So the Swallow flew over the great city, and saw the rich making merry in their beautiful houses, while the beggars were sitting at the gates. He flew into dark lanes, and saw the white faces of starving children looking out listlessly at the black streets.
― Oscar Wilde, “The Happy Prince.”
One famous Internet meme among Indians is a cartoon showing an obese man seated on a couch taking in a huge gush of (scarce) drinking water while an emaciated man sits in front, on the floor, waiting for the droplets that fall. The former, according to the cartoon, is “SC/ST” while the latter is “General.” The cartoon then asks us to “share if u (sic) hate this system.” This one image from popular culture is probably enough to tell us why Dalits like Rohith Vemula commit suicide.
This cartoon performs an amazing act of sorcery in which the privileged/dominant/oppressor groups transform into victims. Only sorcery can enable us to understand the parameters of fairness and equity used to astoundingly equate the Hindu upper castes, numbering merely between 15-20 per cent of the population, as victims when 50 per cent of government jobs/educational seats are still open to them.
If the dominant caste society is capable of such fantastic feats, is it surprising that the upper caste response to Vemula’s suicide has been a massive disavowal of it as a caste issue, or the ugly attempts now to deny Vemula’s Dalit identity? These range from Union Cabinet Ministers, to prominent agenda-setting television anchors (who after delivering impassioned speeches on Vemula’s behalf go on to make equally dramatic monologues on how this has got nothing to do with caste), to writers who psychologise it as a case of depression, and to the vitriolic responses of lay upper caste readers on the Internet which quickly and predictably degenerate into mocking reservation.
When the government of the day deploys state machinery — thus the Intelligence Bureau prepares a report on Vemula’s caste status — to deny the dignity of life and death of a person, we live in troubled times. The most effective way to deny caste oppression is to bureaucratize Dalit deaths and to entangle them in the rulebook of caste certificates. Vemula’s words in his suicide note now ring louder: “The value of a man was reduced…To a vote. To a number. To a thing.”
Despite the government’s abominable attempts, the greatest disservice to understand the denial of caste is to see it as merely a Hindutva agenda — one which imposes a false unity on a caste-divided Hindu society. Even many progressive upper caste responses see the Vemula suicide as a “Dalit problem” which needs to be resolved through palliative administrative measures undertaken at the university level. There is scarce recognition that the university is merely a subset of the larger society, which is organised ideologically and materially on the basis of caste, irrespective of political and religious affiliations. And without a structural reorganisation of the latter by annihilating caste from every walk of life, any amount of reform on campuses will be futile.
Crucially, there is no recognition the problem is “us” — the minority upper castes, who control virtually the whole society. Thus, it is time to turn the searchlight from the Dalits (reforming “them”), and upon the upper castes (reforming “ourselves”) who perpetuate knowingly or unknowingly caste oppression by not acknowledging caste privileges. Concepts like “merit,” alluded to in the above-mentioned cartoon, become mere smokescreens in hiding privilege — social, economic and cultural capital — accumulated over centuries.
Of course, privilege is not restricted to caste, but also applies to class, gender, race, sexuality, etc. W.E.B. Du Bois, the African-American activist and scholar, had theorised about the “psychological wages” of whiteness in America: even an economically poor white person feels superior to blacks in a white-dominated society (like Ambedkar had termed the caste system as not just a division of labour but also a division of labourers).
There is a colossal failure to acknowledge the psychological wages of caste, accruing to upper castes because of their overwhelming domination of every sphere of society, barring, to an extent, politics and government institutions where there is reservation (still 40 to 50 per cent of SC/ST teaching positions in central and state universities are unfilled), and the staggering absence of Dalits where there is no reservation, like the powerful private and corporate sector, the English-language media, cricket, Bollywood and commercial culture, for example. This non-acknowledgement is the biggest barrier to the decimation of caste in society, which also leads to the victimisation mentality of the upper castes.
Why is privilege not acknowledged? How does one convince, for example, my friend/interlocutor, who hails from an elite caste and class background, went to the best university in the world, works in a senior government position, and believes that Vemula’s (who worked as a manual labourer once, and was brought up by a Dalit mother who was virtually a child labourer in her own adopted household) suicide had nothing to do with caste oppression? Does privilege make us blind to the social circumstances of others?
Again, the non-acknowledgement of privilege is not specific to caste. Recent research in America by L. Taylor Phillips and Brian Lowery suggests that whites confronted with evidence of white racial privilege, even when not denying it, claimed that they did not benefit from it because of personal barriers. Why does this happen? According to Lowery, “You like to have nice things. But you don’t want to think you got those things as a result of unearned advantages.”
This misguided understanding of merit, along with conscious attempts to maintain caste domination that is at the root of denying caste privilege. Of course, upper caste privilege does not rule out sections of upper castes who are economically deprived, or some who are well intentioned about destroying caste privilege. But as Peggy McIntosh, anti-race and feminist activist, put it: “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.”
The crucial recognition that is missing is that caste oppression is systemic (and more insidious than other oppressions because of the religious sanction it enjoys), and that every one of us, the privileged, participates in it through many unearned benefits conferred by birth. Here individual character is not critical. As McIntosh comes to the stark realisation that one can be nice and be oppressive at the same time. This uncomfortable truth stares at us when we confront caste privilege.
The first step in confronting caste, then, is to acknowledge upper caste privilege, often reinforced through class privilege. What is urgently needed is an exhaustive account of upper caste privilege like the path-breaking 1988 essay by McIntosh, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies,” where she documents more than 50 white privileges. These ones are particularly relevant in the context of Dalit student suicides: “I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms” and “I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.”
If acknowledging caste privilege, the first step, can itself negate the self-image of the “meritorious” upper caste person, the second step is more torturous. Acknowledging privileges is meaningless if it does not entail giving up privileges. This is where the real battle in ending caste lies. The threat to existing material privileges of upper castes leads to even some democratisation, through reservation in education and employment, generating terrible upper caste backlash. That is why caste domination is maintained as much by physical violence as symbolic violence. As Martin Luther King, Jr. noted: “Lamentably, it is a historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” Hence the ending of caste oppression will never be through acts of upper caste charity.
It is time for the upper castes to recognise the ethical imperative of democracy. As Maya Angelou, the African-American author, had argued, growing up in a white- and wealth-dominated society is not by going through the motions of honouring credit cards, marrying, and having children. Growing up is “to take responsibility for the time you take up, and the space you occupy, to honour every living person for his or her humanity.”
Let us, similarly, in an upper caste-dominated society, acknowledge the vast undeserved space we occupy. Let us cede what has to be ceded.
Nissim Mannathukkaren is Chair, International Development Studies, Dalhousie University, Canada (email@example.com).