Casteing the net
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Melding historical and social network approaches, this dissertation explores the formation of caste identities and social relations between fishers and non-fishers in the Chilika Lake basin. For over a quarter of a century, the lake has been at the epicenter of the “Blue Revolution” in India and is a major source of exported prawns. Unfortunately, the introduction of prawn aquaculture has resulted in rising tensions between the lake’s fisher and non-fisher communities as the latter have abandoned agriculture and longstanding caste prohibitions to enter the fishery. This research investigates how the imposition of capitalist property rights under the colonial system of land revenue administration resulted in a strict division between rights to land and water that polarized the communities and solidified caste identities. At the same time, it reveals the historical undercurrents that spurred the non-fisher communities to embrace aquaculture as a means of reengaging with the lake’s “wastelands” – territories that, prior to the mposition of the Salt Monopoly, supported the local communities in the agricultural slack season. Using Social Network Analysis to explore friendship networks, this study questions whether the increasing similarity between fishers and non-fishers has resulted in a breakdown in social taboos and increased interaction at the individual level. These findings suggest that although caste is socially and historically constructed on the one hand, and subject to political, economic and modernizing pressures on the other hand, it primarily functions as a social network that continues to structure people’s social relations and access to resources. While this dissertation argues that the historical approach is a necessary and long overdue corrective to the ahistorical and Orientalist writings on India that have depicted caste as a timeless and otherworldly phenomenon, it contends that this perspective has also diverted attention away from an exploration of how caste is actually lived today. By employing Social Network Analysis, this research proposes a new methodological and theoretical approach to the study of caste, one that lends itself to more grounded, political, and dynamic analyses that may be replicated throughout South Asia.