(SAVARI and Round Table India are doing a series to put together the Bahujan perspective on the Coronavirus pandemic)
Anu Ramdas: Welcome Suresh. Thank you for taking the time to do this.
Suresh Ravichandran: Thank you for this opportunity.
Anu: The question that I have for you is, we find ourselves in a very strange time. In the caste system, this whole scenario is so familiar to us … social distancing, quarantine, etc. This is what we’ve fought against all our life. The caste system is social distance. In several posts, you talk about how it keeps adapting to contemporary situations, its mutability as you call it. Now, with the pandemic and the language that is coming about, in a very justified atmosphere, the same concepts are being legitimized. Can you elaborate a bit about what is going on in your mind about this?
Suresh: This pandemic has which we already, always knew. It has made it all the more evident, that this land has always been a place where isolation and exclusiveness has been the basic doctrine. Ambedkar used to say, that which differentiates the European social order and the Indian social order is that, there is a non-social one, here it is a positively anti-social one, and inequality is the official doctrine of this land. Here, each and every caste is fitted into some kind of, water tight compartment, that is the kind of metaphor he used. This is precisely the reason why, we as a class of people have been segregated and we are separated from another class of people, the brahmins and savarnas. This is precisely the reason, as Ambedkar argues, castes don’t even form a society or even a nation. This pandemic has made it all clear, that there exists no such thing as a society here, and there exists no such thing as even a nation. Because, as we know, all the brahmin-savarna care about is the land, the territory, and we could see in the cases of Kashmir or the North-East, they are only obsessed with the land, not the people. Because if they were, they would have taken measures like other countries have taken, like say, China, Cuba, or even nations like South Korea, Singapore, what they’ve done. These people, the brahmins, who are the ruling class over here, they don’t care about helping the people, to help everybody, because they don’t even have the feeling of a nation. And we all know that this coronavirus disease has been imported into India by the brahmin-savarna. They were the ones who brought this disease to India. In a way, I think that this disease should not go to Bahujans.
Because, as Kuffir argued, these people are the main polluters. In the past, disease has always been associated with the lower castes or the lower class. For the first time, they are visibly shaken, because with this disease, they are the main pollutants and they are the ones who are going to infect other people. When I came to know that the disease is mainly coming from outside the country, I immediately knew that these people are the ones who are going to bring the disease to us, and I was scared, they should not ‘pollute’ the Bahujans. But one thing is that we all know that there is a division of labor and along with that there is also a division of laborers. This division is such that the brahmin does not need the Bahujan. So, I am thinking where are the points where a brahmin normally meets a Bahujan? The fisherman does not meet the brahmins. Animal livestock does not meet the brahmin. I sort of feel that only some indulge in some kind of activity or labor, only they come into close contact with the brahmins. I saw some cases in which one lady was threatening the maid to come for work. In Tamil Nadu, I think in Dharmapuri, in which, a family of caste Hindus, they went and beat up the housemaids and their family, they forced them to come and work at their home. This is what I’m trying to figure out.
The bahujan workers are the ones who build the cities, who develop the cities and they are the people who clean everything. I am really scared when through the brahmins and upper castes who are the carriers of the disease, and it could be transmitted to these sanitation workers who are out there to collect the garbage, healthcare workers, nurses, the ambulance drivers. It could get transmitted to these people. So I think, the connection point is almost like from the top to the bottommost, that’s how the connection has been. Also, access to amenities is a crucial factor in analyzing caste. Be it anything, the brahmins will have access to any resources in a better way than the Bahujans, be it hospitals, schools, and all that. And we could clearly see it now, in these days of quarantine. I have not seen a single brahmin who has called out against this lack of access or amenities. And it has clearly shown us that it has only been the Bahujans, who are suffering, who are in hunger, who are standing in the queues, who are walking all the way to their home places. The poor brahmin who fits into the EWS category is nowhere to be seen, I don’t know where he exists.
Anu: The next question I want to ask is about the way the lockdown came about. You write extensively about the similarities and dissimilarities between caste and class. What we saw in the post lockdown period, suddenly that term: ‘migrant workers’ came up. What happened? Why do they have to leave the city? Work was disrupted. Suddenly, abruptly, within a span of a few hours, they knew that their work was gone. So, loss of wages, made them make that decision to leave. If they don’t have wages, they cannot be in that place. So, they had to leave. And nobody thought of them as workers. It was an afterthought, then oh this works, let’s put ‘migrant labour’. In the Marxist vocabulary, where do they fit? Who are these people? They can exchange their labor only if there is work, that day, at that time. And if that possibility is not there, there is nothing holding them. Like Kuffir said, they have no rights, they do not exist at all. So who are these people, and that migrant worker term, what does that evoke in your mind? From where does that come, in a class analysis?
