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The dignity of the underclass is the first casualty: Chandra Bhan Prasad

The dignity of the underclass is the first casualty: Chandra Bhan Prasad



Chandra Bhan Prasad and Pushpendra Johar in a discussion: this is a part of the series of interviews, talks, articles that SAVARI and Round Table India are trying to put together to gather the Bahujan perspective on the Coronavirus pandemic.

 Date: 17 April 2020

Pushpendra Johar: Welcome to the discussion. I would like to start by going back to the day when the Prime Minister announced lockdown in the country; when we were going to have Janata Curfew, scheduled for 22nd March and we saw how things developed thereafter. On the day of Janata Curfew people were banging utensils, thalis (metal/steel plates) and what not. You have been quite critical of the whole practice, you did not mince words in criticising it, saying that this was anti-science, the whole act of thali-banging and conch blowing etc. This then led to cracker burning and lamp lighting. If we look at the acts of clapping and burning lamps, these were copied from different cultural contexts in Europe where they were clapping in their balconies to appreciate the medical staff and also celebrating human spirit after loss of so many lives. What do you make of such practices as enacted in India?


Chandra Bhan Prasad: There is a Hindu festival in North India, and in the Hindi belt in particular, when on one day in a year women bang thalis, not thalis exactly but some other tool that is used to clean wheat flour. They bang that thing, take a round of the village and go and throw it in some pond. This is called daliddar bhagao, chase away all the evils in the family, in the village. So the Prime Minister must have had this feedback that let’s make this a cultural or religious kind of a thing, give it that dimension where women will bang thalis to chase away this virus and hence they become part of this in a very religious manner. That’s why I was very upset because I stood in the balcony and I saw people banging thalis with plenty of happiness writ large on their faces.

Just 25 yards away from my balcony, there were people facing us (in their balconies) and they were so happily doing it. So I was wondering why has this happiness appeared on the scene. I thought about it more, and the Dalitphobia thing came into the picture: that is this a kind of celebration by the middle class because the underclass is fleeing cities in absolute fear and facing starvation. Because for thousands of years, people who constructed the caste order, who ensured the maintenance of the caste order and who enjoyed practising untouchability: have they found this opportunity that in urban India that the migrants, who are considered by the middle classes as members of the Dalit community (are leaving)?

It is like this: if I throw a host of plastic snakes, or any other such dangerous animals, into a crowd where the public is aware that it is a plastic thing, but you throw it and just see the reaction for a few seconds, people just try to save themselves. This is called permanent recoil. They have something in their DNA, in their central nervous system stored maybe thousands of years ago that the snake is dangerous and there is no medicine for it and you will die. So the hatred for Dalits, I think, resurfaced. It is still there. I live in a middle-class society and I can see people talking like – ‘look at that maid, she now has a smartphone, she has a phone, she has a phone! Look at that maid’s son, he has a bike, he has a bike!’ So this anger accumulated over a period of time: maybe people aren’t even aware that they are celebrating something and that is why I say that sadism is central to hinduism.

The second event, the Deepak Jalao Abhiyaan, in that people were dancing as if something great has happened in this country. Even now you can see police beating up mercilessly migrant workers who are walking, running away to their homes because there seems to be some recovery in the minds of the middle class that whatever they have lost in the past 70 years might be coming back, it might be something of that sort. It is deeply psychological. And why is the middle class behaving that way? There is an expression of happiness in the protest. I have been a part of so many protests. When you are protesting (against) something you are angry but here the middle classes seem to be celebrating something. Whereas, a large number of the underclass is suffering, starving, facing police lathis, facing humiliation. When something of that sort is happening, the middle class is expressing happiness.

Pushpendra: You were one of the first ones to have evoked science against conch blowing during that time. We are in the 21st century, we should be looking forward, we should be looking towards growth, progress, science..however, they are resorting to such activities and you were openly talking against these things. What do you think such practices mean in the current circumstances and atmosphere?

