Advancing the most penetrative and succinct theory of caste, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar had this to say in 1916 when he first presented his paper ‘Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development’:
This sub-division of a society is quite natural. But the unnatural thing about these sub-divisions is that they have lost the open-door character of the class system and have become self-enclosed units called castes. The question is: were they compelled to close their doors and become endogamous, or did they close them of their own accord? I submit that there is a double line of answer: Some closed the door: Others found it closed against them. The one is a psychological interpretation and the other is mechanistic, but they are complementary and both are necessary to explain the phenomena of caste-formation in its entirety.
This interpretation holds valid well into the 21st century, especially given how ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’ (casteless) discourses like ‘gender’ and ‘queerness’ are slowly beginning to rule the national imagination while constantly reproducing caste. To illustrate this, I would like to refer to two recent incidents, both in the public realm, involving Brahmin gay men and their families, to see how sexuality is inscribed within caste.
The first incident involved the ever-controversial ex-chief of BCCI, Mr. Srinivisan, a Tamil brahmin, whose gay son went to press claiming harassment at the hands of his brahmin father, who was forcing him to get married to ‘have progeny to carry on the lineage’. This isn’t alarming for anyone who knows how family, as a basic unit of most societies, exercises control over its members through the patriarch, to further the oppressive structure (caste in our case). The sentiment held by Mr. Srinivisan will be shared by most brahmin parents across India. One might argue that this is something that is prevalent among non-brahmins too but that would be a flawed understanding of how ‘culture’ is reproduced. To understand that, it would be instructive to go back to Babasaheb’s paper on caste mentioned above:
Why did these sub-divisions or classes, if you please, industrial, religious or otherwise, become self-enclosed or endogamous? My answer is because the Brahmins were so. Endogamy or the closed-door system, was a fashion in the Hindu society, and as it had originated from the Brahmin caste it was whole-heartedly imitated by all the non-Brahmin sub-divisions or classes, who, in their turn, became endogamous castes.
Talking about how the customs associated with this endogamy are practiced and enforced, he said,
These customs in all their strictness are obtainable only in one caste, namely the Brahmins, who occupy the highest place in the social hierarchy of the Hindu society; and as their prevalence in non-Brahmin castes is derivative, their observance is neither strict nor complete. This important fact can serve as a basis of an important observation. If the prevalence of these customs in the non-Brahmin Castes is derivative, as can be shown very easily, then it needs no argument to prove what class is the father of the institution of caste.
Mr. Srinivisan then represents the quintessential brahmin patriarch who insists on the furthering of caste purely through ‘customary’ and ritualistic methods of preserving family lineage. Also,if you notice closely it isn’t essentially a ‘phobia’ for the brahmin Srinivasan that his son might love or have sex with another man. It is his insistence on perpetuating his lineage and preserving his caste ‘purity’.
The second incident, however, takes a different hue. We have here a brahmin mother of a gay son (a well-known gay activist), putting a matrimonial ad, in a newspaper edited by a brahmin editor (after apparently being rejected by several others). The ad reads:
Seeking, 25-40, well placed, animal-loving, vegetarian groom for my SON (36. 5’11) who works with an NGO. Caste no bar (Though Iyer Preferred)….
Before we analyse this, let us not forget that the fact that an Indian mother, or that any parent, accepting her son’s homosexuality is a big deal. As a gay belonging to a brahmin family, I have had my own share of struggles to get accepted and it is not without pain and heartache. It takes immense courage to come out and many, if not most, never manage to do that in their lifetime. And that is something that is faced by the majority of gay men across the world in almost all cultures.
Whether brahmin parents would do the same if their children were lesbian or transgender would be a different matter altogether and has been problematized in narratives of lesbians and transgenders who have articulated the same very boldly. But I would stick to the issue of the gay son here for the fact of the ‘male’ child is very pertinent to the question of caste.
A son in a brahmin home (and hence derivatively in other castes perhaps), gay or straight, is considered essential to the furthering of caste and cannot be let go off that easily. The brahmin mother here, after struggling with the fact of finding out her son’s homosexuality, attempts to make her family malleable to accommodate his queerness, conditionally. The caveat being that he needs to be domesticated (marriage) and that she would prefer a groom for her son from the same brahmin caste (though she doesn’t ‘mind other castes’ as long as they are ‘vegetarian’ and ‘animal loving’).
