A response to Suraj Yengde: Problems of racialization and Dalit essentialism

This is in response to the recent article on The Wire by Suraj Yengde titled as In fallout of black appropriation in US, echoes of debate on Dalit representation in India published on 8 September 2020. As the title suggests, he starts off his article by sharing scandals of how a non-black person has appropriated Black identity by claiming different forms of blackness, a white person displaying their association with southeast Asians to smokescreen their positionality of being white, and finally about BethAnn Mclaughin a neuroscientist of European descent claiming indigenous identity. Undoubtedly, these are cases of sheer deception for their respective gains where these individuals have portrayed falsehood of belonging to racially oppressed communities or have revolved around them to proclaim a certain individual legitimacy of being pluralistic and progressive. In fact, closer home for those who consume the global popular desi content would remember, how Lily Singh the Canadian-Indian you tuber had come under fire with claims against her of culturally appropriating black identity. The implications of these actions either individual or collective, manifest itself in different ways in economy, art, political movement, and academic knowledge production.

Till this point, Suraj captures an accurate picture of how appropriation takes place in the west. However, certain fundamental incoherent arguments start to unfold when he brings this very narrative of race and color appropriation and uses it as a framework to understand “Dalit movement” in a caste-based graded society, which has thousands of castes. According to his own parameters, he categorizes certain groups of people as troublemakers by equating them on a similar plane to the non-blacks who he listed in the first of half of his article as appropriators. To continue he says “What about those Dalits who earlier shied away from their Dalitness and suddenly want to own their Dalit Identity”. He does not clearly explain what “Dalitness” means except one sentence in the beginning of his article where he says “One cannot just assume Dalitness while not grasping the fundamental ethic of an untouchable life”. He again does not give any clarity as to what is the fundamental expression of that untouchable life. Is it mere crude physical untouchability in villages, Physical violence, social boycott, landlessness, segregated localities or alienation in universities, discrimination in workplaces and institutional exclusions?  Regarding Dalit identity, he argues “ One cannot just walk into a room and flaunt one’s Dalit identity without being fully accountable to the Dalit Pasts and committing to the Dalit future”. If “ Dalitness” is equivalent to a degraded and humiliating physically untouchable caste existence, then shying away from this past to move ahead in life should be looked at as an emancipatory response rather than as a betrayal to one’s identity which is prescribed from the ruling castes. One also needs to deconstruct what “Dalit Past” is for those who Suraj refers to as Dalits at present, there are hundreds of micro-histories of untouchable castes from Punjab to Kerala. Which among us should be accountable for which of this past because all of them are supposed to be “ Dalit Past”. One takes accountability of something given having an agency over one’s actions. Untouchability Caste identities and the duties and punishments have been imposed from above. How is one supposed to be accountable where there is no choice to begin with and for the consequences one had to face as an enforced passive subject.

However, I would like to argue that Dalits from time to time unable to bear the dehumanization, chose to revolt and resist against the ruling castes and demand avenues of opportunities from the British colonial power. One can claim accountability upon these choice-based actions in the past because we claim to do the same at present carrying that legacy. Hence for a paradigm of liberation, it should be about anti-caste past for Dalits and not Dalit past, otherwise one also has to take accountable for Babu Jagjeevan Ram and Congress and negate the historical contribution of people like Jotiba Phule, Savbitri Bai Phule, Sahodaran Ayyapan, etc.

Moving on, I would like to claim that there is no monolith definite experience as “ Dalitness” to claim Dalit identity. It is not like some shades of skin color to identify and box them into distinguishable categories. This is a matter of intricate human experiences and not some quantifiable categories according to assumptions. If to be Dalit means broken or crushed, then there cannot be one idea of broken for millions of people but rather varying intensities and the essence of what it can do to a human spirit. There are hundreds of untouchable castes spanning across the country with particularities of cultural, linguistic, religious, and geographical contexts and there can only be varied caste experiences determined by different variables of Urban or Rural, Village basti or Slum, access to higher education, Gender, economic mobility, workplaces, landless labor, factories and so on. Presently Dalit political identity is acting more as a bridge for a collective resistance with engagements of these multitudes of experiences and shared vulnerabilities either as individuals or collectives to come together for certain questions of demanding rights from the state, seeking justice, community initiatives, associations, literary works or towards building vote banks for electoral politics. It is not defined with the stagnant understanding of crude physical untouchable life and Suraj seems to reduce the Dalit identity to this. There are not just modern forms of untouchability but also caste experiences of landlessness, restrictions to participate in the local economy, harassments in workplaces, alienation in university spaces, or segregated localities which might not necessarily involve physical untouchability yet manifest the consequences of caste to those who claim the Dalit Identity presently. Whether one claims Dalit identity or not, caste identities from the bottom are existential conundrums. There are those who as a community subvert their caste identity to find dignity, like a section of Chamars or Valmikis in UP, Punjab, and Haryana, there are those seeking acceptance through Harijan or Hindu Identity and there are those who seek to find community through their Christian denominations or sects such as Ravidasis and Kabirpanthis etc.

