Nobody's People
Hierarchy as Hope in a Society of Thieves
Anastasia Piliavsky



On 23 June 1991, in the last cool moments before sunrise, several thousand farmers encircled a hamlet, a bastī called Mandawari, in the North Indian state of Rajasthan. As the dawn swelled, its residents saw the outline of an armed mob, with the barrels of rifles etched against the crimson horizon. The mob formed a tight blockade that left no routes for escape. And so the residents grabbed what weapons they had to hand, shut their doors, and waited. An hour had passed by in silence when they heard the rumbling of tires on the stone path. Two police jeeps screeched to a halt, and out jumped a half-dozen officers. We opened the doors, remembered Old Shambhu, and ran to them for help. We were terrified. Everyone ran, even the women. The police inspector promised protection in return for the surrender of arms. I told them, said Old Shambhu, the police are dogs. Don’t trust them. They will cheat you. And so they did. The officers rounded up every gun, cane, and pistol there was in the village, even slingshots that boys used for hunting rabbits and partridges, and threw them into the jeep. No more than a minute had passed since they drove away when Shambhu heard the blow of a whistle. This was the inspector’s signal for attack.

The pogrom raged for several hours. The farmers bludgeoned children and men with clubs and mallets, jammed staffs up women’s vaginas, set fire and blasted houses with dynamite. By noon, when news of the attack reached the district headquarters, five villagers had already died, several dozen were gravely wounded, and every house in the bastī had been razed to the ground. Help for survivors was slow in coming. For many, it came too late. Another five people died later in hospital, and Old Shambhu was left semi-paralyzed for the rest of his life.

News of “the incident” (kāṅḍ), as the attack came to be known, spread fast, and within a week India’s then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, visited the bastī on his electoral tour of Rajasthan. A pageant of local dignitaries followed suit. Speeches were made in support of the “Dalits” (former “Untouchables”), and each victim’s family received 100,000 rupees (approximately $1,500), enough to cremate and build cenotaphs for the dead. Local royals gave money out of pocket, a criminal case was filed in the high court, and twenty-one farmers were arrested on murder charges. But election time passed, the pogrom faded from memory, and life returned to normal. The farmers were released on bail, and in 2008, seventeen years later, at the time of my research, the case was still pending an appeal.

Nobody’s People

The victims of the pogrom were a people called Kanjars from a caste of cattle rustlers and burglars in Rajasthan. Known locally as a “caste of thieves” (chorõ kī jāt),1 Kanjars call themselves proudly robbers by hereditary family trade. Classified in British colonial law as a “criminal tribe” and treated accordingly, Kanjars themselves lay claim to an ancient robber pedigree. Most of them now cultivate fields, but burglary and cattle rustling remain their signature occupation. Such communities have long been important players in the political economy of South Asia. Employed as robber-retainers by landed chiefs, they worked as spies, escorts, watchmen, and hitmen who plundered the countryside to raise funds for and intimidate the rivals of patrons, whose armies they joined in times of rebellion and war. Today robbery—and robber castes like the Kanjar—are still deployed to settle disputes and redress grievances in the countryside. And so many Kanjars now make a living as robbers, watchmen, and go-betweens who mediate rivalries by intimidation and strategic theft.

Such robber castes have long been both feared and admired for the strength, courage, and wit it takes to rob. Occasionally, robber castes, like the South Indian Piramalai Kallars, did well for themselves, sometimes even becoming kings.2 Many others, like Kanjars, however, ended up on the extreme social periphery. This is how, as Old Shambhu told me, this came to pass:

In the old days the Kanjars went together with rajas. Whatever rajas did, Kanjars did: hunting, raiding. But now they are nobody’s people. Before they would go and steal from their masters’ enemies. They went far. My father brought back goats from Neemach and gold and silver from Bhilwara. Once, he even brought a camel back from Gujarat. We had family everywhere. My mother’s mother lives in Ahmedabad. There is a big Kanjar colony there, but they don’t call themselves Kanjars. At that time, Kanjars had respect. They were the raja’s people. No one would lay a finger on them. But now, see what happened. Where has the raja gone? He is in Delhi or hiding in his fort. Kanjars are nobody’s people. So, what do they do? They will steal a few grams of silver, some poppy husk from the village next door. And then they give money to cops, so the cops don’t file cases against them. But the cops just eat up the money. And then it’s us, Kanjars, who get killed.

Ties of service that once bound Kanjars to local aristocrats, the Rajputs, unraveled during the Raj. British authorities, in their bid to disenfranchise the landed chiefs, labeled robber castes as “criminal tribes,” or born delinquents, rounding them up into reformatory settlements.3 By the time the British quit India, most landed chiefs could no longer afford robber castes (pp. 53–57, 136-38, 165). Most “criminal tribe” settlements were disbanded, and Kanjars found themselves on the loose: with no employment, no patrons, and an uneasy relationship with the police. If under Rajput tutelage Kanjars would steal far afield while protecting their patrons’ dominions, the new police order had reversed all this. They began burgling locally, inside their jurisdiction, where they enjoyed some protection by the police, in exchange for a share of their spoils. What was once a relation of mutual protection with landed chiefs turned into mutual predation. Kanjars were now assaulting local landholders, who responded with increasingly frequent and vicious attacks (for more see chapter 3).4

What startled me when I spoke with the perpetrators of the pogrom was not the violence as such—few people would tolerate incessant burgling—or even that they admitted it openly, but their sense of entitlement to, and indeed pride in, the violence, and their justification of it. Several narrated their memories of the event with audible relish. One even brandished the cane he had used on the occasion, patting it menacingly on the palm of his hand with visible pride in his achievement. He did not understand why the pogrom should have attracted so much attention or why it should have drawn any official response. They roam about like rats [vo chūhe jaise ghūmate rahate], he spat, going here and there. They take from one man, from another. You tell me: whose people are they? No—he swiped the air sideways—they have no lord [mālik]. They eat from everyone’s hand [har hāth se khāte]. When it comes to Kanjars, you can be sure there is no truth, right, or justice [unke koī hak nahī hai]. They are bekār [useless, dispensable]. Lighting a cigarette, he thought to lighten the mood: only people like you, English people [foreigners], sleep with them [un ke sāth so jāte].

