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Caste Capital: Historical habits of Savarna Academicians and their Brahmastras

Caste Capital: Historical habits of Savarna Academicians and their Brahmastras

sumit turuk


Sumit Turuk

sumit turukGrowing up as a child in the Dom caste in a village in Odisha made me a close witness to some of the most dehumanizing and filthiest jobs my community that were imposed upon us by the Hindu caste society. Dom caste considered to be one of the lowest in the caste society and has historically been engaged with enforced caste occupations such as manual scavenging, skinning dead cows, bonded labour, burning dead bodies etc.  My place was no exception to this.

There are a few scenes from these surroundings that are still stuck with me. One of them is the whole process of preparing funeral pyres and cremation. Considering the cremation ground was very close to our segregated basti, we some of the young ones were frequent witnesses and participants in the funeral marches. When the fire was lit, the dead body doesn’t immediately start burning. The fire gradually starts spreading throughout the body.

In the meantime a certain phenomenon happens, the muscles of the dead body start contracting while pushing the upper half of the dead body to rise up time and again just like a living human being. When this happens, a few people with the use of thick wooden bats try to strike the dead body down to the initial sleeping position. Why am I telling this story? I am narrating this to draw attention, and create a parallel, towards an often repeated historical pattern in the discursive spaces of this country. The dominant discourses controlled by the upper castes have historically always made attempts to crush, exclude, erase and burn into ashes the transformative discourses and autonomous assertions emerging from below. Whenever the discourses from below rise up, the upholders of the dominant discourses use their thick wooden bats (weapons of intellectual abuse) to strike it down.

The recent article published by Professor Ajay Gudavarthy, Centre for Political Studies (JNU) in Deccan Herald (dated 12th September) is one such desperate attempt to strike down the Ambedkarite discourse in the campus using thick wooden bats, swaying them in the air like Pandava and Kaurava brothers from the Mahabharata TV serials that used to be aired in DD channels i.e. intellectual abuse via his thick bat of caste capital in the discursive space. The only difference in this case is unlike the dead body, the Ambedkarite discourse is very much alive, moving and dynamic in nature. It has risen up powerfully against the Oppressors not only as a discourse but also through strong performance in the electoral politics of JNU campus as BAPSA (Birsa Ambedkar Students Ambedkar Students’ Association). The “Agni God” ( Oppressive Caste hegemony of Academia ) couldn’t consume this living transformative discourse and assertion, that is the reason behind this desperate swaying of thick wooden bats to burn it into ashes in this Brahmanical death chamber.

To begin with, here are some arguments that Professor Ajay Gudavarthy makes in the article post JNUSU elections about BAPSA, and Dalit Bahujan students in the JNU campus, by equating it with ABVP.

“There are a range of sociological factors that stand common between the discourse of BAPSA and that of the ABVP. Both are steadfastly suspicious of the available institutional spaces. While the ABVP is critical of the open, socially transformative nature of institutions such as the JNU, the students of BAPSA are equally suspicious of the casteist nature of the institutional arrangements. The recent demand to reduce the viva voce marks to 15% is a case in point. It is a different matter that the Left groups on campus have also fully supported the demand, a fact that BAPSA continues to ignore.”

Such a poor and substance-less analogy, considering his status as an “acclaimed political scientist “in the Savarna academia! How is the discourse of the student wing of RSS (ABVP controlled by the Brahmins ) critical of the “Open” and “Socially Transformative” nature of JNU equivalent to the discourse of BAPSA, an Ambedkarite student organization consisting of the most oppressed in the caste Hindu society who, according to Mr Gudavarthy, are “suspicious” of the casteist nature of institutional arrangements. This statement of Dalit Bahujan students being “suspicious” denotes a sense of uncertainty about our claim. Instead, we would like to say, we are very sure about this institutional arrangements being casteist.

We have articulated this claim with so much of certainty, dozens of times in public spaces through empirical evidences, various committee reports, evidence of high rate of drop outs among lower caste students, open caste discrimination in viva voce, isolation in class rooms and the tragic institutional murder of Muthhukrishnan, a Dalit research scholar in the Centre for Historical studies. Mr Gudavarthy seems to reduce our claims of conviction into mere suspicion, that’s serious intellectual abuse.

