While defending our citadels of learning from the ravages of the Right, it is important to recognise that these idylls are no Edens of equality, writes Sayan Bhattacharya
As I sit writing this essay, my uncle sits in the adjoining room performing his monthly ritual—Lakshmi Puja. He is clad in a dhoti, with another dhoti covering his torso, his “sacred thread” gleaming in its whiteness. His face, a study in piety and calm, a far remove from his agitated visage an hour back when he was talking about the fascist agenda of the Modi government and how important it was for the Left parties to show the black flag to VK Singh when he landed in West Bengal.
VK Singh, the Minister of State for External Affairs, had said that just as the government could not be held responsible if somebody threw stones at a dog, it could also be not held accountable for the planned murder of two Dalit children in Haryana. While the sheer depravity of Singh’s analogy is self-evident, what concerns me here is something else, something very innocuous but which, for me, is the crux of the malady called caste—how “we” fail to mark our active complicities in perpetuating this form of graded inequality and because of this failure, our response to this malaise is always already a failure.
Before exploring this “we” further, let us come back to my uncle for a moment. He has been an active member of the CPI for close to four decades. He is 65. After having retired from his bank job, he has become a full-time party worker. Every morning at 9 AM, he leaves for the party office and does not come back before 10 PM. He regularly speaks at street corners, walks in rallies. He edits a little magazine as well, the last issue of which was dedicated to how the state and the central governments are throttling democracy and the current issue is about how the Sachar Committee recommendations are yet to be implemented.
While the sheer depravity of Singh’s analogy is self-evident, what concerns me here is something else, something very innocuous but which, for me, is the crux of the malady called caste—how “we” fail to mark our active complicities in perpetuating this form of graded inequality.
He speaks about the in-built syncretism of Hinduism and researches, writes and speaks about how India has been a tolerant society historically and how right-wing forces are changing its fabric. My uncle is also a devout Brahmin, who does his pujas regularly, who followed every single ritual as per Hindu traditions while marrying my sister off to a fellow Brahmin. And there seems to be no apparent contradiction between his communist self and his brahminism because he straddles both worlds with equal and passionate conviction.
Now, as far as the history of communism in India is concerned, the image of the god-fearing communist is not a paradox really. Time and again, we have seen the communist formations in Kerala more than cozying up with the church. In West Bengal, some of the most popular Communist party leaders have been seen inaugurating Durga Pujas, backing them with hefty donations. The photo of Subhas Chakraborty, one of the most charismatic leaders of the CPI(M)—and perhaps also the precedent for Mamata Banerjee in booth capturing and rigging—visiting the Kalighat temple is perhaps well-etched in popular imagination. So in that sense, my uncle is not an anomaly.
In fact, popular sociologists often suggest that it is because the Left parties in India looked for inspiration more towards China and Russia than towards India’s own histories of people’s struggles that it is disconnected from large swathes of the Indian population. In that sense, leaders like Subhas Chakraborty were cited as exceptions, who used popular faith instrumentally to connect with the masses. These leaders, when confronted about attending religious gatherings, have often cited the sociocultural dimensions of such events and the potential they have in mobilising mass opinion. So in other words, the “opium” could be harnessed productively as well.
However, when was faith so benign? Can there be any Hinduism without its caste structures and the inequalities they produce? Why is it that in postcolonial India, a nation supposedly free from the ills of colonialism, that we have not seen the Left parties produce Murmus, Sattars, Sardars and Sorkhels as leaders as much as the Namboodiripads, Basus, Bhattacharjees, Chakrabortys and Dasguptas? And the singular reason for that is the near absence of caste from any Left analysis about inequalities in India. So my uncle can have a government job, live in his ancestral house, then buy a 1,200-square-feet flat in the same city, go for two vacations annually and then can also talk about class struggle.
This is not about personal choice. It is not about preference. This is about the privilege one has inherited from one’s landed ancestors, in short this is the privilege from one’s caste position. The economic capital that produces cultural capital that further produces more economic capital and the cycle continues.
Most importantly, this is about the multifarious ways, some blatant and some innocuous, that ensures that this capital keeps accumulating on itself further. My uncle’s dogged insistence that my cousin marry only a Brahmin is one such strategy to keep that power intact. When confronted about it, often the response is that this is not really about any prejudice against a lower caste but compatibility. This bogey of preference and compatibility is often raised nowadays in the face of an omnipresent media. It was also raised by Harish Iyer, the self-proclaimed gay activist, when his mother had placed an advertisement in a matrimonial column for his son, stating that she preferred Iyers. This is how caste is entrenched in our bodies, in how we think, work and behave.
Why is it that in postcolonial India, a nation supposedly free from the ills of colonialism, that we have not seen the Left parties produce Murmus, Sattars, Sardars and Sorkhels as leaders as much as the Namboodiripads, Basus, Bhattacharjees, Chakrabortys and Dasguptas?
