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Caste and the order of experience: Sketching anti-caste in Akbarian philosophy

Caste and the order of experience: Sketching anti-caste in Akbarian philosophy

abdul ahad


Abdul Ahad K

abdul ahadI am writing this note to delineate some conflicts I went through as an audience in a seminar conducted in Calicut University under the title, ‘From Identity to Epistemology’. A Dalit friend who is an artist shared his story during the event.

“I am a Dalit. I realized that only in 1987 when I was denied a prize for my performance in school at a state-level cultural festival. I had many such experiences. I am an artist with no baggage of ‘religion’. Till the age of 19, I grew up on the shores of Thanoor beach. The Muslim friends there used to abuse each other using my lower caste name ‘Cheruman’. During the horrific demolition of Babri masjid, my family was attacked by Muslims, who took us to be Hindus. We were forced by the RSS goons in the locality to retaliate. Till the age of 7, we were looked after by a RSS shaka. As children, we played in their grounds. There are people who converted to Islam in my family. The vivid imageries of my pregnant sister who, to escape from the violent rioters rode a boat alone on the river diverging at the Arabian sea and later the description of the fish that surrounded her womb to protect her is all so alive with me”.

I am not attempting here to examine the accuracy in his narration of the experience, or questioning the idea of the experience itself. Rather I am more interested in how he looks back to his past and understands and recounts his experiences. Another friend who entered the conversation introduced himself as a student of religion and went on:
“I am coming from a college of religious orientation. I don’t have a first-hand experience of the incidents explained here and I would like to speak only as an observer. Being a student of religion as well as economics, I usually engage with humanities-related issues. That’s why I am interested in these sort of things”.

Here, the conflict I am undergoing is something else. How does one read experience? How do we communicate it to others? I think the process of ‘Identity to Epistemology’ only hampers experience. Returning to the first example, my Dalit friend realized his Dalit-ness through the painful moments of denial he was put through by the society as a student. He says that it was during the later incidents in his locality that happened after the Babri demolition, that he confronted his Dalit self. Here he experienced Dalit-ness in opposition to both RSS and Muslims alike. From the abstractness of the ‘society’, this has now been reduced to the binary of Hindu-Muslim.

Another story from Law College, Calicut (where I study) is worth sharing here.There was a flex-board installed by SFI members in the premises. The caption read ‘Religious Tolerance’. Depicted was a bearded Muslim man giving water to an orthodox Brahmin, both blessed by a smiling Christian priest. There were no depictions of Dalits/Adivasis/others. A law student had an answer for this. According to the family law, barring the Muslim/Christian/Parsi/Jewish people living in India, the rest are considered to be Hindus (it is the same logic that can be deployed in the uniform civil code debate as well). Major themes of the political campaigns being run by ‘leftist organizations’ and ABVP are undoubtedly around ‘religious fundamentalism and extremism’.

I have explained these incidents to show how the Dalit-Muslim-Bahujan experiences and their ‘becoming processes’ are being impeded by the fixation with the binary of religious/secular. Secularism (fixation) as a tool is incapable of analyzing the social conditions of Kerala. This discourse functions as a regressive force that hampers the Bahujan becomings, and a wall that hinders the ability of the Dalit-Muslim community to translate their experiences. Such established epistemologies obstruct the becoming process of identities.

Coming back to the first two incidents, a statement such as, “Coming from a college that gives religious education, I don’t have a first-hand experience of the incidents explained here and I would like to speak only as an observer”, needs careful scrutiny. I would like to understand his claim of ‘not experiencing caste’ as ‘not recognizing caste’ instead. With the epistemic tool of the religious/secular binary, caste becomes unrecognized/invisiblized. This is not to outright dismiss religious beliefs/experiences. But here, I am questioning the meaning given to the signification called ‘religion’ by attendant epistemologies. For example, Islam becomes a ‘religion’ not informed by the everyday reality of a Muslim but by the gaze of the ‘others’ outside. When one tries to foreground the experiences narrated above, it moves towards an informed/established discursive pattern. Such patterns keep reproducing power structures. When such power entraps our experiences in repetitive modes, the immense possibilities of dynamic interpretations are erased. It is due to this that anti-caste politics get trapped in the sociality of caste hegemony itself, and there is a new focus on the potentiality of an ethical theo-politics capable of functioning outside such power structures as discussed by Muhammad Shah (research scholar, HCU) in a recent article published on RTI.

