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Politics of representation

Gopal Guru

(Published in Seminar magazine in December 2001)

THE UN conference on Race, Xenophobia and Other Related Forms of Discrimination was recently held at Durban in South Africa. A central issue that assumed 'flaming' importance both before and during the conference was whether caste should be included in the formal agenda of the conference. The NGOs, led primarily by dalits, tried hard to force the government to accept their demand, which the latter opposed by all the means at its disposal. While one appreciated the efforts of the dalit camp and their friends in achieving a certain amount of visibility to the issue of caste discrimination, both at national and international level, conspicuously missing from the debate was the question: Who is entitled to talk about the caste issue and represent it in Durban?

gopal_guru_copyIt was suggested by some that since India is a democratic state which believes in equality, it should represent the dalits at the Durban conference. The government itself suggested that it was only Hindu dalits who had the right to speak on behalf of the dalits. Still others argued that all those who believed in equality could speak about the caste question at Durban. But most dalits felt that they alone had the natural right to speak on behalf of the dalits anywhere and everywhere in the world. Unfortunately, this question of representation got relegated to the background; it was overshadowed by the central issue of whether caste could be included in the agenda of the conference. Since the question of representation is both complicated and of enduring importance for our understanding, it will be worthwhile to discuss it in some detail.

Let us begin by raising certain questions about the representation claims, particularly in the context of the Durban conference. Does a formal, if not firm, commitment to the ideal of equality establish an automatic right to talk of the issue at different forums, including Durban? Does this privileging of certain ideals as an adequate condition make the representation claim valid? Does talking of issues concerning caste and the dalits become automatically valid just because of an ability to write in the English print media? Or is the case for speaking on dalits and caste at Durban enhanced because one has the right body language and TV-friendly face? And finally, does one's ascribed dalithood make the claim for representation automatically valid and authentic?

Let us begin by discussing whether a commitment to equality by itself makes the representation claims acceptable. There should be little disagreement about accepting the representation claims of those who not only preach but practice equality. This accords a secular and universal status to one's representation claims. But if the commitment is only to formal equality, then the representation claims certainly become less defensible.

For example, as the experience of the last 50 years demonstrates, the Indian state by and large has shown only a formal and rhetorical commitment to equality as far as dalits are concerned. Hence, even had it chosen to speak for the dalits at the conference, it would have had a weak moral case to defend its assertions. On the contrary, it showed extraordinary brazenness in asserting that there was no caste discrimination, (juridically if not in practice) in India, thus sliding further down on the morality scale. Moreover, it chose to handle the issue with Machiavellian tricks thereby deploying the discursive element.

For example, it sought to push the issue of caste discrimination perpetuated by civil society of the twice born (CSTB) into the domain of patriarchal morality, arguing that since caste was a family (Hindu) matter, it would be sorted out within the family. Instead of launching a critique of CSTB, the Indian state sought to make concessions (justify?) to a society which is, in fact, responsible for committing caste atrocities against the dalits.

The question that needs to be asked is: Why was this moral deficiency further reinforced by the use of Machiavellian tricks? There could be two possible explanations of this moral downsizing of the state. The Indian government did not want to publicly blame or shame the Hindu community whose belligerent members are primarily responsible for the perpetuation of the hydra-headed monster of caste atrocities against the dalits. Second, it perhaps was worried about losing some material benefits from the international agencies who may haul the Indian state over the coals for its malignant social face. If civil society in India is a part of the problem, then this resource is not available to dalits for speaking on their behalf. How could one have expected civil society to represent the case of the dalits at Durban, particularly when it does not have a stake in the equality question?

It is shocking to note that many of its members, particularly the upper middle class, seem unaware about the existential dimensions of caste. As a social reality, caste just does not exist for this section. Their sociological blindness is evident in their reactions to caste related issues in the print or electronic media; it sends them into cultural shock. The lower rung of this growing class, though aware, remains largely callous about the caste question, thanks to globalization. This is partly because avenues generated by globalization have created new aspirations of mobility among this class and diverted their attention from the search for reservations to international migration.

As for the rest of rural society in India, since caste discrimination is treated as a natural phenomena why should they bother about Durban? However, it must be admitted that there are some fragile voices from this society trying to articulate the dalit question through the media, both print and electronic. But is this representation of caste and dalit at Durban valid and authentic?

If we focus on the social background criterion of representation, it was difficult to come across any dalits representing their own case in the mainstream press and electronic media. It was clear from reading the press that it was the non-dalits who spoke on the issue of caste. In fact, since the media took the initiative to approach 'experts' it is clearly not their fault either. But why did the media, by and large, contribute to the exclusion of dalits on Durban?