CBP: See, I was in the USA for a very brief period; for one semester. And I learned that whatever you say as a scholar or as a student you should have evidence for that. You shouldn’t come up with a theory that cannot be backed by evidence. So when Anna Hazare started his andolan and started saying bharat barbaad ho gaya, sab kuch lut gaya, bharat kabhi sone ki chidiya thi aur doodh ghee ki nadiyaan behti thi. I wondered. So this bharat barbaad ho gaya in the past 70 years thing. I asked some of my caste Hindu friends that do you think India has been destroyed in the past 70 years? What I can see is that Dalit women standing before the landlord spreading their aanchal for 2 kgs of grain..for a square meal for the work of a whole day that they did.. but now they are free of the landlord, now they ride bikes, they use shampoo! They have freedom from the upper castes. And they eat the kind of food the upper castes eat, the food equality.. There is so much education now, there are so many happy things happening. Why is the middle class clapping when Anna Hazare is saying bharat barbaad ho gaya.

One of my old friends was saying that India was upper caste; caste Hindus enjoyed life like anything when India was backward. When the average age was 40 years or so during 1947, upper castes owned Dalits. They not only enjoyed life, but Dalits were also owned by them, somewhat like cattle. When the literacy rate was 16%, many of them were English educated and science was not much in fashion. They had everything in their lives: good clothes, good food, ghee, doodh, meat, everything they had. While India was backward, India’s politics was backward, there was no democracy.

As India moved they also benefitted but they kept losing Dalits as their praja. So the past 70 years, they think, in their central nervous system, that it has become less relevant today. So if somebody invokes the past that ‘this bloody Mr abc, whose parents worked on my field and now their grandchildren are riding bikes’, so this is not seen as progress, this is seen as regression, that society has fallen back. And as they say in psychology, this is permanent recoil in their central nervous system and this is completely psychological. It is a mass psychological sickness that India is now ruined whereas in reality longevity has gone up, literacy rate has gone up, number of schools and colleges have gone up, number of people starving has gone down.

Once upon a time, India was given food aid by the USA for 15 years under PL-480. And now India is not seen as a country of monkey worshippers and one takes pride in that. So this is very serious: why is the middle class believing that India has lost its glory in the past 70 years? And about the underclass, they (the middle classes) think that they (the underclass) are Dalits. There are many Brahmins in the crowd of migrants but middle class thinks that they are totally Dalits. So while they are doing their thaali-taali protest and during their deepak protest, why was there happiness so clearly expressed in their actions? That’s a deep psychological investigation that is required.

Pushpendra: You also said something very interesting in your had written ‘I have never seen Dalits using conch for any kind of communication because conch is anti-science’.

CBP: Yes. Conch is anti-science in the sense that conch is part of a larger engine, like you have a car engine and there are several parts in that car engine and conch is a major symbol of a system that we call the ‘caste Hindu order’. Many ask: why caste Hindu? Why not Hindus? My answer as I understand from Babasaheb is: to those for whom caste comes first and religion later, that segment of Hindus who are mostly upper caste, they are called caste Hindus. So for caste Hindus shankha (conch) is not only a symbol of the beginning of the war but it also, in the end, signifies victory in the war. So why was shankha being used? To my mind, this was the victory of superstition over science. Because we know that only science can deal with this virus, with some human effort. So why was shankha deployed? As I said earlier, the government tried to make it a quasi-religious affair, where they made it about religion versus science (battle) and then science can take a back seat. Whether it took a back seat or not, but the larger caste Hindu society in this country is happy that they fought with the strength of their spirituality or whatever they may claim..

Pushpendra: We also saw many unfortunate events unfolding amidst all this. The people from the north-eastern states in Delhi were being attacked, they were being spat on and called names. And you referred to it as ‘Hindu racism’! Could you please elaborate a little bit on that, what is this Hindu racism?

CBP: You know, racism is not only about skin and hair. Racism is about a fixed sense of superiority and inferiority. An average Hindu cannot live without some ‘inferiors’ under their feet, be it Dalits, sometimes it is OBCs, sometimes Muslims. So if somebody says ‘to hell with untouchability’, even if it is a Brahmin, even if it is a member from the caste Hindu society, Dalits would instantly take up those words as words of revolution and start following that person. Dalits have followed Lord Buddha, who fought against the caste system, sometimes, they have followed even V.P. Singh, they have followed Indira Gandhi before. So Dalits have this inherent response to any voice that is anti-caste, anti-discrimination. So, for Hindus, for average caste Hindu man or woman, life is incomplete if there is none below their feet. That is why I called it Hindu racism and there is evidence. The way the middle class treats its maids and drivers is quite identical to the way caste Hindus treated untouchables 60 or 70 years or a century back.

