<link rel="stylesheet" href="//fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Open+Sans%3A400italic%2C700italic%2C400%2C700">Dalit literature Archives « Aam JanataSkip to content

6

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.

1

Babasaheb Ambedkar is an enigma to most Indians. While we all claim to respect him for writing India's Constitution, there is little we know about who Dr Ambedkar was or why "Jai Bhim" is a salutation to many and used as a casteist sneer by others. With the loving honorific "Babasaheb" neatly sliding in before the Ambedkar, many of our citizens who claim to respect him for the constitution and know little else about him also don't realize that they don't know his first name.

Who was Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, beloved to many as Babasaheb? The dalits have written tomes that remain read by them alone. Leftist writers write glowing commentaries and nostalgic regrets about the vast body of his work that lies ignored. But perhaps here is a point that more can relate with, a starting point for curiosity. Why is this man inspiring nationwide journeys of lakhs of people half a century after his death without advertising or doles?

Here is an article P Sainath had written on his 50th Death Anniversary. Read it, because it shares something vital about how we see Dr. Ambedkar, how selectively we adopt his visions and how we betray those he cared for the most.

The 50th death anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar is a time to remember that the larger society ignores or distorts the Dalits' struggle for their rights at its own risk.

"GET READY for a siege." Follow this guide "to escape possible chaos." Even Dalits are joining the "EXODUS." And "You thought Tuesday was bad? It will only get worse today." There is a "nightmare" — a threat of violence. And the poor "Mumbai police will have to bear the brunt of it all."

These were just a few of the headlines (some of them front page, first lead) in the press and on television channels. And they were about the lakhs of Dalits gathered in Mumbai to observe the 50th death anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. That is, on December 6. There were, of course, fine exceptions. But mostly, media coverage of the run-up to the event was much like the coverage of post-Khairlanji protests in Maharashtra.

This is not the first observance of the great man's anniversary. Lakhs visit the "chaitya bhoomi" in Mumbai each year on this day. As they did this year, too, with high discipline. And without that hell foreseen in the headlines. (After the huge build-up, the issue has faded from the news. Alas, no mayhem.) Then why the hysteria? Is it because the state saw some violence after the Khairlanji murders? Now, every issue stamped 'Dalit' gets slotted into: "Will there be disorder and chaos?"

And so a decades-old event was cast in a frame never imposed on other annual festivals. Some of those, like the Ganesh utsav, go on for 10 days in the city. And have a massive impact on traffic. But they do not get covered this way. And the more dismal display has come from the English media. The Marathi press — at least on December 6 — did better. There were essays on the man, his legacy, his relevance.

In the English media — with rare exceptions — the Ambedkar anniversary rated at best as a traffic problem. At worst, as a potential nightmare. There was not even a pretence of interest in the person whose 50th death anniversary it was. A giant who was no `Dalit leader' but a national one with a global message. Dr. Ambedkar was not just the prime architect of the Constitution. This was a man who resigned from the Nehru Cabinet — he was the nation's first Law Minister — on issues linked to women's rights. He stepped down when the Cabinet dragged its feet on the Hindu Code Bill that would have advanced the rights of millions of women.

Few in the media asked why so many — sometimes up to a million — human beings come to observe his death anniversary each year. Is there one other leader across the world who draws that number 50 years after his death? To an event that speaks to the hearts of people? To a function not owned or organised by any political party or forum? There was no effort to look at why it is the poor and the dispossessed who come here. No mention that this was a man with a Ph.D from Columbia University who returned to lead what is today the greatest battle for human dignity on planet earth.

There was little journalistic curiosity over what brings 85-year-olds with just two rotis in their hands all the way from Mhow in Madhya Pradesh to Dadar in Mumbai. People for whom the journey means both hardship and hunger. Musicians and poets who perform through the day for nothing. Hard-up authors who print books and pamphlets at their own cost for their fellows. And yet make the trip — driven by their hearts and drawn by the hope of a noble vision as yet unfulfilled. A casteless world.

Which other national leader commands this respect 50 years after his death? Let alone when alive? Why are there more statues of Ambedkar in India's villages than those of any other leader the country has ever seen? His statues are not government installed — unlike those of many others. The poor put them up at their own expense. Whether in Tamil Nadu or Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra or Orissa, see whose portraits can be found in the humblest of huts. It's worth trying to understand why.

