“Turning in any direction you like,” B R Ambedkar once stated, “caste is the monster that crosses your path.” I write about the future of caste with the determination and the desperation of a suicide bomber who has been handpicked to assassinate that monster. If you look closely at my fragile frame, you will see the belt-bomb strapped to me; you can count the hand-grenades I caress. On my mission, I turn bullet-spitting historian, I turn acid-throwing stalker. My anger is the most potent undetonated device that I carry. I write with frenzy, with blinding rage, with hatred, seeing nothing ahead of me but the obituary of the oppressor I have set out to kill. I am baying for blood. Its death dances out in front of my eyes.
Like the rest of my tribe that is indoctrinated to destroy itself in order to annihilate a cruelty whose presence makes the world a worse place, I dream of the appointed day, I rehearse scenarios. There is a smile on my lips because I am in the company of women and men, like me, who would die, if that is what it takes, to put an end to this dehumanising system. This is an obsession, a shame that spills over. We have chosen our target, and like a secret society of terrorists we work out the logistics in the belief that we will live forever, that we have the license to kill. In this macabre jihad of sorts, we are convinced that caste is a savage system that deserves to be crushed and consigned to the pages of history.
Caste has survived because of its atrocities, literally over the dead bodies of lynched lovers, over charred Dalit settlements, through the use of organised violence to enforce and maintain super-ordination and subordination. Caste is the colourful poison in syringes injected into women who elope. Caste razes a hut to ashes in Kilvenmani. Caste kills those who are defenceless and unarmed in Khairlanji. Caste is the dried excrement that finds its way into the mouths of rebellious Dalits in Thinniyam. Caste is the massacre of Dalit village headmen in Melavalavu. Caste is extrajudicial detention, torture and murder; caste is custodial gang-rape. Caste operates in consensus. Its atrocious face comes about because of collusion, and the absence of any substantial group of privileged people who are willing to turn caste-traitors.
On the other hand, the caste-Hindu backlash refuses to accept who we are when they know what we are – the result of a supremacist mindset that has the single aim of delegating Dalits to the bottom of the social hierarchy. This everyday dismissal has several facets. In my immediate, personal case, it denies me my Dalit selfhood, doubts my origins because of my way with words, my choice of clothes. This explicit project engages with me in every sphere of life. It is a dual struggle in which one has to escape pigeonholing and also affirm ones identity when on the edge of assimilation.
Fighting against caste, and resisting casteism, involves combating the malady of easy assumptions and crude prejudices. It means dealing with a discriminatory mindset that eagerly awaits the opportunity to translate its deep-set hatred into action. This is the mindset that advises me to go to the slums and ensure that all Dalits get food, shelter and clothing when I begin a discussion on how caste operates within the classroom. It sets my priorities and defines and drafts my agenda. It dictates the notes stuck on my desk, drafts the to-do list on my mobile phone. And if I were to listen to them and submit myself, I would be bestowed with an honorary inclusion to offset the centuries of systematic exclusion. In exchange for my commodification and celebration of the outcast experience, I would become a token, a trophy to be flaunted. After the ceremonial co-optation, I would be asked to don the mantle of a gatekeeper, with an instruction to let in only those who pose no threat to the status quo.
In all other cases, the system operates through distrust: and a preconceived notion that we are not only low, but also evil. Demonising us, and dehumanising us, allows caste Hindus the luxury of having an argument to defend their case, and to gloss over all the social injustices with which the system has been permeated. This is one of the reasons why, when asked to critically reflect about the future of this structure, I find most dominant ‘upper’ castes not holding any discussion on how the structure should be dismantled; instead, they adopt a dialogue of condescension in which their approach seems to revolve around humanising or civilising or educating the Dalits. Another favourite position taken by a majority of the ‘upper’ castes on how to eradicate the caste system is the bizarre request to scrap the reservation policy at the earliest.
Currently, arguments about the purity or impurity of the castes are not given as much emphasis as are those about innate intelligence or refinement. This is because of the social shift in importance accorded to religion and piety vis-a-vis importance accorded to talent, sophistication and social mobility. In his book on Hindu manners and customs, the 18th-century Roman Catholic missionary Abbe Dubois recorded an instance of how a Tamil Brahmin woman fled the place when her Shudra friend had publicly disclosed that she had tasted chicken broth. In the present day, neither beef-eating nor beer-drinking would make anybody any less a Brahmin; just as all claims to vegetarianism by a Dalit is not going to reduce her social stigmatisation.
What would the death of the Indian village – that bastion of caste supremacy – mean? Suppose we simply entrusted every village to our governments, and suppose they decided overnight to achieve a complete corporate sell-out. I can still see the stratification, and almost anticipate reading research volumes on the forms and functions of Coca-Cola casteism. On the other hand, neither do I believe that the mere reaffirmation of local, territorial or linguistic identities and ethnicities, even as one witnesses genocide and ethnic cleansing in pockets of the Subcontinent, help to diminish the relevance of caste.
It is wishful thinking that caste, also being a ‘geo-demographic’ system, could simply fade out and not carry any relevance if only the people were displaced. At the village level, caste may no longer be a system of production, but it remains a set of coded practices. The emergence of caste-neutral occupations has not led to the death of any single caste identity. Such predictions about urbanisation’s effect on caste have likewise proved futile. Cruising across the seas, it has been carried to every landscape. Even expat Southasians are in no mood to give it up so easily.