In fact, it is a combination of both political economy and modernity, and to some extent the biased reading of body language, which contributed to keeping dalits out from the media-driven debate on Durban. Appropriate accent and pronunciation, speed of speech delivery that is required for maintaining efficiency in communication – these supposedly constitute the lifeline of the electronic media. Thus, permitting a philosophical or poetic pause on TV is not economically acceptable. The media does not make any concession to such pauses, of course with certain exceptions.

It is assumed that since the dalits do not have the three SSS – skill, sound and speed – they are misfits on TV, which privileges speed over philosophical pause, sound over sensibility and skill over serious scholarship. Second, the subordination of serious scholarship to efficiency of presentation also mitigates against a deeper understanding of the issue. Since the three S's demand certain selective rhetoric and terminology, they tend to screen out the serious and deeper content of the discourse.

If we examine the debate on whether caste should be included in Durban, it is clear that the media experts used audience friendly rhetoric and academic jargon without, however, touching the threshold of the problem. The debate no doubt achieved sophistication, but lacked depth. For example, the question of nationalism, state and civil society and caste in the context of Durban were hardly ever discussed on TV.

A key reason why dalits were excluded from the discourse is that they lack the necessary body language and a camera friendly face. To state it bluntly, you must have fair skin, a sharp nose and expressive eyes that are a must for any TV appearance. Dalits become the object of TV camera not so much for any intrinsic aesthetic value that they may possess, but for their idiosyncracy or incoherent use of language, or bizarre physical movements, which only serve the purpose of presenting them as a caricature. In the final analysis, the stereotype that is constructed around the caricatured body language of the dalits keeps them out, thus leaving an uncontested space for the darlings of TV to hegemonize the discourse.

The exclusion of the dalits was equally marked in the print media, particularly the English press. This exclusion, whether intentional or otherwise, definitely suggests that the dalits lack the necessary language competence, if not the content. This, however, deprived audiences of an alternative reading of the issues being discussed. The discourse on caste and Durban remained academic and had little relation to the mobilization of dalits who were directly making a political point to embarrass the Indian government. Thus, there was a serious mismatch between the discourse in the print media and dalit mobilization, without giving us an authentic sense of the people's perceptions.

Scholars wrote on the issue without bothering to take any feedback from those who are victims. Since they have language competence they have the privilege of being invited by the media, which is bothered more about form than content. These 'privileged darlings' of the press are able to write on anything and everything. Their interventions, however, raised more dust at the polemical level than elevating our understanding through the sociological expansion of the debate.

The polemic in English journalism on issues raised at Durban was only vertically sensitive; it remained sociologically blind towards the horizontal level of the vernacular public. For example, this debate was confined to the English press and English electronic media. There was a total silence in the vernacular press, barring few exceptions. Was this debate, therefore, informed by the perception of the common people? The answer unfortunately, is no. Thus, the above scenario indicates the comprehensive exclusion of dalits from the intellectual domain that was built up around the issue of Durban.

Does this exclusion, therefore, make the claim of representation, as advanced by certain dalit NGOs, automatically valid? The answer to this question cannot be given in black and white terms, because framing the question in such dichotomous ways traps us into a patronizing essentialization of dalits. In order to overcome these dangers let us approach the issue in the following manner.

The dalit claims for being legitimate representatives of their issues, including at Durban, can be justified on the grounds that it is they who took the initiative to bring caste into the forefront of the public domain, howsoever elitist and limited the framework of this domain may be. Thus, at an epistemic level, privileging the dalit voice on the dalit question can be justified. Second, the representation of dalits by non-dalits becomes problematic since it accords to the claimant a kind of morally superior position without realising that it sustains itself on the basis of a permanent exclusion of dalits from the intellectual domain. It reproduces new forms of intellectual hierarchy, thus making difficult the democratization of intellectual representation. It marks the continuation of dalit submergence into the language of the alien. It is primarily in this sense that a dalit speaking for the dalit can be justified; it helps the historical recovery of dalit voices.

However, such culturally specific claims of representation, though initially desirable, remain problematic for two reasons. First, they do not create a sufficient condition for a transformative dalit politics as they tend to foreclose the possibility of dalits acquiring the intellectual leadership to speak in the universal language of emancipation. In order to claim a moral status to their representation claim, dalits have to acquire the moral capacity to question themselves vis-ˆ-vis both their intellectual and political moves. In other words, they are supposed to substantiate their claim not only on the basis of external reasoning, but an internal ethic informed by public accountability, a historicization of dalit reality and tolerance towards internal intellectual dissent.

