“‘What is it Kusum’, I said, ‘What are you thinking of?’
‘Saar,’ she said, wiping her face, ‘the worst part was not the hunger or the thirst. It was to sit there helpless and listen to the policemen making their announcement, hearing them say that our lives, our existence, was worth less than dirt or dust. “This island has to be saved for its trees, it has to be saved for its animals, it is part of a reserve forest, it belongs to a project to save tigers, which is paid for from people all around the world.” Everyday sitting here with hunger gnawing at our bellies, we would listen to these words over and over again. Who are these people, I wondered, who love animals so much that they are willing to kill us for them?”
~ Amitav Ghosh, The Hungry Tide (2004, p. 284)
I teach in an institution which is about to celebrate its 200th foundation anniversary in 2017. This institution which has produced luminaries in different fields of knowledge has contributed to the national interests of this country in diverse ways. Many of the students and teachers associated with this institution have historically shaped the intellectual tradition of Bengal, including contributing to the popularly known Bengal Renaissance (What Renaissance? Whose Renaissance it is, anyway?). I consider myself fortunate to have earned a teaching post here. I have loved many aspects of this historic institution since I joined this place three years back; above all, I have loved the student community. And I have reasons to believe and evidences to substantiate that the majority of students who have attended my classes or have known me personally have liked and loved me.
This article, obviously, does not concern the majority of students or the things that I love about this institution. This article tries to record an unpleasant experience that I, as the youngest faculty member and as a Dalit professor, have experienced recently. I feel the urge to record it precisely because this experience has the potential to generate alternative histories or the histories of humiliation.
Let me begin by posing some questions to my readers rather abruptly. How would you react if a small but extremely vocal, and politically inclined if you like, section of the students of this glorious institution names a dog after a professor who is a member of the Dalit community? How would you respond if some of these students think dogs have a right to share the space of the campus and that the Dalit professor(s) should instead vacate the institution, creating an either-dogs-or-dalits kind of trope? What would be your reaction if, in connection with this, somebody says in the public domain that SCs and STs are worse than dogs? What would be your response if they think some Dalit professors are polluting the academic space of the institution (which has been traditionally dominated by the Brahmin-Savarnas)? How would you feel if some of these students derive sadistic pleasure by stating that they are happy that the dog bit the said professor? How would you feel if the majority of the student-community is carefully and forcefully silenced so that some of them cannot voice their protest against this injustice and humiliation, even if they want to?
Undeniably, something is rotten with a tiny part in the state of Bengal. And with reference to the specters of Ambedkar that is currently haunting the entire nation, you can term it a gross instance of casteism. But wait, am I being too quick to conclude things?
There is a rumor spreading in the campus for the last few months. A dog walked to a professor for care and cuddles and stood up to him with its forelegs. The professor apparently got disgusted with this behavior of the dog and complained to the Vice Chancellor. The VC apparently took it very seriously and threatened to cage all the dogs. So some of the dog-lovers in the campus got angry, started protesting, and as a form of revenge decided to name a puppy after the Dalit professor who apparently initiated it. This is a fascinating story and it has become a best-seller among the newly-admitted students who have no clue about the incident and who hardly know the Dalit professor in question.
But we know it too well that every popular (hi)story that gets manifested hides and twists some disconcerting truths. This is more the case with the Brahminical history of India which has taken utmost care to not mention the sufferings and humiliations of the Dalit-Bahujans in the hands of the Brahmin-Savarnas. What if we keep the popular story, which is selling like hot cake, aside for a moment and uncover the latent content?
Let me give you the text and the context. A few months back while I was on my way to take a class I was bitten by a dog in the campus. This dog was lying near the newly-built canteen and I did not do anything whatsoever to provoke the attack (Then why did it attack? It was most likely sick!). There is a tail added to the popular tale that I stepped on the tail of the dog. But that is a white lie. I was walking at a safe distance and it just all of a sudden ran and jumped on me and bit me on my leg. This dog had reportedly attacked many students, teachers and visitors. I saw a doctor immediately afterward and on his advice, I started taking vaccines and tetanus. I suffered from high fever for a few days. I wrote to the authority about the incident expressing a sense of insecurity for anybody who shares the campus space. There the incident ended on my part. There was an ‘enclosure’ built up for, I think, two or three dogs which were behaving abnormally with people and which apparently needed special medical attention. But wait! How many of you know that this enclosure was somebody else’s brain child and that I had no role whatsoever to play in this?
