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In Defence of “Caste Matters”

In Defence of “Caste Matters”

prateek khobragade 2019

Prateek Khobragade

prateek khobragade 2019Dr. Suraj Yengde’s recent book Caste Matters has triggered myriad debates across the class and caste circles the book has reached; an outcome any author would desire and expect. The responses are mixed and important criticisms of the book are making way. An interesting trend I observed in my own peer circle, of a small sample size, is that the book is positively appreciated by individuals subscribing from left to liberal worldviews – most of them upper-castes who heartily intend to ally with the Ambedkarite cause. Among my lower-caste peers, while some of them including me are greatly inspired, sheerly by Dr. Suraj’s incredible journey and look at him as, although lately privileged but an empowering voice from the community, a couple of important articles coming from respected individuals and group of individuals from within the community have severely criticized the book and have dubbed the author anti-constitutional, anarchist, Maoist, communist, Gandhian, ironically, all at once. While the author himself, if he wishes to, would be capable of rejoindering/ clarifying to his position to critics and the public at large, I would like to further the ensued discussion to raise a few queries and put out my own opinions on the issue.
The two articles published recently, (11 and 12 August) namely: Raja Sekhar Vundru’s ‘Undoing Dalit movements’ [1] and ‘Why ‘Radical Dalit’ Yengde is anti-Ambedkarism’ [2] are critical of Yengde in different degrees, mainly on the following premises: the methodology and content of his book, his NRI privilege, his (perceived) anti-constitution politics, his (alleged) consumerization of Ambedkar and his affinity to upper-caste leftists and liberals. I present the following queries based on these premises:

1. Methodology-content related
Mr. Vundru makes quite a few valid points concerning the methodology and content of this book. While comparing it with other authors along with whom he pits Dr. Yengde, he points out that while others have accounted an ‘enduring Dalit identity,’ Yengde abruptly stops his story with his childhood. It appears to me that Mr. Vundru is implying that in contrast to others, Yengde ceases to be a Dalit as soon as he stops telling his Dalit experience and should rather continue performing his victimhood. My first query is this: can this be a possibility? Can a Dalit individual cease to be a Dalit after accumulating a certain amount of privilege and choosing to stop articulating their lived experience of victimhood? Dubbing his account as ethnographic-myopia, doesn’t Mr. Vundru discredit a tradition of autoethnography that has been organically employed by first-generation educated Dalits since Mukta Salve learned letters? An important point although he makes is that in ethnographies, the participant-observer cannot pass judgement over her subjects. He appears to endorse a value-neutral production of knowledge. Would such a mode of knowledge production disturb the oppressive status quo an ounce? He finds Yengde’s criticism of salaried Dalits ‘toxic’ and I concede that Yengde can avoid being foolhardy and qualify his statement, but my question is what scope would value-neutrality leave for any criticism in the first place, let alone politics. If Dalit pain, angst and assertion ought to fall in line with brahmin-hegemonic norms of academic production that serves to blunt out their resistance, would it itself not undo the Dalit movement? Mr Vundru states that Yengde finds Dalit middle-class children going to private schools ‘problematic’ and ‘unacceptable,’ it leaves room for suspicion about Mr Vundru’s prejudices against Yengde, for selectively omitting the fact that Yengde’s concern is that at private schools – children grow up ‘neutral’ without a sense of their identity (p.117). Intellectual bullying has by far remained a business of the Brahmin academia and one can only hope that we Dalits do not start imitating such a derogatory culture. What purpose do low blows about Yengde’s ‘Harvard tag’ serve is nothing but opaque. An earlier and valid criticism by Yogesh Maitreya about Yengde’s previous co-edited book The Radical in Ambedkar [3] that – it privileges conventional academic writings and discounts unacademic accounts in this case suits Mr. Vundru. The criticism that Caste Matters appears to be predominantly about Dalits is I think, a fair one and should be blamed on the structuring of chapters. Although Yengde cautions the readers that his ‘castegorization’ would apply to all the castes, he could have done it more effectively. But yes, he should happily disclose his own castegory for saving critics second guessing. While Mr. Vundru’s criticisms are as vital as they can be, one may wonder how his sight could not strike a single “fresh perspective” in the book. To me personally, the book read a very refreshing, comprehensive, critical, passionate, and inspiring piece of work. If circumstances permit I could attempt to write an elaborate, un-hasty review of the book, and I’m sure we will see that from other writers. But if I have to briefly highlight the positives I would account the brilliant elucidation of Dalit Capitalism, remarkable addition to author’s committed project of internationalizing the Dalit question and discourse, and the important reminder to the brahmins about a legacy of some of their anti-caste predecessors. However, the most exciting thing about the book is something that has been a tireless undercurrent throughout pages. I will reserve that for a later discussion.
2. NRI privilege related

