Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 24, June 2010
Assa Doron

Caste, Occupation and Politics
on the Ganges:

Passages of Resistance

Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2008
ISBN 978-0-7550-1 (hbk); xiv + 198 pp.

reviewed by Jenny Huberman

  1. The riverfront of Banaras, located in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and in one of India's most ancient cities, has figured prominently in popular and scholarly representations of India. In his recent ethnography, Caste, Occupation and Politics on the Ganges: Passages of Resistance, anthropologist Assa Doron provides a fresh and fascinating analysis of this iconic site by focusing on the boatmen who work along its banks, ferrying pilgrims and tourists. Drawing upon almost twelve months of fieldwork conducted between 2001 and 2003, and supplementary trips made in 2004 and 2006, Doron explores the various forms of 'domination' and 'resistance' that animate 'the everyday lives and struggles' of this lower-class and lower-caste, 'subaltern' community. In so doing, Doron not only provides a highly informative account of the boatmen of Banaras, he also makes important contributions to the scholarly literature on resistance and agency. What his analysis so forcefully demonstrates is that 'the subaltern' can and do speak in manifold ways, even as they are subject to multiple forms of oppression and domination.
  2. As Doron establishes in his study, the modes of domination confronting the boatmen of Banaras must first be understood historically. In the first chapter, entitled, 'The Criminal Type: Domesticating the Ganges Boatmen,' Doron shows how the boatmen of Banaras were subject to new forms of domination through their encounter with the British colonial administration. Classified as a potentially dangerous 'criminal caste,' under colonial rule, he notes 'the boatmen were registered, enumerated, and licensed, and had strict limitations imposed on their occupation and movement' (p. 46).
  3. While allusions to their criminal status have waned in the postcolonial context Doron contends that the boatmen's encounter with the postcolonial state remains 'contentious.' In chapter two entitled, '"Step-sons of the State": Marginalization and the Struggle for Recognition,' he shows how state policies and development programs have contributed to the 'progressive marginalization' of the boatmen community. One of the ways they have done this is by prohibiting boatmen from pursuing activities they have traditionally relied upon to supplement their livelihoods, such as fishing, sandmining, and cultivating the riverbank opposite the city (p. 50). In responding to these threats, the boatmen deploy everyday 'weapons of the weak'[1] which range from covertly fishing at night, to defying restrictions on cultivation, to valorising their role as heroic and therefore deserving 'sons of the state.' But, they also pursue their political interests by working through the state apparatus and appropriating the logics, language and strategies of modern democratic citizenry. Doron chronicles numerous cases of court litigations, collective organising, pamphleteering, and even mass protests that have been used by boatmen to defend their interests. In so doing, he raises some insightful questions and observations about when and why subaltern groups shift from 'covert to overt forms of resistance' (p. 172).
  4. In addition to focusing on the state, Doron also examines how the boatmen of Banaras have been marginalised by dominant caste ideologies, by their unfavorable position within the overall class structure of Indian society, by outside market forces and capitalist ventures, and by their status as peripheral subjects within the world system. On each of these counts, he again examines the varied ways boatmen challenge and subvert these forces. For instance, while Brahminical orthodoxy positions boatmen as an 'impure' caste who occupy a very low position within the Hindu social and ritual hierarchy, in chapter four, Doron explores how the boatmen actively insert themselves into the ritual economy by manipulating 'pan-Hindu symbols and myths'(p. 124). In so doing, the boatmen 'defy Brahminical domination of the ritual sphere' and establish themselves as legitimate ritual specialists who perform a number of life-cycle rituals for pilgrims and residents of the city. At the same time, they also augment their earning capacity, for as Doron astutely notes, the ritual economy of Banaras is simultaneously a material economy which sustains and enhances the livelihoods of many. As such, it is to be understood not only as a site of ideological struggle, but also as a sphere of economic competition where access to symbolic resources frequently translate into financial gains (p. 116).
  5. While competition for resources is an inescapable part of the boatmen's everyday lives, Doron makes it very clear that the boatmen of Banaras are not operating in accordance with 'a market economy based on free competition' (p. 87). In an excellent chapter on the 'Moral Economy of Boating,' Doron also examines the way boatmen rely upon a riverfront-wide, organised work system that is geared towards alleviating internal competition. The moral economy of the boatmen is premised upon the idea that all boatmen on the riverfront have 'a right' hak to earn a living. Doron explores the customary laws that underpin this work system and prevent 'the wealthier' and more 'powerful boatmen from transgressing their boundaries' in an effort to maximise profits (p. 87). As Doron rightly notes, this does not always ensure harmonious work relations among the boatmen on the riverfront. Indeed one of the strengths of this chapter is that Doron is keenly attuned to the internal struggles and clashes that permeate this community. As such, he avoids romanticising the boatmen as disinterested pre-capitalist subjects and reminds us that within 'subaltern' communities, contests for power and privilege are a part of everyday life.
