Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Caste and Community in Confusion



This is part 2 of a two-part interaction with Frontier Mission's May/June issue on India. See part 1 here.
I find the ongoing use of “caste” as the key sociological concept for the purposes of church planting deeply problematic, as I explained in some detail in a previous publication.[1] I am not sure whether people have ignored that article or simply don’t understand it, since nobody has interacted with that article. If that article is opaque, I hope I can have a chance here to remedy that.
The question of how we classify people clearly continues to excite imaginations, as we see in the recent Patidar reservation agitation in which a dominant caste in Gujarat has attempted to get legal recognition as a downtrodden people in order to be recipients of affirmative action. In this regard I find it na├»ve that the author identified as, A Passionate Indian Servant can say in “Why the Community/ Caste Focus is Needed in Support of Church Planting Movements” that, “There is too much of classifying people by who we think they are, rather than who they perceive themselves to be. Identities, however, are always a product of negotiation between insiders and outsiders, so it does not make sense to try to classify everyone simply according to their self identifier. In South Asia, especially, these things are contested.
In the editorial, the significance of community is front and center: “Each of these communities will likely need a separate movement of disciple making and church planting – thereby making India the greatest challenge to world evangelization…today”.
If there are “thousands of different communities all separated by caste, language and religion,” as Rick Wood asserts in “The Only Way to Reach India Is through Movements,” then India does indeed look like the neediest country in the world in terms of church planting. But if India’s communities are not as fissiparous as it first appears, that argument collapses. It does not mean, necessarily, that India is not the greatest challenge, but it does mean that such an assertion would need to be justified on other grounds.
I wonder if part of the problem is that the research is partial and biased. Why, for instance, does A Passionate Indian Servant write that, “Typically, in an Indian city, 99% of those of Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe status are able to supply their community/caste/tribe name when asked.” What about other castes? In my research in Nepal, almost everyone knew their caste – to ask someone’s jati would seem rude but to ask someone’s thar invariably resulted in an immediate and clear answer.
Likewise, Victor John, in “The Bhojpuri Movement Transforming Social Dynamics,” reports that among Bhojpuri speakers “low caste or outcast Dalits and adivasi” make up 80% of the group and the “good news has tended to more quickly enter the low caste”. Nevertheless, he writes that, “If the high caste in our area are only two percent or 10 percent of the population, that same percentage is also reflected in the churches.” I can’t see how both can be true. More likely, it would seem that indeed the Bhojpuri phenomenon is an overwhelmingly Dalit movement, as indeed A Passionate Indian Servant suggests—both the Chamar and Balmiki people are Dalit castes. So John’s claim that the “focus on language rather than caste” results in the movement touching all castes, is not established.
What exactly is caste? The aforementioned author attempts to define caste in ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ ways. But what does he mean by formal and informal? Rather than clarifying the issue, such distinctions obfuscate. One would be hard put to find any scholar making such a distinction. The great need is to define caste as it is lived and experienced. It is only when real communities are understood that social data can be useful. And that only really happens with careful, in-depth, theoretically-sensitive ethnographic observation and interaction. There is little evidence that any such research has been attempted as little ethnographic data is presented.
Is caste the same thing as community? The same writer tells us that, “In south Asia, community largely means ‘caste,’ but is more innocent sounding term and preferable to many. A South Asian community is not a voluntary association, but an ethno-linguistic hereditary group with defined boundaries within which one must marry.”
Community can, of course, be defined in any number of ways, especially in today’s climate of identity politics. Caste, however, has been the subject of intense sociological and historical analysis. The writer quotes historian Sumit Guha: ‘…the bounded, status-ranked ethnic community or ‘caste’ is a social form that frequently appears in multiethnic societies… (pp. 2–3).” But Guha also argues that castes are “geographically bounded communities”.[2] It is this geographical, or territorial, element that is largely missing in so much writing on South Asian missiology. 
