Caste conflict “is no mere orientalist fantasy.”1 This is important to note especially in light of dominant caste articulations that falsely argue that cases of caste-based discrimination and conflict are being “produced” by Dalits for consumption by curious and condescending Western readers.
Allow me offer a last example because of the impact it has had on my own experience in the United States at Princeton. On September 29, 2006, four members of a Dalit family were murdered in broad daylight in Khairlanji2 in the north Indian state of Maharashtra. Surekha Bhotmange and her daughter Priyanka Bhotmange were stripped, paraded, raped and murdered. Surekha’s sons were lynched by a violent mob. The murdered bodies were dumped into a canal. Local dominant castes tried to cover up the wrong and the news media did not pick up the story. It was the political agitation of Dalit communities and activists that brought the issue to national and international attention.
In March 2011, I attended an event that was organized by the Religious Life Office’s Coordinator for Hindu Life, which took place at the Friend Center at Princeton University. The event was disturbing for many reasons. It hosted Rajiv Malhotra, co-author of the book Breaking India that blames Dalits for “breaking India” along caste lines, among other things. During the Q&A session, a Dalit activist mentioned Khairlanji as one example of the persistence of wrongs against Dalits in India and rightly called into question the irresponsible and false claim that Dalits are responsible for breaking India. A member of the audience heckled the Dalit activist by loudly asking, “Where is the evidence?”3 Many in the audience joined the heckler and the microphone that was in the hands of the person speaking about Khairlanji was wrested as he was still speaking. The heckled member shouted (rightly so!) after the microphone was wrested away from him, rushing out of the auditorium, using his body to gesture his distaste and disagreement with the proceedings of the meeting.
I take the use of one’s body and voice to protest and educate as emblematic of what we are trying to do with #DalitHistoryMonth. Dalit History Month educates, inspires, protests, and importantly also celebrates the life and resilience of Dalit communities. I briefly alluded to the debate between B. R. Ambedkar and M. K. Gandhi and it is perhaps a fitting conclusion to end by giving flesh to that debate as a way of underscoring the significance of Dalit History Month.
Most readers (especially Western ones) would be familiar with the name Gandhi. His name has frequently been invoked in homes, institutions, and politics in reference to Indian affairs. As India was on the verge of gaining its political independence from the British Empire in 1947, Gandhi was in a debate with another equally prominent national leader, B. R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar, who represented the Dalit perspective, argued that social reform, in essence, the dismantling of the discriminatory practice of caste, should precede political reform. Gandhi, on the other hand, argued that social reform would follow political reform. Sociologist Gopal Guru succinctly summarizes the debate: “The Dalit response to Indian nationalism also differs from the mainstream notion of nationalism in another important respect. While the mainstream nationalist imagination draws its emotional power from the register of collective pride and humiliation, the Dalit response puts Swabhiman (self-respect) before Abhiman (pride) of nation.”4 It is for this reason that some of the women mentioned in the first paragraph were part of Dalit Mahila Swabhiman Yatra (Dalit Women’s Self-Respect Walk) that continues to travel across India.5
Guru rightly argues that “During the anticolonial struggle, a segment of the upper-caste population was violently opposed to social reforms, thus raising doubts in the minds of the Dalit (led by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar) about the nationalists’ sincerity when it came to resolving the caste question.”6 What Ambedkar feared continues to be largely true in India even after 60 years of independence. Socially dominant (“upper-caste”) constituencies continuously try to “manipulate liberal democracy in order to consolidate and expand their own power through the reproduction of the old hierarchical order that placed Dalits at the bottom.”7
Dalits continue to argue that liberal democracy is only an “initial condition” and not a “sufficient condition” for achieving dignity and freedom for all, especially for the most vulnerable and historically disadvantaged.8 As evidence in support of his argument, Guru notes how the judiciary—“who are responsible for impartial delivery of legal justice,” unfortunately, remain closer to “their caste than to secular laws.”9 Guru refers to the case of a lower court judge from the state of Rajasthan who, while considering the accusation of rape lodged by a “lower-caste” woman, declared that “touching a lower caste is not in the culture of Indian society.”10
Ambedkar’s “radical critique,” according to Guru, is one that points out how “liberal institutions cannot exorcise the ghost of caste.”11 Because civil society is often not hospitable to democratic concerns,12 Dalit History Month privileges the language of “rights.” Rights-talk arises out of this inhospitableness of civil society to democratic concerns that privilege dignity. Dalits have begun to assert their rights and their dignity. However, “claims for dignity,” as Guru helps us to understand, often do involve “a heavy price.”13 Khairlanji, the woman who was cruelly treated by a caste-laden judiciary system, and even people simply seeking a spouse pay a price of humiliation common to Dalits who assert claims to dignity. And yet we continue.14 15
See http://www.dalithistory.com for an excellent timeline that showcases important events and figures that are part of Dalit History.
