Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Exposing the limits of modern caste discourse

-By Lakshmi Kutty
[This article is composed from excerpts from a letter written by the writer in response to a letter from a member of the Insight Team.]

I don’t think I agree with you when you say the Dalits are a weak community by themselves, but I completely echo your point that the non-involvement of non-dalits in the movement has been the main cause for ghettoizing the movement as something characterizing ‘dividers of hindu society’. What is happening is that caste is increasingly being seen as something that doesn’t exist in modern Indian society, but it is being created by those who try to debate on it. I come across this sentiment all the time in casual conversations with people around me. THOSE PEOPLE who try to make a big issue out of it (meaning those who expose its presence in the public domain) are the real ‘castiest’ people, not US who have forgotten it and are moving ahead in life! I agree with you that the less caste is debated in a public, informed, involved manner, the more people will continue to physically and symbolically uphold it while believing that it belongs in the past.

I’m not very sure if what I’m saying is accurate, but as this is an open forum I’m saying my thoughts. One of the reasons I feel caste is erased from the upper-caste/mainstream public domain is because of the manner in which caste gets entwined with certain issues, and remains associated with only those issues and nothing else: the practice of untouchability, the issue of reservations, caste-based violence/atrocities, are the most prominent.

Untouchability is publicly recognized as a caste practice and one that is pre-modern, inhuman, reprehensible. There is a widespread notion that because of laws, activism, and shifts in public thinking, this practice has been reduced significantly. And if it exists, it does so only in the rural, semi-rural areas. So when people associate untouchability as the beginning and end of caste discrimination, it allows them to rest in the belief that ‘I don’t practice untouchability, so I’m not castiest’. (This is akin to the manner in which during the social reform period all anti-caste activism got reduced to just ‘temple-entry activism’, whereas the attack and impact of these struggles was much wider and deeper.)Another aspect of the presence of caste in public life is the issue of reservations. Here too mainstream discourse tends to evade/erase the question of discrimination/disadvantage/denial linked to caste status, in this case by focusing on the importance of ‘merit’ and equality in the work/education sphere. The deeper issue of historical discrimination and systematic denial of opportunity is conveniently sidestepped when this issue gets reduced to ‘merit versus concessions’.

Murders, lynchings, police atrocities, dalit women being raped, property/livelihood being destroyed… the most visible outcome of caste-based disadvantages is gross violence. It is likely that such violence may generate some public comment/debate, but it also serves to reiterate the notion that where there is such severe violence caste is present only there. ‘If such violence doesn’t characterize my family/neighbourhood, then there is no caste in my world’.

It’s really dangerous when the anti-caste struggle thus gets reduced in public memory to ‘struggles against untouchability’ or ‘in support of reservations’ or to end ‘caste atrocities’ (even though clearly, these are some of the many debates in anti-caste struggles), because this allows people to dissociate themselves from it. It allows people to change the terms of the debate – in the case of untouchability they absolve themselves of all caste-related wrongs by talking of personally condemning the practice, in the case of reservations they uphold the secular commitment to primacy of merit and equality of opportunity, in the case of caste violence they advocate more civilized systems of law and order. In all three cases, who would ever accuse them of being castiest?!?!

What remains un-reflected when people dissociate themselves from untouchabilty and/or reservations are the many other insidious ways in which their lives still legitimize caste. How it impacts one’s private/public life, opportunities, belief systems, ideologies, interactions, etc. For example, the way marriages are fixed, the values distinguishing good/evil that children are taught, the notions of beauty/sophistication we internalize, the manners in which sexuality and family are controlled… all these betray castiest prejudices. All these are a result of private/public negotiations that uphold the purity and sanctity of caste discrimination. But these wont be acknowledged as ‘casteist’ values; because these are seen as ‘cultural’ or ‘socialization-related’ values. Those who try to see caste in these harmless/neutral practices are the real troublemakers in an otherwise caste-free Indian society!

This dismissal is something even the feminist movement has had to deal with. Cultural traditions, socialization patterns, religious injunctions, societal rules and norms… these are the most common refrains one hears in defense of oppressive social behaviours anytime it is put under scrutiny. ‘Our society is very liberal because it allows women to get educated, work outside the home, marry partners of their own choice, but housework is still primarily the woman’s domain. This is not because we discriminate between men and women, but because our cultural traditions uphold the woman as the maker-or-breaker of the family’. It’s no surprise then that movements against oppressive social practices are largely movements against systems of tradition and culture that legitimize such practices.

Given this state of affairs, I think one of the important moves we as ‘de-stabilizers’ must make is not just to bring these political issues into open debates, but additionally to politicize the tiny micro-structures that make up our value systems and our worlds. I believe it is necessary to open up and expose the symbolic manners of caste legitimacy that are being practiced and encouraged silently. Milind wrote in his article in the Nationalism issue that common people, academicians, journalists, children’s magazines, these are the most dangerous, because these are what form the popular imagination of what is valued and what is not. I was very excited by his point, because I remembered a statement my professor had once mentioned – ‘beware of the good husband!’ It’s easy to fight a husband who beats/abuses you, but the more dangerous character is the good natured, mild-mannered husband because one is never sure how to pinpoint and fight his camouflaged abuse! We have to shake up the comfort of the mainstream and expose the centrality of caste- and gender-based control in everything that makes up this ‘mainstream’.

I accept the charge you made about needing to be thankful that Ambedkar did not give a call for armed revolt but asked the dalit to educate, organise and agitate through democratic means. As Insight is keeping you sober through the pain and anger, for me it’s opening ways to think about my place and my stakes in the subversion of caste. And I can’t speak of this yet, but it’s also making possible a certain understanding of gender for me that was kind of incomplete so far.

[Lakshmi Kutty is a fellow at Sarai, Delhi and is currently assisting Forum Against Oppression of Women activists in the rapid survey on Working Women in Dance Bars of Mumbai]


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