Agrarian Labor, Caste, and the Limits of Conversion: A Conversation with Navyug Gill

Photo by Navyug Gill

This is Number 1 in the “JAS Author Interviews” series at #AsiaNow. Click here to see all posts in the series.

Historian Navyug Gill, Assistant Professor at William Paterson University, recently published an article, “Limits of Conversion: Caste, Labor, and the Question of Emancipation in Colonial Panjab,” in the Journal of Asian Studies. Gill’s research interests include modern South Asia, the political economy of caste and labor, and comparative histories of global capitalism. Currently he is working on a book manuscript, Labors of Division: Caste, Class and the Making of Agrarian Hierarchy in Colonial Panjab.  In an interview with Mukul Kumar, an urban geographer based at the University of California, Berkeley, Gill discusses histories of caste and conversion, agrarian labor and historical materialism, as well as anti-colonial politics and the question of emancipation within the context of colonial Panjab.

MK: In your article, you discuss the limits of a politics centered on conversion. What are the ways in which the political economy of Dalit conversion in colonial Panjab reveals the limits of B.R. Ambedkar’s arguments in The Annihilation of Caste (1936)?

NG: In a basic sense, the political economy of Dalit conversion in colonial Panjab reveals a far deeper and more insidious quality to caste hierarchy than has usually been imagined. A major theme of Ambedkar’s “Annihilation of Caste” speech—which was supposed to be delivered in Lahore in 1936—is the call for Dalits to leave Hinduism and convert to an egalitarian and emancipatory religion. By the early twentieth century, however, I try to show that Panjabi Dalits had by and large already “left” Hinduism in favor of Sikhi, Christianity, Islam, and their own Ad Dharm faith, and yet were still excluded and exploited as landless agricultural laborers. In other words, caste was not annihilated by a rejection of Brahminical precepts and rituals or by denouncing the laws of Manu. In fact, it manifested more tenaciously through a novel alignment of caste with occupation as the basis of land ownership. This speaks to a broader issue I attempt to take up implicitly, which is a critique of the generic, “all India” framing of questions such as caste and conversion. Things begin to look very different once we shift the parameters of inquiry from the assumed perspective of the imperial or national center.  

MK: In addition to your engagement with B.R. Ambedkar, you discuss Karl Marx’s concepts of public citizenship and private property. What does Marx’s idea of “double existence” suggest about the contradictory experiences of Dalit laborers in colonial Panjab? 

NG: Marx’s essay, which I must say is perhaps one of the most endlessly fascinating pieces of modern writing, offers a possibility to de-naturalize the common sense division between public and private, and all that it has come to entail. Although he begins with religious discrimination, I would argue it has little to do with Judaism or religion per se. Instead, he is challenging the notion that any form of debilitating difference—of religion, or more crucially, property or wealth—is to be remedied by banishing it from a public sphere of at least formal equality and confining it to an openly disparity-ridden private sphere. Thus, even if a state becomes explicitly secular, or removes income requirements for participation in civic life, the difference of religiosity or poverty remains intact as a feature of a private self, exempt from redress. For colonial Panjab, I attempt to explain how Dalits faced a similar (though not identical) contradictory predicament. Under the leadership of Mangoo Ram and the Ad Dharm, they could achieve a kind of emancipation by publically rejecting a faith that expressly humiliated and subordinated them. But in private, as landless laborers in the agrarian economy, they had little alternative but to continue in a position of abject exploitation. This is the contradictory double existence that nearly everyone living under the modern rule of capital is forced to endure.

MK: You mention a Dalit laborer who traveled from Panjab to pick fruits in California’s San Joaquin Valley and joined the anti-colonial Ghadar Party in 1913. Could you tell us more about this story of anti-colonial politics and how it relates to your broader argument concerning the question of emancipation?

NG: There are several scholars who have studied the history and politics of the Ghadar Party with rewarding detail and insight, among them, Harish Puri, J.S. Grewal, Maia Ramnath, Darshan Singh Tatla, Radha D’Souza, Malwinderjit Singh Waraich, and Seema Sohi. The wider story of Panjabi laborers along the western U.S. and Canada in the early twentieth century is simply extraordinary, and one that poses a fundamental problem for narratives of anti-colonial resistance, mainstream nationalism (Indian or later Pakistani), and revolutionary socialism. Specifically in this case, the fact that Mangoo Ram describes how he, as a Chamar, found deep affinity with a group of largely Sikh Jatts in creating a movement to overthrow British rule in South Asia upends nearly every convention about the relationship between oppression and liberation. It demonstrates a remarkably tactile complexity, the ability to pursue multiple commitments and convictions irreducible to a single cause. There was no static ranking of subordination; ending colonial rule did not merely compete with opposing caste discrimination. Rather, at different moments and under changing conditions, priorities shifted to make new political possibilities, and demands. Mangoo Ram’s involvement with Ghadar captures how the most exploited in a society could and did have aspirations not only to alleviate their own suffering, but to fight for the liberation of all. We have few instances of such a forceful imagination, and have yet to come to terms with it.

MK: Your article engages with a wide range of historical and political questions, from Dalit politics and agrarian political economy to the Ad Dharm movement and the limits of conversion. How does the history of Dalit conversion in twentieth-century Panjab shed light on the politics of caste and conversion in the current historical moment? 

NG: This is the sort of question I would especially prefer to hear your thoughts on! But, if I must hazard an engagement, I would say the history of Dalit conversion in early twentieth century Panjab suggests a much more capacious future than the one currently sought by almost every mainstream political party in India. The most the latter aspire to is a degree of adjustment of a status quo that by design perpetuates strikingly brutal forms of inequality and inequity. However, what seems to have been lost—or, perhaps more vividly revealed—in the intervening decades is a realization that various kinds of ascrpitive difference could be accommodated (gradually, if fitfully) within the existing economic hierarchy. Dalits were able to convert out of Hinduism but not out of the constraints that structured their subordination precisely because exploitation itself was not seen as a form of discrimination. In other words, as long as caste is limited to a debate over the logic of purity and pollution but not of property, its dissolution cannot result in an egalitarian society. Mangoo Ram approached this horizon, and even made gestures toward traversing it, whereas now it has largely receded into the distance. The only partial exceptions in east Panjab might be some of the radical rural labor unions who have articulated a demand for land redistribution, terming their members “be-zamin kisans” [landless peasants] as opposed to “khet mazdoors” [field laborers]. Facing unremitting hostility from both dominant caste landowners as well as the state, they continue their struggle nonetheless.

Read the February 2019 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies at Cambridge Core—with free open access to all through April 15, 2019.