The Kanjars’ constant assaults on their neighbors were intensely provocative. The adjacent village, whose residents led the pogrom, often suffered several thefts a week. A kid goat, a length of pipe, a bag of wheat; sometimes silver, gold, or the ever-so-precious poppy husk. Rumor had it that the last straw that set off the pogrom was a trail of poppy seeds spilt from a stolen sack that led to Old Shambhu’s house. Theft may have been the pogrom’s last-instance cause, but it was not its justification. The farmers felt entitled to murder Kanjars, not because Kanjars violated their property, but because farmers thought the Kanjars dispensable, mere vermin. The reason for this, as the farmer put it, was that Kanjars had no lord, no one to whom they belonged; they were nobody’s people, strays, and, as such, had no intrinsic worth. In his own way, Old Shambhu’s was the same story: the absence of masters as the reason for Kanjars’ social desolation.

Kanjars were indeed the most marginal people—more so than sweepers and leather smiths, untouchable among untouchables5—not because they were ritually polluted, but because they were socially unattached. While sweepers (Bhangis) and leather smiths (Chamars) lived on the outskirts of towns and villages, Kanjars lived altogether outside, in separate settlements. This is precisely what first got me puzzling over the local calculus of social worth, which is to say hierarchy. If the lowest of the low were not the ritually most polluted, as I assumed previously, but the socially unattached, what did this say about the local logic of social value: about ideas by which people judged one another, gave and withheld respect, socially fell and rose?

Demotic Hopes

I first came to the Kanjar bastī in 2005, during the rains. I was brought there by a lawyer, a friend of a friend, whose family had been advocating Kanjar cases for generations and who had offered to introduce me to some of his clients there. Mandawari lies 6 kilometers as the crow flies west of Begun, a market town of about twenty thousand people (map 0.1). To reach the bastī, the lawyer drove the car along a smoothly paved road that ran through fields of wheat, poppy, and peanuts to the multicaste village of Mandawari, from which the Kanjar bastī takes its name. The asphalt ended here, and we continued on foot along a stony path across a stretch of land too parched to absorb rainwater that was now gushing fast over boulders, where the path once was. The advocate pointed to the remains of a police outpost (chaukī), a single broken wall jutting out amidst shrunken shrubbery. This was the settlement’s outer edge (fig. 0.1).

The chaukī was erected right after the pogrom, ostensibly to protect the Kanjars, but in practice it was there to keep a watch over them. It was not long before the Kanjars smashed it to pieces. Here the path narrowed as it wound its way toward squat, low-roofed houses made of stacked brown slabs of stone. Further on stood a row of taller homes made of brick. This was the village center, from which we found ourselves separated by a pothole-turned-moat in the rains. It was also the end of the road for the lawyer and his patent-leather shoes. I jumped in, knee deep, in my rubber slippers, to the cheers of a crowd now gathered to witness the scene. Two lunges and I was on a covered veranda, the very place that would later become my Kanjar home.6

FIGURE 0.1 The remains of a police outpost built outside the Mandawari Kanjar bastī following the pogrom. Photo by author.

MAP 0.1 Field research sites. Mandawari, where I lived during research, is marked with a black square. Based on maps drawn by David Watson of the Department of Geography’s Cartographic Unit, University of Cambridge.

There a stout, cheerful man in a shirt with rolled-up sleeves stepped forward, thrust a plastic chair in front of me, and said: Speak, madam-ji! This was Ramesh: a gang leader, an accomplished thief, an aspiring gardener, and one of the few men in the bastī who could speak and read Hindi.7 While others stood by, bewildered, mulling over what the lawyer had brought—most had never seen a white “English” person, much less a white woman, before—Ramesh struck up a conversation. I told him that I wanted to write a book about Kanjar culture and history, and he replied: Stay. I agreed, and his wife Kalla poured me a glass of country liquor, or madh, warm from her still. I drank it “from above,” as one does in the Indian countryside, without touching the glass with my lips, and again the crowd cheered. They had seen educated “madams” before (schoolteachers, nurses, activists), but they had never seen one drink madh. This sealed the deal, Ramesh told me later. A drinking madam, he laughed, is always welcome with Kanjars.

On my very first day in the bastī, Ramesh told me about the pogrom and about how things had changed since:

Back then, if we heard a car coming, the whole bastī would clear out and hide in the jungle. I lived in the jungle for weeks at a time. My son Lakshman carried food every day to the jungle. Kanjars were too frightened even to go to hospital. The babies were all born in the jungle. My appendicitis was cut out in the jungle, too. Five men held me down while the surgeon worked.

Now Ramesh lived at home, where his wife could brew madh (an illegal business) in the open (fig. 0.2). His unplastered, one-story brick house had two rooms: one for storage and the other for his newlywed son. I moved into the storage room, which I shared with sacks of garlic and onion, while Ramesh and Kalla slept outside. The roughly stacked stairway led to the “upper floor” with but one half-built wall and no ceiling. Other houses around us were in a similar state of collapse; some had one floor, others two, most had one and a half. Some had no walls, others no doors or roofs, and many had stairs that led up to the open sky. To my eye, these were snapshots of penury and desolation. The bastī looked like a war zone.

FIGURE 0.2 Ramesh (right) hosting on his veranda. Photo by author.

What Ramesh saw around him, however, was progress (map 0.2). When we clambered onto the roof of his house to smoke beedee cigarettes in the evenings, he would point to this or that neighbor’s home improvements and explain that each was built from the proceeds of a successful burglary. Kanjars had fields, too, but most of them were small and harvests were much less reliable than night raids. Since the pogrom, when national attention turned to Mandawari, making local authorities more cautious about arresting “Dalits” (former untouchables), Ramesh had managed to build the stairway and a porch with a water tank underneath. He even bought a horse and planted an orchard behind his house, where he showed me rows of struggling saplings of guava and lemon trees. His house, he explained, was not half-collapsed, it was half-built—not a ruin, but an image of aspiration.

