Editor’s Note: In this deeply passionate, and angry memoir, titled ‘Caste Matters‘, writer and academic activist, Suraj Yengde, peels the layers of the deep-rooted caste system in India to show you how this impenetrable social divide has for centuries crushed human lives and is very similar to other forms of oppression, such as race, class and gender. Yengde’s unflinchingly honest and detailed account of growing up in a Dalit Basti, depicts the humiliations, struggles, and suffering uncountable Dalits experience on a daily basis. Yengde, who is a Shorenstein Center inaugural post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and a first-generation Dalit scholar, also examines the “Dalit community itself — from their internal caste divisions to the conduct of elite Dalits and their tokenized forms of modern-day untouchability— all operating under the inescapable influences of Brahminical doctrines.”
Here are a few excerpts from Caste Matters’ introduction, Caste Souls: Motifs of The Twenty-first Century, where he points out that in order to end caste-based discrimination, it should matter.
Dalit identity is disguised in public, it is hidden and loathed. Many affluent Dalits restrict their coterie to the world of Brahmins and other dominant castes. They spitefully denounce every arrangement of Dalitness. Even if they are benefactors of the Dalit movement, emerging Dalit elites try to wilfully damn the credentials of Dalits. You would notice them identifying as ‘no more a Dalit’ or as Buddhist, Christian, Sikh or simply atheist in order to fit into the grand schematic of a ‘humanist’ identity. Dalits ascribing to these meta-identities are anxious about their Dalitness. At times they even refer to the word Dalit as something alien to them, an external or downgraded Other. Oppressed Dalits who have not yet broken out of the caste mould very obediently adhere to the supremacist tendencies of their oppressors. The mimicry of the affluent castes is reproduced at every level. Thus, just as Brahmins find an incentive in discriminating amongst themselves based on sub-caste affiliations, every other caste entangled in the adamant cobweb of the caste system does the same.
But awakened Dalits are extraordinary in their sense of being. This book (Caste Matters) makes a claim for the position of Dalits in the global rights struggle. In the midst of uprisings against fascist rightwing ideologies, many liberals and socialists alike have joined the tirade against populism. Nationalism of a certain order is being summoned by the protectors of the state. The state here is turned into a monologue and a mono-version of a few despots. Therefore, the book presents the perspective of a first-generation educated Dalit, and how he experiences the changing world of diverse ideologies. It is a confrontational battle of deciding whether to borrow jargon from existing parallel social justice movements or creating a new idiom for transformation. Is the borrowing really a desperate attempt to include the Dalit experience in others who have been traditionally oppressed or to create an affinity of shared marginality? The book aims to add value to ongoing social justice movements by adding the Dalit narrative to their constitutional terms. The Constitution of India is regarded as the foremost document for Dalit hope. However, does it specify the ingredients for emancipation? How has the Indian state confined the possibilities of its progress on the basis of Dalit hope? Simply put, the hope of the state continues to function adjacent to Dalit hope, both intangible and virtuous. The day Dalit hope ends, the state’s hope for Dalits will end. This end is to the peril of the Indian state and all who cohabit in it.
The Dalit community is having its Harlem moment at present. It is now able to articulate loudly and clearly through words and action—becoming more global and more reachable than ever. Sensorial Dalit expression is an experience of revelation of the person and the personal. In the revolutionary age of technologies of communication and new expressions of freedom, Dalits are claiming their rightful position in the armours of justice and democracy. Dalits are the recently ‘freed Untouchables’, the second generation of constitutionally freed citizenry who are now coming out of their inbred shackles and segregated ghettos to combat the enforced Brahminical societal codes. But with this comes tougher challenges as the endogamous nature of caste is becoming stricter. Shankar, a twenty-two-year old Dalit from Tamil Nadu, was hacked to death by the parents of a supposedly higher caste girl in full public view after marrying a woman he deeply loved. Twenty-three-year-old Dalit Pranay Kumar was beheaded in broad daylight when he walked out of hospital with his twenty-one-year-old pregnant, dominant-caste spouse in Telangana. Many Dalits, young and old, reckon how many times they nearly lost the battle to survive for the mere fact of being a Dalit and exercising their virtue of being human…
The invisibility of extant caste violence—psychic, bodily and on the group—needs serious consideration. As much as caste is cultural, social, political and economic, caste nurturing is also bio-individualistic. It is a performance of individually managed acts conspired to execute violence upon the ‘Otherly’ body. This is done to produce pain upon beings who are considered lesser. In this definition, I aim to concentrate on the role of the individual and not allow them to escape culpability under the rhetoric of community-oriented action. In horrific events such as the Holocaust, individualized crime brought in a new dimension. The Holocaust theories upheld individual action as culpable on its own. Discordance and dissent as part of national duty are yet to be cherished in caste-infested India. There is a desperate ethnonationalism being forcefully promoted through Dalit constituents. Dalits are nationalized in the grand scheme of ‘Indianness’—a la ‘Bharat Mata’ populism seen in the performative zeal of Republic Day or Independence Day celebrations or in extreme instances as the Babri Masjid demolition or the Godhra riots. Every bit of populist nationalism is an order of the tradition that harbours supremacist hierarchies, producing devious harm on marginalized bodies.
