(Round Table India and SAVARI have been hosting a series of online talks by activists and thinkers on issues of importance to the Bahujan. This is the transcript of Gaurav Somwanshi’s talk on June 21st, 2020)
Whatever I’m going to talk about today is primarily built upon the articles that I wrote, back in September 2016-17. Of course, I’ve built upon many other things, but the core has remained more or less the same. In fact, I’ll be quoting most of them directly.
So those articles were written in the aftermath of what was happening regarding the Rohith Vemula institutional murder case. Because many different kinds of reactions were popping up, but there was a certain kind of trend in them. And so that was one trigger. The second was the readiness of the mainstream to welcome the word Dalit or any other questions on caste. I remember when I was a child, I hardly ever heard that word, other than in my own family, when there was the talk of the autobiographies; but nowhere outside. But then later on, it became more ubiquitous.
I have never heard of the word much in my home or in the community as much as it has been heard outside. It’s not a word that we use to address each other. How we address each other is with Jai Bhim – just normal human beings proudly claiming their Ambedkarite legacy and just saying Jai Bhim. But getting called Dalit from the outside, that’s something that was happening a lot more. So, in the wake of that entire scenario, these articles were written. And I’m going to mostly summarize the arguments that I was making back then.
So, as I said, one of the things that happened, I think all of us must remember, was that the Allahabad court judge appointed to the inquiry commission declared that Rohith Vemula was not a Dalit. So that was their response to the mass movement that had erupted across universities rather organically. Of course, it was appropriated later on, but while it was alive, that is the kind of strategy they had to deploy. They had to say that he’s not a Dalit.
What was it supposed to do? I mean, keeping aside the disgusting aspect of this strategy by the murdering administration, more importantly, I decided to ask myself that why the space for this savarna strategy was even created? And what narratives is it drawing upon? Because weapons and tools do not exist in isolation, right? They are created, time and again, as and when narratives are pushed forward, appropriated and all of that process goes on. So, what narratives were they drawing upon when they said Rohith Vemula was not a Dalit? Why did they think that this strategy would even work?
And of course, the second thing was what I just said: the rising comfort, eagerness, enthusiasm, readiness to include the word Dalit everywhere – no matter if it’s a syllabus or a column, or a book that you’re going to write which will have a certain section on it, or a new course. The word Dalit was proliferating at a great scale and almost every major mainstream media outlet, be it television channel, magazine, or social media page, had something or the other containing the word Dalit.
So, what had really changed? Was it really the case that the assertion is now so powerful that it’s making its way into the mainstream, or rather, the hegemonic imagination? Or was it the perversion of the same assertion by the Savarnas and they were trying to commoditize that identity? Because if the oppressor is celebrating you for some reason, then isn’t it common-sense to view it with caution?
We spent our childhood just fighting with the Savarna gangs regarding the reservation debates. That was in vogue at that time. I think it’s not so much in vogue right now. So earlier it was like, the entire caste system and everything, just drop everything and you have to debate over reservations. So, reservation is equal to caste system was the equation. And now we have Dalit is equal to the caste system. And hence Dalit is getting propped up everywhere. But this is not representation.
This is not a representation where people belonging to Dalit community would be given a chance to exist as equals in the spheres of power, where only Brahmin-Savarnas used to exist before. No. This is – even tokenism is such a mild word – this is a very dehumanizing tokenism where you have to exist as a Dalit man, play the role of a Dalit man and you have to do this in stark contrast to everyone around you. So that is why Kachra in Lagaan has a physical handicap. And it just doesn’t end there. In 1983, Vijay Tendulkar wrote the play Kanyadaan and the play is entirely about how a Mahar man beats up his Brahmin wife, and it’s essentially because he’s a Mahar, and that’s the whole conclusion of the play. But that’s not all. In the original play in Marathi, the Mahar man is just an average person, an average Dalit; I should say an average Mahar in their perception, whatever that means. But when this play was translated to Bengali and played over there, they had to add a physical deformity to him.
