Who is the Dalit?

"Dalit is the name through which the immense and immeasurable waves of injustice and savagery have swelled through the centuries and still swell; the name through which rises that clamour for an infinite, unconditional, and non-negotiable justice."

Scissors case, 17th century / The Metropolitan Museum of Art Digital Collection

It is imperative now to think the political at a different level than has been done so far, to think the political beyond strategies, negotiations, and playing cards (caste card, gender card, minority card etc.). This means that to demand justice in the name of a repressed caste or a gender in itself cannot be reduced to playing cards, or doing politics at the level of strategies. This is precisely what is difficult to understand today. If the very idea of 'politics' is over-determined, or exhausted, in the strategic moves that we play in the realm of practical affairs to secure specific rights or conditioned profits, and thereby mobilise forces against forces, whether in the name of a specific caste or gender, then I am not primarily doing politics. What I may be said to be doing then, and also thinking and professing then, is something else and at another level, in another manner, and in another tongue.Therefore, what I am, and the position I assume today, cannot be understood by the plethora of attributes thrown at me, whether by well-wishers or by those who accuse me of playing cards, caste politics, minority politics, whatever. They don’t understand what I am trying to do here. I am not a 'communist' or 'dalit' — understood as an attribute or predicate which I strategically use to gain specific rights through negotiations with those in power. Rather, Dalit is the name through which the immense and immeasurable waves of injustice and savagery have swelled through the centuries and still swell; the name through which rises that clamour for an infinite, unconditional, and non-negotiable justice – and the specific rights to be secured in the domain of the political. 

This fine distinction between 'dalit' as an attribute and Dalit as "the weak messianic power" (as in Walter Benjamin) is marked by an irreducible difference. This difference is completely erased when people discuss my thoughts, my actions and my political practices. I do introduce, in writing, and in my action in the political domain, a 'philosophy' of the political which consists of thinking that which infinitely exceeds, while passing through, the strategic politics of conditioned negotiations. This philosophy of the political is not a storehouse of maxims or theorems which can be strategically put into practice by filling up their empty forms. It can’t be understood in the idiomatic gesture of regulative actions, as happens in Immanuel Kant’s understanding of moral actions. It consists, instead, of introducing into the political the messianic intensity that does not exhaust itself in conditioned realisation of specific rights.    

If one speaks of 'proletariat' now or of 'Dalit' – and it is necessary do so – it is only so that the proletariat destroys all other classes. And while destroying them, it too must pass away. So it is with the 'Dalit'. The absence of the Dalit in just society is precisely the consummate messianic instance in the name of which all political struggles bearing the name "Dalit" must be carried out. The name "Dalit" can be used today and must be used, but only as the name of the unnameable. It is not a simple name. It evokes what remains; it will remain unnameable until infinite justice arrives. Like a dying man who wants life, the oppressed clamour for justice. Our existence, in its very finitude, does not want to be exhausted in mere negotiations for conditioned-practical rights. Only infinity saturates and consummates our existence. This is why justice is the infinite idea par excellence.

We must speak out today; which means, precisely, risk our own existence. Yet this risk is also the very movement that goes beyond, by traversing the realm of death. S/he who does not speak knows no hope, for hope is the venturing beyond into the unknown. We must clearly distinguish between the officially recognised 'promotion' in the hierarchy of the academic institution and the true intellectual worth of a body of works that someone leaves behind. Only those who work at the same intellectual and existential level as the scholar in question can really evaluate and appreciate the true worth of that form of life and that work. In the later sense, which is the true sense, I am 'professor' already. 'Professor' in the limited sense – in the hierarchy of the academic institution — is dubious at best. It is often mere reduplication of social hierarchy into the academic situation. It can be — as we all have eyes to see, unless one chooses keep her eyes closed – manipulated and abused, by the technology of sheer quantification, by the political ideology that governs social relations, by millennium-long social injustice and prejudice. It is this prejudice and injustice that is the stake and that is the question. Here and now. 

Saitya Brata Das teaches literature and philosophy at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Courtesy: Indian Cultural Forum



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