April was celebrated as #DalitHistoryMonth. An amazing team of Dalit women that included Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Christina Thomas Dhanaraj, Manisha Mashaal, Sanghapali Aruna Lohitakshi, and Vidya Karunakarn, among others, toured the United States and conducted teach-ins and workshops and led discussions in partnership with various organizations and educational institutions. But such activities beg a more basic question: How should one define the “Dalit” in #DalitHistoryMonth? This essay is dedicated to exploring that question.
In his book Untouchables: My Family’s Triumphant Escape from India’s Caste System, Narendra Jadhav notes that every sixth human being in the world is an Indian and every sixth Indian is a “Dalit”—the self-ascribed name communities that were historically discriminated and cruelly treated as “untouchables” have given to themselves. In terms of statistics alone, such people are more numerous than half the population of the United States.1
It is not uncommon for Dalits to continue to face gruesome incidents of violence in India. Just in the latter half of May 2015, Sagar Shejwal, a Dalit youth, was beaten to death by a mob of “upper-caste” men2 for having a ringtone that praised B. R. Ambedkar, an Indian statesman and early advocate of Dalit’s rights. In other news that came in just as I was finishing up this essay, three Dalit men were mowed down with a tractor3 and five Dalit women were beaten and paraded naked because of one of their sons eloped with a girl from an “upper” caste.4 This is 21st century India.
To understand the manifestations and practices of continuing caste-based discrimination and cruelty in India (and the diaspora5), one must first grapple with the logic of caste. Caste does have a certain logic, however malevolent, and is embedded within textual and cultural traditions. Literary sources that sanction caste-based stratification may be traced back at least a thousand years before Jesus to a text called the Rig Veda. There, in the infamous Purusasukta hymn, one finds, as James Massey, a prominent Dalit theologian, argues, an etiological account that sanctions the caste system. It reads6:
When they divided the Man, into how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two arms and thighs and feet? His mouth became the Brahmin; his arms were made into the Warrior (Kshatriya), his thighs the People (Vaishya), and from his feet the Servants (Shudra) were born.
In this reading, a divine origin is hinted at for the hierarchical division of Indian society. The four levels correspond to the four major parts of the primordial man and there are many communities that fall into each of these four levels. Dalits don’t fall into any of these levels and do not have a place in the body politic. Consequently, along with Tribals7, Dalits are deemed, in this version, “outcastes.” Other textual bases for caste-based discrimination include the Chandogya Upanishad. There, in the section dealing with paths after death, 10:7 says8:
Accordingly, those who are of pleasant conduct here the prospect is, that they will enter a pleasant womb, either the womb of a Brahmin, or the womb of a Kshatriya or the womb of a Vaishya. But those who are of stinking conduct here the prospect is, indeed, that they will enter a stinking womb either the womb of a dog, or the womb of a swine or the womb of an outcast (Chandala).
“Chandala” is a derogatory name and is one among other discriminatory and injurious names that are used in ancient Hindu texts for those that are deemed “other;” in essence “outcaste.” Other textual sources for discerning caste-based discrimination include the Hindu law codes, also called dharmashastras. Their infamous injunctions include the following prescribed punishments for Dalits who dared to move “out of place”:
If he listens intentionally to the Vedas, his ears shall be filled with lead. If he recites them, his tongue shall be cut out. If he remembers them, his body shall be split in twain.9
While it is contested whether the above-mentioned texts are representative of the phenomenon that we now call “caste” or not, in terms of their interpretations and reception, they have provided religious and cultural sanction for the hierarchical division of society that B. R. Ambedkar, M. K. Gandhi’s ideological opponent, has rightly called graded inequality.10
While the logic of caste is ancient, as we have suggested above, one must be careful not to locate the practice of caste only to ancient eras. Caste is current and is both durable and portable. It is relevant even in India’s cosmopolitan cities and towns. This is a helpful reminder to those Indians (both in India and the diaspora), who, after a lot of argument and persuasion, half-willingly admit that caste (a waning phenomenon, according to them) is perhaps present, but, as they are fond of saying, “only in India’s villages”. Among other things, such dominant caste perspectives do the cruel work of forgetting wrongs done against Dalits. One need only recall a sample of the contemporary horrors mentioned at the beginning of this essay to recognize the moral casuistry involved in relegating caste mentality to “the villages”.
While I could go on enlisting horror stories of crimes against Dalits, I want to turn the reader’s attention to the ordinary ways in which people contribute to caste-based violence. Most spaces in India reek with caste. Caste is ingrained into ordinary practices, both private and public. I cite Narendra Jadhav again11:
The 3,500-year-old caste system in India is still alive and violently kicking. In cities, they will tell you, “The caste system is a thing of the past, it now exists only in villages.” Go to the villages and they will tell you, “Oh no. Not here, maybe in some other village.” Yet open the matrimonial section of any newspaper and you will find an unabashed and bewildering display of the persistent belief in caste and subcaste.
