Category Archives: caste

People’s Politics Is Not About People – the Lesson ‘Progressive’ Politics Taught Me

Note: this writeup is largely an ‘insider’ criticism about the ‘radical left’ that the writer has come in contact with, online and offline, mostly in Kolkata.

A few experiences with ‘progressives’:

Case 1: “He’s brilliant, y’know, he topped the Joint Entrance Examination! This organization has excellent members, many medical and engineering student.” – is how I was informed about a certain students’ organization. Many of the members of the organization often took pride in the academic records of their own and the fellow members. They took pride in the educational institutes which were ‘centres of excellence’. I saw some of them recently organizing a talk on meritocracy and the problematic conceptions of merit.

Case 2: A discussion was organized. The discussion was attended by quite a few, including students, some of them Dalits and Adivasis, who participated in the discussion. The chief speaker, however, was an upper caste teacher with no history of regular participation in anti-caste struggles. No one said a word when this speaker spoke. No one asked about his neighbourhood, the demographics, the flat-owners. However, there were several interruptions of enquiry – about landholding, demographics etc. in his village – when an Adivasi student was speaking right after him. The discussion was about caste oppression, organised by a platform against caste violence in college campuses.

Case 3: A conference was to be organized in protest against some atrocities. The progressives sat together to decide which persons to invite as speakers. The speakers’ list was decided according to how important the mainstream media finds the speakers.

Case 4: “Ew, look at all the fat on him!” said one progressive person, pointing at a fellow comrade. Another progressive fellow, at a different moment, said to a girl, “you’re pretty!”

Case 5: A progressive person, in a public meeting, described a girl, “she doesn’t do much, she just walks around the campus wearing shorts,” progressively making it a point to mention her clothing.

Case 6: A progressive fellow, eloquent in his description of alienation in the society and the cruelties of capitalism, mentioned of someone, “he’s a waste, he’s just a depressed guy who can’t stick to one job.” On another occasion, the fellow said to another guy, “it’s a low-skill job, which is why you’re paid so low.”

Case 7: A progressive election of committee members – one progressive fellow who has been part of the previous committee calls some others aside, and asks whether they would like to be a part of the new committee. One of them says this cannot be decided like this, others too must opine. Then, the member proposes the names in the meetings, and asks if anyone objects. No one does, and thus the committee is elected.

Case 8: A progressive fellow writes in a magazine that a ‘glorious minority’ emerging from ‘castles’ of progressiveness, which happens to be two of the elite educational institutes of the city of Kolkata, will possibly play a crucial role in ushering in progressive social change (or something of the sort).

Case 9: One progressive to another, “you need to get him into our organization before someone else recruits him into theirs! He seems to be hanging out more with them. What are you doing?”

Case 10: One progressive, at the dissociation from ‘JNU Nationalism’ in a statement condemning anti-Kashmiri violence and RSS-ABVP-media’s role in shutting down discussions on Kashmir, said that she could not stand for ‘militant anti-intellectualism’.

And so on. What I meant to say is that in its practice, as far as I have seen in my limited experience of them in Kolkata, ‘progressive’ politics often marginalizes the vulnerable, the shy one, the ‘ugly’ one, the one who’s struggling to carry on in a world that is so cruel to them, the ones without much ‘social capital’ and upholds the ones with it, just like the rest of the society does, as long as they sing its tune. It talks about debates and discussions, but finds ways to shut down interactions and forms mutually antagonistic cocoons within the ‘progressive’ circles, often through outright slander.

I know I too am far from its vices. I’ve been insensitive, casteist, patriarchal, ableist and so on, and I still often am. This is not guilt-mongering, this is the admission of a problem which needs at least an attempt at a solution. Similar problems exist in various ‘progressive’ quarters, those I am acquainted with, with very little admission, and far less attempts at finding a solution. Take the case of caste. Leftist politics, the kind I’ve seen and have been a part of, owes much to Dalit-Adivasi movements and articulations in developing its understanding of caste oppression and it still has a long way to go, but I’ve hardly seen many admitting to this contribution of Dalit-Adivasi politics (which now compels even the arch-elitist leftists to give a lip-job in condemning the conventional idea of merit and meritocracy). Interestingly, many of the voices critical about Dalit politics (‘identity politics’) do not ascribe any general negative description to left politics. I have come across a post on Facebook strangely describing Salwa Judum as ‘identity politics’, since Salwa Judum talked about getting rid of non-Adivasi ‘outsiders’ from Adivasi-inhabited lands. I wondered if the same poster would also draw an analogy between Marxist-Leninist leftist politics and proponents of theocracy, since the former speaks of a group of ‘vanguards’ who are of an ‘advanced consciousness’ and thus more fit to be leaders, quite like the theocrats who find their religious leaders to be of advanced consciousness. I wondered whether the leftist who described the Dalit-Bahujan web-platform Round Table India as ‘cynical’ (as if after all these years of ignoring and marginalizing the caste issue, there is no reason to be cynical) would also describe Kafila, a website run by various university professors and ‘scholars’, as casteist, if such general descriptions are to be given to them. At the same time, I am hardly acquainted with the various strands of Dalit politics, but I’ve come across constitutionalist, patriarchal, elitist assertions claiming to be propagating the anti-caste cause.