Police officers, NGO workers, government servants, and other well-meaning locals could not say enough about the Kanjars’ immunity to “uplift.” Kanjars, they said, refused to “improve” (sudhāranā): to abandon their drinking, meat eating, and thieving habits; to send their children to school; to bathe; and to work in the fields. As far as the well-wishers were concerned, for Kanjars a bright future lay in their learning to be like good townsfolk, like themselves: well washed and oiled, schooled and teetotal, with respectable jobs. NGO activists and retired policemen would organize meetings for the “improvement of Kanjar society” (kanjar samāj sudhāranā), where they pressed this progressive vision on their sparse, deathly bored audiences. Ramesh snubbed these meetings, as did most others in the bastī. Only children and young women would go. This was a chance to dress up, go out, and spend a day chatting and drinking tea with friends. Ramesh found the NGO wallahs’ vision of progress from “filth and illiteracy” to a schooled and groomed life insulting. Pouring scorn on the gospel of teetotal vegetarianism, he found the very idea that he should emulate polite townsfolk abhorrent and absurd. Who am I, he would spit in disgust, a bloody shopkeeper [baṇiyā] that I should eat grass? Nor did he wish to send his sons to school: School rots children’s minds [skūl bacchõ kā dimāg bigaṛtā], he would say, just look: they sit around repeating kā-gā-khā-ghā [the ABCs] all day long and then they don’t want to do any work. They get this idea that you can sit around doing nothing all day.

MAP 0.2 Map of Mandawari, where I lived during research. Based on maps drawn by David Watson of the Department of Geography’s Cartographic Unit, University of Cambridge.

His vision of a good life was different. At night, when there was current in the electrical wires that Kanjars tapped, he would watch gangster Bollywood flicks with his sons and neighbors, cheering on the big, bad, mustachioed mafia dons. These were his heroes. Some things that Ramesh yearned for appeared, at first glance, like the trappings of a provincial, middle-class dream—a pukka house and a motorcycle, a Hero Honda Super Splendor, perhaps even a small car—but what he wanted them for was decidedly unmiddle-class. A tall house would do well as a watchtower for keeping an eye on the goings-on around the bastī, a motorcycle would be handy for negotiating stony paths in the pitch dark of nocturnal raids, and a car would take him in style to the weekly court hearings. Ramesh wanted a boozy, buccaneering, freewheeling life with plenty of meat and liquor for dinner, not the schooled, comfortable life of the townsfolk, at which he sneered. He wanted a gloriously Kanjar life. And he wanted the recognition of a Kanjar: a magnificent thief, a gangster, a big man.

This book, which started out in an effort to understand why my Kanjar hosts found themselves on such an extreme social periphery and how they tried to improve their lot, grew into an attempt to grasp the basic terms in which local people, Kanjars and others, imagined dignified, respected lives: the values basic to their social ambitions, whatever these ambitions may in fact have been.

A large South Asianist literature now details a range of formally organized aspirational projects: social recognition and political protest movements, mass religious conversion, identity activism, the work of NGOs. These projects are shaped by the ideology of human, citizen, and democratic rights, by the language of state and international law, by middle-class “hegemonic aspirations” (Fernandes & Heller 2006). But most people I grew close to in Rajasthan were not members of social or political movements, nor had they read the Indian constitution or public law, and they were only distantly acquainted with the language of NGOs and IGOs. Their hopes were, as all hopes are, tightly woven into the local fabric of social value—into the complex of assumptions that they had grown up with; ideas that organized their relations with friends, neighbors, and family, with leaders and gods; ideas that shaped how they judged one another; ideas through which they gave or withheld respect; ideas that framed their hopes and their disappointments. It is within these ideas—these systems of value—that any attainment or “good,” be it a rustled goat or a university degree, had to be embedded to have any meaning. These values found expression in a wide range of idioms, all of which were nonetheless grounded in some basic, widely shared principles. These were not explicit statements of ideological commitment or the “values” touted by politicians (“Hinduness,” “Dalitness,” “family values”), but tacit assumptions and intuitions by which people live. My Indian hosts and interlocutors had not traded their own visions of life for ones inscribed in the Indian constitution by its (anglophone) founding fathers, or for agendas of international organizations or NGOs, or for urban middle-class aspirations. They had not come to regard their own way of seeing and being in the world as an obstacle to living well. On the contrary, and unsurprisingly, it was their structure of hope.

And so, this book is about a lot of India. For, however vigorous the country’s social and political movements, however intense the discussions among its progressive intellectuals, the vast majority of people who live in India are not social reformers, political activists, “progressives,” or employees of NGOs. Despite the growth of Indian cities, most people—nearly 70 percent—still live in villages, where life still revolves around homes, fields, temples, families, market squares, and village platforms, not multiplex cinemas, Facebook accounts, or offices of NGOs. This life is one to which students of South Asian society have grown increasingly tone-deaf in recent decades, having tuned in to the India that is urban, mediated, activist, and middle-class.8 This is especially true of writings on aspiration, over which, if one is to judge by the academic literature, rich people and professional activists hold a near complete monopoly.

In the single most cited essay on aspiration in South Asia, Arjun Appadurai writes that “the capacity to aspire” is “a specific cultural capacity” (2004: 67), to which the rich have privileged access: while “the relatively rich and powerful invariably have a more fully developed capacity to aspire,” the poor have a “more brittle horizon of aspirations” (68–69). Their own culture offers the poor two options: “compliance [with] the norms and beliefs that support their own degradation,” or their rejection “by violent protest or total apathy” (69). The poor do have “a sense of irony, which allows them to maintain some dignity in the worst conditions of oppression and inequality” (65), but “the posture of ‘voice’” and “empowerment” can be gotten only from activists, who unlock the gates of hope with “keywords” of Euro-American development, such as “plans,” “commitments,” or “precedent setting” (77–78). His example is an internationally funded, Mumbai-based NGO, which actively “cultivates the capacity to aspire among its members” (73). Condescension is as loud here as it is among the do-gooders in Rajasthan, whom Ramesh so resents: the Mumbai NGO “cultivates voice among the poor,” it “allows the poor to discuss and debate,” and through it “these poor families were enabled to see” (83, 77). “Every effort should be made,” concludes Appadurai, “to encourage exercises in local teaching and learning which increases the ability of poor people to navigate the cultural map in which aspirations are located and to cultivate an explicit understanding of the links between specific wants or goals” (83). For without such instructions, “the poor” remain, quite literally, hopeless.

