As I paced around my house at 1am in the night, I realized I didn’t own any ropes. I wondered if ripping out the straps of my backpack and tying it together with horizontal strips cut from my towels would make a strong enough noose to hang myself with. Then in a moment of absurdist epiphany, I smiled at my own ingenuity—Bahujan labor always finds a way. I laughed out loud. My cat freaked out by the maniacal tone of my laugher, darted away to hide somewhere. Not realizing how close I had come to altering her life so fundamentally.
I was not drunk. But I was not clear-headed either. Five years of teaching in a private college with no reservations in admissions or hiring, before that another few years circling around Delhi’s civil society and my doctoral education in another private college without reservations—had added up to almost 10 years in ‘academia’ and its allied ecosystems.
Yet, I felt completely isolated and constantly watched. An air of cagey wariness marking every professional encounter… every meeting feeling like a battlefield where I could either explode or be utterly humiliated. Every class boiling with tension, threatening to crack open… two sentences away from open mutiny or a riot. Always chased by a shadow network of discrediting rumors, always the subject of dismissive and patronizing micro-gossip. Always feeling like I am one social-media post or one disgruntled student complain away from being fired or worse.
Was I imagining it all? Was I exaggerating existing frictions, overreading into everyday irritations? Was my brain gaslighting itself? Too scared to voice these opinions and anxieties. Too conscious of Savarna colleagues reading it as ‘going crazy’… “he is too tightly wound up”, “he thinks he’s the only one who has issues” … or worse, “he is always playing the victim”.
I see (real or imagined?) dismissive emasculating smiles saying “look at this fool, a modern-day Don Quixote charging at the windmills”.
I come from a Bahujan background. My dressing, spoken English and pop-culture knowledge got modelled to fit Savarna standards through a decade of a very painful cultural adjustment, comprising of being bullied, humiliated and ridiculed throughout school and college. So, on first glances, I am not jarring to the ever-scrutinizing Savarna eyes. Visually and superficially, I am allowed to ‘pass’ through to some social spaces which I otherwise would not have access to. But the rules of this access are very contingent to adhering to the Savarna social norms. You are never very far from being put back into place. Caste politics run deep.
I’ll give an example. A while ago I managed to get selected for an overseas academic workshop. While there were scholars from all over the world, the group was dominated by mostly US academics. Among them were a few people of Indian-origin, of course Brahmans. What immediately struck me was how despite not living in India, these people had positioned themselves as ‘interpreters’ of the Indian condition—explaining and deconstructing Indian realities to an eager, global and white audience. Of particular note was this older Tamil Brahman man, who had earlier regaled me with tales about how his ultra-orthodox Brahman grandmother was actually a progressive feminist—because she advised his father to not marry a non-Brahman woman, “if you love her, live with her”. This he proclaimed was proof that she was ok with a ‘live-in relationship’ even in the 1960s. The fact that she was actually forbidding the marriage in order to keep her clan’s caste ‘purity’ intact, was obviously missed on this man. I was not impressed by this story but I did not say anything. But my lack of enthusiasm was noticed. From then on, every time he narrated a story, he would check for my reaction.
A few days later, over dinner, he was giving some narrative about “India is changing and growing and discrimination is thing of the past”. As he had his predominantly-white audience eating out of the palm of his hand— I interjected and counter-posed several points. Most grating for him was my commentary on caste apartheid and manual scavenging. He seemed genuinely stunned that I was talking about these things.
After a while, he stopped debating with me. He leaned in close and suddenly asked me my full name. He swirled my last name around in his mouth, eyes closed trying to concentrate before sharply fixing his gaze upon me and asking, “wait you’re from Northern India aren’t you?”. I felt panic. I nodded. He smiled now, condescendingly and triumphantly, “ok now I understand”. He proceeded to dismiss me completely from that moment onwards in a way that left me humiliated. I hung my head and my cheeks felt aflame. Yet nobody on the table, full of chatter and drinks, noticed this little exchange.
No one, except the only Black academic of the group that is. He walked up to me later and asked quietly, “something happened there, I noticed, something wrong and uncomfortable but I do not understand it”. I just said “caste” and shrugged. He understood and patted me on the back. Oh! The beauty of the solidarities of the subaltern, your marginalization may be different but you recognize exclusion when you see it. It raised my faith in the possibilities of intersectional alliances.
