Current Institutional Affiliation
Assistant Professor, Anthropology, Williams College

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2010
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Anthropology, Columbia University
'Untouchable' Religion: Identity Transformation among Sweepers in North India

Writers in the late nineteenth century characterized castes of north Indian sweepers as neither Hindu nor Muslim but practitioners of an autonomous religion particular to ‘untouchables.’ Yet today, not only do most members of sweeper castes identify themselves decisively as either Hindu or Muslim, but many are actively engaged in religion-based mass mobilization, even as they continue to face caste discrimination as ‘untouchables.’ This project seeks to understand the identitarian politics of the present by addressing the historical question of how and for what reasons north Indian sweeper castes adopted Hindu, Muslim, and non-religious identities in the course of the twentieth century. The project design involves twelve months of 1) ethnographic research among Muslim, Hindu, and non-religious members of sweeper castes who live in a slum of the north Indian city of Lucknow, and 2) archival research in the records of Lucknow municipal administration responsible for the employment of many sweepers, the documents of religious reform movements that targeted ‘untouchables’ for conversion, and literature produced by sweepers themselves. Grounded thus in ethnographic and archival research, the study will develop an empirical base from which to interrogate regnant ideas and enrich current debates in postcolonial theory, Islamic studies, the anthropology of caste, and theory of subaltern symbolic struggle.