I still remember the simplistic example I used to give to myself and others from my college days about “collective” tea-making (of course with milk and sugar as it is often consumed in India!) to underscore the point that underprivileged Bahujan students or people can survive and progress only by encouraging collectives. In my example, one had tea, another sugar, third, milk, fourth stove, fifth utensils, and last water. These six people can have tea only if they join hands. This is often the state of most Bahujans; they have only one or another ingredient but not the whole to survive, progress, or excel in whatever field they long for. And that’s where the role of collectives comes into the picture.
I must confess that my own long journey to where I am today is because of the collectives of various kinds. It was not possible for me alone to reach wherever I have, despite whatever kind of individual biological or social dispositions I had. And recently while writing my long five-page unorthodox acknowledgment section for my dissertation I realized how significant collectives have been in my life and how important it was for me to express my gratitude to all those who helped me in my personal journey despite some of them not being so close today.
I do not think that most Bahujans do not understand the importance of collectives for their individual and collective emancipation. However, what I find disturbing is the increasing tendency in recent times to undermine the role of trust and gratitude in the formation and sustainability of such collectives and that’s why this piece. The non-Bahujan readers might want to stop reading at this point and leave Bahujans alone to deal with their internal contradictions.
There is enough literature on the role of trust and gratitude in human and even non-human species. According to Nilsson (2018, pp. 845-846):
Trust is, broadly defined, the intention to accept vulnerability based on positive expectations on the intentions or behavior of others (Rousseau, Sitkin, Burt, & Camerer, 1998). For example, when actors engage in collaboration and knowledge sharing involving sensitive information….Trust is a concept applied at different levels of analysis. At the micro-level between individuals and in specific situations; at the meso-level trust in groups and organizations; and at the macro-level trust in institutions, both formal (rule and legal systems, etc.) and informal (culture, etc.).
Similarly, the importance of gratitude is highlighted in the literature—read this interesting “white paper” by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley (2018) on The science of gratitude for more (referred to as GGSC White Paper hereafter). According to this white paper, gratitude is described as “social glue” which fortifies relationships and serves as the backbone of human society. Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough define gratitude as a two-step process: 1) “recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome” and 2) “recognizing that there is an external source for this positive outcome.” This “external source” makes gratitude an “other-oriented emotion” (GGSC White Paper, 2018, p.2). What is also interesting is:
“Animals as diverse as fish, birds, and vampire bats engage in “reciprocal altruism” activities— behaviors that one animal performs to help another member of their species, even at a cost to themselves, presumably because they recognize at some instinctual level that the other individual may repay the favor at a later date” (GGSC White Paper, 2018, p.3).
Given its role as social glue, gratitude inspires people to be “prosocial”, that is to be “more generous, kind, and helpful” and strengthens relationships (p.5).
It is no wonder that trust and gratitude together have helped the formation of Bahujan collectives in so many areas helping numerous oppressed people fight oppression, survive, make upward mobility, or emancipate. In the case of anti-caste movements, the term leaders and activists often use to motivate social action is “social commitment”. However, I would argue that commitment operates at the macro level and is to the objective, ideology, and the movement at large but what makes people work or stay together is trust and gratitude. It is those ingredients that makeup much required “chemistry”. There are enough examples that, people having an equally strong and shared commitment to the above ideals have parted ways or stopped working together because they no longer trust or feel that there is no sense of gratitude. A few examples might help understand why we need to take trust and gratitude seriously.
A few days ago, someone in a significant position doubted the role of lesser-known DK Khaparde in the founding and development of BAMCEF and its subsequent offshoots. Whereas Kanshiram for appreciable reasons has been often lauded, Khaparde and other colleagues of Kanshiram in founding days are forgotten. So, the role of such “external sources”—external to BSP or other offshoots of BAMCEF in the extant case—is not recognized and that’s what I call an absence of gratitude. Other examples of the absence of gratitude include cases where after founders’ departure from the organizations they founded, their contribution in conceptualization, founding, and development of the organizations is not recognized. Other experiences include reluctance in duly acknowledging and recognizing the contribution of others’ ideas to one’s intellectual, academic, or creative ventures as we do in case of financial, material, or human labor contributions.
It is not uncommon to see what people say in private or at one time and space different from what they say and or do in public or another time and space. Now it is not sure if we have got into what we often call a “political correctness” or “politeness”—a middle-class characteristic—with our upward mobility but such inexplicable inconsistencies make the formation of trust difficult. People can gather, deliberate, and decide for some shared goal and course of action and walk away as if nothing has happened! One collective venture was aborted in its inception stage a few years ago after noticing such a trust deficit in being inexplicably inconsistent across time and space in a matter of a few days!
Now that is not the kind of culture my generation of activists have grown into; trusting each other and remaining true to others’ trust was considered to be the core of part of activists’ developmental trajectory. This is in sharp contrast to what a former colleague who spent significant time in the bureaucracy and was serious in building a Bahujan collective believes. According to his understanding of building an organization, what is required is that there are structured roles for everyone and there are incentives and penal mechanisms the way we have in bureaucracy or formal organizations. One wonders, in this view, where is the role for mutual trust and expectations about each other so crucial for emotionally connecting to each other and working selflessly towards a shared vision.
If we don’t value trust and gratitude as a community, Bahujans may not be able to come up with new, creative, and socially useful initiatives which require multiple actors’ contributions. The absence of trust and gratitude might lead to a gradual erosion of spontaneity in mutual support and compassionate action. Do we want to have an NGO type of middle-class community and organizational culture where we say something because it is socially desirable but do not intend to mean or practice it or where only self-interest and not “reciprocal altruism” drives our life?
I fear the problems I have discussed above point us to a different but undesirable way of doing collectives among Bahujans. (I hope what I am discussing here is an isolated middle-class phenomenon and is not largely true. Bahujan readers are encouraged to suggest an alternative way of building collectives). They point me towards formalization in our relationships and organizations. The lesson it teaches is: have a formal contract in place before you initiate a collective; define roles on the paper, work out incentives and penalties for everyone, make everyone visible to the outside world and maintain a record of whatever you contribute (“documentation” as they call in the formal NGOs). In my opinion, such formalization will be in stark contrast to the ideals we have imbibed while working in the movement where people were encouraged to work behind the curtain as name-less, face-less or designation-less pioneers or foot soldiers of some of the powerful social ideas which can transform our individual and collective lives. The role of trust and gratitude also becomes more important when we live in a knowledge society where we engage in collaboration and share knowledge or sensitive information which can make or break the ventures. If trust and gratitude are undermined in Bahujan culture, there is no way we can escape formalization or contracts which will drastically limit the number of collectives Bahujans can form and celebrate.
Tanoj Meshram is an Ambedkarite Bahujan and for about three decades conceptualized, developed, led, and worked with multiple Bahujan collectives across multiple geographies within India and US.