The Hindu Jajmani System

Anastasia Piliavsky [King's College, Cambridge], India's demotic democracy and its 'depravities' in the ethnographic longue durée, Chapter 6 of Anastasia Piliavsky, Ed., Patronage as Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, CUP, 2014, pp.154–175.

(156) The normative form I call 'patronage' is not confined to political and economic life but shapes relations on a much broader temporal and social scale. To give a sense of this scale, I cast my ethnographic snapshots in the ethnographic longue durée, drawing on the largest archive of cumulative anthropological wisdom about patronage in South Asia. This archive is the body of jajmani studies, which has long been confined to the dustbin of South Asianists' research themes, but which still hold lessons of vital substance for anyone who attempts to understand subcontinental politics today. I do not call on the jajmani archive in an antiquarian spirit, to rehabilitate vintage ethnography for its own sake. Nor do I argue that the same set of practical arrangements once observed by anthropologists in the villages are still replicated throughout South Asia (or that indeed they ever were). I invoke it instead to draw attention to some durable relational principles of north India's rural political life, whose import cannot be grasped without awareness of their historical and social reach.

Know Wiser?

In 1936 William Wiser, an American missionary and Chicago-trained anthropologist, described what he called 'the Hindu jajmani system' in a little book entitled just that. He wrote that in a north Indian village where he conducted research, castes (jatis) related to one another through formalised, durable and often inherited exchanges of services for payments and gifts:

The priest, bard, accountant, goldsmith, florist, vegetable grower and so on are served by all other castes. In turn each of these castes has a form of service to perform for the others. Each in turn is master. Each in turn is servant. Each has his own clientele comprising members of different castes which is his 'jajmani' (1936, 10).

/157/ In the days of positivist, village-bound ethnography Wiser's neat formulation had great appeal and an entire generation of anthropologists followed suit, proceeding to describe jajmani exchanges in villages across the subcontinent's length and breadth. Over the next 5 or so decades, what Wiser originally described as an order of rules and conventions was consolidated by anthropologists into a pan-Indian 'system' that bound villages into closed exchange communities.

[Note 5. For classic examples, see Kolenda (1967), Mandelbaum (1970, 161-162) and Dumont (1980, 98ff).]

At the height of the jajmani era (1960s-1970s) this system appeared as a rigid structure of transactions with a single 'dominant' patron family at its head: a 'system corresponding to the prestations and counter-prestations by which the castes as a whole are bound together in the village, and which is more or less universal in India' (Dumont 1980, 97). This 'system' took on 'a life of its own through the various simplifications and idealizations of innumerable textbooks and lecture courses' (Good 1982, 31). The reification of relational principles into a transactional system went hand in hand with the installation of an immutable, age-old village republic — an Indian 'village-community' à la Henry Maine (1861) — at the centre of South Asianist anthropology (Caldwell 1991, 3). By the early 1980s, the jajmani edifice began to crumble. Critics argued that it was at once too broad and too narrow an analytical category. Some observed that it was neither a pan-Indian nor an ageold phenomenon but an institution observed only on a very limited historical and spatial scale. Others pointed out that its origins, once presumed to have medieval (Beidelman 1959) or even ancient (Gough 1960, 89; Wiser 1936, xxv) provenance, could only be traced back in written record to the mid-19th century, or perhaps even to Wiser's 1936 account. Yet others showed that jajmani-type relations were not restricted to villages, but extended far beyond village bounds into broader political, economic and ritual spheres.

[Note 8. Chris Fuller (1977), for instance, argued that historically people made jajmani offerings to village-based jajmans as much as to supra-local military elites and that it is only colonial meddling with the local political and economic structures that truncated jajmani exchange, leaving anthropologists with the artefact of a village-bound, 'caste-based economic system' (Fuller 1977, 107-109; 1989; also Wolf 1966, 47-57; Karanth 1987, 2217).]

They were as /158/ much a feature of exchanges within castes as between them. By the late 1980s, anthropologists reached a consensus: given the great variation in the contexts and ways in which jajmani relations manifested themselves, the 'system' did not correspond to any actually observed phenomenon and therefore it did not exist. Its demise was in keeping with the spirit of the times, which saw the last days of village ethnography (Fuller and Spencer 1990).

This shift precipitated broader changes in Indian anthropology, some positive and others less so. Among the former was the ousting of the myth of a timeless village republic. Among the latter was a wholesale, and rather counterintuitive, disappearance of patronage from the radar of Indianists' concerns. One might have expected that, once rescued from its village island, patronage would acquire a new lease of life, especially given its persistence in current politics. Instead, patronage altogether vanished from anthropologists' writings, including the burgeoning literature on electoral politics, corruption and the state.

