[OPE-L] caste and class in Tirupur

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Sun May 28 2006 - 12:08:22 EDT

Chari now teaches at the LSE.

Vol:23 Iss:10 URL: http://www.flonnet.com/fl2310/stories/20060602000507300.htm


A Tirupur story

Examining the role of caste and class in the transformation of
Tirupur into a booming global centre for knitwear production.

SHARAD Chari's book, written in a vivid and compelling style, tells
the story of the Gounder-caste entrepreneurs who transformed Tirupur
from a provincial backwater into a booming global centre for knitwear
production. The book is ambitious - it seeks to understand both the
historical and the contemporary processes by which Gounder "agrarian
histories" led to the industrial present over half a century and
more. It does this by "bringing a decentred Marxism" (page 275) into
relation with a wide range of data: economic, cultural and political.
Chari argues that the "histories of practice" of Gounder farmers
enabled them to enter Tirupur's hosiery production as workers and
then rise to the position of employers and entrepreneurs and in due
course coming to dominate local industry. The particular "practice"
that enabled Gounder men to triumph as "self-made" entrepreneurs,
despite a highly competitive environment, was "Gounder toil". Gounder
men used this phrase to express what they claimed as their unique
ability among other upwardly mobile castes simultaneously to
participate in manual labour alongside their workers and to extract
the maximum work from them. Chari argues that Gounders successfully
transferred the agricultural labour relations they had been familiar
with, where they controlled the labour of `lower' castes, including
Dalit agricultural castes, to Tirupur's industry.
He makes much of "Gounder toil", contrasting it with the elitist
behaviour of the old guard of Tirupur owners who kept aloof from the
shop floor. The book unequivocally celebrates Gounder toil,
describing these entrepreneurs as heroes for their ability to emerge
from modest agrarian backgrounds to build a stunningly successful
global industry not only without state assistance, but in spite of
state-imposed constraints on small-scale industry. However, this
flattering portrait of the globalising Gounders is moderated by
Chari's simultaneous acknowledgement that `Gounder toil' is, after
all, a legitimating ideology, a careful construct of Gounder
self-presentation, purveyed by them in order to persuade their (male)
workers that `toil' is the means by which any man, regardless of
caste, can become an industrial boss. Thus, `Gounder toil' is part of
the seemingly egalitarian and meritocratic ideology that declares
that in this industrial democracy no one is born to serve, but all
(men) can, through hard labour, rise and join the capitalist class.

