Endurance is not transformation: Caste in the US

It’s been a week since the most important political event I’ve participated in for a while, perhaps ever, in a pretty crazy life (and no, it was _not my MIT talk, though I’m glad it hit a chord with so many folks!). I’ve needed to let it sit in my heart and head, so I could speak the truths that may be difficult for my savarna/”upper”-caste friends to hear. I ask you to open your hearts and minds to our own living realities, in order to make a better and more just world around us.

Last Thursday, in Boston, Equality Labs launched the first ever #CasteintheUS survey led by the mind-blowingly brilliant Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Maari Zwick-Maitreyi (supported by an amazing team). And yes, in partnership with Black Lives Matter Boston and the always provocative, always inspiring Dr. Cornel West. I was lucky enough to be in Boston at the time (so thank you again, Chris Spitzer Bourg and team!)… I could therefore be both joyful and sombre witness to what I hope will be a turning point in the way we think about caste oppression as savarna folks.

The full video of the event is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYRbFBlpTpo&feature=youtu.be

And here is the full text of the survey (endorsed by a number of organisations and individuals, including both SouthAsianHistoriesforAll and WhoseKnowledge): https://www.equalitylabs.org/caste-survey-2018

What does the survey tell us? That even in the United States, many Dalit Bahujan and Adivasi folks (for non desi South Asians: our first peoples, and those either “lower” on the caste hierarchy or formerly, pejoratively outside the caste hierarchy as “untouchables”) face various forms of caste oppression. They immigrate here to escape it, and yet:
* 1 in 3 Dalit student respondents said they’d faced discrimination in education because of caste
* 2 out of 3 Dalits surveyed said they’d faced workplace harassment because of caste, and
* over 40% of those responding said they’d been rejected in romantic relationships because of caste.

We know how much worse this is back home in India, and across South Asia.

As progressive savarna folks – whether in the diaspora or back home in desh – we can no longer pretend this does not exist, and that it is not our problem. This has *always* been our burden to bear, and it is time we took responsibility for it. Every time you think about about what it means to be brown in the US right now – and all its attendant dangers – think about what it means to be Dalit in India right now, and all its ongoing dangers. We didn’t choose to be born brown, no one “chooses” to be born “untouchable”. We have been far too complicit in a completely fictitious, constructed social hierarchy for far too long. I ask you to think about one action you can take today, that you will take through the rest of your life, to be a savarna ally to Dalit communities. If you can, please share that in the comments section below this post.

For my own part, I sit with the complex discomfort of being a brown, savarna, woman, in the US, whose heart is in India. I wear that discomfort like a second skin, and I hope it helps me be the ally others need me to be.

</sombre, reflective piece>.

On the joyful side, it was, amazingly enough, the most celebratory evening, even as we reflected on some of the most enduring forms of structural violence we know. As bell hooks has said, endurance shouldn’t be confused with transformation, and I truly did feel the beginning of a journey from endurance to transformation. Besides, who can deny #curlyhairedgirlpower!!! I love you and learn from you every day, Thenmozhi, Maari and friends.

We Also Made History

Over the years, I’ve learnt how much the histories and voices of marginalised communities can be made invisible, rendered unheard. And in an intersectional world, those who carry multiple invisible/unheard identities are discriminated against the most. The greatest irony, of course, is that in most cases, these identities – privileged or disprivileged – are accidents of birth. Race, sex, caste… did you choose to be born as you are?

What we do choose is how we understand and live with our privilege and power, or its lack. For me, it’s been (almost) a lifelong learning process of understanding the privilege and contradictions of being born into an ‘upper caste’ family in India. And of rejecting that system for myself, and more structurally.

But some of the bravest, most resilient women I have known over the years are Dalit women who have faced multiple forms of oppression, of discrimination, and have fought, challenged, and sometimes triumphed over human-made awfulness. And yet their lives and struggles are rarely marked by the rest of us.

In a tiny contribution to seeing and hearing and marking these lives, my week 4 contribution to the ‪#10wikiweeks‬ challenge is a stub on We Also Made History, the first book ever to pull together a history of Dalit women’s contributions to the anti-caste Ambedkar movement in India. It was unbelievably difficult to find reliable sources, even for such a notable addition to historiography. When was the original published? In 1989, in Marathi, and in 2008, as an English translation. This is not ‘old’ archived material; this is contemporary scholarship that has gone relatively unmarked by Indian scholars and media.

I’m reading the English version now, I’m saying their names.

Darkening his image?

Ashwin Madia, whose parents were reportedly Mumbaikers till they moved to the US, is a Democrat running for Congress from Minnesota. According to a KARE news report, he has had his image ‘darkened’ in a Republican attack ad. Literally.

If this was India, we’d have Fair and Handsome ads that told him he couldn’t win without the bleach. Aaargh. Racism is alive, peeps… and perhaps it’ll be severely unwell post November 4th? Now that’s the audacity of hope.

Caste… untouched.

