Joel Lee, Williams College
All the Valmikis are One: Bhakti as Majoritarian Project
Why are the sanitation labor castes – those Dalit castes denoted in the colonial period as ‘Bhangi,’ ‘Halalkhor,’ ‘Lal Begi,’ ‘Mehtar,’ ‘Sweeper,’ among other names – now known as Valmikis or Balmikis? By what operations and under what conditions was the link forged between the Valmiki of the Ramayana, whose Bhargava Brahmin pedigree is attested in that text, and the geographically widespread Dalit caste cluster that supplies almost all of South Asia’s sanitation workers? What happened to the ‘other’ Valmikis of Indic tradition: the ‘Chandal’ Balmiki of Priyadas’s commentary on the Bhaktamal, for instance, or the Bal Mik or Bal Nek of nineteenth century Dalit oral tradition, a miracle-working swineherd of Ghazni? This paper tracks the careers of three Valmikis who converge in the early twentieth century effort of the Arya Samaj, with Congress support, to enlist the sanitation labor castes in the production of a Hindu majority for the newly imagined nation. This effort, the internal contradictions of which are resolved precisely through the idiom of bhakti, illuminates how one form of the politics of majoritarian inclusion – which reverberates now in the ‘ghar wapsi’ campaigns – works. It also raises questions for bhakti overtures toward caste-stigmatized communities in earlier historical contexts.
Bio: Joel Lee is assistant professor of anthropology at Williams College. Previously he was a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. His research deals with caste, religion, sanitation labor, and the sensuous entailments of belonging. He is co-author, with Jayshree Mangubhai and Aloysius Irudayam, of Dalit Women Speak Out: Caste, Class and Gender Violence in India (Zubaan, 2011).