Locating Caste of Memory: A Phenomenological Inquiry into Memory and Experience of Caste. – Vikas Kumar Choudhary


This paper argues that the caste of memory is an unexplored phenomenon in memory studies. The paper outlines two possible epistemological categories to advance caste-based understanding of memory. The first category suggests that existing studies of memory can be grouped into Memory of Caste. The memory of caste as an epistemological category group is the work which explores the role of collective memory in consolidating the caste-based group identity. The second category is termed as Caste of Memory- this category lacks existing research- for which the paper contributes and argues that individual memory in the caste system’s context is not naïve or free of caste’s influence. In this endeavour, the work analyses lived experience of the Dalit individual as narrated in autobiography. The paper concludes that memory should not be considered caste neutral and should be accounted in the analysis of memory. 

Keywords: Memory, Caste, Phenomenology, Experience, Sensory


American neurologist Joseph LeDoux in his work states about memory that our knowledge of who we are, of the way we think about ourselves, of what others think of us, and of how we typically act in certain situations is in large part learned through experience, and this information is accessible to us through memory.’(LeDoux, 2002, p. 18). In his explanation of memory making process, LeDoux highlights that in the brain there exist ‘convergence zones’ which connect different sensory experiences into a holistic memory. ‘Convergence zone’ in rhinal cortex areas are instrumental in processing fragmented memory of touch, sight, sound, smell and taste and other sensory modalities which originally process the information into a form of ‘global memory of a situation’(LeDoux, 2002, p. 102).

This paper seeks to evaluate the sensory experiences of Dalits and the convergence of these experiences into memory. So far, caste has been seen as a division of labour, a system or systems in different contexts, a basis for deciding affirmative action policy, an identity for electoral mobilization and most importantly as a tool for anti-caste mobilization. However, existing readings of caste have paid less attention to a memory-based reading of caste. While in the competitive enterprise of politics, memory is very often used as one of the mobilizers of caste identity. 

Given these contexts, what follows from here is the central argument of the paper that in India, the memory of an individual consists of memories of the lived experience of their caste. The first section of the paper provides an overview of memory studies as a discipline. The second section seeks to answer if problematizing memory’s relationship with the caste system in the Indian experience can help in a nuanced understanding of memory. In the third section of the paper, caste is used as an analytical category to reflect on memory to propose that there can be two epistemological categories based on memory and its relationship with caste1. The fourth section outlines the first epistemological category the paper categorises with the help of existing but very limited available research on memory and caste as -Memory of Caste. The fifth section proposes the second epistemological category of Caste of Memory which is based on the evaluation of the experience narrated in Dalit autobiography through the phenomenological method. By the end of the paper, it proposes the category of ‘Caste of Memory’. The paper concludes by arguing that memory in the Indian context should not be treated as given. 

Memory Studies-Without Caste  

Over the past few decades, memory as an analytical category has emerged and has been used by various scholars2. Moreover, memory has also become a source of analysing the experiences of victims to gather a detailed account of historical events which often remain encrypted in meta-narrative. This inclination towards memory studies over history or any other discipline is led by Holocaust studies. 

In the South Asian context, a wide range of analyses on memory was provided by scholars working on nationalism, violence, partition, religious conflict, and cultural studies. To briefly summarize,  Homi Bhabha’s ‘The Location of Culture’ analysed how nationalism in India required groups to “perform” certain sequences of memory (Bhabha, 2004). Shahid Amin’s work ‘Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura 1922–1992’ linked British colonialism with local life and its relationship with memory (Amin, 1995). Urvashi Butalia’s ‘The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India’ attempted to recover stories from partition in its effort to sketch memories and ‘unspoken horror’ (Butalia, 2000). Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s ‘Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition’ revisits the horror of partition through the accounts of women survivors in Punjab (Menon & Bhasin, 1998). Suvir Kaul’s ‘The Partitions of Memory: The Afterlife of the Division of India’ has argued that for most of the events in history, there exists a tendency to ‘remember by refusing to remember’(Kaul, 2002). Gyanendra Pandey’s ‘Routine Violence: Nations, Fragments, Histories’ has questioned how there is an “erasure of memory” in India, as there are no efforts from the state or civil society3 to record partition archives (Pandey, 2005). 