Suresh: I don’t have a clear term. But I have some vague ideas. I tend to think that they should not be called ‘migrant laborers’. If a savarna who is economically and socially privileged wants to better his already advantaged material status moves outside the country and settles in some foreign nation he can be called an immigrant. Because he has ‘willingly’ shifted from one place to another. It is a voluntary decision on his part, he has an agency. But in the case of these above-mentioned people that is not the case. They have been ‘coerced’ by the caste society to move away from their soil to ensure a ‘bare existence’. This is forced displacement, there has been no agency involved, and it is an involuntary decision on their part. These people are like our Bahujan ancestors who were forcibly taken away from their soil by the British and forced to work in the Caribbean, Malaysian, and Ceylon plantations. They are like plantation workers. They are the slaves of the civilized world. But didn’t Babasaheb call this a felony and not a civilization? This is a felony, this is plain slavery for what is slavery, it is nothing but involuntary servitude. They might not have been ‘directly’ and ‘forcibly’ displaced from their soil but they have been systematically displaced. This kind of enforcement is hegemonic, invisible, ruthless, and more brutal. At least, the plantation slave was well fed and taken care of to produce labor and ensure capital growth. But here, he is even denied his basic dignity, basic right to live. Nothing could be crueler than this.
There is a difference between immigrants and refugees. A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her home and is unable or unwilling to return. These people, I wonder, are like the internal refugees made by the state. Here, we have to remember the parallel Babasaheb draws between community and kinship, and society and citizenship respectively. Here there exists no society at all. And so, theoretically, they may be considered citizens on the papers, but practically, they are never recognized as citizens by the state and the ruling class. Even their livelihoods at Metropolitan cities where they are coerced to move to resemble only the refugee concentration camps. They are not laborers or workers, they are like slaves, they are like refugees. This state would one day have to answer for all the inhuman barbarism it has subjected them to. As for a new term, I don’t have an appropriate one. I am thinking about that. Did you or Kuffir think a different term?
Anu: No, I am still trying to understand it. You can’t understand from a theoretical perspective or from a distance … As an immigrant myself, I know the sociology of it, the politics, the power disparities, and all that. But I don’t know what that means inside a country. I don’t know if the US treats someone from Maryland working in New York differently. Kuffir does not have a new term, but he has always maintained that they’re all slaves, caste slaves. There is a gradation in that too.
Suresh: Also, I am wondering about the nature of their occupation. 90% of the Indian labour force is from the informal sector. These people are the ones who do all those kinds of work. Let’s take the hospital because I think that will fit the current thing we’re talking about. Hospitals do not only have doctors and nurses. There are going to be compounders, ward boys, maids, cooks, mortuary workers, ambulance drivers, watchmen, security guards, and logistics, who are going to bring all the medicinal supplies and so on. It takes the combined effort of so many people to run the hospital. Without these people, a doctor or nurse cannot save a patient, the hospital cannot exist. These informal sector people are the backbone and they do not have a surety of their job.
Anu: See, if someone is hired in a hospital when you say contract, there is a piece of paper, there is an actual contract, ok? So what happened to this contract with these people? Why did they have to leave overnight? So the contract does not seem to be there. You can have them as slaves, literally.
Suresh: Yes, people who are construction workers, I don’t think they have any contract.
Anu: I don’t know the composition of the people who were walking. Were they construction workers, food cart owners, who were they … no one seems to know.
Suresh: They could’ve been hotel servers, waiters …the city needs many kinds of informal labor.
Anu: So it is a very large section that does not even fall under contract work because the ward boy could perhaps go back and ask for the job …
Suresh: Yes, and maybe apply to another hospital because he has that experience. But these people, their jobs … there are so many jobs like that. Packaging jobs, picking jobs, labeling jobs, so many such jobs.
Anu: We could work out what all they must’ve been doing. But, we’ve been talking about Marx, about class for so long. Where do they fit? Where does this group fit? We’re not interested in whether they were carrying water or stapling something. They’re working, so they have to have a place in the class analysis. So where are they? The Marxists should’ve been out there, the Left should’ve been out there, with the red flags, walking with them.
