Margins and Mainstream in Politics of Privilege

Hisham Ashraf

Caste in India is a practice in disguise. It need not necessarily take its original form always. For instance, an upper-caste student who is aware of the vulgarity of talking caste in public may use the term ‘general category’ to assert her privileged identity. Similarly, the contempt for the under-privileged may assume the shapes and angles of anti-reservationism in elite academic communities where caste is considered to be more of a pre-modern existence than a contemporary reality. The glorification of vegetarianism, propagation of casteist jokes, and boasting of upper-caste benevolence are some of the other ways the Brahmanic supremacy gets itself expressed.

The attempt here is to see how the notion of caste does its work when it comes to the territory of anti-caste politics. With the uprising of oppressed lower-castes, the idea of social justice turned to be the central theme of modern politics. In the wake of this, the upper-caste power-centres realized the erosion of their glory and were left with no other option than engaging with the politics against caste. They managed to survive this calamity by rehabilitating their hegemony at the very helm of the rising modernity. Consequently, the masters of old Casteist politics now became the patrons of new anti-caste politics. Thus, the question of caste, to a great extent, was getting confined to superficial discourses to keep the superiority of upper-caste preserved and undisrupted.

In the academic discipline of social sciences, there exists a wide gap between empirical experience and theoretical authority which represents, to quote Gopal Guru, “a pernicious divide between empirical shudras and theoretical Brahmins”. This divide extends to practical politics too, making it, as it always was, the realm of privileged saviours promising to rescue the under-privileged masses from all their sufferings.

Multiple theories have attempted to unravel the marginalization of lower-castes in the domain of politics. Some of them attribute this to political inability and leadership deficit, an argument with close resemblance to the racist legitimizations of social stratification, and some others to the benevolence of a reformed Caste elite. The first gets falsified within itself for the historical fact that the reforms, in every caste and across the caste pyramid, were the irresistible propagations of indignations in the bottom. The second, despite revolving around the myth of benevolence, fails to explain the systematic reproduction of caste as a powerful tool of patronization.

The Ethnographer’s Gaze

The depiction of Dalits and Muslims in public sphere is largely motivated by the casteist sense of aesthetics. Such images often identify many extra-natural characteristics in them, in many aspects ranging from physical appearence to behavioural patterns. Here, the upper-caste traits are determined as standard parameters to measure the distinctiveness of others. It is this constructed distinctiveness of oppressed bodies that privileges the upper-caste intellectuals to approach them with an ethnographer’s gaze and to treat them like non-intelligent beings with zero ability to lead themselves politically and epistemologically. As long as politics and academics entertain these ethnographic exercises, the oppressed communities will remain stereotyped as permanently deactivated souls who are in dire need of theoretical patronage.

Casteist aesthetics finds another continuation in the excessive use of black shades in portraits of Dalits. Many white bodies are seen to be exhibiting themselves in black paints and blackened photographs in proclamation of solidarity with Dalits. This artificial blackening, in a sense, is another way of establishing the normality of white and the strangeness of black. Moreover, the artificially blackened white bodies claim a considerable portion of visibility, leaving the Dalits unnoticed and their organic struggles unrecorded.

Political Parties

Political parties that operate in a stratified society are bound to reflect its hierarchical configurations. In this sense, every party is said to be providing a fertile ground for casteism to flourish. The group of elite within each party is in possession of pre-accumulated socio-cultural capital which enables them to get themselves elevated to the top of leadership and into the affairs of strategy. Favourable to this, the organizational principles of all parties are more or less insensitive to the diversity of and disparities in the caste and class locations of their stalwarts. This uniform treatment of unequals ultimately leads to neglect of inequalities.

What if the question of privilege dares to demand a space of discussion within the agenda of parties? Any move of that kind, doubtlessly, will attract stamping as explosion of emotions, expression of inferiority, or an anti-party conspiracy, to use from the common terminology of politics. Now, the question is, how long can the political parties remain intolerant to such dissidences? Not so long, of course! The counter-hegemonic developments in the outer-party environment certainly exert a pressure on the inner-party circles. From the very moment of being inescapably caught in the need for introspections, the party structures begin to seek alternate ways to check the dissidence. Here happens the invention of special wings of Dalit, Muslim, and women’s activism within or in association with the broad framework of each party.

A typical case of such associations would parallel the ‘abandoned ghettos’ along the margins of cities. Their language of discourse and mode of functioning have shown to be in compliance with the masked sense of superiority that drives the leading elite. This is why many of them have to choose begging as a form of protest in the regular course of party politics. These associations, abandoned and marginalized as ghettos, at many instances continue to recreate the experience of humiliation that the oppressed has been confronting for the entire volume of history.

Towards a New Language

The constant reference of the Caste elite as ‘progressive’ and ‘enlightened’ has given it an aura of un-questionability. In defense of this, the beneficiaries put forward arguments that even negate the reality of caste discriminations. The superiority of privileged castes in every field of political activity is justified as random occurrence on the one hand, and the attempts to challenge the hegemonic equations are conveniently dubbed as ‘reverse casteism’ on the other hand. The declaration of ‘caste’ as an unmentionable word and exposing its exclusionary mechanism as an anti-modern act is well enough to conceal the hegemony in work.

Besides positioning the elite in presumption of infallibility, the vocabulary of day-to-day politics contains enough of words to de-legitimize the political assertions of under-privileged identities. The uncorroborated use of word such as left extremism and religious fundamentalism to make pejorative reference to subaltern identity movements would make a classical example of this. It is a habit of political parties to misemploy the stigmatic negativity and derogatory implication of those words for defaming the protesting oppressed. The motivation is to ensure that no social group surpasses their political patronage.

Popular culture has made a significant contribution to the consolidation of upper-caste masculine hero images. Many of the commercial movies and popular political dramas have told us that every oppressed human being is in expectation of a super hero who descends from the pedestal of privileges with a mission of liberation.

As an example, we shall take the case of pro-communist political dramas staged throughout the lengths and breadths of Kerala in 1930s and ‘40s that were instrumental in proclaiming the glory of upper-caste comrades, large-hearted to sympathize with and take the leadership of peasants’ revolts against the casteist-landlordist feudal structure. Actual peasants who hail from lower caste premises were portrayed in two ways; either as renegades who act in favour of landlords, or as puerile girls who are in unilateral love with the upper-caste comrade.

Similarly, the dominant historiography projects a network of upper-caste surnames as the official vanguard of social reformation. This has been successful in supporting that modernity was descending from top to bottom, from the privileged to under-privileged. The core of this argument lies in cancelling the politicization of the oppressed so as to substantiate the logic of patronization.

Overall, the language of mainstream politics is so exclusive that it can hardly afford any independent pronouncement or protestation from the margins of establishments. Its very grammar is formulated for the purpose of invisiblising the victim, silencing their voices, and demanding their inactivity in advance.  It keeps preaching “all lives matter” but is never willing to recognize the victim or to unveil the culprit. So the point is to frame new words, and thus a new language- the language of victims.

Hisham Ashraf is a  second year graduate student of Economics at Jamia Millia Islamia , Newdelhi. 

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