The Caste Struggle as a Battle of Action


By Malavika

There are ways in which all civilisations go forward. Civilisations attempt to transgress their well-defined boundaries and structures that oppress, that discriminate. Lines and boundaries which ask its people to serve others, to stay within limits, even more to watch our steps, our actions. Let’s assume the body of a preacher, and let’s believe in changing society for the better. Let’s believe in a world of actions over one which values attributes and etiquettes, the world of actions where a modern world of things, and people, of teachers, and institutions and legal systems which we simultaneously inhabit and passively move across our daily lives. Many times, we assume the position of a passive spectator. Aime Cesaire, the French poet and political activist, famously wrote, “And most of all beware, even in thought, of assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of grief is not a proscenium, a man who wails is not a dancing bear.”

The modern days are known for its passive spectacle; there are headlines at a click away; awareness even more from the comfort of an unchanging, moving life. We see them, and mostly we forget. Rarely do we ask: where did all the people who make these headlines go, where did they recede to, and what do they do now? If that happens again and again, the piece of that revolution stands because of the endurance of the person who is at action, and lesser so because of the ones who perpetrate them.

What distinguishes these struggles and battles, from one that is based on the ideals and the textual is how the consequences of their actions, and I repeat actions, speak louder than how the event is appropriated. We see political events (or half events?) almost every day, we see people seeking justice openly in the forms of hashtags, of individual strikes, of legal battles which find their own pockets of resistances, looking for their abode to seek and demand justice. On the other hand, what is alarming to me in these legal battles is, how this course of action has, in turn, produced consequences that are not so favourable for the people who take the matters forward. The stories of these struggles and battles have been channelled and have meandered into one about the personal, about the behaviour of the people, with much scrutiny and what can only be named as a motive of conspiracy which ranges from everything this-and-that to less about what is at hand: the problem at the crux of it all, let’s say it again, is caste.

Acknowledging the actions, the lived lives is essential for us to distinguish the ideals and the morals that are to be held in a nation that can claim an enormous amount of cultural and civilizational heritage in front of the world. To elaborate upon the distinct separateness between what was ideal and what was real, I would like to bring to light what Babasaheb Ambedkar wrote about the system of jati and the system of varna in the Indian subcontinent. Ambedkar wrote that the system of jati as one that is marked out of the reality of lived experiences; the thousands of jatis which are scattered across the subcontinent, mark these distinctions of heightened inequality, of scalar oppression. If we were to get out and hunt for caste in another time, we would pick jati first, we would scoop out jati. Jati is tangible, Jati is practical, it is found. There are examples of practices in which we will see how Brahmins differ in their customs across the country: as a practice Hindu Brahmins in Kerala and Tamil Nadu do not consume fish, while the ones from Bengal might as well have it. The system of jati opens up in myriad ways, in terms of practice, in terms of keeping the clan and kinship. While the regional and subsequent differences have always existed, what had held this system together is the system of Varna. The Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudras were varnas which were supposed to be an abode, just like a means of worship where the values are written, the values were recorded, but Varnas are unreal. Several Hindu priests, the warriors, the merchants, and the servants, were held together pointing out the duties marked across each varna. Almost as if varna and its values of hierarchy give meaning to our lives. Varnas were provided and propagated in pre-modern India as morals. In other words, these were casteist morals, perpetuating the horrendous, terrorising, and long-run historical violence of caste-based inequality.

Cut to Ambedkar. He famously declares, “My ideal could be a society based on liberty, equality, and fraternity.” The most famous ideals of the French Revolution, the ideals of the modern republic, where people came together to live their lives wholly, sharing harmony. What Baba Saheb Ambedkar did to the Indian population is to rewrite the casteist ideals and understand the issue of caste as one that is concerned and is always related to the moral responsibility of a civilisation, of an independent country.

As soon as he started to acknowledge the struggles of, on, and about caste as one that is rooted in the moral responsibility of a population, Ambedkar in turn opened for us a political possibility. People, as he envisioned, can indeed come together, where the system of oppression is subverted, where everyone can live together respecting each other’s equality and civil rights. Ambedkar once wrote, “You cannot build anything on the foundations of caste. You cannot build up a nation, you cannot build up a morality. Anything that you will build on the foundations of caste will crack and will never be a whole.” We are to ask ourselves why did he at all write this. The possibility of a political event that does not derive its inspiration simply from a single dominant ideology, but through the motivation to battle caste-based discrimination, is a matter of vision as much as it is a matter of action. We, Indians, already have a history where the actions are and can be distinguished from the ideals, while also connecting them, and even to a greater extent joining them, navigating them to create a fruitful future.

When we think a man looks different from us, walks different from us, or even speaks differently from us, we automatically scrutinise them assuming our baggage of experience. Rarely do we go beyond and see them as a person who can be incorporated into us, who can be welcomed. A very natural instinct to keep humans separate. What we seldom realise is how we are already separated in terms of practiced and perpetrated experiences. In India, as our experience is assumed by the centrality of caste, this instinct is, to date, formed majorly from caste (which needless to say, makes it social and psychological at the same time), from what we received as part of a family, as a result of our immediate interactions, born and bred with members of similar caste (which makes it historical and cognitive), wearing similar things, sharing similar dreams, thinking in uniform realities, forgetting another person, about whom we have very less idea of (which makes it conditioning and violence). Incorporating someone else might sound like a very easy, cosy dream, but whenever we come together in common places, we like it or not, it becomes a matter of need, a matter of urgency.