However, these studies’ intervention and methodological approaches were based on various studies of the Holocaust and lacked any direct reference to the caste system in partition and related incidents of violence. There is another set of works which emerged in the first decade of the 21st century after the unprecedented assertion of lower caste groups in the political sphere with help of memory4. The second set only emphasised the role memory (focused on collective memory) as merely a tool for mobilization and negotiating with centres of power. In the next section of this work, the second type of work is briefly discussed and categorised epistemologically as the Memory of Caste along with its shortcomings. 

The memory of caste

As outlined above the binary of memory formation at an individual and collective level in the Indian context, broadly can be tagged as the memory of caste and caste of memory. In this section, the focus is on exploring the Memory of Caste. Memory as a tool of political mobilization has been explained as a process including two steps. As elaborated by political scientists David Myer Temin and Adam Dahl, “(t)he first step involves acknowledging the existence of past injustices as well as their causal connection to the present. The second step, in turn, involves paying attention to the narrative practices by which past injustices are given collective meaning”(Temin & Dahl, 2017). Further, they outline that injustice which remains unrecorded in the official documentation. Badri Naryan Tiwari’s work can be situated in the second step of the politics of memory. Tiwari’s work enquired into the role of memory in the caste-based mobilization of lower caste groups as a larger project of recognition. 

One of the reasons for this extensive focus on group centrism memory studies in both sets of work discussed above could be the Eurocentrism of memory studies. As Ashish Nandy, in his analysis of psychoanalysis as a field of study highlights that “European tradition falls short in examining individual identity and memory formation being affected by external forces such as community, organization system of society and hierarchy”(Nandy,1999). In the context of memory studies, it has been argued that the “Eurocentric assumptions about memory and memory studies may not apply to South Asian contexts.”(Mallot, 2012).In this context, the next section proposes Caste of Memory as a possible category for upcoming works (including this one) which emphasise on caste-based analysis of memory in Indian experience.  

Caste of Memory: A Phenomenological inquiry 

Memory’s interaction with social structure is well recognised by Maurice Halbwachs (1877 – 1945). Halbwachs a French sociologist argued that remembering connects an individual to the collective frameworks of common references in society. According to him an individual’s memory is ‘recalled, recognized, and located socially’ (Halbwach,1925/1992). In the Indian context caste system could be one example of ‘social frameworks’ which shape the memory in India. Having said that, the process of memory convergence can be contextualised in the social framework of caste. And to decipher the role of caste in memory formation, here this paper looks at caste and memory from the non-naive perspective of phenomenology.

Phenomenology’s central proposition that ‘we must go back to the things themselves’ (Logical Investigations, Findlay I: 168; Hua XIX/1: 10) makes the phenomenological approach best suited for investigating the Caste of Memory. As phenomenological approach discards the natural attitude of approaching phenomena in the world as given and requires us to revisit the structure of everyday experience from a philosophical attitude. Therefore, the phenomenological approach allows this work to treat memory as worldly and accessible for subjective inquiry. The remaining part of the paper analyses the excerpt from autobiographical accounts of Dalit autobiography and argues that the sensory experience of the individual converges into memory but in its a priori characterization is dependent on the rules of the caste system generally and specifically on the caste of the Individual.  

The total number of original Hindi Dalit autobiographies stands between 20-30 as per an estimate provided in 2021. Whereas in the Marathi language, the number of Dalit biography stands at 200, making biographies a strong source of understanding the sensory experience of Dalits (Naimishrai, 2021, p. 12; translation mine).  For this work, the autobiographical account of Dr Tulasi Ram will be analysed. It was published in two volumes in the year 2014. The first volume is titled Murdahiya and the second is titled Manikarnika (Tulasiram, 2014). Although both are well written here, we will rely on accounts of Manikarnika. This work is chosen for analysis because the book begins when the author turns seventeen and leaves his house for further studies to move to Banaras. Among many incidents narrated in the autobiography where the practice of untouchability in its spatial character is evident, we will be using only one for this study. 

Sensory Experience and Caste of Memory

The experience as narrated is when Dr Tulasiram was forced to vacate the rented house as his real caste identity was mistakenly revealed to the landlady by one of his classmates in 1969. As soon as the landlady becomes aware of the fact that Dr Tulasiram belonged to the Chamar community and has hidden his identity by posing himself as a person from an upper caste, she gets furious and asks him to vacate the room overnight. Further, she comments “the very first day I first saw you (Tulasiram) I sensed that you are a Chamar” (Tulasiram, 2014, p. 38. translated. Choudhary, Vikas Kumar). As noted by Tulasiram, from being extremely abusive to the declaration of the landlady that once Tulasiram and his friend move out with their stuff, she will clean the whole house with the holy Ganga water to remove all the impurities brought upon to her house the author and his Dalit friends (Tulasiram, 2014, pp. 37–38). Throughout the book, he narrates at least seven such other incidents where he had to vacate the rented house as soon as the owner came to know his caste identity. 