The 50th anniversary is being held in the context of Dalit unrest in Maharashtra. But it is being used to take Khairlanji out of its larger context. Crimes against Dalits in Maharashtra have risen steadily through the 1980s and 1990s. There were 604 cases of rape of Dalit women recorded in 1981. That number was 885 by 1990. And rose to 1,034 by 2000. That's based on very biased official data. The real figures would be much higher. And things have gotten worse since then.

There is one exception. Crimes under the Prevention of Atrocities (PoA) Act do show a big dip in the 1990s. But only because the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party Government arbitrarily dropped thousands of these cases at one go.

As the Dalit voice in organised politics has declined, the number of caste attacks on Dalits in Maharashtra has increased. Earlier, their political strength was their best shield. For decades, they had repelled the worst excesses of landlord cruelty. Untouchability did not vanish. But they did fight it stoutly. This culture of resistance rested on strong political movements. So, though less than 11 per cent of Maharashtra's population, Dalits had begun to stand tall.

But the Republican Party of India splintered and many of its leaders were co-opted by mainline parties. The Dalit Panthers, once a key source of inspiration and strength, went almost extinct. The results of the decline showed up soon. There was no struggle against the dropping of those thousands of cases under the PoA Act. Electoral opportunism saw the RPI factions crumble further. The 2004 polls saw them put up their worst show ever.

You can see it in battles over water as in Jalna, labour boycotts in Raigad or wage battles elsewhere. Attacks on Dalits have risen across Maharashtra. Just a year ago, more than 20 Dalit houses were torched in Belkhed village in Akola district. Akola was once a centre of Dalit political strength. In the 1960s, RPI candidates used to get 40 per cent of the votes in the Lok Sabha seat here.

Hindutva's rise from the late 1980s saw the RPI fracture further. Too many leaders were swallowed by the Congress and later the Nationalist Congress Party. Dalit unity lost ground. These setbacks were to reflect in every sphere. The shrinking of public sector and government jobs in the reform years hit Dalits badly. Even existing jobs lie vacant. A Times of Indiareport reckons that more than 1.3 lakh government posts in reserved categories in Maharashtra have not been filled up for years.

Meanwhile, the protests after Khairlanji have had an ugly companion. The growing display of caste prejudice in the media. The claims were sick. Khairlanji had nothing to do with caste. The woman who was raped and murdered was of loose morals. There were no "upper castes" in the village. (That last had to come from an English-language journalist unaware that the dominant caste in a given village might not be an "upper caste" at all.) Dalits were holding the state "to ransom." Wicked `politicians' were behind what was going on. The protests were Naxal-driven.

As always, there were brilliant exceptions. (Even on television.) They did not, though, define the main trend. The same media treat anti-quota activists as heroes. (No matter how much damage they inflict or how close to racist their rhetoric gets.)

Interviews in the run-up to the Ambedkar anniversary were mostly with people whining that Shivaji Park had been turned into a toilet. Or who spoke only about pollution and traffic jams.

It would be startling if political groups did not enter the protests. Corporation and panchayat elections are due in February. And parties won't ignore that. But they did not set off this process, even if they sought to engage with or exploit it. Ordinary Dalits were on the streets long before Dalit party leaders were. Khairlanji was the fuse. An already deep disquiet, the bomb. Many of these protests have taken place outside traditional political frameworks. On the streets were salaried employees and full time workers. People with no firm party links. There were salespersons and teachers, hawkers, and vendors. Landless and jobless. They, not `vested interests,' were the key to what happened.

The police still plug the `Naxal' angle. The Maoists just do not have the power to stage State-wide actions. Any political group, though, would be thrilled to get the credit for having launched protests it did not even foresee. It builds its appeal. Note that many Dalit party leaders joined the protests days after they began. Attempts to brand the protests as `Naxal-led' are poor escapism.

This is a State witnessing the highest numbers of farm suicides in the country. The conditions of the poor are dismal. For thousands, their anger and despair has turned inwards, within and upon themselves. Hence the suicides. With Dalits, that anger is being expressed. Outwards and openly. The larger society ignores or distorts their struggle for their rights at its own risk.

In the end it is more than a fear of violence that annoys elite society and its media. It is a fear of the mass. A worry that these people no longer know their place. A fear of the assertion of their rights and the loss of our privileges. A fear, in short, of democracy.

 Originally published in The Hindu