Inciting contempt for identities as human rights activism

johari window

There is an article in a blog dedicated to Dalit rights activism titled “How should a Brahmin-Savarna respond to a Dalit voice?” I took exception to it on Twitter and ended up breaking India’s “laws” on how Dalits should be spoken to. This apparently means I am a Brahmin supremacist.

Some things upfront. I have a problem with the term “Dalit-expert”. For me, Dalits are people, and I have not seen the term “expert” used with people unless they are an anthropological rarity. It is mostly used for objects, methods, etc. I think it dehumanizes Dalits and I’m hoping it is the author’s sarcasm, because I have no idea what the Dalit intellectuals are up to (just like Brahmin intellectuals). I don’t follow their writings beyond the occasional whatever strays my way.

Secondly, I have a problem with the identity of Dalit being reduced to “oppressed” just as surely as the Hindutva agenda reduces Hindu to “attacked”. To reduce Dalits to “oppressed” is in many ways worse, because it denies that they bring anything valuable to the table (other than Dalit literature). Hindutva at least makes some effort to showcase Hindus otherwise. A lot of knowledge in the world has survived because of its Dalit custodians. Dalits live, laugh, love, make meaningful contributions, do crimes, thrash their wives, get drunk, die to save another, exploit or nurture their children, are great or terrible neighbours and more. To reduce them to the “oppressed” creates perfect helpless victims out of them to blame someone for, but denies them any value of their own.

Thirdly, reducing Brahmin-savarnas to oppressors conveniently dehumanizes them as anything beyond what you object to. As though they don’t live, laugh, love, create art, worry about inflation, get humiliated by poverty, face marital rape and honor killings and more. Like what Hindutva does to Islam. It conveniently ignores tremendous caste prejudice among Dalits – which when pointed out results immediately in a shifted goalpost to “Brahminism”. But I have not noticed any contempt that calls a Dalit evil for oppressing another Dalit. It is a very effective weapon for carpet bombing hate, as though to be born a Brahmin is something haters choose, while poor Dalits are helplessly born in their caste. Fact is, most Brahmins don’t meet enough Dalits to have an opinion, and most of those who do lack any real power to oppress, even as it is true that those who do discriminate go unchecked.

I oppose extremism without discrimination, and I do Dalits the respect of reacting to fanaticism among them with the same contempt as for Hindutva or Islamism instead of “jaane do, they don’t matter”.

I have several problems with this article and the overall fanatical thinking that some Dalit activists promote. Ironically, I had a few dozen handles ganging up to fling accusations at me, and I was the oppressor because…. I am Brahmin. That is the towering perception I have got every time I tried to engage with any Dalit intellectual – not that I make a habit of engaging with identity warriors, but the few times I did. That I am not good enough, that I don’t think well enough like “them”, that I represent oppression and to basically fuck off. Why? Because I never hide that I was born Brahmin from those who hate Brahmins. That is all it takes. It is the same. I’m a “sickular” to Hindutvawadis and “atheist” to Islamists. Never fails. Mere existence is a problem.

Responding to specific quotes in the article:

…do I have the right to suggest how the Brahmin-Savarnas should respond to a Dalit voice? That is, can I build an ethics for the Brahmin-Savarnas? I think I can. I think I should.

Sure. Everyone has a right to an opinion on whatever and whoever you choose.

In fact, the question I am trying to formulate in this article is a question of ‘how to engage with the Other’. The Other here, of course, is the marginalized Dalit community.

But do Brahmin-savarna writers writing in support of Dalits and against discrimination, marginalize Dalits? To the best of my knowledge, NONE of those who speak against caste discrimination practice it. From top journalists to random tiny twitter handles and people in real life. To us, Dalits are as good as anyone else. We aren’t engaging with an “Other”, YOU are. I am Brahmin, you are Dalit and it is fine. We are both products of our birth which we did not choose. But we can get along fine, including shared goals and mutual respect. It is you who is even dividing writers on a similar subject on the basis of their birth and assigning legitimacy on the basis of that. Not saying don’t do it, only saying don’t assume your imagination is our reality.

Even more contemptworthy is to take potshots on the basis of identity and then duck behind laws. I refuse to infantalize Dalits by ignoring hate as though their opinions have no consequence anyway. File your cases or whatever.