As Susan Bayly notes, “despite the great diversity of India’s social and political experience since Independence, awareness of both ‘substantialised’ and ‘traditional’ jati and varna norms [in essence, the caste system] continues to be transmitted from one generation to another, subtly changing to accommodate new circumstances, and yet persistently recapitulating messages about the importance of preserving and perpetuating one’s ‘community’.”12
Allow me to offer a few examples from advertisements for grooms and brides from India’s leading national daily, The Hindu [the equivalent of The New York Times]. Such mental entrapments with the logic of caste affect Indians across different religious affiliations. Compared to religion, another social phenomenon that binds, caste is often the stronger glue. Consider this advertisement for a bride that puts caste identity (“Vellalar Pillai” – a dominant caste in Tamil Nadu) before religious (Christian, in this case) identity despite the “Caste No Bar” disclaimer.13
Vellalar Pillai, Christian (Caste No Bar), 35/171, Communication VP, International Bank, Singapore. (Native Tanjore), Tamilnadu. Salary above 5 lakhs pm, Clean Habits boy. Seeks Educated girl. (Must Health Conscious) Ct: 9500646022. firstname.lastname@example.org (Published on May 17, 2015).
As one may notice, sometimes people do say “Caste No Bar.” But that continues to be the exception. Some of the following examples are also revealing as they show the durability and portability of caste even in the diaspora14 15 16 17:
BRAMIN ASTASAGASRAM Sadayam 31/168 BE MS MBA (US) Project Manager in MNC Massachusetts (US) Left hand after wrist limb palm and fingers accident. No problem car self driving, seeks broad minded UG/PG employed (USA) Brahmin bride. Email: email@example.com 044-22237736, 09176641005. (Published on May 17, 2015).
WELL ACCOMPLISHED Groom with Christ centred upbringing below 28 in India or abroad for brilliant MBBS girl 165/23 fair beautiful from highly respected Tamil Vellala CSI Christian family.Contact with recent photo(returnable) and full details at first instance. Box No-HB-3076,THE HINDU Chennai-600002 (Published on May 17, 2015).
Marriages often occur within the same caste group and marriage prospects bring out caste prejudices. It is almost as if one has to bare one’s social location in terms of caste before both partners can take the relationship to the “next” level. Consider this exchange between Omprakash Valmiki (a Dalit who is mistaken for being “upper caste”) and Savita (a Brahmin) that Valmiki narrates in the novel Joothan:
After Savita left, I told Patil that I was going to let Savita know everything. Patil tried to stop me; he said, ‘No, don’t do that. It will cause a storm.’
But I had come to a decision. Things should be cleared up. I would face whatever happened.
Savita met me near the Upkar restaurant at the Ambernath train station. She wore a white skirt and blouse outfit which greatly suited her milky-fair complexion. Her eyes were sparkling and her walk had a spring in it. She talked non-stop as usual. I was replying briefly with ‘ohs’ and ‘yeses.’ I did not know how to tell her, where to begin.
Suddenly Savita made out as though she had remembered something. ‘Oh, I had almost forgotten, weren’t you going to tell me something?’ Her eyes grew large as she gazed at me steadily. For a moment I felt I wouldn’t be able to do it.
Gathering my courage, I said, ‘That day when Professor Kamble came to your place…’
Before I could finish Savita interrupted with, ‘That Mahar18…SC19?’
The way she said it made me flush with anger, ‘Yes, the same…’ I replied bitterly.
Surprised, Savita asked, ‘Why are you thinking of this today?’
My voice hardened, ‘You had given him tea in a different cup?’
‘Yes, the SCs and the Muslims who come to our house, we keep their dishes separate,’ Savita replied evenly.
‘Do you think this discrimination is right?’ I asked. She felt the sharp edge in my voice now.
‘Oh…why, are you mad? How can we feed them in the same dishes?’
‘Why not? In the hotel…in the mess, everyone eats together. Then what is wrong in eating together in your house as well?’ I tried to reason with her.
Savita defended the discrimination as right and justified by tradition. Her arguments were infuriating me. However, I remained calm. According to her, SCs were uncultured. Dirty.
I asked her, ‘How many SCs do you know? What is your personal experience in this regard?’
She fell silent. Her bubbliness subsided. We kept sitting on the ledge for a while. Then I asked her, ‘What do you think of me?’
‘Aai and Baba20 praise you. They say you are very different from their preconceptions about U.P. people,’ Savita cooed.
‘I had asked for your opinion.’
‘I like you.’ She leaned on my arm.
I pushed her away and asked, ‘Ok…would you like me even if I were as SC?’
‘How can you be an SC?’ she laughed.
‘Why not, what if I am?’ I had insisted.
‘You are a Brahmin,’ she said with conviction.
‘Who told you that?’
‘He is wrong. I am an SC.’ I put all my energy into those words. I felt that a fire had lit inside me.
‘Why do you say such things.’ She said angrily.
‘I am telling you the truth. I won’t lie to you. I never claimed that I am a Brahmin.’
She stared at me, totally shocked. She still though I was joking with her.
I said plainly as I could that I was born in a Chuhra21 family of U.P.
Savita appeared grave. Her eyes were filled with tears and she said tearfully, ‘You are lying, right?’
‘No Savi…it is the truth…you ought to know this.’ I had convinced her.
