Rachelle Bharathi Chandran
Shallow savarna feminist media spaces and why we must fight them
A liberal is “a person who believes that government should be active in supporting social and political change”.
Feminism is the belief that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities.
While quoting these definitions, I’m well aware of the restriction of dictionary definitions, their limitations and how they’re derivative of hegemonic knowledge. I’m using these definitions in the larger context of how upper caste savarnas in India and the diaspora interpret it.
The current political climate many argue has bought into fore the problems of India. This view is parochial, to say the least since many of the problems discussed today are not new problems at all. The only difference now is the difference of visibility and access of resources to understand these problems. The Modi government came into power exploiting the power of social media and still uses the internet as a tool of seeding its political movement and ideas. The number of online websites, pages that are pro-government and anti-government and those that speak on social issues has increased since 2014.
Quite obviously, the role online website and social pages play has become more relevant and it’s important to assess who owns these pages, what drives them and the values they hold especially since many of them have positioned themselves as alternatives to mainstream media.
YKA-HuffPost India: Whose voice is heard and who highlights them?
A cursory look at YKA shows how their Dalit history month page has articles that have nothing to do with dalit history at all. Instead, it’s a page that includes accounts of “general” category people finding a sudden revelation about how “reservation is okay” or it caters to UC savarnas essentially appealing on how dalits should be treated like fellow human beings.
YKA started 10 years ago. It received the Social media for empowerment” award at the 2013 Manthan South Asia Awards and the Laadli Media Awards for “gender sensitivity” in 2016.
Their first post on caste was a debate on if caste should play a role in any marriage from 5 years ago which can hardly qualify as actively fighting against casteism.
Their second post on caste comes only 3 years ago from Karthik Shankar who vaguely writes about someone asking his caste in his school and wondering how caste can exist in Tamil Nadu which “successfully pushed forward Dravidian movements”.
Karthik Shankar will go on to write about Rohit Vemula’s death on YKA reposted by HuffPost India.
He says: “With all this at play, students like Rohith have to deal with hard political choices. Either be voiceless or amplify it by becoming part of organisations like the ASA that impose a collective identity on them. In the dance of democracy, their silence is accepted and their opinions are rebuked.
While I finish drafting these thoughts I suspect Rohith has receded to the background even in a story that was ostensibly about him. Talking about Rohith the Dalit means ignoring his other identities — son, friend and academic. He becomes a minor detail in a larger narrative — that grand tome called “Caste in India – Get Down”. Rohith Vemula’s story is tragic not because he’s a Dalit but because an educated and intelligent young man thought taking his own life was his only option.”
Karthik Shankar does not reveal his caste. But from his caste-ignorant opinions on Rohith Vemula we can safely assume his caste privilege. Why was a savarna person’s voice given priority over Dalit voices who were fighting for him and still commemorating him?
There are a thousand students like Rohith Vemula who die every year in India precisely because of caste. Precisely because of being Dalit. The HuffPost article written by Karthik Shankar erases this by writing “Rohith Vemula’s story is tragic not because he’s a Dalit but because an educated and intelligent young man thought taking his own life was his only option.” Rohith Vemula’s story is not tragic because he was educated and intelligent for it implies that only educated and intelligent Dalit persons deserve our grief. It’s tragic because even after fulfilling all the traditional markers of “intelligence” that savarnas have upheld as gatekeepers, Rohith just like many dalit students could see no other option other than death. He could see that merit is a lie essentially repeated by savarnas holding a carrot. That even after reaching that place, it’s never enough because even though Rohith had multiple identities, it’s his identity of being Dalit that was seen first not any other identity Karthik Shankar mentions in his article. A Dalit writer would have known this since this is lived reality for many of us. Our experience comes not because we personally know Rohith, but because we personally know the struggle Rohith faced.
It’s curious how in the past few years, YKA has attained this level of caste consciousness. YKA was funded in 2015 by Raghav Bahl and Ritu Kapur with 4 crores in investments. They frequently write about dalit struggle, reservation and two of their posts (this and this) talk about diversity in Indian news media points out how dalit reporters are few.
YKA funded with 4 crore rupees is a sizeable media platform in itself and 10 years into being an online media space what is the representation it has of dalit reporters/writers and dalit editors in decision-making, powerful positions? We don’t know because YKA and Anshul Tiwari the founder have refused to answer this question despite multiple call-outs on Twitter/FB/Instagram. All platforms where both YKA and Anshul Tiwari are active and frequently have time to RT or share the views of popular persons nominated by the liberal, left, self-proclaimed saviours. Below are some of the call-outs where YKA was asked this and they ignored this question.