So that is the steep level of dehumanizing tokenism that they have to go through. And it has now almost become like a ceremonial object presented to the world where you have to speak about your Dalit experiences. How is it more different than the Saraswati Pooja that everyone does before any kind of ceremony? Instead of the Saraswati Pooja, now we have to do this hom havan about Dalit, Dalit, Dalit and Dalit, and say yes, now we are very woke regarding the caste question.
Also, it has been my experience and observation so far that most of the liberal minded upper castes of India, or at least the ones claiming to be so, can’t handle a Dalit who is fighting to be an equal human. They just can’t. But what they really embrace with open arms is a human being who has tweaked and morphed himself/herself into a convenient caricature of what they have defined to be a Dalit man or a Dalit woman. If you are ready to play that role, then they will give you columns to write and international academic opportunities under their gaze, fancy conference invites, a barrage of heart emoticons all over social media and then applause that would shame any rockstar.
This is also what they mean when they say pass the mic. What does pass the mic really mean? Pass the mic doesn’t mean that I will be able to dismantle the stage, but just that I will be given a chance to perform on their stage. So that is not something that one is interested in doing, if one is really serious about annihilation of caste, right? So why does this happen? Why is this narrative issued: pass the mic to them, tell us about the Dalit experiences, inclusion, diversity and all of these modern tantra-mantras? Why do they keep popping up?
Now, before I proceed ahead, this is something more of a disclaimer. And I think that everyone is aware of it, but it’s very important for me, lest I am misrepresented later on.
So, I’ll have to explain first what an assertion is, and I’m sure everyone in the talk knows, but I’m going to repeat. So, my own assertion of who I am, and also the rejection of who I am not, it takes place in the response to certain strains of casteism that exist around me. So, let’s look at two such different strains of casteism.
So, in the first case – and I think many scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and anyone else who’s not a Brahmin-Savarna would have experienced this – there’ll be a constant onslaught by the caste society, when they’re trying to tell me who they think I am, when they say things like SC has no merit. And this is the most readily relatable when your surrounding society is so called right-wing upper-caste. In such instances, rejection of what they say I am becomes assertion.
Now in the second case, the situation isn’t so different when your surrounding society is, let’s say, of some liberal kind, or any place where you have managed to push yourself to a certain limit.
So, in the second strain of casteism, just to give an example, let’s say I’m becoming more and more vocal on caste, and there is a constant downpouring of “No, no, no, but we are all humans”. So, suddenly they remember that we’re all humans and I’m not a scheduled caste individual. Only because I’m trying to threaten their spaces, they tell me that past is past.
And this happens because a major part of the brahmanical ploy has been to erase history while keeping everything else intact. And just to quote Kuffir da, as he said, Indian history is such a colossal crime because by depriving dalit-bahujans of any past, it steals their future too. So quite often we find ourselves alienated in our own country, like Babasaheb said.
But again, coming back to those two different kinds of assertion, which seem different only on a superficial level. So, in the first example, we’re going to just look at three lines from a poem by Madduri Nageshbabu titled Caste Certificate. So, how he ends the poem is:
my caste certificate
shall become the foreword
of the new history that I shall write
So, here he is asserting his own caste certificate and making assertions of one’s own social and historical location, to make sense of the present and to push back against the burden of the Brahmanical machinery.
This is exactly what is again echoed in a different sense by the writer Shankarrao Kharat. And after conversion, he’s saying that I am not a Mahar, I am not an untouchable, I’m not a dalit, I’m not even a Hindu. I’m a Buddhist, and I have become a human being now. I am not lowborn or inferior. And now I am a human being like all others.
So, do you think that Nageshbabu’s assertion that my caste certificate is now my foreword, as well as Mr. Shankarrao Kharat’s assertion, are these two really opposite? Because they’re really not. They were placed in certain contexts. Nageshbabu was countering a certain context. Shankarrao Kharat was countering a certain context. In one case, they were claiming their historical and social location without compromising their humanity. In the second case, they were rejecting the dehumanized definitions of humanity and just accepting that now I am a complete human being and I accept that for myself – it doesn’t matter how you see me.