Suresh: Kadhiravan had a post on this. We all know that 90% of the Indian labor force is in the informal sector. The organized sector jobs, they have a union. Take banks, for example, banks have a union. The Telecom industry has a union. Insurance has a union. What Kadhiravan asked was that these places, like banks and insurance companies and all, these are the places where brahmins go to work. And in order to facilitate these workers in the brahmin-dominated institutions, PSUs and all that, they have strong unions, so that the brahmins can have the security of their jobs, provident funds, and all. Now they’re trying to unionize the IT industry as well. That is a private industry, and they are trying to unionize that industry also. But what about the informal sector? There’s no union for them, there’s nothing for them, they’re just on the go. The Marxists have done nothing.
Anu: The Marxists didn’t even know they existed. Otherwise, they are always looking for any kind of group to organize mass gatherings. This was a very visible mass of people, yet.
Suresh: To them, the working-class people constitute factory workers. And what about these people? What about the flower vendor? She does not come under the proletariat. She won’t come under that definition. There are so many people like that. We cannot even imagine the jobs that they do. And their livelihood which depends on their daily wages. The Marxists have no answers. I did not see any Marxists or communists who spoke for those people, the informal sector people, and what are the measures that have to be taken. They were all branded as poor. We all know that they are poor. It negates so many factors, like caste, or what we spoke about contract laborers, and the contractless laborers. We can’t even … I don’t think the Marxists have spoken about the contract and contractless laborers, the people who went back to their homes walking.
I don’t know … I am seriously aghast at this current scenario.
Anu: How does social distancing work for the ruling class? You already said that they’re not experiencing any losses to their access, but culturally, any change?
Suresh: One thing that happened was that when WHO came up with this term ‘social distancing’, immediately I could sense that they started taking pride in this concept of ‘social distancing’, and they started to justify their religious-based customs and all. This is what I saw, “this is what our ancestors used to follow” posts on social media. So, it was so inhuman of them to celebrate a tradition of discrimination.
Anu: Because they do not read it as discrimination, they read it as pure life.
Suresh: I could also see the counterarguments. Some people were arguing that this is untouchability. Yes, this is based on the untouchability concept. But we cannot strictly say that this is untouchability because untouchability is different from pollution, right? Ambedkar used to make that distinction, he used to say that pollution is not a definite characteristic of caste. Pollution takes a flavor of caste, only when the brahmin comes into the picture, because of the purity and priestly class, etc. The thing is that Ambedkar in his book ”Untouchables: Who They Are”, how pollution has been defilement, it has always been a custom, in ancient and primitive societies, even in the Hindu society as well. But untouchability is very, very different. Babasaheb says this, “The Hindu society insists on segregation of the Untouchables. The Hindu will not live in the quarters of the Untouchables and will not allow the Untouchables to live inside Hindu quarters. This is a fundamental feature of Untouchability as it is practiced by the Hindus. It is not a case of social separation, a mere stoppage of social intercourse for a temporary period. It is a case of territorial segregation and of a cordon sanitaire putting the impure people inside a barbed wire into a sort of a cage. Every Hindu village has a ghetto. The Hindus live in the village and the Untouchables in the ghetto.”
Anu: Do you see them now justify this in very scientific terms?
Suresh: Yes, it was very, very appalling to me. They were even justifying. The reason they were giving was hygiene. And we all know that it is not at all true. Untouchability has nothing to do with hygiene, it is purely based on class hatred. Ambedkar also quoted Thorndyke saying that “that a man thinks is a biological fact what he thinks is a sociological fact.” He also referred to untouchability as an aspect of social psychology. Completely unscientific, right? When they use scientific terms to justify … …
Anu: and now they’ve got kind of global validation.
Suresh: Validation, yeah, exactly. One thing is that whenever a crisis happens, the brahmin always runs back to his customs, his traditions, his religion, to validate himself. Whenever a crisis happens. Another example being, them re-telecasting Ramayana, Mahabharata. The brahmin, he revels in such pride. This aspect should also be analyzed, we should read into it. Why does he celebrate his practices? Even the white Americans, even they might not celebrate slavery. If some disease springs up in the future, I don’t think … at least they have a sense of shame.
Anu: They have reached that stage, where they feel shame about that history. Here there is still no shame. Except for a few people who hang around RTI and certain Bahujan organizations, for some minor career gains, etc. Otherwise, uniformly, it is pride in brahmin supremacy.
