Friday, May 24, 2024

Book review: ‘Indian Philosophy, Indian Revolution’; Imagining a country led by lower castes

This article is a review of the book Indian Philosophy, Indian Revolution: On Caste and Politics by Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan, edited by Maël Montévil, published in April 2024.

At a time when India is going through the general elections of 2024, this book, like its cover drawn by the talented Siddhesh Gautam, visualises the eternal haunting question in a new and pertinent manner: who deserves to lead the country? The collected essays of the Indian philosophers Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan is a book committed to the revolutionary anti-caste project, imagining a way in which lower castes, who affirmatively form over 90% of the population, can seize power. The book is a collection of articles that reflect on questions of caste by commenting on contemporary issues, including explorations that have been previously published in The Wire, Caravan, and other places, and articles that were censored for publication. These articles create a radical anti-caste public realm in a country that rigidly censors Dalit and anti-caste writing.

The title of this book, Indian Philosophy, Indian Revolution: On Caste and Politics, must be unpacked for readers at a time when the category of the ‘Indian’ has been so deeply misrepresented in popular media and culture. The ‘Indian’ that is the focus of this book is not the Brahmin, but the Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi. A Google search of ‘Indian philosophy’ gives the results of the vedas, shastras, yoga and other Brahmanical texts, practices, and beliefs that have dominated the perception of Indian philosophy, such that an impartial search engine can also not decipher how Brahmanical philosophy became a synonym for ‘Indian philosophy’. This book displaces Brahmanical philosophy by educating readers on how to conduct a philosophical and political inquiry into caste such that it furthers the anti-caste project, which is as B.R. Ambedkar said, the annihilation of caste. 

The authors define ‘revolution’ as a total inversion of power, implying that the book’s sole goal is to chart a path such that the 90% majority can gain the power that is currently held by Brahmins and their stooges, who constitute less than 10% of the population. In that sense, this book, and the anti-caste project, is truly revolutionary. Finally, this book shows that Indian ‘politics’ cannot be understood without the lens of caste, and how seemingly non-political/individual/community acts such as the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula; the carceral detainment of Mahesh Raut, Chandrashekhar Azad Rawan, and Stan Swamy; the sexual assault of Manisha Valmiki and Bhanwari Devi; the massacres of Muzaffarnagar, Malliana, Gujarat, Hashimpura, and Nuh, are reflective of Brahmanical politics.

This is a book written to empower the lower caste majority, namely the Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi (henceforth DBA) communities in multiple ways. First, it narrates the history of the majority, which does not enjoy the status of being majoritarian or canonical because ‘Indian history’ that is nationally promoted and internationally known is upper caste or Brahmanical history. Second, it creates a new vocabulary that the DBA community can use to describe their history of invisibilisation and imagine a future built on political association. Third, it deconstructs the academic categories of ‘postcolonial studies’, ‘subaltern studies’, and the ‘global south’ to reveal how these were invented to narrate upper-caste histories and serve upper-caste interests. Fourth, it provides a new lens through which crimes against Muslims must be perceived, that is, not through religion, but through caste. By doing so, the book opens up new channels for the anti-caste project in the fields of philosophy, politics, and academia. 

When it comes to history, the book asserts that caste is the oldest form of racism, dating back over two, or even three, millennia. By drawing from historical documents, colonial surveys, and political letters, the authors find that before the 19th century, there was no concept of an organised Hindu religion. For instance, they record a fascinating insight: if a Brahmin was asked which religion he belonged to in the 19th century, his answer would be ‘Brahmin’. If asked which caste did he belong to, his answer would still be ‘Brahmin’. To a large extent, this practice holds true even in the present day in the 21st century, as most Brahmins introduce themselves (whether asked or not) as ‘Maratha Brahmins’, ‘Saraswat Brahmins’, ‘Namboodris’, ‘Iyers’ and so on, underlining their caste lineage first and foremost. 

The authors, along with the political theorist J. Reghu, uncover what they call a ‘hoax’. They argue that the overarching category of Hindu religion was created through the forceful incorporation of lower castes, or Dalits/Ati-Shudras and Bahujan/Shudras. At no point did this mean that lower castes would enjoy the status of equality or even of being Hindu, given that temple entry was still denied to them. Rather than letting lower castes create a majority, Brahmanical leaders, under the guidance of Gandhi, fabricated a false ‘Hindu’ majority, enabling them to gain the power of numbers and the ability to disempower the DBA community.