So, as you can see, considering the contexts, the assertion, as well as the rejection of one’s social or historical location, are in fact, at the base, the same sentiment. So, these are the same because they arise as more of an immune response of the soul. And we have to constantly fight against the Brahmanical tactic, or as Phuley says the brahmani kawa. So, what is brahmani kawa? The caste society will do one of the two things: when it needs to demoralize or dehumanize you, it will either bombard you with caste-based slurs and insults to engrave your inferiority in your soul; or if it is ever faced with the risk of acknowledging its own monstrosity, because now the threat is real and the oppressed are pushing back, in that case, they will try to erase and turn a blind eye to the entire context and background and they will say that whatever is the cause of misery is not caste and so on. So, blurting out casteist slurs, as well as the liberal kneejerk reaction of aren’t we all human, are two sides of the same coin.
And even though the assertion that is given against them might come off as opposite, but it’s not opposite. And I have an example to share regarding how it is so. And that’s why I want to focus upon that. The actual question is not how I am portraying myself or what my definition of everything is, because mostly those definitions have been hijacked long ago and the focus is how they are now manipulating this whole thing.
I’d like to just share a small video by Mr. Raja Dhale. It’s in Marathi, but I’ll translate. It’s less than one minute. Even if you don’t understand Marathi, it’s very powerful, the first two lines.
What you just saw was a founding member of Dalit Panther itself, Mr. Raja Dhale. So, the contribution of Raja Dhale in the movement is, of course, unparalleled, and I need not explain who he is when I’ve already said that he’s a founder of Dalit Panther. And what is he saying right now? He’s saying that Dalit hi majhi identity naahi, mi Dalit naahi. It’s very easy to understand. He’s saying that, Dalit is not my identity. I am not a Dalit. So, do you really think that he’s trying to negate any kind of history of the Dalit Panther or anything? Of course not. Dalit Panther arose in a certain context, it had a certain purpose and it was countering certain tactics.
Now what Brahmanism actually is, we first have to understand. Brahmanism is not a certain rigid set of ideologies. No, it’s rigid about maintaining the status quo in the material world. For that they can morph any type of ideology, they will do any kind of thing. All mutations are permissible. Just to give an example, when Akbar came over and he was ruling everywhere, the Brahmins wrote an extra Upanishad as a tribute to him and it was titled Allah Upanishad.
So, there is no rigid ideology or principles, even of the wicked kind, other than the thought of supremacy and how to maintain it. The caste system is basically ensuring that the caste mode of production keeps on perpetually going one generation after the other. And in order to do this, it doesn’t matter what ideology or what word they have to choose, which caste they have to nominate as kshatriyas, which caste they have to give the bronze medal, someone else a silver medal, everything is permissible, as long as the supremacy is maintained. Whose supremacy? Primarily the Brahmins, surrounded by the Savarnas who are most beneficial to them.
And that is why it’s more important to understand in that context. That’s why this video of Raja Dhale, if somebody is using it to say, “see, he’s opposing Dalit Panther”, that’s obviously stupid, right? Dalit Panther is still one thing and what you wanted to achieve with it, that’s also there, and what you’re saying right now is also there. They do not exist in opposition. Please understand that. He says towards the end that Dalit, hi laadleli identity ahe. Laadleli identity means it is an imposed identity. I am not born as a Dalit. I am seen as a Dalit by the rest of the society.
Now, the question that we’ll see later on in the talk, is how much the way that you are being seen actually ends up affecting how you see yourselves and also the world around you. That’s more of a question that I (usually) leave open for introspection, but I think in this talk, it would be okay to discuss it. If this were a public talk, I would just focus my talk entirely on the Brahmin-Savarna. But here I can talk more about the perception of the identity, which began as an assertion. But now the risk is very real that instead of giving any kind of threat to the Brahmin-Savarna empire, it will just end up morphing me and my own soul – I mean soul in a non-religious sense.
So, what’s happening today with that identity, according to my own personal opinion, as well as what I’ve been reading from all the brilliant writers around me.. In Philosophy of Hinduism, Babasaheb said that the purpose of the caste system is basically to realize the ideal and to idealize the real. What does this mean? This means that the varna system is an ideal. It doesn’t exist. Of course, it doesn’t exist because we are basically born the same. But now that’s the ideal of the Manusmriti. How do you realize the ideal? So, they will ensure that the current inequalities of life are more deeply entrenched and more and more consolidation of power happens in certain castes and the rest are dehumanized further. In fact, someone else’s dehumanization shows your own god status, and all of this is kept in place.
