Subalternity, itinerant trade and criminality: an ethnographic study of members of the Kathiawad Vaghri

McNaughton, Darlene Ann (2003) Subalternity, itinerant trade and criminality: an ethnographic study of members of the Kathiawad Vaghri. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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This thesis is a study of the Kathiawad Vaghri, a depressed community of itinerant traders who hail from Gujarat and engage in various forms of trade all over India. It explores the history of the caste, examining their social marginalisation and ambiguity from the 1700s. As forest hunters and itinerant traders who maintained patron-client relationships with local Rajputs, worshipped goddesses and held origin myths connecting them to the Middle East, the Vaghri did not fit easily into the category of caste or tribe as these categories became more rigidly codified during the colonial era. At the same time, their ambiguous marginality is picked up by a regime that articulated a fantasy of occult criminality in the nineteenth century figure of the thugg. This resulted in the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA)(1871) through which the social marginalisation of the Vaghri was greatly extended and a stigma attached that persists into the present day.

The second section of the thesis considers the adaptive responses of the Vaghri to this history of alterity, stigma and persecution. It traces their departure from Gujarat in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the nature of their migration, their emergence as hawkers and petty traders on the streets of Mumbai and their continuing connections with their original villages in Gujarat. These new practices made control under the CTA more possible as the Vaghri are increasingly identified as petty thieves who use trade as a cover for theft. De-notification of the criminal tribes occurs in 1952. However, the stigma of criminality persists and is reproduced in the development agenda, which the Vaghri largely reject. Their response was to create a caste for themselves, the Vaghri Sarvodaya Samaj through which a new Vaghri identity was imagined through a partial internalisation of the colonial surveillance apparatus as a moralistic and welfare-oriented control apparatus that articulates the Vaghri with the national project.

The removal of the Act also sees the Vaghri return to forms of mobility and trade not seen since the beginning of the century, through which an earlier Vaghri pattern of itinerant trade with a fairly strong sense of community is reproduced. Trade in embroidered Gujarati textiles and antiques emerges in the 1970s as a response to the presence of a new and comparatively wealthy client base in the form of international tourists whom Vaghri call "the Hippies". Bolstered by the careful arrangement of marriages within the caste and the role of the Vaghri Samaj as a trade guild, extensive familial and caste-based trade networks continue to develop and by the 1980s an increasing number of families are moving into handicrafts and travelling to tourist centres throughout India. However, the perils and ambiguity of itinerant trade continue. This is explored through a case study of a small tourist centre in Kerala, dominated politically and economically by members of the Ezhava community—a depressed caste with a history of exp loitation and oppression who, unlike Vaghri, chose the affirmative action path. The thesis shows that social change in contemporary India continues to reflect the problems and difficulties of bureaucratic ‘capture’. The story of the Vaghri is one of struggle, prejudice and victimisation. It is also a story of adaptation and resilience that provides an ethnographic account of the history and contemporary practices of a depressed community.

Item ID: 17697
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Kathiawad Vaghri, Gujarat, Criminal Tribes Act, India, traders, itinerants, caste, marginalisation, depressed communities, adaptation, resilience, identity, social change, bureaucracy, criminality, colonial control
Sensitivity Note: This thesis contains contains descriptions, personal histories, photographs and other sensitive material.
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Restricted access - full thesis may be viewed in the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library at JCU, Townsville or contact the author directly. Images in this thesis must not be copied or reproduced without permission from author.

Date Deposited: 28 Nov 2011 23:18
FoR Codes: 16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1699 Other Studies in Human Society > 169903 Studies of Asian Society @ 50%
16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1601 Anthropology > 160104 Social and Cultural Anthropology @ 50%
SEO Codes: 97 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 970116 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of Human Society @ 100%
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