An attempt is being made in this article to understand Dalit-Muslim experiences and to question the fixations that hamper their ‘becomings’, using the 12th century philosopher and mystic Muḥyiddin Ibn Arabi. Ibn Arabi tried to make sense of the universe in relation to the divine vastness of God (the real). As Lacan said, the human consciousness is not capacitated enough to internalize the ultimate ‘truth’, which functions far beyond the reach of the spatio-temporal order known to humanity. Ibn Arabi’s views on universality should be closely examined. While his essentialist notion of the ‘actual’ being only a partial manifestation of ‘reality’ mirrors Plato’s view, it also differs with his point that the real is permanent. God as the real, partly manifests himself in the 99 holy names. These names keep producing the universe and knowledge. Although Ibn Arabi says that the universe manifesting God’s holy name is an ongoing process, he denies the repetition involved in human experiences and the universe. The specialty of Ibn Arabi’s views is that they reflect the nature of change and conviction at the same time. This is called Negative Theology. Its main components are reason (Aqal) and imagination (Khayal).When it is not possible to decipher ‘real’ using reason, it is brought back using imagination. According to Ibn Arabi, reason produces repetition, and repetition produces power. It is when there is no repetition that becoming towards the real is made possible. In the context of caste, the power structures show a tendency of repetition in Indian social spaces. Here, caste becomes a power that resists the social and political becomings. When we try to analyze the lived experiences using the established frameworks of caste, one becomes trapped in the repetitive modes of caste hegemony.

Is there a possibility of finding experiences outside this hegemony? I would like to introduce the idea of ‘moment’ here. A ‘moment’ is an un-interpreted/unrepeated experience, where the space and time are not taken into consideration. Each self (self can be community/individual) has unique moments and what we today understand as ‘seconds’ may also encompass many moments within them. It could be months/years/events. The fact that moments don’t repeat themselves means that they exhibit a nature of continuity and change according to Negative Theology. When one begins to realize one moment, there surfaces a possibility of differing from and even escaping from the hegemony of existing discursive patterns. I would like to understand experience as ‘moments’. To borrow from Deleuze, moments in this case help in realizing Anti-Oedipal desires.

What is the Oedipal desire in the Indian context? I am reminded of a conversation in a train. During the long discussions on agency and subjectivity in issues involved in caste, an observation came out. Many in the Hindu fold today fantasize the image of the Brahmin and aspire to be one, one day. Centers of learning like Kashyapashram conduct classes to teach the Vedas according to Hindu religious principles. In such spaces, the idea that those who know Brahma can be a Brahmin is fed to the listeners regularly. According to Freudian thought, the desire here is to be a Brahmin and this runs in an Oedipal orbit. A new fixation is produced. Desire is repetitively produced and all experiences are contained in the power position called Brahmin. Here Deleuze’s Anti-Oedipal thought, and ‘Desiring Machines’ assume importance. Life itself is a machine. It doesn’t function on its own. It progresses through the connections of many parts. For Ibn Arabi, this connection works through the 99 names of God. The very revelation of these names is a sign of Rahm (God’s mercy). The ‘Ideas of desire’ by Deleuze, ‘Rahm‘ by Ibn Arabi and the ‘Divine Hand’ by Žižek (he mentions it in his essay ‘Why does a letter always arrive at its destination?’) are all part of this connection. Moments can weave diverse processes together. Becoming is a journey from one moment to the next. In the above example, the discussion is about how the entire range of experience of a human being is reduced to one moment of ‘being a Brahmin’ and how the process of becoming turns impossible. The potentiality of Ibn Arabi’s work on negative theology is that it can equip the moments to be negotiated.

I argue that it is through ‘moments’ that experiences should be registered. It gives a possibility to negate the power structures standing outside of its discursive patterns. It opens up chances for multiple identities for finding their meaning by ‘making desire possible’ outside conventional thought structures. This could be made possible through the connections of moments as discussed earlier. Ibn Arabi calls this Insanul Kamil (perfect humanity).


Abdul Ahad K is an LLB Student at GovernmentLaw College, Calicut. He writes on caste, religion, Bahujan politivs etc

Translation: Farhana Ashique, student of literature at Daulat Ram College, Delhi.

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