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How should a Brahmin-Savarna respond to a Dalit voice?

How should a Brahmin-Savarna respond to a Dalit voice?

Photo Mahitosh Mandal


Mahitosh Mandal

Speak you too,
speak as the last,
say out your say.

Paul Celan, ‘Speak You Too’

Photo Mahitosh MandalI have not stated my question as ‘How DOES a Brahmin-Savarna respond to a Dalit voice?’ Had I framed it this way, the answer would have been a factual one derived from real-life experiences. If we observe the audience behavior in TV talk-shows when, for example, Chandra Bhan Prasad speaks, we would find visible raising of eyebrows, cutting short of sentences, and other uncivil behavior not expressed towards other speakers. We could also explain the nature of the Brahmin-Savarna response to the Dalit voice through a close analysis of how the newspaper articles, related to Dalit personalities like K R Narayanan, Mayawati, Manjhi and others, are written; or the way the Dalit poets or writers are referred to in literature circles and departments. It is a fact that for some – if not for all Brahmin-Savarnas, a Dalit voice is a nuisance. For them, a Dalit voice is to be dismissed as naïve, and as not intellectually rigorous. For them, a Dalit voice is a source of annoyance, disappointment, and discomfort. Of course, such dismissal of a Dalit-voice is based on the Brahmin-Savarnas’ own ways of making sense of things. They would try to prove a Dalit-voice naïve on the basis of, for example, their notion of the ‘intellect’, ‘merit’, and ‘scholarship’. For them, a Dalit voice is worth dismissing and discrediting because it is based too much on what they call ‘didacticism’, and ‘identity politics’. If not anything, a Dalit learns a lot of terms and concepts from the ‘Brahmin-Savarna Dalit-experts’. The Dalit, however, hardly gains anything from such terms and concepts which are either inadequate or irrelevant for interpreting his reality.

Instead, the question I have posed is rather an ethical one, as the auxiliary, ‘should’, indicates. Now, the very first point would be, do I have the right to suggest how the Brahmin-Savarnas should respond to a Dalit voice? That is, can I build an ethics for the Brahmin-Savarnas? I think I can. I think I should.

Let me clarify one point here. What I am writing in this article derives mainly from my own experiences as a Dalit from West Bengal and derives partly from my exposure to the history of humiliation of the marginalized. What I am writing here, also derives from how the readers received my first ever article on the Dalit subject, namely, ‘Are SCs, STs, and OBCs less talented?’ published by Round Table India, on 22 September, 2015.

I think it would be appropriate to begin with an analysis of the reception of my article. As far as I gather, members of the Dalit community who happened to have read the said article are moved by it, because my article voiced their emotions, their wishes, and their suffering, perhaps. Most readers of my article thanked me for writing such an article, for urging everybody to be historically conscious, and to read Ambedkar. My article was shared and liked by the Dalits and Bahujan in hundreds. I started receiving series of friend-requests on Facebook. There were some Brahmin-Savarna readers who too agreed with most of my points, and thanked me for writing such a direct, lucid, and thought-provoking article, and thereby destroying some commonplace anti-reservation myths.

I was, however, rather surprised with such positive response. Apart from voicing the Dalit approach to the world, I also wanted to agitate some Brahmin-Savarnas in order to bring out their ignorance about Indian histories and realities as perceived by the Dalits, and to bring to light their casteist prejudices which are too often disguised in the garb of abstract intellectualism. When I was thinking on this line, a friend of mine assured me that some Brahmin-Savarnas, mostly academics, were indeed dismissing my article as non-academic, as lacking intellectual rigour, and as naïve.

I started analysing the reasons cited for the dismissal of my article by a few (who I would presume represent some others as well). Could my article indeed be dismissed, the way they had dismissed it? If so, then why did I receive such extremely positive response and support from many Dalits and Bahujan whom I did not personally know? What is so different with the Brahmin-Savarna readers of my article? I think the following would be some of the ways of resolving/problematizing the issue.

