Who can be In the Wake? Caste as Racialized Assemblages

Authors: Pallavi Gupta*, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill
Topics: Urban Geography, Cultural Geography, Legal Geography
Keywords: Caste, Racialized Assemblages, Wake Work, Life and Death, Personhood, Law
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2020
Start / End Time: 4:00 PM / 5:15 PM
Room: Tower Court A, Sheraton, IM Pei Tower, Second Floor Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


State-wise data from the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) website (India, 2019) highlights that the number of reported sewer deaths, in the last 25 years (1993 to 2018) is 676. These numbers represent only part of the problem. There is a contradiction in data on the total number of manual scavengers employed in various states in India. Focusing on the life and death of workers involved in cleaning sewers, manual removal of excreta and other forms of labour that involve cleaning, I propose the following questions: Whose death is accounted for and recognized by the state and the larger society? How many deaths will it take to secure the dignity of the labourers? Why do some deaths remain mundane despite the viscerality and violence that they represent? I examine these questions in my paper using the concepts of personhood in relationship to the law (Perry, 2018) and racialized assemblages (Weheliye, 2014). The title of the paper draws from wake work (Sharpe, 2016). Drawing and advancing the linkages between Black studies and Dalit studies (Guru, 2009; Rodrigues, 2002) in India, I study how media coverage of and the outcry over these deaths can be reoriented to occupy the center rather than the margins. And more particularly where does this hierarchy of death come from? Further, I deliberate on the role of structures and institutions, specifically of labor, the Indian state, and statutes to measure how personhood is denied, excluded, or partly guaranteed.

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