Society Reviews

‘Caste Matters’ review: Dalit love and a new framework of conversations

Is it possible to have a meaningful conversation about any aspect of India without engaging with the idea of caste? Be it politics, culture, society, history, media, education, sports, economy, business – are any of these realms untouched by the tentacles of the caste system? In Caste Matters, Suraj Yengde offers a definitive answer — in the negative.

Suraj Yengde is a scholar-activist affiliated with the Harvard Kennedy School in New York. In Caste Matters, he has authored a powerful polemic that marshals elements of traditional philosophical inquiry, memoir, history, social anthropology, and cultural studies to activate a dialogical narrative primed for a singular agenda: to shift the framework of conversations about caste, from something that happens to Dalit-Bahujans (such as reservations and atrocities) to something that upper castes preserve and benefit from but rarely acknowledge.

‘Dalit being’

The book’s opening chapter, ‘Being a Dalit’, sets the tone with a part-existential, part-sociological inquiry into the nature of ‘Dalit being’. “I am forced to live in the world as though I am secondary, and the Brahmin and his universality are primary,” writes Yengde. Drawing inspiration from Heidegger and Sartre, Yengde argues that the caste society enacts the othering of ‘Dalit being’ through the erasure of Dalit space and Dalit time.

For instance, mainstream Indian history has little space for Dalit freedom fighters. Yengde offers the stunning contrast of Laxmi Bai, a Brahmin born in the household of Peshwa Baji Rao II, and Jhalkari Bai, a Dalit born into the Kosi caste. While Laxmi Bai is justly celebrated for resisting the British, it was Jhalkari Bai, “her adviser and soldier,” who disguised herself as Laxmi Bai and actually fought the British army led by General Hugh Rose, enabling her queen to escape. “Brahminical historians preserved the memory of Laxmi Bai as a martyr and eliminated Jhalkari Bai,” notes Yengde. He points out that such erasure is done systematically out of fear that these stories “will inspire Dalits to fight against oppression and cause a Dalit rebellion.”

Some of the most inspired sections of the book pertain to “Dalit love”. For Yengde, Dalit love is the most potent “antidote to the malady of caste.” He writes, “The fact that we have ‘arranged’ marriages in India is primarily because of the fear of Dalit Love, which has the ability to inject the ideals of justice, compassion, forgiveness…into closed orthodox minds; hence, it is banished by a prejudiced society.” While progressive savarnas have critiqued various aspects of the caste system, it is Dalit-Bahujans who have written incisively about the worst damage inflicted by caste on a society and its individuals — a diminishment of their ability to give and receive love. Is it any wonder, then, that it seems to have become so easy to fill the hearts of so many, so fast, with so much hate, as India has recently discovered?

The chapter on Dalit capitalism explodes the myth that the market can liberate Dalits from caste oppression. Two reasons why it cannot. Firstly, capitalism in India is always already caste-inflected. Indian capital is overwhelmingly bania-brahmin capital, and its modes of accumulation follow caste boundaries. Secondly, upward social mobility derived from material success — the Dalit capitalist dream — is premised on the existence of social relations. In a capitalist society, this relation is based on class distinctions. In a caste society, the realm of social relations is restricted to the members of one’s own caste. The relations outside caste, if they are not exploitative, are transactional, not social. So it is impossible for a change in class to effect a change in social relations in a caste society. Dalit capitalism, Yengde writes, is just “a clever plot to lure the oppressed class into the promises of capitalist dreams.”

Call to action

The last chapter, ‘Brahmins against Brahminism’ is almost a call to action — issued by a Dalit not just to all Brahmins but to anyone who enjoys brahminical privileges linked to their caste identity. Drawing on the example of whites who risked their lives for the abolition of slavery in 19th century America, Yengde wonders when India’s progressive brahmins will take up anti-caste work on a war footing. He cites the example of the ‘Knapsack Anti-Racism Group’, a workshop organised by white liberals in the U.S. for fellow whites in order to sensitise them to the ‘knapsack’ of white privilege that they carry around. But “in contrast, the privileged-caste citizens of the Brahminical world seldom talk about or question the notions of privilege when discussing caste — with a few exceptions.”

Rigorously researched and closely argued, Caste Matters is a significant intervention in discrimination studies. Among savarna readers, the conservatives will find it infuriating, and the progressives, illuminating. There is little doubt, however, that every dispossessed human of caste society will find it an inspiring read.

Caste Matters; Suraj Yengde, Viking/Penguin, ₹599.

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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 8:34:54 AM |

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