Tribal Margins: Dalit Belonging and State Recognition in the Western Himalayas
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Susan S. Wadley
Anthropology of affirmative action, Dalit studies, Himalayas, Indian multiculturalism, Spirituality, tribal studies
Social and Behavioral Sciences
Tribal Margins analyzes the project of tribal fashioning in the Western Himalayas against the backdrop of affirmative action politics. Specifically, it unpacks the discursive loop between government-administered ethnological paradigms for positive discrimination and its effects on ethnic belonging and spirituality.
These dynamics are located among the Gaddis of Himachal Pradesh, a heterogeneous tribal/Dalit community traditionally associated with transhumant pastoralism on both sides of the Dhauladhar Mountains. The 2002 awarding of Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to only high-caste Kangra Gaddis has instigated a range of tribalizing strategies from Dalit groups who identity as Gaddi and are partially assimilated into tribal life. These low-status groups demand tribal recognition as both a form of social justice in the face of longstanding social discriminations and as a pragmatic strategy for state support amid the growing tide of neoliberalism. They rightly contend that the demographics of Himachal Pradesh (with the second-highest Dalit population in India) cause fierce competitiveness within the Scheduled Caste quota – about four times as competitive as the Scheduled Tribe quota. Many have mobilized under the trending discourse of Scheduled Tribe Dalit (STD) and fused indigenous ethnic associations with the pan-Himalayan struggle for double SC/ST status.
The analysis of marginalized social formations in the tribal margins fundamentally reconceptualizes how political subject formation trickles into social life. The introduction of self-identifying Gaddi Dalits, largely sedentary laborers and former landless tenants, into the transhumant tribe disrupts the colonial literature on Gaddis. It further unsettles assumptions of tribal egalitarianism and complicates how South Asian sociology theorizes the discrete borders of tribal and caste organization. Understanding the intersectional identity of Gaddi Dalits speaks to the broader issue of tribal casteism and the double marginalization of low-status groups who remain misrecognized by the state and discriminated against in their everyday lives. In short, it imagines new trajectories of ethnic belonging and social justice for Himalayan Dalits.
Each chapter attends to these trajectories within the lived experiences of Gaddi Dalits, specifically Halis (former landless tenants) and Sippis (wool-workers and shamans). The experience of fractured caste consciousness has led to ongoing legal woes due to their juridical liminality. These dynamics shape how Gaddi Dalits experience divinities, exorcism and witchcraft. Individual chapters trace forms of spirituality, religious conversion and ritual practice that provide powerful personal arenas for the re-articulation of ethnic identity and the burgeoning emergence of tribal multiculturalism. The presence of Tibetan refugees in Gaddi villages around Dharamsala has injected contestatory forms of sociality, modern aspiration and cosmopolitan competencies into tribal performance.
Johnson, Steven Christopher, "Tribal Margins: Dalit Belonging and State Recognition in the Western Himalayas" (2018). Dissertations - ALL. 923.