Moving on there are those who grapple with these identities throughout and finally, there are also those who in urban spaces consciously try to protect their children from caste identities so that they don’t have to be exposed to the indignities that comes with it. Yet caste confronts them on the way. There is a variety of such responses as collectives and individuals with regard to caste identities and there are those upon having encountered the political and experiential significance of Dalit Identity at a point in life do associate with it either for political actions, to seek a group to belong or both. Suraj neither elaborates on the trajectory of people who shied away from “Dalitness” nor provide any basis for why they do that.  It would be interesting to know based on which studies he came to such conclusions for a group of people or is he merely extrapolating few of his misassumptions to make grand claims. Nevertheless, I do not understand how is any of them can be equated with a white person appropriating a racial identity and being a trouble maker. To give an example, an SC  student named Ajay Chandra was forced to take his life in IISC Bangalore years back due to caste-based harassment. His father was a lecturer in a college, provided for him, protected him, and yet after years of shielding him from caste, he was killed by caste at the end. According to Suraj’s parameters, this might not be in tandem with embracing one’s “Dalitness” and both of them have had shied away from their background for better lives. His argument of “Half Dalit” reminds of the Rohith Vemula is not a Dalit episode by BJP where they hounded Radhika Vemula and Raja Vemula trying to prove how the father’s side was not Dalit so and so forth. This is a bizarre racialization of caste identity through genes and not by immediate caste realities and circumstances.

 Just how only police brutalities do not define the black experiences in the states, similarly only a certain crude physical untouchability does not define caste experiences in the lives of Dalits with so many variables determining their surroundings. It is essentialism at its best as the American cognitive linguist George Lakoff would say “Make the thing what it is, and without which it would not be that kind of thing”. Many Upper castes argue on a similar line saying how without certain wretched untouchable caste life you cease to be a certain idea of “Puritanical Dalit”. This is primarily an upper-caste gaze where caste becomes all about this aspect of Dalits as some lab species to be dissected and not about how mutually relations of castes function with sections of them being not just controlling the material conditions, economy, state machinery, and cultural institutions but also perpetrating violence.

What matters for anti-caste movement and the millions of deprived people who are attached to it are the questions and aspirations of their wellbeing and what role can individuals and collectives who claim to represent the people play in contributing for the same. The anatomy to find out who and when of encountering Dalit identity or how much of Dalit life quarter or half in order to stamp validation is a moralistic futile exercise leading to petty fights among few individuals as opposed to the urgency and needs of Dalits at present times. Furthermore, he gives an anecdote about burden of the SC caste certificate leading to markedly humiliating life in opposed to the lack of it. This is a glaring misassumption where sections of students from untouchable castes among Muslims and Christians such as the Nats, Lalbegis, Mehtars, Panos, and so on cannot avail any quota provision for education or employment opportunities due to the lack of SC Caste certificates. This is a long-standing struggle. If there is a trauma for being a Quota candidate, then there is also a trauma with the lack of opportunities for those who are kept out due to the presidential order of 1950.

Lastly, he places Dalits with standard English vocabulary and western references getting an upper hand as opposed to non-English, Dalit name carrying individuals. I am curious to know what Dalit name sounds like, in places like UP and Bihar surnames like Kumar is caste neutral or for that matter Das in Odisha. This is more about the existing defined structures of English media, global academics, popular culture, and the market surrounding it where English opens up possibilities of access and yet the caste ghettoes of even the so-called alternative media do not let people in without some contact or social capital. There are different facets of the anti-caste movement with different requirements be it of language, regional dynamics, and communication skills where the role of grass-roots organizers and activists become far more relevant and rooted than the English domain. It is more about context than competition. As a friend of mine said, “ Suraj seems to be cashing on the same currency he has been criticizing”. Presently, he is a person with so many English speaking engagements as a public personality, yet he would keep himself out of the same scrutiny. Finally, it is not Dalit movement alone, there are hundreds of landless lower castes, nomadic and semi-nomadic communities who are at the receiving end of caste in varying degrees and an end of caste will require the emancipation of all of them. Everyone in a caste society who believes in universal human dignity has a role to play in the anti-caste movement, articulating in a manner not assuming other’s subjectivity and not overpowering the ones below them and yet working as comrades.

Sumeet Samos is an independent scholar, music artist, and rapper from South Odisha and has completed his post-graduation from JNU. He writes and sings in English, Hindi, and Odia.