If we now put the two incidents together i.e. the two prototypes of brahmins, represented first through the brahmin father and in the second instance through the brahmin mother, we have the classic case of the preservation of caste within the idea of the great Indian brahmin family. This surely isn’t surprising or peculiar to caste. One might expect, say, an Italian mother preferring her son to get an Italian lover, that is, if she accepts his homosexuality in the first place. But when one locates it within the idea of caste which is not just a socio-economic structure but also something that is built around the idea of supremacy, where the brahmins, at the top of the caste structure, consider themselves to be ‘gods on earth’, these two related incidents reflect the filthy racism inherent in caste supremacy.
More importantly, these two events, which are one and the same in essence, throw light on the very crucial fact of how brahminhood is constructed. Mr. Srinivisan believes that his brahminness is located in his ‘genes’ which need to be carried forward while Ms. Iyer presents caste in its barest and more real form, i.e. not as a racial category but something that can be constructed within a socio-political structure. The son, irrespective of whether he can conjugally produce progeny or not, carries all the symbolic and social value to preserve brahminness, even if he doesn’t marry another preferred brahmin.
Though the ‘general’ reaction to the matrimonial ad varied from amusement to indifference to disgust to defence, I think it was a somewhat honest moment from a brahmin clan member and something that discomforted others who felt it was a moment of collective ‘coming out’. There was an immediate attempt by many to single it out as some anomaly.
But this is how brahmins as a class operate, even as we claim ‘diversity’ within ourselves. Though the difference is that no ngos, no savarna filmmakers or academics will write a paper or make a film about the khap panchayat of brahmin homes, in this case. No one will dare to go into the brahmin homes and shove the microphone into their faces and portray them as ‘homophobic’ or ‘misogynist’. Srinivisan and Ms. Iyer will be treated just as ‘individuals’, delinked from their caste.
It would be myopic to limit this analysis to simply looking at the idea of family furthering its own lineage within the exercising of caste supremacy.
It is here that one needs to extend this same idea of furthering lineage to how brahmins tend to ‘prefer’ (read insist on) their ‘own kind’ in almost all aspects of the socio-political spheres. The same caste supremacy gets reflected in the preferred caste names – Iyer, Bhan, Gopalan, Tripathi, Nair, Menon, Bandhopadhay, Row etc., and faces on brahmanical media – be it TV debates or newspaper columns, on LGBT issues.
The ‘governing class’, as Ambedkar calls it, in India is that of brahmins, with savarna/upper caste collaborators from various regions, who, even when they might publicly ‘give up’ caste (as if it was some extra layer of clothing to be shed!) and associated rituals, work hard to preserve their class interests. Anu Ramdas says in her essay, The Brahmin Problem:
All channels of communications are routinely used to further the supremacist legacy: be it academics, entertainment or business. Evidence for this is more categorical in the complete absence of debunking of this belief system in the mainstream at any level – intellectual, literary, artistic or spiritual.
This is why, about a year ago, several anti-caste individuals, from different caste locations, launched a critique of Arundhati Roy’s and S. Anand’s attempt at appropriating Babasaheb’s anti-caste legacy in the form of a new edition of his text Annihilation of Caste. James Michael and I analysed and revealed a similar preservation of class interests seen in the list of authors published by the brahmin led publishing house Navayana as well as the textual architecture and scaffolding of Arundhati Roy’s brahmin-heavy introduction to Dr. Amebedkar’s AoC.
Brahmins ‘criticising’ caste is not new. Some have made a whole career out of that as seen in the Arudnhati Roy/Navayana debate. But as pointed by Dhruwa R in his brilliant take down of the much celebrate movie ‘Court’, “[the brahmins] will never ever show the bond of fraternity that runs through these brahmins’ janeus which keeps them in solidarity with each other (even when superficially in opposition) and tacitly complicit in not allowing the real root cause, namely brahminism, to be attacked ever.”