The horrific massacre of a Dalit family two months ago at Kherlanji. The excruciating social boycott of Dalits in Kadakol for the past four months because they ‘dared’ to take water directly from the village tank (rather than have two intermediate caste representatives pouring water for them, as they have done for centuries). Neither story made the front pages of our national newspapers.

gangu.jpgIn the midst of it all, Karnataka celebrated its Suvarna Karnataka Rajyothsava (as I’ve said elsewhere, the State’s golden jubilee celebrations), and over this weekend, I finally managed to read The Hindu‘s special issue for the occasion. In it, the first article was by Gangubai Hangal, one of the most extraordinary musicians I have ever had the privilege to hear. In a concert we organised in college, over ten years ago, I remember her voice exploding within and without me, making my fanciful imagination feel that it was capable of bringing the house down, in many more ways than one. What power, I had thought then. What unbridled, untrammeled, ecstatic power.

And yet, the story she told in ‘The Golden Song’ (Gangubai Hangal, The Hindu’s Suvarna Karnataka special issue, Pp 4-8, November 1, 2006) moved me beyond the music. Two stories. One of her mother’s, and the other, of her own.

I was born in pre-Independent India, a period when caste discrimination was rampant. Shukravarapete in Dharwad was a locality full of Brahmins. Even now it’s an area dominated by them. My mother, Ambabai, a devout woman, was conscious of this caste factor, and lived a low profile, quiet life. I still remember how one afternoon an old Brahmin mendicant came to our house asking for water. My mother was in a dilemma. She explained the predicament to him and he remarked, “Does water have a caste? Please give me water to drink…” and my mother duly gave him water and a piece of jaggery. He blessed my mother and left. But my mother reeled under the shock of having given water to an upper caste man and was gripped by fears of social ostracisation for many days to come.

The incident reminds me of another from my own life. I was a young girl and faced a similar predicament right under the nose of the iconic figure who strived to abolish untouchability from this country. It was the Belgaum Congress of 1924 and the Mahatma was to grace the occasion. I was thrilled that I was going to sing before Gandhiji, but also scared stiff that I would be asked to clear all the plantain leaves after lunch, as I belonged to one of the lower castes. I sang. Gandhiji came up to me and blessed me. Pandit Sawai Gandharva was impressed too. On the one hand I was overjoyed by their appreciation, but on the other, I was paralysed by the worst fears. I quietly walked up to my teacher and asked him if I had to sit separately for lunch and clear the leaves. He held me close, and said: “Nothing of the kind, don’t worry…”

They were difficult times. But I’m grateful to music in more than one way. It gave me a unique identity and pushed all other identities to the background.

I wonder what Amartya Sen might say about that; perhaps he needs ‘Identity and Violence – Part 2. What I surprisingly missed out in Part 1‘. There’s much to be grateful for, in that Gangubai Hangal could survive the inherent pain of her genealogy through the genius of her music, but others of more mundane identities and lives continue to struggle with the violence implicitly – and very much explicitly – still alive in the caste system. Caste… untouched?

In protest

I’m too sickened by all that’s going on around and about me to write much today. I’m just going to point towards the various online petitions I’m signing and the on-ground protests I’m sympathising with – and hope that somehow, somewhere, something changes for the better… Tomorrow better be another day. Or as Yoda might say: Another day tomorrow better be.

About the siege in Lebanon, a description from within, and anti-siege protests from within Israel (the latter much tougher to find online than the former). And two petitions against it: Justice for Lebanon and Save Lebanese Civilians.

About the Right to Information Act of India and the government’s proposed amendment: to remove file notings from much of the decision-making conveyed to citizens (so what does that leave of the ‘information’ given to us by ‘public servants’ and ‘polity-cians’, hmm?). A petition against the amendment.

Continue reading “In protest”

Whose news is it anyway?

If you’re lucky, you’ve been able to blog about it. If not, you’ve been fuming in offline silence over the Indian government/ISPs’ inept blocking of blogsites over the past couple of days. But in the midst of all this cyberspace critique, a news item in early June seems to have passed under the radar of many bloggers. Or was there a blackout there too? And this time, by the mainstream media?

On June 5th 2006, The Hindu carried a story on the first ever statistical analysis of its kind: a survey of the social profile of more than 300 senior journalists in 37 Hindi and English newspapers and television channels in Delhi. As Newswatch India commented, if sex, religion and caste are to be taken together, more than two-thirds of the top media professionals in the India come from less than 10 per cent of its population. Shocker (or is it really?): there is not a single Dalit or Adivasi amongst these top 315 media decision-makers. Hindu upper caste men hold 71% of these jobs, and Muslims, only 3%. Interestingly, a gender analysis gives the most positive spin, but there too, mainly in the English electronic media: women account for 32 per cent of the top jobs. In the English print media, women form 6 per cent of top editorial positions and 14 per cent and 11 per cent in the Hindi print and electronic media. But there is no woman amongst the few OBC (Other Backward Classes) decision-makers: groups that suffer ‘double disadvantage’ are almost entirely absent from those surveyed.

Continue reading “Whose news is it anyway?”