There is no ‘pure’ human being, not even close, nor can there be in this society where one’s self-preservation and gratification are often at odds with those of others. The term ‘progressive’ assigned to oneself is thus often little more than vacuous self-aggrandizement. Yet we must engage with each other, and find modes of socialization that are beneficial to all parties involved. We should engage with all, and at the same time, while oppression exists, we should all have relatively ‘safer spaces’, for it is hard to imagine a person who is not oppressed in some ways. This is cliché, but needs repetition – if the gratification of one rests on the subjugation of another, then that is a problem. Even the informal social networks that we create are often based on hierarchies within, which we need to be mindful of and guard against. We need to stop celebrating social capital in all our engagements. It is NOT politics against oppression where oppressed people don’t get much space to express their thoughts. Neither does it help when various kinds of oppression go unnoticed. We need to get greater participation for all in a political process, find out ways in which people are wrongly excluded from greater and more meaningful participation, and try to resist them.

by Sutanaya

A Report on Caste Oppression That Has Not Seen the Light of the Day

At a time when Dalits are protesting all over the country over Rohith Vemula’s death, we must realize it is pent up anger against institutional casteism, systemic Brahmanism – it is not just about the death of one “scholar who did not use his SC quota” only “who loved reading Carl Sagan”. Those who need such justifications to appease their casteist notions of merit and ‘deserving victim’, either need to mend their ways or step aside, lest they get burnt in the fire of passion that is raging in the country right now. “A Specter is haunting Brahmanism” as a poster read, but not just that of Rohith, but that of a Dalit upsurge, a caste based rebellion. Rohith’s suicide  murder just ignited a volcano waiting to explode.  It only makes sense now to produce a piece on caste oppression that has not been printed in official media (according to the essay itself) – not only because it contains accounts of caste based discrimination but also precisely because it was rejected by Brahmanical media on grounds that there wasn’t “enough proof”.  No peace without justice. 

Rohith – We Shall not Forget, We Shall not Forgive

From Gutta Rohith’s Facebook post:

By Shahina Nafeesa (Translation- Renu Ramanath)

2010 September: To reach the village of Chinthula in Ranga Reddy District you have to travel around 60 kilometers from Hyderabad. That journey was in search of the home of R. Balaraj, who had been a Ph.D Scholar at Central University of Hyderabad. Balraj was researching on Telugu Literature. During the second year of his Ph.D. Balraj hung himself to death. He would have become the first Ph.D. holder from his community, even from his locality. In the tiny, two-roomed house made of laterite there were Balraj’s father, mother, two sisters and brother. He was the only literate one in the household. All others did their caste occupation: tethering cattle. Continue reading A Report on Caste Oppression That Has Not Seen the Light of the Day

On the Politics of Happiness

keep-calm-and-acknowledge-my-intellectual-superiority

Thanks to the years of efforts of women’s rights activists, today it has become obligatory at least within certain sections of society to problematize the private, even if reluctantly. Though much remains to be done, today we have something called the politics of pleasure, where even so-called consensual sex does not remain outside the purview of critical scrutiny. The dualisms of dominance and subjugated, active and the passive have been rightly recognized as worth rigorous examination. Close on the heels of feminist concerns, are those of the historically marginalized castes. The academic “mainstream” took a while to allow feminists to be taken seriously, but now Gender Studies or Women’s Studies courses are being initiated in some institutions and universities. Caste is getting special attention from a wide variety of social scientists who are drawing expertise from their own as well as other disciplines to enrich our understanding of how caste operates, discriminates and so on. Wherever applicable, race and ethnicity studies are also not that unpopular and works on these areas are getting appreciated.

