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Notes on the problems and possibilities of state ethnography.
Townsend Middleton, Cornell University, Department of Anthropology.

This paper raises a series of practical considerations about the administration of positive discrimination in India–and possibly in a ‘new’ Nepal. The politics of recognition in both countries testify to the significance of what kind of difference is to be recognized in the redressment of historical inequality. Yet below this contentious issue looms the more practical question of how exactly difference is to be recognized.

I address this issue through a critical examination of the processes of Scheduled Tribe (ST) recognition in India. I focus on an official Ethnographic Survey conducted in Darjeeling in 2006, whereby a team of government anthropologists was to determine the ‘tribal’ identities of ten communities seeking ST status. Subjecting the Ethnographic Survey itself to ethnographic scrutiny, here I draw out the real-time practices, politics, and paradoxes of the classificatory moment. Augmenting this analysis with concurrent research with the aspiring STs of Darjeeling, as well as the government anthropologists handling their cases, the paper provides a behind-the-scenes look at ‘tribal’ recognition from both sides of state ethnography.

Viewed accordingly, the practical issue of ‘tribal’ certification proves fraught with philosophical and epistemological quandaries—many of which are endemic to positive discrimination as it currently construed in India. These findings raise questions about the integrity of this system and clearly demonstrate why the question of what kind of difference is to be recognized cannot—and should not—be divorced from the practical consideration of how that difference is to be recognized in the administration of positive discrimination.

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