Allow me to return to the Badhai, whom I discussed in my previous article. According to the JP, the Badhai are a group of peoples traditionally involved in carpentry. The JP lists five groups in India with the name Badhai: 
·      Badhai (Hindu Traditions)
·      Badhai (Hindu Traditions)
·      Badhai Gandhar
·      Badhai Kharadi 
·      Badhai Konkani
The first group is located across much of north, central, and western India, the second mostly in Uttar Pradesh with many also in other Indian states as well as in Pakistan and Bangladesh, while each of the three latter groups turn out to be rather few in numbers and situated in geographically tightly circumscribed areas.
The Badhai (HT) are further divided into 25 ‘subgroups’, many of whom comprise tens of thousands of individuals, and by the look of their names seem to belong to particular places just as the latter three on the main list. We are told that these subgroups are designated as such because they constitute a “segment of a people group that probably does not need a unique church planting effort.” Why? Because “The Gospel can flow between subgroups without encountering significant barriers of understanding or acceptance.”
Although I know very little about the Badhai in India, I would hazard a guess, based on my detailed field work in Nepal, that people who identify as Badhai in India would indeed have a measure of affinity for one another. However, and this is the crucial point, I think it highly unlikely that they would intermarry at any great distance, nor have much social interaction at all, except in their own locality. My point is that they constitute a societalgroup (i.e. a mental category), not a social group, as there is little interaction between the members, except in their own localities.
If this is the case, one would surmise that the 25 subgroups of the Badhai (HT) are in the same category as the Badhai Gandhar, Badhai Kharadi, and Badhai Konkani, making 28 Badhai (HT) groups in all.[3]
Furthermore, Badhai (Muslim Traditions) are also scattered, suggesting that they too in fact constitute dozens of groups. I am speculating here but Hindu/Muslim relations being what they are in India, I would not expect any significant social interaction between the two religious groupings (though inter-religious social interaction and even marriage is not always out of the question, as my research in Nepal among Hindus and Buddhists demonstrates).
So that begs the question: Does each of these groups in every one of these locations need a distinct effort of church planting? I argue no, for the following reason: For the most part, a caste does not constitute a community. An exception to this might be Dalit castes in any particular locality, where all the people belong to a single, endogamous group. But many villages and all towns and cities are made up of dozens of castes that would rarely intermarry but, nevertheless, have cordial social and religious interaction on a daily basis. It is these villages that constitute a community. In towns and cities, the traditional community may be more on the level of neighbourhood, and it is typically multicaste. With recent rapid urbanization, caste distinctions are even less significant in daily life, as both Victor John and A Passionate Indian Servant recognise.
John does recognise the significance of the locality:
In addition, caste-focused work would be impractical [sic] in many cases. In some villages, there might be only one family from a particular caste. You can’t start a worshiping community with only one family, so you need a multicaste fellowship. We focus on reaching persons based upon their language, geography, and economic status, rather than caste, because that helps the good news to take root throughout the region, and spread.
In conclusion, I would suggest that much more attention be focussed on how various caste groups interact with each other in their villages, village clusters, town neighbourhoods, etc. It is in these interactions that true community is observed and in which gospel communication can readily proceed.


[1] Mark Pickett, “Ethnicity, Kinship, Religion and Territory: Identifying Communities in South Asia,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 32:1 (Spring 2015): 23-36. Cited 28 May 2019. Online: https://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/32_1_PDFs/IJFM_32_1-Pickett.pdf
[2] Sumit Guha, Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2016), 71. I sense some tension in Guha’s work between the ‘tribal’ nature of caste and its territorial expression. See my review of this important book here: https://markpickett.blogspot.com/2019/06/beyond-caste-identity-and-power-in.html.

[3] Having said that, it would seem that modern politics and technology are leading to the closer integration of some such groups. See, for example, the matrimonial service TeriMeriChoice.com. Online: https://www.terimerichoice.com/badhai-matrimony. I am not aware of any research to determine how significant these changes are.