Few put the point quite so bluntly as that. But the aspirations that poor nonactivists are allowed in academic analysis are often attenuated at best. Jonathan Anjaria, for example, writes that the aspirations of hawkers in Mumbai “are humble, and relate more to the realities of everyday experience on the street than to a larger transformative political agenda” (2012: 70). Veena Das (2007) insists that Indian poor people’s hopes are smothered by “skepticism”; while Bhrigupati Singh altogether wonders: “Is aspiration necessarily ‘good’?” (2015: 116). The question only makes sense if we see “aspiration” as a narrow set of class-specific desires, the technical sense often ascribed to the word in current South Asianist writings.9 But surely it is no bad thing to hope for a better life, the ordinary-language sense of “aspire”? Surely, all humans can hope and strive for better lives. Ramesh was certainly skeptical (like most human beings, he had reservations and doubts, and he was not easily convinced), and he commanded a wicked sense of irony, but there was nothing humble or brittle about his hopes.

Depictions of hopeless, suffering subjects that are so common in current anthropology (Robbins 2013a) echo the discourse of misery promulgated by NGOs, reflecting less the reality of people’s lives than the growing reliance of anthropologists on professional activists, who often act as gatekeepers, especially in harsh research locations (poor villages, urban slums). The force field of NGOs is indeed difficult to escape.10 NGO workers welcome the newly arrived anthropologist and offer contacts, research assistance, educated company, perhaps even a motorcycle, and lodgings that may be the only place around with running water and a mattress on the bed. Every time I have set out on research in a village or a slum, I encountered NGO hospitality and have had to work hard to escape its lure.

The norms I describe in this book are not confined to the conservative, old-fashioned backwaters of India, a common stereotype of Rajasthan. While Rajasthan’s image as the bastion of feudal traditionalism is touted by the tourist industry, the state is much more unremarkable than that, historically, culturally, and politically. In fact, it is in many respects as typical as any region in India can be of the whole. It was never a stronghold of royal anticolonialism: the kings of Rajputana, as Rajasthan was called during the Raj, collaborated readily with the British (a glimpse of this history appears in chapter 3), with whom they never entered into armed conflict, unlike royals in other parts of India. Nor was it a bastion of anti-Independence: several of its kingdoms, including Mewar, were among the first to join the Indian union, with only one (Jodhpur) refusing to accede (again, typical of the country at large). Nor was Rajasthan ever a still pond of docile feudalism. As I discuss in chapter 3, it was the site of one of the biggest pre-Independence peasant uprisings, and today it has enough Dalit activism, NGOs, and women’s and tribal assertion movements to dispel the image of conservative premodernity (e.g., Hardiman 1987; Unnithan-Kumar 1997; Weisgrau 1997; Moody 2015; B. Singh 2015). Unlike Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Bengal, or Kerala, Rajasthan has never been ruled by a regional party. Notwithstanding the stereotype, it is difficult to find anything in Rajasthan’s social and political history, or its current life, that makes it at all peculiar.

The idea of state-sponsored “social uplift” through reservations in education or state employment was foreign not only to Kanjars, but also to many other lower-caste, lower-class people. This was in part because in Rajasthan (as in many other Indian states) belonging to a Scheduled Caste has little practical value.11 For Kanjars specifically, formal education and government employment were part of the outside world, which they rejected. While living with Kanjars, I bumped into the category of “reservations” (ārakṣaṇ), to which Scheduled Castes are entitled, but once, when I met the only Kanjar in southern Rajasthan with a university degree.12 Prem-ji had gone to school and then to university, where he was a star student, on government scholarships for Scheduled Castes. He then got a master’s degree in law, moved to a nearby market town, and set up a small legal practice in the session court. Before I met him, I had thought that here was, finally, a case of drastic social mobility. But I was wrong. Premji’s one-floor, unplastered house was on the edge of a slum on the town’s outer periphery. He had an education that most villagers, not only Kanjars, could only dream of, and he had a “middle-class job.” But he was still a Kanjar, and the very neighbors who would advocate “Kanjar uplift” kept well away from him and his family. Worse still, he had also become a pariah among Kanjars, who saw his life as a betrayal. They turned him out, threatening him whenever he came to visit his natal village. Eventually, his father asked him to stop visiting him at all, as the neighbors would beat him up after each one of Prem-ji’s visits. A mild-mannered, taciturn, and sharply intelligent man, Prem-ji was socially isolated, and miserable. He could not visit his father, and his wife was threatening him with divorce. He was also terrified for his two young daughters’ futures. How will they ever get married? Where will they live? Reservations, education, and a respectable job had landed him in a social void. Without valued relations, state uplift was not only meaningless, it spelled social doom.

In Pursuit of Hierarchy

Talk of “social uplift,” ubiquitous in India’s activist and middle-class circles, is echoed in the social scientists’ narrative of “social mobility,” a progressive movement toward a set of presumptive aims that can be rendered statistically: more years of education, better hygiene, more gender equality, lower dowries, fewer child marriages.13 Social scientists have long imagined mobility as a process of emulating one’s superiors in an attempt to become their equals, or to gain an equal footing on the rungs of the “social ladder” (see Bourdieu 1984 [1979]: 125). In India’s sociology, this idea was most famously formulated by M. N. Srinivas, who argued that lower castes pursued higher status by imitating the Brahmans’ high Hindu (Sanskritic) lifestyle (their dietary and sartorial codes, marital and ritual practices, education, manners) in a process he called “Sanskritization” (1952a; 1956). The idea was that one could rise socially by imitating or becoming in significant respects equivalent to one’s social superiors.