Pushpendra: How does it unfold with respect to the people, for example, from the north-eastern states vis-à-vis caste Hindus.. this feeling of inferiority and superiority?

CBP: Since the 1962 Indo-China war where India was humiliated, average caste Hindus think that China is our enemy number 1 but we can’t do anything against China for China is a huge power so they make Pakistan or somebody else as enemy number 2 or 3. When they see people from north-east they think they don’t belong to them, they are not Hindus, they are Christians, they are anti-Hindus, maybe Chinese are their brothers and sisters. So this racism gets more fuel, you know. It gets more fuel this way.

Pushpendra: You also said that this humanitarian crisis has hit the underclass the most. Who is this underclass that you are talking about? What are their social backgrounds? Because, in the Indian context, class is not the only identity, people also have other identities, they have their caste identities, tribal identities, regional identities..

CBP: See, I am a traveller. There is a class formation taking place in India. Dalits are also becoming employers, even in the countryside. I know hundreds and hundreds of Dalit-owned factories where non-Dalits, even caste Hindus, work. I have seen over a dozen Dalit Mercedes owners whose drivers are Brahmins. We have just completed a coffee-table book of 100 Dalit-owned hospitals in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab where Dalit doctors, most of them first-timers, created their own hospitals and now some of them employ upper caste doctors and nurses also. Some of them employ even their contemporaries.

So when you see these workers fleeing Delhi, you have among them Brahmins, you have among them Kshatriyas. Ravish Kumar has done a survey on security guards, he did a special report and he found that majority of security guards are Thakurs and Bhumihars from U.P. and Bihar. I tried to verify with a few friends here and I started asking the security guards in my housing society. Their names suggest that they are upper castes. I started asking them ‘why do you work here on such a small salary? You can go and work in a factory like a Dalit and get Rs 15000 or you can become a driver. They said ‘here we have some power’. So they are also fleeing. Many of the upper caste security guards have their wives working as maids. So this is a mixed crowd but society thinks ‘they are all bloody Dalits and let them get hit by this, they have become smart, they are now riding bikes’, and saying we are Dalits now and we need reservations and all that. So I found it better to call it underclass because factually it will be wrong to say that they are all Dalits.

Pushpendra: Okay. As you are saying it is a mixed crowd but if we look at it proportionally, it will have a preponderance of certain social groups over others. Please correct me if I am wrong.

CBP: Certainly. I agree with you. Dalits will be much higher in number because I come from Azamgarh district and you would have seen a great number of migrants from eastern U.P. and further from Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. Dalits would be very high in number but there will be OBCs also, there will be upper castes also. It’ll be a Dalit led crowd but since there is no actual study, there is no data, therefore, I thought to call them underclass so that you don’t compromise on your own intellectual fairness unless you have evidence.

Pushpendra: You also talked about this urban-rural and class division affected by this ongoing lockdown in the wake of Covid19. The idea of stigma, that you brought up, is very interesting here. Very few people brought it up immediately in the wake of these events. I think you discussed it on 26th March 2020. You mentioned that those being brought up in flights from different countries did not have to face police brutality like the way people, who are being referred to as migrant workers, have had to face. So this stigma is not clearly about the disease, as we can see, it is about something else. What is that something else

CBP: Yes, this is true. This is a practice that caste Hindus have had for centuries and centuries, putting their blame on somebody else. So the disease was imported by people who are mostly urban, who are well-off.. They brought the disease and later a kind of consensus was built that maybe someone else brought it, but it (the disease Covid19) will be spread by these guys who are ill-fed and who live in huts and slums, they might spread it. For a few days, the blame was shifted to Muslims but that is not working. So even now, why should people fear the residents of slums saying that they will spread the disease whereas none of their relatives or friends have come from Italy to their jhuggi or jhopri?

This is how civilization has been in India where upper castes never took the blame for anything. They did not take any blame saying, yes, this was our mistake that’s why the civilization is backward. So somehow the underclass trying to flee, trying to join their families, are chased and brutally attacked and some of them are my relatives and they narrate their journeys and how the kind of insults they faced during these few days they had not imagined in their lives. Whereas, the people who brought the disease are being dropped by airplanes by the Government of India, free of cost.

