The return of caste and the need for recasting caste-mindscape

In the land of hundreds and thousands of Jishas and Rohith Vemulas, Tina Dabi must be celebrated but only as an exception.

 |  7-minute read |   14-05-2016
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In the wake of the 2014 general elections, it appeared as if the watershed moment in India’s history had perhaps arrived - caste was finally being replaced by class as the unit of India’s inequality.

There was this almost blinding tempest of "development politics" that had enveloped the idea of caste, creating an illusion of an eternal eclipse. The stalwarts of caste politics had almost disappeared from the public debates and their obituaries were being written.

It, however, turned out to be a momentary eclipse and in less than two years the caste politics and caste has come to swarm India’s public space as never before. There is virtually a stampede to appropriate the legacy of Ambedkar by political formation of all hues and colours.

This only bears testimony to the fact that the journey to a casteless India cannot be fast-tracked on the props of idea of development sans notion of social justice.

ambedkarmodi-bd_051416115846.jpg There is virtually a stampede to appropriate the legacy of Ambedkar by political formation of all hues.

The transition, if ever it happens, simply cannot skip the moment which I would paraphrase as "bridge-making moment", an arduous and longish phase of trust building which will essentially prepare the social background for rearrangement and reconstitution of the existing power matrix.

Caste in India demonstrates hydraesque characteristics; it never dies; it only regenerates. The main reason being caste is in the bone marrow of Indians. But so long as the upper strata enjoyed the privileges of the institution of caste, nobody complained. Now when the segment that bore the brunt of its wretched asymmetry for centuries started questioning and asserting itself, the clamour for the idea of a "casteless" society, camouflaged as the prerequisites of modernity, gained currency in certain quarters.

Contemporary politics in India seems to be gravitating towards a democracy that will be pivoted, if not yet entirely led, by the erstwhile middle and lower castes. It signals the occupation of erstwhile spaces of power and the public by the subaltern castes.

The decades of state-sponsored affirmative action measures, combined with the mushrooming of mass media, and now social media, has created a momentum and a context of empowerment where the question of caste identity supersedes all other identities.

The younger generation of Dalits prefer opportunities in caste neutral spaces of urban India, instead of ploughing the zamindar’s land in the village, the soil of which smells of their ancestors’ sweat and blood.

The gradual but steady infiltration of the lower caste community in to the bureaucracy, private enterprises and business, political echelon of power, academic and legal professions, and many other white collar jobs, have strengthened the public presence and visibility of the people from the marginal background.

It is indeed a critical phase for India, for it also happens to be the phase where tectonic social shifts are taking place. This is bound to create tremors. Those used to position of power as their natural right have to be mindful of their behaviour, both conscious and unconscious, mostly the latter.

This is a small price to be paid in comparison to the centuries of blatant inhuman suffering and subjugation that a huge segment of the population had to endure in the name of a grotesque normative prescription of purity and pollution.

tina-bd_051416115447.jpg 22-year-old Dalit girl Tina Dabi topped the IAS exam this year.

The rising incidence of caste-related violence in recent times is a pointer to that tectonic shift. It is symptomatic of a resistance from below, to the status-quoism of power at the top. It wants to invert the centuries-old pyramid of persecution.

Many people wonder why the backward states have a lower rate of divorce and cases of domestic violence than, say, rich states like Maharashtra and Punjab. The answer is simple: it is because the women of Punjab or Maharashtra are far more empowered and legally aware than other states where a vast majority of women still prefer to (or have been conditioned to) suffer in silence.

The same applies for caste-linked discrimination and violence. It is being reported more because the people are now aware of their constitutional rights and the protection that the law of the land provides to them.

In public offices and other corridors of entrenched power, one hears stories of what they call reverse-discrimination and exploitation in a hushed tone. That the women and the Dalits have been unduly and lopsidedly armed with rights, they would lament, saying how difficult it would be to work freely now. It is true that many a times the laws are abused. But this is not as if this is the first instance of law abuse/misuse; laws have been abused before, perhaps more blatantly and brazenly.

The more critical point, therefore, is to instead look at the scenario in a broader framework, of nyayaya (justice) and not just from the narrow, mechanical perspective of niti (policy), to borrow from Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen’s formulation. It is here that one will have to look beyond, if not bypassing, the techno-legal lens.

Let’s imagine the following incident purely for the purpose of reflection:

The upper caste old man from the village was used to spitting around with a loud throated sound (a very common sight in North India) almost scaring the people around. One day a young Dalit man from the village happened to pass by when he spit with his characteristic sound. The young man was enraged, he thought the old man did this deliberately, to essentially insult him and the spit was actually directed towards him.

While many others in the same place, from the upper strata, just did not see any discrimination, rather part of a larger bio-cultural habit of inner cleansing and dismissed the young man’s response as unnecessary, the young man was furious and disturbed.

I invite you to engage with the young man before you dismiss his reaction as an act of hyper-sensitivity or cheap publicity stunt.

If you look at the whole incident from the lens of only niti, you will invoke the principle of equality which tends to ahistoricise the experiences of caste and treats multiple narratives at par. But a more comprehensive lens would be to first problematise what passes as natural, bio-cultural and part of a taken for granted world. This would uncover how an ordinary act of spitting conceals within it stories of segregation and humiliation practised through centuries.

This view essentially searches for justice, for nyayaya, and hence looks at the multiple narratives from the logic of equity. The innocuous looking framework based on the principle of parity will prove insufficient, limiting and not help. There are narratives and there are narratives.

Agreed, there was no intention behind the spitting and the old man was perhaps mere captive of a habitual idiosyncrasy, having roots in an obsolescent cultural mannerism milieu.

But to fully comprehend the young man’s reaction, with all its fine nuances, would require a really trusting, informed and empathetic engagement with the experiential diary or the biography of the young man.

To dismiss him and his response as unnecessary troublemaking or worse, as part of a fashionable trend would be reflective of a deeper and more dangerous level of exclusionary mindset.

The decision asking Rohith Vemula and his friends to leave the hostel and stop their fellowships too was a result of niti - perspective of redressal. It was devoid of compassion and humanitarian feel of the nyayaya-perspective.

Our political and public spaces are increasingly going to be "touchy". It is the people in power who need to learn and unlearn and mind their manners, gaze, and most importantly, their language.

As the Delhi Metro says, they have to "mind the gap", before entertaining any dream of making India casteless. In the land of hundreds and thousands of Jisha and Rohith Vemula, Tina Dabi must be celebrated but only as an exception.


Santosh K Singh Santosh K Singh @santosh0419

The writer is a Delhi based academic.

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