Internationalising Caste

Caste is becoming a global phenomenon, in the wake of 'Caste' being exported/carried along to the west by the upper caste Indians as we have seen from the recent Cisco case in California


According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), on an average, India reported 10 cases of rape of Dalit women every day in 2019. But there was hardly any response, at least domestically. On the other hand, George Floyd’s episode evoked[1] worldwide support for the Black Lives Matter campaign. Demonstrators have gathered in England, Germany, Belgium, Australia and many other countries. This is because ‘Race’, a well-known form of discrimination, allowed cross-country solidarity to be forged.

The caste question, on the contrary, draws no global attention. Caste is becoming a global phenomenon, in the wake of ‘Caste’ being exported/carried along to the west by the upper caste Indians as we have seen from the recent Cisco case in California. But it is not accorded international recognition along the lines of race and ethnicity. The anti-discrimination laws in the west do not recognise ‘Caste’ as a protected ground against discrimination. So, the challenge here is to internationalise caste. The correspondence[2] between Dr Ambedkar and WEB Du Bois, a black intellectual and civil rights leader, also reflects Ambedkar’s idea to internationalise Caste. Requesting for a copy of the petition submitted to the United Nations on behalf of Black Americans, Ambedkar said-  “Untouchables of India are also thinking of following suit.” 

With English language education at their disposal, the dominant castes have monopolised the political and bureaucratic positions that have an interface with the larger world. Any discussion on Caste at global level was anathema. Whatever little the world knows about ‘Caste’ was primarily shaped by the dominant caste’s version of ‘Caste as just a feature of Indian society’. There was no reference to caste oppression in their romanticised idea of India. So, the real challenge for the oppressed is to dismantle the upper caste narrative on ‘Caste’ by writing extensively in English. But, this path is being hindered at the policy level in India. National Education Policy 2020 says, “Wherever possible, students till Class 5 in schools should be taught in mother tongue/regional language/local language.” On the other hand, the Andhra Pradesh government’s decision to introduce English as the medium of instruction in all government schools while still teaching Telugu as a compulsory subject is a welcome step and deserves[3] to be scaled up nationally.

Both these contrasting policy approaches have to be understood in a different light. Almost 98.5% of private schools are in English medium whereas this is just 35% in government schools. Government schools, having SC/ST/OBCs in a majority, are being pushed to teach in regional languages citing better ability to learn and linguistic sentiments among many other reasons. The opposition to English medium from the upper caste opposition parties and civil society has to be primarily seen as an effort to regionalise the oppressed, preventing them from becoming global. Caste, an enclosed unit, works on the same principle of insulating individuals from the rest of the world. It hides the systemic inequality under the garb of language, tradition and so on. But, English has the potential to overcome this invisibilizing nature of caste and expose its brutal nature to the larger world.

In India, there were/are many incisive writings on caste and social issues in the regional languages, especially from marginalized sections. But these works suffered from two setbacks. One, coming from Dalit writers like Kalekuri Prasad. Two, written in regional languages, thus confining their reach. A person (Prasad) who fought throughout his life for equality, a universal idea, was reduced to be labelled as a Dalit poet. The ideas he invoked were universal, but the acknowledgement was local. This is a classic example of how caste operates under the carpet despite of it’s hard-hitting critiques. Writing the same in English could have produced many Ambedkars from the oppressed communities besides informing the larger world about caste oppression.

In a recent move, the Delhi university removed authors Mahasweta Devi, Bama and Sukhartharini from the English Literature syllabus. All the major news outlets reported on this issue but followed a specific pattern. The headline of an Indian Express report published on August 26th read “Dalit Authors, Mahasweta Devi removed from English syllabus”. Other well-known websites which have used the same headline include The Hindu, Scroll, Newindianexpress, News18.  Professor Dilip Mandal responded to this on his twitter “So, Mahasweta Devi (Bhattacharya) is casteless, whereas Dalit authors are nameless. Castelessness is always a Savarna Privilege. Right ?” If you carefully examine, this strongly resonates with the above discussed example of how writers from the oppressed castes are reduced to their immediate identities by labelling them as ‘Dalits’. The dwija dominated media makes sure that Dalits do not outgrow their caste identities by resorting to such sophisticated sidelining tactics.