The Durban initiative was hegemonised more by the opinion makers among dalits based in the metropolis rather than the people's initiative. Had they only gone to the people for political education, they would have got a response since ordinary dalits are invariably generous in extending support to their leaders on public issues, even those which may be of a scholarly nature.

The dalits may not object to an elite representation of their general aspirations for three reasons. First, they feel empowered if someone from their community speaks or writes in a scholarly language that confronts the language of the adversary, in our case the twice born. In this regard, it is important to remember the pride with which the dalits quote the 17 volumes that Ambedkar wrote both in English and Marathi in order to silence upper caste adversaries. Often they also feel that they are incapable of producing the more complex arguments that their community intellectuals might provide in order to answer the adversaries.

Such an approach to difficult and complicated issues, however, lacks good common sense (a la Gramsci), since the cognitive map of the people is marked more by thick emotions than reason and leads to a critical distancing of the masses from their 'smart' leaders. No wonder, the common dalits make huge concessions to these leaders to speak on their behalf. The moral question still remains: Should dalit leaders claim public support for their intellectual moves? Is there not a greater need to go to the people again and again, not only with promises but also problems? But, unfortunately dalit leaders only make promises, thus making the discourse absolutely easy and free flowing.

Second, valid dalit representation claims should be informed by a historicized projection of social reality, meaning that the claimant should not shy away from depicting the reality in its fullness without avoiding the uneasy or inconvenient dimensions of social reality. Did dalit representatives show this moral courage of confronting their reality in its totality? For example, some of the dalits did show sensitivity in criticizing caste discrimination within the Christian and Muslim establishments. But it was dealt with only at the theoretical and academic level, that too only in the NGO sector and thereby missed out the opportunity to expand the social base of the critical understanding of the dalits masses. The reality once again failed to travel into the public domain in its fullness.

Such a partial representation of the issue may have been necessitated for pragmatic reasons. Nevertheless it continuously worked to deny moral consistency to transformative politics. This pragmatic politics does sometimes acquire a sharp edge, as it should, against the external adversary but fails to show the same tenacious criticism against the internal one. Any claims to representation, including by dalits, can be valid only when they have the moral capacity to confront reality, howsoever ugly it may be. They become authentic only when their claimants resolve the uneasy tension between the pragmatic and the moral component of politics.

If the representation claims are driven primarily by the force of pragmatic considerations and the sense of easy and quick political victory, then they have the tendency to render the claimant less tolerant of internal criticism. In fact, they can drive them to eliminate the internal adversaries, not so much by force of argument but by deploying extra-intellectual factors. The representation claims established through these methods necessarily become self-limiting, in as much as they keep the concerned interrogators from the non-dalit groups out of the discourse. In a way such claims are ultimately converted into self-evident truths to be believed without question. Such claims also lack a unity of purpose in as much as they are exclusionary in character. The paradox is that such representation claims reproduce the very same processes of exclusion against which they had emerged in the first instance.

It is not the that language of moral uprightness is deployed only in order to hold onto the representation claim; the dalits are also fond of using language which is full of rhetoric and little substance. For example, during the Durban mobilization one came across statistics and narratives of dalit atrocities that were being dished out by dalit ideologues and repeated by activists from below. This, while certainly useful for mobilization, creates an empistemic closure within those who employ such rhetoric.

Similarly, during the Ambedkar centenary year (1991), one came across a plethora of writings on Ambedkar. But most of it was marked by mere rhetoric, thus doing double disservice to the intellectual universe of the dalits. In the first sense they focused on Ambedkar's philosophy, but without establishing its rele vance in the changing times. Thus, they operated in a fixed notion of time and space. Second, they failed to provide a fresh reading of Ambedkar to those dalits who, though small in number, sought a new interpretation of his writings. Unfortunately, such writings cannot be representative as they travel in different, and often self-serving, directions without links to the intellectual and political need of dalits.

The spheres of representation are also spheres of intense political contestation. They are advanced sincerely and seriously contest the representative claims that are made by adversaries with the hegemonic intention of assimilation. But they are also advanced to assign exclusionary boundaries around the dalit constituency. Ambedkar tried, both at the intellectual and political levels, to enlarge the horizons of such claims without fear and favour. This quality is absent in the current instance.

[Courtesy: Seminar, December 2001]

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