When a Dalit speaks of his suffering, he wittingly or unwittingly voices the suffering of the larger community of Dalits. So the origin of a Dalit voice is not just to be found in an individual Dalit. The origin of a Dalit voice is to be found in the collective consciousness of the larger Dalit community. That is precisely why, if a Brahmin-Savarna claims he has known the individual Dalit-writer in question, and on the basis of that knowledge takes the liberty to psychoanalyse and dismiss the author/article, then such a reader is fully mistaken. Further, if my non-Dalit acquaintances claim that they have known me personally, and so have procured the license to dismiss me, then I would ask them: have you really known me? Have I shared my suffering and humiliation with you? Have you really cared to get a sense of how a Dalit makes sense of the world?

In fact, the question I am trying to formulate in this article is a question of ‘how to engage with the Other’. The Other here, of course, is the marginalized Dalit community. However, I would refer to a poet who in a slightly different context experienced extreme suffering and humiliation for belonging to the Jewish community. I am referring to the Jewish poet Paul Celan whose parents were killed by the Nazis in the concentration camps, who himself was confined in the camps for some time, and whose poem I have quoted in my epigraph. Celan’s attempt in this poem is an attempt to let the other, the Jew, speak: the Jew who for ages has been vilified, silenced, dehumanized, and debased as an evil; the Jews who had to be killed in millions as part of the Nazi ‘Final Solution’ in order to cleanse Europe. Celan wants the Jew to speak, to voice his side of the story. However, in this poem (‘Speak You Too’, translated by John Felstiner), Celan not only urges the need for the Jew to speak; but also shows how difficult, even impossible, it is for the Jew to speak the unspeakable i.e., the traumatic (as related to the Holocaust). Celan’s problem here is necessarily a linguistic one: are the conventional ways of ‘language use’ sufficient to express the suffering of the Other? It is a commonplace in contemporary cultural discourses that ‘language of the other’ needs by definition to be different from the normative discursive practices. This partly explains the demand of the feminists to take recourse to alternative modes of ‘language use’ while voicing the experience of the woman as the Other. The problem, however, is that such alternative modes of writing sometimes run the risk of becoming either cryptic and incomplete (from the perspective of the self) due to the failure of the normative language on encountering the traumatic; or ‘too lucid’ and ‘jargon-free’ due to the direct and intense exposure of the writer to social injustices. Because such modes of writing, in this way, deviate from the normative intellectual/discursive practices, they are naturally dismissed by those who are anxious to maintain the purity and self-sufficiency of the normative/aristocratic narrative modes.

Given this difference in the other’s mode of articulation of his experiences, how does the self engage with the other? One major philosophical intervention, in this context, has been made by the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, himself a Jew or an ‘other’, who attempted to shift the philosophers’ attention from the Self to the Other. Central to Levinas’s philosophy (cf. Totality and Infinity; Otherwise than Being, ‘The Trace of the Other’ etc.) is the idea of ‘ethics as the first philosophy’ as far as the question of engaging with the Other is concerned. In the Levinisian sense, even before the Self has started to analyze the Other, the Self should assume an ethical stance which is to be understood in the form of a pre-existing difference between the Self and the Other. The Self should always remember that he cannot understand the Other in his/her entirety, that there are experiences of the Other which the Self cannot even imagine or formulate in his familiar language, that the way the Other interprets the world is significantly different from how the Self interprets the world. It is this acknowledgement of the difference at the very outset, and the acknowledgement of the Self’s limitations, that should accompany the Self throughout the process of his engagement with the Other. Further, any engagement with the Other, on the part of the Self, is inevitably accompanied by some difficulty or impossibility in understanding the Other. This is partly because the Other exists not as a concrete easily comprehensible presence in front of the Self; but as silences, gaps, and contradictions, which need to be rescued or engaged in with honesty, care and patience. Throughout history the Other has been denied articulation; hence the Other has always existed as silence. The Self has always constructed histories in which inconsistencies have been carefully hidden; but the Other has existed in those gaps, in those inconsistencies. If ever the Other has tried to assert his voice or his interpretation of the world, such assertions have been repeatedly cut short. This is so true in the case of the Dalit other.