Finding a ground

The engagement with the caste question has to be constructed in a different way. Hiding one’s caste and coming out as a Dalit like Yashica Dutt, a Dalit woman writer, did is a traumatic experience. Rather acknowledging its existence and contesting Caste from within and outside is a must. The oppressed communities have to work towards finding a common ground with the global community to forge solidarities in fighting caste oppression. Along with writing in English, the next logical step that Dalit-Bahujans may consider is to adopt English last names that reflects their productive ancestral occupations. Last Names like Smith (who works with metal), Walker (someone who beats and presses cloth) , Wright (a carpenter) are quite popular in the west highlighting their ancestors’ production-related histories. This has also inculcated a sense of ‘dignity of labour’ that could be seen from the number of people doing Part-time jobs, something which Indians consider “petty” back home. 

Adopting the same in India would inculcate a sense of ‘dignity of labour’ and also allow the oppressed to appeal to the larger productive population not only within the subcontinent but across the world. Therefore, the productive class needs to begin by adopting names in a language that allows them to connect with each other and thus enjoy social respectability they have been denied. The upper caste Brahmins have adopted names like Sharma, Shastry, Chaturvedi, Dwivedi and so on which connects them with their caste counterparts across the country. But no such connectivity could be seen in Dalit-Bahujan names.

The only way to counter this pan-Indian connectivity of Brahmins thus is to adopt English names that would allow the oppressed to connect globally. Dr Kancha Ilaiah, a political theorist, has changed his name to “Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd” to outgrow his local caste identity. Now, this not only indicates his history of rearing cattle but also allows him to communicate with the global Shepherd community. This connectivity could be seen from the resolution passed by the US Congress when Dr Ilaiah was being attacked in India back in 2017. Had Caste been an international concern, the Hathras case probably could have evoked solidarity from global Cobblers and Farmers, the western occupational counterparts of Indian Dalits. This would have put more pressure on Indian authorities to take swift action. 

What kind of occupations warrant such an assertion? 

Production has to be the criteria. Shudras, Dalits and Adivasis who live a ‘life of labour’ involved in agrarian and artisanal occupations are more nationalistic than any dwija Hindutva propagators. These production-related occupations, irrespective of whoever does them, deserve respect and dignity for having built this civilisation. Caste-occupations like manual scavenging are dehumanising and not productive in nature. But Dalits have been doing this for generations together and now it is time for them to move out of this horrendous occupation and rise up the social ladder. 

Bringing in an Anti-caste law on the lines of Anti-race laws in the west is necessary, but a more nuanced engineering of anti-casteness is what we need in the Indian context. The assertive approach is just another alternative, apart from teaching dignity of labour in schools, to do away with the disgust associated with productive occupations by acknowledging their importance in the nation-building process. Caste-occupations have to be democratised as we tread the path towards annihilating Caste. The historical reversal of caste-occupations would lead to such democratisation by breaking the caste-fixated occupational structure. Instead of shouting slogans, the dwijas have to take up some serious nationalistic work like tilling the land, skinning the dead animals and prove their merit. 

The whole discourse around the caste question has to be upended. The oppressed are hesitant to talk about their identity, leave alone assertion. But, Dalit-Bahujans have to take this challenge head on. Adopting an English last name may reveal your caste identity but this also underlines your contribution to the nation, highlighting true nationalism. As Ilaiah Shepherd says This is the best way to tell the Brahmin: I am now no longer interested in working to reform your spiritual culture. The current framework of debate has to be transformed from the ‘disdain against labour’ to looking down upon ‘leisure’ associated with upper castes as unworthy of emulation. Because if this continues as a part of the Sanskritisation process, this labour surplus nation would starve in the long run.

*The author is an independent researcher and freelance journalist based in India. His work majorly revolves around caste, culture and politics.


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