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The power and the danger of personal stories


Anand Silodia

anand silodiaBabasaheb said, “Ours is a battle, not for wealth or power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle for the reclamation of the human personality.”

What does it mean, the reclamation of human personality? You reclaim something that you have lost. How does one lose one’s human personality?

The caste system manifests itself in many ways. There are caste-based networks in business, media, academia and every other Indian institution. These networks cut off access to outsiders. This is discriminatory and makes our lives hard, but it does not dehumanize us. Rather, it stimulates our human impulse of fighting against this corrupt system. There are atrocities where people are raped, massacred, paraded naked, force-fed excreta, cut off from public spaces and denied public services – these actions are meant to dehumanize us, to break us, but often they backfire. Often, the victims refuse to be dehumanized and fight for justice. It’s such acts of resistance which gave us Phoolan Devi and Soni Sori and the PoA act.

So, if it’s not through discrimination or atrocities, then how do we lose our human personality? I think we lose it when we give up on our own humanity. It happens when we start believing that we are indeed inferior and then voluntarily do degrading things like washing a Brahmin’s feet and drinking that water or performing a ritual of rolling over Brahmin’s leftover food to wash away our sins.1 But how do we reach that point? How does a person accept any of these acts as normal, desirable, or even spiritual? I don’t know. Only those who have experienced that can tell us. All I can do is talk about myself. Even I had given up on my humanity for a long time. For years, I believed that there was something wrong, something bad, something inferior about me.

I believed all that because that’s the message I received from the world around me. This included TV serials, movies, news, and most of all, society. It was such a pervasive phenomenon, that if you were to ask me to pinpoint one major incident which made me feel in my childhood that I was inferior, then I won’t have an answer. And yet, long before I was in high school, I had learned that SC/ST are bad people, that reservations are bad, anyone raising a complaint about caste-discrimination is a liar, and bhangi and chamar are common swear-words, but not problematic beyond being swear-words. I cannot pinpoint how I learned all that, but I could imagine how that cultural osmosis worked when I saw the news coverage of the Mumbai bandh after last year’s Bhima-Koregaon incident. Had I seen that news coverage as a child, probably I would have learned that Dalits are rioters.

As I grew up and realized my own caste-location, all those negative narratives came to define me in some way. That is how I lost my human personality. It was compounded by the fact that I had learned all my life to pretend to be a savarna. So when I encountered people saying these negative things, I couldn’t argue with them, because at some level I agreed with them and even when I disagreed, I couldn’t argue strongly for the fear of being found out.

The way I regained my humanity was by writing down my story. The process required me to re-examine the events of my life, ask questions, which I couldn’t ask before and for once, step away from my own lies and state my truth. It helped me build a positive identity beyond easy labels. When I published my story online, I was helped further by finding people who’d had experiences similar to mine. It gave me a sense of belonging I’d never felt before. That was the point from which I could go down the constructive path of self-education and paying back to society.

So, at least for me, telling my story has been immensely valuable. But it’s not a one-time process, nor is it without its pitfalls. Over the years, as I have revisited my own old writings and read what others like me have written, I have noticed a number of problematic things.

The first pitfall, while writing your story, is arguing within the framework which oppresses you. For instance, trying to prove the “merit” of reserved category students, when it’s the concept of merit itself which is arbitrary and flawed. Or labeling yourself an “elite” or “privileged” Dalit, when the truth is, your so-called privilege consists of just being able to avoid explicit, in-your-face violence and discrimination. Such narratives feed the same structures and ideas that we’re seeking freedom from. The only way to avoid it is by building our own vocabulary so that we can move beyond the language that restricts our thoughts. Some of that vocabulary already exists, thanks to anti-caste activists from ancient times till now, but since it’s not part of the “mainstream” narratives, it’s not easily accessible to most of us. So, I’m afraid that at least initially, this pitfall is unavoidable. The only thing we can do is to keep learning, improving and propagating our emancipatory vocabulary.

The second pitfall is trying to generalize our experiences. Quite a few of us try to do that. We try to act like the spokesmen for all Dalit-Bahujans, by extrapolating our personal experiences or trying to make others’ experiences a subset of our own narrative. I am trying to be very careful right now, to write in terms of my personal experiences and what they have taught me, and what has worked for me. Because my experiences are not yours. You might be from an Ambedkarite or a Buddhist family and grew up with the vocabulary and ideas that I am discovering only now. You might be a first generation graduate or a farmer or a manual scavenger, unlike me. What right do I have to speak on your behalf? We should have solidarity and a sense of fraternity, but that doesn’t give any of us the license to usurp each others’ stories. It’s not always easy, but if we’re conscious of this phenomenon, we should be able to avoid doing this.

The last one is our stories being appropriated by others for their own agenda. If you want examples of this, just watch Swades or Jai Bheem Comrade. Hatred in the Belly is one book which dissects this phenomenon. I don’t know how we can escape this. Those who have social capital, or rather caste-capital, in our society, have the power to put any kind of spin on our narratives and popularize it in the “mainstream” culture. The only thing we can do is, critically analyze every such narrative to decipher the agenda behind it, and then talk about it through the platforms we have, like RTI and Shared Mirror. That’s the only path of resistance I know.

The question of platforms is also devious. Sometimes, we get an opportunity to participate in so-called mainstream platforms, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you see the tantalizing possibility of reaching a wider audience, but on the other hand, the power you have to resist the editorial decisions made to sanitize your work is limited. If you can have the complete control of your narrative, then it’s not a bad idea to take that chance. But if not, then you have to ask yourself, whether this is selling your soul, and is the result worth it?

None of these are easy questions. Indeed, writing honestly about yourself is one of the most difficult things one can do. The purpose of this article is not to make it harder for you. If all these considerations freeze you into inaction, then I’d suggest you ignore everything I’ve written and just focus on telling your truth. You will find your way. Eventually, we all do.

~

Notes

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Made_Made_Snana

 ~~~

 

Anand is a computer science postgraduate from IIT Delhi, currently working in the US as an IT professional.

 

 

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