VLIR-UOS “Own Initiative”

Development of the Centre for the Study of Local Cultures at Kuvempu University, Karnataka, India

The research capacities of the CSLC will be developed in a variety of ways. Among others, the results of ongoing projects are assessed, analysed and converted into scientific hypotheses, texts and articles at yearly research workshop series on caste/inequality and pluralism/conflict. Visiting scholars will also guide workshops on the CSLC research themes. In these workshops, potential publication channels will also be identified: national and international journals and book publishers will be selected.

The project also intends to organise international conferences at the CSLC. The research results of the CSLC on the topics of caste/inequality and pluralism/conflict will be presented and discussed in plenary sessions and round-table discussions with a larger group of national peers. Scholars with competing or compatible views on the topic would participate in the conference and discuss their research results.

In addition, four PhD students initially will be funded and leading faculty members are provided with the opportunity to attend international conferences in Europe and training-stays at Ghent University, Belgium. The two central research projects of the CSLC are:

1. An expansion of the research project on caste and pluralism in Karnataka.

Background: Most research on caste/inequality and pluralism/conflict starts from two basic presuppositions: (1) a clear caste hierarchy with four varnas exists in Indian society and (2) this society is divided into a number of distinct and rival religious groups. Very often, the fieldwork uncritically employs these presuppositions, which have their origin in the colonial and Orientalist understanding of India. The ongoing research on Caste, Community and Tradition in Karnataka project already shows that these presuppositions face many empirical anomalies and conceptual problems. Therefore, there is a need for new empirical material and alternative conceptualisations.

Aim: Extensive fieldwork will examine the following issues: (1) the relations between different ‘caste’ groups (Lingayats, Brahmins, Scheduled Castes, Vokkaligas, etc.) and different religious groups (Virashaivas, Jainas, Madhvas, Bauddhas, Muslims, Christians, etc.) in Karnataka; (2) the internal differentiation of these groups to ascertain whether or not they consist of ‘castes’, ‘sub-castes’ and ‘sects’; (3) The role local traditions play. How do different sampradayas or traditions organise communities and caste groups as well as differentiate between them?

Methodology: (1) Fieldwork research in all the districts of Karnataka state: mapping and listing the ‘caste’ and ‘religious’ groups in clusters of villages with minimal distances of 250km. In-depth interviews with representatives of all groups in these villages about the relations within ‘caste’ groups and between ‘religious’ groups. (2) Using questionnaires and conducting in-depth interviews with Gram Panchayat representatives who will be present on the University campus because of the Panchayat training project, allows the gathering of additional data. The access to representatives from all villages in Karnataka gives a unique opportunity to collect material for the entire State. (3) These results will enable the generation of a fresh description of the current situation of ‘castes’ and ‘religions’ in Karnataka. This will be contrasted with the results of the colonial ‘Castes and Tribes’ project, the census, and ‘People of India’ project. For this component of the research, we will involve Kuvempu University students as fieldworkers and provide them with a travel allowance.

Justification: According to the consensus, two major socio-cultural problems confront India today: the continuing existence of the inegalitarian caste system and the rise of religious strife. However, the nature and structure of these problems is often unclear. The division of Indian society into different caste groups (jatis), traditions (sampradayas) and religious groups is very different from region to region. So are the relations between the different groups: a group which is dominant in one region may be subordinate in another; two religious traditions which are in conflict in one region, may have developed harmonious pluralism in another. Therefore, if one intends to address problems related to caste/inequality and pluralism/conflict in a particular region, one needs elaborate social scientific knowledge on the different groups and the relations among them in that region. This research project is an attempt to develop such knowledge for the Karnataka region.

2. Research project on the Western understanding of caste and pluralism in South India.

Background: Recent research on the representation of Indian society and culture shows that this representation tells us more about the culture that produced it (the West) than it does about the Indian culture. Therefore, to improve upon the dominant images of the caste system and religious pluralism in South India, one needs to trace their historical development within the Western culture. These images emerged against the background of religious conflicts within Christian Europe, theological and philosophical debates about the nature of humanity, and important socio-cultural events in the West.

Aim: Through analyses of the colonial, Orientalist and social scientific literature on caste and religion in India, the project explores the following issues: (a) what kinds of continuities exist between the colonial images of the 18th and 19th centuries and the contemporary social scientific descriptions? (b) What are the presuppositions behind the descriptions and explanations of the caste system and religious pluralism in India? (c) How do these presuppositions relate to the nature and history of the Western culture?

Methodology: This research is primarily archival and conceptual in nature. (a) Through conceptual analyses of texts, the CSLC scholars will analyse colonial textual sources (‘Castes and Tribes’ volumes, colonial gazetteers, travel accounts, etc.) and trace the continuities with today’s social scientific ‘theories’. (b) They will then identify the conceptual structure behind the dominant images of caste and religion in India. (c) Through workshops on the nature and history of the West, they will establish a link between the conceptual structures and their Western cultural background.

Justification: To solve local problems of caste/inequality and pluralism/conflict in India, one can no longer rely on the dominant representations of Indian culture and society. Only this type of historical and conceptual analysis of the representations can reveal the deep-rooted presuppositions guiding much of the dominant research. This is necessary, because such presuppositions prevent the development of alternative conceptualisations of these social problems in Karnataka.