Updated: March 2, 2010 09:41 IST

Myriad forms of humiliation

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“Humiliation is not so much a physical or corporeal injury; in fact, it is more a mental/ psychological injury that leaves a permanent scar on the heart.” For Indian social scientists today, philosophy, logic and theoretical explorations are a rare passion. A bold effort towards theorisation of infernal feeling, this book deserves appreciation for such an endeavour. Gopal Guru, who has edited the volume, is a committed academic and a leading intellectual in theorising Dalit epistemology. The book has, in three sections, 11 learned articles by distinguished scholars.


Bhikhu Parekh's ‘Logic of Humiliation' is an insightful engagement with the concept. Apart from analysing the complexity of the problem, he identifies the 11 different real life cases of humiliation of moderate to high magnitude. It is an amazing way of explaining the theory of humiliation. Parekh probes the multiple definitions of humiliation with varied notions/explanations, the dialectics of institutionalised humiliation and remedial prescriptions and, finally, citizenship and understanding of Kant's theory of [self-] respect. His analyses are significant and, in a way, immensely useful to students of political theory.

For Ashis Nandy, humiliation is directly linked to the asymmetric power system that exists at the family, state and societal levels. He argues that as long as a person does not understand the humiliation meted out to him/her — one cannot say he/she is humiliated.

However, Nandy argues against third party intervention in situations where people do not realise that they have been numb to their own humiliation, But this is debatable. When a person lives in a state of inhuman bondage, how could he or she realise that he is being humiliated? And this goes for a group as well. As V. Geetha argues, “the untouchable is associated in different ways, [with] waste, trash…one which he bears for the well-being of a commonweal that has no use for him.” Parekh makes the pertinent point that “extreme situations arise when the social structure so crushes their spirit that they fail to develop even a weak sense of self-respect…”

Nandy's resentment towards renaming of the oppressed sections — Negros, Blacks, and African-Americans, for example — is understandable. Negro (or even the ‘untouchable') has been associated with resistance and protest against the oppression. His analysis of the positive side of humiliation (Gandhi's humiliation at Pietermaritzburg) is too emphatic.

Valerian Rodrigues explains the nature of public sphere/ space/domain and civil society and its predominance. On the other hand, he raises some basic questions to the scholars who are conditioned by their own notions of colonial prescription of modernity and seeks to show how they negate themselves when they engage with issues of public concern. He critiques the viewpoints of two globally well-known scholars, Dipesh Chakrabarty and Sudipta Kaviraj. For Chakrabarty, particularly of public domain, public hygiene and health concerns, such an analysis negates scavengers' humiliation. So are Supitha Kaviraj's concerns for public parks in Calcutta(Kolkata) and elsewhere that suffer defacement because of migrant workers. But Kaviraj does not address the flawed bourgeois modernity.

The article on ‘Protective Discrimination' by Neera Chandhoke is no testimony to her declared pro-reservation stance. The volume should have had a paper by a Dalit who is made to suffer humiliation while availing himself of the caste-based benefits in school, college or work place. Consider her factually incorrect statement: “A Dalit university has been set up in the country.” Can the name of a Dalit icon prefixed to a university make it a ‘Dalit university'?

She displays a penchant for drawing upon western studies in her attempt to score a point on ‘shameful revelation'. For instance, Wolff's observation about how “demeaning” it must be to “admit to oneself” that one lacked the qualifications for a job and had to “rely on the state and its sanction” to get it. But she chooses to condone the practice of dominant caste Hindus/Indians taking their caste names as suffix, harping on their primordial supremacy. It must be clearly understood that positive discrimination is a necessary correction to the caste prejudice that reigns in public domain.

Dalit struggle

In his paper based on issues related to a common crematorium in Goa, Peter Ronald deSouza highlights the complexities in the contemporary caste milieu arising from religious conversions, inter-caste/inter-caste marriages and so on. The concluding essay by Guru is a powerful exposition of the need for universalising the Dalits' struggle. Quite telling is his observation: “…he [Ambedkar] along with his people sought to walk out from the given image of ‘walking carrion' and went on to become the walking storm.”

The other articles are equally meritworthy in comprehending the various types of humiliation. The book should be of benefit to social scientists and students of Indian political system. However, the fact that the humiliation women suffer across the class, caste, and race divides is hardly discussed — although it came in for some reference in articles by Parekh and Rodrigues — is indeed a lacuna.

HUMILIATION - Claims and Context: Gopal Guru; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 595.

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