So, what is happening now is that they are trying to realize the ideal. That is what Manusmriti also wanted to do, right? How does it characterize the Shudra category, the Chandal category and many other things? It does so by defining them first. Now that was the idea of the Manusmriti. And what is the idea behind Manusmriti and philosophy of Hinduism? If you ask, why am I born this way? Then they will simply say because of the law of karma. The law of karma basically states that you might have a great potential of being a Kshatriya or a Brahmin later on, but please not in this life because whatever (caste) you’re born in this life is because of your deeds in your past life. So, it’s as good as saying that you don’t have any control, just accept whatever you have been assigned by birth. And the entire structure was about defining these categories. So, they had set the ideal very nicely. And the only thing they wanted to do, and are still trying to do, especially with this whole idea of the consolidation of the entire Indian empire, was to ensure that we can realize the ideal. So, when I use the word ideal, it doesn’t mean a good ideal. It just means the Brahminical ideal, the ideal according to them and how they’re trying to realize it. So, yes, of course today, they don’t really throw Manusmriti at your face and say that you are born as a Shudra and this is what the shloka number so and so says; but of course it has evolved.
Again, getting back to the earlier example: doesn’t matter what happens, maybe we become acquainted with more words, like fascism and nepotism and many other kinds of progressive/regressive isms that will come up and prop up again and again, but does the caste system really change? Has the material structure of the caste mode of production changed at all? It hasn’t. It means that there must be something again, that they’ll have to reinvent or at least change to ensure that the categories are again, getting more real. How do they do that? I think, and this is also in opposition to strictly what Babasaheb said. He said that, and everyone knows this quote:
Unlike a drop of water, which loses its identity when it joins the ocean, man does not lose his being to the society in which he lives. Man’s life is independent. He is born not for the development of the society alone, but for the development of his self.
So that’s what he clearly says. And not to joke around, but probably now the new feminism in vogue will say that why he is saying man and his and all, but let’s not go there. But that’s how the tools have been already made in order to build a facade of being progressive and attack what is essentially the main ideology of annihilation of caste.
But again, getting back to how they’re trying to realize the ideal. In fact, Babasaheb also says this repeatedly in other contexts as well. When Babasaheb was quoting Mendel in Annihilation of Caste – I don’t have the excerpts in front of me right now – but it says very clearly and everyone must have read that already, that caste is not equal to race. You cannot say that there are genetic differences between one and the other. He clearly makes a distinction that do we really think that the Brahmin of Kashmir and the Brahmin of Chennai, they belong to the same so-called racial stock? Of course not. But that is an ideal. That is what they want to realize. So that’s very important. That is the ideal condition, right? There’s a varna system and then there are all of these various ways to ensure it happens.
Now, what I’m going to say is that the role of the Manusmriti in helping to realize the ideal is a task for which the baton is carried forward and now academia has taken up the baton.
I’m going to put forward an argument that I made back in 2016. The argument was that now they’re trying to use reification, or racialization, or converting something into a single block or a homogeneous block. And this is happening in a great amount to the Dalit category. So (we’ll see) how does it happen first, and later, we’ll see whom does it benefit and whom does it not.
So, reification comes from the German word verdinglichung, which basically means making into a thing. So, turning the intangible into tangible. Thingification. Now it’s very important to understand that my own identity as Gaurav is forged by dozens of external factors, historical and contemporary, and also partly by how I choose to respond to them. But it does not mean even for a second that I am a different thing in itself. Identity assertion does not mean – and here lies the crucial difference – that my biology, my essence as a human being, or my mind, all of that is in some way distinct from the rest of the non-Dalits and somehow completely equivalent to anyone who comes under their definition of a Dalit. It’s basically like saying me and Rahul are exactly the same. Like, if we are dalit, then we are something else, like a different race.
