Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (India)


Public health messaging during the Covid-19 pandemic has emphasized protecting oneself and family members by avoiding, isolating, and distancing. Among forward castes in India, such messaging has offered a veneer of modern reasoning for historical discrimination premised on “touch avoidance” caste practices—directed this time towards the Muslim. Prejudice against the Muslim and the anxiety about touch have been studied, but rarely together. By framing the pandemic against the ascendance of the Hindu Right, our project will explore if the two phenomena have always been co-constitutive or if their coupling is the product of this historical moment. Focusing on the unfolding of these processes within two forward castes—Brahmins and Lingayats in Karnataka—the project will explore sensorial practices through which members express their caste-Hindu specificity, and whether the communities’ self-identification as Hindu depends on positing Muslims as hostile to Hindu ways of life.

Principal Investigators

Ramesh Bairy T.S.

Associate Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay

Ramesh Bairy is an associate professor at the Humanities and Social Sciences Department in the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai. He has extensively researched the ways in which Brahmins of Karnataka negotiated their “caste identities” even as they claimed “modernity.” Through in-depth conversations with Brahmin families, an exploration of the archives of Brahmin caste-associations, the popular press in south Karnataka, and Kannada literary works, his book Being Brahmin, Being Modern: Exploring the Lives of Caste Today (Routledge, 2010) showed the ways in which caste works in the contemporary, and its relationship with the making of the “Hindu” subject. Currently, he is researching the “matha,” institutions central to modern enunciation of the projects of both “Hindu” and caste subjects. He received the Charles Wallace India Trust Visiting Fellowship between 2013 and 2014 to spend three months at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and the Harold Coward India Research Fellowship at the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society, University of Victoria, Canada, during January–June 2019. His research has been published in Contributions to Indian Sociology, Seminar, and the Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research, among others. He has also published in Kannada and English newspapers and contributed a weekly column on Kannada television to the Kannada newspaper Varta Bharati.

Savitha Babu

Faculty Member, Samvada Baduku Community College

Savitha Suresh Babu is a faculty member at Baduku Community College, Samvada, in Bengaluru. Having completed her doctoral work in the sociology of education at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, her thesis has been submitted to Manipal Academy of Higher Education. In her doctoral work, she explored the ways in which young women students accessing higher education through state-supported welfare mechanisms negotiate structural constraints of caste, gender, and class. She received a New Scholars Grant in 2018 to participate in the Dissertation Mentoring Workshop held as part of the Comparative International Education Society (CIES) Conference in Mexico City. Her research interests lie broadly within the sociology of education and critical youth studies. Her work has been published in the Economic and Political Weekly, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, and Cafe Dissensus.

Swathi Shivanand

Independent Researcher

Swathi Shivanand is an independent researcher interested in questions of urban, labor, space, development, and communities. Her recently submitted PhD thesis at the Centre for Historical studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, explores the processes of region-making in twentieth-century South India, with particular reference to the consolidation of Hyderabad-Karnataka as an “underdeveloped”’ and “backward” region. One strand of her work unpacks how pervasive anti-Muslim sentiment during and after the nationalist movement led to the discursive construction of the rule of the Nizam of Hyderabad as “tyrannical,” and “anti-development.” Her work has been published in the Economic and Political Weekly, Urbanisation, Cafe Dissensus, and the Book Review. She has contributed a chapter to Urban Spaces in Modern India, edited by Narayani Gupta and Partho Datta. She previously worked as an urban researcher at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements and the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi and as a journalist with The Hindu in Bangalore.