Of course, intersectionality means different things to different folks. I learnt from budding Savarna feminists that intersectionality is not a weapon of the weak. In the hands of Savarna women, intersectionality is a way to subordinate caste, class and racial lived experiences and issues of the marginalized, even as the same Savarna women speak in the language of polite overcompensation.
Every social media post will talk about dangers of ‘Brahminism’ and self-references will always start with something like “As a Savarna woman I am very privileged so I don’t mean to assume Bahujan experiences…”. But this is lip-service. A camouflage. A smokescreen. I am reminded of this heated exchange between a struggling Dalit screenwriter and a feminist Brahman woman.
She gives tips, well-meaningly of course, about how he can write more gender-inclusive films and put women up front in his stories. But something about her very demeanor, her very assumption that she can give him ‘advice’ so casually, ticks him off.
She reads it as a bruised male ego. He smells her inner Brahman-pride always eager to posture as a knowledge leader in everything. This is a mismatched contest. More he speaks, he says all the wrong things and comes off as a very patriarchal man. She is dismantling him smoothly, with all the refined academic speak about Laura Mulvey, Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer. The longer this unfolds, he comes off as a lout and she as a scholar.
Finally, he spits out “Who do you think you are to tell me all this?”. She, with images of Swara Bhaskar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, swirling inside her head, replies confidently, “I am a woman who has been oppressed by gender representations on screen”.
He looks at her, defeated but defiant, “you are not oppressed, you are privileged”. Then he surrenders. Head down, cheeks aflame with the same humiliation that Bahujan folks know so well. She is outraged at this accusation, she drones on and on about patriarchal oppressions, quotes studies and statistics. But he just sits there, not engaging, quietly drinking his Thums Up.
It is an all too familiar script.
Same women who compulsively warn us about ‘Brahmanical Patriarchy’, 5times every sentence, are also the first to strip you of your caste identity and reduce you to simply a “man”. They do this even as your knowledge and lived reality is appropriated.
Multiple times in my career, I have had to experience this. Multiple times I have been attacked on social media and in person, for not speaking the correct progressive vocabulary or priority. My record of organizing action, contributions to scholarship and teaching is erased in an instant. The list of professional risks and costs paid thereof, for feminist battles that even Savarna women themselves wouldn’t touch, invisibilized in an instant. I am reduced to a “man” who can be attacked and hounded and humiliated. If I try to talk about caste, it’s discredited as using that discourse “as a shield”.
I am never allowed to reciprocally isolate ‘Brahman Feminists’ as simply ‘Brahmans’ and offer my scathing criticism. Intersectionality in Indian academia doesn’t bend that ways. I don’t have caste vocabulary equivalents of mansplaining, gaslighting and virtue-signaling. I resist mutely, in silences, because the language of my trauma has not yet been given words.
It is this silence, this lack of language to express—which is overwhelming. The absence of this language is something that the mind cannot contain or process. And it builds up, and when you try to verbalize it—comes out wrong and you’re buried for it. Anxiety mounts, self-doubt mounts. You cry and scream in isolation. You wonder if you’re overreacting or if you’re not reacting angrily enough.
You walk around the house at 1 am looking for things you can use to fashion a rope. You think about Rohith. You think about Payal. You think about all those fellow Dalit and Bahujan in Indian academia with whom you share silent solidarities… with people who drop out of engineering programs, with research assistants whose confidence is completely eroded and are dependent on scraps falling off the table of their Savarna overlords…
You start deactivating from social media sites, one by one. Because it is a horrifying idea that after you’re gone, your wall will be open to the same Savarnas who you discredited and gossiped about you, to come and say “we miss you”. Twitter, gone. Facebook, gone, Instagram, gone. Then you realize you cannot deactivate LinkedIn. But that is ok, everyone on LinkedIn is busy being a digital storyteller or honing leadership skills—no one will write “we miss you” there on the wall of a dead Bahujan academic.
It might jeopardize their upcoming internship. So, what if they got it through their dad’s connections. They are still meritorious. Not like those querulous Dalit and Bahujan folks, always “whining and complaining”.
Prof Ravikant Kisana teaches in a private college.