All this is well and good. So what is the problem? The thing is, none of this operates in vacuum. When we “study” caste or class for instance, it should not escape our minds for one second that the researcher as well as the subject or context of study is also tied together in dynamically existing social relations. These relations will necessarily be of hierarchy and they will not cease to be even if one is say an Ambedkarite or Marxist researcher. In other words, the material, objective basis of class and caste (and other similar) relations are never suspended so that the researcher can have a “neutral”, unadulterated field of action. In the specific instance of India, class and caste (or other suitable categories if available for application) operate in a manner so as to make it very difficult to separate the intellectual-manual labor divide from Brahmanical tendencies, because of the well known exclusion of the non-Brahmanical castes from the right of education (in the sense we, the “educated”, largely mean it).

As is well known, the phenomenon of caste is progressively hierarchical, i.e. it is possible for one to move up the social ladder by becoming more Brahmanical. A notable way of achieving that is by being able to establish that their intellectual labor is now worth more (this valuation is obviously not in the conveniently calculable Marxian terms but in more intangible, subjective ways) than what they used to provide earlier. Now let us examine the practices of activists in the intelligentsia, in the academic world. Even though they may acknowledge superficially that they are in some ways privileged (alas to those who are privilege blind even at this level), they continue to celebrate and harbor a sense of superiority over those not considered so erudite, educated, intellectually gifted. It is not just the casteism inherent in the distant way the non-teaching staff of the institution is treated during an academic session. You find it in the way a particular intellectual, be it Arundhuti Roy or Meena Kandasamy, is given special attention for saying something quite plain, perhaps something that the not so celebrated guy on the street is also aware of, in one way or the other.

It is in this special privileging of a particular manner of articulation, of a particular arrangement of labor, which takes the form of being an intellectual and earning a certain credibility from an elite circle that is considered more valuable intrinsically, that the roots of Brahmanism lie. Indeed, it cannot be explained with precision in the sense as defined by the parameters set by the same casteist system that perpetuates such exclusionary, discriminatory tendencies. It lies in privileging intellectual labor over manual labor even as you express solidarity with the movements and struggles of that “uneducated” class. It is like the “white savior complex” that we find in most of the Hollywood that even remotely touches upon the race issue. Or closer home in the “male savior complex” in mainstream movies where it is the boy who has to salvage the situation and get ‘his girl’ out of trouble. I am not doubting the genuineness of the efforts of those who extend such solidarities and participate in working class movements and so on. I am just saying that it would be hypocritical to deny that when you upload your picture with a book written by you and which has just been published, you are not exposing the pleasures that you derive from the exclusionary establishment that the world of academics is. It may appear ridiculous to many to raise such objections about what appears to be a ‘simple display of excitement or happiness over one’s hard work’. However, let us not forget the time when it was considered pretty commonsensical that the only designated place for the woman is the kitchen.

by Kisholoy

“Court”ing Controversy – A Brief Review

film Court official
Vira Sathidar as Narayan Kamble in “Court”

Court is a 2015 Marathi film by Chaitanya Tamhane. While from the name itself it becomes clear that the film has something to do with “court kachari ka chakkar”, it is only on seeing it can one fully appreciate why this movie is a great watch for any sympathetic observer of the progress of human rights, law and their systematic violations in India. The film starts with scenes of some children taking tuitions from one Narayan Kamble, who is the central character of the film. After taking his classes, we find him taking a bus to a spot where a cultural program is taking place to commemorate a (fictional) “Wadgaon massacre”. He is then invited to a stage where he sings a powerful song that calls upon the exploited masses (and evidently, the exploited castes) to identify the exploiters and rise up against them.  From the picture of Ambedkar in the background, it is clear that caste oppression is one of the central themes of what comes later in the film to be called Kamble’s cultural troupe’s performances. Kamble is interrupted by cops who come and arrest him on charges that a song of his had reportedly led one gutter cleaning worker to suicide some days back. His case is taken up by a lawyer named Vinay Vora (played by Vivek Gomber) who has a personal interest in pursuing cases where human rights are likely to be violated. What follows in the film is an elaborate portrayal of not just the court proceedings that seem to make a mockery of justice (more on that later), but also of the personal life experiences of Gomber, the public prosecutor as well as the judge. In course of this portrayal, what we learn is not only the different lifestyles, social statuses and cultural values but also the different life views and ideological standpoints of these major stakeholders in the case. Continue reading “Court”ing Controversy – A Brief Review

Porn Matters, and Some More

Some thoughts on Ashley Tellis’ article Why Porn Matters:

Ashley opposes the blocking of porn sites, I too oppose the blocking of some porn sites. But I find it hard to relate to certain of Ashley’s approaches here.

