Barnard history professor came to the College in 2001 after completing three years of post-doctoral study at N.Y.U. A South Asian historian, Rao became interested in critiques of South Asian history and anthropology as an undergrad at the University of Chicago, a noted center for such studies.
But today, Rao is happy to be sharing her scholarship at Barnard. “We have a very engaged group of South Asiansists between Barnard and Columbia,” she says. “It’s probably one of the very best places in the U.S. to be studying South Asia and India today.”
In her new book, The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India, published in October by the University of California Press, Rao writes about the 2006 Khairlanji Massacre, and other instances of caste-based violence and discrimination in India. “I had come up with a certain kind of background being both personally and intellectually drawn to questions of inequality and social life,” she says. “So I think for me, there was a weird way in which interests in caste and race had been doubling up. But I didn’t know until I went into the field that I’d end up making questions of caste violence and social experience central to my project.
The Khairlanji Massacre took place on September 29, 2006, when four members of a land-owning family in a small Central Indian village were brutally murdered. The family, though upwardly mobile and educated, were Dalits, members of India’s formerly "untouchable” communities, so named for their stigmatized status in the caste hierarchy. A series of land conflicts in the village ultimately culminated in the lynch-style killings of the mother and her three children, the oldest of whom was twenty-one. “This was a very important case,” says Rao. “It became a nationwide scandal. You had all these young Dalits in the blogosphere, and so the images of violence circulated around the net. The Dalit youth were really mobilizing around this particular event.”
The book explores the Dalits’ transformation from stigmatized subjects in colonial and post-colonial India to democratized citizens in the present day. As the jacket copy explains:
Rao shines a light on South Asian historiography and on ongoing caste discrimination, to show how persons without rights came to possess them and how Dalit struggles led to the transformation of such terms of colonial liberalism as rights, equality, and personhood. Extending into the present, the ethnographic analyses of The Caste Question reveal the dynamics of an Indian democracy distinguished not by overcoming caste, but by new forms of violence and new means of regulating caste.
“I think what you’re seeing on the one hand is political enfranchisement,” says Rao, “but also this kind of paradoxical way in which political enfranchisement is coming into conflict, or in conversation, with the persistence of caste violence. This is really the paradox that I try to pinpoint in my book.”
Professor Rao has been studying Dalit history and society since the early ‘90s, delving into the stacks of private libraries in Mumbai and Nagpur and doing fieldwork in cities like Aurangabad and Kolhapur in Western India. “I think you could say this is the Dalit millennium,” says Rao. “Dalit studies now are very active. You have Dalit scholars and activists going to the U.N. and thinking about caste inequality, and also studies [in India] of caste inequality at the level of employment, very much based on the American model of employee discrimination.”
Rao, who spent part of her childhood in India and part in the U.S., traces her interest in Dalit studies back to her adolescent years. “Caste violence has become a very important fight for the state,” Rao explains, “because the state has to figure out how to manage and contain these violent acts. One needs to understand the relationship between caste and democracy to really understand the shape of contemporary politics in India, and that’s the main argument in my book.”
As for Rao’s own social experience at the College, “I very much enjoy my daily life at Barnard,” she says. “The students can think forwards and backwards and sideways. They make the classroom a very serious workspace and I appreciate that tremendously.”