However, it is not enough to critique Harish Iyer to prove one’s anti-caste politics. It is also not enough to state that one hasn’t had a janayu ceremony to prove one’s stand against brahminism. Because even the ability to resist oppressive structures emanates from one’s privileges. In other words, that I am writing this essay on caste, in English, in an online magazine, speaks somewhat about the kind of capital on which I sit. My education in a convent school, then in a convent college, my circle of friends and their respective circles, and the way we communicate with each other, the books and languages we have access to, all speak about these privileges. And no, this is not just a question about class. It is about caste.
It was when I went for my MPhil classes in Women’s Studies, learning how theory could be socially transformative, that I also realised the huge gap between me and my classmate, a first-generation learner. Why it took me this long to come to this realisation is itself a telling comment.
As much as Judith Butler and Ranajit Guha opened up my imagination, my professors and I could communicate with each other because of our shared cultural capital. The classroom lectures would spill over to informal conversations that would become the seeds for conference abstracts in other cities and other countries, opening up broader networks of friendships and professional connections. All this, while my classmate grappled to understand these theorists because their works were not available in translation. All this, while during paper presentation exercises, professors regularly ridiculed him for the lack of theoretical rigour in his arguments, his lack of hard work and his poor pronunciation skills. Such blatant forms of casteism would then pass off as the professor’s work ethic telling him that students needed to be motivated to improve the quality of their writing. Yet, there would be no efforts to organise reading groups to bridge the “gap” between him and other students. Neither we nor the professors tried to create such groups.
Such blatant forms of casteism would then pass off as the professor’s work ethic telling him that students needed to be motivated to improve the quality of their writing. Yet, there would be no efforts to organise reading groups to bridge the “gap” between him and other students.
There were conversations about caste. There was some reading material too. But, alongside this, what was mentioned, almost in the form of a feeble apology, was that time was short, the syllabus huge. What could the teachers really do about this gap? Moreover, this was MPhil and therefore it was mandatory that both the course and the quality of work produced by the students maintain a certain standard. The conversation would move towards why the gap couldn’t be addressed at the undergraduate and the master’s levels when the coursework was still not as demanding.
To add another layer to the question of caste, more often than not Dalit students who are not first-generation learners and therefore have been able to build somewhat on the struggles of their forbears are cited as examples of how, in spite of being upwardly mobile, they continue to make use of affirmative action. And to that are added dollops of surprise that such students, instead of helping other Dalit students, only further their own career goals. All this, even as one continues to enjoy the privileges of being born into an upper caste and working in every which way to guard those privileges.
But to come back to my MPhil class, my classmate did earn an MPhil while some others left at the end of the second semester, but how do we make sense of the daily battles he had to undertake to earn that degree without acknowledging our complicities in perpetuating structures of inequality, be it the space of the university or at work, within movements or in the ranks of political parties? Just a cursory review of the caste position of the leader base of movements, our popular professors and their favourite research scholars should suffice in corroborating this complicity.
So then, the “we” in the opening paragraph of this piece refers to us, upper caste, upper class Hindus, and this is about our active collaboration in the ceaseless production of inequality. When I talk about my MPhil class, it is not really a specific instance of casteism at a specific department of a specific university. It is the saga of most universities in India.
The citadels of democracy and free speech, so romantically invoked by our humanities professors, now in danger of being overtaken by the fascists, are brahminical already, and you and I are its fruits and seeds. And this is exactly why the liberal response to the onslaught of Hindutva forces in such spaces rings so hollow and is altogether inadequate in countering such threats. It seems as if so long as the right wing was not in power, our institutions were Edens of equality and all that is changing. Our liberals are bemoaning how the idea of India is being brutalised, but what exactly is this idea of India, if not a brahminical India with progress reserved for a select few at the cost of the rest?
Perhaps, the idea of India is best exemplified by the story of Budhni Mejhan, a 15-year-old tribal girl who was one of the labourers on the site of the Panchet dam, the fourth dam of the Damodar Valley Corporation in Dhanbad. When Pandit Nehru came to inaugurate the dam, he insisted that one of the workers press the button at the power station to formally start the operations. So Budhni and Rabon Majhi, another worker on the site were chosen to felicitate Nehru. Budhni garlanded Nehru and welcomed him with a red tilak. Then Nehru got her to inaugurate the dam.
The citadels of democracy and free speech, so romantically invoked by our humanities professors, now in danger of being overtaken by the fascists, are brahminical already, and you and I are its fruits and seeds.
That was December 1959. The next day’s newspapers were plastered with this image. The story of development of a young country making giant strides on the back of science and technology. The story of progress that transcended class, caste, religion and ethnicity. The story of the temples of modern India. The story that also invisibilised the millions uprooted by dams at a time when social movements for the conservation of ecology were still to gain currency. The story of the temple, erected on the lands, histories, cultures and the bodies of Dalits and Adivasis. The story that had blocked them out.