Backstory: The Dalit activist outrage is about me retorting to the title of this article by calling Dalits “unclean”. Apparently, they have not figured out what savarna means. So, “Brahmin-savarna” is not casteist to them. But “Dalit-opposite-of-savarna” is an outrage. You cannot really call people savarna without implying that others not them are not. Why do you say “Dalit-bahujan”? Why not go “avarna” “asprusha”? Think about it. Inequality isn’t unidirectional. Sneering or respecting privilege or lack of it is all inequality.

how should a Brahmin-Savarna respond to a Dalit voice?

“With great reverence” appears to be the summary of the paragraph that follows. Something like “Be aware of it constantly, never dismiss it no matter what, read the Bhagwad Gita/Quran/Bible/Ambedkar’s works. Understand how you are inherently an asshole and need to be very careful to fix the Dalit version of the Biblical original sin of being born at all.”

First: the self-appointed academic Dalit-experts should aim to strongly facilitate the Dalit’s right to articulate himself. Otherwise they would end up committing the same epistemic violence usually committed by the ‘non-experts’.

No idea what “Dalit-experts” should do, but no amount of logic will explain lack of facilitation as violence – epistemic or otherwise as though any subject to do with people can have one correct voice. Dalits as an island unto themselves serves none.

Second: the Brahmin-Savarna Dalit-experts should constantly ask themselves: how do the Dalits themselves, and not how some academicians, think about the expert’s academic interpretation of the Dalit experience? Do the Dalits agree to the kind of representation of their reality put forward by the academicians?

Fair enough, as long as they are not expected to parrot the same as own view. Do Brahmin-savarnas agree to the kind of representation of their reality put forward by Dalit intellectuals? Should their agreement matter? Should the lack of agreement by Brahmin-savarnas mean that the Dalit intellectual’s opinion is invalid?

A self-help tool called the Johari window, looks at perception of self by self and others is often used to help people resolve conflicts in being “misunderstood” (among other things), where their view of themselves and that of others creates dysfunctional conditions that don’t allow them to thrive and cause distress. It looks at information available about a person, and categorizes it according to what the individual knows about self, what the others know about the individual, what both know and what no one knows.

The tool goes something like this:

johari window
johari window – self-assessment tool

If we look at this in terms of the Dalit identity, the “Arena” would contain the obvious oppression. The “Dalit voice” the author speaks of, that “Brahmin-savarna” writers are oblivious of, would go into the “Facade” (this is not a demeaning term, it merely implies the projection of self). What the Brahmin-savarna writers see, that Dalit intellectuals appear to be unaware of would be the “blind spot”. And the unknown, of course is what none of us know. It will take dialogue for the blind spot and facade to eventually consolidate in the Arena and empower the individual/entity. In this sense, dismissing the non-Dalit voice about Dalits, does not serve to end Dalit oppression. It merely refuses to recognize any view other than own and prevents a shared understanding that helps to resolve conflict. Obviously, some views will never meet (those elaborate theories of genetic superiority, for example), but the deliberate alienating of all except own serves no useful purpose either.

Third: is the expert more interested in occupying a place in the academia? Or is he interested in concretely contributing to the emancipation of the Dalits, in helping to remove the obstacles in the way of the Dalit’s development?

Yeah. The RSS hates intellectuals too. It is a common target for all identity based activism/politics. Are the two goals (academia and emancipation of Dalits) mutually exclusive as implied, or is this merely an attempt to have sole control over what is defined as Dalit interest? Is the Dalit interest helped more by any and all voices opposing discrimination, or by voices catering to a specific manner of opposing that ghettoizes Dalits as a special case perpetually?

Fourth: the Brahmin-Savarna Dalit-experts should be careful in not antagonizing the Dalits at the cost of befriending the casteist non-Dalits. That is, they must guard against all forms of casteism as nurtured mainly by their fellow Brahmin-Savarnas. In their attempt to work for the cause of the Dalits, the Brahmin-Savarnas might have to antagonize their fellow Brahmin-Savarnas.

I think it is far more urgent that the “Dalit-bahujan” Dalit-experts not antagonize others fighting discrimination over fashion sense in activism. There are lives being lost, justice being denied and problems continuing to devastate, which could do with a united opposition than hostility over differences of views or methods.