So when it happened, I got calls from some of my relatives that now we are starting to flee towards Azamgarh and that they are being chased by the police and they are running away into fields and they have left the main road, they are going on foot and villagers are asking them, are you carrying the Corona disease. They never imagined that a day will come when they will face this kind of thing whereas the entire focus of the government is to contain them in tents or put them here and there as if they spread the disease and as if now they are running away and they will spread the disease in the entire countryside. Whereas those who came with the disease are treated as guests, some of them were being put up in hotels. That’s fine, you give them all the facilities but a kind of atmosphere was created that, these bloody underclass are the problem. The middle class will manage, they know discipline and they know manners, they know civilization and they have balconies!

You know, the entire discourse.. I never had an occasion in my lifetime describing houses. Here, houses means houses that have balconies. But my relatives, most of them, have houses without balconies. I look around Delhi and I ask maids in my society: balcony hai tumhare yahan? Nahin sahab balcony toh nahin hai hamare yahan, balcony toh bas aap ke ghar mein dekhte hain. Time and again, the Prime Minister has said it, on both the occasions, that do this activity from your balcony. So the idea of India is a country where residences have balconies. To my mind, it will be 5-10% of residents who have houses that have balconies. And what about houses that are not even proper houses, leave alone balconies?

So this is a mind that has been conditioned that India is this. Do you know the advisory from the department of electricity? They figured out that if everybody switched off their lights there would be a grid problem so they said please keep your air-conditioners, fridges, fans on. That means you are addressing an India that in all likelihood, in every household, has ACs, fridges, and fans. It will be the proudest day in my life if that becomes a reality for entire India but the government is addressing the India that has balconies, fridges and air-conditioners. And that class doesn’t stand accused, and that class has imported the (Corona) virus but the underclass is chased, abused, harassed. Asked to eat food like beggars. This is how they are treating the underclass, and the underclass is generally Dalit. This is how caste Hindus hated Dalits in 1972-74 and before that. That’s why it hurt me the most that these people who are serving society and improving their lives, while putting their kids into schools, that they have now become suspects.

Pushpendra: Coming back to Delhi, they call Delhi the centre of India. How has the union territory of Delhi handled this issue? I ask this because we have seen a large number of, poorest of people leaving Delhi for there was nothing for them here, no arrangements. How have the state and the central governments, together managed it? Have they failed in dealing with this crisis?

CBP: Delhi government did not fail at all. Delhi government succeeded in creating such a situation whereby the underclass began fleeing Delhi. So Delhi government succeeded in this project: chase away these underclass people, for tomorrow they will not vote for us, they may not vote for us. They worked towards demonising the working classes..look we are giving them shelter, giving them food and still they are fleeing Delhi. So again the blame is on whom? The blame is on poor working class people who get up early in the morning and work till late into the evening. And they are not sure of this government. They want to somehow join their families the way Indians stranded in Europe and China did, the way they wanted to come back and join their families. Similarly these people wanted to join their families. So Delhi government succeeded in demonising its own underclass citizens that it is bloody these guys who are the problem.

Pushpendra: And what has been the role of religious institutions like temples? I ask that because you also tweeted that gurudwaras in Delhi are doing much better than the Delhi government itself.

CBP: Yes gurudwaras are doing better. You know, feeding is one thing and respecting dignity of the guests is another thing. We have a gurudwara here in East Delhi. Even today they fed (people) in the morning and they will feed in the evening. They feed poor as their guests. Gurudwaras are feeding poor as their guests, the Delhi government is feeding poor as if they are drug addicts, beggars and vagabonds.

Pushpendra: I remember reading it and I found it quite powerful when you wrote that those trying to flee the government in Delhi—their dignity is the first casualty, physical trauma they can still overcome over time. It is the dignity that these governments are taking away from people.

CBP: Yes. It is dignity. And that is where the enemy demonizes its opponents. Undermining dignity is the biggest thing in warfare. I could just stand at my gate and see how fearful these guys are, they were fearful of us, that they may catch something from our societies. They are running away from everybody who is slightly well dressed. Who created this fear? Why should citizens be under fear in their own country without committing a crime? But the government thought that by fleeing Delhi they are committing a crime. This is unthinkable in any civilized society.

 Please read the second part of the discussion here



Chandra Bhan Prasad is a prominent thinker, researcher, writer, and editor of Dalit Enterprise magazine.

Pushpendra Johar is an anthropologist and the editor of Prabuddha: Journal of Social Equality.