Drawing from their philosophical investigations and political analysis of previous works, the authors build a vocabulary and an archive of words that help diagnose the status of Indian democracy. The ‘Hindu hoax’ is a calypsology, or a production of discourses that prevent the truth from coming to light, which is that India is lower caste, and not ‘Hindu’ (which alludes to Brahmanical) majority. Calypsology aims to produce stasis, a status quo in the condition of politics, a reproduction of the age-old caste order that favours Brahmins and disenfranchises lower castes. The task of the philosopher is to produce anastatic moments, or moments of upheaval and turbulence, that enable the revision and rewriting of history. The hypophysics of caste makes disruption difficult, as being ‘intellectual’ and ‘pure’ are associated, inherently and in a hereditary manner, with Brahmins, while being ‘intellectually inferior’ and ‘impure’ is considered the intergenerational infection of the lower castes. Hypophysics attributes values as inherent, masking the discursive power of casteist ideologies. It forces Dalits to be the opposite of Brahmins, the inferior against whom the Brahmin is forcefully represented as the superior.

These terms can be used in the field of academia, such as calypsology to describe high-school and university pedagogical practices that hide the intellectual contributions of lower academics like Jyotirao Phule, B.R. Ambedkar, Sukhadeo Thorat, Gopal Guru, and many others. Stasis can be used in the field of politics, to explain how the ‘Hindu vs Muslim’ rhetoric is used to hide the real struggle of power between Brahmins and lower castes. Hypophysics can explain how the Savarna gaze, which is a continuation of the ‘Aryan supremacy’ and dominates films, news, and popular culture. Hypophysics blocks the homological powers of the human, or their ability to become something different from what they were born as. Caste and its execution is a hypophysical process: if you are born a Dalit, you are forced to remain a Dalit, and you are not allowed to escape your caste identity.

The book alludes to the coterminous fields of postcolonial studies, subaltern studies, and the invention of the academic category of the global south, without taking names of any scholars in particular, as being the real oppressors of modern academia. This is the most well-known secret of academia: most academics and researchers who have consolidated positions as ‘experts’ in these fields have hidden their intergenerational caste power and represented themselves as the poor brown academic. They have colonised foreign universities by playing on the white man’s guilt and become the custodians of research on India, ensuring that the Dalit remains their object of study, and never allowed to conduct research, for it would reveal the ‘academic hoax’: most Indians teaching about postcolonial or subaltern studies in India, USA, and UK are upper castes who ensure Dalits cannot enter academia. This book is starkly different from the tokenist approach of such postcolonial academics who call themselves ‘experts’ on caste by writing one cursory book on caste alone. This book adopts what Gopal Guru described as the golden rule of committed anti-caste work in the Critical Philosophy of Caste and Race Conference held at IIT Delhi in March 2024: committed anti-caste researchers must simply keep ‘following up’. 

Finally, the book presents an obvious fact most startlingly. In the context of rising international Islamophobia, it reveals a new insight into the discrimination faced by Muslims in India. Once we understand that Pasmanda or lower caste Muslims form over 80% of the Muslim population in India, we are bound to accept that most crimes against Muslims such as rape or lynchings are crimes against lower castes. We are blocked from making such a simple discovery for two reasons: firstly, currently, the Indian state does not list Muslim communities in its lists of Scheduled Castes and does not extend reservations to them, and second, the current political party in power does not aim to do a socio-economic caste-based census. This is the biggest service the book could have done to the Muslim community in India, which faces extreme discrimination and threats from right-wing hooligans who threaten to demolish mosques and harass children. Crimes against Muslims must be read as crimes against lower castes, and hence, the book opens up a path for the formation of new solidarities. 

The book has been edited by the interdisciplinary academic Maël Montévil, and reveals the political rigour and seriousness that any international academic must adopt when embarking on a revolutionary anti-caste project. The Brahmanical caste order considers non-descendants or outsiders as equivalents of untouchables and ascribes the identity of ‘mlechcha’ to them. Montévil must hold this identity with honour for he has committed himself to solidarity with the DBA community. Together with the authors, he prepares for the fate that has been the past and continues to be the present of Dwivedi and Mohan: censorship in the form of social media trolling, rape and death threats. 

The book describes polynomia as the capability of being multiple things simultaneously, which is the true sign of political freedom. The polynomial powers of the DBA community, of being anything beyond, outside, or other than their caste are suppressed for they are conceived, and yet invisibilised, only through their lower caste identity. At such a time, is it possible to conceive a future and the immense possibilities for lower castes where India would have a Dalit Prime Minister? The book creates a path for polynomial politics, where the lower caste majority that forms 90% of India can gain power by rewriting history from their perspective, by using a vocabulary to diagnose and describe their erasure, by revealing their ostracisation from academia and mainstream media, and by building solidarities across religious lines.

Dr. Aarushi Punia is an anti-caste researcher and currently a visiting fellow at Cambridge. She is a published academic and wrote her PhD thesis on the comparative racisms experienced by Dalits and Palestinians and how their literature combats carceral techniques of the ethno-national state.

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