Mr Gudavarthy, let’s just agree for a moment that we are merely suspicious of the casteist nature of this institutional arrangements. If the ones who have been oppressed due to caste their entire lives and continue to face it even in this campus raise suspicion about this space being casteist, how does it amount to being equivalent to ABVP and critical of social transformation? Isn’t the oppressed questioning, or let’s say, even “suspecting” oppression socially transformative in nature? Isn’t this an integral part of social transformation, the oppressed questioning oppression?

Mr Gudavarthy then slowly brings the left into the debate to count its worth. Reading between the lines, how is left groups (hegemonized by upper castes) merely saying they support viva reduction to 15% worthy enough of recognition while Dalit Bahujan students, who face caste oppression, questioning it becomes equivalent to ABVP? This is a grave ethical question to be pondered upon by the academia as to how just by a single statement the likes of Mr Gudavarthy belittle and label the questioning of caste oppression by Dalit Bahujan students as a right wing tendency. Let me just step aside and ask, is right to question too graded according to caste location??

The article moves on to another statement, once again equating BAPSA and ABVP:

“Similarly, there is a streak of anti-intellectualism in both the ABVP and the BAPSA. Both are critical of the role faculty members play in the name of being progressive. While the ABVP feels that the Left-leaning faculty is ‘anti-national’, including being supportive of radical-Left politics, and are pro-Muslim and sexual minorities, support freedom for girl students, etc., the BAPSA feels faculty intellectualises issues, ignoring the urgency of the need to provide wider representation to the students from the dalit-bahujan communities. For instance, anti-intellectualism takes the shape of undue emphasis on English, and the importance given to maintaining quality and merit. Both suffer from the common feeling of being short-changed by the English-speaking secular-progressive intelligentsia.”

The words “ABVP feels”, “BAPSA feels”, “both suffer from common feeling” are to be noted. Mere preconceived notions and assumptions of feelings of two different groups are used to form an argument by an acclaimed political scientist who would otherwise dismiss “Suspicion” ( emotional and psychological response) of oppressed communities and compare it with ABVP. Mr Gudavarthy seems more like a palm reader than an intellectual who can read what one feels and make his claims. This is simply devoid of intellectual rigour, and Dalit Bahujan students would be happily “Anti-intellectualism” if one considers this as intellect.

We are very much against prevalent knowledge production, hegemony of the upper strata in disseminating knowledge, exclusion of bahujan history, philosophy and knowledge systems in the pedagogy of this Institution. Our questions underline the need to fill up the enforced voids of existing knowledge systems, making it inclusive and egalitarian. In the entirety and diversity of human minds, thought processes and critical engagement constituting intellect have to be holistic. BAPSA has never said nor even “felt ” faculty intellectualises issues because we don’t even recognize the existing prevalent knowledge system in campus hegemonized by upper caste groups as Intellect. We are here to challenge it. In fact, I would say this much: glorified knowledge system of JNU is a distorted and extremely partial depiction of social reality to a large extent.

To add, we don’t even say “the role faculty members play in the name of being progressive”. Whosoever faculty member is casteist, arrogant and exclusionary, we call them out openly as regressive. Mincing words and verbal jugglery are not our weapons. One should note that by pitching the left faculties in opposition to ABVP, Mr Gudavarthy shrewdly plays his card to validate their stances and to appear harbingers of “radical left politics ” whatever that means, as being pro-Muslim, sexual minorities and freedom for women without going into the intricacies of whether or not these claims are true. This shrewdness is exactly the tactic right-wing applies to claim and validate its patriotism, by invoking Pakistan without even going into intricacies of their own history, to claim legitimacy. BAPSA has been strongly asserting the need for a wider representation of students from Dalit Bahujan communities, to contribute and critique the existing knowledge system controlled by upper castes which represents a form of intellectualism far removed from its organic essence and transformative nature.