So to reiterate the question: how should a Brahmin-Savarna respond to a Dalit voice? Or to rephrase: what ethical stance should they assume before engaging with the Dalit other? First and foremost: the Brahmin-Savarna has to necessarily self-examine his/her need to dismiss or discredit the Dalit voice, because of the existing power differential and the fact that the two are representing opposing realities. To dismiss a Dalit voice from an unexamined Brahmin-Savarna location is to deny the truth of Dalit experience or the truth-value of the Dalit narrative. To dismiss a Dalit voice is to perpetuate the same crime of silencing the Dalits as has been done historically. To dismiss the Dalit voice is to commit an epistemic violence. The Brahmin-Savarna voice has dominated for thousands of years. It is time for the Brahmin-Savarnas to practice silence, and develop an ear for listening to the Dalit voice. Second: before engaging with a Dalit voice, the Brahmin-Savarna must critically unlearn the dominant Brahminical/European modes of thinking which constitute the major part of his consciousness. He must acquaint himself with the history of Dalit resistance; bear the proof of his studentship in Dalit wisdom; and work hard to remove his unacknowledged caste-prejudices. He must learn to see the truths inherent in alternative framework of thinking which, in this case, would require, among other things, their acquaintance with Ambedkar’s approach to the Indian reality.

But there are far more important issues: how should the ‘Brahmin-Savarna Dalit-experts’ engage with the Dalit voice? Here the word ‘Dalit-experts’ is put in quotes to indicate the problem with the notion of expertise. One cannot be an expert on another human, unless one operates from the assumption that he possesses innately superior qualities which allow him to be judge and jury. And to presume expertise on a large group of humans is squarely located in supremacist philosophy and not in any objective reasoning. While I would like to develop this idea in a subsequent article, I propose here some preliminary observations on what the Brahmin-Savarna academic Dalit-experts adopt as ethical responsibility. First: the self-appointed academic Dalit-experts should aim to strongly facilitate the Dalit’s right to articulate himself. Otherwise they would end up committing the same epistemic violence usually committed by the ‘non-experts’. Second: the Brahmin-Savarna Dalit-experts should constantly ask themselves: how do the Dalits themselves, and not how some academicians, think about the expert’s academic interpretation of the Dalit experience? Do the Dalits agree to the kind of representation of their reality put forward by the academicians? Third: is the expert more interested in occupying a place in the academia? Or is he interested in concretely contributing to the emancipation of the Dalits, in helping to remove the obstacles in the way of the Dalit’s development? Fourth: the Brahmin-Savarna Dalit-experts should be careful in not antagonizing the Dalits at the cost of befriending the casteist non-Dalits. That is, they must guard against all forms of casteism as nurtured mainly by their fellow Brahmin-Savarnas. In their attempt to work for the cause of the Dalits, the Brahmin-Savarnas might have to antagonize their fellow Brahmin-Savarnas. Fifth: the Brahmin-Savarna Dalit-experts should learn to ‘speak with or along with’ a Dalit voice rather than ‘commenting on’ a Dalit voice. Such experts should work hand in hand with the Dalits in spreading the positive kind of caste consciousness for the annihilation of caste.

Let me, once again, turn to the epigraph of my article and address my fellow Dalits. Speak you too, my dear Dalit sisters and brothers! Speak whatever comes to your mind with reference to your experience of suffering, humiliation, and deprivation. And while speaking, you choose your language, your style of narration; while speaking, you outline what you think is wrong with this casteist society; while speaking, you suggest a solution as you think fit. Speak in broken, ungrammatical sentences; say out your say even if they consider you as ‘not quite of an intellectual’. Remember, if you are lagging behind in their eyes, the fault is not yours, the fault is theirs. Articulate your suffering; make noise. We need to agitate them. Jai Bhim!



Mahitosh Mandal is Assistant Professor, Department of English, Presidency University, Kolkata. His areas of interest include Dalit Studies, Hinduism, and Psychoanalysis.

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