My techie friend in Silicon Valley, a fellow Tamil Dalit, shared an anecdote about driving through the inner city in Denver along with a colleague. Seeing the poor African Americans there, the rundown neighbourhoods and obvious poverty, the other man, a caste Hindu, said, “Namba ooru cheri maadiriyae irukku illa?” (It is exactly like the Dalit settlements in our village, isn’t it?) That is the problem with the caste-Hindu mind: it is trained to recognise caste everywhere, to replicate its order. It is for this reason that it is often seen as perfectly alright when a non-resident Indian acts ultra-strict and oppressive at home, wondering, “How do I face my relatives and family back in the village if my daughter marries a kallu (black)?” His fear is as heartfelt as that of a 15th-century Brahmin facing excommunication for transgressing caste boundaries.
President Barack Obama might be astonished that his black brothers and sisters are not only seen through a coloured perspective, but also in a casteist manner. This is not like the parallels that Dalits love to make in order to build networks of solidarity and shared experience with African Americans – rather, this is a small example of the stigmatisation in which caste-supremacist Indians love to indulge. Until there is a change in this mindset, wishing away caste is going to be a pointless pastime.
Even Ambedkar’s idea of discarding Hinduism as a means of escaping caste is no longer feasible. The promise of egalitarianism in other religions may be enticement enough, but converts would have by now realised firsthand that such changes are merely cosmetic. As a truly secular religious identity, caste has literally gone places, permeating every aspect of any faith-based order. Dalit Muslims and Nadar Christians are identities as well entrenched as that of Iyengar Hindus – thus making caste an Indian and Southasian, rather than a Hindu, identity.
The philosopher Naomi Zack has called race a biological fiction. Caste, too, is another that-which-cannot-be-named fiction, which merely derives its reality from the manner in which it affects people’s lives, occupies their consciousness and establishes itself as a nightmare for any theoretician of history. Instead of laying trust in multiplicities and mind-boggling hybrids, even those who are anti-caste believe in splicing the world into uniform binaries: Dalit/non-Dalit, Brahmin/non-Brahmin. Although each of its individual parameters has undergone change, caste by itself has survived by reincarnating itself in the face of any kind of social and economical upheaval.
The eminent sociologist M N Srinivas observed that one of the commonest and most cynical features of the movement towards equality was that “each caste regarded itself as the equal of castes superior to it while simultaneously denying similar claims from those inferior to it.” Caste, however, calls for a continuous revision of theory. Srinivas’s conjecture is no longer true, because what we have observed since the 1990s has been the race for claiming backwardness (or in some states such as Tamil Nadu, ‘most backwardness’) in order to gain from the quota system.
This struggle to be labelled inferior and unrepresented is part of an elaborate masquerade. When the Gujjars wanted to claim the Scheduled Tribe status, they paralysed India by bringing the railways to a halt. The demand of the Vanniyars – in a truly novel casteist manner, by setting fire to Dalit settlements – in order to achieve the separate category of Most Backward Classes was also successful. In both of these instances, the Indian nation (especially its trigger-hungry police force) was portrayed as villainous – not merely denying these people what were phrased as ‘legitimate’ rights, but also silencing the people by killing those who dared to protest. The corpses of those killed in the police violence became the currency that let these castes strike a deal with the state.
But caste does not end with being merely a blackmail tool that tries to obtain positions of privilege for individual communities. It is as vehement and its movement is as orchestrated when it seeks to deny the same power or authority or opportunity to others. Caste is enshrined in the 100-odd gory self-immolation bids that took place all over North India against V P Singh’s government’s decision to implement the recommendations by the Mandal Commission to introduce reservation for the Backward Classes. Caste is a system that lacks any semblance of an excuse for its existence, and yet it has the power to hold a country to ransom.
Like its strength, the only weakness of the caste system lies in the fact that caste is never based on choice. The supremacist and patriarchal nature of its control ensures that, at every stage, people are stripped of choices. A decision to step across those restrictive caste lines, to refuse to accept the enforcement of caste practices or to collude with a projects of violence and discrimination, to resist its patriarchal controls and the patterns of thought that it imposes/ingrains/instigates in our midst will lead to multiplicity and unpredictability and disintegration. It is for this reason that I often imagine the annihilation of caste as a feminist exercise – where women totally reject the control of their sexuality in the name of caste or custom, refuse to internalise patriarchy, and speak out against the other forms of discrimination deeply embedded in society.
The readiness to destroy caste requires us to destroy a part of ourselves. But finally it will culminate in the end of imagined or assumed inferiorities and superiorities. That is why, irrespective of where we find ourselves in that hierarchy, we can militate against caste only if each of us make it a personal rebellion, a conscious choice to defy that oppressive, self-defeating system. As an Ambedkarite, I can look at the future of caste only from an obsessive perspective of annihilating it: I believe that real looking forward can take place only when there is no reason to look back.
~ Meena Kandasamy is a poet and translator obsessed with Ambedkar’s dream of caste annihilation. She lives in Chennai.