So then, wasn’t it obvious that after the tribal girl had been made the vehicle on which the message of inclusivity of the temple spread far and wide, she would be discarded? Wasn’t it but obvious that the prime minister would never come back looking for her after he had got the picture perfect image of inclusive progress for the annals of history?
That very night, when Budhni went back to her Santhal village, Karbona, she was told by the village elders that because she had garlanded Nehru, she was married to him and because Nehru was a non-Santhal, Budhni could not find shelter in Karbona anymore. Later, she started staying with a person she had met at DVC and they had a daughter, who too was not allowed to enter Karbona. In 1962, Budhni was dismissed from her job at DVC without being notified of any reason for her removal. Thus began Budhni’s “tryst with destiny”, a life of relentless poverty. It was only many years later, when she managed to meet the inheritor of the Gandhi dynasty, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1985 that she was reinstated in her job. Budhni died in 2011.
The fact is, from our class, caste and geographic locations, our response can only be in the form of an intrusive foreign gaze, completely incapable of understanding intricate chains of kinship and how that is safeguarded to prevent excommunication of entire communities.
If one thinks of this story only in terms of the patriarchal customs in a Santhal village, it is yet another act of violence looking at those “superstitious lots in faraway lands”. The fact is, from our class, caste and geographic locations, our response can only be in the form of an intrusive foreign gaze, completely incapable of understanding intricate chains of kinship and how that is safeguarded to prevent excommunication of entire communities. Of course there are forms of patriarchy embedded within such practices but to highlight that and not talk about how the State uses such narratives to colonise peoples, their lives, cultures and histories in the name of integrating them to the mainstream narrative of progress is a greater form of violence and the story of India rests on its bedrocks. How do liberals, the advocates of free thinking respond to such invisibilisations and state sanctioned plunder?
Many progressive writers have returned their Sahitya Akademi awards in the last few months protesting the silence of the government in the wake of murders of rationalist thinkers. This was indeed a much needed step because what such gestures did was bring attention to impunities that were otherwise ignored by the national and international media. Such gestures have also created at least some pressure on the central government to respond to such attacks, in the form of tepid condemnation.
However, that is only the partial story, because even as we laud our writers and liberal intellectuals, can we deny that religious intolerance is not a new phenomenon in India? What is specific about this particular moment is that the monsters have reached too close for comfort and therefore we are bristling. Our academic positions in history councils and dance institutes are being taken away to be given to right-wing propagandists. We are being shut out of our government-sponsored Hindi conferences as Sangh pracharaks take over. Our film institutes, the domain of high art and culture are being opened to BJP cadres who are blocking us out from our turf. So the protests are ringing louder. The liberals have been forced to wake up to safeguard their idea of India.
No, I am not a cynic who would scoff at such protests. These are very important and politically urgent exercises, but the question is what is it that our protests seek to protect? Structures which are already so unequal and violent? To what end? Even as we counter the Right, how do we ensure that we also rigorously and mercilessly introspect about the violence we spawn? Because unless that introspection happens, our protests will never really be about all of us. They will only be about some of us.
What is it that our protests seek to protect? Structures which are already so unequal and violent? To what end?
This is exactly why I began this essay with the story of a CPI worker. That story is actually every liberal’s story. It is our story. It is the story about the limits of our politics, which cannot surpass our inherited privileges. It is the story of why land reforms ultimately failed in West Bengal despite their initial promise. It is about how even the surplus land redistributed created a new landed class while the landless Dalit farmers continued grinding in poverty.
It is the story of how even as we shudder at the murder of Dalit children in a village in Haryana, we refuse to acknowledge caste in our own locations in the city. And this is exactly why Lalu Prasad Yadav gives me hope. Not only because he has delivered an emphatic win at the Bihar hustings. Not only because, just as he had halted the Advani rath yatra in 1990, he has halted Modi’s media blitzkrieg that had tried every trick to woo the Bihar electorate, from announcing multi-crore package deals to invoking the cow and Pakistan!
But most importantly, he has taken the bull by its horns. When he dares Narendra Modi to burn Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts as it clearly speaks against caste reservations. Lalu Prasad Yadav speaks of a churning that we are yet to fully fathom. When he says that it is time for the second Mandal raj, he is perhaps saying something profound. So far he has shunned the development rhetoric of corporate media and stated unequivocally that reservations should happen on the basis of the population of various castes. It remains to be seen whether he can deliver. But if he does, that will be a new idea of India.
Far too few of us have wielded all the power and capital for far too long. Far too few of us have dominated the discourse for far too long. It is high time that the wheels of progress be reversed. Such a process cannot be smooth and seamless. It will be messy and unruly but that is a churning that we can avoid only at the cost of our ethics.