The important thing is that YKA or any other online self-professed savarna social justice website should not have to be asked to get this information. They should do so willingly and consider it a default. If they are profiting off and benefiting off Dalit stories, it’s imperative they hire Dalits. If they are writing about Adivasis and OBC, they have to hire Adivasis and OBC. They have to hire marginalized people in editorial, decision making positions. YKA’s founder recently hosted Barack Obama at the Obama Foundation Town Hall meet in Delhi because ” it’s a young people led platform breaking stereotypes”. They couldn’t’ have been farther from the truth. YKA is as stereotypical as the well-established mainstream media they call out. They have no accountability or transparency and their allyship is performative.
Why is the word caste-politics problematic?
The tags used at the end of the Huff post article is as telling of the caste ignorance of mainstream media organisations. They use the word “caste politics” for the suicide of a Dalit student. A cursory search on google shows no definition of that word as compared to the word “race politics”.
This denial to accept the word casteism is what leads to discourses that seek to label everything from Dalit assertion to Dalit violence and oppression as “caste politics”. Using the word caste politics presents those of us who are marginalized and fighting against century old systems of privilege as having the same political, structural or institutional power as the oppressors. This is because savarnas are leading conversations about Dalit oppression and struggle. They talk of a struggle that they never experienced and use borrowed words from people in power, their family, and friends.
Savarnas are happy to use caste politics instead of casteism because caste politics excludes them from being held responsible as they can excuse themselves from saying they “don’t do politics” but casteism includes them and holds them accountable. Savarnas, of course, use the term “caste politics” correctly to mean that caste is used by politicians to attain votes and gain power. This is true of every politician not just in India but all over the world. It’s essential for a politician to include every member of their country which naturally translates to using their identities of caste, race, gender, sex, religion or other identities. The scrutiny should not be on whether they are including these people to gain votes by appealing to their identity, the scrutiny should be on whether they follow up on those promises to the community they appeal to after gaining votes. UC Savarnas however hardly see this. They vehemently resist the idea that every dominant caste politician is furthering his/her/their agenda and it’s not restricted to marginalized communities. They fail to see that almost always dominant caste politicians do not fulfill the promises they made to the marginalized communities but do so for their own dominant castes which they belong to which results in giving seats in colleges/offices/approval of loans, houses etc.
Buzzfeed India, Republic TV- seemingly opposite but aren’t
Buzzfeed India’s Dialogue covered Bharat Bandh (after Bhima Koregaon) and did not pass the proverbial mic over. They did a good job of explaining the facts until they ended with “why so much caste politics” when instead it should have been casteism. None of them will ever say, why so much race politics when they cover an Indian person who was killed in the US. They know the word racism, they can define it and understand it and yet when it comes to using the word casteism and recognizing the people who are affected here, they fail to use the right word and make it about politics.
It’s easy to look at how savarna upper caste men co-opt dalit movements to get a progressive badge. But it’s even worse when we have to meet popular feminists who are brave enough to call out their fellow UC men and we think they will be our allies because they say they stand for women. Following are a few instances, but this happens repeatedly in every sphere.
Trisha Shetty associated with She Says currently getting viral coverage for standing up to “all netas” on Republic TV which itself is heavily biased shows how casual casteism operates.
Also notable that she was associated with the Obama Foundation and during Obama’s Town Hall Meet in India was congratulated by Obama for standing up for gender equality.
It started with this conversation hosted by Trisha Shetty with Priya Malik and Rega Jha (Buzzfeed Editor-in-Chief)
Jigyasu Kumar (@tatyabichchhoo) on Twitter asked them how many dalit women were on the panel for this unapologetic talk on feminism.
Priya Malik responded to him with this tweet:
When eventually called out by me on Twitter, she responded with:
A link given by Ramanan on Twitter pointing to her ever problematic views on caste in other spaces like Instagram:
Priya Malik and Trisha Shetty were associated with an apolitical protest which received widespread backlash on Twitter and they eventually withdrew that word but not before Buzzfeed (where Rega Jha is Editor-in-Chief) could do a stand-alone piece about her in the dialogue space of Buzzfeed. And for all the vocalness, Priya withdrew from the protest itself.
Priya also proceeded to block me.
It didn’t take much for her to pass casteist comments or accept that the feminism they were speaking about was not intersectional and supports every bit of the structural and institutional supremacy savarna upper castes carry. Much like white feminism does nothing for black women, savarna feminism is not intersectional. It’s trash just like the institutions of power that actively oppress us. It’s trash just like the behaviour where Priya Malik and Trisha Shetty can block Dalit persons and womxn instead of acknowledging their privilege.