Generally in India, invoking the category ‘Dalit’ would silence only a handful of people, given the casteist society we live in. So, without qualification, apparently generalized phrases like “It has become something of a piety to invoke Dalit women or just the category Dalit to silence critics on any given issue. Once one utters the word Dalit or adivasi, the opposition is silenced” come uncomfortably close to the casteist approach of ‘crying casteism’ – where people are falsely accused of ‘seeing casteism where it isn’t there’. I am also not comfortable with Ashley’s definition of the Dalit feminist as a sex-conservative, which he apparently gives in the statement “The Dalit feminist position on prostitution and bar dancing has become clear.” If one understands intersectionality, then one would see that such construction of the idea of Dalit feminism is anti-feminist, since never does Dalit feminism automatically include the stands on prostitution and bar dancing opposed by Ashley, even though certain people identified as Dalit Feminists may take those stands.

Secondly, the ban on the production and distribution of pornography has been there before the BJP government came in power. So Ashley is wrong in saying that this will push the domestic producers of pornographic content underground, because they already are. The recent move involved blocking some popular porn sites, some of which have been unblocked now.

If we are to judge this decision to block porn sites by whether it would affect the viewing of pornographic content by the people of India, then it can safely be said that there would be little success in that. People have DVDs, proxies, numerous other sites that the government has not managed to block yet, the forums and so on and so forth. So, useless in achieving their purpose, such blocks stoke the prevalent anti-pleasurable-sex attitude, which is to be strongly condemned and opposed.

Is access to pornography, which includes various kinds, helping create problematic images of sex in the minds of people? In many cases, yes. If so, is that reason enough to call for a total ban on pornography? No. Bollywood has been the misogyny factory since its inception, few are calling for a ban on Bollywood now. Erotic content needs to be discussed, analysed, criticized and not brushed under the carpet. The rights and plights of the workers involved in the production and distribution of erotic content deserve more articulation, so that the struggle towards a more just society can be waged better.

There is no denying of the fact that a lot of pornography demeans women, men, transpeople, agenders, asexuals, and even harms animals. When we are articulating our stances on erotic content, we must bring this fact into the foreground and think about ways in which the struggle against these can grow. Ashley stresses on the extremely important point of sex education, but does not elaborate on what effects the porn industry in its current state has, given there is no formal sex education. While we are opposing some of the blocks, let us also explore and articulate strongly the problems with so, so many of the porns, the kind of acts, dignity and wages the porn industry subjects to many of their workers, the kind of effects they have on the mindset of the viewers, without falling prey to sexual conservatism. (Ashley does condemn the exploitation in the porn industry.) The opposition to erotic content per se as exhibited by many in the society should be countered, but not with an approach like ‘yay for the porns we have, stop being such spoilsports’. The massive cultural influence of porns that are widely consumed needs discussion. And wouldn’t that be a potent tool to battle the sex-conservatives as well, if we could create an environment where a healthier discourse on erotic content is possible?

by Sutanaya

A Note on Caste and Class

Caste and Class are not separate concepts or projects

Jana Shatabdi trains are one of the prides of our middle classes. After Rajdhaani, it was the Shataabdis that offered us the dreams of speed and comfort (i.e., reservation) (and if one wants to see evidence for the expansion of the middle class and its dreams, one need only look at the increase in similar ‘comfortable’ services, not only in trains, but in air travel, education, housing, etc. etc. The state is basically taking up large amounts of commons and offering them to private capital to produce and consume).

class or caste?
caste or class?

 Jana Shatabdi trains run between important local cities. They stop at intermediate small-towns and district capitals, thus inviting a lot of people who travel daily for a living. All seats have to be reserved, but when daily commuters see empty seats, why would they stay back? That is why, Indian law permits for a person with a reserved ticket to make an unreserved traveler vacate “his/her” seat, whether pregnant or old or PH. And hereon, unreserved travelers keep increasing in the gangway between the two gates on the two sides of compartments, while “comfortable”, reserved travel takes place in the seats. In these kind of trains, these contradictions are merely visible; they are far more acute in long distance travel. Continue reading A Note on Caste and Class