I find a question about the ‘future of caste’ offensive, primarily because caste is an issue of the present and we do not have the luxury to pontificate about the ‘future’ of it. I teach at a new Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) which is being mentored by an old IIT, where casteism is sickeningly alive. Colleagues speak derisively of Dalit students who naively change the question in the entrance exam to the ‘prestigious’ IIT so they can answer it, because they are too stupid to solve a difficult question but they get in regardless, because of quota, thus ‘lowering’ the standards of the IIT; a professor tells me there is no Brahmin ideology to the IIT, and that Brahmin students commit suicide too, when I ask him to set mechanisms in place so that Dalit students can complain, especially if we are to have Brahmins teaching Sanskrit. When I was in college, my Sanskrit teacher told the Brahmins in class that they would understand better. As a half-Dalit half-Christian, I felt great, of course.
We do not have to look to Khairlanji for Dalit atrocities. They happen in our bourgeois urban lives every day. I was marginalised and looked upon as pariah because of my black Dalit father. That he was alcoholic, wife-beating and had no responsibility toward the home made it easier for people (‘good’ Catholic people in the Bombay neighbourhood in which I grew up) to hate him and me. My schizophrenic mother, whom he pretty much beat to a pulp, sang songs about his Harijan, chokra-boy identity, and spoke of his skin colour (she was white as driven snow). He broke all her teeth in return.
What my Dalit history has taught me – and this is all I can offer for the ‘future’ – is that Dalit identity, like all identity, needs to be reflexive, needs to step outside itself, needs to look at itself askance, needs to ask questions of the self and see internal contradictions. In a writer like Urmila Pawar, we see the pain of this process, the difficulty of it. In her autobiography Aydaan, her deepest love, for her husband, is constantly lashed by his sexism, by his inability to see her as powerful, by his implicit resentment of her growing into the most important Dalit feminist writer of her, and many other, generations. She fights him; she fights him to the bitter end. And yet, after his death, she can still offer a stunning portrait of him, swimming in his own particularity, singular and beautiful.
But what is far more beautiful in the end is the picture of her – writing, struggling, wondering about her own contradictions, her own investments in casteism, in bourgeois morality, nevertheless confident of her feminism, ambivalent about her children, working through these difficult processes in her life with a candour that is as remarkable as it is searing. Pawar never lets herself suffer any illusion, and works relentlessly towards the politics of which she dreams. That is all I can hope for the Dalit future. That we have such a self-reflexive politics. That we fight caste on all fronts, starting from within ourselves, till the bitter end of it.
~ Ashley Tellis is an activist focusing on gay, Dalit and women’s issues. He is currently assistant professor in the Department of Liberal Arts, Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad.