Foot-soldiering for identity politics (ie. sleeping in the trenches because the cannon balls fired by the privileged are threatening to blow our heads off) is a weary business. No pay, long hours, the threat of upper-caste intellectuals descending like a hail of gunfire to destroy any sign of a discussion, the list is long. On top of that, some of us have to sit down to write manuals for the enemy because some of them don’t know how to tell the truth. If only they would stop firing for a few minutes and listen…
Hey, upper-caste people: Tell the truth. Go on, try it. It’s not that hard. Ok, I’ll help. Here’s a sample: “No-one has ever defined corruption. One day, it’s about a minister letting the government lose crores of money, and then, suddenly, its about someone not buying a Rs 5 bus ticket. (I have never travelled by bus, therefore I do not know that, in Chennai, for instance, rich people, who think they can get away with it, are more likely to not buy their tickets. Poor people cannot afford the awful fine that will descend on their heads if caught and are more likely to buy their tickets or have bus passes. Yeah, I’m too important to talk to bus conductors). As I was saying, if someone had defined corruption, and then conducted a survey to see who was more corrupt, then and only then would I be able to pontificate on whether there is any correlation between caste and corruption. As an upper-caste intellectual, I have benefited enormously from caste and the privilege it gives me, so I really should not be making grand pronouncements about lower castes’
Do you see how its done? You can tell the truth about caste by being aware of your caste privilege and only talking about things that you understand and know something about. If you prefer talking about things that don’t exist, allow me to suggest the writing of science fiction as a more appropriate career than that of being a public intellectual.
What is caste privilege you ask? It is the privilege you receive by birth that gives you access to power. Caste-ism is institutionalized – lower caste groups are always at the receiving end of caste violence which includes physical violence inflicted by individuals and groups, verbal aggression and insult, or exclusion from educational institutions. This blog over here has described privilege well and I’ll let them do the talking for a bit:
Revisiting “Politically Correct”
…Your privilege gives you the power to dismiss the decisions of non-privileged groups, and further deride them by turning “politically correct” into a slur. Part of engaging in a language of respect and equality is in recognizing the validity of a person’s choice to use language, and “politically correct” terms, even if you may not understand or agree with them…
Don’t make it about you
…Make sure that what you’re saying is relevant and appropriate before you bring your privileged experience into a conversation by and/or about a non-privileged group. And, furthermore, if people in that group react badly, don’t get angry at them! Reflect on the situation and use that knowledge to foster a better discussion next time…
Intent Isn’t an Excuse
“That wasn’t my intent,” all too often translates into “your reactions to what I did are invalid because I didn’t mean any harm.” The result is that it’s a defensive reaction that silences discussion on the issue and puts the words/actions above criticism. It, in essence, privileges the sayer/doer’s opinion/feelings over that of the non-privileged person or group that they have offended.
Ok? To describe lower caste assertion as casteist is not only false, it is also an expression of your fear of losing upper-caste privilege.
You do not have the right to dictate when and how lower caste political mobilization and expression will occur. There is a long history of Adivasi and Dalit-Bahujan political mobilization and resistance in this country that began much before the Indian National Congress and the idea of Indian nationalism were so much as a gleam in an Englishman’s eye. That’s right – anti-caste protest is older and stronger and more indigenous than anti-colonial protest ever was. Our villains are indigenous too (Isn’t that cool?) Lower caste communities have fought for the right to walk on public roads, to cover their breasts, to wear gold ornaments, to be given education, to be allowed dignity and the right to describe themselves and their histories (presumably they grew tired of scholarly upper-caste liars claiming that Shudras emerged from Brahma’s feet). They had to fight for and win these rights from upper-castes. They have won important victories in these struggles and there are many more battles to be fought and they keep fighting.
And they will win.
