identity politics, Tamil ethno-nationalism, and affective understandings and experiences of sovereignty in contemporary Tamil Nadu, South India. It is an-depth exploration of the recent history and present moment of inter-caste conflict that plagues Tamil Nadu, despite the fact that it is India’s most urbanized state, and among its wealthiest and most industrially developed. Over the course of the past thirty years, spectacular and brutal murders, riots, and police repression have regularly characterized the relationships between groups of politically affiliated individuals we call castes. I historicize and contextualize such incidents, tracking the changing phenomenology of caste as it intersects with the gendered politics of Tamil ethnic identity.
In order to do so, I examine the formation of caste conglomerations, which I define as intentionally incorporated political bodies attempting to situate themselves relationally in the context of rapid demographic and technological changes, and the breakdown of formal, intergenerational models of caste differentiation and hierarchy. The practices of intercaste relations in Tamil Nadu, are not disappearing, but are asserting themselves in new and sometimes violent ways as the economic realities and inhabitable spaces of many formerly distinguishable castes become increasingly alike. Responding to the anxiety of disintegrating hierarchy, what were once localized, relatively independent castes are uniting as political bodies that attempt to identify themselves in relation to each other, competing mimetically in a cycle of recursive opposition.

I focus on two increasingly visible caste conglomerations – the Devendras and the Thevars – who have been embroiled in a violent conflict in Tamil Nadu since the late 1950s. The recent experiences of the Devendras who are officially classified as Dalit (“untouchable”), and the Thevars who were once socioeconomically dominant in much of Southern Tamil Nadu, exemplify the changing socioeconomic dynamics that foster caste conglomeration. Although the ancestors of many landowning castes ruled over the laborers they relegated to untouchability, their recent economic decline relative to the “untouchables” has unsettled what were once clearly demarcated social hierarchies. A new and unstable economy of collective rank is developing to fill this vacuum, as the self-fashioned leaders of caste conglomerations construct their identities. The process of caste conglomeration dissolves antecedent boundaries of caste even as it reconstitutes castes as larger and therefore more powerful groups, thus simultaneously demonstrating both the fluidity and intractability of caste logics. 
The identitarian claims of caste conglomerations are carved into the new urban spaces they inhabit with visual and auditory signifiers, which are heightened during memorial celebrations of recently remembered caste history. Caste heroes who embody the often conflicting Tamil masculine ideals of selfless courage and refined civility play an important role in such acts of representing history through which caste conglomerations proclaim the dignity they are owed in the present through the glories of their past.
I explore this process as it is energized by the antagonistic power struggle between the Devendras and the Thevars. The still tenuously united Devendras fight back against their relegation to Dalit status by claiming that they have been misclassified in the caste order, and that they are not, in fact, Dalits. Instead, they are the original people, and therefore rightful rulers, of the Tamil country. The Thevars who are a slightly older conglomeration of three previously endogamous but similarly ranked castes, counter such claims with their own claims to Tamil sovereignty, contributing to the unintended fallout of Tamil ethno-nationalism, or Dravidianism.
Dominating state-level politics since the middle of the twentieth century, Dravidianism has attempted to configure a united non-Brahmin identity, which might have dissolved the boundaries between the vast majority of Tamil castes. It has instead resulted in widespread, caste-based competition over Tamil identity. The Devendras are increasingly vying for power through the idiom of Tamil identity, distancing themselves from Dalits (themselves an enormous caste conglomeration founded on the disavowal of caste), despite the Dalits’ electoral success. In tracing the Devendras’ strategy, my dissertation locates the boundary of pan-Indic Dalit political identity, suggesting that the Dalit category inadequately describes the experiences of formerly “untouchable” groups who are drawn, like many others, to the powerful calls of ethnicity.
Such struggles of caste, entangled with ethno-nationalism, demonstrate the yearning for sovereignty that has arisen alongside the distrusted state. The parties and caste organizations of the Devendras and Thevars, like those of other rapidly multiplying caste conglomerations, reflect the desires of the disempowered, and operate as parastate authorities offering material benefits, collective pride, and transactions with government agents, which are troubled by the conglomerations’ need for legitimation that only the government can offer. These complicated processes of negotiating new and relatively unstable economies of power drive the questions of my dissertation, which unfold through the stories of Tamil men who experience the forces of caste identity and the government in their everyday lives.
Caste conglomeration is not another example of Sanskritization through which castes ascend the social ladder by emulating those above them. Instead, the process I examine is competitive, mimetic, and recursive, presupposing the relative equality brought about by economic changes and by the promises of the democratic nation-state. While one generation ago, there were stark differences between landowning castes and the laboring castes now known as Devendras, today, Devendras have the resources to compete in terms of their public visibility, levels of education, and historical claims. In fact, their assertions are so resounding that Thevars sometimes follow Devendras in their strategic calls for recognition. I do not, however, discount the brutalities of Thevar violence against Devendras, but instead aim to shed light on the social context of such acts. It is the profound anxiety of growing similarity, rather than difference, that erupts in the excess of violence.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Daniel, E. Valentine
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 23, 2017