‘Let’s see who wins in the end- you or me. I’ll destroy brahminism, I certainly will. My only sorrow is that there’s no brahminism really left to destroy in this place- except you.’
-Samskara- A Rite for a Dead Man- U. R. Ananthamurthy (Trans. By A. K. Ramanujan)
After Vilas Ghogre, Bhai Sangare, Surekha Bhotmange and thousands of others, the latest victim of casteist violence is University of Hyderabad Research Scholar Rohith Vemula. The outrage following this incident, just like the others mentioned, is huge and growing and like them it seems as if justice wouldn’t be done in this case too as far as punishment of those abetting the suicide of Rohith is concerned. It is likely that the BJP led central Government is going to drag its heels over the two central ministers Smriti Irani and Bandaru Dattatreya who are alleged to have abetted the suicide of Rohith and the University of Hyderabad Vice- Chancellor Appa Rao would be asked to step down to reduce some heat from the protests. However, the incident does leave behind important lessons for those fighting against casteist and communal fascism which must be taken into account.
In the face of the ever increasing protests there have been some (although not very successful) efforts by the ruling party in controlling the damage. The Prime Minister while addressing the Convocation gathering at Ambedkar University referred to Rohith’s death as a loss to mother India coupled with attempts at holding up his tears. The act has been condemned as too late a response and contrived theatrics and The Telegraph has carried a satirical photo feature regarding the Prime Minister’s response.
Newsmagazine Swarajya which describes itself as a right wing publication and gives ample space to Sangh intellectuals as well as Narendra Modi’s academic cheerleaders such as Swapan Dasgupta, carried a piece by its editor R. Jagannathan which expressed its concern over how assertive Dalit politics was becoming the new Brahminism. It went on to describe how capitalism and rapid urbanisation are the biggest enemies of casteism and how Ambedkar had exhorted upon his followers to move towards the market and the cities because it give them anonymity and hence protection from casteist excesses. Before singing paeans to free market capitalism it is important to understand Ambedkar’s experience which had shaped his views in this regard. For Ambedkar, the village represented a sink of localism which was a den of casteism and superstitions. Thus, he sought the panacea in urbanisation and the anonymity that comes with it. Ambedkar here through his views portrayed himself as a Classical Liberal who could assert himself as a Dalit by embracing western Modernity, which is best embodied by being an academic of Columbia University.
Free market capitalism and urbanisation’s pet projects- big dams, mining industries etc. have displaced and continue to displace millions of poor people with very little rehabilitation, making Modern India a nation with one of the largest internally displaced populations in the world. Considering the fact that a huge number of these displaced people are Dalits (of the total number of people displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam around 60% were dalits and adivasis) who are forced to live amidst utter poverty and squalor in the underbelly of the cities, it is quite unlikely that Ambedkar would continue with his unflinching admiration for urbanisation and free market economy.
What Jagannathan has written in his article that free market economy has allowed Dalits to be owners of big businesses and employ people belonging to the upper caste under them, holds true only for a miniscule of the Dalit population. It might be argued that while capitalism wreaks havoc on the lives of millions of Dalits by displacing them from their homes and sources of livelihood, it grants them a sort of compensation by allowing a tiny proportion of its population some shares in the capitalist economy.
The argument that urbanisation does away with caste is extremely flawed and a method of re-enforcing caste through denial. This has been brilliantly illustrated by Anand Patwardhan in his famous documentary Jai Bheem Comrade. The scenes here, here, here and here show middle/upper class people (one of them English speaking) staying at posh flats near Deeksha Bhoomi, the place where Ambedkar is cremated, express their horror of having to bear with ‘dirty’ and ‘polluted’ people during the times of Ambedkar Jayanti when thousands of Dalits throng the place. I would specially like to draw the attention of the readers to these two scenes where a young lady and then a gentleman sitting at Cafe Barista- one of the insignias of the capitalist economy, refer to Dalits as ‘the reservation people’ and advise them to work hard and earn a better lives for themselves; as if the pitiable conditions of the Dalits is owing to their laziness!
Let us now turn to the other side of the political spectrum; the Left. Last month Kolkata’s prestigious Presidency University was in the midst of a storm when a Dalit professor of the University, accused of casteist harassment when he protested against the menace of stray dogs in the campus. The fact that such incidents of casteism took place in a state which has seen a Left front Government for 34 years and a University campus which has been a hotbed of radical left wing politics, should make us wonder about the commitment of India’s mainstream Left vis a vis caste. Despite all the inimical noises made by India’s Left wing parties regarding annihilating caste, the reality is that these parties continue to be dominated by the upper castes. The fact that Rohith Vemula left the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) and joined the Ambedkar Students’ Association would only further prove this fact. He had also questioned in one of his facebook posts as to why the CPI(M) did not ever have a Dalit Politburo member.
Stalin K’s extremely well researched documentary on caste India Untouched in one of the scenes in the film shows the experience of Kerala’s Dalits; a state that has seen the world’s first democratically elected Communist Government and is praised for its social progress. It shows how the Dalits belonging to the Paravan caste to which India’s Dalit President K. R. Narayanan belonged, were mocked by the upper castes after he became the President. The people belonging to this caste whose traditional job has been to climb up the trees and bring down coconuts, were told by the upper caste people that Narayanan would climb up the flag pole and unfurl the national flag during the Independence Day celebrations.
The Left largely continues to force fit its theory of economic determinism while analysing caste refusing to look at it as a unique system of hierarchy involving completely different relations of power in comparison to class, the result being the Left parties continue to remain as casteist as any other political party albeit in a covert and at times overt manner.
As for the Muslims it is equally important for them to engage with caste and recognise its presence within their societies, although its manifestation might be different from that of the Hindu society. It’s necessary for them to fight against it as well as be a part of the larger Dalit struggle. Here the coalition between Dalits and Muslims must not be understood in narrow terms of an opportunistic alliance amongst political parties such as the BSP and the AIMIM, but as a larger struggle for equality and social coherence. It would be fatal for Muslims to recognise caste only as a Hindu phenomenon and not as an Indian phenomenon and it would only serve in entrenching caste instead of annihilating it.
Rohith Vemula dead probably is perturbing the Brahminical forces even more than he did when he was alive. The most befitting tribute to him would be in understanding the nuances involved with caste and strengthening the fight not just against caste and Brahminism, but also against communal fascism and unbridled capitalism.
Image credit- Indianexpress.com