The genre that Mr. Vundru shuts Yengde off to is what he calls the ‘NRI Dalit genre.’ It is a very ambiguous category and I’m not quite sure about what it constitutes and in what regards it differs from the residential Dalits. Earlier I thought that it is mainly the class difference that naturally occurs as NRIs, particularly those in the first world countries, have a much greater income than their Rl counterparts. Now I have come to realise that the gap between these two demographics is not merely a financial one. The gap seems to increase with time and space, years and miles that a Dalit has moved away from her original resident, from the grassroots and from the center of Dalit discourse that is geographically situated in the Indian soil. The cultural frameworks of these two categories at approaching various issues will have an influence of their domicile work cultures and the forums at which they represent the anti-caste cause will also be different. But that could be another matter of research. What concerns this discussion is the obvious fact that caste cannot be transported to another country in the same way and form as it operates in India. The chances of a second and third generation NRI Dalit to experience the same degree of casteism that a rural Dalit faces would be extremely minuscule. The same logic of differential form and degree of discrimination will apply to rural-urban, regional and generational categories in India itself. Can I, with my privileged access to social media, talk about discriminatory experiences of my grandparents? In doing so, would I be stealing from them their personal experience and appropriate to evoke sympathy among the people? The answer perhaps would be ethical representation – ethical use of one’s privilege to represent their people. It is surprising to see similar groups now criticizing Yengde for his NRI privileges. With all due respect to other NRI Dalit activists, Yengde happens to be one of those who have spent the larger part of their lives without the privileges they have recently earned, with hard work. And even those privileges are not entirely caste insulating. Do Dalits, by earning privileges, lose the right to represent the underprivileged Dalits? Of course, there should be an ethical code for representing one’s people. Babasaheb Ambedkar, has laid down that code for us too.
3. Anti-constitutionalism related
This is a major allegation that the JNU students have made against Yengde based on an excerpt from his book. Perhaps they have been critical of a previous work that Yengde coedited with Anand Teltumbde, as the criticisms which they wrote were already in the public discourse in certain circles that had read/misread The Radical in Ambedkar. There is a fear/cynicism that a section of Ambedkarites, under the influence of Indian communists, are drifting away from Ambedkarism, which according to them is synonymous with Constitutionalism, towards anarchist and Maoist methods. Constitutional methods or not is a very old debate concerning Ambedkarite politics which at least at this moment seems unresolvable. I don’t read a call for radical politics as a call for an armed revolution. It is a call for rigorously engaging with politics, including radically reforming the Constitution and constitutional institutions from the clutches of soft or hard brahminical regimes. These regimes have almost irreversibly altered the core Ambedkarite ideals of the constitution and excavating those would require radical (not necessarily violent) measures. A brief though objective (critics may say pessimistic) illustration about suspicious foundations of constitutional morality has been made by S Kumar in ‘Should Bahujans burn the Constitution’ [4]. Anurag Bhaskar (in ‘How three key Supreme Court judgments shook the faith of SCs, STs and OBCs in one year’) articulated the fears of Dalit-Bahujans about the State’s intervention in the Judiciary [5]. Similarly, several other reports have highlighted the State’s arm-twisting of other important institutions from RBI, CBI, ECI, etc. The insurmountable power that the Indian state has accumulated was recently demonstrated by annexing a country without the will of its people. At times such as this if one is not pessimistic about the constitutional promise of democracy, then she is surely a romantic living in a faraway Fantasyland. At such times, even the ultra-leftist in India would give a second thought to the foolishness of an armed revolution. However, the Bharat Bandh example that the authors proudly site is surely an example of a radical manifestation of Dalit politics which eventually succeeded, although at a terrible cost, in forcing the government to revoke its anti-dalit policies. The authors have made really very hasty judgements about Yengde’s politics by grossly misreading it: consider the Dhasal vs Dhale debate. If they were patient enough, they would know that the author inclines more to a Dhalesque politics and owes contemporary radical Dalit consciousness to him [6], without fully dismissing the contributions of Dhasal. The authors were in such haste writing the article that they wrongly attribute (a forgivable mistake) the famous ‘hero-worship statement’ to Ranade Gandhi and Jinnah while it was made by Babasaheb in his concluding speech in the constituent assembly, popularly known as Grammar of Anarchy. As we all know, that Babasaheb was optimistic about the use of constitutional methods, he laid down many cautions and concluded saying:

“How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up” (from the speech to the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949) [7].

It is in fact to restore our dismantling structure of political democracy that we should engage with politics with a radically new approach. At this point, one can only request the authors to go back to The Radical in Ambedkar with an unprejudiced mind. My query here is simply that how fair/foolish is it for fellow Ambedkarites to brand an equally committed Ambedkarite as an anti-Ambedkarite? In doing so, are they not falling prey to the foolish ‘urban naxal’ propaganda peddled by the brahminical media? Do we too want to imitate the brahmin-baniyas in allotting certificates of being Dalit, Ambedkarite, leftists and so on? The Ambedkarite movement is not a monopoly of any individual, clique or class, whether those individuals have shiny degrees from IVY leagues or from India’s most romanticized and privileged university. If the privileged students of JNU consider themselves true-blood activists of the movement, they should find better arenas to exhaust their energies into rather than blindly labelling committed Ambedkarite activists. The legacy of Ambedkar doesn’t deserve to evolve into a meaningless skirmish about who is more Ambedkarite than the other. It ought to be a discourse that evolves from meaningful criticisms premised on mutual respect of fellow Ambedkarites who enter the public discourse, overcoming numerous hurdles presented to them by the Brahminic order. Has the current toxic public culture really changed the way we look at our brothers and sisters?
4. Commercialization of Ambedkar

