TALK ABOUT CASTE IN INDIA
Kisana is a film theorist currently researching dalit discrimination
and gender violence issues in urban India. He teaches at Flame
University in Maharashtra and tweets at @RavikantKisana.
recently appeared on my Facebook timeline: a child plays as her
mother asks, “Are your dolls having a tea party?”
The little girl answers, “No mom, they’re protesting
cartoon is accompanied by a proclamation: “omg, Priya this
is so you”.
are several likes and cheeky comments. Priya responds with faux-embarrassment
– “LOL stop it!” – though everyone knows
there’s pride in being outed as a feminist.
of this exchange light up my timeline. I watch, smirk and judge
till I get tagged myself. And then I respond like Priya, secretly
thrilled to have been validated as progressive.
is the grammar of the metropolitan, well-off, English-speaking,
millennial Internet. We curate online identities, knowing that
social justice knowhow is their hippest ingredient.
young folks of privilege, negotiating professional and urban struggles
one weekend at a time. We live in India, but haven’t given
up on ‘Bharat.’
interested in the vagaries of our national discourses on gender,
nationalism, social conservatism and more. We perceive injustices
around us and raise hell about them. We outrage quickly and happily.
evidence, see the popularity of millennial-darling comedians
and YouTube stars All India Bakchod, whose popularity is owed
significantly to their satirizing of issues as varied as homophobia,
victim-blaming in rape culture, and policy debate around net
ways, this is an ideal scenario – caring about a better
world has become coveted cultural currency among people of privilege.
while we tweet ourselves hoarse about feminism and colourism and
veganism and ally-ism, there’s an omnipresent injustice
which doesn’t enjoy the halo of our Facebook moralizing.
Manjule, fresh on the success of Sairat, was asked in
an interview why he makes films only on caste. He responded that
it required a special talent to avoid the topic, and that he wasn’t
a particularly talented person. Witty, and also extraordinarily
Jaipur Literature Festival, that famed annual gathering of progressives,
Kajol declared that people had become over-sensitive these days
and that there was no intolerance in Bollywood, no dividing lines
of caste or creed.
“special talent” to stomach her mann ki baat
(Indian Radio program hosted by Prime Minister) considering that
only a week earlier, a young man in Hyderabad hung from a fan
because his value as a person was reduced to his caste.
statement is not in isolation. A study by The Hindu in
2015 showed that only six out of 300 Bollywood films made in the
previous two years had featured lower caste protagonists.
‘poor’ is the blanket identity of characters who would
most likely hail from lower caste backgrounds (think Arjun and
Ranveer’s irascible Bikram and Bala from Gundey,
or Nawazuddin’s delightful Shaikh from The
Lunchbox). Too often, Bollywood cinema has
invisibilized caste under the more simplified construct of class.
‘jaat’ (peasant caste) has today almost disappeared
from Bollywood vocabulary, surfacing only occasional references
to criminal tropes.
is no different. A quick glance at the top TRP-rated shows on
air currently reveals that none of them features a dalit protagonist.
online entertainers have an opportunity to reject some regressive
conventions ingrained in Bollywood and TV. But nonetheless, when
it comes to caste, there’s a strange diffidence, a disquieting
silence, even from model millennial progressives All India Bakchod.
Hot Star news-comedy show On Air with AIB, the group
raised bold issues week after week, still managing to never touch
the C-word. They even did an entire segment on police brutality
without mentioning caste.
activists have been arguing for years that there’s a casteist
bias in India’s judicial and law-enforcement apparatus,
as evidenced by the NCRB report which found that almost 33% of
inmates in Indian prisons are SC/STs.
have taken special talent to avoid that.
are no different on the cricket field. Until very recently, cricket
was the preserve of upper-caste city elites. Today, even the most
die-hard Indian cricket fans will only be able to name one dalit
cricketer – Vinod Kambli.
of Palwankar Baloo, the pre-independence left-arm spinner who
was made to use separate dining and lodging facilities on tours,
and denied captaincy owing to his caste.
commonly peddled dismissal of the cricket-and-caste conversation
is that sport is about technical excellence and that the best
team should be selected, irrespective of caste or religion. But
sport is not beyond social justice.