Now, if you think that this a very common-sensical thing to say, then please know that the invisibilization and the erasure of this distinction, this simple distinction, this is what reification means. Forget reification, we’ll just call it racialization. This is what racialization means. You are constructing races. But this distinction is the most crucial one, because it lies at the heart of the fight for the annihilation of caste. And what is that fight? It is the fight to reclaim all of human dignity and all the existential freedom in its widest possible meaning, which comes to me just by the virtue of being born as a human being.
Because if we are aware of this distinction, then we can rightly situate my Dalitness as arising from someone else’s Brahminness, without which it wouldn’t exist. And hence, we need to zoom out of our microscopes and focus on the larger, grand source of caste. In fact, probably after this argument is over, Anu di and Rahul can also expand upon the ridiculousness of claiming that someone born and brought up and enjoying all the US benefits still claims to be a Dalit.
To summarize this, I’ll just quote Ta-Nehisi Coates. He says it simply in one line. He says that race is the child of racism, not the father. It’s not a chicken and egg thing. First we had racism, then we had race. Because racism chose to – in the context of West – arbitrarily use a geographical setting and skin color. And by using that as a differentiating factor, they started creating races out of it. I hope it doesn’t, but it’s certainly happening over here as well.
So, unless we introspect on this thing, then what will happen, what are the risks? The risk is that, this entire caste question – which is the question of all Indians, of the subcontinent, rather – this will be twisted into something like a survival competition between two species. Like we had about 15,000 years ago or earlier, Neanderthals vs. Homo Sapiens. And this will just be like two people fighting for co-living. And this is why it has become so convenient for NGOs and progressives alike, to focus on the Dalit part and squeeze out the juice from that term, as much as they can, and call themselves anti-caste without ever having had to land a single blow on the system which is facilitating that entire oppression.
Now it is the reification of the term Dalit, which is allowing for the interrogation of caste to begin there and end there also. So it is like that joke by Arshad Warsi in Munnabhai MBBS: “Arey! Ye room to khulte saath hi band ho gaya (Hey! This room ends as soon as it starts)”. That’s what’s happening with Dalit also. Dalit is that small room, like we have a devghar (god-house) in Marathi houses. So, it’s like, if you want the progressive house, you have a small devghar for Dalit over there.
Again, this is the reification, or rather the racialization, of the Dalit identity, which is converting it into a commodity. Less than an identity, but more than a commodity. And this is what is ensuring that Dalit becomes something to be studied, to be critiqued, to be used in a comparison to the thousands of intersections that could be made: middle-class Dalit, urban Dalit, rural Dalit, Dalit capitalist, sarkari Dalit, chaatu Dalit, ye Dalit, wo Dalit. All of these slices could be made because the cake has been made, the cake has been served on the platter, then why would they not slice it? And in fact, it even grants them additional spaces to be usurped by taking one token Dalit and opening up a Dalit studies department.
Now we’ll just come to the final part. The final part is whom does it benefit? So, before going there, and in fact, in tandem with Sruti Herbert’s talk last Saturday, where she discussed the non-Dalit part of Sharmila Rege, I’m going to take an example. So, in my article Tilak, the granddaddy of all Hindutvavadis, I talk about Tilak. What was making his blood boil in the 1930s? So those were the times when the Maharashtrian anti-caste movements had begun using words like Brahmanetar. Brahmanetar just means non-Brahmin, other than Brahmin. So, an editorial was published in his celebrated, so-called nationalist newspaper Kesari, in which he used to abuse Shahu Maharaj more than he abused the British. So, in that editorial on 26th March, 1913, Tilak wrote in a very angry frustrated manner against the word Brahmanetar, he was arguing against the usage of the word non-Brahmin. And he said that sahi hai, tum yahi use kar rahe ho. If you are using this word, then you must also include the British, the Muslims, the trees, the non-trees the rats, the jungles and everything.
So, if it’s a Brahmanetar thing, then it should include everything, right? The rest of the world. Do you find any kind of link between Tilak’s anger over the use of the word Brahmanetar/non-Brahmin and the eagerness of people like Sharmila Rege to use the word non-Dalit and also call themselves non-Dalit? Is it not the same line? What is the distinction between the two? It’s the same thing. He was arguing against non-Brahmin. Here we have the entire academic structure using the word non-Dalit. Tilak would be so proud.