What followed this incident, however, was something extremely unfortunate. I was made a scapegoat and was systematically vilified in the public domain as an ‘evil and unclean’ presence in the campus and was defamed through deliberate spreading of rumor and suppression of facts to establish the idea that I encroached upon the Animal Rights and that in order to bring peace, order, and purity back to this institution I should leave this institution. And as if public vilification and dehumanization was not enough, these students, the future citizens of the world from the land of Renaissance, named a dog after me to symbolically document a fake story as history through an innocent animal.
And wait! That was not enough! How many of you know that the police came to interrogate me, the victim, the one who was bitten by the dog, the one who took the vaccines, the one who was being vilified?
Ziad K. Abdelnour once said ‘rumors are carried by haters, spread by fools and accepted by idiots’. But seriously I don’t want to sound like Abdelnour here. I would rather let the readers raise a number of inevitable questions vis-à-vis the preceding narrative: what exactly caused such vilification and defamation of the Dalit professor? Why is he hated so much? What is wrong with him? What is his crime? A number of explanations can be offered.
Firstly, I am probably projected as an enemy to the animals. A sick dog bites me in the campus and I undergo normal medical care and I request the authority to take measures so that others don’t get bitten as well. My question is what do you do when a dog bites you in your campus? Do you let the dog bite you on and on instead of requesting the authorities to take some measures? Should it also become the basis of the rumour that the dog came to you for care and cuddle and you inhumanly refused it while in reality the dog was behaving quite ‘abnormally’ and had actually bitten you on your leg (and please, for truth’s sake, I didn’t step on its tail!)?
I am not against the Animal Rights. Any student of mine who has attended my lectures on Paul Celan or Antigone or Vivekananda would testify how passionately I believe in the rights of the ‘Other’. I think all kinds of animals have every right to live in this world. I consider cruelty against any animal or any living being to be equal crime. And I would always protect the rights of animals.
But I am extremely worried about the human rights of the Dalits who have been historically dehumanized and exploited in this country. Dalits have always been deprived of education and ownership of property. They have always been kept outside the institutions of higher learning. So if somebody questions my right to share the academic space of this institution, I cannot but be reminded of the injustice done to us, the Dalits, for thousands of years. Dalits have been considered to be less than human by the Brahmin-Savarnas which is an unpardonable crime against humanity. So when a section of people puts dogs and Dalits in the same bracket, and not just that, when they think a Dalit is worse than the dogs, I would like to ask them: do you really know the implications of what you are saying? You who are proud of your intellectualism and who question my right to share the academic space, are you aware that you are carrying forward the same Brahminical ideology of monopoly and domination which has historically deprived a section of India’s humanity? When you purists say that a Dalit is polluting your institutional space, are you aware that you are carrying forward the condemnable discourse of untouchability?
Actually, the rumor floating in the air does not convincingly explain the kind of vilification I have suffered and, above all, the naming of the dog after me. And I have reasons to believe and evidences to substantiate that this particular incident of humiliation cannot be understood in an isolated way; it is part of other kinds of humiliation I have suffered since I joined this institution. Something else is very much at work here and the expressions of hatred and defamation are actually symptoms of a hidden cultural disease at the heart of Bengal. And this disease can rightly be given three different but related names: elitism, ageism, and casteism.