This terrifies you. Every instance of lower-caste political assertion terrifies you. Admit it. That is why you turn disgustingly self-defensive and abusive when your caste-ism is called out. This is why when the foot-soldiers of gender identity were protesting the gangrape in Delhi, you found it heroic. And when Dalits protest the degrading of Dalit-Bahujan dignity, you find it annoying. Admit your location and role in the oppressive system of caste. Being an ally to the Dalit-Bahujan cause is not an identity, it is a process. It is not something you are, it is something you keep doing. You do not get to claim that you have read one volume of Subaltern Studies and have magically lost your casteism. Your location on the caste hierarchy continues to grant you privilege, you continue to absorb casteist messages from the media, from your family, from your circumstances. Your privilege, the social circles you have access to, the media attention you get, the horrifyingly cheap domestic labor you employ and exploit, these are all enabled by caste.
If you’re familiar with concepts of white supremacy, white privilege and racism as systemic forms of oppression that deny equal opportunity and dignity to African Americans in the United States, then Brahmin supremacy, upper caste privilege and casteism should not be too difficult to understand.
No, caste is not race. I plead guilty to having made claims about caste having racial characteristics – I said once that it is possible to tell Brahmins apart by their physical features. I was wrong. I’m sorry. I will not make such claims again. Caste is not racial, it is not a form of eugenics.
But caste is sustained by slavery. Your nationalist history textbooks won’t talk about the British abolishing slavery in India in the nineteenth century. That’s right – the British banned upper caste landlords from selling their lower caste laborers, they banned upper caste landlords from leasing/mortgaging/hiring out land with the labor of lower castes tied to the land (which means lower castes had to work the land they lived on, receiving measly recompense in kind, rather than cash. One of your own has claimed that this arrangement was more beneficial for lower castes than wage labor. What can I say? Caste has made the concept of ‘freedom’ difficult to understand for you) Almost one percent of the south Asian population is enslaved in debt bondage now, almost all of them are from lower castes.
As privileged members of the upper castes, you have inherited the fruits of slavery ie. power. Power is not purely an economic value (people who argue for excluding the creamy-layer from reservations, I’m looking at you), it is also social and political. This means that a person can be poor and benefit from upper caste privilege. They can be rich and suffer the disadvantage and lack of respect that being lower caste brings.
As members of the lumpen intellegentsia, you need to stop claiming subalternity for yourself (yes, even in American academia). If someone calls you out on your casteism, it is an act of respect and love. If you cannot see that, your caste privilege is obstructing your vision. Wipe the fat from your eyes. Read Ambedkar. You’ll be fine.
- Malarvizhi Jayanth,
February 6, 2013
The author is a Shudra and a research scholar at an American university. She continues to work on recognizing her caste privilege and being an ally to the Dalit cause and she encourages you to do the same.
~ I gratefully acknowledge Shuddhabrata Sengupta for providing us the fabulous phrase ‘foot-soldiers of identity politics’. I feel truly subaltern now.
~ To the unnamed Marxist friend who has given me the far more fabulous phrase ‘lumpen intelligentsia’, I am much more (and then some) grateful.
~ Significant portions of this posting could be used to talk about the stupid Vishwaroopam controversy as well. Apparently, Tamil Hindus do not have the courage or the intelligence to ask why a Chief Minister who cosies up to Narendra Modi would suddenly become concerned about Muslim sentiment. The reactions to this controversy and Ashis Nandy’s casteist nonsense have been a study in Islamophobia and fear of lower caste political assertion. No-one thought to conduct one decent interview with the groups requesting the ban on the film (a film justifying the American invasion of Afghanistan and a ban imposed by a court in this country) or those who filed cases against Nandy. As K. Satyanarayana has pointed out, the question of casteism remains. Who benefits from slandering disadvantaged minorities? If you cannot speak with subalterns, guess whose problem that is?
~ Here is another introduction to caste privilege
~ More resources to understand your caste privilege:
Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar
The Grammar of Caste by Ashwini Deshpande
Bonded Labor: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia by Siddharth Kara (An excellent interview with the author about this book is here )
Residential segregation by caste higher than segregation by socio-economic factors in India’s seven largest cities – EPW article
Corporate employees are mostly upper caste – EPW article