Casteism and Ways of Removing Casteism

 

Mahitosh Mandal

Photo Mahitosh MandalCasteism is caste-based prejudice deriving from Brahminical values and giving birth to discrimination and violence against those belonging to the Dalit-Bahujan communities, the ‘marginalized majority’[1] of this country. This is a kind of simple definition. But this has layers of implication.

Let us begin with an anecdote that would give us one of the subtlest instances of casteism in the form of unacknowledged ignorance and insensitivity towards the caste question.

Reportedly[2], once a non-Bengali asked Sunil Gangopadhyay, the then Chairman of the Sahitya Akademi, about the nature and scope of Bengali Dalit literature. Sunil said there was no such thing called Dalit literature in Bengal. Sunil was wrong; Sunil had no idea about the history of hundred years of Dalit literature produced by the Bengali Dalit writers. This ignorance, this neglect about the sufferings and wisdom of hundreds of Dalit Bahujans – that too coming from a Bengali Brahmin heterosexual male intellectual – is a pure instance of casteism. His bold assertion about the absence of Dalit writing in Bengal makes us put a question mark on his role as an intellectual. Antonio Gramsci[3] once said that those intellectuals who reign at the top run the risk of serving the interests of the dominant groups and of suppressing the alternative revolutionary voices. Gramsci had Bendetto Croce in mind, among others. People like Sunil Gangopadhyay who reign at the top of Bengali intellectual life should take the initiative of nurturing the alternative revolutionary voices, the voices of those ‘organic’ intellectuals who talk on behalf of their communities. At this point of time, in Bengal, there is a strange set of intellectuals who are constantly involved in narcissistic self-proclamation leading to their being hero-worshipped but who contribute almost nothing to concrete structural change of society.

But, wait, there is more to it! A few days back I had the (mis)fortune of attending a book launch event[4] – actually the launch of an English translation (done by two Savarna academicians) of an autobiography written originally in Bengali by a Dalit writer. There the same issue of Sunil’s ignorance was raised. But I was astonished to see how the Brahmin-Savarna panelists were engaged in defending Sunil’s ignorance and not being apologetic about it. These panelists were arguing that the Bengali Dalit writings were not properly disseminated; hence, Sunil did not know anything about it. They were saying Sunil should not be blamed. I say, that is precisely the point about casteism – this justification of Sunil’s ignorance. Why didn’t Sunil take the initiative to research and disseminate the Dalit writings, occupying as he did the topmost position among the Bengali intelligentsia?

In the same book launch event, the present author and a friend of his (both of them from the Dalit-Bahujan communities) raised some unpleasant questions. For example, whether the translators, had they themselves been from the Dalit-Bahujan communities, would have produced a different translation of the book. A Savarna academician literally snubbed the questioner for asking this question; and started giving him some theories which she assumed the questioner did not know. For example, she said it would be absurd to say that no non-English or non-Russian should talk or write about English or Russian writings. Or, to extend the logic, it would be absurd to say that no man should talk or write about feminism. There are two problems with such an answer which was accompanied with a snubbing of the questioner: first, the assumption that the questioner did not know anything about this absurdity, and this assumption that the Dalit-Bahujans are dumb and unnecessarily reactionary; and second, the idea that through his question he wanted to state that anybody who does not belong to the Dalit-Bahujan community should not talk or write about the Dalit Bahujans. His question was to raise a critical consciousness, a sense of limitation among the translators of Dalit texts, translators who themselves have never experienced what it means to be Dalit. Like, a man should be critically conscious while talking or writing about the feminine experiences or sufferings. This may appear to be a very simple point; but this is a point that one constantly needs to remind oneself of. Without this critical consciousness, the Brahmin Savarnas in the guise of Dalit studies scholars and academicians or translators and publishers of Dalit texts would perpetuate casteism instead of annihilating caste. So, that is precisely the point about casteism: doing business with the inherited suffering and wisdom of the backward communities.

Of course, caste should not be a taboo; we need to talk about it in the mainstream media or inside and outside the classrooms, we need to take the initiative to disseminate Dalit writings and so on. Only through discussions and disseminations can awareness be spread. But then, while discussing and disseminating, one should be constantly vigilant about not committing representational violence.

This was more of a deep-rooted, unacknowledged kind of casteism derived from a specific incident.

In a broader way, casteism can be defined as a kind of ignorance about the caste question. It is ignorance about the critical history of the past and the present of this country and its marginalized majority. It is lack of critical knowledge about the Constitution of India and the history of its making. It is a lack of transformative vision vis-à-vis the building of a democratic nation.

Such ignorance generates insensitivity. Consequently, casteism is to be viewed as not to know how to talk to, or how to behave with, those who are struggling to come up in the society from a ‘lowly’ condition where they have historically been forced to stay back almost as slaves and less than humans. It is lack of sympathy, let alone empathy, towards those who are honest seekers of equality, liberty and fraternity. Casteism is shame – not for those who are on the receiving end; but for those who pose themselves as progressive and revolutionaries and deep down nourish the Brahminical values and casteist prejudices. And when this insensitivity is pointed out, people come up with aggressive self-defense by saying: ‘Caste? That’s a thing of the past!’[5] Indeed, casteism is aggressive self-defense in the form of verbally asserting, without looking deep down, that there is no caste discrimination in our society.

