“We are religious, patriotic, and self-sacrificial”: Baniya Power, Privilege, and Wealth Anxieties in India
Wealth in India is concentrated amongst a few privileged social groups in urban areas. What is the relationship between wealth, caste, and elite action? Agarwals, a business caste in Delhi that belongs to the vernacular category baniya, is selected as the case study for analysis. By drawing on in-depth interviews and ethnographic observations made over four years, I argue that elites use caste to produce a moral and empowering self-narrative to produce caste cohesion. In the second most wealth-unequal country in the world, an empowering and shared self-definition helps address intra-group inequalities, makes indirect claims on political power that wealth alone cannot support, and addresses anxieties about wealth accumulation. Four strategies of social cohesion are unpacked: standardisation and publicization of origin myth; claiming symbolic power by naming roads, building statues, and temple complexes after one’s ancestor; institutionalising one’s resource-rich networks through registered societies in the name of the ancestor to undertake philanthropy; and claiming political power by becoming ideologically one with the nation-state and asserting that to be a baniya, is to be religious, patriotic, and self-sacrificial. This paper broadens the sociological understanding of wealth and elite power by showing how upper-caste identitarianism is undertaken by forging cohesion.

Ujithra Ponniah is a Senior Researcher at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (SCIS). She works with the ‘Wealth Inequality and Elites’ research stream at SCIS. Her research interests include economic elites, caste, race, and gender in India and South Africa. Her research in India unpacks how a business caste called Agarwals reproduces in Delhi with a focus on the gender question. In South Africa, she has researched property elites (landowners and property developers) involved in the making of a gated city called Waterfall. Currently, she is a Co-PI on an ESRC project titled ‘Transnational Elite Communities and the Reproduction of Inequalities’ in Mumbai, Johannesburg, and London.
Date: 21 May 2024, 14:00 (Tuesday, 5th week, Trinity 2024)
Venue: St Antony's College, 62 Woodstock Road OX2 6JF
Venue Details: Pavilion Room
Speaker: Ujithra Ponniah (Southern Centre for Inequality Studies, University of the Witwatersrand)
Organising department: Asian Studies Centre
Organiser: Thiruni Kelegama (Oxford)
Organiser contact email address: asian@sant.ox.ac.uk
Part of: Modern South Asian Studies Seminar Series
Booking required?: Not required
Audience: Public
Editor: Clare Salter