Fifth: the Brahmin-Savarna Dalit-experts should learn to ‘speak with or along with’ a Dalit voice rather than ‘commenting on’ a Dalit voice. Such experts should work hand in hand with the Dalits in spreading the positive kind of caste consciousness for the annihilation of caste.

A “Brahmin-savarna” has his/her own voice that is no more or less valid than a Dalits. This argument is like “to talk about the RSS, first join a shakha”. It is a perspective. It can be wrong, in which case it should be debunked. The idea of having it at all being unacceptable is narrow minded. Generally an outside perspective is valued for bringing a fresh look when problem solving (assuming the author sees caste discrimination as a problem needing solving).


There is a massive misunderstanding in general that “Brahmin-savarnas” fight caste discrimination because of the experiences of Dalits or injustices against them. Most Brahmins don’t encounter enough Dalits to have any kind of a “Siddhartha” moment about them. Most “savarnas” fighting discrimination just don’t like to be assholes and do it for ourselves – to live more congruent to our ideals, which are not the same as those preferring to discriminate, obviously. They do it because their own experiences with discrimination teach them the vile nature of it and they are able to extrapolate it to other ways it occurs. That is how you find the same few heads objecting to gender discrimination, caste discrimination, religious discrimination….

Telling them to stop discriminating is like telling gay men to not rape women. They weren’t planning to.

The ones who are planning to aren’t interested in your recommendations on how to talk, and it won’t change how they act. All that is achieved is telling allies to shut up or devote massive time and effort in their lives to your interest.

To me, this isn’t Brahmin superiority, it is plain common sense, which perhaps I may have seen due to my “privilege” of being a “wayward woman” in a Brahmin orthodox moral policing family that are almost uniformly bhakts of the Hindutva agenda. You fight something large, you have to pick your battles. Patronizing allies for not being your puppets is not the way – in my opinion.

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6 thoughts on “Inciting contempt for identities as human rights activism”

  1. Mandar Mallappanavar

    Another silly individual representing the privileged and over-represented sections of the society wanting to exert her privileges by writing lamest of things. Indian version of ‘all lives matter’

    1. Well, I could simply call you names and be done with it as well. Or perhaps I could say how like a man to demean a woman rather than reply to her. Hain na? I’m sure I can dig out some accusation to fling at you if need be. Perhaps call you a silly individual with the privilege of free speech that is protected from replies in kind, going around sneering at bloggers with lame comments without having any coherent reply to what they said. Would that be useful?

      Never mind.