There is little evidence that anyone has ever actually managed to get themselves mistaken for Brahmans. The accumulation of attributes of the dominant in itself had little effect. And Srinivas himself knew as much, remarking that the adoption of Sanskritic practices was actually the outcome of social mobility rather than its cause, something that people did only once they had already attained higher status by other means (1956; 1959). And yet the trope of emulation, or the pursuit of equivalence, has persisted in studies of social mobility, whether these are now conducted in terms of caste, modernization, or class. It runs through studies of Adivasi (tribal) and Dalit (former untouchable) movements. These studies reject Srinivas’s acceptance of hierarchy as a system that the undercastes did not reject as such, in favor of a full-fledged egalitarianism as the necessary foundation of claims to freedom, dignity, and respect. If Srinivas had the lower castes clambering up the caste ladder, the new generation of social scientists have them tearing it down in pursuit of universal equality.14

But Ramesh had no interest in equality. He did not want to be like anyone else, upper-caste or caste mate. His heroes, to the extent that he had them at all, were Bollywood baddies. Otherwise, he was violently opposed to being treated on an equal footing with anyone. He did not, for instance, want the police to treat him as they treat others. There was no talk of human or citizen rights; instead, he wanted special treatment: for officers to take fair cuts of his profit and leave him to burgle in peace. He wanted to be above others, not like them: to command respect and the recognition of a grander, more powerful man. He wanted to be a “boss,” a “don,” a “danger man” (some of the few words he knew in English), with a bigger gang, a larger house, more parties, more money for entertaining more guests. As he often said, I want to have many men eating from my hand.

His vision of a good life relied on social attachments, which were, as he saw it, fundamental to honor and respect (ijjat). Where Old Shambhu lamented that Kanjars were nobody’s people, Ramesh turned this around and often repeated proudly that Kanjars were nobody’s slaves [kisī ke gulām nahĩ hai]. If slavery was dire compulsion, rightful service (sevā) to a patron was, on the contrary, an intensely desirable state. Ramesh did not only wish to be a big man with his own underlings. He also wanted to have big men (or big women) he could attach himself to, people who would protect and provide for him. And so he was always on the lookout for patrons: among landlords, policemen, and rich townsfolk. He even tried to find one in me. This was a search not only for employment, but also for lasting relations, bonds. Ramesh was not alone in his preoccupation with patronage. Talk of patrons was everywhere. People of all classes and castes spoke incessantly about patrons they had, patrons they lost, and patrons whose favor they yet hoped to win; they spoke of political and divine patrons, excellent and failed patrons, and they boasted about their own clienteles. Caste, village, and family histories were punctuated with accounts of patronage. While local elites showed off the fields and houses that their families had been granted by royal patrons, Kanjars blamed their social misfortune on the dissipation of patronal bonds. Patronage was the basic measure of status and respectability, of social worth. Its idealized form framed expressions of social hope and its failures in actual life were the source of bitter disappointment.

The language of patronage is hierarchical. It is ontologically and normatively nonequal, taking asymmetry to be the basis of social life, and also a social good. Patronal relations, normatively imagined, even if infrequently instantiated in their ideal form, encompass the hierarchical values of asymmetry, attachment, and care, which are central to local valuations of social life. These hierarchical values, which earlier generations of anthropologists have written so much about, have not faded from people’s imaginations. They are, on the contrary, everywhere: in the language and choreography of deference, in talk of “big/small [baṛe/chhoṭe]” people, and a rich lexicon of honorifics, master-servanthood (not slavery) and patron-clienthood. These norms clash with the liberal values of equivalence and personal autonomy, but locally they are seen not as an obstacle to social ambition, but on the contrary as its chief cultural resource. Like other normative ideas, the hierarchical ideal is all too often betrayed. Then people do complain bitterly about disparities of wealth and power as inequities—they complain about inequality. They complain about it, however, not as a corruption of egalitarian norm, but, on the contrary, as the collapse of hierarchy: of virtuous social asymmetry.

Hierarchical value is not all there is—no value is—and egalitarian ideas are and have long been in circulation. The language of rights, citizenship, and brotherhood is certainly part of the vernacular political lexicon (e.g., Béteille 1986; Hansen 2001: 72–73; Kohli 2001). And various horizontal communities organized, at least notionally, through one or another kind of equivalence (caste associations united by a shared political purpose, caste conglomerates united by occupational identity [such as Chamars or Yadavs], or Naxalite and Hindu nationalist organizations united by a common ideology) are now undoubtedly prominent features of the Indian political landscape.15 However, demands for recognition, the staking of claims, and contests over state benefits are still most often framed in hierarchical—not egalitarian—terms, through appeals to communal distinctiveness (being most backward, downtrodden, poor, a Dalit) and special entitlements (including reservations as part of the positive discrimination policy), not equal human or citizen rights. This has been as true of the transgender (Hijra) protests as of various instances of Dalit claim-making and the Gujar-Meena clashes in Rajasthan. While Dalit intellectuals have been advocating egalitarianism since the early twentieth century (Rawat 2011), today when Scheduled Castes or Dalits make demands on the state, they tend to do so through hierarchical principles, through appeals to the state as a generous patron, a sort of big man writ large (e.g., Subrahmanian 2009; Witsoe 2013). This fact has not been lost on India’s political thinkers, from Ambedkar to Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who have lamented the fact that the Indian masses, good though they are at staking claims, fail to do so through egalitarian principles (Mehta 2011).16 Other commentators have allowed the possibility that India’s vertical, patronal politics may contain redistributive, perhaps even democratizing, possibilities (Chatterjee 1998; 2004; Jaffrelot 2007; Breeding 2011), but they refuse to see this as the citizens’ own normative preference, as anything other than deviation from the egalitarian order of state law. The urban poor, writes Partha Chatterjee, engage “strategically” in patronal politics because their “habitation or livelihood lies on the other side of legality” (2004: 56).