Interrogating Caste Privilege—Ten Talking Points
1. Research Indian Last Names
Last names are often indicators of caste. “Patel,” “Reddy,” “Naidu,” “Tiwari,” “Deshpande,” “Grewal,” “Chivukula,” and “Arora” are only a few examples.
2. Question Food Habits
As a general rule of thumb, the greater the distance from meat the “higher” one tends to be in the hierarchy of caste. If an Indian says “We are vegetarian,” you have good reason to suspect a problematic entanglement with caste. Also remember that there are many Hindus who eat meat, including beef, as part of their culture.
3. Watch Reactions to Questions About Caste
If the first response to a question about caste is “Caste is a thing of the past,” it is often an indicator of caste dominance. Not talking about caste helps one to gain social mobility and respectability with other dominant caste Indians.
4. Interrogate Stories of Struggle
The webpage of one US politician of Indian descent says that his family “rose from humble beginnings.” One does not need to despise such Brahmins, but to make the story of an “upper-caste” person a story of struggle is disrespectful towards Dalit and other communities who are humiliated on caste grounds everyday. To be “upper-caste” in India means “high beginnings.”
5. Are Indians “Shocked” at Racial Discrimination?
If Indians appear to be shocked at racial discrimination in the U.S.—as if they have encountered discrimination for the first time—it is very likely that they come from a dominant caste. Such Indians may never have had the “opportunity” to be shocked in India over caste discrimination!
6. Notice Anti-Black Talk and Logic
Indians generally gravitate towards “All Things White.” This often takes anti-Black positions and practices. Look out for these.
7. Analyze Friends Networks
Dominant caste Indians usually hang out with other dominant caste Indians. Birds of the same caste feather flock together. Indian hospitality is usually reserved for other Indians from similar caste backgrounds. Of course, if one is White, this rule does not apply.
8. Heroes: Gandhi or Ambedkar?
If an Indian is all about Gandhi, this is another indicator of dominant caste thinking, if not location. B. R. Ambedkar, Gandhi’s ideological opponent, was an equally influential figure and was the chairman of the committee that drafted the Indian Constitution. Ambedkar is also one of the most prominent Dalit icons. Ambedkar famously argued for The Annihilation of Caste, which is also the title of one his books.
9. Examine Indian Weddings: Reflections of Caste Reality
Most Indians marry within their caste groups. Ask Indians what caste their parents or spouses belong to and you will discern whether you are associating with dominant caste Indians or not.
10. Drop the word “Dalit”
Drop the word “Dalit” in a conversation and watch for Indian reactions. Do they evade or change the topic, or worse, call Dalits “rabble-rousers” and “anti-national”? If “yes,” that’s a good sign of caste privilege. If “no,” work your way from 1 to 9. Jai Bhim! If that last phrase does not ring a bell, ask a Dalit.
Sunder John Boopalan
Ph.D. Candidate in Religion and Society
Princeton Theological Seminary
- Bayly, Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age, 345. ↩
- See Anand Teltumbde, Khairlanji (New Delhi: Navayana Publishers, 2008). ↩
- For context and further analysis of how Dalit issues affect educational politics in the United States, see Richard Fox Young and Sunder John Boopalan, “Studied Silences? Diasporic Nationalism, ‘Kshatriya Intellectuals’ and the Hindu American Critique of Dalit Christianity’s Indianness,” in Constructing Indian Christianities: Culture, Conversion and Caste, ed. Chad M. Bauman and Richard Fox Young (New York: Routledge, 2014), 215–38. ↩
- Gopal Guru, “Liberal Democracy in India and the Dalit Critique,” Social Research: An International Quarterly 78, no. 1 (2011): 100. ↩
- For a helpful write-up about one such walk that happened recently, see http://www.dalitweb.org/?p=2768; accessed May 21, 2015. For such and more informed Dalit perspectives from India, see http://roundtableindia.co.in. ↩
- Guru, “Liberal Democracy in India and the Dalit Critique,” 100–101. ↩
- Ibid., 101. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., 112. ↩
- Ibid., 112–113. ↩
- Ibid., 117. ↩
- Gopal Guru, “Democracy in Search of Dignity,” in Human Rights and Peace: Ideas, Laws, Institutions and Movements, ed. Ujjwal Kumar Singh, South Asian Peace Studies, v. 4 (New Delhi: SAGE, 2009), 74. ↩
- Ibid., 75. ↩
- One of the chants from the Dalit Mahila Swabhiman Yatra. ↩
- A poem by the Dalit poet Gaddar. I quote this from memory; change in phraseology is unintentional. ↩
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