I’m not from India nor did I ever vacation there. I don’t take yoga and I don’t own the Kama Sutra (why bother, when I can download it for free, anyway?) So, I’m not an expert and I’m probably more wrong than right. No cookies for pointing that out. That said, here goes anyway.
Recently - Arundhati Roy agreed to write an introductory essay to “Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical edition by B.R. Ambedkar" which she titled, "The Doctor and the Saint: An introduction”. Hindu nationalists like the BJP love to get their outrage underpants all bunched up whenever Roy does anything other than keep her mouth shut, basically. Roy’s introduction to Ambedkar’s work may cause Hindu nationalists like the BJP to be outraged that she dare to say anything that is anti-Hindu (which is basically anything that is not unquestioningly pro-Hindu/BJP). The BJP is for all intents and purposes, India’s GOP. So, their outrage comes as no surprise for her association with a speech that Ambedkar wrote to challenge progressive Hindus on their own desire to reap the benefits of caste are antithetical to their stated organizational goals and perpetuating the targeted oppression of lower castes.
Ms. Roy is fairly leftist, challenging empire, corporate-military capitalism, caste and so - she’s an easy and constant target for people born into wealth and status and whose bank accounts seem to do very well when the ultra-nationalist BJP gets their way.
Ms. Roy is herself from an upper caste, a topic that has often materialized by BJP party supporters suggesting that she is not Dalit or is Brahmin, so she should shut up with anything that makes Hindus look bad. Her recent selection to write this introduction, has brought up a the question of why is the introduction of a lower caste Indian who challenged caste, being authored by an upper caste Indian?
"Roy, this time doesn’t find herself solely attacked by the Right, or her usual club of We Must Hate On Roy In All Seasons Fanboys (well, not entirely). This time, it’s the Dalit community too, visibly hurt and angered by Navayana’s decision to have Roy write the introduction to Annihilation of Caste—given this is a publication house that makes its livelihood and brand (another not-co-incidence?) by portraying themselves to be ostensibly anti-caste. It’s a little more complex argument than, “Dalit People Should Write About Dalit People Only”—which, sadly seems to be the hasty summary most of us have come to. Ambedkar’s essay is famous and infamous for taking on Gandhi, an act that cost Ambedkar dearly—and his seat in the Parliament for starters. Famous because he put into words the intense sense of betrayal Gandhi and Gandhism brings to the issue of caste (what with wanting to abolishing only the practice of untouchability while leaving in tact the other social, sexual, economic and emotional segregation that caste-based societies foster). Gandhi has become (and perhaps always was) the straw-man argument we often throw to the ex-untouchable castes, for their derision of the “Mahatma” (“BUT DON’T YOU SEE HE WAS ON *YOUR* SIDE, YOU UNGRATEFUL RASCAL!!11!”), a betrayal that me and mine will never experience. Or even if we will, this disillusionment with Gandhi won’t cost us (and our families) livelihoods, access to education. Roy, while her introduction may be as insightful as her other works, simply lacks this connection. It’s unfair to expect her to comment on the experience of reading and encountering this essay, sure. But I’d rather ask why wouldn’t Navayana put someone with *this* history of reading and encountering Ambedkar (for instance, one of my seniors at uni, M* was working on the different Ambedkars she met in the course of her life: the Bhimrao in the Buddhist shrines, Bhimrao she met at protests and the Dr. Ambedkar who she found at university, in libraries and academic texts). It’s a failed opportunity to have Roy write an introduction—good business though, she is after all, the face brand of the revolution—to such a seminal text. It’s not a conversation about cultural relativism, but one that we must own up to: Why Are Most Of Our Beloved Ambedkerite Scholars Upper-Caste Scholars?”
- woh-battameez asked in her summary of the contexts surrounding this topic. (bold added by me)
(btw - woh-battameez is a great read for any number of topics weaving through Indian politics and culture, in and outside the lens of academia. Especially if one cares to do more than regurgitate the PR talking points of corporate nationalists like the BJP or the colonial worldview of the UK/BBC. There are many such voices to be found, but not on corporate sponsored venues, so check her out and you will be glad that you did.)
And it is this final point that what brought me to this post, with two questions:
How familiar is this caste dynamic in the US?