But for most of my interlocutors, the language of equality (and citizenship and rights) was a distant echo whose normative appeal was far from obvious, or about whose value they were deeply ambivalent.17 To Ramesh, the very word “equality” (barābarī or sammantā) rang foreign. He said he had only heard it used when he visited Gujarat some time before, among shopkeepers who would say barābar (“even”) when they struck a deal. My attempts to discuss notions of citizenship, or human or Dalit rights, usually met with confusion or uninterest, or I was simply told that these things have no meaning [is chījõ mẽ koi matalab nahĩ hai].18 They were things politicians and NGO wallahs talked about on TV or at rallies, things that bureaucrats said when they were being purposefully abstruse. This was “government talk [sarakārī bolī],” official waffle that bore, as far as they were concerned, little relation to their lives.

It was only grudgingly that I realized the centrality of hierarchical values to my hosts’ life, and it took me years to acknowledge that I could not write an honest ethnography unless I came to terms with hierarchy as a value, a norm. For neither descriptions of caste hierarchy as a system of purity and pollution nor the equation of hierarchy with inequality captured what hierarchical values meant for the people I lived with, or why they saw in hierarchy a social good. My realization was grudging not least because I was raised in the Soviet Union by devoutly egalitarian Marxists, not least because I had been warned by my seniors that, for a young South Asianist, hierarchical values were the kiss of death: the very word stank of the bad old days of frigid structuralism, essentialism, elitism, imperialism, generalization, patrimonialism, and Louis Dumont (India’s chief theorist of hierarchy, now banished by scholars of South Asia as the poster child of all these sins). I have since experienced the prudence of my colleagues’ warning: time and again my attempts to discuss the value that my hosts see in hierarchy have filled seminar rooms with disapproval thick enough to cut with a knife. What was I up to, politically and morally? Or, as one reviewer put it, the endeavor “reeks of imperial and Brahmanical paternalism,” and is “ethically and politically unfit for print.”

These experiences only convinced me of the need to think with—not against—hierarchical value. For moral anxiety creates intellectual blind spots, and the blind spot that now surrounds hierarchy in the study of India is as conspicuous as it is vast. No one disagrees that in India, however strong the winds of Euro-American modernity, whatever new values are now in circulation, however spirited its democracy, hierarchy remains an important social norm. And yet no theoretical discussion now surrounds hierarchy, no debate on what it actually means to the country’s people, why it persists, what makes it legitimate or even desirable for all kinds of people, including those “down below.” The only thing that one can acceptably do with hierarchy nowadays is denounce it as inequality.

But for my hosts, inequality and hierarchy stood poles apart. They were not pining for inequality, with which hierarchy is so often confused. Nor did they wish to have less, be thought of as less, or be treated as “low [nīch]” people, a derogatory state. Nor did they lust after being exploited by the powerful and the rich, and none of my friends in Rajasthan, including the Kanjars, took abuse lying down. The pages of this book are full of insubordination, contestation, and even violent retaliation against failed or abusive patrons. Yet their solutions to the problems of their lives were often not egalitarian. They did not see equality as the necessary condition of dignity, justice, and flourishing, of social respect and the freedom to better their lives. They took it as given that people were born and raised to different wealth, status, and power. But they did not see these disparities as a problem in principle. In themselves, disparities were neither good nor bad—what made them good or bad was the use they were put to in relations with others. The crucial consideration was whether those with more did more for others, whether they honored their privilege by assuming responsibility for those with less. The more wealth a patron had, the better: as wealthy as possible, but only on this condition. The alignment of social standing with social responsibility is, as I shall be showing throughout this book, the crux of hierarchical value.

If in egalitarian judgment, inequality is itself a social ill—an iniquity—and the cure lies in its eradication; in hierarchical judgment, inequality is a problem only when it does not entail obligation, and the solution lies in getting those with more to give and do more for others. Wealth, power, and status are worthless—or, more to the point, wrong—when unencumbered by responsibility. A rich or a powerful or an elevated person is magnificent if they are caring and generous, and despicable if cruel and miserly. When my friends complained about a wealthy landholder, it was not because they compared his fortunes to theirs and begrudged him his wealth, but because they accused him of failing to share with them, to look after them in a way incumbent on him as their superior. The problem, for them, was social rather than arithmetical, a failure of obligation rather than of equivalence. Justice did not lie in commensuration or the comparison of self to others, and the sense of injustice was less of envy than disappointment. The solution lay not in the zero-sum logic of distributive justice, but in the cultivation of relational attitudes—loyalty, generosity, care—attitudes that make up a good, mutually beholden life.

Anger at inequality, envy, and the corollary anxieties about the “evil eye [najar]” were of course everywhere. As were property disputes and accusations of hoarding. But the cleavages of envy, najar, and litigation fell precisely either where relations were not hierarchical in the first place, or where hierarchy fell apart. Rivalry is fierce among Kanjar families, which, as we shall see, are not arranged hierarchically, just as it was among the ambiguously ranked Patidars in Gujarat described by Pocock (1973) or the brotherhoods in northern Rajasthan described by Gupta (1997). It also arose when former or would-be patrons failed in their duties to their subordinates to such an extent as to remove all expectations and hope, which is to say, when the spirit of hierarchy collapsed. It was then that people would start to compare and complain that others had more (more money, more jobs, more political connections or whatnot); they started thinking commensuratively, through imagined equivalences, and the problem was diagnosed as inequality rather than irresponsibility, as a failure of equality instead of a failure of relations. Such egalitarian verdicts, however—complaints about inequality as the corruption of ideal equality—were not assertions of moral order, but, conversely, statements of moral mayhem: they signaled the collapse of responsible social life.

Hierarchy versus Inequality, or Thinking with and against Dumont

This book is about this inegalitarian normative ethos grounded in mutual obligations and care rather than in the justice of equivalence. It is about considerations of responsibility structured by difference rather than of commensuration. It is, in other words, about hierarchy.