 The authors referring to a ‘booming market for victimhood’ tag Yengde as a ‘brahminical merchant’ and claim he has ‘cunning ambitions’. Now that is a very unfortunate accusation, for Dalits don’t really have the privilege of aspiring towards something but they are just in a constant flux to escape from the daily hardships that their caste brings upon them. Although I do not know any of the authors personally, I can be sure that they among themselves will have stories of landing a seat in JNU as an escape route from the caste traps that were hindering and damaging their inherent potentials. But of course, once the basic requisites of survival are met, do they not aspire to follow their Idol who would even insist on wearing good sarees and jewellery to untouchable women at the Mahad Satyagraha? Can not a Dalit aspire to wear fashionable clothing, have fancy hairstyles, drive stylish cars and earn handsome salaries? Do they prison themselves in a psychological cage of victimhood and carry the baggage of experienced atrocities all their lives, making peace with the burden? At this point, it is most relevant to bring in the discussion of what the term ‘Dalit’ actually signifies? Does it signify a place of hopeless victimhood or does it signify the one’s battle with that hopelessness? A consensus on its meaning is not yet reached at in the public discourse as many Ambedkarites call for abandoning the term which represents to them a stigmatized past. Others who reclaim the term use it to articulate their present and perennial resistance to caste oppression. Yengde ascribes the following meaning to this term: The term ‘Dalit’ is analogous to anti-oppression. The defining trait of the Dalit community is to resist oppression in any form. (p.213, Caste Matters). This usage reverses the attached stigma and owns people’s glorious history of resistance. And I would even go on to say that if this glorious history is something which is currently selling in the market then one may even go ahead with it. What’s the harm in it? One just ought to be cautious that this identity is not misappropriated, misrepresented or tokenised by the market forces and the history is duly represented on our own terms. I think Yengde is doing a fantastic job at that and deserves congratulations. I often think of him as a rapper who hustled his way out of his hood and made it big. That’s also my criticism of him that his case is an exception and unfortunately not the rule. It’s rather a criticism of what he risks to represent – a Dalit dream, analogous to the American dream. The neoliberal ethos may eventually build a narrative around him that the likes of him who work hard enough and are talented enough will surely make it big. But that’s not the truth. Not everyone gets to go to Ivy Leagues. Some of them go to JNUs, some of them go nowhere. So, my query here is if it is rewarding or futile to aspire such a Dalit dream? Especially when you may run the risk of being called a traitor to your own people you are so committed to.
5. Concerning affinity to upper-caste leftists and liberals
It may be a fact that Suraj Yengde is closely associated with many leftists, liberals from the upper as well as lower castes. But his association doesn’t inhibit him making sharp criticisms of people across the ilk. For example, he may have serious ideological differences with the left-leaning MLA Jignesh Mevani, but their differences don’t disturb their working relationship, a lesson they have learnt from the communication failures of previous generations. Dr. Yengde, in my brief experience, have warm relationships with people subscribing to a range of worldviews, having nuanced differences with each other. At this point I would like to come back to a point I reserved as an undercurrent that runs through Yengde’s book like a bloodstream – an idea he calls Dalit Love. It is but an extension of our anger and hatred and bitterness.
He writes: Having the courage to agree to a dialogue with the oppressor as well as a firm commitment to resolve conflicts is integral to Dalit Humanity. The primacy of Dalitness emerges in its innate capacity to cultivate self-love in the bareness of apathy and tragedy. The audacity to hope while locked in the darkness testifies to the existence of Dalit Love. It is the unwritten resolution of the community to adhere to the principle of love. (p. 45-46).
In my interpretation, this is the radical antidote and remedy that has the potential to cut across experiential, ideological and attitudinal differences and put to rest not only the Panthers vs Comrades saga but build solidarities across caste groups, strengthen the anti-caste struggle possibly towards the old cause of the annihilation of caste. As romantic as it may sound, in my judgement, it is the most pragmatic and realistic approach to navigate in the caste society and eventually wither away the caste walls or bring it down. A most poignant and powerful manifestation of Dalit Love has been made by Mari Selvaraj in the climax of his cinematic artifact Pariyerum Perumal. The protagonist, despite all the atrocities inflicted upon him, shows the audacity to call for a humane dialogue with his oppressors on a utopic equal pedestal. And these varied manifestations finding their way independent of each other is itself a proof of what we as a people believe in and are capable of. This very belief in love can resolve the petty conflicts like this one and many others to come in the future. As privileged representatives of our people and our history, our foremost responsibility is simply to love each other.
PS: Yengde has recently gone on record saying that he belongs to most of the categories of Dalits he has listed in his book, thus humanizing his categories and putting an end to that debate.













Prateek Khobragade is a recent postgraduate from HSS, IIT Gandhinagar, and is an independent researcher based in Pune.