Suresh: In their article, Sukhadeo Thorat and Madeshwaran, they gave a materialistic explanation for discrimination, for why discrimination exists. When a dominant group would exert dominance over a subservient group, they would exhibit prejudice, and the prime reason is not that people have some disability, the prime reason is to safeguard their material interests. That is the dialectical relationship. And the form is prejudice. Untouchability is something like that, it has a pure class interest angle to it. Even in the times of Corona they’re doing it.
Anu: So, what does all this imply for annihilation of caste?
Suresh: I think, these are the times we too have to counter them, through our arguments. These are times that make it clear, the divide in terms of caste and class. Ambedkar used to clearly say that the division of laborers, and this time has made it all the more clear. In these times, the smoke is clear. I think we can make a good study of caste at this time and we should counter the justifications that the brahmins come up with, and administrative measures that the government takes up. I think we should be strongly countering all that. I think, post-Corona, if everything settles down, this question of laborers walking all the way, the condition of sanitation and healthcare workers, their labor conditions, and about the informal sector people, I think all these things should be discussed at large.
Anu: Coming back to the term social distancing, it has classist connotations, and for us, it is viscerally traumatic? no … I have no words to describe that. And when I see Bahujan using it, I feel … it feels like, everything that we’ve written about, all our discourses, they’re just flipped over with this one phrase. How can the Bahujan, or people invested in annihilation of caste, pushback against this terminology?
Suresh: It is very disturbing. We have to push back more and more, I think we have to even launch a campaign against this term ‘social distancing’ from the perspective of annihilation of caste. Speak in Ambedkarite terms, borrow some concepts from Ambedkar. Ambedkar in his book, I think in ‘Annihilation of caste,’ he says that Hindu society is a myth. There exists no such thing as a hindu society. He used to say that an ideal hindu should be like a rat, living inside the whole, who does not have to have any contact with anybody else. That is the core essence of hindus. Social distancing is the core essence of the hindu social order. There is no social endosmosis, no social intercourse, there does not even exist something called society. Because what constitutes society is, according to Ambedkar, people come together and they take part in a common activity. There should be something called associated living. There should be established points of contact, where people exchange their culture, goods interactions… there exist no interactions, there exist no shared communications.
Anu: There is a ban against that, there are strictures against that…
Suresh: Yes, ban, exactly! That’s where I think this becomes so apparent – there exists no such thing as society. This is where I think we should take his observations, from his book ‘Hindu Social Order’, where he says that, as I already mentioned, isolation and exclusiveness is the essence of the hindu social order, and what exists here is a positively anti-social order. There can exist no such thing as society. In Europe or other places, there exists something called society. There are classes, definitely, and they are non-social, but not positively anti-social, like here.
Only in a place where there exists something called society, and something like socializing, a behaviour called socializing exists, where an individual is recognized, only in such places, we can apply this concept called social distancing. Whereas here, there is no such thing, an individual is not recognized.
Anu: And also, in these other societies, it is very clearly seen as a temporary phase, taken for the well being of the greater majority. And they clearly see it as a temporary phase which they will overcome, and they will be back to socializing, to be a society. Whereas, over here, what is going to happen is, it is going to consolidate the divisions.
Suresh: Exactly. Here, they are going to justify that there should not exist a society.
Anu: Because, you know, otherwise Corona is going to come!
Suresh: As an alternative, some people suggested ‘physical distancing’. I agree with that, people must stay away from each other. We know about Corona, how it is going to spread. The brahmins gave a justification that hygiene is going to be the matter, we should stay away from people and they were justifying untouchability, right? What if a brahmin has the disease, and another brahmin catches the disease? Surely he is not going to practice untouchability with another brahmin, right?
Anu: I am not sure. Because it is now a matter of individual lives. Except for mother and very young child, I think this particular virus is breaking institutions all the way through …
Suresh: The point I was trying to make is that I’m talking about the justification the brahmin is giving for untouchability. They were giving it from a class point of view. This Corona is not class-based. It transcends class, caste, race, borders, and all that. It is going to be transmitted purely from one individual to another individual. My suggestion is that we can come up with the term ‘individual distancing’. That suggests that one individual should maintain some safe distance from another individual. It has a scientific basis …
Anu: When we fight against untouchability, it does not mean we want the opposite of social distancing, we are not interested in getting close to them. We are interested in what the distancing has cost us, how it has manifested in material realities, in cultural realities, in loss of opportunities. We are not interested in getting close. Fighting untouchability is not to start touching them, it is to break social practices.