The elision of “hierarchy” with “inequality,” their treatment as synonyms, which is now so common in the social sciences, makes it impossible to discuss, or even perceive, inegalitarian norms. The word “hierarchy” is an imperfect gloss for these norms (see p. 16), but the contrast between hierarchy and inequality creates a space where these norms can be thinkable in their own terms, or indeed at all. For talk of all social asymmetry as “inequality” mistreats hierarchical value for egalitarian vice, mistaking an ethic of responsibility for an irresponsible social outcome. But as Talcott Parsons remarked long ago (1970), pronouncements of “inequality” are of course value judgments—there can only be racial inequality among people who place value in color of skin or wealth inequality among people who value wealth. By taking “inequality” to be a self-evident fact rather than a value judgment, analysts mistake ideas about social positioning for a visible, palpable arrangement of rank, an order of “stratification,” a social “pyramid.” They mistake, in Saussure’s terms, langue for parole (Saussure 2011 [1916]): the structuring principles of a system for their myriad enacted manifestations.19

Insofar as I am trying to understand the langue, or social life’s orienting principles, which I see as the only way to make social life legible, I am with Dumont. I am not with Dumont the South Asianist, with whom I share neither the vision of Indian caste hierarchy, nor the contrast between “traditional India” and the “modern West,” nor yet the contrast between hierarchy and individualism, which I shall argue go together rather well. But I am with Dumont as a social theorist who insisted that to study social life is to study the values through which people appraise, judge, and act. I am also with him because he remains the anthropologist who mounted the most sustained conceptual critique of what he termed “Western ideology,” or what we would nowadays call “liberalism,” a critique he mounted over the course of his entire career in a quartet of books: Homo Hierarchicus (1966; 1980), Homo Aequalis (1977), Essays on Individualism (1986), and German Ideology (1991), only the first of which is usually familiar to scholars of South Asia, who in rejecting Dumont, and with him excising hierarchy from their analytical vocabularies, have thrown the baby of his work on value out with the bathwater of his theory of caste. This is a pity, not least because hierarchy persists as an important feature of Indian social imaginations. Not least because the baby, rescued and raised by anthropologists of other parts of the world, has inspired some of the most exciting current anthropological work—on morality and religious conversion, nationalism and democracy, globalization and cultural change, gender and sexuality, labor relations and the politics of European academe.20

I am also with Dumont because I share in his three convictions about the nature of social life, and its analysis. First, that humans are essentially judgmental creatures. Our evaluative judgments are not additional to the way we perceive the world, but are intrinsic to our perceptions. We can perceive the act of pouring oil onto a flame as a libation only if we are aware of the ritual value of the event. If we perceive it through commercial value, the very same act will appear as the disposal of costly foodstuff. Just as we cannot understand utterances in a language without understanding the meaning of words and its grammar, we cannot understand how people act without understanding the values that motivate and constrain how they act.

His second conviction was that hierarchy is basic to all purposeful action. “Man does not only think, he acts,” wrote Dumont, “he has not only ideas, but values” (1980: 20). And “wherever there is value, there is hierarchy” (1981: 21), which is to say that whenever we appraise and judge, we give precedence to one idea over another, creating a hierarchy of mental objects. Hierarchy is, in other words, basic to how people judge, decide, and, insofar as they act at all purposefully, act. And it can be a powerful engine of change. While in his writings on South Asia Dumont often painted normatively stable pictures, his broader comparative project was about historical change: namely, the rise of cultural liberalism in modern Euro-America (see especially Dumont 1976; on this see Ortner 1984; Duarte 2017: 652). Several anthropologists have thought with him about large-scale change as a consequence of shifts in structures of value.21 In this book I am attempting something different: to think about the microdynamics of change as an outcome of actions motivated and shaped not by a shift in values, but by already existing, and sometimes intensely persistent, values that orient ways in which people try to change in their lives.

Dumont’s third conviction is that social analysis must be dialectical, a dialogue between values espoused by the analyst and ones that she is attempting to understand. This is why Dumont opens his opus on India, Homo Hierarchicus, with a quote from Tocqueville on the United States; this is why he spent the last three decades of his life writing about Europe. The contrast between self and other, which Dumont often invoked, and for which he paid dearly as social scientists wrote off analysis of cultural differences as “othering,” was heuristic, a way of making sense both of the object of one’s analysis and of oneself. The sense of analysis as a dialogue with the people you are trying to understand, and the normative humility that it requires—not the sanctimonies of “reflexivity” or “positionality”—is central to Dumont’s work.

The trouble with Dumont’s comparison of India and the West is that while insisting on hierarchy as a structure of value fundamental to social life, he thought that hierarchy as a structure of social relations had been displaced in “the modern West” by egalo-individualist norms. But in Euro-America hierarchical relations—whether between parents and children, teachers and students, bosses and workers, or doctors and patients—are in fact deeply valued, even as we often deny the fact (Haynes & Hickel 2016; Angle 2017). The contrast, I suggest, is not between two fundamentally opposed systems of value. Rather, it is between the hierarchical norms that are as central to life in Euro-America as they are to life in India, on the one hand, and the egalitarian normative doctrine that now dominates metropolitan imagination, on the other, making it hard to recognize the presence and power of hierarchy in our own lives.22 I hope that the readers of this book will glean something not only about rural Rajasthan, but also about their own lives, wherever these may be. Seeing this will demand of many readers the moral effort of suspending their egalitarian loyalties in the hope that, should they be willing to spare the effort, they will find its fruits intellectually rewarding, and fun.


1. The 2011 Census of India ( registered 206,467 people who self-identified as Kanjars in the north Indian states of Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, and West Bengal. Kanjars also live in Pakistan and Bangladesh, but most reside in Uttar Pradesh (115,968), Madhya Pradesh (18,216), and Rajasthan (53,816).

2. See Dumont (1957), Dirks (1987), and Pandian (2013).

3. In the later days of the Raj, all kinds of other (nonrobber) nomadic communities were criminalized under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 (Nigam 1990a; 1990b; Radhakrishna 1989; 2001; Singha 1998), but originally Criminal Tribe legislation was aimed at the robber castes as pivotal players in local politics (Piliavsky 2013b).