This nationalism is sold by the caste-obsessed society, the market-driven greed of capitalism and neo-liberalism, and the Hindu right. This has decayed the national ethos of rich traditions that contained democratic branches of self-criticism. The darkness of Dalit lives quivers in the anecdotal pages of news media summaries when Dalit deaths are reported. The scandal-hungry Brahminical media strives to find the next horrific story to be presented to the audience. The tragedy of a scholar’s death ricochets around the corridors of major universities across the world. An author who writes experiences of the self is celebrated in the book reviews sections of major, world-renowned publications. Tales of Dalits are criss-crossing the world over.
Dalits are struggling to fight the social boycott imposed by dominant-caste villagers in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Bihar and Kerala; Dalit women are still seeking justice for mass rape; the souls of raped and lynched bodies paraded in the middle of streets yearn to seek justice; the brandishing of Dalit talent before the childish argument of ‘merit’ is haunting the doorsteps of educational institutes; the autonomous political praxis of Dalit students in college campuses is seen as a negative move; the death toll of manual scavengers keeps hitting national newspaper headlines; we keep talking about the greatness of India’s civilization and culture, when the only time a Dalit gets noticed is upon his or her death; when the world is trying to find solutions to problems with little success; when social movements are gearing up to create new bonds with new comrades; when ecological disasters affect the person at the bottom who has no means of employment; when the neo-liberal catastrophe is sacrificing the measures of livelihood to the global capital monster; when pedagogies are proving inadequate to express the blackout of morality; when teachers are unable to explain to their students where lies the unaccountability for the oppression of human beings; when India is ‘shining’ and the mass is fighting the darkness; when banks are ruling and governments are following; when democracy is being prostituted to the profligacies of the ruling elite; when the LGBTIQ movement refuses to actively endorse Dalit queer and trans bodies; when academic departments do not detail a course on the Dalit episteme; when research institutes do not commit to having detailed studies of Dalit lives in past and present; when the mother who cannot stop wiping her eyes at the loss of her three-year-old; when the temple priest continues to rape Dalit women for ‘religious needs’; when the dominant castes continue to loot the country; when the international left movement honestly takes hold of their oppressed comrades in India; when the solidarities of other groups become the priority; when prisons continue to get populated with oppressed-caste people; when the father who has lost his eighteen-year-old son has to beg for someone’s pittance to gather money to bury him; when the world’s governments and international bodies do not recognize the lives of the unheard; when an old woman tries to survive by begging on the streets; when animals are allowed to sit on people’s laps while even the shadow of a Dalit is forbidden in the house; when atheists say that religion is the primary problem and not caste; when Dalit remains Dalit and Brahmin remains Brahmin; when a son loses his father due to the lack of medical care owing to poverty and the privatization of the health industry . . .
So, until the progressives can take a courageous stand by denouncing and renouncing self-privilege; until radicals make caste their primary project; until rationalists do not stop commuting to agraharas to educate; until Dalixploitation becomes a concern of the world; until Dalit scientists are able to organize; until Dalit cinema is successful in the project of creativity; until Dalit rap becomes the lingua franca of revolt and is accepted in the mainstream; until Dalit achievers are unafraid of revealing their identity for fear of losing their future; until #castemustgo is truly embraced and #DalitLivesMatter is in the list of priorities; until my mother can sleep with reassurance without worrying about her son’s returning home safely in the caste police regime; until then, caste matters.
Caste will matter until it is done away with. When my aai talks about love she is interested in the balancing act of love, which does not intend to harm others. She continues to live under the coded pressures of caste violence. Her bravado in fighting caste-mongers has fortified her children. Her compassion and love have dissolved our fear of others and made us strong. Through her life we see hope and she sees in us a brave attempt to break the shackles of caste. That is why caste matters.
The excerpts have been published with permission from Penguin India. This hardcover of Caste Matters, written by Suraj Yengde, costs Rs 599.