And how did it come to this? In Babasaheb’s own words, how did the fight to reclaim human dignity become an act of proclaiming one’s own Dalitness as opposed to marking out the Brahmin-Savarna? And it’s a very simple question. As Raja Dhale said in his video, I am a human being and slavery has been imposed upon me. Untouchability has been imposed upon me. So why am I not – I’m just personally saying – why am I not a human being, but a special version of it? And the ones who are actually sitting on heaps of looted wealth and grotesque power, they have the privilege to be nothing but humans in present progressive discourses.
So why did the assertion become an act of self-exotification? Why? And I’m not saying that it is something we are actively doing or that they are not at all responsible for it. They are the ones primarily responsible for creating these molds into which we have to fit. In fact, just to give you a funny anecdote – I don’t know if it’s real or not, but it’s there in a very popular play about Aurangzeb and Sambhaji. So, Sambhaji never bows down in front of Aurangzeb. And Aurangzeb is very frustrated and he knows that Sambhaji is never, ever going to bow down in front of him. So just to make his own heart happy, he commands everyone to lower the height of the gate at the entrance, so that, at least when he is entering into the cabin of Aurangzeb, Sambhaji is going to bow down. Of course, mostly it’s a tale only, but the point that I’m trying to make is that this is how the gates have been defined. If you have to enter their spaces, then the gates have been lowered and you have to lower yourself, crouch your humanity, and become a smaller, twisted version of whatever you are so that you fit comfortably into their entire scheme of things.
So, why do I have to do that? Gail Omvedt, in her PhD dissertation, says that Ambedkar would refer to himself as a non-Brahmin scholar. So that is the word he uses for himself: non-Brahmin scholar. So, is Babasaheb using the potency of a label to make himself stand apart by calling himself a Dalit scholar, or is he using the power of a label brilliantly to mark out the oppressor – the one who is an actual abnormality, the one who is an aberration in humanity, in this nation’s entire blighted history, as well as in this case, the nation’s entire scholarship? Why is that not getting marked out? And like some of my friends, I too had the pressure to sometimes prove on social media back then, how actually real my Dalitness is. And I know now that this is not assertion, because that is different from the mental burden of constantly having to reiterate to one self and others that one is a quintessential Dalit.
There is another anecdote. I used to be 22-23 years old. So, at that time I had just posted something on Facebook and my father came to know that I’ve posted something on Facebook regarding his life. And then he called me and he was so angry and he shouted at me that I have no right to talk about his embarrassing experiences. He has chosen to portray himself as a doctor, a surgeon, but not what I was trying to do. His experiences were something he had told me as a father to his son, and it was not for me to post on social media. So that was his own assertion of his own identity, and I kind of broke the whole thing.
That’s how it happens. Because if you are a victim of that gaze, you will try to cater to it. Inferiority complex, that’s a birthday gift that you will have, if you become a victim of that gaze. That self-exotification, that there is something different in me, isn’t something inherently different, isn’t there something really, really fundamentally different between me and someone else as a person? I’m not saying in terms of the surroundings and everything else, but intrinsically. As a human being, before anything happens to me, whatever I am at that level, if I try to feel that there is something different than everyone else, then that’s the whole crux of Brahmanism, right? Because by saying that there are different categories, someone is born from the mouth, then arms, then the legs, and so on, the distinction that Brahmanism makes is that it is made directly at the birth level. How are we going to get any help by just inverting this? You don’t invert anything. No, by inverting you only strengthen what is already there.
So that’s why if someone is saying that you don’t have any merit, the right answer is not to say that inherently we have more merit than you have, it’s just that we don’t get opportunity. The right response is just to say that no, everyone is born with the same level of intellect, capacity to feel human emotions and everything else, but the inequalities exist because everything else is not the same. The human essence – I do not like using the word soul – the human essence remains the same. I’m not even going to use the word “more-or-less”, it is the same. It is exactly the same. And any twists, any distinctions to try to make it different at this level is going to ensure that this whole system proceeds, and you might not even get to experience this short human life as a human being. That’s the real twist of the caste system. In fact, I’d like to quote James Baldwin. James Baldwin says that the only time your life is destroyed is when you accept the definition of a Negro. He’s not saying you’re destroyed when you’re killed. He’s not saying you are destroyed when you are shot or when 10 swords go through you. The real destruction of the human essence happens when you think you are not human. And it could be a superior case or an inferior case. So that’s why I think if anyone needs help it is the bhudevtas and everyone else who feels that there is a certain kind of special thing that they are born with.