She started to cry, as though my being an SC was a crime. She sobbed for a long time. Suddenly the distance between us had increased. The hatred of thousands of years had entered our hearts. What a lie culture and civilisation are.22
The encounter between Omprakash Valmiki and Savita reveal several key elements about the logic and practice of caste. They include the Indian invasive curiosity about people’s social locations often gathered through last (caste infused) names (“That Mahar…SC?”); caste-specific hospitality that is really hostility (“How can we feed them in the same dishes?”); prejudices about the “other” and the resulting invocation of stereotypes (“According to her, SCs were uncultured. Dirty.”); and the despair that ensues when the veil of innocence is lifted and the reality of cruelty appears (“She stared to cry, as though my being SC was a crime.”). Caste-based discrimination, unfortunately, is not a thing of the past and caste is a cruel reality that pervades almost all aspects of collective social life in India. I elaborated on just one aspect of Indian life—marriages—to offer the reader an insight into the importance of Dalit History Month.
Sunder John Boopalan
Ph.D. Candidate in Religion and Society
Princeton Theological Seminary
- Narendra Jadhav, Untouchables: My Family’s Triumphant Journey Out of the Caste System in Modern India (New York: Scribner, 2005), 1. ↩
- http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/dalit-youth-killed-for-ambedkar-song-ringtone/article7232259.ece?homepage=true; accessed May 20, 2015. ↩
- http://scroll.in/article/728776/three-dalits-were-mowed-down-with-a-tractor-why-are-officials-describing-this-as-a-group-clash; accessed May 21, 2015. ↩
- http://www.deccanchronicle.com/150518/nation-current-affairs/article/dalit-women-paraded-naked-punishmentl accessed May 21, 2015. ↩
- See Singh Swapnil, “Caste and Diaspora,” International Journal of Social Science and Humanity 5, no. 1 (January 2015): 80–82. ↩
- Rig Veda 10.90.10-12. See James Massey, Roots: A Concise History of Dalits, 5th ed, CDS Pamphlet, no. 3 (New Delhi: Centre for Dalit Studies, 2004), 20. As Wendy Doniger (29) notes, “In this famous hymn, the gods create the world by dismembering the cosmic giant, Purusa, the primeval male who is the victim in a Vedic sacrifice.” See her work The Rig Veda: An Anthology: One Hundred and Eight Hymns, Penguin Classics (New York: Penguin Books, 1981). ↩
- “Tribals” are communities that are increasingly calling themselves “Adivasis” (“first” or “original” inhabitants) and make up a little less than 10% of India’s population. Like the term “Dalit,” “Adivasi” is also a political self-ascribed term by indigenous communities that do not have a place in the four-fold division of society that continues to determine Indian societal relations. Of course, Dalit and Tribal/Adivasi communities don’t always subscribe to this dominant etiological account of society’s origin. They have their own myths of origin that affirm a sense of pride and dignity, and not one of humiliation as in the dominant model. ↩
- Cited in James Massey, ed., Indigenous People: Dalits: Dalit Issues in Today’s Theological Debate, ISPCK Contextual Theological Education Series 5 (Delhi: ISPCK, 1994), 28. ↩
- Gautama Dharma Sutra 12: 4-7. See note 98 in B. R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste, The Annotated Critical Edition (New York: Verso Books, 2014), 270. This legal injunction is often mistakenly attributed to Manu, the author of the Manusmriti. The editor notes that the Gautama Dharma Sutra (600 BCE to 300 BCE) predates the Manusmriti. The editor is dependent on Georg Buhler’s 1898 translation. ↩
- Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and Gandhi, Annihilation of Caste: With a Reply to Mahatma Gandhi, 2d ed, Tracts for the Times 2 ([Bombay: B. R. Kadrekar], 1937), 66. ↩
- Jadhav, Untouchables, 3. ↩
- Susan Bayly, Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 335. http://universitypublishingonline.org/ref/id/histories/CBO9781139053389; accessed on May 6, 2015. ↩
- http://www.thehindu.com/classifieds/matrimonial/; accessed May 20, 2015. ↩
- http://www.thehindu.com/classifieds/matrimonial/?list1=brides&pageNo=6; accessed May 20, 2015. ↩
- http://www.thehindu.com/classifieds/matrimonial/?list1=brides&pageNo=6; accessed May 20, 2015. ↩
- http://www.thehindu.com/classifieds/matrimonial/?list1=bridegrooms&pageNo=2; accessed May 20, 2015. ↩
- http://www.thehindu.com/classifieds/matrimonial/?list1=bridegrooms&pageNo=4; accessed May 20, 2015. ↩
- “Mahar” is the name of a Dalit community in north India. ↩
- “Scheduled Castes” (SCs) is the name given to Dalit communities by the Indian government for purposes of classification and affirmative action. ↩
- “Aai” and “Baba” stand for “mother” and “father” respectively. ↩
- “Chuhra” is the name of a Dalit community in north India. ↩
- Omprakash Valmiki, Joothan: A Dalit’s Life (Kolkata: Samya, 2007), 97–98. ↩
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