Moving onto another argument Mr Gudavarthy makes:

“While the Left groups successfully transform very many students from privileged backgrounds to become more sympathetic to the cause of those coming from lesser backgrounds, including garnering support for reservations, they continue to fail to provide a sense of belonging to the dalit-bahujan communities. Dalit-bahujan groups must begin by recognising the immense contribution that left politics has made to provide them an enabling atmosphere on campus to gain self-confidence and to articulate an alternative discourse.” 

 Throughout the entire article, Mr Gudavarthy never once acknowledges the contribution and struggle of Anti-Caste and Ambedkarite movements, but instead goes on to count the worth of sympathies generated among the privileged by the left.

Mr Gudavarthy very shrewdly refers to the upper castes using the term ‘privileged’ without referring to their caste identities, insulating them from the very social system of caste which endows privileges. Mr Gudavarthy’s claims of the left garnering support for reservation by upper castes becomes a transformative act but Bahujan students of BAPSA asking for wider representation is compared to ABVP and anti-intellectualism.

I would like to remind Mr Gudavarthy about the centuries of history of powerful anti-caste and marginalized struggles and revolutionaries predating Left in India. It is only the relentless struggles and inspirations of our ancestors like Ravidas, Baba Saheb Ambedkar, Periyar, Phule, Savitribai, Kanshiram, Fatima Sheikh, Ayyankali, Birsa Munda and dozens of other individuals that has instilled in us the self-confidence. This is so diminished in the argument of Mr Gudavarthy, making it seem as if it was some charity from the upper caste controlled left, which according to him we ‘must recognize to begin with’.

Our discourse has existed autonomously and continues to exist as a transformative and critical consciousness, so there is nothing to begin with as Mr Gudavarthy suggests. Emphasizing the sense of belonging that the left has failed to provide to Dalit Bahujan Ambedkarite students, Mr Gudavarthy seems to look at our discourse in the realm of a social club where one just needs to feel at home for integration. He doesn’t at all talk about the various theoretical tensions that have been existing between Ambedkarite politics and the Savarna Left politics in India: the decades of betrayal, appropriation, stigmatization and conscious ignorance of the existence of Ambedkarite politics of Dalit Bahujans of this country.

Lastly, Mr Gudavarthy throughout the article talks about the left in the campus without referring to any identity that constitutes this group. He just elevates them to a political and ideological leaning of being Left, as if that doesn’t have any caste or class marker.

In the meantime he refers to Anti-caste and Ambedkarite students merely as Dalit Bahujan groups devoid of any ideological and political leanings of being anti-caste and Ambedkarites. Mr Gudavarthy here does a political act of elevation of his kin and reduction of the marginalized. Moreover when BAPSA is already equated with ABVP by Mr Gudavarthy, I fail to understand why the emphasis on a unity with Left forces then. This sudden epiphany of a talk about historical opportunity and unity comes exactly at a time when autonomous assertion of Dalit Bahujans is increasing more than ever before.

Alas, I don’t possess the “talent ” and “Merit ” of Mr Gudavarthy to see into someone’s feelings like he does with BAPSA, but by tracing the historical habits of Savarna Academicians and observing the views of Mr Gudavarthy towards Dalit Bahujan students and Ambedkarite discourse the objective seems to be very clear. Exclude, Appropriate then Stigmatize, and if none of them works efficiently then subsume them under the call of “Unity” and “Historical Opportunity”. I would suggest to Mr Gudavarthy that he form his arguments on what we have articulated and what we have done rather than through assuming what we feel. Having said that, he should reflect on his caste capital, enormous Savarna privileges, family ties in academia and position of influence through which even his mere assumptions of feelings is treated as intellect. One shouldn’t forget, the Oppressed not only feel but can speak too. Regardless of the social status and positions of an individual, any form of intellectual abuse will be questioned and challenged strongly.

Jai Bhim.



 Sumit Turuk belongs to the Dom (dalit) community from Tentulipadar, a small village of Koraput in Odisha. He is currently pursuing his masters in Spanish Language in JNU and also works in BAPSA (Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students association) in JNU.