Suresh: I completely agree. Yes.
Anu: So, when this vocabulary started to gain currency rapidly, I realized that we would be the only group of people who would say no to this, or we’ll end up absorbing it. And even now, we will be the only ones who will stand against it, because the rest of the globe understands that this is important …we strike an odd note … We sound very absurd to the existing discourse, to the common understanding of what is good for everyone, because of our history. So, we’re also very alone here…
Suresh: Because this term social distancing, in terms of Indian experience, I think it more or less translates to class distance. One class of people would distance itself from another … I think this connotation is going to be very, very dangerous.
Anu: That is why we decided that we have to generate conversation. Even if it is only three articles that are going to come up on this thing, we wanted it to be documented. Because we could see that we’re going to start absorbing this as normal. And that literally means the complete erasure of anti-caste movements.
Suresh: What are your alternative suggestions for this?
Anu: I don’t have any alternative suggestions at all. I don’t want that term at all.
Suresh: About that concept, we have to convey to people, to maintain some …
Anu: How have we managed with all other diseases? Every other disease has almost the same conditions … We don’t have a term, we are advised not to go near a person with a contagious disease.
Suresh: This term also, social distancing, it does not even sound like a medical term at all.
Anu: Politicians came up with it. They had to say something, and they quickly came up with it. The medical fraternity also thought, ok this works, let’s go with it. And it is going to wipe off the anti-caste whole movement? This single term? I’ve also not seen any Bahujan saying this is a useful concept and this has no conflict with our history and goals. Everybody said no, this sounds wrong.
Suresh: So, this is my point, Anu. There is no such thing as society, there’s no activity called socializing in India. Because there is a bar, the classes, they don’t interact at all with each other. This is an anti-social society. So, social distancing as a concept cannot be applied over here. If at all it is applied, it is only going to justify the class antagonism that exists. My point is, people have suggested the term ‘physical distancing,’ which takes an aspect of measurement, a metric of distance.
Anu: I don’t even feel the need to say it. We never use the term social distance for the flu, we never use it for leprosy, or any contagious disease. Contagious diseases are not new to human history.
Suresh: Now, I am more appalled by this word, distancing. I was focusing on as to if it should be ‘social’ or ‘ physical’ or ‘individual’, and I felt distancing untouched. Coming to think of it, the term “distancing” means territorial segregation, cordon sanitaire, physical isolation. It means untouchability. It is a form of class antagonism. Hatred of one class on another class. So, now I am thinking the usage of the term is both erroneous and unjust. The term outrightly reinforces hatred and discrimination. This terminology is going to only contribute a lot to the already messed up “global racism”. And as observed by Ambedkar, “hinduism, i.e. caste is sanctified racism”. No wonder, as we discussed above, we see brahmins already justifying untouchability and attempting to re-validate their shastras and smritis. And this terminology is going to contribute a lot to this sanctified racism called brahminism alias caste. It is like untouchability. Upon rethinking, physical or individual distancing, the whole phrase seems problematic.
Anu: We need to think through these. It is a global discourse, you can’t escape it. You can get completely submerged inside that.
So, when I asked Pradnya Mangala what is the global conversation about the pandemic, about the environment in general. She said, there are two, one is the Marxist environmental perspective and then there is the Western liberal perspective. There is nothing else in between. There is no savarna, Asian, or oriental, and of course, there is no Bahujan. In India, about the pandemic, there is not even that. They are not even borrowing from, saying, ok this is what the Marxists are saying, so let’s apply it. Because of what happened with the workers walking out. Not able to use any liberal, progressive perspective either. They’re not able to do anything. So they’re just sitting quietly.
So, we thought at least some Bahujan have been writing, been thinking about it, asking questions, especially people like you.
Suresh: We will be discussing it, Anu, after all these things subside. This will be a matter of debate. Now people are not debating. Now it is a crisis, battle for life.
Anu: Yes, but usually, it is during crisis times, they socialize you to accept something you never accepted. What you never accepted as the norm.
Suresh: Yes, I think we have to see it as a process. We have to start it right now. We cannot wait it out.
Suresh RV is interested in social justice and is an aspiring writer.
This interview was transcribed by Sundeep Pattem