Are the expressions of those challenging US caste framed / retold in the words of the upper caste?
How familiar is this caste dynamic in the US? White Christians obliterated, slaughtered and silenced the indigenous peoples of the Americas. While doing so, the peoples of Asia and Africa that were enslaved for the labor of taking two continents. Then, in the continued occupation, systematic devaluation by isolating indigenous, African and Asian culture and targeting them with laws and law enforcement to criminalize and impoverish them. The net result is that there are consistent groups of people who have had access to wealth and the protection of the rule of law and there are groups who have access to neither. There are groups who have more or less wealth than others and with more wealth comes less criminalization. Our castes are further codified by race and gender identity. One thing is clear: the same people are rich and poor as they were 300 years ago.
What does caste do? If nation states are defined by demographics and numbers, then who created such reasoning? Demographics do not exist as molecular compounds or properties or states of energy or mass. Demographics are not objective. demographics are a fancy way of making gang warfare sound like science, like fact, like reality, like they are beyond change and must be accepted. And it is this last bit "must be accepted", which is the whole reason. Demographics, caste, class, religion - these are methods to reinforce the message that some people will prosper so long as others suffer. This is what caste delivers.
What cultural beliefs / systems / institutions deliver what caste does? Why don’t we in the US call it ‘caste’? In what ways do we as “Americans” codify caste? If we look at how we codify race, poverty and gender, do we see any clues? One clue might be in the US aversion in our mythology to embrace elites. We have them, but we don’t call them that. We demonize academics as elites, but they are not the elites that have all the wealth. Our wealthiest are called ‘entrepreneurs’, ‘visionaries’, ‘mavericks’ and ‘job creators’ (patriarchal mythology at its finest) and ‘self-starters’.
One thing I tend to believe is that social and cultural behaviours end up where they were intended to go. So, that the US denies our elites means we’re in denial. Why are the same people are poor and wealthy as were 200 years ago? Through it all, if we look at the demographics, most of the country is poor and getting poorer while those who were born rich are staying rich and getting richer. “if it looks like a duck…it’s a caste duck.”
Are the voices of those challenging US caste framed / retold in the words of the upper caste?
Who writes the books from the voices of those in these lower US castes?
Activists are written out of history books, like Cesar Chavez, who spoke from being a farm worker for the rights of millions of humans harvesting the food we eat. He was / is labeled in many negative terms by the hoarders of wealth who profited from the human misery and toil right here in the US. Or, like Angela Davis, they are criminalized for speaking out and acting out against police and prison injustice. Authors or academics are labeled as ‘elites’, ‘socialist’ or ‘Ivy Leaguers’ or any number of insults to demean someone who ‘hates America’ and so forth.
The newspapers and TV news outlets are also labeled as this same group of ‘elitists’ when, ironically they have been owned by the real US elites for decades. Most news anchors have as little in common with the perpetually impoverished majority of the US as does any Kshatriya news anchor does with the millions of Dalits.
Who writes the books, reports the news, documents the lives of US lower castes from being a member of those castes? During the Great Depression, when the income inequality collapsed the global economy, obliterating the middle class caste, the chain of participation was broken. The bribe paid to the middle class caste is that if we participate in caste, we will have some rewards over the poor caste. When that promise was broken, voices like Woody Guthrie, John Steinbeck and other men (sexism and racism stayed intact through the collapse) spoke out and were heard because so many poor existed with too small a buffer of middle class caste in place to silence those voices. Those voices have been reduced to paragraphs in a social studies book, if that and tested on a pop-quiz. Gone from the minds of children before the end of 8th grade.
As I look at India and the US, I see lots of differences and similarities, and there’s no telling if my views are accurate or not. That may not be the point though. Both India and the US have blind spots when we look at our own cultures, but may be able to see in the other culture some features of their culture that exist in our own blind spots. If we resist the temptation to go colonial and declare how great we are for not being like them…maybe we can learn and grow for the good of all instead of some.
The castes that benefit from our ignorance are ever working to make those blind spots even bigger. If you are reading this, and you live in the US, you and I and anyone else seeing it - are not in the bottom caste. It is me and you and the rest of us that perpetuate US caste to see into these blind spots and undo caste - or it won’t be done. The upper castes will not undo caste and the lower castes cannot do it alone.