One of the glaring instances of casteism is to be found in people’s anti-reservation attitude. Reservation is a constitutional measure to help the ‘backward’ castes come up in the societal ladder to be at par with the others (I have talked about this question of backwardness elsewhere[6]) and also to represent the diversity of the country. Reservation is considered to be a major means to annihilate caste inequality. In this sense, to express anti-reservation attitude is not just to disrespect the Constitution and the Constitution-makers; it is also to express one’s insensitivity towards the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes who constitute a marginalized majority of this country. Anti-reservation attitude, with its selfish political and ideological roots, translates into intense forms of casteism. Casteism qua anti-reservation attitude is the neglect expressed towards the weak reserved category students by the teachers. It is that strategic essentialism which considers all reserved category candidates to be dumb. It is to state that reserved category candidates should learn to put up with atrocities and injustices as if they are on the receiving end of some charity. Casteism qua anti-reservation attitude is to bring in the discourse of merit and economic inequality while talking against reservation and thereby to diffuse the fundamental question of Brahminical hegemony. Anti-reservation attitude, undeniably, is casteism par excellence.

Casteism is to be against inter-caste marriage. So, if you open the matrimonial sections of some famous newspapers, you would find how Bengali/Indian parents are so anxious about maintaining caste purity. The entire system of marriage, as we have it now, is informed by Brahminical values and is instrumental in perpetuating casteism. But there is more to it. I have been repeatedly pointed out by a student[7] that when the Mandal Commission was extending the scope of reservation policies, how some upper-caste women protested fearing that their future husbands, from upper-castes, would go jobless due to reservation. While I have never understood how reservation takes away the opportunity for jobs from the so-called ‘general category’ candidates, I was immensely disturbed to know how some upper-caste women, who were resisting the Mandal Commission, did not really consider the fact that they could choose to marry qualified men from outside their castes. Such attitudes still continue, more among older parents and grandparents than among the younger generation who, more often than not, gives in to parental desires.

Casteism also functions through hegemonic intrusion of Brahminical and Hindu religious values into all quarters of Indian life. This intrusion is hegemonic precisely because everybody accepts these values as ‘commonsensical’, in the Gramscian sense, and nobody feels inspired to question these values.  A successful removal of casteism would be possible through critically engaging with these values and bringing to the forefront alternative religious values. 

Finally, it would probably be wrong to identify some particular human beings as the perpetrators of casteism. Casteism has its roots in Brahminical ideology which in a hegemonic way has ‘interpellated’[8], in the Althusserian sense, the majority of Indians. Our struggle is not always against some target groups of Brahmin-Savarnas; our struggle is against this vicious ideology, this hegemonic penetration of Brahminical values into our subjectivities. This ideology is the root cause of casteism.

The Constitution-makers have given us legal and political measures to fight against casteist violence and discrimination. There are a number of Prevention of Atrocities clauses in the Indian Constitution. But, following Gramsci’s invaluable insights in the context of the emancipation of the subalterns, it can be stated that the battle against casteism cannot be fought only through political and legal means. There should additionally be alliances between the various Dalit-Bahujan groups and their sympathizers who are fighting disparately and all of us, together, should push forward a strong counter-hegemonic culture. And one of the ways to do this successfully is the need for the Dalit-Bahujans to come forward to articulate their feelings and thoughts on a larger scale. That is precisely where a platform like the Round Table India becomes so significant.

 ~

 Notes

[1] I am indebted to Gowd Kiran Kumar who used this phrase in the article ‘Savitribai Phule: Epitome of Resistance, Modernity, and Empowerment’ published on 3 January 2016 at the Round Table India. I think this phrase can serve as significant a purpose as the phrase ‘political minority’.

[2] I am indebted to Manohor Mouli Biswas, the Bengali Dalit writer, for drawing our attention to the blunder that Sunil Gangopadhyay committed.

[3]  References to Gramsci are taken from Marcus Green, ‘Gramsci Cannot Speak’ (2002) and from Selections from the Prison Notebooks ([1929-1935] 1971).

[4]  The book launch event took place on 30 November 2015, at the British Council, Kolkata. The book originally written by Manohor Mouli Biswas has been translated as Surviving in My World: Growing up Dalit in Bengal.

[5] I take his phrase from a wonderful meme prepared by the admin of the popular Facebook page called ‘Just Savarna Things’.

[6] Refer to my article ‘The Question of Reservation and the Future of the Dalit-Bahujanas of India’ published on 27 November 2015 at the Round Table India.

[7] This student of mine, Sayantika Chakraborty, actually referred me to the book by Uma Chakravarti called Gendering Caste (2003).

[8]  Reference is to Althusser’s classic discussions on Ideology and Ideological Apparatuses in the essay by the same name (1970).

~~~

 

Mahitosh Mandal is Assistant Professor, Department of English, Presidency University, Kolkata. His areas of interest include Dalit Studies, Hinduism, and Psychoanalysis.

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