Touch thee not: Group conflict, caste power and untouchability in rural India

Article Type

Research Article

Publication Title

Journal of Comparative Economics


We investigate the impact of community power on the practice of untouchability - the avoidance of physical contact – by upper and backward caste Hindus vis-à-vis ‘scheduled’ castes (SCs) in rural India. We hypothesize that an upper or Other Backward caste (OBC) household's propensity to practise untouchability is determined not solely by its own characteristics but, crucially, also by the inter-group distribution of resources across both caste and religious divides, via political contestation over behavioural norms. Our model predicts that greater collective resource endowment (power) of SCs, or that of Muslims and Christians, will reduce the likelihood of an upper caste or OBC household practising untouchability. A marginal redistribution of power from OBCs to upper castes may reduce it as well. Greater power of the combined upper caste and OBC bloc will increase it. Identifying a community's power with its population weighted land share, we find associations consistent with these predictions in data from the India Human Development Survey 2011–12.

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Open Access, Green

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