Ongoing Research

From Bondage to Citizenship: The Enfranchisement and Advancement of Dalits and African Americans

Funded by Grants from:

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada

The project explores caste relations in India and race relations in the US, the deepest inequalities in the two largest democracies that have not been systematically compared. It examines changes in the socio-economic condition of African-Americans and India’s ex-untouchables (dalits), the groups at the bottom of these social hierarchies, since they gained voting rights in the mid-20th century. The study seeks to thereby identify the factors determining how far such underprivileged ethnic minorities are able to use the political rights they gain in democracies to improve their socio-economic circumstances. It examines trends nationally and in two regions of particularly high coercive labor extraction until recently, where the two groups are concentrated, the Mississippi and the Kaveri river deltas.

The study contests Marshall’s classic view that civil, political and social rights are extended sequentially and irreversibly to middle and working classes formed by capitalist development. Discourses referring to ethnicity, gender, nationality and religion, as well as class, shape forms of exclusion from full citizenship and inspire various initiatives for inclusion. They influence social classification, group boundaries, interests, institutions, coalitions, and projects. The project explores how narratives about formerly bonded ethnic groups interact with ongoing economic and political changes to determine these groups’ uneven and inconsistent gains in representation, education, better jobs and property.

Taking certain similarities in demographic patterns (dalits and African-Americans are 16.1% and 14.1% respectively of their country’s population), group boundaries (sharp), initial group relations (based on agrarian bondage), regime type (democratic), and timing of enfranchisement and civil rights extension (mid-20th century) as points of departure, the project explores the effects of important differences in classification, nationalist and civic discourse, and party competition on interethnic alliances and social rights. Race was the primary classificatory axis and the racial order was bipolar in the US, in contrast with the equal salience of caste, religion, and language, the multi-polarity of caste, and the greater cultural diversity of castes in India. African-Americans were thus more distinctive than dalits. Nationalist and civic visions favored group inclusion earlier and more consistently in India. A party captured group support for long in the US, unlike in India. These differences helped dalits build broader and more favorable alliances, consolidate their political rights better, and gain more entitlements since the 1980s especially in regions of high inequality.

The project involves interviews, surveys, and ethnographies in three pairs of localities in the two case study regions that vary in history, social structure, demography, mobilization, and representation. Analyses of these materials significantly advance comparative understandings of deep inequalities between ethnic groups and their interactions with citizenship rights. The study promotes debate among scholars about relationships between nationalist and civic discourse, political mobilization, competition and representation, policy agendas, and disadvantaged group mobility. It addresses the interests of public intellectuals, policy-makers, politicians, and civil society members to design more effective redistributive policies in view of the political conditions conducive to their success.

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