In all the different instances, Tulasiram was forced to limit his sensory exposure by not eating what he would have eaten if landlords were willing to accept his caste identity, he would have interacted with the neighbours freely, would have not heard abusive and derogatory remarks and his relationship with holy river Ganga would have been different than it being counterpoising to his existence. In Tulasiram’s everyday experience, his identity of being Chamar needed to be concealed and impose as someone else. The self-suppression of identity was not voluntary but due to the conditions produced by the caste-consciousness of the upper caste group. 

There are two things important in Dr Tulasiram’s autobiography to note and explain how memory is not neutral but shaped by the caste identity to which one is born. First, despite his own personal experience of living in Banaras and studying at Banaras Hindu University, his autobiography is full of anecdotal evidence that disrupts the popular connotations of Banaras as has been popularised about Banaras in popular culture. His memory of experiencing Banaras is not the same as those of upper-caste individuals. For Tulasiram, Banaras in his memory is filled with struggle, discriminatory practices, regressive beliefs and coming to the realisation of contradiction between what he heard about Banaras when he first arrived in Banaras and what he experienced actually. 

In Tulasiram’s situation, Gopal Guru’s argument stands correct that in the context of Dalit’s lived experience, the distinction between self and objective subject does not stand any ground. Further Guru argues that the Dalit self, the conscious self is not independent and aware of the self to judge and interpret its experience without external impositions of caste hierarchies. Based on the aforesaid experience of Tulasiram, it can be said that though Dalits might not be able to interpret their experience freely as highlighted by Guru it gets consolidated into memory. Whenever they recall their memory, the memory Dalits carry with them includes caste and is different from those of other individual’s caste groups. 


Caste-system in its everyday mnemonic function controls the power, status, and position of communities. In other words, caste as a mnemonic agency remains the source for reinforcing the existing hierarchy inherent to the caste. Still, caste’s role in shaping memory remains external or outside the domain of political analysis as well as memory studies. It is crucial that memory should not be considered caste-neutral for an individual in lived experience and therefore must factor in the analysis of memory. 


1 The categorisation is based on two conceptual notion of memory-individual and collective memory- as analysed by by Anastasio et al., in their work titled ‘Individual and Collective Memory Consolidation’ they argue “Individual memory encompasses synaptic, neuronal, brain, and psychological levels. Collective memory refers to supra-individual levels: couple, family, community, nation, religion, and so forth. The collective categories may be hierarchical (city, region, state) or horizontal. Horizontal relationships occur at the same level of abstraction — namely groups of individuals — and frequently overlap, as is the case with most social memberships.”(Anastasio et al., 2012, p. 8)

2In ‘Individual and Collective Memory Consolidation’ Anastasio et al., provide a comprehensive overview. For more on history and memory see K.L. Klein, 2000, on memory and sociology see: Olick & Robbins, 1998; memory and anthropology see : Birth, 2006a, 2006b; G. White, 2006. 

3There is a partition museum in Amritsar, Punjab. For more see https://www.partitionmuseum.org/partition-of-india/ 

4Badri Naryan Tiwari in the early 2000s wrote extensively by conducting fieldwork in Uttar Pradesh and provided an account of how the Bahujan Samaj Party(BSP) used memory consolidation. However, in recent years his focus has shifted to an uncritical examination of RSS and its methods in mobilising the memory of various caste groups in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. For BSP see (Tiwari, 2001);  For BJP(Tiwari, 2009): For RSS: (Tiwari, 2021).


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Author Bionote

Vikas Kumar Choudhary is currently Pursuing PhD in the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences, Jamia Millia Islamia. Previously Vikas has completed M.Phil. and Post-Graduation in Political science. Vikas also hold a P.G Diploma in conflict transformation and peacebuilding from Lady Sri Ram College, Delhi University. His primary research interest includes Western Political Philosophy, Memory Studies, Politics of caste and Peace and Conflict studies. He has published article in European journal Religions (Scopus indexed). Vikas is in third year of his PhD working on the politics of memory in caste consolidation of Dalit identity. 

Institutional email : vikas179529@st.jmi.ac.in

Personal email: politicalshoes@gmail.com