Mahitosh Mandal does not really fit into the idea of a professor in an urban institution. He hails from the remotest rural areas of Bengal. He has not sufficiently picked up the urban manners. Hence he is an outsider. Mahitosh Mandal is terribly young and looks more like a student. Like, you know, he does not have the ‘look’ of a professor. Hence he should try elsewhere instead of being a nuisance in this prestigious institution. And above all, Mahitosh Mandal is a reserved category candidate, hence by definition under-qualified to teach in this traditionally Brahmin-Savarna dominated academic space. Mahitosh Mandal is less than a human and his presence pollutes the space of this elite institution. Nay, Mahitosh Mandal is not a human being; he is a dog if not worse than a dog. In fact, to echo the fictional Kusum Mondol who like Mahitosh Mandal hails from the Sunderbans and is a dalit character in the novel Hungry Tide written in the context of Marichjhapi, Mahitosh Mandal’s life, Mahitosh Mandal’s existence is perhaps worth less than dirt or dust.
But what does it mean – this naming of a dog after a human being? Does it elevate the status of the dog? If yes, how can somebody who is considered to be a dog or who has been pushed below the status of a dog elevate the status of this innocent animal? I do not seriously understand how Mahitosh-haters can in this way claim themselves to be dog-lovers! Isn’t it injustice when an innocent animal is being made to bear the burdens of human grudge and hatred?
On the other hand, what does it mean to call a Dalit a dog or even worse than a dog? From ancient times till now, from the Vedas and the Laws of Manu to the statement made by a Union minister a few weeks back, the Sudras in this country have been exploited and humiliated as less than humans and have been repeatedly put with dogs and other animals within the same bracket. I am not sure how much glory it brings to humanize an animal and why such humanizing should be a necessary part of respecting and loving the animals. But I believe the act of dehumanizing a human being who represents a community which has been historically deprived of the fundamental human rights in this country does not reflect well on the mindset of those who claim to represent an institution with a history of spreading enlightenment to the world.
And here I am determined to ask the most basic question to the concerned animal-lovers and revolutionaries. Do you fight for the causes of equality, liberty and fraternity? Do you think all species of being have a right to share the spaces of this world? Or are you of the opinion that all are equals but some are more equal than others? If not so, then why do you think some humans are less important than other humans? Why don’t you resist injustice and humiliation done to a Dalit?
And when I am arguing in this way (dalits and dogs/animals), I am of course keeping aside the basic academic and ethical issues (teachers and students) i.e. whether some students should be so generous as to honour a professor in terms of naming a dog after him.
You know what? For the last few days I cannot shake off from my mind an insight Ambedkar articulated in “Untouchables or the Children of India’s Ghetto” and which I had put as an epigraph in a recent article. He said, “Everyone who feels moved by the deplorable condition of the Untouchables begins by saying: ‘We must do something for the Untouchables’. One seldom hears any of the persons interested in the problem saying: ‘Let us do something to change the Hindu’.”
I have an apprehension that when a section of people, however tiny, vilifies a member of the Dalit community, asks him to leave their ‘pure’ institutional space fearing contamination, and names a dog after him the problem is not so much with the Dalit in question. The problem is with those who engage in vilifying and name-calling. These people are in the vicious grip of a deep-rooted cultural disease and they are very much in need of immediate change. And would it be inappropriate to say that those who are buying and relishing the rumors spread about me are unknowingly perpetuating the same vice of casteism?
I admire a great many students who are always voicing their protest and dissent regarding any form of injustice taking place here or elsewhere. But the real fight is against those vicious ideologies which we have unquestioningly internalized and which are parasitically attached to us in the form of unrecognized prejudice. I feel bad when I find the same dissenters and protesters are virtually silent or silenced about casteism, the age-old injustice in this country. The idea of such selective resistance does not reflect well on the revolutionary spirit of anybody or any group. And it certainly reflects badly on the image of the institution.
And yes, it is always good to be in love with the glorious past of one’s institution. That certainly instills a sense of pride and commitment. But every history has its own gaps, silences, and contradictions. And if somebody someday writes an entire thesis substantially arguing that the history of this institution is partly the history of absence, silence, and humiliation of the Dalit-Bahujans then that would not certainly be a finding to relish.
Mahitosh Mandal is Assistant Professor, Department of English, Presidency University, Kolkata. His areas of interest include Dalit Studies, Hinduism, and Psychoanalysis.