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As much a land of diversity, India is also a land of ironies. Diversity, because it is home to a number of groups and communities based on religion, caste, class, ethnicity, nationality and region. And irony, because this very diversity often leads to, and is the basis of exclusion – socio-political and economic. It often reduces the marginalized groups and communities from citizens to subjects. However, what is also noteworthy is that over the years, these marginalized groups have been able to ‘mainstream’ themselves as a result of various historical as well as ongoing movements, within and outside the community.

The book under review, which is an outcome of an international workshop held in 2013 on the subject of “Institutionalising Marginal Actors” tries to study the processes of the change and its institutionalization. It seeks to explain the struggles of marginalized groups, “for inclusion, voice and influence, by challenging long standing injustices and the potent interests and processes that sustain them.” The volume has 11 chapters, apart from a long introduction by the editors, and covers the issues of Dalits, Muslims, Tribals, Women and other marginalized groups from Karnataka, West Bengal, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra, along with an all India perspective on certain subjects. In their respective chapters which are based on field work as well as other data, the authors have deployed a critical viewpoint. And this is what differentiates the book from the other volumes on this subject.

From The Margins To The Mainstream

From The Margins To The Mainstream: Institutionalising Minorities in South Asia

Edited by Hugo Gorringe, Roger Jeffery, Suryakant Waghmore

Sage , Edition: Hardbound, ISBN: 9789351506232

Pages: xxxvi+294, Price: Rs. 950/-

It focuses on the question of “what happens when formerly excluded groups are integrated into the socio-political processes.” And it tries to “chart the processes by which people gain access to institutions—whether these are informal social institutions or the more formal political ones—and unpack(s) the consequences of these processes both for the groups in question and for the institutions that they enter.” In this regard, there is a very interesting and detailed ethnographic study by Qudsiya Contractor on the much celebrated peace initiative, namely the Mohalla Committees in Contemporary Mumbai, and its role in institutionalizing peace between Hindus and Muslims. Through her study of the Shivaji Nagar area of Mumbai, the researcher informs us that, “the labour in maintaining everyday peace is mainly the burden of local Muslim representatives that may or may not effectively diffuse communal tensions.” She argues that, “these efforts offer a façade of inclusion in social context where communal politics and the mainstream disgust against Muslims continues unabated, reinforcing representations of ‘Muslim’ areas like Shivaji Nagar as culturally deviant (at times anti-National) urban ‘disorders’ that need to be comprehended and dealt with by the state.”

A somewhat similar study, though on the subject of Institutionalising Informal Societies, in the context of the Dalit Urban Poor of Dharavi, Mumbai tells us a very different story contrary to the popular perception. According to the researcher, Martin Fuchs, “What seems striking here is that the concentration of a large number of Dalits and members of other marginalized groups in one place and the commonalities they otherwise share has not boosted Dalit unity, or Dalit-bahujan unity for that matter, or the fight for a common agenda. Also, considering institutionalization…Dalit parties have made few efforts to establish support base in Dharavi.” Moreover, he notes, “few Dalits in Dharavi have pursued a formal agenda of social recognition and political contention beyond the slum redevelopment issue. Those who did to a limited extent, tried to pursue this through affiliation to Dalit parties or Ambedkarite organisations based outside Dharavi, or, alternatively—and this may sound paradoxical at first view—through affiliation to Hindutva organisations.”

Another very interesting chapter titled “Challenging Normalised Exclusion: Humour and Hopeful Rationality in Dalit Politics” authored by one of the editors of the volume, Suryakant Waghmore, explores normalized prejudice against Dalits through a study of humour, drawing from ethnography on Dalit movements in Marathwada. “Humour serves as an important medium within Dalit movements to communicate and perform Ambedkarism,” explains Waghmore. While discussing the practice of humour in general, he makes a very important point of distinction, “Humour and laughter in Dalit movements, are less intended to cause disparagement and are largely about setting up new standards in which a critique of popular culture and ideas of purity and pollution is possible.” He rightly concludes, “While challenging the normality of caste violence, Dalit political humour also expands the ideas of tolerance and self-critique in the popular culture of Marathwada. Such humour and rationality, however, is still at the margins and speaks to the continued marginalization of Dalits in contemporary India.”

Other chapters included in the volume are equally engaging and enriching. However, one feels the sub-title of the book is quite misleading. Since out of the 11 chapters that are included in the volume, there’s only one chapter (Rise of Adivasi Janjati Movement and Nepal’s Political Interregnum) from outside India, or let’s say from South Asia. This mislead could have been certainly avoided on the part of the editors as well as the publisher, since, without a doubt, this volume is a very valuable addition to the existing and ever growing literature on exclusion studies in the Indian context. A must read for policy makers and development professionals.

First published in The Sunday Indian monthly, June 2016.