4. Kanjars are frequently murdered by furious neighbors. In the two decades since the Mandawari pogrom, twenty have been killed in the Begun administrative block alone.

5. This is true right across South Asia, where “vagrants” (as opposed to nomads) like Kanjars, Sansis, or Kallars (see chapter 4) are much more drastically marginalized than the ritually “polluted” peoples.

6. Mandawari is divided into three sections that house two extended families from a single patriclan (got). In 2008, there were 50 households and 170 people living there (see map 0.1). Most Kanjars in Mandawari have fields of their own, and some even hire laborers for their cultivation, although in 2008 most of their income still came from the sale of country liquor, cattle rustling, and burglary.

7. Most Kanjars speak the local Mewari and their own Kanjari languages. I spoke Hindi at the start of my research and later learned Mewari and Kanjari.

8. Villages have become such unpopular research locations that a recent Companion to the Anthropology of India (Clark-Decès 2011) does not include a single chapter that focuses on village affairs or is even based on research substantially conducted in rural areas. There are, of course, exceptions: D. Mines (2005), Berger (2015), Gold (2017), Vitebsky (2017), Sbriccoli (2016), Tilche and Simpson (2017).

9. Here “aspiration” is routinely treated as the exclusive preserve of the educated middle class: as in, “Millions of Indian voters are no longer poor and illiterate but middle class and aspirational” (Indian Express, 16 June 2019).

10. Even anthropologists intent on studying nonactivist matters, usually end up in NGOs. Take B. Singh (2015) who, while researching a tribal community’s relations with its neighbors and gods, lived in the office of an NGO (to which he dedicated his book), not in the village, as he would almost certainly have done three decades back.

11. In Rajasthan, there are fifty-nine Scheduled Castes, which constitute the majority of the population, making reservations in education and public service accessible only to the most educated and well-off in their midst. The only social category that has any reservation value in Rajasthan is the category of the Schedule Tribe, of which there are only a dozen. This is why the Gujar protests in 2007 contested the privileges received by the Meena tribe, demanding for themselves tribal status. Despite the colonial label of “criminal tribe,” the Kanjars are listed as a “caste” in the current schedule of reservations.

12. Nor did Kanjars mobilize their social hopes through the category of “Dalit,” which is not a term Kanjars use to describe themselves and one that is only rarely in circulation in local everyday speech.

13. See Moodie’s (2015: 13–14) critique of this ladder-like conception of “social mobility.”

14. On this, see Megan Moodie’s helpful discussion (2015: 13–16). Naveeda Khan’s (2012) vision of social aspiration in Pakistan also amounts to the pursuit of equivalence: here everyone wants to be a good Muslim, she writes. This may well be true of Pakistan (although see A. Khan 2016; 2018), but in India no single identity or aspiration is the beacon of virtue.

15. However, they are only notionally horizontal, because often, on closer inspection, collectivities like the Yadav super-caste, and even “egalitarian” Naxalite formations, often turn out to be organized and recruited not through (egalitarian) appeals to shared ethnic or ideological attachments, but hierarchically: through patronal networks, via connections to patron-gods and leaders styled as lords or bosses (Michelutti 2008; Price & Ruud 2010; Berenschot 2012; Kamra & Chandra 2017).

16. It would be important to understand the interplay of egalitarian and hierarchical value in India’s social activism and political mobilization. But such an analysis is precluded by the analysts’ egalo-normative convictions (but see Hansen 2001; Michelutti 2008; Subrahmanian 2009; Roy 2016; 2018). For South Asia, there is nothing like James Ferguson’s (2013) or Jason Hickel’s (2015) work on the value of hierarchical attachments among the subaltern classes of Africa. No work discusses whether and to what extent the egalitarian ideology espoused by activists has actually transformed their everyday relations or broken down the hierarchical structuring of family, village, and neighborhood life. For a recent exception, see Evans (2019).

17. This was true of people I spent time with not only in rural Rajasthan, but also in rural Madhya Pradesh (Piliavsky & Sbriccoli 2016) and rural Uttar Pradesh, where I also conducted field research. This is despite Rajasthan being far from peculiarly immune to self-respect movements or upliftment schemes, which, in fact, abound in the state (e.g., Bhatia 2006; P. Bhargava 2007; Moodie 2015).

18. While fewer and fewer ethnographers now stray beyond the activist circuit, or indeed beyond cities (see note 8 on p. 175), this gulf of values is richly attested in ethnographies of village life from Tamil Nadu (Mines 2005) to Orissa (Berger 2015), Nagaland (Wouters 2015), Gujarat (Tilche & Simpson 2017), and Madhya Pradesh (Sbriccoli 2016). There are, of course, historical and regional variations. But the task for a sociologist is to grasp the theme on which these variations are played. By taking egalitarianism as the universal normative theme, we make ourselves tone deaf to much of India’s historical and social experience.

19. It is precisely because contemporary social scientists tend to mistake langue for parole that Dumont’s description of conceptual coherence in the Brahmanical vision of caste has been so often misconstrued as an account of social stasis, harmony, and consensus.

20. I am referring, respectively, to Robbins (1994; 2004) and Haynes (2017a; 2017b), Kapferer (2011), Ansell (2014), Robbins and Siikkala (2014), Barraud (2015), Ferguson (2013), Peacock (2016).

21. E.g., Robbins (2004; 2013b; 2015), Robbins and Siikala (2014), or Haynes (2017b).

22. Social scientists used to speak of “Eurocentrism,” a term that has tellingly fallen out of use since the turn of the millennium (see Google Ngram), as the privileging of European perceptions in the study of the wider world. By “metropolitan” I mean something more precise than that. I mean the treatment of a progressive, left-liberal ideology as the universal norm, which in so doing installs the normative apperception of a particular global class of university-educated commentators on society (whether they are employed in academia, development organizations, the media, or anywhere else) as the intellectual metropolis from which the entire world can be understood and judged. This discourse is neither confined to Europe (or Euro-America or “the West”), nor is it representative of how most people (Europeans or Euro-Americans or Westerners) think.