  2. विद्युत, तुला राग येणार नसेल तर म्हणतो – तू म्हणतेस “on how Dalits should be spoken to” यात थोडा प्रॉब्लेम नाही का ? “spoken to” च्या ऐवजी “spoken with ” असे जास्त योग्य होईल का ? हा शब्द-छल नाही – हा “blind spot” मला वाटतो. आपल्या गटाला ब्राम्हण-सवर्ण म्हणणे यथार्थाच आहे, ते जातीयवादी नक्कीच नाही. आपल्या लोकांमध्ये असलेली दलितांच्या बद्दल widespread तुच्छता दलितांना पदोपदी टोचते त्याचे हे दर्शक आहे. Dalits as an island unto themselves serves none. १०० टक्के खरे आहे – पण “Most Brahmins don’t encounter enough Dalits” हे तितकेच सत्य आहे जे तूच लिहिले आहेस. आपला ब्राम्हण-सवर्ण समाज प्रगत झाला पण त्याला सामाजिक भान नाही, फक्त आत्मभान आहे आणि ते खूपच आत्म-प्रौढी असलेले आहे. ब्राम्हणांना उद्देशून टीका केली आणि त्या शब्दाला आक्षेप घेतला तर लगेच ब्राम्हण्वाद या संज्ञे मागे लपले जाते हे काही खरे नाही. ब्राम्हण्वाद हाच टीकेचे लक्ष्य आहे. आणि ब्राम्हण जातीच्या उतरंडी वर सगळ्यात वर असल्यामुळे ते तो सगळ्यात जास्त पाळतात. या उतरंडी social-distance जसा वाढतो तसा तसा तो कमी होतो, आणि त्या-त्या जातीबद्दल तुच्छता अधिक अधिक वाढते – “decreasing contempt and increasing reverence” असे स्वरूप जसे जसे वरच्या जातीत जाऊ तसे होत जाते – ते इतके खरे आहे कि जवळपास १००% ब्राह्मण हे ब्रम्हण्वाद जवळपास संपूर्ण पाळतात. इतका कि या दोन संज्ञा एक आहेत असे म्हटले तर फार अतिशयोक्ती होत नाही. हे त्याच्या मागचे कारण आहे. एखादी गोष्ट पहिल्यांदा नाही कळली किंवा नंतर स्वतःच्या insensitivity कळली आणि जर वाईट वाटले किंवा त्याची लाज वाटली तर क्षमा मागण्यात काहीही कमीपणा नाही. अशी कुठलीच “line in the sand” नसते, सगळ्यांना प्रेमानेच वागवले जाते – सत्य सांगतांना reverence, आडपडदा नसतो, नसावा. आणि अशा सत्य बोलण्याने allies जे आहेत ते दुखावले जात नाहीत, जाऊ नयेत अस मला वाटते. आणि तुम्ही जे आहात (identity) जी जन्मतः मिळाली ती कोणीही बदलायला म्हणत नाही. ते कृत्रिम होईल. तशी अपेक्षाही या लोकांमध्ये नाही – अशा कृत्रिम तऱ्हेने, patronizing तऱ्हेने त्यांच्याशी वागणारे त्यांनी आतापर्यंत कमी पाहिले असतील असे तुला वाटते का ? तू authentic राहाच पण थोडे sensitive हो असे मला प्रामाणिक पणे वाटते.

    1. Prasad, where does the issue arise of “spoken with” if a blunt opinion on one end is a right and a blunt disagreement is illegal? You cannot cross the boundary of “spoken to” in a situation like this, can you? There is no “with”. That is the whole point. I do not wish to enter into a word by word dialogue on this, because what you say is not wrong and replying to it point by point will make me contradict it in a far more concrete manner than is true for me.

      My core point is that there is a need for all activism to seek bridges and reform rather than fixate on a dysfunctional status quo. I have observed counter-prejudice that perpetuates a completely useless and harmful status quo, and disempowers change. Social distance now is also a matter of progressive, but wary savarnas not wanting to get into engagement for fear of being called stupid, elitist, evil – even as they OPPOSE caste discrimination. It is easier to IGNORE caste issues than learn to copy someone else’s years of study.

      For example, in spite of YEARS of supporting caste equality on this blog, including an important post that went viral opposing removal of reservations, all it takes to demand cases to be filed against me is me pointing out what the opposite of savarna is, while being a Brahmin. The opposite of Brahmin-savarna is not Dalit-bahujan – these are euphemisms like calling what used to be a cripple disabled, then handicapped and then special needs till any sense of disadvantage is hidden behind a cloud of words, it is far uglier and the more these differences are highlighted, the more it remains alive. I can interact with environmentalists, agricultural reporters, politicians, feminists, child rights supporters and collaborate. I have never, so far been good enough for a dalit intellectual to find a shared cause with – I challenge you to find any Brahmin who has not disowned his own identity and is respected by them. Because opposing caste discrimination is not the issue. Issue is never finding common ground with a Brahmin.

      There is a need for a simplified collaboration instead of an exhibition of intellectual superiority. People are people and those who oppose discrimination should not need to pretend to be someone else to be qualified to call a wrong as “WRONG”.There is no need for a Brahmin or Muslim or Christian to first learn to talk like a dalit before having a problem with caste discrimination. Just like a dalit doesn’t (and shouldn’t) need to sound like a Brahmin in order to call discrimination wrong.

  3. Very well written Ms.Vidyut. I also used to feel “Savarna” has some condenscetion to it, but could not quite pin point it. But, you have articulated it quite well.

  4. Completely agree with all you say. It seems as if people have willingly surrendered their identity to a figment of their imagination – one that is oppressed by the oppressors. And they can’t comprehend how someone else cannot see the world through the same filters.

    Where you and I see human beings with names, they see caste A, caste B etc.

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