The trouble with the jajmani critics, no less than with its advocates, was that they tended to see village relations as transactional networks, or sets of exchanges with a materially predetermined form. The more they got involved in either erecting or dismantling the transactional framework, the more they neglected the shared substance of what they saw — the ideas that shape the transactions. Whereas for Wiser the 'system' was a set of 'rules and conventions' which took on various material forms, three decades later this was a rigid transactional structure. While dismantling this structure, its critics lost /159/ sight of patronage as a widespread and durable relational mode that embodies the principles of relatedness and exchange (Karanth 1987). Yet, as the critics themselves convincingly showed, jajmani relations never added up to an isolable, self-contained, material system, but permeated an extremely wide range of settings — from the formal political to the informal and intimate, between and within castes, in households and around the marketplace. These principles still inform — if often in new material forms — modern political processes.

What jajmani studies crucially showed was that in South Asia 'patronage' was not an economically or a politically isolable institution, but a pervasive social norm that contained the key principles of relations at large. The donor-servant relation was the basic formula through which people exchanged things, exercised power and related socially, and through which their identities effectively took shape. Classic accounts highlighted the degree to which personal and group identities were bound up in this relation, which was thought to contain in a concrete and visible form the basic principles of caste and hierarchy at large. This totalising view may jar with mainstream styles of current anthropology, but it underscored an essential point that often escapes analyses of today. Patronage was not a transactional and purely economic practice but an existentially vital form. Giving was not only an act of exchange but also an intrinsic aspect of the way donors and recipients related to, and defined, one another. As the 'Chicago school' analysts (led by McKim Marriott and Ronald Inden) showed, gifts quite literally carried the donors' selves to their recipients, conveying the patrons' 'bio-moral substance', as Indianists used to call the sum of corporeal essence and social standing comprising Indian personhood (Marriott 1976).

[Note 12. Marcel Mauss (2002 [1925), 70-77) thought that Indian society illustrated this proposition perfectly. The notion that Indian gifts, paradigmatically food, carry the giver's nature has been discussed in great detail by South Asianist ethnographers (recent overviews include Heim 2004 and Copeman 2011), who developed Mauss' idea of transposition of self through gift exchange into a full-fledged theory of substantive contingency. This theory was pioneered by the Chicago 'transactionalists' led by McKim Marriott and Ronald Inden, who argued that in India exchange was a substantively constitutive process, in which gifts (most importantly food) carried the givers' nature (e.g., Marriott and Inden 1973; 1977; also Parry 1986; Raheja 1988a; 1988b).]

Jajmans were thus not just important economic and political agents. They comprised a socially /160/ constitutive force. Food was the honoured and paradigmatic gift and 'feeding' and 'eating' — both the act and the metaphor — was the crucial link between donors and servants, which offered as vivid an image as there can be of the internal entanglement between those who give and those who receive. As I show in this chapter, the acts and expressions of 'feeding' and 'eating' have not lost their moral efficacy as links between citizens and political leaders. The logic of mutual constitution remains indispensable to relations between South Asia's politicians and their followers, to the way local political communities are formed, and indeed to some meanings of 'political representation' in rural India today.

Jajmani studies taught us another important lesson. While South Asian patronage entailed an asymmetry of status, it did not necessarily prescribe an imbalance of power. Each party depended on the other, economically, politically and ritually. As Wiser insisted, the system 'contained a mutuality that was lacking in the [European] feudal system' and the Euro-American notion of 'patronage' as top-down bossism (1936, viii). Wiser's view was probably far too benign and it overlooked abuses present in the system, but his insistence on the basic mutuality of the donor-servant bond distinguished jajmani studies from most other accounts of patronage, which presented patrons as largely independent wielders of power over their clients and patronage as a top-down system of domination. As later ethnographers showed, jajmans often relied on servants just as much as servants depended on jajmans. The patrons' superior standing prevented them from performing various tasks, requiring them to commission services needed to maintain their standing. Jajmans needed servants not only to uphold their wealth and political supremacy, but crucially to maintain the ritual purity which ensured their place at the top. The servants' prerogative to transform landlords into patrons, thus authorising the patrons' 'rule', gave servants a certain degree of leverage over their overlords.

Finally, jajmani studies suggested that giving alone was never enough and that to have moral import, it had to be put on display. This idea is iconically represented by the public distribution of grain /161/ to servants on the jajman's threshing floor. As we shall see, display remains crucial to exchanges between voters and politicians and to popular deliberations about 'corruption', or how Rajasthani villagers distinguish between (virtuous) 'gifts' and (immoral) 'bribes'.


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