Again, getting back to the original argument, I said that there used to be a pressure on the social media. So why was this pressure? Why does this pressure exist to mark out the untouchable – and there is no pressure to mark out the ones who are not ready to touch – as if he’s born that way and not made or looked at in that certain sense? Why is there no pressure on the Brahmin-Savarna to speak on his or her regressive heritage before speaking authoritatively on what the problems of every oppressed community are? Because again, they have been given the super privilege. They don’t exist as humans, as I argued back then in 2016, they are existing as meta-humans, free from bondage of history and even reality. They don’t even have to be answerable for their nepotism, their caste networks, etc. It’s just how they are. They are meta-humans. They can be one thing today, the next thing later on. And they can be whatever they need to be in order to be on top in that particular arena.
And again, it’s important to say that it’s not an argument to change some nomenclature in the movement. I’m not saying that let’s not call ourselves Dalit, let’s call ourselves Scheduled Caste, this is what we’re going to print on our banners. It is not that. This is just an argument to reassess how we, as either Dalits or persons belonging to any oppressed communities, how we are being made to look at ourselves and speak about ourselves, because it affects us even in our most personal introspective moments. There is something within us, a crucial part of the identity of being a human, that is being robbed by the very route of our identity assertion, because that route is now being policed and guarded by the Brahmin-Savarna liberals and academia.
And before doing anything out there in the field or on paper, we first need to fully claim this robbed humanity or robbed individuality, in our own hearts and our own minds, and then call out the oppressor as being the oppressor. And why do we need to do this again? Because the logical consequence of the era of the Dalit autobiographies, should have been Brahmin-Savarna biographies. I am not saying that I’m against that whole trend. My own uncle wrote a book, four or five years ago, and all of us are angry at him. And imagine the title of the book, such a dramatic title: Mi Ek Asprushya (I, an Untouchable). We literally had a laugh over it and he also had a laugh later on, because we realized that it’s useless, because it had a certain context.
When Sharankumar Limbale wrote Akkarmashi and when Baluta came, and there was Jevha mi Jaat Chorli Hoti, and Babytai Kamble’s autobiography, I don’t need to name all of them, but that era (makes them relevant).. As I said, Brahminism is a system which only believes in superiority and maintenance of the status quo. So, the ideologies can keep changing. They are very flexible. So, they became very accustomed to this whole thing. In fact, as me and Rahul discussed Narhar Kurundkar and Gunwant has also discussed and I’ve also written on it on Round Table India. So, they feel so comfortable to write an article, which was titled, Dalit yanni koshotun baher yaave, which means Dalits should get out of their caves and it gets published on 14th April. So imagine, what gave Kurundkar the power to use that kind of sweeping statements: Dalits do that, Dalits do this. I mean, koi school ka class hai kya ki 10th A ke sare log bahar aake khade ho (is this a school where the headmaster directs all students of section 10th A to go and stand outside). That’s the kind of policing that happens because they ensure that we are now all in the same division – 10th A mein sare log baithe hain (all students in 10th A are sitting there) – and you can’t be out of that.
So, again, as I’d argued in 2016, the logical consequence of the era of Dalit autobiographies should have been the biographies that we write about Brahmin-Savarna. So, biographies should be penned by the people from the oppressed groups, where they will tear down the whole palaces of the shastris and the landlords. In fact, this is how we began. We began by the very exposure of the Brahmanical system, if we consider our beginning as with the writings of Jotiba and Savitrimai Phule. If you consider that as the beginning of the modern era, then this is how it began, with the whole deconstruction.
But somewhere along the way that part went missing. And we need to ask ourselves why, because the magnifying glass, which was supposed to be used for scanning the mechanisms of the caste system, was instead flipped and the Dalit, and sometimes the Adivasi became the sole object of its twisting and burning glare. Now we have some ridiculous inhuman studies, comparing fertility rates of a certain tribe with fertility rates of another tribe and so on. And especially, we’re ignoring Babasaheb’s essential insight: he wrote this in an editorial in Janata, in which he says that the base is not the building. And if you want to change the base, then the building that has been constructed on it must be knocked down.