Just days after this She Says was in a twitter storm because they wanted a sex offenders registry. It’s only after repeated call-outs on Twitter, they posted the above picture on their FB which acknowledged none of the people who spent time/energy calling them out. Many of them were, of course, marginalized seeing as how a sex offenders registry negatively impacts marginalized people.There is no acknowledgment and worse no apology. They also go on to ask people to delete the posts. This sort of active revision of history is a game that savarnas know how to play well. Multiple savarna UC accounts on Twitter delete old, problematic tweets not because they have realized they’re problematic and harmful but because they hinder their progressive image.
Below are conversations where I asked Trisha Shetty and Rega Jha to call out and acknowledge Priya Malik’s casteist views.
It’s especially laughable that she made this comment when we see how she tackles people telling her how to handle activism.
What stopped them from doing it this year? Are there no Dalit, Adivasi, OBC womxn who are feminists? It had to be a three-member savarna women team where one of them don’t even understand the basic tenet of what feminism means?
How many savarna women does it take for a discussion on feminism?
This sort of performative allyship is deep where they think RTing dead Dalit persons’ is solidarity. Trisha RT’s about Rajni Tilak but polices Dalit persons who call her casteism out.
Of course, they can very happily ally themselves with black women. Because white people who show performative allyship by sharing MLK quotes are horrible but Trisha Shetty showing performative allyship is okay because she is a social activist with a stamp of approval from Obama.
Of course, she blocked me for pointing out this double standard.
Of course, what must be seen here is why and how savarna womxn can write and speak with all the anger blessed upon them by the intersection of the mighty caste system and a few years of co-opting black womxn anger at white feminism.
That Trisha Shetty can write articles like Fuck Politeness and can say it’s okay to rage but when Dalit womxn get angry it is unsubstantiated. This needs a deeper look at how savarna feminists police Dalit persons’ and especially Dalit womxn anger. Who has the power to tell us that our anger is unsubstantiated? Who gets to decide that if my community is being derided?
Rega Jha amidst all the callouts chose to keep quiet and not acknowledge anything. But of course, when a Dalit woman asked if anyone was willing to publish stories about the Dalit experience, she readily came with all the benevolence of a savarna saviour womxn.
It doesn’t take much for a savarna woman today to be hailed as a saviour of this generation while touting feminist views and using AAVE (The African American Vernacular English). AAVE which includes words like “woke” “slay” “yaaaas” are born out of pain and struggle of the black community where using such words have historically excluded them from opportunities of education and work. Where using such language was seen as uneducated and not worthy of the Ivy leagues and Wall Street.
Black womxn have frequently appealed and asked non-black persons to stop appropriating their language but of course, no one seems interested to listen. Because we want to sound cool and have cultural capital. What allows people in power like Rega Jha to call out their fellow savarna men and say words like “your wokeness means nothing if you’re not using it to wake other people up”. Especially when she has been quiet and complicit in the casteist language and actions of Shetty and Malik.
Why it matters who tells our stories
It matters who has access to our stories and experiences. In the rush to be able to share our pain and experience, larger platforms which have a history of casteism either use money or fame to bait the marginalized to share their stories. But we need to ask ourselves, would having just one token Dalit, Adivasi, OBC person endorse a publication make it okay for these organizations to share our stories. Who benefits from it?
Just as a Dalit person can never experience what it would mean to be Adivasi, an Adivasi/OBC person cannot experience what being Dalit would mean or entail. We need to be asking for more accountability and transparency from organizations that publish marginalized stories. Because when it comes to marginalization of gender, sex, and body, it’s often led by marginalized people. A queer magazine often proudly displays that it is run by a queer person or displays the people in the team who identify their orientation. The same with specially-abled persons. Why then is this not the default for publications that actively seek out DBA stories? Why is the editorial bias that would inevitably seep in when a person who does not belong to the marginalized community not taken into account?
Is it enough that they can engage in one-off conversations? Why are we still pushing for reservations in private sector? Isn’t it because of this rigid refusal of publications in media who do nothing to reveal the caste of the people in their organizations but feel comfortable fronting a certain image of progressiveness. Allyship requires sacrifice, as the saying goes. The sacrifice required is to give up their caste positions of power. The sacrifice required is to transparently show how young 20-year old upper castes can run organisations that have immense following on social media and who want to do work on Dalit persons but don’t reveal who funds it or don’t reveal how they started because it will betray the social capital, connections and network they benefit from which DBA people so often lack. The sacrifice required is for UC savarnas to leave their comfort zones of caste bubble and privilege.
Rachelle Bharathi Chandran is a writer whose writing centers on the Dalit experience and the various marginalized intersections within it. Zer professional work includes writing on health and education as a content marketing specialist.