Africa has experimented with affirmative action to change the
composition of its teams and dismantle deep-rooted and invisible
racist structures of discrimination. Is their system working well?
No. But at the very least, there is acknowledgement of the problem,
and experimentation with the intent of solving it.
even in the most educated circles, the moment I attempt to trace
casteism into anything beyond the designated cauldrons of caste
oppression – honour killings, khap panchayats (mob justice),
dalit rapes – I’m quickly dismissed as a fanatic.
is a suspicion towards reading casteism into the everyday structures
that we’re used to, even if they normalize caste-based oppression.
In this orbit, caste has almost become a bad word, considered
the domain of the subaltern, small-town political class who use
it for their nefarious mobilization. Lower caste assertionism
in form of political blocs, caste-alliances or even Ambedkarite
social politics is often dismissed with a shake of the head.
words: for those Indians who truly, genuinely believe that ‘there’s
no such thing as casteism in 2016,’ trying to talk about
dalit rights feels divisive, not progressive or productive or
urgent, as it is.
perplexing is how this coexists in a completely non-ironic way
with #BlackLivesMatter, pro-Bernie Sanders memes, and the Tumblr-ized
notion of ‘checking your privilege.’
the answer lies in the idiom of oppression. The thinking, sensitive
millennial is a product of privilege, a fact that is made amply
clear to him or her over and over again.
upper caste urban sliver is the first Indian middle class to have
never known mass-scale unemployment. They’ve been told they’re
spoilt, that they have it easy and that they should be thankful.
don’t actually feel thankful. They’ve learned that
great inequalities exist warranting outrage.
office, he witnesses gender disparities, so he becomes a spokesperson
for workplace feminism. On the streets, she sees men beating a
dog with sticks, so she’s now an advocate for animal rights.
We see public spaces as our own, so we stand up for the Kiss of
Love event. We witness Western victories for LGBTQ rights, and
we outrage because things are just as bad (in fact, much worse)
for queer Indians.
very well how to spot an obvious injustice, point at it, and say
“no, in fact, this is not how things should be.”
caste however, is to question one’s own feudal privilege,
inherited from our own parents, family, teachers and social peers.
It’s your own world view, your own accidental advantage,
the comfort of your own home.
is not something ‘out there,’ and hence it falls outside
the gaze. You are the insider. Very often, you are the inadvertent
oppressor. And it is these deeply ingrained privileges which preclude
us from questioning the gravest injustices.
the domestic help use the toilet in the house? Why can’t
the cook eat at the same table with you at lunch? They made the
food and they will clean the dishes, after all.
he or she sit on the floor to watch TV, while two sofas stay unoccupied?
more broad level, whose cuisine is marketed in restaurants and
chains in all manners of streets and lanes, and whose food is
found illegal? Whose gods and goddesses are being invoked and
televised into serials, and whose are ignored?
customs are normalized as axiomatic, and whose social customs
are seen as primitive, even uncultured?
into these discussions, an astute mind can quickly observe entire
races of enslaved Indians and suppressed cultures around us.
novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once made a speech about the
dangers of a single story, how it blinds us to the possibilities
of other alternate narrative imaginations.
we have been peddling the same single story across films, television,
advertising, newspapers, cricket fields, restaurants and living
rooms. In fact, this single story is so powerful and all-pervasive
that a lot of urban millennial professionals feel caste is something
that no longer exists. It does take a special talent to invisibilize
the deaths of sewage workers who die inside drains everyday.
take a special talent to tediously raise the “I know this
one rich SC guy who got a college seat basis quota” argument
at every opportunity, even as campus suicides by dalit students
has been widely written about and been the subject of documentary
are no dalits among the upper management of most corporations,
the most powerful editors and journalists, higher judiciary, chiefs
of armed services, and even the organizational elites of most
major social institution of nation-building is not representative
of the oppressed castes, then is it representative at all? And
if ‘belonging’ in a democracy is determined by representation,
then do dalits ‘belong’ in India at all?
there’s us: the well-read, well-meaning, and ‘woke.’.
refuse to engage with and question our most insidious privileges,
and our complicity in perpetuating non-inclusive social structures,
then are we really the liberals that our memes and hashtags paint