Under the light of the recent events in caste discrimination that was ignited by individuals’ choices, their actions, their lived experiences, ranging from suicides to resignations to seeking justice for public and professional humiliation, cases from Rohith Vemula to Vipin P. Veetil, we have seen how caste manifests itself in some of the most civilised institutions of the country. We need to acknowledge these battles, the battles of Rohith Vemula, of Vipin P. Veetil, and more. The nature of these battles, the human beings, their tales of endurance, has endless possibilities in their arsenal for us. On the other hand, it is also equally important to name everything anti-caste and raise our bars, facing our own enemies of caste, inside our own minds. If we examine closely, we can easily spot a pattern of how the legal battles have turned out. They have turned out as a personal struggle, and more so sometimes as personal helplessness, otherwise personal fights. This, if we look into the history of struggles on caste in post-independent India, we will find is not so much a matter of its own. Let’s remember Dr. Vasantha Kandasamy’s legal battle which spanned decades within the IIT, and the memories of which remain as close to our recent past. We can easily spot men and women, who have been carrying out their own battles, fighting it with their own personal stakes several times with the legal systems, the stakes of such fights are high, and so is the responsibility of the system with which such battles ought to be rewarded because in these cases the distance from the personal to the political is blurred, sometimes rubbed off. We cannot easily pinpoint that this is personal and this is not.

A reason to why chronologically, political events are often named, they are called something, they are given a name across time all over the world, is to hold the motive together. We, in India, have a huge history of how the political movement has started from of the realm of action. Sometimes they are called the Indian Independence Struggle, sometimes as Brahmo Samaj, sometimes as the inspiration for such coming together, such naming of events is mostly because of how we as people, as citizens, as human beings live in time. We live in the present. All events are now known from a combined sense of practical motives and not simply ideological knockouts; for example, no one thinks of Debandranath Tagore, and Raja Ram Mohan Roy as people who might have been similar in terms of their occupation, nor do we understand the freedom struggle, when as one that came out of people like Ambedkar and Bose who believed in the exact same ideals. Yet, the events and their light happen in terms of how it unfurls, one for the pre-independence movement for reformation, while the other in declaring a colonised and an utterly famished country like India as a Republic (their causes have indeed grown out the times and moved beyond, but I still am constraining it to the times they lived in). The scale of a political event is to be understood in terms of what it does, its motivations, to bring together who and who, to do what and which, to ignite or to bring down oppression.

Although as humans we attempt to overcome the time, this time, in which we live, we move back and forth while learning, while understanding what has happened to us as civilisations, furthermore, what is to happen in the future. We are always bound by the lives we live, the times we live in, more so in cases of discrimination and injustice. History and especially historical events are those attempts to bag what has happened, even if grabbing all of it together might become close to impossible. The personal battles are to be acknowledged with the moral responsibility, with the political possibility that we can all exist here wholly together. The hope for us as a country is to be envisioned concerning the person with a moral lens of that large vision. Everything anti-caste, one should believe, in its time is to move beyond and towards one which frees the people of the country, and establishes equality and form means of existence which can cater to our demands of justice at its centre.

What I want to say, through these descriptions of events, through the chronological understanding of political movements, and why it would be necessary at this time, is to shed light on this interrelatedness between the personal and the political. The personal struggle that a man or a woman feels as part of a discriminative society, is to be reversed to the moral and ethical responsibility of a society to foster an environment where all of us can exist harmoniously. It is a pity in these cases the ones who raise the issues of discrimination are asked to be doubly responsible, they are denied justice, but so are they burdened of the morality and personal scrutiny which were in turn established as part of the system of caste. Such demands are born of morality that does not acknowledge the system of caste as one that is rooted in inequality, in attempting horrendous crimes, in discriminating huge parts of the population against each other. Caste cannot be, and will not be understood as a means of injustice if we are to understand this moral responsibility simply in terms of somebody’s, anybody’s matter of personality. It is as much a matter of personality, their internal hopes, resistances, and endurance as much as it is a matter of moral responsibility and people living together, and therefore a matter of the population in the country. The word politics has originated from the Greek word ‘politika’ which means a matter of cities, or simply a matter of polis, where people come together and their experiences are acknowledged where we figure out a means to deal with each other, one human being about another human being. Such battles are of course driven by people who think across times, and whose energies ought not to be wasted in going forward.

The uniqueness of a person and their mandates against political injustice are not mutually exhaustive. Both can co-exist. The means here are quite simple: as soon as we acknowledge the need behind a positive action, in our society, especially India, everything displeasing becomes a matter of pleasure and harmony. As soon as we act, acknowledge, and understand the gravitas of personal endurance, things turn into the realm of morality but I guess that’s the hard way. Isn’t it?

Malavika is a poet and artist doing her masters in writing at the University of East Anglia. Her works have been published in Ink, sweat and tears, Muse India, and other periodicals.


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