  6. Finally, in his chapter, 'The Romance of Banaras: Boatmen, Pilgrims and Tourists,' Doron explores how the boatmen 'mediate and broker Banaras and the riverscape for visitors to the city' (p. 140). He examines the various strategies and tactics boatmen have developed in their attempts to profit from these guests. When it comes to their dealings with pilgrims, the boatmen often present themselves as protective leaders, charged with guiding their passengers safely through the sacred sites and hazards of the city's riverscape. Or, they may 'strategically' assume a position of subordination and appeal to these pilgrims as benefactors who are obliged to generously compensate the boatmen for their ritual services (p. 147). Doron also explores how the boatmen have been able to 'translate and adapt' such skills to the context of international tourism. Although encounters with 'First World' foreign tourists are framed by 'uneven power relations,' Doron concludes that this 'does not necessarily entail the subordination and passivity' of the boatmen (p. 164). He explores how the boatmen creatively appropriate and manipulate tourist discourses and desires to pursue their own ends.
  7. The strengths and contributions of Doron's study are numerable. First, it is carefully and comprehensively researched. Doron's data draws from historical archives, legal briefs and contemporary court battles, Hindu myths and rituals, and from his everyday interactions and observations among the boatmen. Second, while Doron's book is certainly accessible to a general reader with an interest in South Asia or Anthropology, it is also theoretically nuanced and could serve as a valuable resource in more specialised courses such as Political Anthropology, Economic Anthropology or even a course on Modernity in South Asia. Third, in exploring the lives of the boatmen, Doron's analysis takes account of both micro and macro-level forces. In so doing, the reader not only comes away with a detailed understanding of the local sociology of the riverfront, but she also comes to see the boatmen actively negotiating their way through a larger set of social and economic transformations in contemporary India. The boatmen Doron describes are savvy and creative subjects who have learned how to manipulate multiple registers of value and multiple modes of resistance in their efforts to protect and secure their livelihoods.
  8. However, while Doron does an outstanding job of detailing the everyday politics and struggles that animate the lives of the boatmen, I feel his analysis could have benefited from paying closer attention to two related topics both of which, as Doron himself notes, have been written about by other anthropologists working in Banaras. These include gender and leisure.[2] What is perhaps, paradoxical about this study, is that the reader ultimately comes away with little sense of what it means to be a boat MAN. While Doron acknowledges that boating is a 'gendered occupation,' and concedes that 'issues surrounding masculinity, the body and consumption' may have relevance to the study of boatmen's lives, he more or less bypasses these issues to focus on 'specific aspects of the boatmen's lives—their work—and the relationship between occupation and identity' (p. 17).
  9. For the boatmen of Banaras, however, the riverfront is much more than just a place to work, and the identities they construct and express there go beyond caste and occupation. The riverfront also provides boatmen with a place for resting and sleeping, swimming and exercising, gambling and drinking, and sometimes, even late-night feasting. It is where one goes to be with friends and escape the confines and pressures of home. It is also where one frequently encounters feuds and enemies. To be a boatman on the riverfront of Banaras, not only involves learning the rules of the informal work system that Doron describes in such fascinating detail. But is also involves learning more subtle ways of asserting and comporting one's self among fellow men.
  10. Like Doron, all scholars are ultimately charged with establishing the parameters of their studies and deciding what is central and what is peripheral to the questions they have posed. However, considering Doron's objectives in this book, and more specifically, his concern with questions of agency, empowerment, identity and the poetics of space, I feel Doron could have enhanced his analysis by paying closer attention to these issues. Having said that, in the final analysis, this book demonstrates excellent scholarship and it will be a text that has wide appeal for anthropologists and scholars of South Asia.


    [1] James Scott, Weapons of the Weak, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

    [2] See for example: S.J. Alter, The Wrestler's Body: Identity and Ideology in North India, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992; S. Dernè, Culture in Action: Family Life, Emotion and Male Dominance in Banaras, India, New York: SUNY Press, 1995; and Nita Kumar, The Artisans of Banaras: Popular Culture and Identity: 1880–1986, New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1988.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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