Imagine a celebrity Indian CEO going to the United States and having himself photographed with women of colour while holding a poster that said, “Smash racist patriarchy”. And then, imagine white Americans coming down on him like a tonne of bricks, accusing him of inciting hatred and violence against white Americans. Sounds absurd? Good. Now imagine him actually apologising to the American public for wanting to end racist patriarchy. Sounds even more absurd? Well, this, or at least a version of this, has actually happened. Not in the la-la land of Donald Trump, but right here, in the world’s largest democracy.
The act and reaction
Recently, the Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, on a visit to India, had an informal discussion with a group of Indian women journalists, activists and writers about their experience on Twitter. In the course of the meeting, he was gifted a poster by one of the participants. It said, ‘Smash Brahminical Patriarchy’. When a group photograph of Mr. Dorsey posing with that poster surfaced on Twitter, it became an immediate target of outraged trolling. Both Mr. Dorsey and the organisation he heads were angrily accused of inciting hatred and violence against a “minority”, namely, brahmins.
The furious tweets spanned the whole gamut of indignation from A to B. Mr. Dorsey was accused of being a “brahmin-hating, racist bigot”. He was accused of propagating hatred towards “people who constitute 5% or less” of India’s population. Many compared the sentiment expressed in the poster to antisemitism, asking if he would dare pose in the U.S. with a placard advocating hatred of Jews. A serving civil servant even deemed it “a fit case for registration of a criminal case for attempt to destabilize (sic) the nation”. Mr. Dorsey’s apoplectic critics wanted an immediate apology. And they got it, too.
While Twitter clarified that the content of the poster was “not a statement from Twitter or our CEO”, the company’s legal and policy head put out a tweet saying, “I’m very sorry for this. It’s not relective (sic) of our views. We took a private photo with a gift just given to us — we should have been more thoughtful. Twitter strives to be an impartial platform for all. We failed to do that here & we must do better to serve our customers in India.” This public apology was tweeted out in its wordy entirety not once, not twice, not three times, but eight times. The whole episode raises two simple questions: What was wrong with that poster? And what is wrong with Twitter?
Social order of caste
The first is disposed of easily enough: nothing. Someone patient enough to carefully poke through the mass of outrage piled up against Mr. Dorsey and his poster might discern the vague outlines of an argument, which essentially boils down to brahminical patriarchy coming to the defence of brahminical patriarchy.
First of all, it is a truth universally acknowledged (except in the parallel universe inhabited by certain species of trolls) that ‘Brahminism’ refers not to members of the brahmin community but to the oppressive social order of caste. This social order, as has been well established by feminist historians such as Uma Chakravarti, is premised on two hierarchies that are inter-connected: gender hierarchy and caste hierarchy. The former accords women an inferior social status vis-à-vis men, while the latter accords brahmins a superior social status vis-à-vis all other varnas, or caste groups. Also, it is through male control of female sexuality that what Ms. Chakravarti calls “caste purity, the institution unique to Hindu society”, is preserved and reproduced over time. Hence, in the Indian context, it makes little sense to issue a call to arms against patriarchy without also referencing the brahminical roots of this patriarchy, which is precisely what that poster did.
As for the usage of the term ‘brahminical’, it is either mischievous or ignorant to claim that it only refers to brahmins, and therefore, the poster constituted hate speech. The father of the Indian Constitution and icon of anti-caste politics, B.R. Ambedkar, defined the term thus: “By Brahmanism I do not mean the power, privileges and interests of the Brahmans as a community. By Brahmanism I mean the negation of the spirit of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. In that sense it is rampant in all classes and is not confined to the Brahmans alone, though they have been the originators of it.”
The term (spelled as ‘brahmanism’ or ‘brahminism’), then, has been in currency for a long time as a descriptor of a social order marked by the graded inequality of caste. Therefore, this sudden eruption against it makes no sense except as a reactionary backlash against the steady mainstreaming of anti-caste politics on social media. Given that caste remains a powerful determinant of status and life chances in Indian society, such a backlash is perhaps not entirely surprising.
But what is, is the alacrity with which a powerful multinational firm, with pretensions to liberal values, chose to pander to feudal sentiment. It makes one wonder what, if anything, Mr. Dorsey and his organisation learned from their closed door interaction with Indian women journalists about their experiences on Twitter. Whatever it was, the need to support Indian women against caste oppression and patriarchy wasn’t a part of it.