So the question that we should pose to ourselves is, why did the base replace the building? Which means that – and this was the title of the Round Table India article – why did Dalit become the mascot for the caste system? That’s all it is. It’s just a mascot. It has almost become that in the hands of the Brahmin – again, I’m choosing my words very carefully – in the hands of the Brahmin-Savarnas, Dalit has become almost an empty signifier. It has become a general weapon, a general tool, a multipurpose tool. They can use this to pit different bahujans against each other. Now they will try to pit Scheduled Caste A category against Dalit B category. As I said, the moment you give them a cake, they will slice that cake into intersections. I’m not saying that the cake was made by us. I’m just saying that that’s how the whole thing was handed to us. But once the cake exists, once it is a thing, once it is a race, then they can make any kind of intersections because you agreed to it, right? If you already agreed to be a Dalit, then what’s the problem in saying that you’re a middle-class Dalit or Dalit man and so on? And thus, it becomes a tool.
It also becomes a tool not just to define us, but also to define them, which is what Rege did, calling herself and the entire Brahmin community and everyone else as non-Dalit, and ensuring that she’s in the same category as Brahmin and Adivasi. Please note the seriousness of this. So, she is closer to Adivasis and all the Dalits are something else, different altogether.
So, all the ex-untouchables, you’re something else, but all the non-Dalits, as she calls herself and as all the Brahmin academics might be calling themselves, they are closer with everyone else who is not a Dalit. As I said in the beginning, they are now using this whole pass the mic strategy to purify their own stages, their newspapers, their journals, by including and harping the word Dalit. It has become a kind of a Ganga-Snan where they can skip the whole question of caste system and sprinkle some Dalit swadanusaar (according to taste), and you have a perfect progressive recipe at your table.
So, the term Dalit is not going to be used or be useful in the context (of anti-caste assertion), I have observed. What exactly is now the potency of this term? Because the whole point should have been that as a human being, as far as I could stretch my wingspan, I could be anything, an artist, not just in my profession, but just how I look at myself. It would be so diverse. That whole possibility is being extinguished. It’s being nipped in the bud because of this imposition of identity.
This talk was transcribed by Anand Silodia
Gaurav Somwanshi is CEO & Cofounder of EmerTech Innovations Pvt Ltd. He is graduate from IIM Lucknow and a computer science engineer. He has worked extensively with state of Chhattisgarh where he conducted the state’s first pilots using Blockchain for e-governance, land record management, health record management, and other use-cases. He also conducted the state government’s first ever Blockchain Hackathon, and is a member of Africa Blockchain Alliance. He co-authored a Thought Paper with Special Secretary Mr Alex Paul Menon (IAS) that outlined how Blockchain can change e-governance. His personal project of conducting technology workshops for audience across India has also earned him selection as a Dalai Lama Fellow this year, where he presented his work at University of Virginia in June. Gaurav was also selected as a ‘Future Leader’ by British Council, and presented his work in UK Parliament, along with University of Cambridge. He has conducted Blockchain workshops in UK, Europe and US. He has also conducted workshop for the IAS officers of NCR government, ISB Hyderabad, IIM Bangalore and other colleges. Gaurav is also a ‘Leadership in Innovation’ fellow with Royal Academy of Engineering, UK.
Gaurav is also an Associate Editor at the Switzerland-based academic journal, ‘Frontiers in Blockchain’, and heads the section on ‘Blockchain for Fair Equity in Agriculture.’ Currently, he is working with Mr Vilas Shinde, Chairman of Sahyadri farms, which is India’s largest farmer collective, to develop a Blockchain solution that can help the farmers. He is working directly with over 8000 farmers, and his project won 1st prize in a competition organised by Indo-Swiss governments. He is also a weekly columnist on Blockchain for one of the largest newspapers in Marathi. He is also a social activist, writer, and independent researcher. He has written in Hatred in the Belly, along with many other articles in Round Table India.