The bitter irony of me, belonging to the same ruling class, pointing all this out is not lost on me. I posit this as much as a question to my own self as well as to those who would shy away from marking the brahmin in the caste structure. The self-reflexive analysis of those of us who have a stake in preserving this caste interest is something utterly lacking in all interventions on caste emerging from dominant caste locations. This is an attempt to push in that direction.
But to look at sexuality per se, as is the practice in savarna discourses, it also becomes essential to see what sex and sexuality mean as expressions in the changing market dynamics of an otherwise regressive society. To quote from Hari Prasad’s excellent article titled Pitting Love against Love, the Hindu Moral Code on Sex and Sexuality:
With the advent of economic reforms in the 1990s, the upper castes stood as principal benefactors owing to their social networks, share and proximity in the power structures of this country. The Dalit-Bahujan from the same period were growingly alienated and remained to serve their upper caste masters in the new Industrial complexes under old feudal relationships. [..] The wedding of the foreign capital with the Indian procreated new ‘public’ spaces in the urban jungle, the likes of pubs and cafés that offer space and time for socializing, accessible at large to the privileged of the new republic.
The exercise of pleasure and desire by the privileged are predicated on the exploitation of the marginalized in a society with such humongous power inequities as ours. The two aspects, sexuality and gender, are not outside political economy, or external to relations of production majorly defined by caste in India; the resulting power differential between bodies of different castes in the hierarchical structure of caste is something that most resistance movements from the dalit bahujan have been critiquing. What I am saying here is informed by that.
This is not to dilute the trauma that a lot of us face as gay people in this country which has least tolerance or respect for the idea of love. My position comes from my own journey as a gay man who had to locate himself within the structure of caste and see what, and how, was working for and against me due to my primary class-identity, that of being born in a brahmin home. Caste does not ‘privilege’ homosexuality. If at all, caste wants to tame it and align it to its own perpetuation at the hands of those who are willing to ‘accept’ us. But caste doesn’t privilege heterosexuality either. To love is a crime in our part of the world, irrespective of who is daring to love, and that is an outcome of the institution of caste which dictates the same. It is mandatory for us then to work towards the annihilation of caste, if love is to be made possible. Before concluding I would like to quote the late Dr. Iniyan Elango, who summed up the situation most succinctly:
Given this dire situation for heterosexual rights which is never highlighted by the Brahmin and upper caste controlled Indian mainstream media which has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of the caste system by controlling the sexuality of heterosexual women and heterosexual men, homosexual rights are in for a long wait in India. The point I am trying to make is that sexual rights and human rights are absent for unmarried heterosexual couples who sexually cohabit across caste barriers and religious divides in India just as they are absent for homosexual couples in India. Gay people cannot win their rights in India unless they realize this situation and fight for the sexual rights of all people in India, both heterosexual and homosexual. But most Indian Gay activists are themselves elitist, urban and upper caste who are happy to appease the status quo instead of fighting for a more radical sexual rights agenda for both straight and gay people.
To conclude, caste in Indian society, if one can call it that, is the over-determining factor. The trajectories of anti-caste assertion from the dalit bahujan throughout history have very clearly laid out these complexities and called out our hoax when we try to privilege horizontal identities like gender and sexuality to disguise our caste privilege.
Most savarna dominated spaces in India, be it media or academia or civil society, attempt to look at ‘intersections’ of ‘caste and sexuality’, ‘caste and gender’ which is the beginning of a false discourse. The ‘and’ is a language trick to diffuse the structure which ensures those with power maintain their class interests. The ‘and’ here refers to how caste becomes just another thing among the many identities one is supposed to have. It magically erases most material realities, primarily caste, that shape our interactions.
Once this ‘and’ is done away with and sexuality is located within the caste mode of production, the lucrative business of sexuality, which is a disguised form of furthering caste interests for the savarnas, will be exposed for what it is: a brahmin enterprise, led by brahmins. And then, we will be taking the first steps towards ensuring social justice. Till then we must pause before claiming any sort of pride..
I would like to thank Kuffir and Gaurav Somvanshi for their invaluable insights and discussions.
Akshay Pathak has previously worked in various culture centres in Delhi including Max Mueller Bhavan, National School of Drama and German Book Office.
Cartoons by Unnamati Syama Sundar.