Chari argues that from the 1940s until the 1970s, as long as Tirupur
was focussed on production for domestic markets, the message was
reiterated and apparently validated by the class transformations of
thousands of Gounder men. In the 1980s, however, these entrepreneurs
started venturing into the global knitwear market, and by the 1990s,
Tirupur was a global centre for production. This resulted in a
dramatic change in the ethos of this industrial town. With alarming
speed, the meritocratic ideology of the rewards of "toil" vanished,
to be replaced by capitalist greed. Women workers were increasingly
brought in, first to fill the new ancillary jobs created by the
export industry and then, with time, to take over "male" tasks at
lower pay.
Women were paid much less than, men often for the same work, and were
consistently regarded as unworthy of a living wage. Chari attributes
this to upper-caste Tamil cultural notions about the male identity of
the breadwinner.
Simultaneously, Gounder employers initiated the break-up of their
large companies into much smaller units in order to evade labour
laws. They also set up subcontracting links in order to divest
themselves of their central problem: the control of labour. In this
new export-oriented world, time was of the essence, hence keeping the
workers docile and obedient was key to ensuring that export deadlines
were met. Facing international competition, employers also tried to
slash their prices - and thus had to minimise costs. The female
worker became their ideal worker, as she was required by local
cultural norms to be both subservient and low-paid. Another factor
was the new uncertainty of the market - global markets were not as
predictable as domestic markets had been. Here again flexible females
came to the rescue, for subcontracted women workers could be denied
work even more easily than subcontracted male labour.
In this brave new world, Gounder employers found that they no longer
had any use for fraternal industrial relations or the ideology of
"toil". Instead of the meritocratic ideology that they had purveyed
on their `democratic' shop floors, employers now withdrew to their
tinted, air-conditioned offices, leaving labour control to their
contractors (usually their Gounder kinsmen or at least men of the
Gounder caste). Thus, the feminisation of industrial labour in
Tirupur signalled far more than the new demand for docile and
obedient female workers. It marked a radical increase in class
differentiation in social relations. In Chari's words: "Gender
fetishisms are potent precisely because of the way they harness sexed
bodies to broader projects of differentiation", exacerbating
"multiple dimensions of social inequality" (page 241).
With the feminisation of labour in Tirupur, male workers' rights have
been mortally weakened and the entire workforce is much more
insecure. Thus, Chari argues, the entire regime of labour relations
has changed, for "fraternal capital" has now given way to a new
"gender hegemony", where gender actually stands for a "feminisation
[that] works as a powerful, productive fiction to violate the
entitlements of a variety of groups of people rendered marginal and
perpetually insecure by contemporary capitalism" (page 241). This is
an important insight into what the feminisation of an industry
actually means. As Chari points out, it entails much more than larger
numbers of women workers; it signals a sea-change in labour relations
throughout the industrial arena where it occurs, for it is used in
contemporary industry as a tool with which to erode and destroy the
remaining rights of all workers.
Chari's story has an underlying tension. On the one hand, the Gounder
workers who entered Tirupur's industry in the 1940s and 1950s are
portrayed admiringly and so is their eventual conquest of the elite
peaks of export production. On the other hand, in the later,
export-focussed phase of their history, the Gounder captains of
industry appear singularly unappealing, for they nonchalantly destroy
the local environment with the toxic wastes from their industry, just
as they cold-bloodedly ensure that a new workforce, where female
migrants play a major role, bends utterly to their will. Chari
acknowledges this central tension thus: "Globalisation in the
mofussils requires this Janus-faced critique in order to question the
ties that bind the globalisation of capital to the conditions of
subaltern inequality" (page 275). This is acceptable.
While Chari's critique may have to argue against itself at times, one
of the central theses of this book deserves closer scrutiny: Chari
argues that the Gounders who successfully made the transition from
provincial agriculture to a global industrial empire were
"subalterns" or "peasant-workers". Like Barbara Harriss-White, I
would question this characterisation, because Gounder landowners are
known to have been the dominant caste in this region and included
among them "a substantial fraction [who] were agrarian capitalists"
(Harriss-White 2003: 223).


Women were increasingly brought in to fill the jobs created by the
entry of Tirupur's knitwear industry into the global market in the

Furthermore, Chari's own account makes it clear that Gounder workers,
unlike workers from other castes, were able to access capital quite
easily, particularly from their own kin and caste members. He also
vividly delineates the ways in which rural Gounder workers built up
relations of familiarity with other key non-Gounder players in the
industry, a type of capital that served them well when they started
up their own small units (page 201). It is also very significant that
throughout this history Communist labour union organisers, if they
were Gounders, tended to put the interests of Gounder employers above
the interests of non-Gounder workers.
This, I suggest, is not so much a case of caste identities being
prioritised over class identities as it is an indication of the ways
in which caste and class merged for the Gounders of Tirupur in a
manner that made non-Gounder workers declare, with considerable
resentment, that Gounders always stuck together and prioritised their
caste interests, giving Gounder workers an unfair advantage over all
others. This unfair advantage explains why so many Gounder workers
managed to become small employers and, in later years,
sub-contractors, on the basis of start-up capital borrowed from
wealthy Gounder entrepreneurs. In short, caste identity looms very
large in this narrative both explicitly, in Chari's own account, and
implicitly, when he is read against the grain.
This, however, is a sign of the strength of this book rather than a
weakness. Chari provides such a hugely detailed, carefully researched
and impressively referenced narrative that its complex strands can be
interpreted in several ways. This testifies to the richness of his
book, which allows varied readings of the agrarian transition of
Tirupur's self-made Gounders.
This hugely interesting narrative engages the reader at many levels,
not least through Chari's extraordinary knack of providing the
telling detail that brings a tea-shop, a Gounder capitalist-dandy, or
a union strike, to life. His colourful cast of characters is vast,
and it is a sign of the breadth of Chari's sympathies, rather than
otherwise, that both Gounder capitalists and their sweated
non-Gounder workers receive such delineations.
This book attempts to tell the contemporary story of heroic
industrialists, warts and all. In this it is a remarkable success

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